15 • Coffee & MacLeish
Will looked ahead and saw a sign for Country Road 14 and slowed. When he reached the intersection, he turned left. He didn’t know where County Road 14 would lead, but the dashboard compass said he was pointed south, and the road was paved. That was good enough for today.
About a mile down the road, he crested a hill and saw he was at the top of the Coteau. He pulled to the side of the road, almost into the ditch because there was no shoulder, something Barbara would surely chastise him for, had she’d been turned on. There was no traffic on the narrow two-lane road, but he flipped on his hazards just in case, grabbed his cigarettes and phone and pulled the keys from the ignition. Across the highway, he stood above the valley and followed the ribbon of light-gray asphalt in varying degrees of disrepair as it wove down the side of the bowl through prairie and pasture, dotted with an occasional clump of trees or scattering of cattle. Spring greens were beginning to streak through the amber and brown fields, tall grasses laid flat by wind and the weight of snow, now melted off. When people talk about the landscapes that seem to go on forever, they’re talking about this place, Will thought. Mixes of every color on the palette, but muted into the shades of the Dakotas’ open prairies, finally met at the far reaching horizon by an even vaster, empty blue sky.
“Was it worth leaving your skyline office?” Tom had asked one Christmas when Will had gone home to Chicago.
Will hadn’t known how to answer his brother then. The move was complicated, not made with a single rationale or objective. He put has hands in his pockets and filled his lungs with a long, deep inhale of fresh country air. Surveying the endless valley he said aloud, “Yes, Tom. It was worth it.”
He lit a cigarette and stepped down into the ditch to walk the barbed wire fence line. A small flock of sheep was grazing a thousand feet or so ahead but somehow hadn’t picked up on his presence. He leaned a shoulder on a utility pole and watched them, occasionally letting out a low sound mimicking their staccatoed bleats.
A woolly brown sheep with black around the eyes and ears stopped munching grass at its feet and looked up at Will, catching his eye. They stood in a faceoff, staring each other down for a good two minutes before the sheep turned and ran, its companions chasing after, though clueless as to what they were running to or from.
Will laughed, then checked his phone for the time.
2:00. He should call Joe.
Joe answered on the first ring, as though waiting for the call.
“Joe, it’s Will.”
“Hello Will. You’re still coming today, right? I have your Thermos all ready for you.”
“Yeah, you bet. I actually got done a little ahead of schedule. Hope you don’t mind if I show up early.”
“Oh, it’s fine. I was going over to ogle antiques at the auction barn this afternoon but if you’re coming early I’ll stay home. When will you get here?”
“That’s a good question, Joe. I’m not completely sure where I am. I should plug in the GPS and see what she says.” He started toward the truck. “Listen, I’m on Culver County 14 just south of Highway 10. Any idea where that puts me?”
Joe laughed. “Directions really aren’t your very best thing, are they?”
“I’ve been told that a few times.”
“You’re about an hour away. You could go back to Highway 10 and go east about 20 miles, then drop south on County 23. It’ll take you straight into town. Call me if you get off track.”
“Hey thanks, Joe. See you in a bit.”
Will got in the truck and opened the glove box, pulling Barbara out for good measure. He plugged the cord into the socket, and lied, pressing “Okay” to confirm he wouldn’t try to operate the GPS while driving. Then he yanked the cord back out and put it back into the glove box.
“Forget it, Barbara. I don’t need you for this one. I’ve got it.”
He slammed the door shut and started the truck.
Joe was standing outside his front door when Will arrived. His Irish Setter was lying on the concrete stoop at his feet, front paws and head lolling off the top step. Joe waved with both arms when he saw the truck come around the corner. Will wasn’t sure if it was Joe’s delight at his coming, or if he was afraid he’d miss the house and drive on by. He hoped it was the latter.
Parking at the curb, he sat for a minute, bracing himself for what surely would not be a quick in-and-out to pick up his Thermos. He knew without fully admitting it to himself that if he stayed the rest of the day, he would be partly to blame. It would surprise no one that a lonely old man would welcome the company of a virtual stranger, even the claims guy. But Will couldn’t sort what it was that he wanted from the old man, and clearly, he wanted something.
He got out of the truck, walked to the passenger side and leaned his back against the bed. “I made it in a single day, Joe. What do you think of that?” Will grinned at the old man.
“I was starting to worry a little about you, ” Joe smiled. “I’ve heard they make a device now that talks to satellites or some remarkable thing, and it can guide you to your destination with laser-sharp precision. Maybe you should look into one.”
Will laughed and shook his head. “Don’t get me started, Joe.”
The dog got up and plodded down the three steps to the sidewalk. At the bottom, he stretched, then trotted toward Will.
“Archie! Come back here, ” Joe scolded.
Will crouched and put a hand out toward the dog, palm up. “Hey, old fella.”
The dog ignored Joe and kept coming. Will scratched him behind an ear.
“He’s fine, Joe.” Will riffled the softness. “Archie, eh? Great name for a dog.”
“For Archibald MacLeish. The poet.”
Will looked up at the old man, who was still standing on the steps, and smiled. “Why doesn’t it surprise me that your dog is named for a poet, Joe?”
“Heh. I suppose it’s not surprising at all. Do you know him?” Joe recited from memory:
Listeners of thousands of years and still no answers —
Writers at night to Miss Lonely Hearts: awkward spellers —
Open your eyes! here is only ear and the man!
“Know of him, yes. Read him, no, ” Will said.
“Then listen up, Will. You need some MacLeish in your life.”
There is only you: there is no one else on the telephone:
No one else is on the air to whisper:
No one else but you will push the bell.
No one knows if you don’t; neither ships
Nor landing-fields decode the dark between:
You have your eyes and what you see is.
The earth you see …
Joe looked into the sun.
The earth you see …
“Oh, fiddle. I can’t remember the rest. He says women and their soft breasts are as beautiful as they appear to be.” Joe looked toward Will, still petting Archie on the sidewalk. “Do you know anything about a woman’s breasts, Will?”
“More than a guy ought to, I suppose, Joe.”
“Then a guy like you would like the piece, I should think.”
A guy like me? Will thought. What the hell does a guy like Joe Murphy know about a guy like me?
“Oh, wait! There’s this.” Joe kept reciting.
Write it yourselves! Write to yourselves if you need to!
Tell yourselves there is sun and the sun will rise:
“Yes, I think a guy like you will like it, Will. Be sure to look it up when you get home and tell me what you think.”
Will stood to his feet, debating whether to pull his Keats volume from his briefcase and ask Joe what he knew. He voted in favor of getting home sometime before next week and left it be.
“My library is pretty small, and the poetry section could fit in a shoebox. But I’ll see if they can’t order me in something from Mr. MacLeish from the state.”
“Wonderful. And I suppose you’d like your Thermos?”
“That would be great, Joe. And then I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Come on in side and I’ll get it for you.”
Come on inside. Will leaned to give Archie a final pat on the head. That’s the beginning of the end right there, and Joe knows it or he would have brought the Thermos out to me. Damn, damn, damn.
Against his better judgment, or perhaps in precise keeping with it, Will followed the old man into the dusty foyer, wondering if déjà vu counts when it is self-inflicted and foreknown.
“It’s on the coffee table in the living room. Really, come on in.”
Will felt something move between his feet and jumped back, then realized it was a charcoal gray cat pressing against his ankle. “Geez, Joe. I’d forgotten all about your cats, ” he lied.
Joe turned around. “Oh, that’s just Emily. You must have made quite an impression on her last time you were here. Usually she doesn’t come out of the bedroom.”
Will held up in the dining room, now with two cats weaving in and out of his ankles, rubbing their fur against his pant legs. He pretended not to notice they covered his blue jeans with softly shed fur and bent down to pet them but pulled back quickly when Emily hissed. “Hey, what’s the skinny little orange one’s name?”
“The orange one? Eliot, of course, ” Joe called from the living room. “Say, I figured you probably missed your coffee today, since I still had your Thermos. Can I get you a cup?”
Coffin nailed. Joe planned to get him into the house for coffee. Will pulled his phone from his pocket to check the time, though it didn’t matter since he’d kept his calendar open for the afternoon. Get out of here now, Phillips, or plan to spend the rest of the day. You decide.
“Well, I did have a cup before I left the ranch, ” Will said, and walked forward into the living room. Joe stood by his tattered rocker. He had swept the living room floor clean of Archie’s red fur piles and wiped down a wooden dining room chair, which he’d set next to the coffee table. The table was covered with a wrinkled lace tablecloth. There were two tall foam cups with plastic covers from the gas station two blocks away on the table, along with six Oreo cookies arranged in a circle on a paper plate.
Will paused. Joe smiled.
“But you know, the ranch’s coffee was pretty terrible. I could use a decent cup.”
(to be continued)