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.

Wobegon Virus

Coming September 8th: It's a new Lake Wobegon novel from Garrison Keillor. Hardcover and eBook are both available for preorder now, and an audiobook will be available for presale in the coming months.

In The Lake Wobegon Virus, a mysterious virus has infiltrated the good people of Lake Wobegon, transmitted via unpasteurized cheese made by a Norwegian bachelor farmer, the effect of which is episodic loss of social inhibition. Says Keillor, "The people of Lake Wobegon were waiting for the chance to go wild and so the book wrote itself."

Read more about the book and pre-order your copy >>>


Gradually a man comes to accept his limitations probably

I ordered a nice office chair online last week because I’m a writer — this is me, writing this — and I’ve written a truckload of stuff on an assortment of cranky kitchen chairs, some designed by federal agents to torture confessions out of suspects, and my lumbar region feels delicate, and while I’m at it, I may as well confess that I bought this chair from Jeff Bezos, the Nebuchadnezzar of American retail, because it’s easier than walking over to Acme Office Supply, and Bezos’s minions bring it to my door in a matter of days, and here it is.

It’s waiting for my wife to return from visiting relatives in Connecticut. She’s the one who Puts Things Together in this family. She has smaller fingers and finer digital skills, being a violinist, and unlike me, she reads directions. She assembles parts into a coherent whole. I am a writer and the problem of assembly puts me into a subjunctive mood and I might have solved it had I taken my time but what I assemble is a non sequitur and somewhere a child is weeping bitterly. So I wait for her to come home.

A couple weeks ago, a workman came to our apartment backdoor and asked me (I think) something about air conditioning. I believe he is Polish and some of his English sounded Polish to me so I notified my wife and he spoke to her and she pointed to a panel in the ceiling over the washer and dryer, and there it was, a condenser or whatever it’s called. I come from simple rural people; we worked in the sun and after a day of that, the shade was good enough, we didn’t require AC.

I used to resent competent people and now I am married to one. I was an English major in college and looked down on the engineering students in their polyester plaid shirts with plastic pocket protectors, and now we live in a digital world they designed and I can’t figure out how to make my iPhone deZoom after it has enlarged itself. I need to ask my wife, the one who reads directions.

A couple years ago, I couldn’t start my car one morning and had to call a tow truck. Back in the 20th century, you’d see a neighbor pull out of his driveway and wave to him and he’d get out jumper cables and start you up, but these days your neighbor is very likely an English major who wanted to be a writer but instead became an Executive Vice President for Branding and Inclusivity, which is a different branch of fiction, and if I wave at him, he’ll pretend not to see me. My dad, up to the mid-Sixties or so, was able to take his cars apart and do repairs. The neighbor guy and I are of a generation that Does Not Understand How Engines Work. So the tow truck started me up and I drove to a shop where the mechanic discovered that a malfunctioning lock on the trunk was draining my battery. Amazing. It’s like a boil on your rear end is the cause of your migraine. But he fixed it. This sort of competence is inspiring to me. And we are surrounded by it. If ever you should call the EMTs at 911, you’ll be swarmed by great competence.

Meanwhile, there is a cultural movement among us that argues that our world is systemically oppressive and corrupt, the institutions and laws, epistemology, mindsets, literature, politics, religion, cheeseburgers, cole slaw, rotted through and through by elitist masculine Western Eurocentric misogynistic homicidal hierarchical colonialist biases, and there is no such thing as commonality, community, competence, comedy, all of which are intrinsically unequal and tools of oppression, and I, as an oppressor, have internalized my dominance, accepting it as something earned, not inherited.

One could call this movement fascistic but it doesn’t really matter because I am 78 and the movement won’t take over the country until after I am gone, and meanwhile, in the time it took me to write this, my love has assembled the chair and I sit in it and I feel so good, I write an elitist limerick, my favorite tool of oppression:

Classic, romantic, baroque,
Whether you sleep or are woke,
Remember this, Jack,
There’s no turning back
From the fact that you know you’re a joke.

One man’s pandemic is another man’s picnic

I love reading columns that snap and crackle and poke powerful people in the kisser and I am bored by columns like this one, which is about the goodness and generosity of life, but what can I say? When you’re busy doing things you love and you skip the news for a while, life can be beautiful. My love and I have been absorbed in the lives of the mockingbird family in our backyard, the parents ratcheting at us when we set foot out back, the little beaks upraised, the relays of food, the first hesitant hops from the nest, the high anxiety, the chirps of the teenagers, and then one morning, nobody’s home. Gone. No word since.

Instead of studying Joe Biden’s 13-point lead in national polls, we were absorbed in the lives of birds. We’ve never run for public office, but we have been parents and we have empathy for them, even birds. It’s odd to me, at 77, to see two men my age running for the White House. I remember the excitement when Kennedy, 43, succeeded Eisenhower, 70. We needed that this year and it didn’t happen.

But thanks to the recumbent, the man in the large golf pants, we live in the Golden Age of delicious vicious columnry, the best of them being conservatives such as Jennifer Rubin and George Will whose outrage rises to great literary heights whereas old liberals like me sit and play “Honolulu Baby” on the ukulele and toss in a little tap dance. For Mr. Will, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is like Mother poisoning Dad and marrying a Mafia hitman. I turn to Mr. Will in the Washington Post and feast on lines like “this weak person’s idea of a strong person, this chest-pounding advertisement of his own gnawing insecurities, this low-rent Lear raging on his Twitter-heath has proven that the phrase malignant buffoon is not an oxymoron.”

It’s a great line and I have nothing to add to it. Mr. Will is a lifelong Republican conservative and he knows in his heart that the recumbent is no more a Republican than Nancy Pelosi is a pole-vaulter and the recumbent is no more a believing Christian than he is the Dalai Lama-rama-ding-dong. It is an insane moment in the history of the Republic and it drives Mr. Will wild, but to me, it’s just a TV show and I turn it off and go sit on the shady terrace and feast on these giant blueberries grown in Peru and feel content. I toss a few of them toward the mockingbirds’ nest, hoping to lure them back, but no such luck.

I am almost 78 and America’s problems are my grandchildren’s problems, not mine, and I have been married for 25 years to a woman who thrills me and to avoid the plague we’ve spent four months in close proximity and it’s been good. I am capable of bitter sarcasm — I had a column all set to go about the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., dropping the word “colony” from its name because it suggested exclusivity and hierarchy. But I don’t care about artists’ colonies, have no interest in spending time in one, am grateful to be excluded. The higher the ark the better; I don’t want to get on board. The street carnival in Portland is not my concern, except to hope that nobody gets hurt. The Bullying that is going on over Capitalization of certain words is — how shall I say it? — Remarkable. As for racism, there is no room for it in the Christian faith where it continues to thrive.

I come from a generation that spent 57,000 American lives in a war that had no point then and has no defenders now and American cruise ships now dock at Hue and Da Nang and Saigon and folks from Omaha and Seattle eat in sidewalk cafes whose owners may have been among the guerillas who defeated us and who cares?

Madame and I have our own colony, and beyond that, each of us has a circle of pals, which the pandemic lockdown makes all the more enjoyable. Theaters are dark and concert halls, but the telephone still works and now that people are sticking close to home, the phone calls get longer and more fulfilling and launch into stories, and we don’t bother talking politics, we talk family history, which is more interesting. And if asked what we’re up to, we will talk about mockingbirds.

The birds are worried and I feel just fine

Thirty-eight percent of Americans surveyed believe the Prez is doing a good job with the pandemic, which is good news for folks offering Florida timeshares for August and telemarketers who’ll turn your songs into No. 1 hits if you give them your credit card number. Thirty-eight percent approval means that there is a big market for agates as an investment.

It’s a dangerous world out there, don’t kid yourself. I feel for the mockingbird parents on our terrace who screech at us, warning us not to grab their fledglings. We can see them in the nest, beaks wide open, squeaking for food, just like our own daughter years ago. The parents are in high anxiety. My wife and I are liberals, we eat beef and pork, have no interest whatsoever in eating mockingbird — and I feel their pain.

Violence is part of life. Every day you get dinner or you are dinner. Fish are beautiful, like fashion models parading back and forth, and then a killer dashes in and eats one: that is a fish’s way of life. The mouse is in the cornfield, shopping for his family, and he hears a rush of wings and feels sharp back pain and suddenly he is very high in the air. Our football teams are named for killers, lions, wolverines, eagles, gators. Only two for religious figures (saints, cardinals) and one for temp workers (gophers). Will the Washington NFL team now change its name to the Sergeants and the Minnesota Vikings become the Viruses? Go to Oslo and you’ll see that the Norwegians are not the marauding warriors they were back in the ninth century when they raided and pillaged widely. They’re more into tillage now.

We liberals tried to create a safe world for our fledglings. I grew up before there were seat belts so I rode standing up in the front seat as my dad drove 75 mph across North Dakota, but my children rode in podlike car seats belted in like test pilots. They rode tricycles, wearing helmets. We banned smoking. There were warnings on everything, like kitchen knives (“Sharp: may cut skin if pressure is applied.”) and ovens (“Do not insert head when gas is on.”).

No wonder we are kerfluxxed, reading about a man with no conscience, no empathy, no principles, not a shred of honesty, who presides with great indifference over a plague. As any New Yorker can tell you, the problem with the Trumps is that the 90% who are corrupt give the others a bad name. In Manhattan, where he spent his adult life, he got 10% of the vote. And now 38% of our fellow Americans think he’s doing okay when the disaster is out in the open for all to see. The body count is staggering. Vietnam does well, Japan, Italy, but America is a pitiful giant.

I’m locked up and don’t worry about catching the virus but at 78, I’m aware of mortality and can imagine going to the doctor and finding out I have a rare case of desiccated angiofibrosis of the fantods, four months to live, maybe six. I’d thank him and stop at the drugstore for a carton of Luckies and come home and get out the gin bottle.

I’d have a martini on the terrace, my first drink in eighteen years, and toss the lemon twist away and the mockingbirds would pick it up and immediately they’d calm down. With the screeching stopped, the fledglings would fly. My neighbors would smell the gin and knock on my door. I’d get out the shaker and martini glasses, and we’d have a party. They’re all liberals; they’ve lived on a fixed schedule of their children’s social, educational, recreational, and therapeutic engagements, and the gin would make us good and silly and we’d say things that don’t appear on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Things like “That which has been is that which shall be, there is nothing new under the sun” — these are Roman times, Nero is in power and he won’t relinquish it so long as the generals are loyal. He is half naked, and 38% of our people like him in just his underwear. Let the fledgling millennials talk about justice and equality, let the old man enjoy his gin and vermouth. These desiccated fantods are not going away. Nero is your problem, not mine. Hand me down another bag of pork rinds, darling, and I’ll put a porterhouse on the grill.

At a certain age, the blues comes naturally

I am a writing man, I got the sedentary blues. I need to take a walk soon as I find my shoes. I got a good woman and she gave me a talk. She said, “You’re going to need a walker if you don’t get out and walk.” I came to New York City to try to make my mark. Now I am an old man and I walk in Central Park. My heart was weary and my steps were getting slow. She said, “You’ve gone two blocks, you’ve got another mile to go.”

The pandemic had me shut up in our New York apartment since early March because the more I read about the virus, the less I cared to experience it personally so I stayed home and occupied myself with writing a novel and the main exercise I got was walking into the kitchen and opening the refrigerator door.

I came to enjoy the cloistered life, the morning coffee on the terrace, talking with friends on the phone, recycling, the afternoon nap, the evening meal, the game of cards, the sunset, and what’s more, I enjoyed living with my keeper. Quarantine is a good test of marriage, such a good test that it could be made a requirement for obtaining a license, seclude the couple for thirty (30) days in a small apartment and see how they feel about each other afterward. Four months with my wife made me appreciate her beautiful heart and good humor even more. And a week ago, at her urging, I set foot outside the building for the first time and we hiked into the park.

After a long period of sitting, your legs feel like badly designed prosthetic devices made from tree stumps, and you feel unbalanced, and Jenny sensed that, of course, and took my hand, which was sweet, as if we were on our second date rather than in the 25th year of marriage. It’s endearing that she is completely focused on me, which you would be too if walking with a large person who might trip on a curb and collapse on top of you. Meanwhile, the young and beautiful lope effortlessly past us; I seem to have the distinction of being the Slowest Walker In Central Park, which reminds me of the Bob & Ray “Slow Talkers of America” sketch, in which Bob. Spoke. Very. Deliberately. So. As. To. Make. Each. Word. Perfectly. Clear. AndRayblewupinfuryandwantedtostranglehim.

New York is a strange city with show business, restaurants, the hospitality industry pretty much shut down. Few yellow cabs on the street, unemployment is at Depression level, and I suppose that plenty of those bicyclists whizzing past at 11 a.m. are waiters and stagehands and ticket agents, maybe dancers and musicians, and I feel for them. You’re in your twenties, you come to the big city with a big idea, maybe one so grandiose you don’t dare say it aloud, and suddenly a viral outbreak complicated by federal stupidity brings your life to a stop. Do you wait it out, expecting life to resume? Or do you sense that a Dark Age is on the way, that the face masks are permanent, that the Amazoning of America will go on, and the little mom-and-pops never reopen, the office towers remain half-empty as people go on working from home, and there will be no more concerts, no baseball, no handshakes except with life partners, we’ll live in communities of anonymity, and dystopia become the norm.

An old man thinks long thoughts while taking a long hike at a geezerish pace, but there is no sign of despair anywhere I look, only the happiness of dogs and little kids, the geese on the reservoir, the individual styles of runners, the grim determination of old lady joggers, and the saintliness of the slender woman holding my hand. “You’re doing great,” she says. “In a year, you’ll be running.” I think that unlikely but why rain on my own parade? Keep going.

I feel a slight wrench in my left knee and that upcoming park bench looks very good to me but I resist the urge to take a rest, aware a breather can become a siesta, so on I go with determination to stimulate my circulation. I do not run for love or glory but simply to be ambulatory and to enjoy these moving views and hope to lose the sedentary blues.

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

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