Before entering college in 1946, BENJAMIN DE MOTT worked for seven years at a variety of jobs in downtown New York, downtown Baltimore, in the army, and as a newspaperman and free-lance writer in If ashington, D.C. He attended Johns Hopkins and George Washington Universities and recently received a Ph.D. from Harvard. Mr. De Mott is now an instructor of English at Amherst College.
by BENJAMIN DE MOTT
NO NEVER you say I warm, to them. I’d as soon keep clean a them as walk. Deed I don’t rare up when Yale says they are running around thinking they are the Lord God stocking the rivers and forests in the Garden of Eve. But — I got a shop here to think about, don’t I? Would it make sense for me to try to beat them down, or go round provoking them by lies and stories about what I did and did not see? You know the answer to that.
And one other thing: there’s not many round here, including Yale Hunnicutt, that ain’t thrown a tub of state trout into his brook where it runs water. Oh, Yale says, there is nothing against that with underwater creatures which you just drive over and scoop into a net and into your can and truck back and pour in. Hell, Yale says, that is done so quick you don’t know you did it nearly. That’s right, that is how he puts the difference between fish and birds: one is quicker. Now how can you get sense into a contrary, crazy-clever man like that? You tell me.
And that story about him making up the club. He never. It was town boys that hunt together on a Sunday made up the club. Harry Daley — Harry was Police Chief and he’s dead twenty years but don’t think what there is of him didn’t roll over and twitch hearing this ruckus. There was Harry Daley, Ron Van Dusen’s old man, me, and some others hard to remember made up the club. (I had just, come in and taken over the shop then, renting out the farm.) We worried a lot of boys outside town to come in with us, saying we would dump some trout in their streams at the least, and after some yawing the Hunnicutt brothers — Yale and Arthur — joined up. Sure he stayed in and paid his dues but is that the same’s making up the club? You tell me.
We were not after his company for love, mind. Not Harry Daley. He never could get room enough to hunt in, Harry Daley, and he saw some these Polacks moving in then were posting their land. Oh-oh, Harry says, don’t want that to spread. So he pulled in a lot of boys with good acreage outside town. That was the idea in getting the Hunnicutts with that whip tongue. That was all there was to the club.
I mean all as long’s Harry and Hen Van Dusen run it. There was no meeting — hell you could see anybody you wanted on a Saturday evening right, here in the shop. Then after Harry went we started sending out a little card like this with your name, saying you paid dues in the Nod Valley Game and Fish, and pretty soon they went to having a meeting over to the Grange. Right along we were planting them trout which the State raises up as fingerlings, and some were talking about what more they meant to do. Licenses come up every year with the town growing like it did when they put up the plant over to Taunton, and the club got bigger. There would be fifteen or twenty faces I could not, tell you what they were, and more than that now. And the new ones were all full of talk about the game going out of the field and fish out of the river and so it was, which was too bad for them, Yale says, they not being around here long enough to know where it went to. Yes, they were going to do something all right— but never much came of it.
Then they made this lawyer name of Waller president. He had come up out the city five or ten years back where he made a pile and he came in here and made a name for himself for one thing and another. They had got to having a big supper every year with speeches and the like to get money and at this first supper after Waller made president was when the thing came up. It never would have, maybe, but that Waller’s a clever man with fire and get-up. And wait a minute. I said that about him but does that mean I warm to them? No, means I don’t shut my eyes like Yale and some others, take Turk Ldmonds as example. Anyway Waller had gone right, out on his own hook and invited the State Officer to come around and make us a speech.
This State man was a little young fellow about as big’s a bean and shiny now, and he made us a nice speech at that. He went on about how the State was starting in to rear pheasant chick by the hundred and would hand them to the Nod Valley Game if the members build pens and feed them till they grow up big enough to release. He sat down quick enough but that Waller was up quicker, quick as a trap, getting him to say what would it cost, what kind of pens, when would they start and the like. Oh, you could see how that man made his pile, no question.
We were down in the basement where the ceiling’s shallow, and it was noisy in there with the scout troopers cleaning table so’s they could get out and every man smoking and ragging around—you couldn’t catch every word Waller and the State man had to say at the center table. But after a time, when the State man must of tired out talking, young as he was, Waller looks around of a sudden and sets to banging his knife handle on the glass hard enough to slice it in two.
“Gentlemen,” he says, so-fashion.
Wasn’t anybody doing much but talking what was in his mind, but they didn’t want to let off. And those troopers were still making a racket in the washroom with them plates. Waller, he is a big-voiced man, though. He made them stop.
“Gentlemen,”he says again, and they shut up still. “You have heard the Conservation Officer,” he says. “What do you propose to do:”
He stood there waiting awhile, strong-faced man, with everybody looking at him like a actor. Then Yale Hunnicutt opens Ins face. “All right, men,”Yale says out loud. “Flap your wings and take off like he wants.”
Some of them at our table thought he was funny, but they shut down right quick because next door this fellow Trott in the mortgage loan—kind of thick-bodied man with a fat face and little wire glasses, always in a blue suit — Trott was up on his feet, his month going like a lathe. “We don’t want to let our enthusiasm carry us off before we get down to concrete,” he says.
Well Yale sits there noisy chuckling but nobody with him now. He has his place clear, been the family’s for more than he can count. But, there was probably not ten others in the room that didn’t owe that man shingles off their roof, so they never looked at Yale, Trott talked, then Waller and the State man some more — and the upshot was they made Trott and Waller head men to look into it and get up some money. Waller had that boy from the State Office stand up again and they gave him a hand, which was right, since like as not he got no hire for his time and could have eat no worse home. I say they clapped him — not. Yale, mind. He sat there grinning to himself the whole time like at a show.
Now I figured they would go on to the end of the cut, those two, whether anybody behind them or not. They was not your ordinary team. But I never expect, them to come worrying me about Yale. I was come after, though. The fact is they couldn’t let this thing rest.
When they came to me I told them as straight, and polite as a man can that there was no sense talking to Yale about his pens. I said right off talking to Yale was like telling something to a adding machine — you got to hit it for it to catch on. I should never said that, for they put me in camp with Yale that instant. And you know that’s not, right.
A week after the meeting Yale was in here waiting for his wife to finish spending his egg money up the dime store, and in comes Waller hot after him.
“Nobody waiting, Mr. Waller,” I said. I started in to hurry, figuring get him in the chair and lie couldn’t tangle with Yale. I didn’t want my shop mixed up with Yale that way.
“That’s all right,” Waller says, “That’s all right. I just came over when I saw Mr. Hunnicutt step in here and I want to talk to him a minute, all right?”
That is a lawyer’s way. He will take your name out right in front of you and track all over it to somebody else, letting on you’re not in hearing, and then turn around at you, and you don’t know what to do. Learn that in a courtroom. He moved right through the boys and sat down with his seat flush on mv magazines, like it would be a privilege for anybody after him to pick one up with the warm of his behind in it. You wouldn’t want, to tangle with that mun.
“Mr. Hunnicutt,” he says, looking at his shoes like. They all quiet down and stare there at Ernie, my second man, where he was using the clippers. I never heard them things sound so loud, like electric buzzers. Bzzz, bzzz—regular racket.
After a while, seeing he wasn’t going right on, Yale said, “What can I do for you?”
But still that lawyer won’t, look at him. He keeps watching his shoes and frowning like he was trying to do Noel Bailey’s estate tax in his head. Length he says, right, down to business: “Mr. Hunnicutt, they tell me you’ve got some old turkey pens out there at your place.”
“I did have that,” Yale said serious like, he making out to be a lawyer too, you see. Never had any respect.
That shook up Waller. He looked up quick.
“Why,” he says, surprised, “why, what happened to them? Ain’t you got them still?”
“Why I don’t doubt,”Yale said. “I ain’t looked around for them but I don’t, doubt they’re where they were.” He looks at himself in the mirror. “Why,” he says, “who would want to run off with some old beat-up turkey pons now?”
I bent over that minute coughing and pumping up that chair, razor in my hand, to cover up what Yale said. All the boys went on watching and listening to Ernie’s buzz saw. I think Ernie was starting to give a all over bowl cml with his engine, he was listening so hard.
Waller, he laughed a little not so cocksure. “Well, Mr. Hunnicutt,” he says. He gives another laugh kind of weak. “I know we surely don’t want to run off with them. Fact is, we want to leave them right, where they are.”
“Fine,”Yale says. “Then we are eye to eye about my turkey pens anyway.”
Well, I set to honing and this time Ernie bends over quick, like with a laughing catch. You can see how he would get a joke out of it. He has a tenth with option to buy when I quit, and the less it is worth, the cheaper he buys out. He snapped off the beater and goes stomping off for no reason after the broom, leaving his man sitting there wondering why in the hell a man would go out after a broom in the middle of shearing. He comes back brooming it hard, keeping his back to Yale, and the man in the chair looking down at the broom rustling around under him and wondering what in the hell. I had to work there with my elbows high up and standing tipping-toe on account of the chair being up where I put it. And oh it was quiet, nigh’s quiet as a snowdrift except for Ernie going whish-whish with the broom.
“All right,” Waller said, looking mad. “All right. I’m just going to ask you one question, Mr.
Hunnicutt.” And then he ups and points at me! “You too, Dunwoody,” he says, “you old-timers,” And he snorts. “One question.”
Can you beat him putting me smack with Yale like that?
“Fine,” Yale said. “Go ahead with one question.”
I put my razor in, and Waller gets up and walks back and forth like in a magistrate’s court. “Have you read it, I want to know?” he says. “Have you read what is on the back of your card in the Nod Valley Fish?” I set to rubbing my chin like trying to recollect, but Yale wanted to make that man madder. “No,” he says, flat. “I been shy reading lately.”
“You should read it,” Waller says, “both you old fellows. You should read something before you set out to sign it.”
And he points at me again! “You read something before you go about breaking your solemn oath,” he says, nigh shouting. “That’s all I got to say.”
And he up and tromped out here like a wood soldier banging the door shut, so’s the glass rattled and the bells rang half a minute after he left.
YALE looks over at me. “Sounds like a earthquake, don’t it,” he says.
Well, I straighten my man up and work his scalp quick and comb, and got him out of here. The other boys went out right behind, they knowing this was between Yale and me. I had my purse out as last as could be and looked at that, card and that was one against him was no writing of mine on it. Yale comes over by the register and takes it out of my hand and turns it over, and up the top these big letters: CONSERVATION PLEDGE. Yale read off the fine print — it was about plenishing Nature and resources of the U.S. But no writing of mine on that card, least I could explain that.
I asked Yale to make sure he knew what he was messing in. “Yale,” I said, “you know what that is about.”
But Ernie puts in, “Means old Waller wants his bird in Yale’s cage, that’s what about .”
Like I said, this was all money in Ernie’s pocket.
“He may want,” Yale says. He goes over and sits in that wicker rocker in the window. “Hell,” he says to me, “lawyer man is mad at you for sure, ain’t he?”
I just looked at him — all’s I could think then was, get him out of here.
Ernie comes by and opens the door for his man and then pulls the window shade down. It was shut ting-up time. He went back out after his coat.
“Why,”Yale says, “why he came up here out the city with his pile to hunt and he can’t find nothing to poke a gun at. That’s all eating him.”
I didn’t say a word. I heard about him buying guns, that was so. He even bought a old Sterlingworth single shot loose in the stock that was leaning against Ron Van Dusen’s prescription case for five years before he came along, catching dust. For the good steel, he told Ron when Ron asked what he wanted it for. But is that against a man? All it showed was means.
Ernie came up then on his way out. He winked at Yale, standing there by the door, and says to me, “A old man like you.” He shakes his head so. “I thought, you was a decent, type of old man but now I know better. A man that breaks his solemn oath will butt goats and steal if he wants.”
“Get to hell out of here,” Yale says. “Leave the man alone.”
When he was out Yale set there awhile rocking in my chair.
“Arthur would of ate this up,” he said. Arthur is his school-trained brother just died in the winter. “Why,” he said, “half of why he came up out the city was to hunt and he ain’t vet seen his first, deer.”
He looked around at me, that grin on his face. But damn if I was ready for any grinning. One thing that Waller has got is friends in this town or people that look to him anyway. But Yale goes right on talking to himself.
“That, would be right though,” he says. “Just who in the hell would be trying to tell a lawyer where to find something?”
“Yale,” I said. But no, he won’t listen.
“Him and that leash-train spaniel dog,” he says kind of silly laughing. “Why, he don’t have to come right up on it. If there was anything inside one mile square, that high-train spaniel dog would lick it. out.” He closes his eyes a minute, “Oh my,” he says, “Arthur should of been here.”
“Well he ain’t,” I said, hard. I had no mind to be hard, but. I eat off this shop, never forget it.
“No,” he said, keeping on rocking. “ But Arthur could set that man straight.”
“Listen here a minute, Yale,”I said. “What is it you got against this project?”
“Project,” he says. Uncommon, stubborn man.
“These people are some of my customers,” I told him. “They’re trying to improve.”
“Hell, I grow whiskers,”Yale says. “Corn too.
“All right,” I said, “they are improving your growing, too.”
“With cage birds,” he said.
I wasn’t going to let him slip out that way. “It’s the same,” I told him. “Same thing as improve your laud.”
“Its worn out, he says. “Don’t he know that?”
“I see you dust your east half last week, I said.
That took him. He made a sour face. “Oh,” he says, “a man has got to make out for himself.
“But you say it is worn out,”I was keeping right after him.
He gave me a long look. “Dun, he says, ‘you ever taste that sweet mix of Elder’s?”
“It’s soil that eats,” I told him. “Don’t you forget that.”
“Soil,” he says.
“Yes soil,” I said. “The soil eats and out comes that good corn and beans year after year.”
He shook his head but I knew I had him running.
“It tastes elegant, too,” I said. “I’ve bought your corn weeks running and you should come round and see them grandchildren mine tear into it at table. Made corn and made bird, show me the difference,” I told him. He shakes his head again.
“Well,” he says, “crazy things will come along with kids now days.”
“I can’t tell what, you’re thinking, Yale,” I told him. “I have got this shop to think about.”
He leans back and let out a big yawn. “A man will act like a hog,” he says. “That’s Arthur’s belief.”
He gets up out of the chair. He’s a long, thin drink of a man, but not as tall as you get the idea some times. “You do what you want,” he says. “They say they have a car, two cars, all right. I say they got a school building right up the front door. They go1 a houseful of every which kind of thing with nothing to do but shut it off when it is finished its work,” he says. “And now you want to make it so’s you can walk out in the morning and catch your bag like in the far woods of Africa. And in despite it’s worn out.”
I just looked at him.
“You tell me,” he said. “If that ain’t a man acting like a hog, I be damned to hell gate if I would know a hog rolling in the mud if I saw one.”
He didn’t wait one second for me to come back at him, just heel-turned with his coat around him and light, out that door.
I MADE amends best I could to them. I drove by this fellow Kaczuik’s place where they finally worked it, out to keep them, and hammered some on those pens, which looked too tight-close for one good bird, let alone a hundred. Short of wire, they were. They collected over three hundred dollars for them birds out of the town but Trott was keeping a close hand on it, which was right for him to do. He came around to Turk Edmonds asking could they pick up vegetable refuse he piles out behind. But Yale must of got to him because Turk told them to go to hell, there was pigmen paving cash for it every week. But Trott’s a clever man himself. He lakes himself down to the new National while the soap’s still on the glass and they never open yet, and worried them into letting him have theirs.
What those things ate! Late summer I saw them coming out the alley in Lloyd’s pickup with it swelled over with those big overgrown squash cukes, must of been a half-ton — don’t ask me who stuck them on the National.
Yale was not much in the shop, but you would hear stories ho started, mostly about how those birds were sick to death on account of being penned up sopping wet in a rain, run in that close together with wire jammed into them. Not a thing to it. That hoy from the State Office was out there nigh every day with a bag full of thermometers and microscopes like a New York surgeon, testing this and feeling of that. We run electric out there to the water so’s to keep at a regular heat for them, and he is all the time marching in and grabbing hold of one and going over it like Sherlock Hones or whoever. It’s a fact that one time that Polack Kacznik sees him going round like that and starts asking questions. Oh, the State man says, you have got to watch out for disease. There is this polum or polet, don’t you know — a chicken will have it without giving you trouble, but will lay a ringneck out cold. Or maybe vice-verse. Anyway, whichever way was too much for that Kacznik — he tells them to take the birds away, he don’t want his thousand-dollar chick to go lousy on him.
I wasn’t out there, but it was a roar he raised, from accounts. It took more than that boy with thermometers to quieten him down — took Trott and Waller and the rest of them. But they worked it out all right.
That was how it went through the summer — I took my turn out there feeding and watching them grow up big-breasted and then came in to hear some lie Yale stirred around about the creatures all swole up with cucumber belly and being shot full of hypodermic and vitamine so’s the breath would stay in them, and the like. How he would know anything I couldn’t say. Nobody ever saw him out there. But he could make up like a wild man.
I kept on terms with Trott and Waller, which was no trouble’s long as Yale stayed away. But when time came to let them out, old Trott called me up on the telephone. He said he and Waller wanted to get Yale over his bitterness by seeing what they had done out there, and would I tell him they were going to pick him up Sunday morning so he could watch the birds let loose.
Now again, that was not for love, I see that as well’s the next man. Yale’s land still ain’t posted and I know they wanted his covers and figured to get to him through me. But I couldn’t exactly say why I was against it without heating them up against me, so I ended up calling him. Yale never objected. Sure, ho says, blow the horn and I will come out and enjoy it with 3011 all.
WE CAME by his place pretty early in Waller’s station wagon, four box of birds in back. Yale said, Morning, and got in with me, but we didn’t get into any habits talking on the way out that would be hard to break on the way back. We went around the Market Hill road that you ride to get to his timber lot, and Waller parked by the end tobacco barn below the lot. The sun was still down and the mist was dragging in the high grass on the bank.
They both looked around at us like they were making sure there was no running out, me in camp with Yale all over again. Trott said, Stay put, and they got out and dropped the tailgate behind us. They each pulled out one of these cage-boxes and carried it a little ways up the cart path. They fussed around up there, looking back at us like prisoners, but not a sound from them — I could see old Trott’s breath curling out, of him in the damp up on the bank. In a minute Waller waved to us to come up.
“How about here?” he says to Yale, leaning over the cage he brought up. The birds were all stuffed together inside so’s you couldn’t tell leg from crown, the way we shoved them in from the catching pen.
“Suit yourself,” Yale said.
Waller raises the top a bit and Trott reached in both hands and pulled a big ringneck with these shiny peach-red and gold feathers packed up by the ruff.
“Here,” he says to Yale, sticking that bird out, “feel of that bird, will you?”
But Yale wouldn’t touch it. “Take it,” he says to me.
I took him. His eyes looked wild black and he was quiet in my hands but oh, how his heart went banging, crazy banging in my skin. I could feel him rushing out but all the strain he made was his heart going that way.
“Put him down,” Waller says. “Let him take off.”
Then is when it happened. I set him down easy and took my hands away quick like I was scared he would whip the skin off them taking off. But no. He stood flat and still where I set him. He stretched his neck forward slow, kind of cradling it itching in the long grass.
“Sure,” Yale said.
And be damned! That big lazy fellow turned his neck around at Yale and looked straight at him, his eyes big and cool like he was asking the time or a light.
“Sure,” Yale says. “He is asleep.”
Waller and Trott looked at each other quick not. saying a word. Neither one make a move.
“Here,” Yale says, “reach out there and lay smooth that grass so’s he can roll over and nap a bit.”
“Get. along, bird,” Trott says almost a whisper. So that bird just craned around a little more and looked at him same’s he looked at Yale. Waller is staring at him, stock-still.
“Look out, men,” Yale says. “What are you waiting for? Get a fire going and we will have us a little breakfast here on wild bird. He will hop right into the pan.”
Trott was fire red by then, face all pinched up inside them wire glasses. He comes a crouching up behind that bird and then jumps at it of a sudden.
“Hi!” he says. He has a little cat-bark of a voice. “Get on, bird,” he says.
Well, that fellow took maybe four steps ahead, calm as a milk horse, and stops again. Yale looked at Trott, not even a grin on him. “Hold on, you’ll give him the fright,”Yale says.
They was not a mind to take more a that. The two of them went after that bird then, Waller with his slicker off whipping it at him. That bird stepping out a couple yards, then stopping, looking around to see what the crazy men were doing.
“Whoosh!” Waller yells out. “Whoosh on there!” he flapping that slicker and running and stopping.
“Shoo!” Trott goes. “Shoo, shoo!” They both whooping and yelling after that fellow, but he just would not start to run and keep at it, less fly. They would come up on him, flapping, and he stop short and they stop short, slipping in the drain grass for fear of mangling him.
And Yale standing there quiet like he’s watching a ball game he could tell you how it came out before he got to the park. He would not keep peace, and me right there by him like his other half.
“Hell,” he says and he spits a big wad, “he never will get off the ground with them trompling on him.”
One thing was happening. That bird taken to going in circles now so’s one minute they’re behind us going “Whoosh!” and Waller flapping that way and Trott panting, and the next out in front. One turn around when they’re behind us Yale says to them:—
“Get a string to his neck and fly him, why don’t you.”
The two of them stop and look up at him, both of them sweating red and pop-out faced. Then Waller lights out with his foot at that creature’s behind, just missing, and now it sets to running straight on again, sort of hiccup zigzag, stop and go but its neck straight up stiff like it is sailing without regard to the feet. Anyway it went toward the woods this time, neck floating in the air that way, not moving — and they go whooping on after him, flapping and hollering.
“Whoosh on, damn you bird,” Waller says, and Trott you can hardly hear now — they getting farther away toward the woods.
“Shoo,” he is calling, “shoo,”sounds like a owl way off in the trees.
Yale stands there looking at them getting up to their waist in high grass till he loses them in the mist. Then he spits again.
“Well,” he says, not so much’s turning round to me, “I ain’t had breakfast on account of the track meet. I see you up shop.”
And he turns tail down the cart road back to his house, without waiting for them two to get back from whipping that bird to cover. All right, you say, what’s the rest? Hut that’s just it. Far’s Yale Hunnicutt will say, that was all there ever was to it. I have heard him tell that a score times — that’s right, he comes in regular again now — and once he went through it when he knew Trott was out talking to somebody and just about to come in. It don’t make a difference to Yale Hunnicutt what, happened the rest of that morning. You can tell him and tell him and he will look right through you like you’re not there or hardly breathing if you are. “Poor creature died of spent-heart,” he says, wiping his eye laughing. And he will set there with one of them high school boys in Ernie’s chair and pepper him about is he a runner on the track team, and it he is or wants it, he should look up Mr. Trott over to the bank, or that attorney, Mr. Waller, and get them to give pointers, they being track stars at running and the stunding jump.
No, you can’t tell him and you can’t shut him up, and I can’t get him out of here. If he keeps up, Ernie will be buying me out for less than the fixtures, when it comes time. I have told him, I have told him three times what happened that morning after he left off—how we let fly nineteen of them things and not one touched ground when let go, but streak off like a jet airplane to the wood, But not just me. Some of them fellows get him off and tell him the same, how there was seventy-five birds let out that morning and all but his shot away like a torch arrow. And no man can not-see how many of those things are around now — oh, there are hundreds. In winter after everybody has his bag — mornings after a snow-you see them come up out of the woods, up the tracks right along Yale’s line in fact, up the highway, crossing streets so’s the cars stop for them. They will stalk right up your drive on the crust, stiffneck, and eat that grain mix you see in the can there — sure you can have it, free for taking, the club provides it so’s they can make the winter if they make the season. And oh, you never saw such a bird standing around in the twos and threes or more, eating on the crust with that sleek black and white and the gold-peach lining.
But that Yale Hunnicutt, he will drive me crazy and wreck this shop. Yale Hunnicutt gives out that he has seen only one bird, that one lead-wing creature. Oh I commence to think that it is not cussedness pure. I commence to think that where you and me and every man and boy in this town has seen a hundred or a thousand or five thousand of those creatures all around and we know it, that Yale Hunnicutt has or won’t or can’t ever see another till the day he dies, and not then. I mean it’s enough to make you wonder what will become of a old man if he can’t see around him better than that. Anyway meantime, I sure wish I could find how to tell him to keep to hell away from my shop.