In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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When I was a boy, I lived in the country about fifty miles outside of San Antonio, Texas. Our house was a trailer my father had set up on large cedar posts, three feet in the air. He covered the space below with aluminum siding and added a front porch to give the trailer a more houselike appearance. We had an above-ground pool, too. My sister and I could swim in the pool only when our parents gave us permission. Our family had a solid rule: always vacuum the pool after you swim. We had many solid rules: Don’t keep your hands in your pockets. Don’t shut your bedroom door. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Don’t forget your chores. Don’t talk back. Don’t, don’t, don’t. If my sister and I slipped up, we received a spanking. It was all very simple and direct. Our father used his belt; our mother, her hairbrush.
My father was a mechanic. He had a large shop made of steel girders and corrugated tin next to our house. There were pulleys in there, welding machines, rusty chains, tanks, jacks, compressors, and every hand tool you could imagine. During the week he worked for a large tractor company in San Antonio. Many of the farmers and ranchers who lived near us would bring their tractors and pickups to his shop, and he would fix them after work or on the weekends. They all liked my father and gave him tools for Christmas. My father drove a Ford pickup and hated foreign cars because he didn’t know their engines. He always said, “If you can’t work on it, don’t drive it.”
We lived on a dirt road that was colored rust red by the iron ore in the ground. It was called Good Luck Road. We had a stock tank, maybe twenty yards across, full of brown water, snakes, frogs, and small perch. We had seven cows, one bull, and two horses. My sister and I fed the cows and horses hay in the winter, and they grazed the rest of the year in the green pasture between our trailer and our neighbor’s. We also fed the horses sweet feed every day. They’d come running whenever I banged on the red bucket filled with feed.
On our side of the road there were three trailers, all sited on land that had been cleared, bulldozed, and root-plowed of mesquite. On the other side were five houses scattered over several square miles of hay pastures, pecan trees, oak trees, and mesquite brush. Those houses were the remains of Jake’s Colony, a community of ex-slaves established in the 1890s. My father called it the “nigger colony.” When our preacher came over on Sunday night, he and my mother and father referred to it as the “black side of the road” or “where the blacks live,” and to its residents as the “black family there,” or the “other black family with the barn,” or the “blacks with the red truck.” For a time I thought everyone on that side of the road was related, all of them members of a large family named Black.
I eventually learned the name of the closest black family, who lived only a mile from our trailer. They were the Cunninghams. I saw Mr. Cunningham occasionally on Sunday afternoons, when I went walking on the road. His first name was Sherman, and he’d wave to me as he drove past in his red pickup. I remember he would slow down so his truck didn’t throw a cloud of dust on me, and I’d wave back.
My father drank lots of Lone Star beer on the weekends. One Saturday night he got drunk on it and told my Uncle Calvin a story about Mr. Cunningham:
“That old Sherman Cunningham is a crazy son of a bitch. He shot his own brother once. They lived with their father, and when the old man died, the two boys, Sherman and Chamberlain, had to divide up the cows, and Chamberlain — he was a real hot-headed nigger; he had big yellow eyes. You know how some of them niggers got yellow eyes? Apparently Sherman’s wife picked out a cow that Chamberlain wanted, and they started fussing with each other, and before you know it, old Chamberlain’s hitting Sherman’s wife with a stick. Well, Sherman just gets off his horse, goes in the house, and comes back with a pistol, and he shoots his brother three times. Didn’t kill him, but he never had trouble with him again. . . . Just crazy. You should’ve seen his father when the old man was alive. He was almost as white as you and me, with long white hair. Looked like Albert Einstein. When I first came out here, I was going to go talk with him, with the old man, at their house about something. I can’t remember what. And the old man is something like eighty, and he makes his sixty-year-old son leave the room. He says, ‘Go on, Sherman. I need to have some words with Mr. Dietz here.’ Now that was something. That old man was a gentleman. Real light-skinned nigger.”
The color of a person’s skin was very important to my father. People with light brown skin were “Mexicans” or “wets,” and people with dark brown skin were “niggers” or “coloreds” or “blacks.” We had pink skin and considered ourselves white people.
It was around the time I heard the story of the shooting that Mr. Cunningham’s pigs started popping up all along Good Luck Road. Every day, as my mother brought my sister and me home from school, we’d see ten to twenty pigs wandering in the ditches looking for food. My mother said it was becoming a problem; she was afraid she was going to run over one of them. “Can’t the Cunninghams keep their pigs on their property?” she’d say. My sister and I thought the pigs were funny, all the little piglets running around, squealing. When our father saw them, he said, “Those goddamn pigs.” One day, on our way home from church, we pulled up to our gate, and when I got out to open it, my father jumped out with me. “I’m going to grab one of these goddamn pigs,” he said. “This ain’t no way to keep pigs, out in the goddamn road.” He put the squealing piglet in the car, and my sister hung on to it while I shut the gate.
My father and I built a pen for the pig, which I named Arnold, after a pig on TV. It was my job to feed and care for Arnold, and I eventually grew quite fond of him. He was intelligent and preferred me over my sister and everyone else. When I let him out of the pen, he followed me around and played with my dog Libby.
I never had much free time; my father kept me busy. All I had was my Sunday-afternoon walk with Libby. I’d take along my pellet gun and shoot at any snakes I could find in the ditches along the road. One Sunday, not long after we’d taken his piglet, I saw Mr. Cunningham out repairing his fence where it had fallen over. He stopped working and said hello to me, and I said hello back. I was a little afraid of him, remembering the story of how he’d shot his brother. He was a small man, and thin, with short white hair. He wore an old jean jacket, and black pants tucked into his dirty boots. He held a posthole digger in his hand.
“Where you going with that gun, boy?”
“I’m going to shoot some snakes.”
“ ’Cause they’re bad.”
“Tell me something,” he said. “What did a snake ever do to you?”
“Nothing.” I thought about it. “One could bite me though.”
“Yeah, I guess it could. Well . . . don’t worry, my pigs will eat the ones you miss.”
I watched him plant a new cedar post into the hole he’d just dug. “What happened to your fence?”
“The rain washed the old rotten post away. All my pigs got out.”
“I know. I saw them.”
I watched him work. He tamped the dirt down around the post and then re-nailed several strands of wire to it. When he’d finished, he threw all of his tools into the back of his red pickup, turned to me, and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t sit out here talking to you all day. I got things to do.” I was confused, because we hadn’t said anything for ten minutes, and he laughed and said, “How old are you now, Freddy?”
I told him I was nine.
He said, “I remember when you were born. Your daddy was all excited. My daddy was one of the first people he called. He came over to our house that night and brought my daddy a cigar. Our yard was flooded with water from the rains, and your daddy had on a pair of brand-new boots, must’ve cost a hundred dollars, and he just walked right on up into the yard, right through the water, with all the dogs barking at him and everything. . . . You tell him to come by and see me. I’m seventy years old now. I’m not going to be around forever.”
Then he drove away, and I continued my walk. I didn’t shoot any snakes that day. Nor did I tell my father I’d talked to Mr. Cunningham.
Arnold the pig grew quickly, and before I knew it my mother and father wanted to kill him. My father said it was important that my sister and I knew the source of the ham and bacon we ate. My father really loved bacon. He was a big man, and he’d eat more than a dozen strips every morning. I liked bacon, too, and so did my sister. My mother couldn’t even stop to eat breakfast herself, she was so busy frying bacon.
My father woke my sister and me early one morning and said it was time to slaughter Arnold. We walked outside, and my father got a sledgehammer out of his shop and told me to give Arnold some feed. After sniffing me, Arnold bent his head down to eat, and my father sank the sledgehammer into the front of his skull. The pig fell over and kicked a little, and my father smashed his head one more time for good measure. We hung him up with a rope and pulley about four feet above the ground. My mother took a large butcher knife and slit the pig’s throat. The blood spurted forcefully at first, then slowed to a steady red drip. After he’d drained, we poured boiling water on him and scraped the bristles off his skin. My mother and father then cut him into pieces and put him in the freezer. We ate that pig for a long time.
When winter came that year, Mr. Cunningham’s pigs started filling the road again. He had about twenty new piglets who ran around squealing and bothering their big, fat mothers. There were a couple of giant male hogs walking up and down the road too. My mother and father complained: “What the hell is wrong with that man?”
Mother suggested we pick up a new piglet.
“No,” my father said, “that piglet cost us a lot to feed. I got a better idea.”
That afternoon, I rode with my father in his pickup a quarter mile down the road, dodging pigs in the dirt. He stopped at a sharp curve, stepped out of the truck, pulled out his pistol, and shot one of Mr. Cunningham’s big hogs. The hog wobbled and fell and got shot again. Since my father worked with heavy machinery, he had a hydraulic lift on the back of his truck. We rolled the hog onto the platform, and I watched him rise up, one black fly already lighting on the brains that seeped from his head. I looked away and saw Mr. Cunningham walking around the curve in the road toward our truck.
He had on thick canvas coveralls buttoned all the way up and a cowboy hat so wrinkled and stained it looked as if it might fall apart. My father, who hadn’t seen him, said to me, “Now, son, this ain’t no way to take care of livestock. If he’s going to let them wander around in the road, then anything can happen. They’re fair game, as far as I’m concerned.” He jumped a little when he saw Mr. Cunningham standing beside our truck.
“Mr. Dietz,” Mr. Cunningham said.
My father’s face grew firm. “Sherman.”
“Mr. Dietz, just what is it you think you’re doing?”
“I found this wild pig in the road.”
“You found it, huh?”
“Yep, just wandering wild in the road. Nobody taking care of it.”
“Well, sir, that’s my pig.”
My father shook his head. “Didn’t look like one of your pigs to me.”
Mr. Cunningham laughed. “Oh, it didn’t?”
“Look here,” my father said, “if you can’t keep these hogs on your land —”
“Then what? You going to shoot them?”
“I just might.”
Mr. Cunningham took off his hat and ran his hand over his white hair. “I’ve had some trouble, Mr. Dietz. My wife is sick. And I’m getting old, of course, and now I got the flu. The doctor says it could go into pneumonia. And I don’t want that to happen. It’s been cold, so it ain’t real easy for me to get out here and fix my fences when they fall. I was working on it today, ’cause it’s a nice, sunny day.”
“They’re just out in the goddamn road every day, Sherman. It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t run over one and wrecked their car or something.”
Mr. Cunningham put his hat back on and climbed into the bed of our pickup. “I tell you what,” he said. “I’m going to ride with you back to my house, and we’re going to put this hog off into my yard.”
Mr. Cunningham slowly climbed up and sat down on his hog. My father stared at the ground for what seemed like a long time, then told me to get in the truck.
We turned around and drove Mr. Cunningham back to his house, where he climbed out and went inside. We sat in the truck, the engine running. “What the hell is he doing?” my father said. After several minutes Mr. Cunningham returned, and my father cut off the engine and stepped out.
“Now let’s unload that hog,” Mr. Cunningham said.
My father and I went to the back of the truck and lowered the platform. When it touched the ground, we rolled off the hog.
Mr. Cunningham looked at the dead pig. “That was a good hog. Worth about fifty dollars. I just called a deputy, and he’s going to come out here and talk to you about restitution.”
My father exploded with anger. “What? Listen to me, you stupid old bastard, you’re not calling the goddamn sheriff on me ’cause you can’t keep your hogs penned up. You get your goddamn black ass in the house right now and tell him to forget it!”
“Then I’m going to have to press charges on you,” Mr. Cunningham said softly.
My father grabbed the old man by the front of his coveralls, easily lifting him off his feet and knocking off his hat. “You’re not going to press shit. Now let’s go in the house.”
Mr. Cunningham shook his head, his breathing labored, his face contorted. “Wait, wait just a second. . . . My wife . . . my wife is sick.”
“She is. Please wait. She’s dying of cancer. She’s dying. Alice is dying, and it’s real hard to take care of her, and I can’t take care of everything.”
My father let him go and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Sherman, but if you don’t call that deputy and tell him to forget it, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I can guarantee you won’t like it.”
“All right. All right. Let’s just forget it then. Please don’t go in the house. I’ll call him right now. I won’t make any charges. Let’s just forget it happened.”
“That’s all I ever wanted to do,” my father said. “You didn’t need to call the sheriff on me.”
“Well, you didn’t need to . . .” He licked his lips. “If you could just pay me —”
“I’m not going to pay you fifty cents. And if you can’t fix those fences, hire some help. You got money.”
“OK, Mr. Dietz.”
We got back in the truck, backed over the dead hog with a thump, and drove out of the Cunningham’s yard, through the open gate. My father looked in his rearview mirror at Mr. Cunningham.
“Goddamn, that nigger’s got balls. Just leads me into his yard and thinks he can call the law on me. He’d better not press charges.” He checked the rearview mirror again. “He won’t.”
Our truck sped down the road, and I turned and looked out the back window. Through the red dust, I saw Mr. Cunningham pick up his hat, bend over his dead hog, and touch it. Then he straightened up and walked into the house.
Many years later, I drove down Good Luck Road again. It had been paved long before, and there was no more red dust. I slowed down as I passed where our trailer had been. A small prefab house stood in its place. A thin white dog, chained to a leafless tree in the front yard, barked at my car. My family’s land had been divided into small lots, and there were quite a few other run-down houses and trailers on them. Our old pasture was filled with tin shelters for fighting cocks, broken-down cars, and clotheslines with shirts and sheets blowing in the cold winter wind. A small, rusty rodeo arena had been erected and abandoned. The other side of the road was unchanged.
When I saw Sherman Cunningham’s old red pickup still in his yard, I pulled up to his gate and stopped. Four spotted dogs barked at me and sniffed at my hands as I walked toward the house. Maybe fifteen pigs covered in mud lay about in their pens. A sow nursed five piglets. A big boar slept in a nest of muddy hay. A woman appeared from around a shed, and we surprised each other.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She smiled. “Oh, that’s OK.” Her jeans were tucked into rubber boots, and a blue knit cap was pulled down over her hair. She had a feed bucket in one hand, a bundle of baling wire in the other. She looked at my new sports car with a concerned expression. “Can I help you with something?”
“I used to live out here. Right across the road. We were the Dietz family.”
“Oh,” she said, seeming to relax. “I don’t know any of the people around here. I’m from California. I’m here helping my father manage the farm. He still gets around, but he needs some help. After Mother died, he started to slow down.” Her hands full, she fumbled with the chain around the gate of the pigpen. “Could you . . . ?”
“Sure.” I opened the gate and latched it behind her. “So,” I said, “Mr. Cunningham, Sherman, he’s still here?”
“He’s still here, all right, the old fart. Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?”
“I’m Linda Cunningham, by the way,” she said and set down her bucket.
We shook hands.
She shooed away the dogs as we walked to the house and into her kitchen. I took off my coat, struck by how warm it was inside.
“Daddy!” she yelled.
“There’s a young man here to see you.”
“Send him in here.”
“Go on,” she said. “I’ll bring your coffee. Cream and sugar?”
“Just cream, thanks.”
I entered the even-warmer living room. A large, blue-flamed gas heater was hissing in the corner. Mr. Cunningham sat in a reclining chair reading a newspaper. He looked exactly the same as I remembered, except for a pair of reading glasses.
“Yes, sir?” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“I used to live across the road. My father was Herman Dietz.”
He stared at me for a second and slowly smiled. “Well, it’s little Freddy Dietz. You got as big as your daddy. Come on in here and sit down.” He patted the couch next to him. “Come sit on this couch. Linda, bring this man some coffee. You drink coffee?” he asked me.
“Yes, sir, I do,” I said, still standing.
“I hear you,” she called. “It’s coming.”
He looked me up and down, grinning. “Well, here you are. . . . Uh, if you don’t mind my asking, you still have some of your place over there?”
“No, we sold all of it.”
“Did you, now?”
“Yes, my mother did.”
“Is that right? What about your daddy? What’s old Herman doing?”
“He passed away two years ago.”
His mouth dropped a little. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me that. He wasn’t fifty years old.”
“He had a heart attack.”
“A heart attack? A big, young boy like that?”
“He ate a lot of bacon,” I said and smiled.
“I bet he did, I bet he did.” He touched the couch again. “Come sit down here, boy.”
I sat down, and he stared at me intensely.
“What’re you doing now, Freddy? You look like you’re living good.”
“I’m a veterinarian.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, sir. I just opened my own clinic in San Antonio.”
“That’s good, that’s good. I always said, a man’s got to know how to do something; I don’t care what it is. How old are you now?”
“And you already got your own business.”
“Well, I have a partner.”
“I see, I see.”
We sat for a moment in silence. The yellow and blue flames glowed in the gas heater.
“So, tell me, what can I do for you? You just visiting or . . .”
“Actually, I came out here to apologize to you.”
He looked at me, incredulous. “Apologize?”
“Yes, sir, for what happened when my father shot your hog. I never forgot that.”
“Oh no, boy.” He rubbed his forehead. “I forgot all about that business. Forgot about that years ago.” He sat there, thinking. “But, you know, your daddy was nasty that day. He talked to me like I had a tail.” He shook his head. “Like you talk to no man. Like I had a tail.”
“I’m sorry for the way he acted. He could be pretty mean.”
“Oh, it ain’t your fault, boy.”
“It was my family. My father.”
He stared at me. “Yes, it was, it was. You’re Mr. Dietz now. . . . But let’s talk about something else. Look at your land over there.”
“There are a lot more people on it.”
He laughed. “Son, white people are moving in here faster than a freight train crosses a road.”
Linda brought the coffee, excused herself, and went back outside. Mr. Cunningham began to tell the history of Jake’s Colony and Good Luck Road and the people who had once lived there. He rested his hands in his lap and twiddled his thumbs as he spoke. He told me how his grandfather and father had built the house we were in, ordering the kit out of the Sears catalogue. He mentioned his dead wife, the hospital bills. He said he knew it would be a bad winter because the buzzards were flying so low this fall. The cordless phone on the table next to him rang several times: friends calling, and some business about the rent on houses he owned. Two men stopped by: a local rancher to say hello, and a white-haired lawyer named Toudouse, who sat down across from us. Mr. Cunningham called him “the Judge” and said they’d been great friends for years, even though, he added with a wink, the Judge was white.
The Judge laughed and said to me, “The people in this world would have a lot more trouble starting wars and killing if they felt for each other the way Mr. Cunningham and I do.”
“That is true,” Mr. Cunningham said. “That is true.” He then explained who I was and told the Judge, “His daddy called my daddy first when Freddy here was born.”
“Were they friends?” I asked him.
“Sure they were. Your daddy came over here all the time when he first moved out here.”
He smiled. “Your daddy was a city boy. All he knew was cars. He was bugging my daddy every day, asking him questions. He was a real go-getter, your daddy.” He looked over at the Judge. “You remember Herman Dietz.”
“Hard worker,” the Judge said. “I remember.”
“I’ll never forget him walking up here that day, right through the water, right through that mud, holding out them cigars, in a nice pair of boots — I’m telling you, nice. And your daddy couldn’t have cared less. He was a happy man that day.”
“A happy man,” the Judge said and slowly stood.
Sherman said they were about to take a trip into town to get haircuts, so I finished my coffee and got up to leave. Linda came back to help her father with his coat. I thanked her for the coffee, shook the Judge’s hand, and said goodbye to Mr. Cunningham.
“I enjoyed the visit,” I said, and put on my coat.
Mr. Cunningham said nothing and slowly followed me out the back door of the house. I noticed he was staring at me as I walked toward the gate. I waved goodbye, but he raised his hand for me to hold up.
“Excuse me, Mr. Dietz.”
I stopped, four dogs at my heels. “Yes, sir?”
“Haven’t you forgotten something?”
His old face suddenly grew stern. “I believe you owe me fifty dollars.”
I nodded, pretending to remember, and wrote him a check.