By Jason Vaughn and W.E. Leathem
After three years away from Kansas, I am sitting in my old merciful green chair in the living room of a temporary “home” in a sleepy neighborhood in Basehor, an orange dog asnore at my feet. This is where my parents are staying until their next house (the house) is arranged on the sweep of pastureland they purchased before I drove back. I am staying with them only until I get a job or come up with a life-plan that might lead me to another state or country or universe. The house is cramped, my room stuffed with unpacked boxes waiting to be moved again. This living room, despite the dog bed that Buddy hardly ever lies on, offers the safest path. And now, needing to stretch my legs once more, I step over our charmingly-smelly buddy and pad across the brown shag carpet. Parting the course whitish curtains on the wide front window, I look out into the afternoon. A mere dusting of winter has prettified the ugliest metals and plastics and surfaces of car, mailbox, pavement. Such icing-sugar views are just one of the possibilities I missed when I lived and wrote screenplays amid the stifling streety bustle of Los Angeles, where people seem to live for the sun and the scrub-drab hiking hills and the blank blue skies and the rains falling so rarely that, when they do fall, the joy-shock of the sound makes you feel as if that’s the reason you stayed. So, I have come (returned) to the center of the country. My country. Yet I’m feeling as aimless as ever in a story that has no ending. There’s a fear in this, but also the rosy idea that anything can happen. The kicker—and maybe it’s a gift—is that none of us can plan a single DANM thing.
II. My Gear
I toss my gear on the bed: a satchel with my laptop, a bag with my portable Bose speakers, a pair of sweats, a toothbrush, a half-pint Amsterdam bottle repurposed and now containing Listerine. All humphed half a mile down through the cold from the car parked by the chicken coup at the top of the hill.
There is comfort recognizing that deep winter has exiled my semi-irrational fear of spiders and other crawly things. What is it, anyway, about shared facilities that seems to invite tiny livestock to congregate in showers, dawdle in drawers or take up residence between sheets? In the kitchen, clean dishes stand in the drying rack. Glasses settle on a folded paper towel. I slide items picked up at the market in town into the fridge: a bottle of decent red wine, some garlic-stuffed olives, a round of brie. A box of veggie crackers goes on top of the microwave. I keep the half pint of Evan Williams in my pocket.
The Baron, once again home following a six-week sabbatical, already has his computer open, a phone to his ear. Coltrane plays from its tinny speakers. Vaughn, down to check things out ahead of next month’s residency, has dropped his stuff by the door and now paces out on the deck.
I pull a hoodie over three layers. Over this, my green jacket. Not really substantial enough for the dropping mercury, it is sufficient to turn the wind, leave the layers to do their thing. I add a stocking cap and a pair of yellow workman’s gloves. It’ll do.
It’s been a good six months since I was last out to Belle. It was warm then, warm enough for Jeanette, the Baron and I to drag the chairs from under the sycamore and out into the river to sit chest deep in the flow, to spend an afternoon talking about Dorsey’s new book, to crack a beer and let the water carry away the heat and city dust. Saw a couple of the boys up in the city, since: A book release. Jason, aka the Baron, passing through en route home for the holidays.
Vaughn adjusts his hat and gloves. He’s added one of those puffy synthetic vests. We strike off, paralleling the anemic, westering sun. Trailing the Gasconade’s flow. I, who’ve never done a stint at OAC, as tour guide.
We tramp the shore’s tree line. Ambling at us from all corners of the property, half a dozen dogs. They fall in line behind. I’m surprised to see Murph. Figured winter would be it for him, but here he is, happy, lumbering along on his bad hips. Present and accounted for: Zeus and Aphrodite, their muzzles greying. Miley, the sweetest pussy cat of all Rottweilers, reconnoiters a brief, hey-what’s-going-on-here before trundling off to see to her own business. There’s a frisky black dog I don’t recall. And the newest addition to the pack, a silver and black rottie pup that galumphs along nipping at my pant leg.
What is it about farm dogs that’s so qualitatively different from city dogs? Are we put off by their diurnal gifts of gnawed deer legs and half-eaten armadillos? Do we love them any less because we do not let them inside the house? Do the hunting and killing sounds that haunt the night set us on edge? Do we begrudge them their wildness, staved off as they jostle at the feed bowls? Do we mourn their passing any less due to the unspoken, yet shared, understanding that there will be NO $1,000 vet bills paid?
I don’t think so. They, in turn, do not begrudge us these standards so different from those we offer their citified cousins. Farm dogs know that they are free. Free from leashes, free from the indignity of kennels and the humiliating absurdity of dog parks and poop scooped up in grocery baggies.
Vaughn and I pause to smell the river. The far shore fallow with fields. To take in the tracks frozen in mud, a seasonal fossil record of all we’ve missed while indoors. We put them to our backs and cross the clearing where yard begins to slip into pasture and then feral wood.
The creek bed is stony and all but dry. Choked with leaves and the wash of last fall’s flood. We ford, followed by our new pack.
Up in the lower meadow, grass is beat down into clumps. Cow piles refresh the recollection of last season’s purpose for this acreage. In the back pasture, the white stones of an old sculpture lie toppled. Edges gone green, now blacken with lichen. Yet, the visible intention of human touch. Too heavy to right, we move on.
We cross an electric fence. In summer, we’d toss a jacket over its top to escape the shock. Today, gloves and layers and winter’s thicker fabrics allow for more haphazard passage. The stream pools. The ground is mucky, a sure sign of an earth-fed spring somewhere upland. As the ravine meanders to the north, we hew south. Climb the ridge. Stones slip and skitter away. Under the canopy of the softwood, wind rattles the last of the leaves clinging like holocaust survivors to the branches.
A quarter mile on we stand, winded. Atop the bluff. A small stand of fir conceals an upturned rowboat gone to rot. Through its beam, a tree grows. Here, the wind picks up, canters along the ridgeline. We take advantage of a shed. Empty. We almost miss it. Its stone and chipping paint blend well into the palate of the season. Three walls of glass make greenhouse good on the day’s feeble rays. Once warm, we push on.
We cross the field buffering a pasture that, in turn, buffers Eagle Lane. Heads on the half dozen cows that cluster around an old enclosure turn to follow. At the drive, we turn toward the blacktop, postpone the inevitable, if just for a while. A FedEx truck, blundering like a wagon of Keystone Cops, spews dust and forces us into the verge.
At the top of the property: what a view! Yellow and henna land folds and swells. Bisected by empty asphalt, it reaches out toward oncoming dusk. It is getting late. There’s nothing for it, so we turn back. On the way, we are again forced off the gravel by the FedEx truck, this time centripetally hurrying along on its outward way.
Back at the river house, we toss our coats over chairs. Switch on the hot pot. The dogs are nowhere to be seen. All is still. Quiet. Lost to my thoughts, I sip hot tea. I stare at the tippy tops of the trees, now peach colored, catching the last of the sun.
Don’t feel much like reading at the moment.
Instead, the urge to write. To feel the keys of the laptop soft-shoe beneath my fingers. I suppress an inclination to watch them at their work. Instead, another sip of tea, eyes glued to the horizon as daylight makes its escape…
III. The River
Before the sun can fully find its way down through the hill trees, I come out of the warm “river house”—after my first night at Osage—to get a breath of icy air and walk the footpath just back of a twiggy bank along the Gasconade, the ground crunching under my feet. An inexorable chocolate-gray current flows thickly by (not fast, not slow, just how it does). If anything, it carries only the sound of my breathing. I wonder if these waters can freeze solid. I wonder how deep they can get. Then my eyes are drawn a little ways to the left of my left foot. In the center of the path a woodpecker lies frozen on its back, shoulders hunched, salt-and-pepper wings held stiffly down the sides of its frame as if it had been standing in attention and then just fell. Its eyelids, delicate as moth material, are shut as intensely as a rousing person’s can be when they’d rather stay dreaming. And a bright blush of vermillion, the width of a thumbprint smudge, smears up and over the head, finally finishing down the back of the neck somewhere. Glancing around for anyone who might be watching this watching, the cold air smelling of cold air, every living thing holding still for a moment, I do not whisper to the woodpecker. I almost do. Then I touch the toe of my shoe to the picket of its tail, nudge the body more perpendicular to the river. And go back into the house so that when I return to this place and the bird is gone, it will be because it flew away.
Look, there’s another…
They perch in the trees or on road signs, atop barns and silos. Sit along the wires that string from town to town up and down 50 Highway. Maybe it’s the slim pickings of the fallow months that bring ‘em out. Could be the cleaner sight lines. Could be it’s just that white and yellow hawk bellies stand out better against ashen branches and the tawny Wyeth palate of winter fields.
It’s a game best played in winter. A game I tend to play as I drive back and forth between the city and the town where my son visits his grandparents.
Over there! A finger taps the glass with its middle knuckle, half-thinking. Points out two birds edging a field, wings spread, riding the current of air along the tree line. Scouting for mice. Pause. Could be rabbits, I guess…
Too cold for snakes, notes my fellow road warrior.
A naturalist’s game of solitaire. Sometimes I play it with the kids and Leslie. Usually, when just driving lonesome. Something about it reminds me of those essays by Jim Harrison in which there’s always food and out-of-doors and the sudden intrusion of a wildlife sighting. Birds, usually.
I stop often to see the ex in-laws. There’s always a cup of joe and some catching up. Occasionally, a surprise serving of roasted pigeon or quail – possibly poached earlier that morning at roadside – or some of this year’s deer sausage and low fat crackers and that fakey orange cheese from the supermarket. A beer or a shot when late enough. If I’m lucky, there’s a meal at El Espolon – absolutely the best white-people Mexican food I’ve had anywhere. Succulent and savory and crispy Carnitas. Palate-scorching deep fried chilies. And margaritas that come in two sizes only: ‘mondo huge’ or ‘big as a swimming pool.’
Recently, I’ve taken to playing as I drive to and from the city and Belle where I drop my friend, the Baron, for his stays with the OAC arts colony.
DANM! and another…
Yesterday, as we turned off the blacktop at the upper cabins, I spotted a red-headed woodpecker. Set right down on a fallen branch, just idling time. Feathered in a shawl of white and brown speckles. Its head a dollop of flame. Eyeing us with one eye. I startled my companions, leaping from the car even before we’d come to a stop. Darting into the brush, I-phone as camera in hand. It led me a chase. Flitting from tree to tree ever deeper into the wood. Then, with a sideways twist of its head, as if to call out sucka! It flew off. I meandered back, unrequited.
My record is twenty-six. That’s one hawk every 3.57 miles. Usually, I spy only a dozen or so. Usually, I play only when outward bound from the city.
Today, for whatever reason, I made the decision not to play. To forgo the count. Then, like water settling to its table, I noticed that I was counting.
I numbered four before I mention the game to Vaughn.
We are deep into some strand of conversation about the development of character, or the raggle-taggle role of love in modern filmmaking or our distaste for organized sports … organized education … organized religion…
Did you see that, I interrupt! Four on two billboards.
A cast of hawks – that’s the word for a group of hawks, did you know that? Two facing one direction, siting tall and rapine like German military insignia. One on the opposite side. Twenty yards along on the very next billboard, a fourth.
Missouri is one of those states that sells its birthright – its pristine vistas – willy-nilly for a pot of cold porridge. In pursuit of every single last drop of profit, every stretch of Missouri highway is trashy with an incessant parade of cheap, tawdry advertisement. Every side of a barn. Every roof of a building that can support infrastructure. Every square mile of roadside green has some sort of sign plastered across it. Money changers of every stripe hawk insurance, hawk half a dozen different brands of Jesus, hawk gentlemen’s clubs and convenience marts and boating equipment and snack food…
Our conversation stretches out like the freeway ahead, unfolds like the miles behind. We both, now, keep eyes peeled. Mile after mile, I scour the passenger side of the road. Vaughn the driver’s side. Somewhere along the way, we start counting out loud: 46… 47… 51 …
Our final approach to the city is a twisty stretch of highway, a holdover from a time before the four-lane, before not-at-grade crossings. We are in too close. There don’t seem to be any more hawks.
As we pass the city limit, I spy one. A magnificent specimen. Regal and alert. Its back to the city, it faces away from the way we are headed.
V. Counting Hawks
From inside this car flying down US 50, all the hawks look the same. We’ve counted some. More than enough for a cast. Just not, it seems, a cast of characters. They’re hawks. And from this vantage, in this region, they might as well be a single body duplicated into infinity. If I was a hawk (a hawk, with those sharper eyes or simply hawk eyes), each of the winter-fluffed specimens I spied sitting on the droops of wires or the tense shoulders of telephone poles, or plunging suddenly in silent predatory plops to the ochre grass—each of them would likely look as individual as any person looks to another person. The parallels in their shades and postures would not overshadow their distinctive markings or make their bodies, in any possible way, seem hatched out of a mold. And would I wave a wing in hello? Hang my head from the shame of driving instead of soaring? Would I think myself above them? Exalt and join them? Or would I just keep counting hawks until the sun going down made me suddenly as desperate as anyone who’d never counted…