The Alphabet Begins With Aaa

I

MY Great-uncle Joe Stoll and I were over at Gus Elker’s place when the government man came, a clean-looking Ford coupé stopping in the rutted road beyond the barnyard and disgorging him. He came toward us importantly, a young man in his thirties, neatly dressed, a vague professionalism in his horn-rimmed glasses, his topcoat, his felt hat. He looked from the bulk of my great-uncle to the wispy frailty of Gus Elker, and his eyes fixed finally upon Gus.

‘I be dog if that man ain’t a-lookin’ for me,’ said Gus in an undertone, thoughtfully probing his teeth with a straw.

We were sitting on the rail fence dividing the hogpen from the farmyard, Gus Elker having perversely led us there because my great-uncle protested incessantly about the smell. Gus and my great-uncle had spied each other in neighboring fields and had gravitated to the Elker farm for a mid-morning talk. Both were in overalls, dirtstained and torn, Gus as usual in clothes much too large for him. My great-uncle’s heavy-jowled face presented a sharp contrast to Gus Elker’s moonlike features, sad-eyed and sadmoustachcd — a strawy, yellow growth curving around his thin mouth.

The April sun was warm, and high in the sky above us a line of crows swung against the blue, cawing harshly. At our feet Gus Elker’s chickens scratched lazily about in the yard. From the direction of my great-uncle’s farm we could hear my Great-aunt Lou’s voice rising and falling in the wake of the hired man. The lazy spring morning was heavy with the smell of growing things, of earth coming alive again.

The government man picked his way carefully and a little nervously over to us.

‘ Which one of you gentlemen is Mr. Elker?’ he asked.

Gus made a strange sound in his throat.

‘I’m from the government,’ continued Gus Elker’s visitor. ‘ My name’s Frisbee — Henry Frisbee. I ’ve been working this territory for the AAA.’

Gus nodded expectantly.

‘Frankly, I’ve heard you’re over your quota of hogs, and I’ve come to see about it.’

‘Well, you come t’ the right place,’ said Gus, pointing over his shoulder to the hogpen.

‘Looks like it, does n’t it?’ said the government man, smiling. ‘Now, tell me, how many hogs have you got?’

‘ Oh, I can’t rightly say offhand,’ said Gus.

Frisbee looked surprised. ‘You mean you don’t know?’ he asked incredulously.

‘Well, anyway not until I know what this’s for,’ said Gus.

Frisbee smiled genially, as if this were a simple matter to elucidate. ‘You’ve heard of the government cornhog programme, I suppose. It’s all part of the plan to curtail production under the AAA.’ Almost apologetically, Frisbee essayed a joke. ‘In this alphabet government of ours, the first letter, agriculturally speaking, is AAA.’

Gus looked at him soberly, not a flicker disturbing the sad taciturnity of his lips. ‘In my day it begun with A B C,’ he said.

Frisbee was momentarily surprised, but laughed because he thought it was expected of him. ‘Now that we understand each other,’ he began . . .

‘Hey?’ protested Gus. ‘I ain’t understandin’ you.’

‘Well, in the simplest terms,’ said Frisbee, ‘the government is expecting you to cut down on hog production.’

‘I been sellin’ hogs right along,’ said Gus. ‘I’m fattenin’ up ’bout a halfdozen right now t’ take inta Sac Prairie and ship t’ Chicago come Thursday a this week.’

‘That is n’t quite what the government means, Mr. Elker,’ said Frisbee. ‘The government expects to have, say, one out of every five hogs now in existence killed, and expects to pay for every one not raised at the same ratio.’

II

Gus looked at the government man long and soberly, and then very carefully lowered himself from the fence so as to be ready for any emergency that might arise. He glanced at my greatuncle to suggest that he was, however obscurely, confronting the same emergency. The two men preserved for a long minute an almost stony silence.

Finally Gus said, ‘You aimin’ t’ tell me I gotta kill some a my hogs jest because the gov’mint’s got a bee in its bonnet?’

‘Hardly that,’ said Frisbee. ‘The government’ll pay you for them and have them shipped away. Of course, we don’t intend to pay the highest rate for them. ’

‘Well, I ain’t got none t’ sell t’ the gov’mint,’ said Gus at once.

‘I’m afraid you are n’t going to have much choice,’ said Frisbee with rather strained affability.

‘Hoh!’ exclaimed Gus. ‘I like t’ see any gov’mint tellin’ me what t’ do with my hogs!’

It dawned upon the government man that his task was by no means as easy as he had supposed it might be. At the same time it came to my greatuncle that Frisbee was none too sure of his ground; I could tell what he was thinking by the way a grin started and spread slowly over his face. He waited, while the government man looked uncertainly from one to the other of them.

‘Well, how many hogs have you got?’ Frisbee asked finally. ‘Maybe it won’t be necessary to sell any.’

Gus looked him over carefully and was judicious about replying. ‘Well, I got them six I’m aimin’ t’ send t’ the market,’ he said.

‘We can count those off,’ said Frisbee with what was intended, doubtless, to be a magnanimous gesture.

‘Then I got four more good hogs, and two litterin’ sows.’

There was a momentary silence, broken by the encroaching sounds of the barnyard. Gus Elker’s hired man hallooed somewhere off near Stone’s Pocket. The government man pushed back his hat and glanced around uneasily.

My great-uncle took a deep breath and said casually, ‘And then there’s Elmer — ain’t you forgot him, Gus?’

Gus looked at my great-uncle with angry indignation in his watery eyes.

The government man, vaguely interested, asked, ‘Who’s Elmer?‘

‘Elmer’s one a my pigs,’ said Gus.

‘Elmer’s Gus’s pet pig,’ said my great-uncle. ‘And Elmer’s some pig, Frisbee. Yessir, that pig’s what I call a pig, I be dog if he hain’t!’

The government man, not entirely knowing whether or not his leg was being pulled, turned to Gus and asked, ‘So that in fact you’ve got seven more hogs left, after sending those six to market ? ’

Gus nodded glumly.

‘Then I’m afraid you’ll have to sell one of those hogs, Mr. Elker,’ said Frisbee in a very businesslike voice.

‘I ain’t aimin’ to,’ said Gus.

‘Of course, you’ll hardly want to part with the farrowing sows, so it’ll have to be one of the others,’ Frisbee went on. He looked around Gus into the hogpen and added, ‘And they look like pretty good pigs to me.’ Then he turned with tactical swiftness on Gus and asked, ‘What is this about Elmer, and where is he?’

‘In the barn,’ said Gus, surprised into an admission by Frisbee’s sudden move.

‘I ’ll take a look at him,’ said Frisbee.

III

If the government man had thought that Gus was joking about Elmer, he was wrong. Gus Elker did, in fact, have a pet pig. He had raised it with fondest personal attention and had it stabled on a chain with an old dog collar about its neck. The pig, however, despite Gus Elker’s constant care, was a scrawny thing, of no fitness and certainly no use or value. But Gus prized it, erratically, and stood for being sarcastically ridden by my great-uncle because of the care he spent on it.

Gus led the way into the barn where Elmer was stabled. Elmer looked up nervously, came uncertainly toward Gus, and retreated, grunting. Frisbee took one look at the pig and nodded in a satisfied way.

‘That’s the one,’ he said. ‘That pig is n’t worth much to you. We’ll make him into soap!’

‘Soap! ’ exclaimed Gus Elker, honestly shocked. ‘I like t’ die if my Elmer’s a-goin’ inta soap — and at reduced rates, too! I tol’ you, I ain’t sellin’, gov’mint or no gov’mint.’

‘What you fail to understand, Mr. Elker,’ said Frisbee, ‘is that the government is doing this only to help the farmers.’

‘Hey? Help the farmers? I ain’t seein’ it,’ said Gus explosively.

My great-uncle put in a few conciliating words. ‘They’re aimin’ t’ push up prices, Gus, ez I understand it. And they reckon Elmer’s got t’ help.’

‘I ain’t sellin’,’ repeated Gus doggedly.

The hog-reduction programme might have reached a temporary impasse at that moment as far as Gus Elker was concerned if Frisbee had not decided to take a closer look at Elmer. At any rate, he stepped forward, directing a few words at Elmer in the manner of a man approaching a stray dog. Either Elmer sensed that his intention was not for the best or he simply did n’t like Frisbee, for he grunted unamiably, jumped backward, slipped his collar, and was out of the barn before any of us could make a move to stop him.

‘Judas pries’, there goes Elmer!’ cried Gus, dismayed.

The government man was momentarily taken aback. ‘Catch him,’ he suggested weakly.

Gus shot a glance of quizzical understanding at my great-uncle, and came back at Frisbee. ‘Seein’ as how you scared him, it ain’t but fair you lend a hand. That pig’s a-headin’ for Stone’s Pocket, and if we make time we c’n head ’im off. C’mon!’

He led the way out of the barn immediately, not giving Frisbee a chance to think about the matter. He ran awkwardly, his oversized clothes flapping about him. My great-uncle followed as quickly as his bulk would allow him to.

Frisbee nervously ran after, calling, ‘Where’s Stone’s Pocket, Mr. Elker?’

Gus gestured wildly ahead of him, steadily bearing down upon a steep slope which was part of the south side of Stone’s Pocket. Though hepaticas and anemones were blooming in colorful profusion there, the slope was deceptive, for it was slushy and wet, much of the frost and ice still in the ground resisting thaw. Gus went over the edge of the slope with relentless purpose and caught at a tree. My great-uncle, uncertain because of his weight, stayed behind. So did I. Frisbee ingloriously followed Gus, slipped, and went headlong. He rolled halfway down the slope and came up against a tree with a sound like a mud ball striking the side of a building.

Gus instantly began to lament his plight in a loud voice. ‘Now, ain’t that a shame,’ he kept saying. ‘Can’t figger out how I come t’ fergit lettin’ you know ’bout that slippery ground. I sure hope them nice clothes a yourn ain’t ruint none.’

Frisbee laboriously got to his feet, steadying himself against the tree, and looked at Gus. His clothes were mud and water. He bent down and picked up his hat, crumpling it and putting it into a pocket in his topcoat.

‘I don’t see that pig,’ he said acidly.

‘He’s went down,’ said Gus volubly. ‘I seen his tracks. I reckon maybe we better all spread out, so we c’n catch ’im before he gits caught by somethin’ else.’

He began to lurch diagonally down the slope at once, careful to guide himself by the boles of trees and bushes, and my great-uncle and I did likewise, spreading in a fanlike manner, before Frisbee could change his mind. Frisbee, after one furious glance at Gus, began to pick his way gingerly and with much difficulty down into the valley. He fell again near the brook which ran through the valley below, but got up immediately and went on.

Gus ran as if possessed into the valley, jumped the brook, and was soon out of sight. Frisbee by this time had lost all caution; he never hesitated, but plunged into the woods after Gus. My great-uncle looked after them in mild surprise, stopping at the bank of the brook. The crashing sounds of Frisbee’s progress retreated before us. My great-uncle turned and looked at me.

‘Are we pig-huntin’, Old-Timer?’ he asked.

‘I guess not,’ I said.

‘Well, le’s edge up the pocket and back t’ Gus’s.’

IV

We went leisurely up the valley, stopping occasionally to listen for any sound from the depths of the pocket, and once or twice to watch small fish in the clear brook. Presently we ascended a less precarious slope than that other, and came around behind Gus Elker’s barn. At the same time Gus appeared from the opposite direction. He was breathing heavily.

‘Say, Joe,’ he called out, ‘you recollec’ that time you lost that hog a yourn down in the pocket and he was all et up by time you found him?’

My great-uncle looked at Gus as if Gus had lost his mind. He shoved back his hat and scratched his head. ‘Now, Gus,’ he began warily, ‘I ain’t — ’

‘ I reckoned you’d recollec’, Joe,’ said Gus in an even louder voice. ‘Too bad — I reckon Elmer’s done for.’

The reason for his loud voice was now apparent. Frisbee was toiling up the slope behind him. He came up to us, breathing jerkily, and demanded, ‘What’s the matter?’

Gus shook his head dolefully. ‘I reckon my Elmer’s done for,’ he said.

‘Done for?’ repeated the government man. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Why, the weasels has got ’im.’

‘Weasels?’

‘Sure, weasels,’ put in my greatuncle. ‘That-there pocket’s full a weasels. I mind me the time they got one a my hogs — done for it in no time, and the crows and owls cleaned up what was left.’

Frisbee looked uneasily from my great-uncle to Gus. Their faces were impassive, a little sad. Frisbee himself was the epitome of discomfort. Not only were his clothes muddied and torn, but he had lost one of the lenses in his glasses and had sustained a long diagonal thorn scratch down one cheek, and blood was glistening there.

‘Well, that’s too bad,’ said Frisbee.

‘Too bad!’ exclaimed Gus. ‘I mind me it was you scared him. If’t were n’t for you, Elmer’d be alive this minute.’

Frisbee took out a bedraggled handkerchief and attempted to take off the mud on his face and hands. He glanced toward where his car was standing with a vague wish to be gone in his troubled eyes. He turned back to Gus.

’Well, at any rate you seem to have consciously or unconsciously complied with the government’s programme,’he said, smiling sourly.

Gus looked at him in hurt dignity.

‘He means you and the government is square, Gus,’ said my great-uncle. ‘You got rid a that one hog now.’

‘You mean I don’t have t’ sell one now?’ asked Gus.

‘That’s right,’ said Frisbee.

Gus nodded thoughtfully. ‘But I ain’t been paid for it,’he said.

‘Oh, well,’ said Frisbee, ‘the government did n’t get the pig, either.’

‘But the gov’mint scared that pig right out a his life,’ said Gus.

‘I fail to see — ’ began Frisbee.

‘Ain’t you representin’ the gov’mint?’ demanded Gus.

‘ Why, yes, of course, but — ’

‘Then I got two witnesses besides myself saw you scarin’ Elmer,’ said Gus with finality. ‘And I aim t’ c’lect for that pig a mine.’

Frisbee looked from my great-uncle to Gus, his lips pushing outward and together. ‘How much do you figure that pig weighed? ’ he asked finally in a stifled voice.

Gus turned calculatingly to my greatuncle. ‘Well, now, would you say two hundred and sixty, Joe?’

‘Two hundred and sixty!’ exclaimed Frisbee. ‘That pig did n’t weigh more than a hundred pounds, Mr. Elker.’

Gus looked hurt and indignant. ‘And me spendin’ all that time and money on Elmer! Maybe he did n’ weigh two hundred sixty, but I be dog if he was a pound less’n two hundred fifty. How much’s the gov’mint payin’?’

‘Two and one-half cents,’ answered Frisbee.

‘Then he weighed two hundred sixty,’ said Gus promptly.

‘I reckon he did,’ said my greatuncle.

Frisbee looked as if he might choke. ‘ How can I be sure that this pig Elmer actually is dead?’ he demanded.

‘If you knew anything about pigs, you’d sure know no pig’d stay away from home this long, Frisbee,’ said my great-uncle with an air of indisputable authority.

‘The weasels has got ’im,’ said Gus. ‘I know them weasels.’ He looked up hopefully. ‘Maybe I c’d show you his bones when we find ’em,’ he added thoughtfully. ‘Take some days, though. Comin’ through here again?’

‘Not if I can help it,’ said Frisbee violently.

‘Well, le’s see, now — two hundred sixty at two and a half a poun’ comes t’ jest exactly six dollars and a half,’ computed Gus carefully.

Frisbee said, ‘The government is planning to pay five dollars a head for every one you don’t raise.’

‘I’ll think that over,’ said Gus. ‘But jest now I’m a-thinkin’ about Elmer. He was always a good pig.‘

‘I’ll see to it that you get a check within a week,’ said Frisbee angrily.

Then he pulled his hat out of his pocket, clapped it vehemently on his head, and stalked out of the yard, scattering the chickens and geese in all directions. The three of us watched him go in silence, watched him get into his car with one furious backward glance, and watched the car vanish presently along the winding road toward Sac Prairie.

V

Gus Elker looked casually away from the road into the blue of the April sky. ‘I reckon he’s sure gone now,’he said. ‘What about it, you old potbelly?’

‘I guess he is,’ said my great-uncle.

‘That’s easy money,’ said Gus, a smile breaking into his moonlike face.

He turned, craning his neck, and looked around; then he whistled shrilly and called, ‘Elmer! Poo-ee! Poo-ee! Oh, Elmer, I’m a-callin’ you!’

Immediately Elmer popped out from beneath the corncrib and scuttled over to Gus, grunting complacently and rubbing his head affectionately against Gus Elker’s leg.

‘I be dog if that pig ain’t always a-come every time I call him like that,’ said Gus, stooping to pull one of Elmer’s hairy pink ears.

My great-uncle looked down at the pig, but said nothing.

Gus looked at him. ‘You know what that AAA is, Joe?’ he asked.

‘Well, I ain’t sure,’ said my greatuncle reluctantly.

Gus glanced at me. ‘What about you, Old-Timer?’

‘Sure,’ I said, ‘as much as anybody knows. But it does n’t worry me.’

Gus grinned thoughtfully, rubbing Elmer’s head with one hand. ’I don’t guess I’m far wrong thinkin’ that Mr. Frisbee ain’t none too sure about it hisself,’ he said.