My dad said this country went to shit after they shot JFK. You had a whole group of people, the country’s best and brightest, and everyone believed they were on the verge of something great, but it didn’t happen that way. We went into Cuba, then the Russians put missiles over there, then the country saw black people being shot with fire-hoses by the police, then we entered Vietnam. In the midst of it, Kennedy got shot. No one trusts America, not like they used to anyway, that’s what my dad said, that it was his generation that first began to question what the government was doing, and since then, no one’s stopped.
My dad was a singer, he toured the Northwest with a group called Pennywhistle, but more recently, you could hear him singing Stray Cat Strut down at Saturday Market while people hork down teriyaki and cream puffs and spend their money. He’s older and grizzled now, his hair is black and grey and he slicks it back with grease. He wouldn’t have nice things to say about himself now, if he allowed himself to speak his mind, which he doesn’t. Sometimes, he takes a harmonica solo in the song, but mostly, he just sings, “I got cat class, and I got cat style.”
I don’t sing, nor can I play an instrument. My dad always told me about the sacrifice of living the “artistic life,” which I suppose was intended to make his life seem noble. Either that or was intended to help me forgive him for not having a lot of money, or for practicing with his bands when we could have been playing baseball, or whatever he imagines fathers and sons do together. Whatever his intention, he certainly scared me out of attempting any creative pursuits. While I could live poorly, I could never live with the need to make people take notice of me, because people, for the most part, just don’t care.
When I went out for a morning run, my dad and Bill, our neighbor, were hauling a cow carcass out from the irrigation ditch beside our house. Water had pooled up around it, overflowing onto the grass beside the ditch. When they hauled it out, there were things moving underneath the skin, hard lumps that shook and shivered.
My dad looked over at me. He wore a grey “Save the Whales” sweatshirt, and took a drag on his cigarette, puckering his face and squinting. They attached a metal cable to the body and hoisted the carcass up using Bill’s winch
When I got back from my run, it sat in the bed of Bill’s pickup.
“He doesn’t look so good,” Bill said to me, as he drove away.
My dad sat in an easy chair in the living room.
“How was the run, Charlie?”
“Alright,” I said. I watched him turn on the television, and open a can of beer.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit early?” I wanted to ask, but I didn’t.
The grass outside held an almost unearthly shade of green, like a poster of the country or of cute animals rolling on a well-trimmed lawn, green like that, like perfection. Except where the cow had clogged the drainage ditch, and the water had overflowed, and the grass surrounding the ditch had yellowed to the color of old, crisp paper.
I walked down the driveway to where the crab-apple trees grew and picked up one of the bitter fallen fruits. I threw it as hard as I could over the driveway and down the road. Then I picked up another piece and threw it. I kept going until my arm fell limp at my side. By then it had grown bright and the sun had burned off the morning moisture.
I looked around me, the trees and grass extended all around me. Far down the road, there stood the small grove of trees that I had burned down accidentally as a child. They had grown back to a large extent by now, and the fire remained my secret. The trees cannot talk, the grass cannot talk; the decaying stone walls, the collapsing houses, they cannot talk.
I’m coming back to the spot where the cow died, downed. Where the grass has also drowned and where the water has putrefied, where flies have no doubt left their eggs in the standing water and dead flesh.
It’s the air perhaps, or just the plants, and when something dies, it’s swallowed up, unlike the city, where I live, where a dead bird decomposes on the side of the road and waits in death as it waited in life, for a human to come and help it along, with a shovel in this case, and not a piece of stale bread.
This is the picture you see when you see a picture of America though. I hold my hands up and make a box with them, like a camera viewfinder. I could click the shutters, and I’d have what you want to think of when you think of America; this old house, built around the turn of the century, which looks quaint from the outside, here in this great expanse. Pioneer, it says, a man who built his house where there were no houses before.
Oh-de-yaga shot four people who were casually enjoying the sun and the water from a fountain with a WWII era rifle. He had been someone marginalized by society, you know, someone the news would describe afterwards as “fitting the profile;” a loner, a man who had never been loved, or, at least married. His home life had been strict. He had a burning desire to seek revenge upon the world that in his mind had wronged him. Why he picked the people he through his viewfinder was not, is not, and will never be clear, except to say that it must not have been those people, but rather what those people stood for, each person, Bethany Miller, 43, seamstress, Bruce Jorgensen, 37, consultant, Timothy Parks, 23, student, and my dad, Bernie Calhoon, 56, must have ceased to become who they were individually, and become a faceless “them.”
What is known about the event is that my father was there, and tried to help people. He tried to tell people to run, and then he tried, successfully, to shield someone from a bullet. So say the newspaper accounts.
My dad said that when Kennedy got shot, people stopped believing one person could make a difference. He said that had to change before America could get its heart back. He said if people believed that again, we’d be alright.
Now, I have inherited the home that I grew up in; a small piece of land that has grass, trees, an irrigation ditch, and a quiet place, next to the sawed-down stump of an oak, where I put my father’s ashes.
The air is cool and still in May, and I’m sitting on my porch. The flies dance above the water, bouncing and darting to the memories of unknown sources. The shadows lengthen, and the colors deepen. I am in a place now that can hold you, in the cool, dark night, in the tall, sweet grass, and in the hollow bodies of its trees; also in the dull glaze of drunkenness, as the beer and whisky bring sleep closer.
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Portland Fiction Project
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