Language breaks out. Language, a shouted word, or a silent, metaphoric act, will insist itself into notice like the thyme that pushes up through the layered shale of the earth. In early spring, as the ice beneath the frost line on the hill across from our house begins to melt, the hillside seems for days to sweat. Then, finally, it pours. Water rushes down and the gray-blue stone runs with darkness. That’s how language arrives.
Don’t Tread On Me
Four miles from our house, on what is now called Pleasant Valley Road, near the start of the last century, a man found or was found by the language of totality. To say that he grew impatient with or angered by the scratching of his neighbor’s chickens in his vegetable garden is to use the inadequate emotional approximation of jurors or, indeed, of writers of history. What kind of anger or impatience is that? What else had transpired between the men? Or does murder truly break out into the lives of men and women like language into silence or weeds in spring through shale? He used his rifle, this man who is a small notation in history, and he shot through an open window, and he killed the man whose chickens scratched among the onions and the beans. The shooting is an event that takes on importance in the smudged typescripts by local historians that are deposited in the local history collection of libraries in Sherburne and Norwich in my part of upstate New York. We know it happened; we don’t know—really—why.
At the foot of Pleasant Valley Road, near State Route 12, a north-south two-lane highway that runs between Binghamton and Utica, I stood in the dooryard of the murder house and received the memories of a regional historian. He was old enough to remember the inhabitants of the other, upper end of the road—he went to school with some of the children, he reported—when it was called Negro Hollow Road on the maps and Nigger Holler in daily speech. What is now a small wood-frame house at the top of Negro Hollow Road was once its church. The pastor was a white man whose flock was made up of some Native Americans but mostly of African Americans who were the descendants of Underground Railroad refugees. In the early 1940s, it was called Negro Hollow; after World War II, it became Pleasant Valley.
It is rumored that the headstones of the African-American graveyard—many of the black population had been killed off by the influenza pandemic of 1918—were removed in the Thirties by local workmen to be used for the paving of Negro Hollow Road. If so, those black men and women and children were not lynched; they were de-commemorated. The statement in stone of their existence was stolen so that their neighbors could travel more smoothly, whites rolling uphill and down, back and forth, for market and for church, over blacks. This was not the work of a spasm of hatred, nor was it a product of the organized efforts of the Ku Klux Klan but of ordinary citizens who probably could not decipher—to whom it probably never occurred that they try to read—the symbols that they created by taking other symbols down in the name of civic improvement.
The work of the Klan, on the other hand, was conducted in full consciousness in the hills around Negro Hollow and on the road alongside of which Judy and I have lived since 1982, a few miles north of where the black congregation lived and died away and disappeared. Our county, Chenango, a couple of hundred miles north of Manhattan, is, according to the invaluable Encyclopedia of New York State, in the stony Susquehanna Hills subregion of what is called the Appalachian Upland. In the early 1900s, there were many Klan rallies and cross burnings in the hills above Chenango County towns called White Store, South New Berlin, Sherburne, Smyrna, and the small county-seat city of Norwich, through the streets of which marched parades organized by the Klan. The most recent cross burning had occurred in 1975 when, half a mile from where we live, a farmer named Raymond Bagnall leased the field bordering his house to the Bedford Forrest Klan of Florida for rallies on each night of the July Fourth weekend. The man who negotiated the lease was Charles Holland, a prison guard from the Hudson Valley region who described himself—he seemed to enjoy describing himself—as “a hard, quiet middle-class man with seven children.” He had originally wished to stage his two-day Fourth of July rally in Binghamton, New York, an hour and a half to the south, near the Pennsylvania border. Apparently, local authorities denied him permission, and the farm of Raymond Bagnall, on New Turnpike Road in the Town of Columbus, had been brought to his attention. Although widely circulated flyers and a notice in The Pennysaver advertised cross burnings, Bagnall, when questioned by a reporter before July 4, said that he knew nothing about what was planned for the rally.
The Pennysaver is delivered free to 17,000 homes in the Norwich area and is available in stacks where you enter area markets. It’s not a newspaper but a weekly newsprint catalogue, in several sections, composed of display and classified ads. At this time, regional and large-city newspapers were carrying stories about actors in The Jeffersons, a comedy about a black American family televised on CBS; about the success of The Wiz, with its black cast singing and dancing before full houses on Broadway; about the best-selling Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow’s account of the tragic African American Coalhouse Walker. This was 1975, when Microsoft was founded, when the Age Discrimination Act was passed by Congress, and when our local Pennysaver—not a vehicle for the conveyance of news but a locus for commercial offerings—ran an advertisement, paid for by Holland and his fellows, calling upon “All White, Christian, Patriotic Americans” to attend the rally “For God and Country and Family. All Others Please Stay Away.”
Monsignor Guy A. Festa, on behalf of his 1,500 parishioners, was responsible for a counter-advertisement in The Pennysaver expressing “our opposition to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, its ideological positions, and the divisions it can cause among Americans.” Petitions attacking the idea of a KKK rally were circulated and signed.
And, meanwhile, the real business of The Pennysaver murmured along as people here lived their lives a dollar at a time. There were ads for bargains in cars offered privately for sale. There were pledges from dealers of “Guaranteed Credit Approval!” And in another section concerning farm equipment and maintenance services, you might have read of the auctions of failed dairy farms in which not only cattle and balers but shovels, flatware, and pocket knives were to be sold. In another section, of classified ads concerning domestic matters, were notices of yard sales, offerings of household goods, declarations of situations wanted or available. It is in this section that you can see “Orange lounge chair, $20; bag of golf clubs and pull cart, $8; gas barbecue, $5,” and you know that you may be watching a family break up. Or, it may be—“Adult walker, complete with front wheel and solid front leg set, new condition, $20”—cleaning out a household after a death. When people empty a garage or attic here, they will place broken furniture that will function if repaired, or, say, old, crooked metal snow-fence posts, outside the house with a sign that says free or help yourself; if you drive past them in the morning, you know with certainty that they will have been taken by the same time tomorrow. The need that pulses behind life lived close to the edge works its way past daily language, and nobody needs to speak directly of household sorrow when reading ads like this: “Bridal Gown Size 14 Never Used.”
And of course there was the call for the Ku Klux Klan Patriotic Rally, which predicted that more than 5,000 people were going to attend. And there was the handiwork of Mr. Raymond Bagnall, who was a small man with an expressionless face who turned away if he was standing on his lawn or front steps when cars went past. He scuttled, slightly hunched over, when he walked.
A gifted builder when he wasn’t haying the field around his house to make room for cross burnings, he had created a large, handsome well house, situated in his dooryard to the left, if seen from a passing car, of his front steps. It was made of fieldstone and topped with metal tubing that seemed to be inspired by the constructions of R. Buckminster Fuller. Traced out in dark stones on the hexagonal housing was a snake and the motto don’t tread on me. An image of the rattlesnake and that motto is said to have been painted on drums carried by some of the newly established corps of U.S. Marines during the Revolutionary War, although the symbol and motto are often used by the Klan as its own.
Representatives of the state health department came down from Utica to inspect the site, and they decided that standards for toilet facilities and the availability of drinking water had not been met by the Bedford Forrest chapter. Health permits were withheld and refreshment stands weren’t approved by the sheriff, but the rally was allowed to take place.
Robert Pritchard, an African-American civil rights activist—he was instrumental in the Pan American Association of Baldwinsville (near Syracuse) and was also a performing pianist—was driven to the site seven hours before the first cross burning, and was pushed in his wheelchair onto the field. According to Jim Wright of the Binghamton Press, he was dressed in a blue blazer and white pants with a white shirt and a red-and-blue striped tie. He had come to bear witness, he told Holland, and described his presence as “ritualistic confrontation.” Holland shouted at the man in the wheelchair, “You are a fool. You must stand there and take these insults and don’t start any trouble.” He continued that “…you are living off the foundation which doesn’t produce any useful commodity to the economy; in fact, you are a parasite.” And then language forced its way through hatred, through history hard as stone. Did Holland know the career of Paul Robeson, who so famously sang “Old Man River” on Broadway? Surely, he had heard some version of the song from Show Boat. Big and black and powerful, Robeson had sung how “You and me,/we sweat and strain./Body achin’ and racked with pain.” For Holland told Pritchard how he, Holland, was achin’ and racked: “I sweat and strain,” Holland said, while “…I can see your hands are soft,” he told the concert pianist. “You never worked during your life.”
There were sheriff’s deputies in the woods around the field, and the Klan’s own security people patrolled the rally on Saturday and Sunday night. A cross was burned on Saturday, and an attendance of about fifty was reported. On Sunday, a small crowd watched as a thirty-six-foot cross was circled by five Klan members in robes and six in white silk hoods, according to Wright of the Press. “The Old Rugged Cross” was played on a public-address system over which Holland then read from newspaper clippings and documents about the causes of the Klan. The crowd had swelled to around 125—“most appeared to be teenagers and children brought by their families to see the Klan and its cross burning,” Wright reported—and they watched the eleven Klansmen light their torches, which they had difficulty in igniting because, several hours before the ceremony, a thunderstorm had soaked the area for about an hour. Once the torches were lit, the flames were applied to the bottom of the cross; the flames “spread slowly up the bottom portion of the cross then slowly burned themselves out without consuming the top part of the cross.”
Before the first rally, a traveler on our road could stop at Raymond Bagnall’s field to read a hand-lettered poster advertising what the Bedford Forrest chapter of the Klan proclaimed as its beliefs: putting god back in school, removing treasonous filthy textbooks, no racial busing, get america out of the united nations, make america #1 in military power. Except for references to evolution, global warming, and support for the prosecution of the war in Iraq, the menu of grudges may sound eerily familiar to students of the present federal administration.
Bagnall joined Holland, after July 4, in bringing a lawsuit against Robert Pritchard and others for trespassing on his field during the night of the second rally, when Pritchard handed out material suggesting that Holland come to the headquarters of the Pan American Foundation to debate. Holland won the lawsuit. Pritchard, in reply, filed a class-action suit against the Klan, against Bagnall, and against the owners of the Norwich Pennysaver for running Holland’s ad, so politely steeped in bigotry. The language of passions and erupting acts became the formulaic language of the courts and, in the end, a Punch-and-Judy show of biff and bam, a taut, small ritual about little acts and enormous feelings.
That Old Rugged Cross
And I thought of the Klan, of crosses flaming (or, anyway, guttering), when we returned one day in 1995 from a day’s trip—a shopping expedition to Syracuse, I think. If you look over our back yard from where we park the car, your eyes would sweep past the clotheslines I had put up, maybe ten or twelve yards from the back of the house. The lines run between two structures, each perhaps seven feet tall and made of pressure-treated four-by-four lumber in the shape of a cross. Between the crosspieces run six lines of rope. But on that afternoon, while the crosses stood, the ropes lay on the ground. They had been cut into one- and two-foot lengths with something very sharp. We could tell that the ropes hadn’t been sawed or fretted at: they were sliced clean. I remember that we stood in silence because, I think, we believed that the cutting meant something large, and we were trying to decipher the meaning. We couldn’t, and while we saw the evidence of a violation, an invasion of sorts, I remember tying the fragments of line together to make a few usable clotheslines and feeling a little ridiculous because I should have been doing something else. It ought to have had to do with defending us, I remember thinking. And I remember thinking that I had no idea what defending us might have involved.
Soon enough, we bought more rope, and I restrung the lines through the holes I had drilled ten years before in the crosspieces I had nailed into the pressure-treated vertical four-by-fours as I jokingly recited Alan Dugan’s
I can nail my left palm
To the left-hand cross-piece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
A help, a love, a you, a wife.”Love Song: I and Thou,” from his Poems.
And perhaps a week later, we looked outside one morning to find the ropes in pieces on the grass.
We called the Sheriff’s Department, and the crime of rope slicing was eventually, some days later, during the evening, investigated by an overworked and understandably unmoved deputy. We had collected the fragments of rope, and we poured them out upon our kitchen table for him. Here’s the evidence, we said, and we watched his face asking Of what? as he pronounced it all quite a puzzlement. As he left, he noticed a Marine Corps sticker on our car and showed some interest for the first time. We talked about our elder son, a Marine Corps officer, and he spoke of his affection for the paratroops in which he had served. He promised to drive by occasionally (we never noticed him doing so), and he said that he would keep his eyes open.
So we were, we concluded, on our own. I checked the .22 rifle and announced to Judy—as if a reminder about checking the safety catch or the location of cartridges were part of our daily vocabulary—that the weapon was now loaded. I wonder how I was thinking to contribute to our welfare with a small-caliber rifle that frightened me more than I was going to frighten anyone else. I remembered with what horror I had recently shot a very large raccoon in a backyard tree when it acted rabid. I hit him with the first shot, to my astonishment, and he fell, snarling, to bounce and then twitch, trying to stand. I lacked any of the sizable courage he displayed. I remembered standing near him, each of us pant ing now, as he thrashed while I put two more shots into him and he died. I couldn’t imagine firing at a larger mammal, even one that attacked our sense of safety under the cover of night. I connected new ropes from crosspiece to crosspiece, and we did all that we knew to do: we waited for it to happen again.
It did. Within days, the lines were sliced. Our place is isolated, and we cannot see a neighboring house from ours. We were there alone at night when someone came, unseen, carrying a very sharp instrument with which to commit a symbolic act of violence. We couldn’t understand the symbol, but we felt its power. When Judy can’t sleep, she wanders in quest of cool sheets, and sometimes she ends up in our downstairs back room; from its western windows you can see the clotheslines clearly because they are very close to the house. She knew that while she slept or read, someone was within reach of her, bent on a mad errand and carrying a knife, separated from her by a pane of glass.
So I called the Sheriff’s Department again, and this time the deputy, who responded far more quickly, perhaps because of my excitement in reporting the events, was a man who had gone to high school with one of our sons. He took the complaint seriously and he promised to investigate. The lines, replaced, were cut again, and the deputy returned, and then he conducted visits to houses on our road. At around that time, in April, when for two days at the end of the month a licensed adolescent accompanied by a licensed adult was permitted to hunt wild turkey, I went walking on our road, ignorant of this abbreviated spring turkey season. When I was a short distance from our house, I saw a figure approaching. I waited while he came nearer, and soon I stood before a boy of thirteen or so, who walked, scuffing, straight toward me, as if he intended to pass alongside and continue down the road. He didn’t look at me as he approached, but focused left and right, down and away.
In spite of the fair weather, he wore, zipped up, a Day-Glo orange hunting coat, a cap of the same material, and iridescent gloves. He wore camouflage trousers tucked into boots. He carried a shotgun, wore extra shells in bandolier loops on the front of his jacket, and, on a belt looped around his generous waist, just where the bright cloth of the jacket stopped, he carried a long hunting knife in a leather scabbard. His square, soft face was red, and he ran with sweat. His eyes were magnified by large horn-rimmed glasses.
I gave my version of a casual greeting, and, without replying, he stopped.
“How’s it going?” I asked him.
He said, “Good.” He made a low, chortling sound.
“Hunting?” I ridiculously asked the kid who carried a shotgun and wore hunting clothes.
His reply was a kind of emphatic panting, but he said no words.
“Don’t shoot on this land, please,” I said. “We’ve got old Labradors, and I don’t want them in danger.” In fact, we posted our land against hunting and, Labs or not, didn’t want people firing weapons around us.
He looked away through his thick lenses and he chortled again. His face might have been flushed because of the heat caused by his clothing or because he was excited by something about our meeting. I found myself staring more at his knife than his gun. He said something I didn’t understand, and then he trudged on his way. I walked backward as he did, reluctant to accept his being behind me with that long shotgun and his sense of being not only armed but armored, swaddled in the thick coat and hat and gloves, a chubby, very nearsighted, panting boy who laughed to himself as he conducted a paramilitary errand known only to him.
It was at his father’s trailer, about a half a mile from our house, that the deputy later stopped while canvassing the area. He was admitted by the father of the boy I’d spoken to a few days before. The deputy told us that he saw two jackets hung on the wall, one of Day-Glo orange, and asked the man if he had a son or brother at home. The answer was that his son was on the premises, but when the deputy asked to speak to him, the man refused permission. So, talking at the top of his lungs, because he suspected that the son was hiding around a corner, the deputy described the events down at the Busch house and warned of dire proceedings and dangerous outcomes if the clotheslines were cut again. He mentioned police records and possibilities of time in jail—hardly a likelihood, in fact.
Although half a mile doesn’t sound like a lot when you’re driving it, the distance can be significant: think of a windy city on a stormy day when you’re underdressed and have to walk across town. In our case, think of the rough country behind the trailer that led to our house. In order that he not be seen approaching on the road, the boy would have had to sneak, again and again, across a total (given the repeated number of missions) of thousands of yards of rough landscape—flooded lowlands, deep deciduous forest, hummocks of wet shale—to clamber up a slope, in darkness, to get his hands and his hunting knife on the clothesline ropes that were a glare away, twenty steps away, a pane of glass away from my sleeping wife. And it didn’t occur to Judy or me, as we listened to the deputy’s account of his evening in the farmhouses and trailers on our road, that a boy with a shotgun might be seized by an eruption of need similar to that of the man on Negro Hollow Road whose vegetable garden finally demanded defending with a .30-caliber rifle. It was enough to consider that the boy had to have wanted very much, again and again, to state with his knife what he could not otherwise say. The ropes weren’t cut again, and whatever the crosses and their ropes and we, who had strung them, meant to him during that cold spring, he was apparently no longer called to act in response to the stirrings beyond language that drove him.
Special Weapons and Tactics
If you don’t have dogs, you will need to take on faith that this meant life and death to us. Shortly after we moved into our old farmhouse in the township of Columbus, Judy was walking the two black Labradors down our country road where there was paving only for the length of each house or trailer and its front lawn. The rest of the ten-mile road was dirt that plumed into reddish dust and took long minutes to settle each time a vehicle passed. Such passages were infrequent, and we and the dogs and cats walked the road as much as we walked on the fields converted, over the years, into front- and side- and backyard lawn. Junior was seven months old, a tall, goofy black pup. Jake, older by a year, was tight and low and glossy black, all bunchy muscle and will, the essence of Labrador and the heart of all loyalty. He followed you wherever you went, no matter the weather or his inclination, because he was the Lab of the house and you were his person.
Suddenly, on this walk, Jake stopped. He aimed his blunt, heavy head up the hill across from the house, and he took off. As if he were following a spoor, he cut up and over the hill and he was gone. He didn’t return that afternoon; he didn’t return that night. And Jake was not a dog who fled. He was all about staying wherever his person was. A cold, late October rain was falling that night, but Judy put Junior on a lead and let him follow what she hoped was Jake’s trace. They got nowhere. And the next day Judy went to work, as the high school librarian in a large school district to the south of us, and I stayed home before class, telephoning the dog warden and calling the few neighbors I knew. We had stipulated to realtors that we wouldn’t buy a house from which you could see your neighbors’ chimney smoke. I knew that saying it I sounded like a parody of Davy Crockett, a bald, bearded Davy Crockett who taught college courses and who perpetrated novels and short stories. But we had been moving toward solitude for years, from our small apartments in the West Village in New York in the 1960s, to a rented second floor in suburban Harrison, New York, to rented houses in Hamilton, the town in upstate New York where Colgate was, then out five or six miles to Poolville, then farther out to the present house that sat alone on acres of land, from which, indeed, we saw no neighbors. Of course, that meant fewer local people to call about Jake, and that, in turn, meant less available comfort. I learned that when you lose a dog, you need comfort, but people can’t provide it.
We didn’t keep collars on our dogs because, years before, one of them, Dinah, had almost drowned when she was swimming in a flood-swollen river and had got caught by her collar on the underside of a bridge. Pinned in place and dying, she was rescued by a local man and his son and returned to us. They knew where to bring her because of our name on the collar. We had decided that we’d rather risk their going astray than think of them stranded someplace bad. Now, a couple of generations of Labradors later, we were paying for the decision. Jake was gone, and his burly, black neck didn’t bear a collar with our name and telephone number on it. He couldn’t be returned to us if he were alive to be returned, if he hadn’t been shot by a farmer, or hit by a truck, or taken by the reported psychopaths of the moment who were said to be stealing black dogs for sacrificial rites. When a dog is missing, and when the dog is a beloved family member, as ours were and are, you mourn their absence as you do a small child. You think not only of their endangerment but you feel their incomprehension, their fear.
The afternoon after Jake’s disappearance, he came home. He walked down the hill across from the house with a sore gait. His tongue was stiff and protruding and he panted so hard that he sounded like a little two-stroke engine. He looked wrong. He seemed to wince as he walked, and he looked away from me as if confused. His tail wagged a few times, tentatively, and then he lay down before me. I brought him a bowl of water, I petted him, and then I began to examine him, visually and with my hands, and it became clear that he was badly bruised and had been mistreated. I telephoned Judy at her library while Jake, in the kitchen, slept at my feet. When she came home, she sat on the floor with him and he leaned against her as if they were littermates. Junior, the loose-limbed, silly pup, banged his tail against the floor and waited, as he has all his life, for a meal. I called the dog warden and left a message that Jake had come home.
After school the next day, when Jake seemed recovered though still exhausted, Judy and the dogs went walking again, as usual without a lead or collars. This time, it was Junior who took off, straight up the hill and across and over, out of sight. We climbed the hill, but saw nothing. We broke out a collar and a lead, and we kept Jake with us. We waited. We drove the road, calling Junior’s name. I phoned neighbors and the dog warden, who found me, I thought, quite strange by now. We waited days and we waited nights, and we imagined the puppy’s terror and the dangers he might face, and—there is no other word for it—
We put an ad in The Pennysaver, giving the name Junior, hoping that someone would approach him reassuringly. We promised, in capital letters, a cash reward. We gave our phone number. We returned to driv ing the countryside nearby—Potter Road, Sheridan Hill Road, Walt Phillips Road—and calling Junior’s name. As we drove, I whistled, and Judy yelled. The strain in her voice, its wavering off among the giant roadside spruce and poplars (“poppel,” they are called here), was a sorrowing sound. And no long-legged, huge-headed, lean-flanked Labrador with a perpetually moving big tail came out of the woods or away from the back of a nearby barn to announce that he was found.
It was a cold, cruel Election Day, therefore a Tuesday, the day on which The Pennysaver comes out. In the countryside, the journal is delivered to each house—in our case, hung in its plastic wrapper on a nail protruding from the wooden postbox stand—during the early hours of night. Judy had gone to vote, in the Columbus Town Hall a few miles from home, after school. She was driving to the house when she passed a trailer, up a shallow gradient from the road, not a mile from our house, which we were accustomed to driv ing by without much thought. She noticed, this time, that a wooden sign was affixed to the top of one of the low wooden stanchions between which the property owner often fastened a heavy chain, which, on this wet Tuesday, was down. We used to joke about how the owner would not have needed to keep us out but would have had to pay us to come up into his scuffed, white trailer with its small, raw lumber porch. The sign said pet semetary. Judy identified the title as that of a Stephen King novel, not as the title of the film based on the book. As a librarian, she lived in hope that people would read. She slowed, and she noticed something in front of the trailer. Stopping, reversing, driving directly up the gravel and mud to the wooden steps in front of the trailer, she saw Junior, attached by a collar and a long maroon strap, such as you might use to fasten furniture against the inner wall of a moving van.
She approached the trailer on foot. She called her dog, and his tail beat faster. She tugged at the collar, which she thought too tight, and at the maroon strap. She couldn’t remove either. The aluminum front door opened and a wiry man with rapidly moving eyes came out.
“Keep your hands off of my dog, lady,” he said.
She said, “This is my dog, and I’m taking him home.”
“This is my damned dog. This is Buddy. This is Buddy. My brother bought him for me, and you keep your damned hands off of him.”
“Look at me,” commanded the woman who was in charge of the high school library and accustomed to reining in bad boys. “You look me in the eye and tell me the truth.”
He couldn’t. He shifted his eyes and he shifted his stance. He said, “I’m warning you.”
“And I’m calling the police,” she said, believing—because of the way he crouched up there on the porch, as if afraid of her but driven to defiance—that she was menaced. She drove away, reassuring her dog and his thief that she’d be back.
What neither of us saw, what we didn’t learn until later, was that, in the trailer next door to the one to which Junior was fastened, someone in the family had opened The Pennysaver, and someone had found, among the wreckage thrown off by families, among the unhappy notes about need—real clean, like new, runs good—a promise of a cash reward that was offered by Busches, down the road. And wasn’t that a black Labrador in front of the next-door trailer, someone might have thought.
Judy came into the house to reach for the phone—“I’m calling the police”—and fill me in. A deputy was dispatched, and, because it’s a large county with an underfunded Sheriff’s Department, it took a while for someone to arrive, a deputy in a red-and-white Ford. I’ll call him Walter, a very tall, stooped, bulky man with a craggy face and a polite, sympathetic manner. His broad leather belt, bearing cuffs and ammunition and a holster and a can of mace, groaned as he sat on an old wooden kitchen chair that groaned in response. He took the particulars as Judy and I filled the air with too much information. He drove off up the road to interview the man who claimed that his brother had given him Buddy as a gift.
When he returned, he gave us the fellow’s name: let’s call him William Cotton. Cotton had repeated the brother-Buddy story. He had acted peculiarly, the deputy said, when my name had been used. He had no papers for the dog. The deputy believed that much was wrong at the pet semetary, and he was as concerned as we were for the safety of the dog. I noticed that his hands shook, and I worried more. After the deputy had conferred, over his car radio, with the sheriff himself, the sheriff telephoned our house. On his deputy’s advice that we let matters simmer down overnight, the sheriff requested that we exercise patience.
Patience while waiting for what, I wondered out loud.
For Cotton to calm down, the sheriff replied.
The deputy all but begged us, with an expression of real need converting the face of authority into that of one more victim of the event. And he thanked us when we realized that we weren’t being given a choice but anyway agreed that we would wait. It was a night of fear for each of us, sleeping and awake, and of imagining the fear of the animal.
The next day, Judy was at her library and I was in my office at Colgate, preparing to teach a seminar in the fiction of Thomas Hardy. My phone rang, and the sheriff was on the line. He advised me not to go home but to remain in my office where I’d be safe. The boy from the trailer next door—why was a school-age boy at home?—had grown determined to collect the cash reward that he or someone in the household had read about in The Pennysaver. He crossed the threshold of the muddy gravel hillside patch surrounding Cotton’s trailer. He went over to the big, confused puppy who shivered in the cold rain of late Wednesday morning. He patted the dog and began to work at his fastenings. The door of the trailer opened out, and Cotton stood on the porch above the boy and the dog. He lifted a shotgun to his shoulder and aimed it at the boy.
“You let go of my dog or I’ll kill you,” he said.
The boy backed away and ran home. He told his mother about Cotton, and his mother called the Sheriff’s Department, and the report about violent menacing with a firearm made its way to the sheriff himself. Inquiries about Cotton had yielded information about his outpatient treatment for an illness that included psychotic fantasies. “He’s supposed to be a nice fellow when he takes his medicine regular,” the sheriff told me over the phone. He then advised me again to stay where I was. I rang off to call Judy, urging her to stay at school. Each of us admitted that we had no intention of doing anything but going home.
Judy, who has a sense of direction, used back roads to get to our house. I cannot remember how I got through the roadblock, but I did, and soon we and Jake were in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the sheriff had pulled out all the stops. It was a combined State Police and Sheriff’s Department operation. Our road was more or less sealed off. A heavily armed Special Weapons and Tactics squad surrounded the trailer. A cherrypicker crane was used to cut off power to Cotton’s trailer. A negotiating team composed of a state trooper and Walter, the sheriff’s deputy, was in the dooryard of the trailer, attempting to convince Cotton to surrender. From our kitchen, we saw State Police cars and Sheriff’s Department cars racing past, splashing up red mud, their warning lights shimmering against the wet darkness of autumn trees and the soaked stones of the roadside. I think that hours passed, but perhaps they were only enormous minutes. We turned off the lights and crouched at the kitchen windows, as if we were under attack.
What was happening out of our sight at the besieged trailer was a partial success in the negotiation between the two-man team and Cotton. They apparently had talked him into approaching the top of his porch steps while they came slowly closer. He told them about Buddy, he told them about his brother on Long Island, and he told them about his drift, from Georgia and then up into Ohio, and then his arrival at this country road, an area his brother knew because he owned a patch of land at the other end of the road where he hunted in season for deer. And then Cotton bolted, driven to run by nothing Walter could later specify. He ran for his door, but the door opened out, and that took time to negotiate—turn the knob, pull the door, step back, and then step in—and they caught him and handcuffed him. They found shotguns and semi-automatic rifles in his trailer. They found something like 1,500 rounds of ammunition inside and, at cache points on a trail he had laid out from the back door up the hillside, more deposits of cartridges. Apparently, he had fancied one day making a stand, then escaping from cache to cache, firing as he went. At the far end of the escape trail, the authorities found nothing that suggested what he was defending or where he might try to go.
If you don’t go to school, you get punished. I stayed home, most mornings, to write, and I often had the dogs with me if I was outside in the time between working in my office in our barn and teaching, a half an hour away, at Colgate. “I seen him with his dogs,” Cotton told them later, at the Chenango County jail, where he was held and questioned. “He liked them. I knew he’d come after it if I could get a hold of one to stake outside, and then I’d see him and I’d put a few rounds in his chest.”
So he laid a trail of bait on the hillside across from our house. Jake followed it first, and he was captured—locked in a room in the trailer, we surmised. And he broke out. That’s Jake, who was indomitable except by time. He was bruised perhaps from being beaten by Cotton, but also, probably, from somehow forcing his way out of the trailer and struggling to get home. Junior was easier, more tractable, and Cotton had captured him and achieved his bait. I was to come find him, hence the long tether and his position of high visibility. Cotton had no desire to kill Judy, for she had done him no harm. Whereas I, he told the interrogators, was a Drug Enforcement Agency operative named Dick Busch, who had followed him from Georgia to Ohio to New York. And it was I whom he held responsible for the failure of certain unspecified authorities to pay him the unspecified monies he was due “on account of the accident.”
I often return to his language: “put a few rounds in his chest.” I think of the bullets punching through me and taking me down. I am as impressed by the casual locution—a few rounds, not a clip, but more than a single shot, and into the chest, multiple killing shots—as I am by Cotton’s need to see me dead. I was as important, I have often thought, as a man whose chickens ran loose at the foot of the road named for escaped slaves and their descendants; I was almost a minor murder in an unimportant place.
Cotton’s brother is a kind of a hero in this tale, I guess, along with Judy, who confronted an obvious dragon at his lair. And Jake, of course, is the star of any story he might figure in. Our road’s now paved with what they call oil-and-stone, a kind of coarse macadam, so the fine, red dust doesn’t rise and fall in plumes, and we rarely walk the road with our dogs because there’s a good deal of traffic. The Pennysaver arrives each Tuesday with its tidings of death, divorce, poverty, and occasional joy: “Wish ‘Buzz’ Broyard a Happy 60th Birthday Today!” You can buy a shotgun or rifle without a license at the Wal-Mart south of Norwich if you want, and it’s easy enough to get hold of 1,500 rounds.
Walter, the deputy, is typical of the people who figure in stories about military risk and sorrow; he was a poor, rural, relatively uneducated young man to whom the military was someplace to go where they trained and fed you during a vacant-feeling young manhood. He served two hitches in Vietnam, re-enlisting while still in-country, driven to do so, he later told his doctors and his therapy group, because he wanted revenge for the deaths of friends and comrades, killed in terrible ways.
He remembered all this again in piercing detail very shortly after he arrived at our door in a Sheriff’s Department radio car on the day of what the Norwich newspaper, The Evening Sun, called, in its headline, a standoff in columbus! We had peered through the kitchen windows, acquiring visual fragments—mostly glimpses of fast cars—while others in the area knew the details of the confrontation because they listened to the police band on their scanners, monitoring the radio calls between participants in the raid. After the long, long wait, the red-and-white car stopped at the picket fence in front of the house. Walter came out slowly, laboriously, and walked around to the rear door on the house side of the car. He opened it and worked around for a moment and then stood up, bearing in his arms a seven-month-old Labrador retriever. The dog stiffened, then leaped from him and, trailing the maroon moving-van strap, galloped up our stone walk and jumped into us. We were on our knees, making the ridiculous noises and childlike patting gestures that people extend to their dogs. His coarse fur was soaked through its lanolin insulation, and Junior shivered as violently as Walter, whose uniform shirt, beneath a yellow slicker, was soaked dark. I expected him to grin—the dog was grinning, when not gulping water from his dish or jamming his wet nose at one of us—but Walter looked solemn, and his eyes were surrounded by darkness.
We toweled off the dog, gave the deputy a towel, and, though he got drier, he continued to shake. We sat him down. We made him hot tea with plenty of sugar. We listened as he told of the boy, the shotgun, the mother’s call to the Sheriff’s Department, the confrontation, the negotiations, the flaring up of violence, and then the arrest. Walter knew that our dog had been tethered as bait and that Cotton wanted to kill me, but he didn’t yet know why. He shivered as he spoke, and we poured more hot tea. And after a while Junior responded to the crisis by eating a large bowl of kibble, Jake sniffing him suspiciously with an autocratic, disapproving authority. Walter, after a while, sat silently, looking down the distance of the kitchen table, apparently, perhaps out the window above the sink, where there was a giant spruce tree, and bird feeders that rocked in the wind and the rain. He made as if to leave, and we rose to thank him.
He tried to say that he was pleased that the dog wasn’t hurt, and that Cotton hadn’t been able to shoot me. He said some of the words but couldn’t say the rest. There were tears in his eyes. We reached high to pat his shoulders and back because words by then were equally unavailable to Judy and to me.
The backyard clothesline crosses stand. The ropes are frayed at the holes they’ve been threaded through, and they sag a good deal lower toward the ground, but they remain intact. Raymond Bagnall, owner of the field on which the Klan held its rally, died about eight years ago. His younger kin and some associates—they too scuttle when, driving by, you threaten discovery by headlights or the naked eye—moved into small trailers near his house, and there they remain, as do their wrecked cars, paper trash, and green garbage. The house was rented for a few years to a woman with two children; although the children rode to school on the yellow bus, the woman never left unless a tall man driving an old truck appeared, maybe once a month, to take her someplace and then bring her back. The house burned down a couple of years ago, and it serves, with its blackened, partial walls, as a container for sacks of garbage dumped alongside household wreckage—partial chairs, chunks of charred wood, twisted, blackened wires—that is a kind of monument to poverty and neglect and the rage that fired the display of don’t tread on me as well as the desperate strutting and partial ignition during the rally of the Ku Klux Klan. The well house, with its injunction but without its tubular superstructure, is almost invisible under vines and spiky brush and household debris.
Cotton was released on his brother’s recognizance, and after a couple of months he placed a for sale placard over his pet semetary poster. Judy, driv ing past, saw him carrying swollen green garbage bags—his household possessions, we assumed—to his brother’s black Jeep. And soon he was gone, his property sold and then his brother’s. He is on Long Island, we learned, and he is probably doing just fine; as long as he takes his medication, men who work odd hours won’t be mistaken for roving DEA officers, and household pets can safely roam. Walter, the deputy, took an emergency leave, we learned, some weeks after the standoff down the road. He had begun to relive the losses and the fears of his two Vietnam deployments, and he was unable to cope with his memories. He suffered a psychological break and was hospitalized. He was finally considered permanently incapable of law-enforcement work. Part of his therapy was to write a narrative about his service in Vietnam. It is a single-spaced document of some twenty pages of deeply felt, hard-won, gut-true narrative. It tells of terrible deaths and periods of harrowing tension, of deepest fear, and of losses from which a man could not recover. He asked that I be given a copy because of the work he knew I did. Writers were said to be interested in people, and he thought that I might wish to know about his life.