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In this wise and graceful story collection, each character is intimately linked to the land in and around Cloten, Minnesota. We meet a woman who returns home to care for her family's farm, a man whose obsession with bow hunting affects his life in complex ways, and a farmer's son who plays a dangerous game of drag-racing roulette. Light in the Crossing is a beautifully crafted portrait of the relationships people in farming towns build with one another and the land on which they...
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In this wise and graceful story collection, each character is intimately linked to the land in and around Cloten, Minnesota. We meet a woman who returns home to care for her family's farm, a man whose obsession with bow hunting affects his life in complex ways, and a farmer's son who plays a dangerous game of drag-racing roulette. Light in the Crossing is a beautifully crafted portrait of the relationships people in farming towns build with one another and the land on which they depend.
* * *
I went to Two-Speed Crandall's funeral not because I had any affection for the man, but because it's the kind of thing you do around here; you show if not in life, then at least in death, that the people whom you have talked about and nodded to, who have occupied a spot of ground close to your own for the years of your breathing and eating—you show that they were, after all, part of your community. Two-Speed Crandall, as far as I can see, gave nothing to this town worth having—and I've thought hard about this, and I'm trying to be fair, and I have no grudge against the man. I didn't go to his funeral to mourn him; I don't intend to miss him. But I didn't go to celebrate his dying either, and that, it seems to me, is as impartial as I need to be to fairly make a claim to it.
Two-Speed's family consisted of his wife, LouAnn, a woman hardly ever seen, and their three sons, Matthew, Mark, and Luke—names, I've thought since I was old enough to think such things, poignant enough to be painful, speaking certainly of LouAnn's, not Two-Speed's, dreams for their children, and as un-prophetic as names could be, since the boys had neither religious nor literary leanings—in fact, quite the opposite, Matt and Mark celebrating their sixteenth birthdays by staying away from school and never returning, and Luke, though finishing school, returning to Cloten to spend his nights catfishing on the river.
The boys boasted of their badness whenever they could, but in truth, they were nothing butsmall-town bad boys, their badness constrained by the same smallness they pretended to escape from with it, limited as much by their possibilities as by their imaginations: stealing candy from the grocery store when they were younger, throwing green apples at the sheriff's car as he did his daily patrol, setting fire to an abandoned barn in the country, which blazed like a torch on the horizon—everybody in Cloten, awakened by the fire sirens, standing on their lawns watching it, while the fire trucks sped out of town, and the knowledge of who had set the fire, though never proven, passed from lawn to lawn through the whole town before the sound of the sirens, coming back across the flat fields, had faded into the night.
These activities of Two-Speed's sons—as well as the way they flunked their classes not out of stupidity but through sheer stubbornness—were frowned upon but tolerated. But when Matthew, the oldest, came to school with a cattle prod and shocked several of the school outcasts with it—the clumsy and stringy-haired ones who were the butt of jokes by nearly everyone, forcing from their throats and chests sounds like pieces of raw meat being slapped together—the students rose in a wave of outrage that overwhelmed and subdued even the Crandall brothers, the students having seen, most of them, what a cattle prod could do, how its blue, sizzling arc jolted the slowest and dullest steer, thick in its flesh, into a snorting, slobbering, and panic-stricken lunge up the chute and onto the truck.
The stories went around for a long time afterward of how three of the football players—some said upon the advice of their coach—confronted Matthew behind the band saw in the shop and took the cattle prod from him, which he had stuffed down inside his boot and up along his leg, and they smashed and bent it and finally sawed it in half, and all the while, the stories a dozen times removed by the time they came to me, said that Matthew looked like he would weep, that he turned white and as still as cast aluminum, and stared in silence, only his lip trembling a little, as the saw whined through the prod.
For a long time the school laughed at this comeuppance, the tough and nasty one having his toy taken away. But when I asked my father about this—I was twelve at the time and thought he would rejoice in the story, and I told it to him after school with the mild euphoria of knowing I would please him—he only stopped working and looked out across the tangled cornstalks left by the combine.
"Don't you think it served him right?" I urged.
Still he said nothing. I felt my smile of expectation solidify on my face. Then I became defensive. "Everybody's laughing about it," I said, squinting.
He reached out and put one hand on the lugs of the tractor tire, then leaned his whole body into his shoulder. He looked down at the ground, then up again. His expression was so distant and turned inward that I thought he might not have heard me.
"Yeah, well," he finally said. "It was probably Two-Speed's prod."
"So?" I said.
He leaned his back against the tire, took off his gloves, beat them down once against his thigh. The leather smacked, and dust discolored the air. My father had pale eyes, and when he raised them to the horizon again, they were even paler than I knew them, and he kept them fastened out there when he spoke, to where the fall sky was almost white.
"There are a lot of unpleasant people in this world," he said. "Two-Speed's one of them."
Two-Speed drove semi for Niebuhr's Trucking and often hauled cattle for us. "He spits," I said. "He swears a lot."
"He beats his kids," my father said. He looked down at me and caught my eyes. It was like something from the wayoff sky had come into his. He hit his gloves against his pants leg again. "Do you think Matthew figured out how to use a cattle prod that way all by himself?"
Leaning as he was, my father was barely taller than I was, and we looked right at each other, and this was the first time he'd ever talked to me this way, about something so serious, as one adult to another. I hardly comprehended it. "You mean?"
I couldn't take my eyes off his face. I searched there for some clue as to how I ought to feel.
My father nodded, his mouth tight. "That's what I mean."
Since then I've come to know that Dad's opinion had support in rumors both direct and indirect, and in the famous nastiness of Two-Speed's threats, when leaving the bar late, to have it out upon his worthless sons. If all this is true, Matt certainly had reason to tremble, his blood reason to flee his face, upon the realization that his stealing of the cattle prod would in due course be discovered by Two-Speed and an appropriate and punishing justice exacted with some other implement equal to the task.
Of course it was all rumor and talk. Even if it had been proven, probably nothing would have been done. Family matters, in those days in a town like Cloten, had an aura of the sacred. Nevertheless, I mark that conversation with my father as my introduction to adulthood and the dark secrets that reside there. So now Two-Speed's death turns me back to think of him again, and to feel an old attraction made safe, perhaps, by his passing.
He was a man who lived on the bare edge of our community, yet more stories were told of him than of anyone else in town. Two-Speed was tolerated when he was working but otherwise avoided during the day, but at night he entered the uneasy camaraderie of the bar, earned, even, a kind of grudging respect there for his willingness to fly into a fighting rage over anything and with anybody, and for his unfeigned refusal to glance at a clock, ever, or to find familial reasons to leave.
As a worker, he had the one great advantage that he was always available, without contravening obligations, though he was not always willing or sober, and he possessed—his greatest source of pride—a Class A driver's license. This license, the stories say, he always produced at some point along the downward slope to drunkenness, so that people made bets on the number of drinks it would take for the license to appear, gambling that turned out to be truly random, since the license's appearance seemed—even to those who studied Two-Speed with the care that other men devote to a horseracing program—to be dependent not on the alcohol in his system, but on the waverings of his heart and mind, waverings too complicated and chaotic for pattern or prediction.
Two-Speed would slap the license down on the scarred surface of the bar table and force his companions of the evening to stoop over it while one of his fingers, wrenched outward, pointed to the "A." Then, flipping the card over, he would read aloud the words on the back: "Classes: A: Tractor-trailer combination." After which he would challenge anyone within hearing to produce such a license, and when they all shrugged or ignored him, familiar with the routine, he would launch into a description of the testing, detailing its difficulties, and end by claiming that he had never failed to pass it, not even the first time.
Which, I have no doubts, was true. If there was one thing in which Two-Speed's integrity was absolutely sound, it was in his knowledge and handling of a truck—so much so that he often turned down jobs, claiming with complete forthrightness that he wasn't sober enough. Two-Speed had no time for drunk drivers, He walked the mile from his house at the edge of town to the bar to ensure that when drunk, as he most surely would be later, he wouldn't be tempted to drive home. And he insulted those who staggered up from the table pulling their keys from their pockets, calling them damn fools and menaces to society, calling them bastards and killers and suicides, and went so far as to stand wobbling behind their vehicles, cursing them, daring them to back over him, the red glow from their brake lights enveloping TwoSpeed's thin and crooked limbs and turning the smoke and steam from their exhausts, in the winter, into a cloud that seemed to burn internally, passing up over Two-Speed's form so that his curses, cracked and hoarse, emanated from the cloud.
His stubbornness was so great that he would, indeed, have let himself be run over, as evidenced once when Hank Tyrrell challenged him by slowly backing up until his bumper touched Two-Speed's knees. Two-Speed remained rooted, swaying as if in a strong, inconstant wind, without moving his feet. Hank backed further, and Two-Speed's knees crumpled. He fell to the pavement, into the red, glowing cloud, and remained there, damning Hank with all the obscenities at his muster. Still Hank backed up, in spite of the protestations of onlookers who, hearing the commotion, had left their drinks in the smoky bar to gather outside the door in the freezing air. Some of them waved their arms at Hank, trying to get his attention, but whether through the blinding obscurity of his stubbornness or of the frost on his windshield, he paid them no heed.
Two-Speed disappeared under the pickup until, depending on who you hear the story from, a scrap of his clothing caught on a rusted piece of metal or he grabbed onto the bumper and began to be dragged backward, his head hanging limply, scraping along. Never, though, did he shout for Hank to stop, but continued to scream like a crow that has learned to curse, his voice rising up from the exhaust, calling Hank to judgment for the menace he was to the roads, to the drivers who took their responsibilities seriously and knew driving as an honor and a privilege.
Hank backed the pickup clear into the street, reassured, though he couldn't see Two-Speed, by the health and vigor of his voice. He then put the vehicle into drive and began to leave the scene, puffed with pride, thinking Two-Speed had survived the backing-up and was out of danger and that he, Hank, had just become the first man in town to outdo TwoSpeed's orneriness.
He made it a half block down the street to the stop sign at the highway before he became puzzled by two facts: first, that Two-Speed's voice was following him; second, that the herd of men milling outside the bar door was suddenly stampeding down the sidewalk parallel to his pickup, bellowing and pointing, most of them still in their shirt-sleeves, having never anticipated spending more than a few seconds in the frigid night. Hank could see them even through the layer of frost on his side window and decided not to pull onto the highway for home until he knew what had spooked them.
When he got out of his pickup to investigate, he found Two-Speed under the bumper, lying in blood that was beginning to pool from the great gash scraped in his scalp. Down the street, a steaming trail of the same blood marked Two-Speed's progress from the bar. Two-Speed did nothing to extricate himself from under the pickup, nor did he demand help or apology. Instead, looking up into Hank Tyrrell's horrified face bending over him, he accused Hank of being so drunk he would drag a man under his pickup, down the highway and into the night—"Proof!" he screamed, "that you're too damn drunk to drive and you got no right to be on the road in the condition you're in. There might be a woman on the way to the hospital to give birth to a baby, and you'd come charging down and kill them both. The last thing she'd see'd be your headlights in the wrong lane. How'd you like that, Hank? Would you like all that blood on the road?"
It was too much for Hank. He allowed his illusions of victory over Two-Speed to evaporate and, a defeated man, for the first time ever called his wife, admitted that he was too drunk to drive and had her come into town and retrieve him, sliding into the passenger seat beside her and refusing to acknowledge the friends who, delighted at his ignominy, waved to him from the door of the bar as his wife, stonefaced, pulled away from the curb.
When they finally managed to get Two-Speed out from under the pickup and standing, they discovered a great patch of skull, white but flowing with blood, showing through the matted hair at the back of his head. He declined offers of aid, shaking off the hands held out to him, pulled a dirty stocking cap out of his coat pocket, pushed it down over his head and walked, dignified but drunk, through the cold, wavering light of the street lamps, home.
The next day people came into town and looked at the trail of blood, frozen and brown against the black asphalt. They smoked and muttered and followed it, heads down, to where it broadened and spread near the stop sign, as if confirming, each one for himself, that yes, this had happened, reading their own individual interpretations out of the spoor. I was in town with my father, and, coming out of the hardware store, I saw the men huddled near the stop sign. I asked Dad what had happened, but he only glanced at the men and walked on to where he'd parked our pickup.
I had to run to catch him, and by the time I made it around the hood and had opened the door, he had the engine running. He was staring through the windshield at the brick-and-glass front of the Woolworth store. I sat down hard on the cold vinyl, heating it snap under me and hoping it would crack and tear, shifting my weight more than necessary and looking at Dad. He glanced over at me, then jerked his head toward the stop sign. "Two-Speed Crandall about killed himself last night," he said. "But he didn't get the job done. They're"—he jerked his head again—"looking. That's all."
"That's all? Wow! How did—"
His eyes stopped me. "Just stupid."
He pulled the pickup onto the street. In spite of him, I leaned forward as we approached the stop sign, looking at the knot of men. They glanced up as we came near. A few nodded to my father. He nodded back, but we didn't join them, and I craned my neck backward as we turned onto the highway, watching them grow smaller through the rear window, and wondering what Two-Speed Crandall had done. I think I remember, though I can't be sure—and in truth, it seems unlikely I would—seeing the blood under the feet of the men, oozing out, a brown stain over which they floated, somehow supported by it.
I heard the story later through my friends and their older brothers, stories like that descending stratums until they finally reached clear down to groups of elementary students huddled on the playground. The stories also said that the next day Hank Tyrrell got a phone call from, of all people, LouAnn Crandall, but since Hank was outside feeding his cattle, LouAnn berated Hank's wife, Betty, demanding that she keep her husband away from Simon—Two-Speed's real name—and informing her that Simon was sick and in bed and that Betty had no right to let her husband nearly kill LouAnn's husband. This phone call, by all accounts, did little to speed Betty's forgiveness of Hank, and he wasn't seen at the bar for several months after it.
These things are local legend. They've been filtered many times in being retold, and I remember them in the whole and connected way that we remember things from childhood, when even nursery rhymes have such reality and truth that we can ask our parents who the little boy who lived down the lane was, and where was the lane, and why did the black sheep want to give him some wool—questions that filled out and tried to make whole the disconnected phrases. If I tell these things with some fondness, it is fondness for the story, not for the man.
Or fondness, perhaps, for the enigma of the man. Or the enigma of memory. I remember Two-Speed still, sitting high in the cab of the semi when he came out to haul cattle for my father. To get to our barn, the drivers had to come into our yard, turn, and then back carefully between two grain bins, curve around a tree that my father refused to cut down, then straighten the rig out and ease up to the barn door. Most of the drivers would study the route, then, guided by someone else, would back up, get off course, go ahead, back up, gradually easing their way, by fits and starts, between the bins and around the tree. But Two-Speed would walk the route he had to take, then climb into the cab and back the trailer up, without ever going ahead or readjusting, or slowing down or riding the clutch. He would simply start, and there was something inexorable and beautiful about it, the churning engine, the diesel smoke, the crunch of gravel under the tires, the massive rectangular rig rolling backward, twisting without pause, reasserting its course, the exhausts throbbing, until the trailer, as wary and gentle as a dog meeting another, eased up to the chute and stopped with a sigh of air brakes, just touching the wood.
It mesmerized me. Done at night, as it often was so that the cattle would arrive at the stockyards in the morning, it was like waking from sleep to a bigger dream than any I could have dreamed myself, the whole semi glowing within the orange and red of its running lights, creaking and swaying over its axles. Then Two-Speed would take his eyes off the mirrors, where he had been intent and focused, and he would climb down from the cab, his pants tucked into his boots, as gaunt and stringy as a heron, with the same enigmatic glitter in his eyes, and the same careful delicacy about his walk, as if his world were one of shallow water and sucking mud, and walking in it was both risk and miracle. He'd step to the back of the trailer, and if he were more than an inch away from the chute, he'd grunt and spit and walk away, disgusted with himself.
But even before my father told me of Two-Speed's violence with his family, I was aware of a distortion that entered here. For Two-Speed would take out his disgust with himself on the cattle, wielding his prod with unnecessary vigor, shocking the steers even though they were moving well, shocking them just to see them jump, and holding the prongs against their flanks, holding them there when the cattle were jammed in the chute and couldn't move to escape the jolt. The steers would sometimes panic when he did this and fall to their knees on the slippery wood, their rear hooves booming in the barn as they struggled to rise, the blue arc from the blunt prongs of the prod sizzling in their hair, the sharp electric smell stinging my nostrils above the smell of oil and sweat and manure—and Two-Speed standing there unrelenting, a grim and dusky look on his rice, the steer groaning in the closest sound to despair I've ever heard, until—it always happened, I waited for it, the tension building in me—my father, a man never given to swearing, or even to anger, would shout from across the barn: "Damnit, Two-Speed! Lay off the electricity!"
These are moments outside of time for me: the packed cattle like a live, roiling sea, and over their backs the two men staring at each other. Neither of them moved. The whole barn was moving, but the two men were stiller than posts or stone. My father's eyes, even in the diffuse yellow light of the barn, had that hard and distant cast that I'd noted as something borrowed from the horizon. I remember all this as something completely soundless, the cattle bucking and moving in silence, the chute swaying without creaking.
In Two-Speed's eyes there was the kind of look I had seen only once before, on the face of the neighbor's dog when, one night, I heard a commotion outside and, full of the exploratory courage of a young boy, took a .22 rifle and a flashlight and went to investigate. I found the dog tangled in a mass of barbed wire behind the chicken house, one of our chickens, feathers wet and bloodied, at its feet. Gashes along the dog's side materialized slowly in the tissue beam of the light I held. Its face, too, was cut, and blood flowed freely down its fur and into its mouth. I saw that even its tongue was cut; it must have been biting at the wire in its frenzy to free itself. It looked at me with the cunning and fear of a wild thing, but there was something else, too, that made me stop just as I was about to go to it and free its leg from the coil of wire. The eerie fear came suddenly upon me that this dog would kill me, or try to, should I free it. I don't know how long I stood there, the dark trees moving over me, before I put the rifle down and spoke the dog's name: Homer.
The animal relaxed, free to plead with me, to collapse into its daytime self, the pleaser of human beings. I see now that the flicker of hatred I had caught from its eyes sprang from an unbearable tension within it—its wild nature hating me for finding it helpless, its domestic nature hating me for finding it a killer. At the sound of its name, though, the dog became whole again, if not complete, and whined softly, giving in to the pain. I approached it carefully, and it waited patiently while I uncoiled the wire. Then it withdrew its legs, sniffed at the chicken lying in the barbs, looked once at me, and fled. With the light, I followed its limping form, receding between the dark trees of the grove, until it disappeared.
In Two-Speed's eyes as he stared at my father there was the same look the dog gave me, and it made me uneasy, an uneasiness I was then too young to recognize as fear for my father. But in the distant hardness of my father's eyes there was a look to oppose Two-Speed's—a steady, unwavering anger, so steady it was almost calm. I know now that his anger was concerned not only with the cattle, but also with the children, with those three boys not his own, and that he was enraged at his own helplessness, being as he was a believer in stories that were unproven and therefore impossible to act upon. Always it was Two-Speed who turned away. Always, with a show of sullenness he stuffed the prod into the pocket of his overalls, where it protruded stiff and ungainly, making him look even more like an unkempt wading bird as he stood undignified and lost in the dim, manurey air of the barn, where—in my memory—sudden sound resumes.
Two-Speed's funeral was a large forgetting. The whole town turned out for it. Men told all the old, good stories, slapping their hands down on the long church basement tables in imitation of the license that had flicked night after night from Two-Speed's pocket in the bar down the street. They laughed as they ate the hamburger-and-rice hotdish prepared by the St. Mark's ladies, and they slapped Hank Tyrrell on the shoulders as they walked behind his chair, while he, sitting next to Betty, pretended to ignore them. But everyone was grave around LouAnn and the three boys, men now like myself, who nodded their heads and accepted condolences without emotion, indifferent to all the attention being given them now that they no longer sought it. Everyone was careful, in speaking to the family, to call Two-Speed Simon, and to repeat the virtues they could be sure of—that no one drove a semi better than Simon Crandall, that the town would never see the likes of Simon Crandall's skill again.
I was there. I am, after all, one of them. I have been one of them since that day when my father brought me into adulthood by revealing the other stories. I was there, not to rejoice or mourn, but simply to remember, in the silences when the laughter died down, those stories no one told.
|The Husker Tender||37|
|Light in the Crossing||57|
|A Strange Brown Fruit||85|
|The Heart of the Sky||97|
|Making the News||127|
|The Smell of the Deer||161|
|Abiding by Law||193|