Set in West Texas after World War II, A Way of Knowing is a drama of the conflict between ignorance and enlightenment, a masterful rendering of a time and place.
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About the Author
Nolan Porterfield is the author of five books, including the acclaimed biography of the “father of country music,” Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler. His latest book is Last Cavalier , a biography of pioneer folksong collector John Lomax. A Texas native, Porterfield now lives near Bowling Green, Kentucky.
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A Way of Knowing
By Nolan Porterfield
Harper's Magazine PressCopyright © 2000 Nolan Porterfield
All rights reserved.
Grady-cum-lady, t-elly-go-prady. On July 6, 1946, Grady Owens Haker was thirty-eight years old. He sat on his guitarcase beside the highway leading out of Lamar, Texas, reading Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy and sipping from a quart jar of vanilla extract he had bought at a Piggly-Wiggly store in Lubbock, passing through. He had bought one jar and stolen another. Now the first was nearly gone. The air was still and hot and his back hurt, and he frowned over a passage in the book about the delineation of the universe involving the dodecahedron and Plato and the soul's compound of indivisible-unchangeable and divisible-changeable as the third and intermediate source.
Grady looked up, thinking — Schema of substance permanence of the real in time, lordy, lordy if that old sonofabitch ain't burning in hell there idn't no use in having one, as he gazed around slowly, back toward the cluttered junky edge of Lamar in the motionless yellow-white sunlight glaring over a cotton gin, boarded-up seed-and-feed store, cemetery far away, high gray water tower inscribed "SRs. 1942–'43" in spattered red letters, one-pump gas stations, Dixie Burger Drive-Inn, a tractor repair shop, all sprawled and bunched on trashy dirt plots along the highway, small unpainted houses scattered behind, backed on fields of dull green cotton thin and wilting in the rising heat of midday. "Happy birthday," Grady said aloud, popping his suspenders. — Blow out the candles, children. If A is bigger than B and littler than C, A is big and little. Red, yeller, green: stop, wait, go. She cried and waved her wooden leg. Well, you've kind of got to hand it to old Bertie Russell, childern. Anybody that don't like Socrates can't be all bad. Anybody that can see what a shitheel old Plato was. Just a big-time fascist, is all he is. Dishonest and sophistical in argument, bygod Bertie m'boy. And a big-time fascist. Yessir the rulers of the city m'dear Adeimantus are charged to tell lies for the good of the state in matters of war and politics. For the good of the state, childern. Oh she cried and waved her wooden leg. Heh.
He saw a route sign down the road, and he got up and limped toward it, put his guitarcase down against it, and sat down and leaned back as much as he could against the signpost. Doing that seemed to relieve some of the strain. He was sore and worn out, but leaning back seemed to settle it down within him, and he sat for a long while with his head against the high shoulder, firm and easy yet free when he needed it, like a horse's locked knee.
Nothing moved on the hot level land. Across the fields along the horizon he could see field hands hoeing cotton, tiny dark sticks of people spread through the haze, but they were so far away that they seemed motionless, suspended. He scanned the highway back and forth, drowsily: tattered billboard on the other side, old six-sheet peeled and curling "Gable's Back! And Garson's Got Him!" clear heat waving up, shimmering on the horizon before him as if through fire, black floating blotches on the bleached asphalt where chugholes had been patched and the edges crumbling off into the sparse gray gravel along the right-of-way, the cotton gin once more and from inside it somewhere occasional hollow clangs of somebody pounding pipe and beyond that the low dull glare of the town, yellow stucco shacks, old dumpy bungalows, parched grass, dirt streets leading off the pavement, sandy ruts and mounded ditch banks grown up in weeds, big electric sign in front of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Pentecost, down a shifting lane across the way the black metal arch of the cemetery and the tops of tombstones scattered through the thin stand of Chinese elms, nothing moving, and over it all drifted the strains of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys doing "Take Me Back to Tulsa" from the jukebox of a deserted truck-stop. Take me back to Tulsa I'm too young to marrrrry. ...
— Bygod, Grady thought. — Ever town on these damn plains smells like a old greasy cold french fry, I'm a sonofabitch if it don't. He drank some of the vanilla and huddled down on the guitarcase, rocking gently, tapping his head in easy rhythm against the post. "Vixi duellis nuper idoneus et militavi non sine gloria," he said, drawing ligatures in the dust with a dead twig. — I believe I like "puellis" better. I have lived of late in a manner suitable to the girls. ...
He snapped the twig and leaned back again on the signpost. — Ah wretched men, he recited, what grief is this ye suffer? Shrouded in night
in heat, bygod
shrouded are your heads and your faces and your knees
yes, and your twisted backs
and kindled bygod is the voice of wailing, and everybody's cheeks is wet with tears and the fuckin walls and the fair mainbeams of the roof are sprinkled with blood, and the goddam porch is full, and full is the courtyard, filled with ghosts that speed backwards beneath the gloom, and the sun has done gone and perished out of heaven, and a evil mist has overspread the world. Grady chuckled. — Shitfire. It was a woman drove me to drink, and the dastardly scoundrel that I am, I never even wrote to thank her.
He held the vanilla bottle up to the sunlight. It was almost empty. He looked back at the town and then off toward the cemetery. — I wonder if they buried the old fart out there, he thought. — I wonder if anybody would let them. I suppose so. He belonged here. That's more than they'll say for you.
A whirlwind turned slowly in the still heat out across the field toward the cemetery. Grady thought about walking out to see if he could find the Jedge's grave, but the vanilla and the heat worked against him. He took the bottle and raised it before him in salute. — Hey, there's a slug up on p-eye, you happy old bastard, he said, grinning sadly, and took a heavy swig. The vanilla extract made his nose water, and he sniffed it back, shifting his weight on the guitarcase slowly, feeling the alcohol and heavy sweetness inside him and the heat of the land.
— Wasn't no sign it would go on forever. Just because he always had work and whiskey for you whenever you showed up. Lordy what a paper we used to put out in those days.
Sometimes twenty-four pages. Just me and that old man. Work seven days and nights at a stretch
work around the clock and
he'd bootleg it in
Jim Beam bygod, by the case
from god knows where
Jim Beam. Long as I could hold a makeup rule and feed that goddam old fourpage Babcock, but now it's a chain, Jedge.
Like some five-and-dime. They're running the old Messenger like a business
not like no newspaper, it's all big-time now Jedge, a bunch of big-time fascists printing her on a webfed Duplex and running straight matter just to keep the ads apart got no use for us
He rubbed his eyes and spat. — Well, you and me I guess we wasn't much better.
He said aloud: "It's the place ruined us, Jedge," staring out across the fields. Then he dropped his head and chuckled, long arms on his knees, hands dangling loose between them. — Hoooooeeeeeeee (to himself) she cried and waved. Jumped up there on that box and yelled "Ca'dbo'd, ca'dbo'd, five cents a sheet." Cried and waved her wooden leg. Well, I don't care. Always was a shitheel town, and that'll bring you down ever time. How the Old Jedge stood it all these years. I never could. Now and then. Just on the short haul, childern, but the quantum of substance in nature is neither diminished nor increased by appearance in time and calling the cat a canary won't make a feline warble. How'd it ever ruin you. How'd it bring you down, Grady. Well, let's see: how did it
good and bad I guess
bad shitfire: first time I ever blew through. Remember even then, thinking what a shitheel town it is. Pup of a kid, how'd I know anything back then. Nineteen-and-twenty-three. Or -four, maybe. Well, I don't want to think about it no more, that's a long ways ago. Too much under the bridge. Yessir childern the man said. What. He said, yessir all change of appearances ... the time in which all change of appearances has to be thought remains and does not change, and I'm a sonofabitch if it ain't the clock that turns and this old face yes is always
time changes. Its ownself. Heh.
It ain't no time. Time, no. Just is. Her. Changes everything. Everthang. And nothing. City Limits Lamar Pop. 1,149 according to this here handy dandy sign with shotgun holes in it and Fuck scribbled on the pole put up by the Texas Highway Department. Why hell's bells there must of been more than that even back in the Depression. Well anyway friends and yessir-you-better-believe-it, old Grady Haker come along and done his part ever two or three years
to raise the number
that cowboy's wife that was keeping house for the Jedge one year. And Letha. Old Jojo the dogfaced girl. That one, that cooked over at the City Café, what was her name? I ought to have went and looked up old Jojo. If she's still around. Wonder what census that is. Nineteen-and-forty, must be. War hasn't done much for this town.
— Yessir, old times. Just a kid. Know. I said then Lamar was a shitheel town, and ever time I been back it's just that much worse. Only fucking place in the world where you can stand in mud up to your armpits and the sand'll blow in your face. Heh. That old typo. I don't guess I'll ever forget. Yessir. Piss 'steada Pass. Yeah, that was the time. Wonder how that type case got scrambled. Maybe I done it on purpose. Must of been ... the first time he run me off, I guess or first time I just decided it was better to ramble. Adios, Jedge.
well, Grady you think too much. That's a disease.
He took the second jar of vanilla from the guitarcase, singing aloud, "I got tears in my ears from laying on my back in my bed cryyyying over yewwwww." He drank from the jar and settled himself against the post to doze, but comfort did not come; flies buzzed around him and it was hard for him to breathe in the heat, and images and words persisted in forming within him, against his will, flushed up from some part of him he could not control. A sense of places he'd been, drifting out of twilight-shadowed time; not names of places, or pictures of them, but their presence, gray and distant yet continuous with him, therefore inseparable, immediate; people he'd known, whose faces he could not see but who touched him, the feel and odor and anguish of something now-and-gone that gave him rapture he could not bear until finally he came up with it away from the fitful numbness of his half-sleep and began to play with it, dreamily, grinning to himself. — Yessir, bygod, first time I was ever through this little ole town ... days of the oil stampede at Vernon and Breck and Burk, old times wild and wide open when a man's word was his bond, false-front stores and mud streets and those old guys in them crazy old hats, flat brims and peaked crowns like Mountie hats and what they used to call Carlsbad crowns, them crazy mad bastards running around everywhere wheeling and dealing, wildcatters and roughnecks, cardsharks, lease-shufflers and paperhangers and promoters of varied stripe like the Old Jedge and a jillion con artists running blacksmith shops with a shirttail full of type and watering whiskey and putting sawdust in T-Model transmissions, and some real men in those days, one or two railroad dicks I knew in San Antone and that Ranger that somebody finally killed down in Palo Pinto County, but the cops are all fascists these days. Hoooeeee, she cried. Ca'dbo'd, ca'd-bo'd, five cents. Lamar wasn't nothing but a mean little old shacktown, real outpost of the frawn-tier, and many a man died of defective vision in those days
because he didn't see the other guy draw, yessir childern, it was a slow time in Lamar when the weekly rag did not report a dozen instances of robbery, embezzlement, rape, arson, vagrancy, and similar misdeeds, not to mention at least a killing or two
a rate of demise which according to the Old Jedge reflected great credit upon the community. Because, said he, there is so goddamned many people here that needs killing
and merchants that don't advertise
— Well, in those days a man got his whiskey from the drugstore, and there was more drugstores than churches praise lord
more churches than
christians, and not a single paved street in the whole town, a situation rectified finally I believe by the presence of Judge Matthew Arnold Piroute (he giggled and then began to laugh audibly), who figured how to get the hardtop down at no expense to the taxpayers
and behold the plan was put in operation as the pistols roared and the coroner came and departed, the recently deceased was stacked in rows of sturdy coffins, the aforesaid to be planted in the streets and filled over with the sandy loam of the Texas caprock plain, thus
contributing something toward civic improvement in their eternal repose a moment of glory which regrettably I have just been deprived of sharing. Your card ain't no good in this shop, the man said. We got an open shop now, no goddam union, and it ain't open to tramps. I never heard of nobody called Judge. That's what he said. "Get off, get off, you railroad bum" and he slammed that boxcar door. Slammed that old printshop
Grady opened his guitarcase and took out a sack of Bugler and a cigarette roller. He made a tuck in the cloth on top of the roller, placed a cigarette paper in the tuck, scattered tobacco on the paper, drew a lever across the top, and took from the other end a thin but perfectly formed cigarette, which he licked thoroughly and then lit with a large kitchen match cracked into flame with the tip of his thumbnail. — Well, pure mathematics consists of tautologies and right along the main stem here cows used to munch the dogweeds hence the reason waddies call them doggies, just as Co-cola swiggers are called cokeys and so forth. Maybe that's cocaine. The beer drinkers were guzzlers, childern, the wine drinkers were blottos and
the whiskey drinkers we called gentlemen. The gentlemen far outnumbered all others at the time, but Lamar has sunk low on the social scale since then ... there are no more colonels, massahs, jedges, and so forth. Only in transit do we have a true, honest, and noble man of the bar
a refined gentleman of the old school of mint juleps and the hammock strung beneath the magnolias, yours truly, Cunnell Grady O. Haker, Esq. "Grady, Grady," he said aloud, shaking his head. — Let your mind roll on.
He leaned over and picked up another small stick and began to trace the letters M, T, E in Caslon Old Style Bold in the dirt. — Pick that cotton theah, you pickanninies, tote that bale (waving the stick grandly) ... and brang me another mint jew-lip out heah on the vee-randa. He swigged the vanilla extract. — But alas, Ion, the magnolias. In the farmed-out land of my blood's country, we had bowdark and live oak but
none exist on the plains
for when the live oaks seen how it was in Lamar they decamped, leaving the vast llano estacado to the jack-rabbits and prairie dogs
and blow hards
the souls of the people is as level as the land they inhabit, and Lamar would have died and turned to dust but for the reflected glory, and no little of the profit, of greater places and larger men, reviving the town so that it is today a true and authentic zombie, happy and sordid in its gloomy trance, a state of hellish grace known only to those of us who pass its outskirts and lift its skirts. But of course none dare stand before a mirror
the shock of what they'd see
From the café jukebox came I'm walkin the floor over you, I can't sleep a wink it is trewwwww ...
— Thank god the lady zombies is better constructed or maybe
arrived here from better lands than these plains. Yes, children, I recall a beauteous redhead, circa 1932
aroused me to a frenzy, that flaming beauty with bedroom eyes. Hell of it, they was crossed, and I got in the wrong bedroom. Had to dive out a window, bygod. Discretion in choice of directions and escape hatches is a must. Yes, all said and done, I've probably hustled more poon in Lamar than any other single place all these years ... in that respect it can be said I suppose that Lamar is a fucking good town. All there is to do. Heh. Well, I have enjoyed the hospitality of its citizens many happy hours in bygone times and I have lingered amongst its Messengers for days
whereas I stayed only fourteen hours in Lubbock, the metropole of auction-barn chili and vanilla extract, its cold-eyed sacrificial heifers, its dumb and deluded Technocrats known as the Red-White-and-Blue Raiders. I abhor Lubbock. It savors of the nouveau riche and all bourgeoisie bastardizations, whereas Lamar is poor and proud of it and the railroad track merely proves that the Blueweed Special passes now and then, twice a week if memory serves. Ah, but the fault dear Brutus lies not in the stars.
Excerpted from A Way of Knowing by Nolan Porterfield. Copyright © 2000 Nolan Porterfield. Excerpted by permission of Harper's Magazine Press.
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