In June, the sun gets up about the time the pollen release ends. Keeping the bedroom window down in the early morning hours is a simple preventive for hay fever that requires only getting up around 2:00 A.M. to drop the window. It’s easier to take a pill the night before and forget about it. And another at 6:50 when the alarm clock goes off, an hour and a half before Sunday Mass.
Wakening with hay fever is like swimming up from the bottom of the sea with leg irons attached to your ankles and wrists—and then the sinuses begin flowing. Clutching a handkerchief, I went to the kitchen for a cup of black coffee (lactose gums the vocal cords) and a cough drop. I showered, dressed in coat and tie, looked over mv music and the day’s readings, and began a warm-up—not much of one, because the vibrations make the sinus flow worse.
At 7:30 on a Sunday morning in June, the wide streets of the town were deserted beneath the old cottonwoods in their fresh, new leaves, overhanging the white picket fences. Beyond the shade the trees made, the morning was textured like a canvas, and water sprinklers caught the sunlight and flung it out in long, windup pitches, throwing wheels of waterspray across the small green lawns bordered by purple lilacs growing close against the gabled frame-and-stone houses. The sky was cleanly blue and the asphalt surfacing smelled fresh and clean as the newly watered earth. I parked outside St. Laurence O’Toole and went inside the church, carrying the music bag. A few people, most of them elderly, were in the pews already, on their knees on the kneelers or staring forward from the benches to the candles burning up front. I went on up to the choir loft and took mv things from the bag—music, missal, water bottle, cough drops, eyeglasses—and laid them out across two adjustable music stands. Below, the church was filling up, and I smelled the scent of candles and the familiar church smell. Jean Karch went forward to post the hymn numbers before joining me upstairs in the loft.
“How’s your throat this morning?” she asked, as she unlocked the organ and rolled the top back.
“It could be worse, given the pollen count. I should be able to get through all right, if I just take it carefully.”
Catholics don’t sing, which is either good for the cantor or not so good, depending. Today was easy work, taken up a half-step to accommodate mv hay fever as well as my tessitura. Everything moved along fine, and then it was Communion. The Communion hymn was “Panis Angelicus“—Lambillote’s setting, not César Franck’s. They like to remind you you’re singing for Him, but why He minds a scraped note or a cracked one less than the average pew-sitter, nobody ever says.
An easy attack, of course, then stay forward, letting the chin drop as far as the sternum, to keep the air force off the gummy cords. “Panis augelicus, fit panis hominum . . . ” Piano, piano; you can’t belt “Panis Angelicus,” anyway. St. Laurence has superb acoustics; the unwrapping of a lozenge in the loft must be audible to those seated directly below, while a well-produced voice singing pianissimo fills the church with softly resonant sound. “O res mirahilis manducat dominum . . . ” Only a little more gas, and the cords will sputter into a tickle, the tickle will break to the inevitable cough . . . disaster, whether God is listening or not. “Pauper, servus, et humilis.” Ticklish work, but I get through it all right. God has not been offended, I am not humiliated, and the communicants have enjoyed a peaceful Communion, their prayer undisturbed by glottal squawks from the tenor in the choir loft.
I went home after Mass and changed out of Sunday clothes into jeans and a snapbutton denim shirt. As the wind got up, my hayfever worsened along with it, but since nothing I had planned for the rest of the day depended on my vocal condition, I wasn’t paying attention any longer.
Horses resemble their successor, the automobile, in always having something wrong with them. Lacking a carburetor or computer inside, they are easier to work on; on the other hand, you don’t have to catch a car before you can start in on the repair job. I am not really a horse lover, having a skeptical and fundamentally utilitarian view of the animal which, so far as I have ever been able to tell, is how he sees me as well. Years ago, after my gelding cut his leg on barbwire, the vet recommended a shot of penicillin daily over a period often days. The treatment progressed smoothly for the first six; on the seventh day, the horse was reluctant to come in to me, and on the eighth he reared when I approached him with the syringe and nearly pulled the trailer where I had him snubbed over on top of both of us. Since then, the refusal to be caught has gone from understandable reluctance to an infuriating game at which the man always wins —eventually—and the horse takes his revenge for having lost.
The best thing is to imagine the animal as yourself and yourself as God Who knows what is good for you, better than you do yourself. In this case, Star had developed a slightly swollen knee that the vet said could be an injury (mares, like women, will bite and kick) or an arthritic inflammation. Whatever the problem, my job was to apply Dr. Hopper’s special salve to the affected area, wrap the knee in plastic to heat it, secure the plastic with stretch bandage and the bandage with duct tape, above and below, and administer two grams of Bute, orally. Only, I had to catch the sonofabitch first.
The whole business took 25 minutes: 21 to get a halter on the knothead, four to do the doctoring. When I was through with it, I went around closing gates to make a smaller enclosure, carried over a third of a bale of hay, and filled the water bucket from the pump. It’s a lot easier to catch a horse off 1,500 square feet of ground than it is off a couple of acres. I left him hanging his head over the gate, loaded the mare into the trailer, and drove out of town, stopping for a six-pack of beer and a bag of ice from a convenience store in West Laramie.
You could pull a horse trailer up Jelm Mountain, I suppose, but what would be the point in doing it? I parked the rig beside the two-track near the base of the hill and rode horseback as far as the shoulder midway up. We left the road and continued on across a sagebrush park to the line of woods where the mountain drops off steeply through the trees to the southwest, giving a view of the Laramie Riser winding out of the Medicine Bow Mountains and the snowy peaks away down in Colorado. The mare, fat and out of shape from the long winter, blew hard while I removed the saddle and bridle and snubbed her with a long rope to a redbark pine tree. From the saddlebags I took a bottle of still-cold beer and The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway and carried them over to a larger tree, where 1 sat with my back against the roughbarked trunk to drink beer and read the Michigan stories by Hemingway.
On a fishing trip in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I was skunked by Papa a few years ago. The Big Two-Hearted River is on the map all right, so I packed in my fly rod and flies and drove over there from St. Ignace. Though I found it easily enough, the river didn’t look at all the way Hemingway had described it. Instead of being wide and fast-moving and open and sunny, it was narrow and closed-in and dark, teacolored from tannic acid and with a murky bottom in place of a sandy one. I tried the water for an hour anyway and came away empty-handed, leaving three or four trout flies in the branches overhanging the opposite shore and a generous blood donation with the native mosquito population. Later, I learned that the river Hemingway actually describes is called the Fox River. But, since the Big Two-Hearted name fit the theme of the stories exactly, he rearranged reality some 40 miles by appropriating it to his literary purpose. I’ve never seen it mentioned, but the closest thing to an explanation of why Hemingway lived most of his life as an expatriate is in Carlos Baker’s Letters, where as early as the 1920’s or 30’s, he laments that America is being flattened by bulldozers and covered by tract houses. Elsewhere, Hemingway takes comfort in the fact that, while the world changes, it does not change as fast as we do. More than half a century later, it is changing much faster: a calamitous and tragic thing for Americans, and for humanity in general.
I checked the mare’s rope and took a hike around the shoulder of the mountain, in a hard wind coming up from Colorado. The wind wasn’t gusting: It poured, steady and full as the current at the bottom of a deep river, smoothing the mountain and wearing it down, like a gray, huge boulder submerged in the river of time. New green grass sprang in last year’s towheads, and the mountain lupin was budded. The wind in the pine forest and the clouds overhead being pushed by the wind were all one sound, the sound of the earth turning on its axis, out of yesterday through today into tomorrow. The clouds traveled low beneath a high ceiling of blue sky, clear-edged and shining, gray on the undersides, and there was little moisture in them. Perhaps tomorrow, when they returned from their voyage around the world, swollen with outrage at what they had witnessed, the clouds would burst in anger, and there would be rain. I struggled up to the ridgeline and paused there, bracing against the wind, for a look around. On either side of the ridge, a long draw ran steeply down to a grassy pocket sheltering a stand of tender green aspen trees. From the base of the mountain, the Laramie Plain stretched away, still green under the late spring sky except for the alternating patches of black, blue, red, and white: cloud, water, clay, alkali. On the way down to camp, the long pine needles and fat pine cones crunched underfoot, adding their dust to the thin layer of soil covering the mountain rock. Such drought, so much wind, made a cook fire impossible.
I rode the mare back down the mountain and loaded her in the trailer, wondering what was for supper at the Egolfs’. From Jelm Mountain to Barber Lake Road west of Centennial isn’t that many miles by the backroads. At the old timbered lodge, the kids fished for trout from a raft while Jamie sat out on the balcony overlooking the high-water creek. She called down to say I was in time for a drink, and welcome to stay for teriyaki chicken if I had no other plans. I didn’t have any beyond the bottle of red wine on the front seat of the truck, so I brought that up with me when I joined her on the balcony, and we both had a drink, sitting under the stirring American flag at the top of its pole in the smoke from the citronella candle and feeling the heat draw quickly from the thin air. The red wine tasted wonderful after the beer.
“Did you go into town for church today?” I asked Jamie.
“No. I didn’t. We’ve been working all day, painting the lodge. I’m exhausted now. How about you? Did you go to church?”
“Yes, I went to Mass.”
“Did your voice work all right this morning?”
“It worked okay. You wouldn’t have mistaken me for Jussi Björling, though.”
Evening shadow crept upward from the base of the treeline across the creek until the tops of the pines flamed like supper candles. We pulled on jackets against the chill and Sarah and Katie and Ben came in from the river and warmed themselves with red wine. All three attend Earlham College, a Quaker school in Indiana founded in 1847, so there are certain things we don’t talk about. I have the impression they believe the world is growing up better day by day, in every way. In almost every way. It’s a good way to feel if you’re 21 years old. The alternative, probably, is madness followed by early death, like Hamlet.
So we didn’t discuss anything serious but told bad jokes instead—the more inane the better—and laughed a lot, drinking wine. After a while, Jamie and Sarah brought supper up from the kitchen downstairs, and we ate teriyaki chicken, rice, and a green salad, with more wine — a good white this time.
Now the light was all gone from the creek bottom and from the mountainside most of the way up, and the clouds overhead were a quiet pink, no brightness left in them, just the pretty color reflected in a back-eddy of the creek. It had been a lovely Sunday, out here in the American hinterland, and now it was time to run the flag down the pole. “This is nice,” I told Jamie. And left it at that, while thinking, “The world changes. You can’t tell yet from here, but right now it’s changing even faster than you are.”