The philosopher gave me five cans of spaghetti with sliced franks in tomato sauce. Then he turned around and got into his dented Ford, which must once have been green. I shouted a question about why philosophers and prophets always lived in shacks, and he shouted back that living philosophy and a stable personal economy were two incompatible things that posed a philosophical question, that necessitated a choice. I shouted a question about what books I should read, and he shouted back that he would advise me to read the world through which I was passing and listen to what people told me along the way; sooner or later I would surely end up in a library anyway. He waved me over, took off a necklace and handed it to me. “This is a rosary,” he said. “I have added a few beads to it myself, and the black ones between the red ones are the most pleasant ones; each bead is a chapter in what you already have and what you get. It’s also up to us, they said, and that’s not untrue. May you have the best journey.” He started his car and drove out over the field, out toward the tin shack in which he lived.
It’s not at all unlikely that the urge to be another is the desire to get off the hook, the desire not to exist at all. Sometimes I tried to imagine death. With what was I coming in contact when I imagined death? Not a fear of not existing, but a fear that it would hurt, a fear of life. And a slightly melancholy feeling. But the crazy pain of not having left traces also stabbed me. It was at least worth a try. What do I care about the night of the mayfly if I have been one myself? To shine for just a single night, like a firefly. What beauty.
And there is no circumventing the path; it runs and crosses itself and splits and gets lost and bites the tail of another, finds itself again and dead-ends and breaks through, and in my case it was once a hot asphalt road in Wisconsin on which David Snodgrass gave me a ride in his pickup one day late in the summer of 1980.
I didn’t have a cent but was euphoric nevertheless. I didn’t fear the arrival of the next day, and while I’d been walking in the hot haze of the late summer day I’d developed a youthful philosophy of loss. I’d lost my money. And I’d won a story.
I walked on and discovered Wisconsin’s forests late this afternoon. The first vehicle I encountered in many hours was the one that picked me up. The driver was a little, slightly chubby, solidly built guy with curly blond hair and a full beard and a pair of large clumsy glasses that gave him the appearance of an idiot or a bookworm. He was wearing a blue mesh undershirt and gray shorts. David Snodgrass, alias Snod. This man who had been sent to me by fate, with his mysterious smile deep in his beard growth and his open friendliness, which belonged to this happy moment. As natural as the sun over the forests of Wisconsin.
He asked me where I was trying to get to, and I answered that I wasn’t trying to get to anywhere. Or that there were no places that were better than others as long as I didn’t know them. I’d lost my money, I said, but this didn’t worry me because I’d very recently acquired an amazing trust in fortune.
That was the way it should be, Snod responded. That was the only way one could look at life; anything else would be a waste of time. I felt instinctively that I’d met an individual who understood me better than I understood myself. And when he offered me a job on his farm I couldn’t believe my good luck. Gone was the memory of my companion, a mischievous split-off part of myself who had sometimes had had a tendency to plunge himself into darkness and pull me down with him, starting when I was a child with a memory and throughout my unstable youth, which had taken me from one family to another, through three divorces, names and identity changes and six schools, the last of which had been in God’s United States.
Snod had been on his weekly shopping run to Madison; the bed of his truck was loaded with basic goods: flour, cement, coffee, rice, tools, nails, bolts, moldings, kerosene—everything one needs when one lives on a do-it-yourself farm with a wife and child. And after a good hour of driving we turned off onto a gravel road that led us to a somewhat chaotic but quite idyllic workplace in the middle of a forest clearing on the edge of this fine afternoon. I saw a tractor, quite a few stumps of newly-felled trees, a wooden farmhouse, a wooden extension, and, a good twenty yards away, a barn built of freshly-sawn boards that did not appear to be entirely finished, though my untrained eye was not able to determine exactly what remained to be done. Here and there piles of firewood or even stacks, a big saw in the middle of everything, a shaggy wolfhound romping around in these surroundings and storming toward Snod to overwhelm him with his joy at their reunion when he got out. In the background stood his overweight smiling wife with her hands on the shoulders of his little naked daughter, who resembled one of the putti of the Renaissance. Snod introduced me to his Janet and lifted his daughter Rose up toward the sun so she chuckled under the sky or in the sky, for is it not true, as has been claimed, that the sky begins where the surface of the Earth ends?
Snod was from Chicago, but he had lived here happily with his wife for almost a year and a half. She went into the half-finished kitchen and brewed coffee while we sat on an old sofa with holes in its upholstery. Like other young people from the big city, they had purchased an amazingly cheap piece of property in the primal landscape. They had been pulled in by an offer of government land for almost no money. In return they were supposed to make an honest effort to tame the wilderness.
Janet had set honey and pancakes on the table. And Snod had found a big joint he was in the process of lighting. Janet declined to partake, but I didn’t say no, and soon I had lost track of the time. I was stoned out of my mind and had listened to Snod’s grand story; this story was among the best I had ever heard, and Snod himself was the smartest, the wisest human being I had ever met. And I silently thanked the guardian angel that had brought me here. Snod resembled an Oriental god and was in the process of offering me a partnership. I sat and nodded and smiled.
When Janet read something to Snod from a newspaper, I was not even surprised to discover that my new friend was illiterate. He was so wise he didn’t need to read. What did one need books for when one could read nature, speak to it and exchange thoughts with it?
And in the evening, when Janet forced a screaming Rose to go over to Daddy to be kissed good night, I chose not to think there was anything wrong. What did I know about these hospitable strangers I had just met? And small children are always moody.
I was offered a mattress on a high cot in the living room. Warm but wonderful, I thought, before sleep took me.
When I woke up in the morning, Snod was sitting on the sofa and seemed to be in a bad mood. Janet had taken the pickup and driven to a female friend’s place with Rose. He said I could eat a quick breakfast but then it would be time to start working.
We had gotten up too late. The lowing I could hear was coming from the barn. Snod’s thirteen cows were complaining because they had not been milked yet. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and things were getting critical. I followed Snod to the barn and saw thirteen cows standing in manure up to their knees. I found out that these cows would not go outside anymore this year but be fed on hay and grass Snod had to buy in Madison.
Snod threw a pitchfork over to me and said I could just as well starting mucking out the barn. He had to milk the cows; he had only one milking machine. The mucking out was going to take me quite a while. I had to scrub and scrape everything into a gutter that ran downhill at a slight angle into a big stinking pit in which there was a manure pile; the angle was far from sufficiently steep for the shit to slide down on its own. This was a truly Herculean task, but I did not perform it quite as well as the hero of antiquity.
Snod got the cows milked and then pitched in to help me. After several hours of hard work Snod said that it was enough, that we could take a break now. We cleaned ourselves up and ate some baked beans Snod had whipped up. When we had finished eating Janet returned with Rose and offered me a friendly greeting and Snod an unfriendly greeting, and Rose couldn’t be bothered to look at Snod or at me at all.
Snod said we should go for a ride and took me out into the world in his pickup to show me what it contained and the friends who inhabited it. The first friend he wanted to visit wasn’t home or just didn’t come to the door (I’d seen a shadow in a window duck at the moment Snod drove up in front of the cabin). The next one was certainly home; his name was Patrick. He was a tall, bony, pockmarked guy with a big red scar over one eyebrow that closed his right eye almost completely. Pat was a Vietnam veteran. He lived alone with the remembrance of the My Lai massacre and did nothing at all. He survived on some kind of minimal veteran’s pension, smoked pot and hash, shot himself up with whatever he could get hold of, and went hunting in the forests when he no longer knew what to do with himself. Snod introduced me and Pat said “How’re you doing?”
To Snod, Pat said, “I guess you’ve come to get high, you little sponger.” And Snod said, “It’d be great if you had something, Pat. I’ve run out myself.” This was a little white lie; I knew Snod had a large bag of very high quality Colombian pot at home in the kitchen. “Get started, then,” Pat suggested. He pushed a bag over to Snod. In the meantime Pat got his water pipe, and soon we were puffing away on Pat’s prized possession. A blissful little smile changed Snod’s tense face on this second day of our acquaintance. Pat, too, was satisfied, and he thoughtfully asked me what effect it was having on me. I was already so high I could understand only very short sentences and had nearly been overwhelmed by vertigo. And Pat remarked that “yeah, it’s really good pot.” And Snod nodded in agreement. I’d again gotten a grip on my thoughts somewhat; I’d recovered from the initial inner shockwaves. For a moment I had a strong desire to lie down on the floor.
Pat had gone into his living room and come back with some weapons. He had a lot of weapons. Switchblades, hunting knives, pistols, automatic rifles—he even had a hand grenade, for decoration, he said, trying to wink with his good eye. I didn’t know anything about weapons. He sat there clicking them, taking safeties off and putting them back on, loading a large Magnum pistol and pointing it at Snod. Snod said nothing, and Pat grinned like a wolf. He proposed going behind the house for some target shooting. I said that they could do as they liked and that I would prefer to sit by myself for a little while. Pat grabbed some of the guns and the hand grenade and shouted “Let’s go.” Snod trotted along after him like a whipped dog, but I supposed he must have liked it—he must have known what he was getting himself into and presumably wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been all right with him.
I was alone in the kitchen. I glanced around at this bachelor’s pigsty. I tried to put my thoughts in order. What was I going to do? I’d come here willingly. And now I was in a fix. Waves of paranoia washed through my brain when I suddenly heard shots behind the house. Thundering salvos. It was Pat; he’d flipped out completely and was in the process of shooting Snod full of holes. I managed to get up on my wobbly legs and staggered out the door, walked through the wooden extension until I came out at the back of the house. They were in fact back there wildly shooting at bottles Pat had hung from a row of poles. It looked like they were having a good time. Like this was something they were in the habit of doing. Pat pulled the pin from the grenade and hurled it into the trees, and a flaming explosion split the air. Now he’d blown that up. I wondered what’d be next. But that was all, for Pat had become melancholy and irritated because he’d expended his grenade for Snod’s sake. And he quietly asked Snod to leave, as he was now tired. Snod said we needed to be moving on anyway; Janet was waiting, and there was still a lot of work to be done at the farm. The cordite stung my nostrils. Pat stood in the middle of it, disappointed and moody.
Snod parked outside a house. There was something he had to take care of before we drove back home, but I could come along and say hello. A couple with three little children lived there. The woman was still young, but it was hard work. The man was a little wiry guy in overalls and was busy decorating a gable. He came down from the ladder and made much of greeting Snod and then politely said hello to me, and we were invited in. His wife served tea and home-baked pound cake. They were friendly people and spoke to Snod politely even though we’d showed up unannounced and at an inconvenient time.
The man said “Come on, I’ll show you around” and took me out in the garden he’d established himself; he’d cut down the trees, a huge task, but he made no secret of the fact that much remained to be done. The landscape was hilly and covered with forest. I stood for a moment and fell into a daze staring at a big red sun rolling along over furry hills. And at that moment the glowing ball spit a bald eagle into the sky. “How lucky you are to live in a place like this!” I burst out. The man with the strong, wiry arms and the serious face smiled bitterly. “You can’t live on beauty,” he said. “No one can survive here. You can’t sell these lots, either. No one wants to move here. People like us who walked into the government’s trap are complete idiots.”
It was a mystery to me that it could be so difficult to make this fertile land profitable. After all, I’d met well-to-do farmers living in desert-like surroundings. I supposed that in a high-tech society it wasn’t easy to become a settler and go back to nature.
Snod was ready to leave. In his hand he had a bag of sugar he had managed to wheedle out of the family. We said “Goodbye, nice meeting you, and good luck.” We got home just as it was getting dark, and it occurred to me that neither of us had spoken a word on the way.
Janet was inside the house and ready to give Snod an earful. What was on her mind, of course, was their economic situation and Snod’s laziness. Snod had fallen from the heights of wisdom and hit the ground very hard. “Look around you,” his wife griped. “You’ve dragged us into a nightmare here. It’s going to be winter soon. How are we supposed to survive the cold in this shack?” Rose stood between Janet’s fat legs and sent some teasing looks her father’s way. Rose and Janet had ganged up on Snod. They mocked and humiliated him whenever they got a chance, and the five-year-old angel was the worst.
Every morning I went out in the barn and started on my Herculean task, which had always overwhelmed me by late morning, when I myself had been transformed into a mess that had been extruded by a monster cow.
One day in early November Snod came out into the barn. Janet had let him have it. Whatever else one could say about Snod, he always did the best he could, and I had never seen him lift a hand against either of them. He took a look at the unimpressive job I had done. “You’re not much of a worker,” he said and picked up a spade with resignation. The cold was biting this late in the year.
Snod said we needed to fix the door to the farmhouse; the icy wind was coming through it at night. We got the door off its hinges, and I started hammering some nails into it. Rose appeared and watched me with her big innocent child’s eyes. I continued working. And suddenly I felt the stabbing pain of something cutting its way into my thigh, causing me to emit a scream that sounded as if it had come from a complete stranger. And there was Rose with a pair of pliers in her hand and her pure angel’s face. The putto had felt the desire to see whether Daddy’s pliers would work on human flesh. The bite was so deep that I still have a scar.
I had thrown my hammer aside. Janet served pancakes with the honey she had collected herself during the summer and a bowl of steaming coffee. She said she was very sorry about what Rose had done and was generally very sad about everything. It was clear from the dark rings around her eyes that this was no lie.
Snow lay on the leafless forests. It was a good twenty degrees below zero, and the crystals glittered. Snod’s tile oven roared. The work on expanding Snod’s farm had ground to a halt. We were shaking from the cold, and we spent our time mucking out the barn and splitting firewood and dragging it into the cabin. It is not wrong to say that there is a certain satisfaction in physical work. But I was already planning my departure. Snod was no longer taking me along on visits to the neighbors. He had used up his credit with his friends. Everybody had enough to do chopping wood and keeping out the worst of the cold. We lived through a mortification of the flesh. God lashed us with his belt of crystals.
Every day we descended deeper into icy darkness. It was time to go. They gave a little party for me. Snod rolled the last joint. And Janet presented me with a combined Christmas present and farewell present. A blue corduroy shirt she had sewn herself. In the morning I put my baggage in Snod’s pickup. I reminded him that shortly after we had met he had promised that he would pay me for my work. He reminded me that I had been more trouble than I was worth. I said I didn’t have a cent. How was I supposed to survive traveling in this cold? We undertook our last tour of the neighborhood. Stopped to visit Pat, who sat brooding in his dark desolation. He got his water pipe. Snod said we were in a hurry but had a problem. Pat asked what this problem was. He had promised me a symbolic payment, Snod said, and was unable to keep his promise because he had no money. Pat gave Snod a hundred and fifty dollars, which Snod gave me.
Snod drove me to Madison, where I bought a Greyhound ticket. It seemed he wanted to tell me I was always welcome. That was fine with me. I watched Snod amble over to his indestructible pickup and drive off on his long journey home. One day in February I sat at the tip of Key West and watched a tern dip his dagger into the warm blue water and hasten onward with a flopping fish in his beak.