Herewith, a short story by my former student Mark Maxwell. His creative thesis at Vermont College was a novel called NixonCarver, a wild, strange postmodern confection that melded the lives of Raymond Carver, Richard Nixon, and, yes, a kid from Chicago who seemed a lot like Mark Maxwell. Mark wove together vignettes from the lives of the president and the poet and linked them with stories about the three friends cleaning out Nixon’s garage in San Clemente, going fishing, going to a ball game–the sort of thing presidencts and poets always do together. Mark still writes about presidents. “Dutch” is his fictional resurrection of Ronald Reagan’s childhood told from his brother’s point of view.
I always wanted to hate my little brother. He gave me plenty of reasons to hate him, that’s for damn sure. And I did my best to “shower him with my wrath” as our boozehound old man used to say, but I don’t suppose I ever had much success. Dutch always knew he was better than me, and for most of our childhood, it seemed that nothing I ever done or said could convince him otherwise.
When my ma Nelle went into labor with Dutch, I got sent down to the neighbor’s apartment below ours. Jack—that was my old man—he huffed his sour whiskey breath into my face, saying, “Get downstairs and stay there, boy, and don’t come back till I send for ya.”
I was only three at the time, but I done like I was told. I remember real clear standing there in front of the neighbor’s door for over an hour, whimpering like a poodle that got kicked between the hind legs, waiting for somebody to open that big old oak door of theirs. I was afraid to knock, can you imagine that? Luckily, Miss Tillie came out to get the mail and let me in when she saw me sitting there on her WELCOME mat.
I ended up staying with Miss Tillie and her fat old husband for three days. They ate pork chops and boiled potatoes every night, I think. Anyway, that’s how I remember it. All I know is whatever kind of meat they was serving, it always tasted like a chop to me. As we sat down to dinner and Miss Tillie said grace that first night, I could hear Nelle, my ma—Dutch and me always called our folks by their first names—upstairs screeching and hollering bloody murder.
It sounded like Jack was carving her into little pieces upstairs. But I knew enough even at three to grasp the idea that birthing a baby ain’t no easy task.
And I knew too that once that baby come, all of Nelle’s screaming would stop for a while, and I’d have me a baby sister. That’s what they told me anyway. “We are gonna have us a little girl,” announced Nelle one morning. And I believed her. I didn’t want no brother to compete with even back then. Or maybe I just liked the idea of having a sister cuz I was already strictly a girl-loving little tyke. Ain’t nobody ever accused me of being a fruit, that’s for sure.
After three days of them torturous pork chops and Nelle’s endless screaming, Jack came barging into the neighbor’s apartment demanding a stiff shot of bourbon. He drained his glass in one gulp and held it out for a refill. He sat down then on the sofa and told me and Miss Tillie and fat old Lou the whole story.
There was a wicked snow storm that bitter February week in 1911, and we was buried pretty deep, so when the old man went out looking to hunt down Doc Cartwright, he had to trudge six miles through ten inches of snow to get to the doc’s office. When he got there, the doc was supposedly out on another call, so Jack had to trudge another three and a half miles to the midwife’s house. All that time he left my ma up there in our apartment with her own ma, both of them screaming their fool heads off while I sat downstairs chewing rubbery pork chops and imagining Jack slicing Nelle’s fingers and toes off with his straightedge.
Looking back on it now, I figure the old man probably never even made that heroic snowbound trek to Doc Cartwright’s. I figure he just stopped at the tavern to brag about having another baby on the way. Maybe he took in a wrestling match with some of the other boozehounds and then just wobbled off drunk in the snow to the midwife’s house. He probably just made up the rest of the story to cover his ass. The doc did eventually show up, though, but by then Nelle had already popped the baby out. And it weren’t no girl.
It was Ronnie, or as Jack called him that first day, the “Little Dutchman.” Ronnie came out screaming even louder than Nelle, and Jack said, “For such a little Dutchman, he sure has got some strong lungs.” That’s how come we all started calling him Dutch right from the very beginning. The name just stuck. Me they called Moon. Don’t know why. Nobody ever told me the story of how I got my nickname. Maybe I popped out of the womb ass first.
Anyway, I was mighty upset when Jack said the word “Dutchman.” I said, “You mean Dutch girl, don’t you?”
“Naw,” he said, “You got tourself a little brother, Moon. Better watch out too, he looks like he’s gonna be able to handle hisself real good.”
I didn’t talk to Nelle for the rest of the week. Didn’t even walk past her bedroom door where she and the baby lay. I didn’t want no part of no brother. But eventually, Jack disappeared to the tavern and left me and Nelle alone with Dutch, so I couldn’t hide from them anymore.
He was an ugly little bastard at the beginning, all wrinkled and shriveled and looking like an alien—nothing like the movie star face everybody came to know and love so much later. Nelle cooed at him and kissed him nonstop. She said, “Isn’t he perfectly wonderful?” Then she asked me if I wanted to try holding him. I said no. Good thing too. If she’d have put Dutch in my arms back then, I might have thrown him out the damn window into the snow on the sidewalk below our little five-room apartment. That’s how much I already hated him.
But even then when he smelled like piss and puke and baby poo all the time, I couldn’t hate him as much as I wanted to. There was something about the way Nelle looked at him that made my hate go soft, like a limp member that’s lost its urge, if you know what I mean. I don’t know how else to describe it. I loved my ma, and the bottom line is Dutch put a smile on her usually sad face, so even though I wanted to hate him, I couldn’t really. For once, instead of spending most of the day on her knees praying for Jack to quit boozing it up all the time, she was sitting up in her bed, holding Dutch like he was some kind of gift from Zeus himself come down from the heavens to cure us all of what was ailing us. She’d sit there with Dutch all wrapped up in his baby blanket and the sun coming through that greasy third floor window, shining on her face, and as much as I wanted to hate the little bastard, I was grateful to him for bringing the sunlight into that room for once–even if it was only just for a few days.
As the years went by, me and Dutch was stuck with each other an awful lot. When Jack wasn’t trying to sell shoes at the dry goods store in town, he was slumped over a beer on his favorite stool in the saloon around the corner. When he was out of work, he’d march in all kinds of Hoover Hater rallies. The old man was a demonic democrat—how’s that for irony? Though it ain’t no secret that Dutch started out leaning to the left too. After all, him and Jack shared the same personal hero—good old Franklin Delano, the savior of the people, the mastermind behind that rebellion insurance we call the Welfare State. And while Jack was carousing and protesting, Nelle was running around town faith healing with the Disciples of Christ, or bowing down before the crucifix to beg for Jack’s conversion. So me and Dutch were, as I say, pretty much stuck with each other during the growing-up years.
We moved around a lot in them days—from Tampico to Chicago to Monmouth to Dixon and a few points in between. The old man was always losing one job or another, and we would have to ship off some place new so he could look for work where nobody knew what a loser he was. It wasn’t all his fault, I suppose. Times were tough for everybody back then. Jack was a shoe salesman, but his own kids had cardboard jammed into the soles of their shoes because they were so worn out. We weren’t alone in our modest lifestyle, though. The old man was lucky to work at all back then, especially with his history, so when it was time to pick up and move, we done as we were told and never whined about it. Don’t mean I liked moving, but I just kept my mouth shut about it. Jack wasn’t the sort to be real affectionate with tearful children. In fact, aside from spankings, I don’t think I ever had any kind of physical contact with him.
Truth is, I mostly blamed Dutch for us having to move around so much. The way I figured it at the time, me and Jack and Nelle got on just fine in the family finance department until Dutch came along. He was what I had heard people call the straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t fair, I suppose, to think of him like that, but I was just a kid and you can’t really blame me for it. I got back at my little brother by trying to get him in trouble every chance I got.
When we was living in Monmouth, for instance, (Monmouth–home of Wyatt freaking Earp, another one of Dutch’s personal heroes) I started up the West Side Alley Gang and we had these food fights against the East Side Alley Gang, whipping rotten tomatoes and fruit at each other. The whole thing started because eight of the East Side kids had chased Dutch home from school one day. Chased him clear up to the porch where Nelle chewed them boys out real good. Up there at the screen door in her apron hollering about shame and sin and “God’s eyes a’watching.”
I was damn embarrassed of Dutch running away from them boys, and even more embarrassed because our mommy had to come to his rescue. So I started the West Side Gang, hoping maybe we could both save face in the aftermath of Dutch’s humiliation. You’d think Dutch would of been grateful to me for exacting a little revenge on his behalf, but I had to threaten Dutch to get him to join up with the West Siders. Told him we’d use him for target practice if he didn’t at least act as lookout and stand at the end of the alley to watch for the East Siders so we could be ready for them. Eventually, he done as he was told, and a little more, throwing a few orange rinds and apple cores once the fighting broke out. Afterwards, I even talked him into smoking a victory corn silk stogie with us. Dutch didn’t take no delight in being a bad boy, but he knew how to play the part by the time I was done with him.
Only thing is he wasn’t usually the one to get blamed for whatever trouble we stirred up. Since I was the oldest, I was supposed to have more sense, so Jack’s wrath always showered down on me but hardly never even sprinkled on Dutch. I got a pretty good licking when we came home all covered in garbage after the alley battles, but Dutch usually got off easy—no dinner that night. Thing is, Dutch always tried to tell Jack that he was in it up to his eyeballs just like me, but Jack wouldn’t listen, just sent him to his room, saying, “Don’t interrupt me when I’m trying to teach your brother a lesson, boy.” You see what I mean about it being hard to hate Dutch. It wasn’t like he enjoyed watching me get my ass whooped or tried to make me take the fall. It was the old man that did that.
One time in Dixon, me and some of the other boys knocked an outhouse over at a school picnic. Dutch was right there with us when we done it, but as usual, he didn’t get in no trouble. Him being a star student and all, nobody figured he had anything to do with it. Must have been Moon, folks said. Dutch wouldn’t do nothing like that. I don’t really recall if Dutch actually done any of the shoving and pushing that eventually toppled the outhouse, but like I said, he was right there with us, and he sure didn’t do nothing to stop it from happening.
Then there was that night when me and Monkey Winchell stole the Tampico Post Office sign and set it up in front of the lumberyard. Dutch was there with us that time too. He even helped me carry the sign after Monkey tripped and twisted his ankle. ‘Course none of us got in trouble for that one. That was one of the few times we all got away with something. There was even a photo on the front page of the Tampico Gazette next day with a caption that read, “Vandals seek confusion with postal prank.” We was pretty proud of that one. Well, me and Monkey were proud anyway. Dutch didn’t say nothing about it after, but I did catch him eyeing the front page that night while we was eating dinner and Jack was reading out loud to us a Gazette article about how Father Coughlin was railing against the Communists again.
Probably the worst thing I ever done where Dutch was concerned, I done when he was just a toddler. I was going on six, I think, so the little Dutchman couldn’t have been more than two and a half. We was out in front of the house. Nelle was inside with some of her Disciples friends, sipping sun tea and Jack was off to work. It was summer. A hot one. Bees buzzing around in the tall grass out front.
Across the road from where we was living at that time, there was a railroad track and beyond that, a little park area that had an ice cream stand in the summertime. I always begged Nelle to take us over there and get us some strawberry ice cream, but she always said things like, “If the good Lord wanted us to treat ourselves with things like strawberry ice cream, he would have made your father a doctor, not a shoe salesman. Some of us has just got to go without. Now that’s final. You run along, Moon.”
So I didn’t even bother asking her that day because I knew what the answer would be. And anyway, Jack had just told me and Dutch the story of Robin Hood and his band of merry men, so I had other ideas. Jack was real big on Robin Hood, him being a Democrat and all, so I figured if I pulled a little Robin Hood stunt of my own, the old man might even pat me on the back instead of smacking me on the ass.
I says to Dutch, who was busy waddling around in the grass, chasing dragonflies, “Say, Dutch, you want some ice cream?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he giggles, because what little kid don’t want ice cream?
“Okay, then,” I say, “let’s go get some. Follow me.”
Neither one of us had ever crossed that road without Jack or Nelle before, and I knew we wasn’t supposed to, but we was on a mission. I stepped out onto the dirt first, striding out there like it was natural as could be, and Dutch tagged along right beside me, his stubby little legs stomping on the dry July earth and his saggy knickers dangling low in the crotch. Luckily, there wasn’t nobody coming, so we made it across to the train tracks without being seen.
There was a freight train stopped on the tracks that day—dusty sunlight pouring through open box cars—and it didn’t look like it was going anywhere anytime soon, so I figured we ought to just crawl under one of them coal cars, make our way over to the park, sneak up on the ice cream stand and steal ourselves a couple of scoops of soothing strawberry ice cream. Simple. Gives you a little insight into the inner workings of the six-year-old mind, I guess.
Well, you can probably guess what happened next. We get down on all fours and duck our heads down between the wheels and drag our bare knees up over the rails and start creepy crawling toward that frosty steam rising up out of the ice cream cart in the park, when all of a sudden, we hear the train whistle blow and the engine wheeze and the wheels start squealing to life.
I scrambled to the other side in a hurry, of course, but Dutch panicked. He sat back on his saggy bottom and looked at me in a complete state of terror. He was more or less frozen there under the train. And I didn’t know what the hell to do. Meanwhile, I hear in the distance, the screen door of our house bang shut across the road, and Nelle calling out our names. I figure it’s only a matter of seconds till she spots Dutch trapped under a moving train, so I reach in and grab the little bugger by his chubby little wrist and yank him as hard and as fast as I can out from under there just as the coal car rumbles into action and rolls off. The train is nearly howling by now, but I can still hear our ma on the other side of the tracks screaming like I ain’t heard her do since the little Dutchman was born. I guess you could say that little brush with death was like Dutch’s Second Coming.
Anyway, when he got home, Jack whipped my ass so bad, I couldn’t sit down for the rest of the week. Had to take my meals in bed or go hungry. If Jack was around at mealtime, I mostly went without food because he said feeding me in bed was treating me like royalty when I deserved to be treated like a peasant. When he wasn’t around, though, Nelle would bring something to me on a tray. She’d kneel down next to the bedside and say a prayer about me learning to use my God-given sense. Then she’d leave me alone with my oatmeal or creamed corn or whatever it was she was serving that day.
I never mentioned the whole Robin Hood thing to Jack, but to this day, I wonder if maybe he wouldn’t have gone so hard on me if he knew the ice cream caper was actually a democratic act of defiance—the little guy rising up and taking what’s his. More likely he would have whooped me even harder because he never had the balls to take that kind of action himself, and by doing it at six, I was really showing him up.
There were only two times both me and Dutch got the same punishment. The first was when we was living up in Chicago.
It was a cold night in November, as I recall. Nelle was over to some neighbor’s place praying on a little girl who come down with the whooping cough. She brought some vegetable stew over there for the little girl’s parents who was worried sick and not taking the time to fix themselves a proper meal, according to Nelle. She was always taking on some hard luck case and trying to solve it with stew and scripture. Her efforts worked often enough that people started calling on her almost as much as they called their family doctors. After a while me and Dutch got used to her being out “on call,” but that November night in Chicago was the first time she ever left us alone in that dreary little apartment we had.
The wind was banging hard and whistling through the windowpanes that night. Jack was supposed to be on his way home any minute, which was why Nelle left us alone in the first place. “Your father’s return is imminent,” she said. ‘Course we didn’t know what imminent meant at the time, but that was one of Nelle’s favorite words. “The Lord’s will is imminent,” she would say, “I feel a change of tides is imminent.” Back then, I always figured she was saying “in a minute,” which wasn’t so far off, really. But to Jack a minute could be six hours when his ass was glued to a barstool. This was in the days before Prohibition when the saloons was still open—the days before Jack was reduced to the humiliating habit of spicing up his near beer with rubbing alcohol and drinking it at home, and in them pre-prohibition days, the saloon was his home, and me and Dutch wasn’t feeling too confident about Jack’s imminent return.
We waited, oh, I reckon it was at least forty-five minutes before we started to worry. Then with the darkness creeping in and the wind banging them windows, we started imaging all kinds of horrible fates for Nelle and Jack. And ourselves. Two little kids from downstate alone in a drafty apartment on a cold night in the big city, I guess we let our imaginations get the best of us. In no time at all, we was certain, Jack was dead on a curb, having stumbled and collapsed under the wheel of a passing trolley, and Nelle was being beaten senseless by a dope fiend in an alley where tiger rats were gonna eventually gnaw out her eyeballs and make minced meat out of her tongue. As for me and Dutch—two orphan boys left behind by this unfortunate dual tragedy—we would be forced to take up with a gang of thieves and live in the sewers with the same rats that feasted on our mother’s face, listening to the deadly trolley cars passing overhead. This would be our eternal home, our urban hell.
Being the older brother, I figured it was my duty to take charge at that moment. I must a been about eight at the time, so that would make Dutch around six, and we had no business wandering out into the streets to save our parents from the dangers that awaited them, but I convinced Dutch we had to take matters into our own hands. I carefully turned down the gas lamp so the place wouldn’t go up in flames while we was out searching for Jack and Nelle. We bundled up in our scarves and mittens and raggedy wool coats and headed out into the night.
The wind was spitting an icy mist at us as we ducked under our collars and made our way down the sidewalk toward Jack’s favorite watering hole. We hadn’t walked more than a couple of city blocks when an old drunk sitting on a stoop stopped us. “What the hell are you boys doing out on a night like this,” he growled. I grabbed Dutch’s sleeve and tried to drag him away, but the rummy barked at us again, saying, “You boys oughtn’t be out on the streets at night by yourselves. Where’s your folks?”
Dutch, not knowing any better, said, “Our parents are in danger and we are going to find them.”
The drunk laughed and said something like, “Oh, I see.” The he smiled kind of wickedly. There was spittle in his beard. “I think maybe you boys is the ones in danger,” he said. “This ain’t no place for kids to be wandering around at night. You two oughta get yoursleves back home before something bad happens to the both of yous.”
That’s when I spoke up, saying, “You just mind your own business, mister. Our parents need us and we’re gonna find them.”
“Well, you sure is a feisty one, ain’t ya. What you gonna do if somebody kidnaps ya and takes ya prisoner, eh? You ever think of that?”
I grabbed on to the elbow of Dutch’s coat a little tighter and tried to tug him away again, but he wouldn’t budge. He said, “Why would somebody do something like that, mister?”
The drunk sniffled and slurred a sigh, then said: “Lots of evil in the world, little man. There’s good and there’s evil. If you’re smart, you’ll hide from the evil while you’re too little to do anything about it. Maybe when you’re all growed up, you can do something about the evil in the world, but for now, I suggest you and your brother get yourselves back home and let your parents handle the evil on their own.”
Just then another voice come up behind us. “Sounds like good advice to me,” it said. We knew that voice right off. It was Nelle come to rescue us. “What the devil are you boys doing out here?” she snapped. “I told you to wait at home. Where’s your father?”
“He ain’t come back yet,” Dutch said, “and we was getting worried, so Moon said we should go look for him and you to make sure you was all right.”
Of course the little bastard blamed it on me. I ain’t saying it wasn’t my idea, mind you, but it would have been nice if Dutch had kept his mouth shut for once. Didn’t matter much in the end, though, because like I said, we both got the same licking when Jack came home.
By the time Nelle dragged us back to the apartment, the whole place had filled up with gas on account of I didn’t shut off the gas lamp properly. Damn nearly blowed the whole building to kingdom come. Jack was right behind us coming up the steps and when he smelled the gas and Nelle told him about finding me and Dutch wandering the streets alone, he pulled that belt of his from out of its loops and strapped the both of us good. One lick for me, one lick for Dutch, one lick for me, one for Dutch, and so on. Till both of us was raw and red and bawling. It hurt like hell, but for once, I wasn’t the only one on the blistered end of the strap. I don’t mind admitting that I took some pleasure in hearing Dutch howl.
The only other time Dutch and me shared equally in the shower of Jack’s wrath was when we pulled off the shotgun prank. Jack had this old Winchester that me and Dutch was always admiring. It was just like Wyatt Earp’s, we reckoned, and we was always daring each other to fondle it. Lots of times when Jack and Nelle wasn’t around, me and Dutch would lift the rifle from off its rack on the wall above the mantle and take turns handling that gun like we was copping our first feel of a real live naked breast.
Jack kept that old gun nice and clean, and when you cocked it, the sound of its action was the sweetest music you ever heard. You couldn’t help but want to load that thing and fire off a couple a rounds. You’d have to be some kind of a homosexual not to feel the pulse of eagerness in ya when you held the butt up against your shoulder and eyeballed something soft through the sight at the end of the barrel. Even Dutch felt it. ‘Course he was a real huge Wyatt Earp fan, as I’ve said.
By the time we was in high school, we’d moved out of Wyatt Earp’s Monmouth over to the white house in Dixon. By then the urge to fire our daddy’s rifle was too powerful to ignore any longer, so I concocted a scheme that would give us an opportunity to shoot off a few rounds and, at the same time, play a practical joke on some of the freshmen at the high school there in Dixon. I was a senior then and even though Dutch was only a sophomore, my buddies and me figured we could let him in on the freshman initiation that year, especially if he agreed not to say nothing about us using the old man’s Winchester for the gag.
The idea was this: We’d lure a group of cocky freshman boys out to the forest just on the outskirts of town by telling them that if they could shoot a tin can off of a log, they would get a free pass for that year’s initiations. Then when we got them out there, me and Moses Killjoy would fake like we was having an argument about who was gonna get to shoot first—me saying, “It’s my old man’s gun, I should get to decide, you pasty faced moron,” and him saying, “The whole thing was my idea in the first place, you pansy,” and me saying, “Pansy? Who you calling pansy, you lilly livered queerbag?” and then me raising the Winchester up and saying, “Run now while you still got a chance,” and him back pedaling and shaking his head and saying, “You wouldn’t dare,” and me cocking the rifle (oh, that beautiful sound), and him pretending to crap his pants and beg for his life while I press the butt to my shoulder and close one eye tight so as to take aim at his sorry ass as he’s running away through the thicket, and then me squeezing off a round (a few feet over Killjoy’s head, of course) and him clutching his chest and squirting some tomato juice onto his own shirt and falling with a sickening thud on the forest floor and the gun smoking in my hand and all them stupid unsuspecting freshmen looking on in complete shock. Then Dutch yells, “Hurry, somebody go get a doctor.” The freshmen stand there looking like it was them that got shot. Dutch, who was a hell of an actor, even back then, gets in their faces and screams: “I said go get a doctor, you idiots!”
The plan went off without a hitch; the freshmen initiates ran like their asses were on fire. The doc’s office was back in town, a good three miles at least, and I reckon they ran all the way without so much as pausing to gasp for air. ‘Course when they returned to the scene of the crime with the doc, weren’t no criminals or victims to be found in them woods. By then me and Dutch and Moses Killjoy had high tailed it out of there and gone back home to put the rifle back up on the rack above the mantle in the living room.
We would of gotten away with the whole thing if Dutch hadn’t blown a hole through the ceiling when he was putting the gun back in place. I guess me or Moses must of forgot to unload Jack’s Winchester, and when Dutch slid it into its spot over the fireplace, he must have been holding the thing by the trigger cuz the rifle bucked out of his hands and blasted a hunk of plaster the size of Moses’s head down from the ceiling. It crashed onto the wood floor and splattered its rubble all over the divan, leaving a cloud of dry, drifting dust hovering there like misty fog in a swamp. We were a sight, coated in plaster dust and looking like we was ghosts out of some horror show.
Outside, Jack’s heavy feet thumped on the porch. “What the hell was that?” he hollered, and Moses ran through the kitchen and out the back door. Jack stormed into the house just as the smoke was beginning to settle. There was no place for me and Dutch to hide. No need to go into all the dirty details about what came out of Jack’s mouth that afternoon, but it is worth noting that in the years that followed that incident, more people in the area remembered Jack’s tirade than remembered the rifle blast. Some folks never even knew what it was that set Jack off that day. And few people seemed to care. When they spoke of it, and they spoke of it often, it was always something like “That Jack sure has a demon for a tongue, boy and how,” or “Don’t know what got into the man that day, but no one in these parts is ever gonna forget how the foundation of that house shook when he went storming in there after them boys of his” or “Jesus Christ himself couldn’t of put the fear of God into them boys any better than Jack did that day.”
The problem for Jack was that me and Dutch was getting a bit too big to be strapped, so aside from all the yelling that was heard all over Dixon, Jack had to come up with some other sort of punishment that would fit the crime. Now, it happens that a couple of days before the shotgun prank, Jack had made a sour business investment in an entire boxcar full of produce—potatoes, to be exact. Some guy down at the saloon sold Jack a few thousand potatoes at a third of their usual cost and told him that he’d make a killing by reselling them at the farmer’s market. Turned out most of the potatoes was rotten, though, so Jack stood to loose his entire investment unless he could sort out the good potatoes from the bad ones and sell enough of the good ones to recoup his money.
That’s where me and Dutch come in. Years later when I would tell the story in college, I would call it the Great Potato Punishment because it was far worse than any beating I ever took on account of Jack’s wrath. We spent three whole days locked in that overheated boxcar, sorting good potatoes from bad potatoes, one at a time. Twelve hours a day for three days in what must have been a one hundred degree swelter, shooing flies, dripping sweat, and breathing the stink of them rotted potatoes. It smelled like death in there, I tell you. Like three-day-old cadavers stiffening in the steamy heat.
I don’t mind admitting the stink in that boxcar about made me gack up some of my vital organs. I suppose I should have been worrying about dying of heat stroke or running out of oxygen in there, but I swear all I could think about was the smell. I held my nose with one hand, tossing the potatoes into piles with the other—good ones on my left, bad ones on my right. About the only thing that kept me from vomiting was knowing that if I did gack, I’d be trapped in there with the rancid stench of my own puke on top of the rancid stench of the rotten potatoes, which would probably make me puke more, and before you know it, there’d be more puke than there was potatoes.
What made it even worse was that Dutch didn’t seem to mind the stink at all. In fact, he would actually press the potatoes to his nose, taking a deep whiff to see if they was edible or not. ‘Course, you didn’t have to smell them. All you had to do was look at them and you could tell if they was any good or not. But he kept jamming them soggy green roots right up against his nostrils like he actually enjoyed the smell of the worst, most rotted potatoes in the bunch. I even caught him taking extra sniffs of the ones with the most mold, the ones that was so soft, you could press your thumb right through them.
Maybe Dutch was just curious about the smell, or maybe he was just being real thorough. But I swear I seen a goofy little smirk on his face every time he sniffed a nasty one, like a little kid who is proud of his own farts or something. I tell you, it was like he was getting off on the smell of them potatoes. Now, truth is that this didn’t really surprise me all that much. See, one of Dutch’s personal heroes in Dixon was the local taxidermist, a guy by the name of Gus Pendleton, who had the heads of all kinds of scary looking, antlered beasts up on the wall of his shop. And after school sometimes Dutch would go over there to watch Gus Pendleton gut and clean and stuff them creatures. Dutch got a kick out watching old man Pendleton spill the critters’ innards out into his slop sink. I know this because I went with him one time and watched as Gus sawed the head off a deer. Dutch was mesmerized by the whole thing. Seeing it once was enough for me. But Dutch kept going back for more, day after day.
I never watched the process all the way through because I got a little bored during the cleaning stage, but Dutch studied taxidermy like he was destined to take over Gus’s shop one day. I imagine that when it came time for the stuffing and sewing up part, Dutch must of sat there for hours kind of hypnotized by the stich-stich of the needle disappearing under the fur and flesh. I ain’t saying my little brother was some kind of a madman or nothing, but I do think that maybe he got so used to sniffing the smell of death over at Gus’s shop that maybe the stink of them potatoes was no big deal to him. Or maybe he was a bit of a wacko who had some kind of giddy-up in his knickers for the stench of the Grim Reaper. Whatever it was that made him immune to the evil odors to which we was exposed on them hot long days during the Potato Punishment, I wanted to kill him for it.
He sat there smiling away, barely sweating, whistling a happy tune, sniffing potatoes, running his thumb over their skin, breaking roots off of some of them, and tossing them into their piles like we was engaged in some kind of fun little hobby. Like collecting stamps or something. And there I was, up to my earlobes in mountains of rotting potatoes, fighting back the acid and bile bubbling up in my burning esophagus, humongous bulging drops of salty sweat dribbling off the tip of my nose, feeling like I’m living out a nightmare from which I ain’t never gonna wake. And there’s Dutch, sniffing, smiling, whistling. Happy as a clam in heat.
Finally, I couldn’t take it no more. So I says, “What are so damn happy about, boy? Don’t you know this is supposed to be a punishment?”
Says he with a little grin: “I’m just trying to make the best of a bad situation, Moon. No point in being miserable about it.”
That was Dutch for you, always finding a silver lining. Always making the best of a bad situation. I probably should of puked on him right then, but like I said, I didn’t want to start an unstoppable cycle of regurgitation. Instead, I chucked a potato at him and said, “You know what I think?”
“What do you think, Moon?”
“I’ll tell you what I think, little brother. I think maybe you actually like doing this. Yeah, I think maybe you got a little bit of pervert in you, and these stinky old potatoes is turning you on or something.”
“What the heck are you talking about?” says the Dutchboy.
“I’m talking about perverts and what they call fetishes.”
“What’s a fetishes?” Dutch asks me.
“Not fetishes,” I say, “fetish. I think you got a fetish.”
“What is that? A fetish—what is it?”
“It’s when something weird makes you horny. Like if you had a cotton candy fetish, your dingler would get hard every time you was at the county fair and you tasted some of that soft fluffy pink cotton candy they sell at the 4H booth.”
“You’re crazy,” says Dutch.
“It’s true,” I say. “Monkey Winchell told me about it. He said his old man told him that some guys are real weird about stuff like that, and if you ain’t careful, you can turn yourself into a fetish pervert who can’t control his own wanger.”
“You’re crazy,” Dutch said again, only this time he seemed a little less sure of himself. He was probably remembering all those times when his weenie had a mind of its own and stiffened for no particular reason ‘cept maybe the barometer was on the rise. Then he said, “And Monkey Winchell is crazy too. I don’t believe nothing he says.”
“I think you’re the crazy one, Dutch. Sitting here sniffing these rotten potatoes like they was gardenias or something. I seen that little smile of your face, brother. I bet you was thinking about rubbing one of them moldy potatoes right up against yourself, wasn’t you?”
“Shut up!” Dutch said. I was getting to him. And it was fun. So I decided to push it as far as it would go.
“This is you, Dutch,” I says, and then I start inhaling through my flared nostrils real deep. It’s making me feel sick all the way down to my toes, but I figure it’s gonna be worth it to get Dutch a little riled up. I start acting like I actually enjoy the smell of the rotted potatoes. I start taking extra sniffs of a real squishy, moldy one, pressing right up inside my nose hole. And I’m making these moaning sounds and quivering like the smell is making me want to do something unnatural to myself.
Dutch says, “Knock it off, Moon, we got work to do.”
But I don’t stop. I keep it up—sniffing and pressing the potato against my cheeks and forehead, moaning louder now like I’m out of control.
I can tell Dutch is getting pretty wigged out because he shouts at me, says, “I told you to knock it off, Moon.” He don’t usually talk to me like this because he knows I’ll boot his backside to Kalamazoo if he gets too fresh with me, so I figure I’ve just about pushed him too far, challenging his manhood the way I was. That’s how I knew it was time to go in for the kill.
So I squashed that stinky, spongey old potato with my bare hands and rubbed it all over my face, and I started grunting and growling like a dog that’s humping your grandma’s knee. I was going crazy over the potatoes like I’m so turned on that I’m about to blow my wad right there in the box car. I tear open my sweat-soaked shirt, fall on my back, howling on the floor, burying myself in that huge mound of rotten potatoes. At first, I can tell Dutch is thinking, Okay this boy is finally cracking up. Maybe Jack done smacked him across the back of the head one too many times.
But by the time I’m bucking wildly under that mound of tuber death, I hear a noise erupting from Dutch that ain’t the least bit distressed. It starts as a stifled rumble, then bursts like a spigot springing a leak and spitting water out in fourteen directions at once. Dutch is laughing. He’s howling with laughter. He can’t help himself, I guess. My little performance went a little too far, apparently. Instead of putting a fear of fetish into him and his limp little willie stick, it tickled his funny bone. His big laugh filled the boxcar. I was struck dumb, lying on the floor, covered in potato guts, trying so hard to make Dutch’s day one of pure misery, and here he was laughing his skinny little ass off at me like I was a circus clown or a sideshow freak. I just laid there watching him laugh, listening to the sound of it bounce off the walls of that boxcar and feeling it land on me. So I stopped gyrating on the floor and stood up.
Dutch’s laughter finally died down. He’s wiping his brow and the laugh tears from his eyes when he says, “Moon, you could make just about anything seem funny.”
At first I take that as a compliment, but then I start thinking: We got nearly two more days of this misery ahead of us, and there ain’t nothing funny about being locked up in a boxcar during a heat wave with ten thousand decomposing potatoes and a little brother who refuses to see the misery of the situation. And whose fault is that I’m in this mess anyway? I wonder, as I sit back down on my stump to start sorting again. I ain’t the one who blasted a damn hole in the ceiling of Jack and Nelle’s parlor. Dutch done that. Sure, it was my idea to pull off the prank in the forest, but it was dumb-as-dirt Dutch who pulled the trigger in the damn house. Yet, here I was paying the price once again.
I started thinking about all the times I took beatings while Dutch watched from the doorway. All the times I got the strap and he got nothing more than a scolding. All the times he played little-mister-sacred-knickers while I took the blame for something. I ain’t saying I didn’t deserve all them whoopings I got, and I ain’t even saying Dutch should have been whooped more than he was, necessarily. I’m just saying that at that moment, with the heat closing in on me and the potatoes demanding to be sorted, I wanted Dutch to suffer just a little bit more than I was suffering, and since we were locked up together in there, I was sure there had to be a way I could make that happen somehow.
That’s when I got the idea to tell Dutch the story of our Great Uncle Daniel. I’d been saving the story for a long time, saving it for just the right moment. It was a true story that Jack had told me one night when he was real drunk. The next morning he made me promise I would never tell no one else. Great Uncle Daniel was related to us on our mama’s side of the family, see, and if Nelle found out Jack was telling me about what happened between Daniel and his brothers back in 1859, she would of been real angered about it, so Jack told me to keep the family secret to myself. And up until that day in the boxcar, I’d done just that, though I never had no intention of keeping it to myself forever, and I figured since Jack had locked me up in that boxcar with Dutch, he didn’t really deserve to be protected no more.
“You laugh all you want, little brother,” I said “but I ain’t fooling with you. I think you actually like the smell of these here rotten potatoes.”
“Why would I like the smell?” Dutch asks, shaking his head.
“Maybe because it reminds you of death. And maybe you like the smell of death.”
“What you talking about?” asks Dutch with a smirk, thinking I am about to pull off another joke.
“I’m saying you like the smell of death is all. Like when you go over to Gus Pendleton’s and watch him gutting a deer or bear or something. I seen that look you get in your eye.”
“That look that says you got an unnatural hunger for the smell of death.”
“You’re crazy,” Dutch says, forcing another chuckle.
“Maybe I am,” I say. Then I stare off as if I’m thinking real hard about something that’s troubling deeply. “It’s in our blood, you know,” I say, real serious-like.
Dutch picks up a potato, turns it over, tosses it to his right. “Now what you talking about?”
“I say it’s in our blood.”
“Craziness. And an appetite for death.”
Dutch don’t say nothing. He ain’t sure where I’m going, and he ain’t sure if he wants to come along for the ride.
I start up the story’s engine this way: “Ain’t Jack never told you about our Great Uncle Daniel?”
Dutch shakes his head. ‘Course, I already knew he didn’t know the story of our family secret. That was what give me the advantage over him. See, a story is power if you tell it right. And apparently, I told that one right because afterwards, Dutch was never quite the same.
First I told him to put down the potato he was holding in his right hand. He tossed into the pile. Then I said, “Now look me in the eye, Dutch, because I want you to know that every word of what I’m about to tell you is the God’s honest truth. It ain’t no fireside ghost story. You gonna have a hard time believing me, I expect, but I swear on our mother’s grave that I’m telling you like it is, or rather, like it was, way back in 1859, when Nelle’s Uncle Daniel and his two older brothers set out to California in search of gold.”
Dutch always loved a good story as much as anybody else, so he slid forward on his stump, folded his hands in his lap, and cocked his head a bit, listening to me like I was a voice on the radio. There weren’t no sound effects, of course, but I didn’t need them, I guess, because Dutch was glued to my story like horseflies on the crusted ass of a gelding. His eyes was wide and his ears seemed to kinda twitch as I told him about the Gold Rush and the fate of our great uncles. He leaned into the story like a pitcher looking for a sign from his catcher. I kept him hanging on with plenty of gruesome details—what I didn’t know or couldn’t remember, I made up. That’s what story telling is all about, anyway, I reckon. It ain’t how much you get right, it’s how hard people listen; that’s what matters. And Dutch listened awful hard on that hot afternoon.
He listened hard as I told him about Daniel and his older brothers Charles and Alexander and about their dreams of striking it rich in California by panning for gold nuggets up San Francisco way. He listened hard as I told him how the three of them got trapped up on Pike’s Peak during the blizzard of ’59 and how they ran out of food and was taken sick one by one until all three of them was sure they was about to breathe their last breath. And he listened hardest when I told him about how them three brothers, our great uncles, our own flesh and blood, done the unthinkable.
Dutch didn’t interrupt. He didn’t ask questions. He just sat there, aching for details. And I gave him plenty. Details about how the cold air cut right through to their bones. Details about how their lungs was filling up with fluid and about how their fingers and toes and the tips of their ears started turning green. Details about how their stomachs was on fire with hunger. Details about the sting in the tips of their wangers when they tried to pee in that frigid mountain air. I told Dutch how their dream of gold kept them going for a time, how their ideas about the shimmer of the stuff would warm them once they got to California. And I told him how after a while, they stopped talking about gold, stopped thinking about it even, and started looking at each other with hatred in their eyes.
In time the brothers stopped talking to one another and just sat for long spells, huddled under piles of brush, shivering, trying to stay alive by sheer will alone. Before long, they was all having the same thoughts, though none of them spoke these thoughts aloud. But each of them knew what the other was thinking because they could see it in each other’s eyes. For effect, I told Dutch it was the same look I’d seen in his eyes when he sniffed them potatoes, the same look I seen on him when he watched old man Pendleton carve the head off that deer, the same look I caught him wearing once when he watched from the doorway as Jack whooped my tender ass till it bled.
Dutch shifted on his stump when I told him this. He didn’t want to hear me say such things, I reckon, but he wanted to hear the rest of the story real bad, so he endured it, tried to ignore it maybe, but I could see it was sinking in, having its intended effect. He knew there was some truth in what I was saying. What man among us hasn’t, at one time or another, delighted in the gruesome horror or another? Dutch was no different than anybody else in this way, and I knew I could make the most of the story if I made him connect with the brothers and what they was about to do to each other.
It helped that Dutch and me knew our Bible stories real good. Nelle was always reading the Good Book out loud to us in the evenings when we wasn’t listening to the radio, so I reminded him about Cain and Abel and the sinful evil that lurks between all brothers. He closed his eyes for a minute when I said the name of Cain. I could see he had some idea where the story was going by now. I could see, too, that he needed to hear the end, no matter how horrible it might be.
So I told him.
Great Uncle Alexander was the first one to perish up there on that mountain. And for three days, Daniel and Charles just sat there and watched his body stiffen. Neither one of them said a word, but they was both thinking the same thoughts. By the third day, they’d brought their silent conversation to its logical conclusion. Daniel was the first to unsheathe his blade and start hacking away at Alexander’s frozen flesh. Charles followed immediately, tearing through his brother’s limbs with the fever of madness in him. They stabbed and sliced and sawed, cracking bones and snapping ligaments when necessary. They chewed and sucked and swallowed. They gnawed and ripped and gulped, choking down their brother’s skin and muscle, tugging strips of the cold, raw flesh off its bones like wild animals. And they eyed each other tentatively over their gourmet meal, wondering which of them would be next.
It was Charles who died second, and Daniel didn’t waste no time in feasting on him. He didn’t wait for the body to harden and freeze. He had been salivating for days as he watched Charles shiver and shake with fever. The body was still warm and oozing life fluids when he cut into it, and he immediately discovered the delicacy of the fresh kill. He sat on his haunches, hovering over the steaming corpse, pressing his face into the bloody remains of his brother, eating what he thought would be his final meal on earth.
Daniel fell asleep that night and slept hard. It was the first good night’s sleep he’d had since the trip began. There were no visions of gold nuggets tugging him westward, no nightmares of avalanches, no hungry aches scratching at his belly, just sweet silent sleep.
You can tell if you told a story right by the way people react. Sometimes they shake their heads, which means they didn’t believe or don’t want to believe your story. Sometimes they smirk like they just heard some kind of wisecrack, which means you was too funny for your own damn good and they ain’t gonna remember the story a year from now. Sometimes they ask questions, which depending on how many questions they ask, means either you left too much out or you told them just enough. The best reaction you can ever hope for is silence because that means you made their heads swim with so much crap that they gotta just sit for a while and try to sort it out. Or it means you ripped something out of them that they was trying to keep buried, and here they are, sitting there staring at it, not knowing what the hell to do with it now that it’s out in the open, looking back up at them.
Silence is what I got from Dutch just then. Absolute deafening silence. His whole body went tightly limp with the silence. He was drained and lifeless. His eyes was glassy and he looked like something stiff was welled up in his chest about to burst out of that otherwise slim, slack body of his. He stared at the potato pile in front of him like it was the corpse of our mama.
For a long time, Dutch didn’t say nothing, just sat there as if somebody had hit him in the gut with a sledgehammer. I picked up a potato, gave it a little squeeze, then tossed it aside. The thick, hot air stood still between us in the silence after that potato hit the floor with a thud.
Finally, I said what it was I was waiting to say all along. “Point of the story is this, Dutch, you and me was born out of Daniel’s bloodline, and we was born partly because of Daniel’s survival instinct. If he don’t eat his brothers, then we, who is his direct descendants, don’t get born. You see what that means, don’t you, Dutch?”
Like I said, Dutch was plenty familiar with the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel and all the rest, and he also knew a thing or two about how sickness can run in a family, what with watching Jack take on his family’s drinking disease and all, so he saw pretty clear what it was that I was driving at. Still, I felt like I had to put the required exclamation point on the end of my sentence, so I said, “You’d be best to keep them tendencies of yours in check, little brother.”
“What tendencies?” he asked, the words catching in his throat.
“You know just what I’m talking about, Dutch.”
“Like hell I do,” he said, which for Dutch was some serious cussing.
“Come on, you ain’t gotta try to hide it from me, Dutchboy. And you ain’t gotta hide it from yourself neither. You just gotta be mindful of it so you don’t do something you might regret one day.”
“Why don’t you come right out and say what you mean to say, Moon?” he asked, cocking an angry eyebrow at me.
“Okay, what I mean to say is this: I know and you know that if we was stuck here in this boxcar until I croaked from heat stroke, you’d get mighty sick of living off potatoes real quick, and in no time at all, you’d get it in your head to make a three-course meal out of me.”
“Stop it,” said Dutch, “I don’t want to hear no more.”
“Aw, come on, Dutch, shame ain’t gonna help you none. You got to face the truth so you can fight the urge to digest anybody who might offer you something substantial to chew on. That’s all I am to you—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You been feeding off of me since the day you was born.”
“Shut up already,” Dutch yelled, getting kinda red in the face now.
“Look,” I said, “I know you and everybody else thinks I deserve all them whoopings I get, and I know you and everybody else thinks you’re better than me, so it stands to reason that if one of us had to serve as nourishment for the other, it would be me. Face it, you wouldn’t hesitate to tear into me with your incisors, grind me up with your molars, and pummel me with stomach acids, ‘specially since you got such an unnatural hankering for the smell of death and all.”
That was all it took. Something clicked inside of Dutch then, something I ain’t never seen in him before that moment. I guess I’d pushed him over the edge. Or maybe it was the heat catching up with him finally. Whatever it was, his eyes turned coal black, like the pupils just swallowed up all the color it the iris. He was clenching his jaw, and them thin lips of his was quivering with madness. He pressed the palms of his hands down on his knees, I remember, and pushed himself up off his stump. He just stood there for a second or two, glaring at me. Then he took a step toward me. And then another.
In a few seconds, he had taken three or four stiff-legged strides across the boxcar from his side to my side. Then, standing there in front of me, looking down at me, his said, in a voice made out of gravel and broken glass, “Stand up, Moon.”
I wasn’t afraid of him, mind you, but like I said, I ain’t never seen that particular crazed look in his eye before, so I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for. I thought about cracking a joke and trying to diffuse the whole thing. I thought I’d say something like: “Don’t worry, Dutch, I know you wouldn’t really eat me. One bite and you’d discover just how bitter and sour tasting I was and you’d spit me right out.” But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say nothing. Instead, I done what Dutch said; I stood up and looked hard into them blackened eyes of his.
He stared me down for a second. Then he said this: “I ain’t no damn cannibal, Moon. I ain’t Cain and you ain’t Abel. And I ain’t gonna sit here and listen to you tell me otherwise no more.” He took a breath. His wheels were spinning still. He had more to say. “And you ain’t Cain neither, Moon, though, sometimes I think you wish you was. I don’t know why you got to hate me so much. I don’t know what I ever did to you besides get born. But you seem to think I stole something from you, and maybe I did, but that don’t make me a cannibal. Wish I knew what I had to do to get you to stop seeing me as some kind of villain in your life story. Seems like I could become king of the world, and you’d still see me as some kind of puss-filled pimple that you gotta pop.”
I don’t mind admitting now that Dutch’s little speech left me speechless and feeling just a bit shameful. He’d pegged me somehow, and what can you say when somebody pegs you like that? I mean, I never even knew Dutch realized how I felt about him. ‘Course, now I see how obvious it must have been to him, but back then, I thought I was good at keeping my feelings to myself. Anyway, we were standing there, face to face still, the humidity clinging to us both, when we heard a sudden rattling at the padlock on the other side of the boxcar’s sliding door.
The door creaked and slid open. Sunlight poured into the car blinding us so we had to shield our eyes from the light. It was Nelle out there, our ma, silhouetted in the late afternoon sun, come to bring us a basket of sandwiches and fresh brewed iced tea. She saw us standing there, facing each other down, and she said, “What you boys up to?”
“Nothing,” said Dutch, “just talking is all.”
“Well, you better not let your father catch you talking when you supposed to be working.”
Dutch looked at me. I looked at him. Then we both looked back at Nelle.
She held up the basket and said, “I brought you boys some lunch. Eat up and then get back to work. Your father will be home in a few hours, and he’s gonna want to see some progress.”
“Yes, ma’am.” said Dutch. “Thank you for the food. We was getting mighty hungry out here.”
“Well, I reckon a little hunger might do you boys some good, but I don’t want you to starve to death, so eat up. I’ll come back for the basket in about an hour.” And with that, she slid the door closed again, and we was reduced to navigating by the little bit of sunshine that squeezed itself through the cracks in the slats on the boxcar’s side panels. But it was enough.
Dutch flipped the basket open, grabbed himself a sandwich, and walked back over to his stump to eat in silence. He chewed slowly and swallowed hard, avoiding eye contact with me while he ate. He didn’t say nothing to me for the rest of that day. And he didn’t say nothing to me for the next two days neither. Them was the longest days of my life, I reckon. Sitting there in that miserable heat, picking through the potatoes in complete silence. The hours dragged on and on. I honestly started thinking the Potato Punishment would never end. I thought maybe I’d died when that shotgun went off, and this was my personal hell.
Once or twice I thought about striking up a conversation. There was more to the story about Great Uncle Daniel, for instance. I’d sort of left Dutch hanging, and I wanted to tell him how things turned for Daniel.
See, the morning after he feasted on Charles’s flesh, when Daniel woke up, there was an Arapaho Indian standing over him, looking down at him with pity in his eyes. The Arapaho led him back to his camp that day, and nursed him back to health, gave him new life, in other words. And in the spring, Daniel made it back home alive, having survived on the gift of flesh given to him by his brothers.
As I say, I wanted to tell this part of the story to Dutch, but I didn’t feel right about bringing it up again, and so he never got to hear the ending, which means Dutch had to make his way through life with that unfinished story floating around inside him. Maybe it don’t matter none. I mean, we all got unfinished stories roaming around in us, but I reckon, the nature of this particular unfinished story might have been a little more unsettling than most.
And over the years, as I watched Dutch grow up and make his way in the world, I came to think maybe his whole life was some kind of attempt to put an end to that story. During the summers, he worked as a lifeguard at the lake in Dixon; he saved sixty-nine drowning swimmers by his third year. When he was working up at the radio station in Chicago, he saved a woman from a mugger by aiming an unloaded gun at the guy and telling him he put a bullet between his shoulders if he didn’t leave the woman alone. When Jack got his first heart attack and couldn’t work no more, Dutch took an extra job, unfreezing the neighbor’s water pipes with a blowtorch to try to help the family make ends meet. And when I couldn’t get into college on account of my poor grades and record of bad behavior, Dutch, who was a favorite of the Dean’s over at Eureka College, talked them into letting me in on a trial basis. ‘Course, I flunked out.
I could go on. There’s lots of examples of Dutch doing kind and courageous and generous things for people, and then there’s all that stuff he done when he finally did become King of the World, which some people might say wasn’t so kind or courageous or generous, but the fact is, Dutch always done what he thought was the right thing to do.