Lonesome Shorty
(Written for The New Yorker, this story inspired the radio serial “Lives of the Cowboys” on A Prairie Home Companon, with Dusty and Lefty, Lefty’s lost love Evelyn Beebalo, and the villain Big Messer, which takes place in and around Yellow Gulch, Wyoming. It’s Samuel Beckett for 14-year-olds. The cowboys suffer extreme loneliness which drives them to visit town where, in a short time, they are disgusted by society and return to the godforsaken plains where, in due course, they suffer extreme loneliness and return to Yellow Gulch, only to be disgusted. That’s how life seemed to me when I was 14.)

The summer before last, I was headed for Billings on my horse Old Dan, driving two hundred head of the ripest-smelling longhorns you ever rode downwind of, when suddenly here come some tumbleweeds tumbling along with a newspaper stuck inside—I had been without news for weeks so I leaned down and snatched it up and read it trotting along, though the front page was missing and all there was was columnists and the Lifestyle section, so bouncing along in a cloud of manure I read an article entitled “43 Fabulous Salads to Freshen Up Your Summertime Table” which made me wonder if my extreme lonesomeness might not be the result of diet. Maybe I’m plumb loco, but a cowboy doesn’t get much fiber and he eats way too much beef.

You herd cattle all day, you come to despise them, and pretty soon, by jingo, you have gone and shot one, and then you must eat it, whilst all those cattle tromping around on the greens takes away your taste for salads, just like when you arrive at a creek and see that cattle have tromped in the water and drunk from it and crapped in it, it seems to turn a man toward whiskey. I thought to myself, Shorty, you’ve got to get out of this cowboy life. I mentioned this to my partner, old Eugene, and he squinted at me and said, “Eeyup.”

“Eugene,” I said, “I’ve been cowboyin for nigh onto two decades now. I know every water hole between Kansas and the Sierra Nevada, but consarn it, I miss the company of my fellow man. Scenery ain’t enough for me, Eugene, nor freedom. I’m sceneried out, pardner, and freedom is vastly overrated as an experience, if you ask me. I got to be with people. I’m a people cowboy, not a cow cowboy.”

A few miles of purple sagebrush drifted by and a hawk circled high in the sky.

“Do you hear what I’m sayin?” I inquired.

He said, “Eeyessir.”

I said, “Give me a home where the buffalo roam? It don’t follow, Eugene. Buffalo have nothing to do with home, nothing at all. And I’m sick o’deer and antelope, Eugene. I’m sorry if this sounds like a discouraging word, but animals do not make for a home, Eugene. Not on the range nor anywhere else.”

I continued, “And whoever wrote The air is so pure and the breezes so free, the zephyrs so balmy and light never spent time driving cattle, I can tell you that.”

He grunted.

A few miles later, I said, “You ever think of just calling yourself Gene, Eugene? Gene is more of a cowboy name. Eugene is sort of a bookkeeper’s name. How about I call you Gene, Gene?”

He thought this over for a few miles as we jangled along, eating dust. Then he said, “You do that and I’ll lay for you and jump you and gouge your eyes out and bite off your ear.”

“You’d rather be Eugene, then?”

“Eeyup.”

We rode along for a ways. “Is there some topic you have a desire to talk about, Eugene?” I inquired.

“Nope.”

A taciturn sidekick is like buying a ticket to see the sun set. Who needs it? You go humping along the trail, you would like some conversation, but no, Eugene could no more think up things to say than he could sing La Traviata.

That night, I was feeling low. The wood was wet and the campfire smoked, the beans were cold and the pork half raw, the mosquitoes descended in a cloud, and then it took hours to get the cattle bedded down, and as I was fetching a camp stool from the saddlebags, Old Dan accidentally stepped on my foot and about broke it. I hopped around on the good one and swore a blue streak, but none of it woke up Eugene. He was wrapped in his blankets, dead to the world. I sat down and listened to Dusty Joe on night watch, slowly circling the herd and singing “Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground,” but all he knew was the chorus, and he sang that over and over.

I approached him where he sat on his horse on a little rise and asked him if he could not vary his performance.

“The cows like it,” he said.

“That may be so,” I replied, “but you are drivin me crazy. Why’n blazes can’t you sing somethin else? Sing ‘Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie’ for Pete’s sake or The Night Herding Song.’ Lay off the tenting tonight—it ain’t even a cowboy song, for cryin out loud.”

He said it was the only song he knew.

I remarked that it was a poor cowboy indeed who couldn’t make up some songs of his own. “Just sing I ride an old paint, I lead an old Dan, I’m goin’ to Montan to throw the hoolihan, and then keep making up new verses.”

But of course he was stubborn and wouldn’t do it. I got back to camp and I hear the damn tent song start
up again, and of course the wind carried it right back to us.

To distract myself, I sat down and drew up a list of pros and cons on the back of a picture of my mother.

Reasons to Be or Not to Be a Cowboy
      Freedom to be your own man. The awful loneliness of doing so.
      Most beautiful country on God’s green earth to look at. No home, nowhere to sleep but on the cold ground You get a bad back, pretty soon you’re too bent over to look at scenery.
      Good old Dan—what else can he do but ride the trail? You can’t live for your horse, especially not one who steps on you.
      Love to be with my pals. Those cheating lying gin-soaked idiots? They all moved to town a long time ago.
      The West must be won for the White Man. I done my part.
      The chance to be a True Cowboy, who stands up for what’s Right and Fair. Fine, but its time to settle down and start building up equity. You have got nothing to show for your hard life, nothing.

So it was an even draw, six of one, half a dozen of the other, but my foot hurt me so bad, I couldn’t sleep. I dosed it with a few slugs of whiskey and only managed to give myself a sour stomach, and I kept hearing, “Tenting tonight, tenting tonight, tenting on the old campground,” and when morning came I announced to Eugene and the other boys that I was packing it in.

I said, “The problem is I don’t drink enough water and I don’t eat right. That pork last night was full of fat, for example. And riding a horse, you never get the cardiovascular exercise you need. I’ve got to think about my health.” Well, you’d a thought I’da put on a dress and high heels the way they laughed and carried on. I said: “I quit. I’m a cowboy no longer. It’s a rotten lonely life and I’m done with it.” And I jumped on Old Dan, who luckily was right there, and I rode away.

I headed into a friendly town named Pleasant Gulch, having read in the paper that it offered a healthy climate, good soil and water, good schools and churches, a literary society, and “all the adornments of advanced civilization.” That’s for me, I thought. I became deputy to Sheriff Dibble, a full-time job with a decent pension plan, and bought a condo over the saloon. The realtor, Lefty Slim, had a four-bedroom ranch house with great views for cheap—”Must sell, owner is wanted for murder,” he said—but I had seen all I wanted of ranches, so I bought the condo. Partly furnished with a nice walnut bedroom set and dining-room table and carpet, and I could move in right away because the previous owner had been shot.

I bought sheets and towels and hung up blue dotted-swiss curtains. You miss curtains so much on the trail; there’s really no way to hang them. (I know. I’ve tried.) And I bought myself a set of china. A cowboy gets sick of the sound of his fork scraping a tin plate, and this was the first good china I ever owned: four place settings with salad bowl, soup bowl, cup and saucer, dinner plate, and dessert plate, plus two platters, two serving bowls, gravy boat, teapot, and soup tureen, in the Amaryllis pattern.

The truth was, I didn’t know three other people in Pleasant Gulch well enough to invite to dinner, but I felt confident I soon would because the town was perfect, its lawns and porches and street lamps so welcoming and warm compared to rocks and buttes. I hiked around town twice that first evening, just to absorb the beauty of it, and then returned home and fixed pork and beans, but they looked like cassoulet on my Amaryllis.

I had eaten exactly two bites when shots rang out and some cowboys whooped and bullets tore through my curtains and one busted two teacups, and another one hit my good serving platter and blasted it to smithereens. I was so pissed off, I stalked downstairs and out into the street, which was deserted except for a cowboy lying face down in the dirt.

“What in the Sam Hill is going on around here?” I yelled.

He said he had been shot clean through the heart and was done for.

I knelt down by him and yelled, “You busted my Amaryllis china, you dink! I came in off the trail to get away from your ilk and here you are messing around in town. Well, not for long.”

He asked me to take a letter to his mother in Pittsburgh.

“Your mother has no interest in hearing from you, so don’t even think of it. You’re nothing but a filthy savage and death is too good for you,” I said. And then he died, presumably. At any rate, he didn’t have any more to say.

Next day, I went back to the General Store to replace that serving platter, and they were plumb out of Amaryllis. And that night, the old couple next door banged on my door and said, “You’re gargling too loud in there, Mr. Shorty, it’s driving us nuts, and you twirl your rope and jingle your spurs, and your yodeling is a pain in the neck. No more yodeladihoo or whoopitiyiyo, okay?”

I told them that it was my home and I would yodel in it as I pleased.

So they called the sheriff and he said, “Sorry, Shorty, but they’re right. We have a yodeling ordinance here and also one against gargling after ten p.m.”

I got so dagnabbed mad, I stomped home, put my Amaryllis into saddlebags, climbed on Old Dan, and left town at sundown. I was burned up. I yelled at them, “Okay, I’ll show you! You can take your damn piddling laws and ordinances and regulations and stuff em in your ear!” And back out on the range I went. Frankly, I’d left so many towns by then that I was used to it and didn’t get nearly as mad as in the past. Leaving town is what cowboyin is all about.

You find a nice place and it’s wonderful and then suddenly you can’t stand it. So you drift off down the trail and get wet and miserable and lonesome till you can’t bear it for another minute, so you gallop into the nearest town and are overwhelmed by the beauty of society—cheap floozies, old coots, preachers, lunatics, hoboes, schoolteachers, old scouts with their sunburned faces and their voices raised in song, the jokes and gibes and yarns, the barn dances, the woman who invites you to stay the night—people are great when you haven’t seen any for a few months!

So you find a job and an apartment, settle down, get comfortable, think “This time it’s for real”—and two minutes later you are brokenhearted, mad, miserable, and back in the saddle again. This is the basic cowboy pattern.

From Pleasant Gulch me and Old Dan headed for Dodge, with all the china, and ten miles beyond the Little Crazy River, a rattler sprang at us and Dan shied away and I slid off and we busted a gravy boat! And one morning a grizzly came into camp and I reached for something to throw at him and I tossed my teapot—it was the worst trip, and the next night, two cougars snuck in and stole my pants as I slept and it was snowing and I headed for a little town called Pit City. Rode along in my underwear, cold and soaked to the skin, and a woman waved from a porch, people smiled at me, and a nice lady cried out from a white frame house: “My brother Dusty is just your same size, mister—if you need a pair of pants, you can have one of his. And if you haven’t eaten I’ll rustle you up a plate of grub. And if you care to set and talk a spell, why, that’d be just hunky-dory.”

The Andersons. Euphonia and Bill Anderson. Kindest people you’d ever meet.

I sat in their toasty warm kitchen by the coal stove and gabbed for three hours and told them everything about myself, personal stuff, and it was satisfying.

“Your problem is that you never found the woman you loved enough to make you want to come in off the range and settle down,” said Euphonia. She introduced me to their daughter Leonora, a beautiful redhead who worked at the Lazy Dollar Saloon—”as a bookkeeper,” Euphonia emphasized.

Leonora treated me like the lover she never had. She and I went for long walks out across the prairie to the ridge above the town. I sang to her, “Mi amor, mi corazón,” and she liked that pretty well. We got close. She did my laundry and saw the name tags on my shirts and started calling me Leonard, which nobody had done since I was a child.

“You’re a gentle person, Leonard. Not like other cowboys. You like nice things. You ought to live in town,” she said, lying with her head in my lap in a bower of prairie grass.

I told her, “Leonora, I have tried to live in town, because the cowboy life is a hard, wet, miserable, lonesome life, so town is wonderful, but doggone it, you go there and two days later, somebody kicks you in the shins and it’s back in the saddle again. A guy can’t live with people and he can’t live without them. And besides, I am a cowboy and have got to be on the range.” I spat on the ground to emphasize this.

“When you fixin to go?” she inquired.

“Tomorrow. Mebbe Tuesday.”

“For long?”

“Six months. Mebbe longer. Depends.”

“Six months is a long stretch of time to be away from a relationship,” she said.

“Sometimes it is,” I said. “And sometimes it’s just long enough.”

“Well, Shorty, you just go and do whatever you’re going to do, because that’s what you’re going to do anyway, makes no matter what I say. I know cowboys,” she said.

I cried, “Well, if I don’t cowboy, tell me—what would I do for a living in town?”

“You could write a western,” she said.

So I started in writing a western novel with lots of hot lead flying and poetic descriptions of western scenes—”The setting sun blazed in the western sky as if a master painter had taken his brush to the clouds, creating a multihued fantasy of color reflecting brightly off the buttes and mesas.” That night I showed it to Leonora. “Not what you’d call a grabber,” she said.

I sat there with my face hanging out and wished she’d say Well, it ain’t all bad, actually some is rather good, Shorty, and I loved where the dude cuts down the tree and the bear bites him in the throat, but of course a sweetheart isn’t going to tell you that, their critical ability is not what attracts them to us in the first place.

She was the prettiest woman I ever knew in my life, the sweetest, the kindest. I discovered that Amaryllis was Leonora’s china pattern too. She had four place settings, as I did. Together, we’d have eight. It was tempting to consider marriage. And yet she had a way of keeping me on a short rope—she’d look at me and say, “What are you thinkin?” Nuthin, I’d say, nuthin in particular. “What is it?” she’d ask. I don’t care to talk about it, I’d say. “Silence is a form of anger,” she said. “A person can be just as aggressive with silence as they can be with a gun.”

Oh for crying out loud, dear God of mercy, I cried, and jumped up and went straight to the barroom, not the Lazy Dollar but the Dirty Dog Saloon, and sat in a dim corner and had a stiff drink and then another to keep the first one company, and by and by, who should mosey in but Mr. Higley, author of numerous western songs, including “Goin Back to Colorado” and “How I Miss the Old Missouri,” so I bought him a drink and me one too and said, “Tell me how it is that you love it so out here on the plains. You write poems about the beauty of the land and the goodness of the folks—what am I missing, pardner?”

He said, “I have not set foot in Colorado in forty years, nor seen the Missouri for thirty-seven. Does that answer your question, L.S.?”

We hoisted a number of drinks then, and I staggered back home about midnight and slept on the porch swing, the door being locked, and the next morning Leonora and I had a tiff. She said, “How come you go do a dumb thing like that, Leonard? Can you imagine how it makes me feel? Or do you think I don’t notice that you got drunk and were walkin around this town singin and whoopin and ropin street lamps and laughin like an idiot at two in the morning? Do you think that decent people don’t talk about this and wonder why you’re not home here with me? Don’t you see that it makes me look like a fool?”

I said, “If I have got to ask permission to take a drink, then let me out of it. I quit.”

She said, “Don’t you see there’s a pattern in your life, Leonard? You’re someone who avoids conflict. It’s what makes you a cowboy.” “You’re mad at me, aintcha,” I said. She was mad.

“I’m not mad. Only concerned. We have a dysfunctional relationship, that’s all.”

“You’re mad and you’re always going to be mad,” I said.

She said she had read an article in the Emporia Gazette that said male restlessness may result from a hormone imbalance caused by an eating disorder.

“That’s the westward impulse you’re talking about, Leonora! That’s what brought us here!” I cried. She said it wasn’t an impulse, it was an imbalance. She said, “Maybe you should get help. The schoolmarm is a therapist part-time, you know.”

Okay, I said.

Doggone it, I did everything I could to please that woman.

Twice a week for eight weeks, I lay down on Mary Ellen Henry’s parlor sofa and told her everything about myself. She used cats as a medium. (She explained why, but I forget.) A cat lies on your chest and you talk to it, and she listens, e.g.:

ME: Boy, I sure feel confused, Puff. I’m so sad and mixed up I could go get drunk and jump off the roof. But with my luck I’d probably miss the ground.

HER: Puff, you tell that nice man to tell you more about when his mama left him at the train depot and went off with the drygoods salesman.

It felt dumb but I did it. Lay on the couch, cat stretched out on my chest, Mary Ellen sat in the rocker, I talked about Mama to the cat—”My mother was the saintliest woman who ever trod this earth, Puff, and my daddy was the meanest sumbitch ever drew breath”—and Mary Ellen said to the cat, “Puff, I want you to tell Lonesome Shorty that some people might say that riding the open range is a cowboy’s only way of keeping that powerful mama at a distance. You tell him that, Puff, and see what he says.”

“Why, Puff, I believe that is the biggest crock of horse poop I’ve heard yet,” I replied.

“Puff,” she said, “remind Shorty of how his mama ran his daddy off so she could control her boy better.” “Lies, Puff. You’re lying, ya miserable cat.”

And on it went. I gave it my best shot but was no good at therapy, and one morning I said, “I’ve decided that you’ve probably done as much for me as you possibly can, Puff, so this will be my last visit. Thank you.”

Mary Ellen was stunned, as if I had slapped her. Her eyes welled up with tears. “How can you do this to me?” she cried. “Don’t you realize that you’re my only client? You’re important to me, Shorty! How can you walk away from me like I was just your hitching rail?”

This was much too complicated for me. So I saddled up and without a word to Leonora I rode off down the trail toward the Bitterroot, feeling dumber than dirt. Couldn’t bear to be alone, couldn’t bear the company. Thought it might be due to a lack of fluoride. Or it could be genetic—it’s hard to tell. My daddy left home when I was two. If we had any fluoride, he took it with him.

Rode seven days through Arapaho country and was full of loneliness and misery, thinking only of Leonora, her touch and smell, until finally I began to sing “Mi amor, mi corazon,” and burst into tears and turned around and rode back to Pit City. A bitterly cold day, windy, snow flurries, and me without shoes—I’d forgotten them at a campsite—and I was a sorry sight but when Euphonia saw me she said, “Welcome back, honey, and come in and let me get you a pair of Bill’s shoes.”

I took a shower, and the towels were soft and smelled lemony. You miss that softness, that cleanliness, on the trail. Had split-pea soup and Leonora came home and hugged me and cried, and the next day I got a job at the stagecoach office as assistant director of customer service and group sales, and the next few days went along like a song. Euphonia made my breakfast and Leonora made my bed and I bought six new place settings of Amaryllis, and we made plans to marry.

Then the Chautauqua put on a play called The Secret Forest of the Heart that Leonora had a big part in, so I went and I hated it, it was the dumbest sheepdip show you ever saw, about good women who nurture and heal and men who rob and control, and Leonora held out a magical garland of flowers and vines and herbs and celery and sang, “Know the quiet place within your heart and touch the rainbow of possibility; be alive to the gentle breeze of communication, and please stop being such a jerk.” People with big wet eyes stood and clapped and a stagecoach driver named Gabby turned to me and said, “I could sure use a big hug right now.” I got out of there as fast as I could.

I told Leonora, “You hate me ’cause I walked out on yer dagnabbed play and you’re going to give me my walkin papers, aintcha?” and she said, no, she wasn’t, she didn’t expect me to like the play, she knew me well enough to know that, and I said, “Oh there you go again, just like always, you never stop finding fault with me, so I might as well go be bad, there’s no percentage in being good,” and she said I was crazy. “Well, to hell with you,” I said, and I got so mad, I went in and robbed the bank. Pulled my hat down low and went in with six-guns in hand and yelled, “Everybody face down on the floor! Nice and easy, now, and nobody gets hurt.”

They said, “Why are you doing this, Shorty? You’re a wonderful guy and have a good job and you’re blessed with the love of a wonderful woman.”

“If that’s what you call blessed, then I’d like to try damned to hell for a while.”

“What do you have to be mad about?” asked the lady teller.

“Doggone it, I can be mad if I want to be. If I say I’m mad, I mean I’m mad.”

“You’ll never get away with it,” someone yelled as I rode away with thirty-four thousand dollars on me, and as it turned out, they were right, but I didn’t know it yet.

I headed off across the sandy flats on Old Dan toward the big mesas, rode hard for a week, then lay back. I was rich, and lonesome as an old galoot. Wanted to hook up with a partner but then thought of the trouble involved and decided against it. Made up a song as I rode along, “Livin inside/I’m dissatisfied/Guess I’m qualified to ride.” Rode to Big Gap. No family took me in, no woman offered me comfort, and I sought no solace in the church. I paid with cash. A man in a saloon said he knew my old partner Eugene. “He got bit by his horse and was laid up with gelding fever and had fits and hallucinations and talked a blue streak for a month before he died, mostly about economics,” he told me. I was sorry I had not been there to see it.

I rode on. I tried not to think about Leonora but I missed her terribly.

I wished I knew how to patch things up but there’s no way. The love between two people is fragile and one false move can break it like fine china, and when it breaks, it’s broken. I rode on, but I rode slower, and after a while I felt sick. I was so lonely. I lay down in the dirt and wrapped myself in a blanket and lay shivering all night and woke up in the morning and—I was about thirty feet from the Colorado Trail! All these wagon trains were going by and now and then a pioneer or a gold prospector’d call over to me—”Howdy! How are you doing over there yonder? You headin west too?”

And I’d answer: “I feel like I’m coming down with something. I don’t know, I got a headache and chills and I feel weak and listless. You got a thermometer with you? Is saltpeter supposed to be good for this? You think maybe I should bleed myself?”

And they’d lope over near me and ask if I had a fever. “You’re supposed to starve a fever,” they said. “Just lie there and rest and don’t eat anything and pretty soon you’ll feel better.”

And I did that, and three days later I died. The vultures came and feasted off me and the dogs fought over my bones and some old bum came and took the thirty-four thousand dollars in twenty-dollar bills out of my saddlebags and stomped on my china set and pretty soon what was left of me lay bleached and white on the lone prairie, but I didn’t care because I was in heaven. I assume it was heaven. It was like Brown’s Hotel in Denver, a suite, with a bathtub eight feet long, and a canopied bed, and an angel to bring me my breakfast.

It’s a good breakfast: fresh biscuits and butter and two strips of thick crisp bacon and two eggs soft poached and fried potatoes and all of it on a beautiful pale-blue Amaryllis plate. But it does not vary from day to day, and neither does the angel, who sings beautifully but always the same song.

It is perfect here and a person should be grateful, I reckon, but I am about fed up with it and ready to move on to the other place, if only I could think of something bad enough to say that would get me sent there, and, being a cowboy, I suppose, that won’t be a problem. Something will come to mind.

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Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

 I am an old man chained to a computer and I get less exercise than your average statue in the park, meanwhile I avoid vegetables in favor of peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, I seldom wash my hands and often rub my eyes, my daily water intake is less than that of a small lizard, and yet I feel pretty darned good, knock on wood, whereas certain people I know who lead exemplary lives of daily workouts and hydration and veganism complain of insomnia, sharp stabbing pains, exhaustion, gassiness, and memory loss, so where is the justice, I ask you. How is it that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?

The answer is: I have an excellent doctor. I searched high and low for one, eliminating those with WASPy names like Postlethwaite or Dimbleby-Pritchett and those with old names (Amos, Portia, Naomi, Elijah) who maybe don’t know about antibiotics. I scratched very young doctors (Sean, Amber, Jared, Emerald) who maybe don’t understand geriatrics. I eliminated doctors who, when I called to inquire about an appointment, I was put on hold and heard flute music. I nixed doctors who had tassels on their shoes or whose M.D. degrees came from schools in Tahiti or Tijuana. And by the time I found a doctor, medical science had taken great leaps forward in the treatment of sedentary dehydrated germ-ridden men like me, so here I am.

My advice to the young is: Don’t sweat exercise. Eat what you want to eat. Live your life. Follow your heart. And be sure to marry well. I did that a quarter-century ago and it took me a while to realize it but now I feel buoyant around her and without her I’m just going through the motions. With her, I’m Mr. Successful, and without her I’m an old guy with soup stains on his shirt.

Thoreau said to advance confidently in the direction of your dreams and you’ll be successful, but he could’ve been more specific. He himself was a failure, as an author and as a lecturer and at finding a date for Saturday night. When he said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he was talking about himself. His classic, “Walden,” would’ve been a better book if there’d been a woman living in the cabin with him, but he only had a hard narrow bed and was more interested in mushrooms than in being a fun guy. And he was a Red Sox fan.

Scientists have pointed out that fans of losing teams experience a 20 percent drop in testosterone. A cruel thing. Your warriors go down to defeat and you get up from the TV and your wife comes and puts her arms around you and you think, “Oh no, not this again.”

I’ve been a fan of the Twins (78-84), the Golden Gophers (3-6), the Democratic Party (1 out of 4, counting the Supreme Court), and country music (he gets fired, his wife leaves him, he gets drunk, she runs off with a successful orthopedic surgeon) so I’m running low on testosterone, but there is hope. The lessons last Sunday in church said so. The prophet Isaiah said, “You shall be a crown of beauty. … You shall be called My Delight,” which nobody ever said to me before. The psalm was about feasting, and in the Gospel of John, Jesus did his magic trick turning water into wine at the wedding. I was absolved of my transgressions and I prayed for my daughter and for the infant Ida Rose, one week old, and afterward people around me reached over and shook my hand. I pulled out a five to put in the collection plate and saw too late that it was a twenty and the usher had seen it, so I let it go. Fifteen bucks for a sense of hope? Cheap at the price. And now I look out and see snow falling.

News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

I take pleasure in the fact that the plastic bags from the grocery store exactly fit our garbage pail and so the garbage goes out the door in the same bag in which the food arrived. I derive pleasure from this. It isn’t about economy or conserving our plastic resources, no, it’s about symmetry. In, out; same bag. I don’t shop at the big fancy megamarkets: bags are wrong size.

I have just discovered that the best way to retrieve the last of the blueberry jam from the bottom of the jar is to use a teaspoon, not a knife. With the time I’ve spent over the years fishing up specks of jam with the tip of a knife, I could’ve written a very bad novella: a teaspoon gets the job done.

I sat through a four-hour performance of “Aida” with the ridiculous Act II procession of triumphant Egyptians hauling wagonloads of defeated Ethiopians through a set the size of the grain silos of Omaha, trumpet fanfares, four horses (count them, 1 2 3 4) on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, ballet dancers, spear-carriers, priests, the Met chorus in their robes and sandals singing the march, which sounds noble in Italian but the English is so dumb:
We won the war so we wear
The lotus and the laurel:
They smell good and we don’t care
If you think the war was immoral.
(My translation.)

It only made me think of high school commencements I have seen, but with singing instead of speaking.

The great transcendent moment of the opera is at the end. Aida and Radamès locked in the tomb, facing death, sing their farewell to this earth, a delicate ethereal duet that stays with you all the way home on the subway. The Met could’ve shown a movie for Act II, a scene from “Ben Hur,” and saved a half-million bucks.

I am a man with a small mind. (Am I repeating myself?) The major event of this week, plus the opera, was a joke told to me over the phone by a millennial feminist in San Francisco, a friend (I think) but who knows? She told me a joke I’d never dare tell to any woman under sixty. It is so incorrect, alarms go off, red lights flash, a semaphore drops. Do not read the following paragraph, please. Skip it and go to the end.

A woman decides to kill herself and goes out on the Brooklyn Bridge to jump and a sailor grabs her and cries, “No! You have much to live for! Listen. I’m sailing to Italy tonight. I’ll stow you aboard and take care of you and in ten days you’ll be in Naples.” The woman has always wanted to see Italy, so she says yes. The sailor takes her to the boat that night and stows her in a tiny cabin below decks and for a week, as the ship sails, he brings her food every night and they make love. Then one night the captain finds her: “What are you doing here?” She explains. “A wonderful sailor saved my life and he’s taking me to Italy and — he’s screwing me.” The captain says: “He sure is. This is the Staten Island Ferry.”

I explained to the m.f. that this is about date rape, it’s about sexual treachery, about male oppression. And she said, “I thought it was funny. It made me laugh.”

This is bigger news than the government shutdown. An m.f. told a joke because she thought it was funny. The world turns. Aida may yet be rescued. Do not stick a fork into a toaster. Call me a romantic but I believe that someday the Staten Island Ferry may sail to Italy and I hope to be aboard with my wife when it does and we’ll be very happy in a small cabin below decks.

Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

Senator Romney said last week, “To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation,” and that is a bunch of hooey and horse manure. America has not suddenly become a nation of sleazy con men and compulsive liars. If anything, the presidency in its current state offers a valuable moral object lesson on an hourly basis. Senator Romney is way off base, like saying “To a great degree, a U.S. senator wields great influence on hair style.” I don’t see it. Children are growing up during this administration who are learning a good lesson: if you don’t know history and you can’t do math, you’re in deep water and there’s no way to hide it.

Goodness is lavished on the world from all sides. Small generosities engender tremendous force against the darker powers. Great kindness pervades our lives. The man at the newsstand says “Good morning” and “How is your day so far?” and he is from somewhere in the Middle East and I am warmed by his blessing. The woman at the café pours a cup of coffee, light, and toasts my sesame bagel and slathers it with cream cheese with scallions. I ask her how her day is so far and she smiles enormously and says, “Excellent, sweetheart.”  I’m in Penn Station, with my daughter, waiting for the train to Schenectady, and a Schenectadian tells me to be sure to visit the Nott Memorial at Union College, which I take as a joke — what is a memorial that is not? “N-o-t-t,” he says. “The guy who built the thing.” Schenectady is a depressed old factory town but here is a man who loves it and I have a perfect bagel and coffee and we two are about to embark on the 8:15 train. It is a very good morning and it is shaped by good people and God Almighty, not by the president. He is as irrelevant as Delaware, El Dorado, the Elks Club or L.S.M.F.T.

I have no business in Schenectady: the trip is my gift to my daughter who just turned 21 and who loves train rides. We’ll go up on the Adirondack and back to New York on the Lake Shore Limited, which used to be the 20th Century Limited, which Cary Grant rode in North By Northwest. I will sit by the window, point out the Tappan Zee Bridge, Poughkeepsie, Albany, and she will study the people around us. I’m a loner, she’s the sociable one, scoping out the neighbors. Up around Yonkers, she leans against me, scootches down, lays her head on my shoulder. She says, “I love you.” She falls asleep.

When I say “life is good,” I’m not talking about serenity. I’m not a guy who feels complete within himself and at home in the universe. I am talking about the basic animal goodness of having a mate — my wife, who doesn’t care for trains, enjoying her day alone in the city — and having a daughter who loves me and nestles against me. I was a neglectful father, obsessed with work, on the road, and yet I got this beautiful daughter, jokey, loyal, good company, affectionate. I want to warn her against men, their cruelty and treachery. When they’re not vulgar, they’re clueless. They are brutes and savages, all of them, and you should avoid them whenever possible, especially the shy and sensitive ones, they’re the worst, and if you decide to have one of your own, find one who seems trainable. This may take years. If he doesn’t show progress, kick him down the stairs and start over. This is what needs to happen in Washington. What are we waiting for? Hurl the bozo out on the street and his robotic vice president with him. Nancy Pelosi for president. Next week would not be too soon. Next stop, Schenectady.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 23, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 23, 2019

It was on this day in 1977 that the miniseries “Roots” premiered on ABC. Restaurants and shops cleared out while it was showing, and bars showed it on their TVs in order to keep customers there.

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A Prairie Home Companion: January 26, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: January 26, 2008

This week, huddle close together for another stream of a classic winter episode! With special guests Chuck Mead, Becky Schlegel, Nellie McKay, and humorist Roy Blount Jr. (pictured).

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 22, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 22, 2019

Today is the birthday of British Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788), who was called “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” by one of his many lovers.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 21, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 21, 2019

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a national holiday that Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1983, following years of activists’ petitions, conferences, and advocacy.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 20, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 20, 2019

It’s the birthday of the late Susan Vreeland (1946), whose novels, such as “Girl in Hyacinth Blue,” intersected with alternate histories of art.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 19, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 19, 2019

Today is the birthday of Edwidge Danticat (Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1969), author of “Krik? Krack!” and the upcoming short story collection “Everything Inside.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 18, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 18, 2019

It’s the birthday of Rubén Darío (1867), a great poet in the Spanish-speaking world who is barely known to English speakers.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 17, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 17, 2019

Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” premiered on this day in 1904. He had meant for it to be a comedy, and was annoyed that the director had presented it as a tragedy.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 16, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 16, 2019

On this day in 1605, Book One of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” was published. The novel remains the most-translated book in the world after the Bible.

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The Writer’s Almanac for January 15, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for January 15, 2019

“If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr., born this day in Atlanta, 1929

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Writing

Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

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News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

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Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

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Onward, my friends! Courage! Comedy!

My first resolution for 2019 is “Lighten up. When someone asks you how you are, say ‘Never better’ and say it with conviction, make it be true.” And my second resolution is: “Don’t bother fighting with ignorance. It doesn’t bother him, and you wind up with stupidity all over you.”

So I ignore the government shutdown and write about the one-ring circus I saw in New York last week, under a tent by the opera house. It was astounding. The beauty of backflips and the balancing act in which a spangly woman does a handstand one-handed on a man’s forehead. The perfect timing of clowns and the dancing of horses, a bare-chested man suspended on ropes high above the arena as a woman falls from his shoulders to catch his bare feet with her bare feet and hang suspended with no net below. A slight woman on the flying trapeze hurling herself into a triple forward flying somersault and into the hands of the catcher. I have loved circuses all my life. This was one of the best. A person can pass through the turnstile in a sour mood and the impossible perfection of feats of style brightens your whole week.

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A Christmas letter from New York

It was, in my opinion, the best Christmas ever. Men are running the country whom you wouldn’t trust to heat up frozen dinners, a government shutdown meant that TSA people worked as volunteers (and also the DOJ employees investigating Individual-1’s dealings with the Russians), and on Wall Street the blue chips were selling like buffalo chips, and yet, in my aged memory, granted that the MRI map of my brain shows numerous multipolar contextually based synopses and a narrowing of the left strabismal isthmus, my little family had a beautiful and blessed week.

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Why I left home and crossed over the river

It was an enormous heroic undertaking that if I told you the whole story, you’d be breathless with admiration, so I will just say this: my wife and I — mostly my wife but I was there, too — have moved from a three-story house in St. Paul to a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. We did it, shed ourselves of truckloads of material goods, and now enjoy the gift to be simple and the gift to be free. Period. End of story.

We did it because it dawned on us that we were two people living in a few corners of a house for ten and that if we didn’t move, the county would send social workers who specialize in dementia issues.

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Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

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Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

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One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

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A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

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