Red Owl

by Brandon Hobson

I live in a small town called Red Owl, where the mayor likes to get avocado facials. From Fulton Road, which runs north into town, some mornings you can see him sitting on his front porch, thumbing through the newspaper, his face caked in green. Most evenings he sits wearing his monogrammed slippers, sipping Polish vodka and listening to the smooth jazz FM station. Before bed he steps outside and waves a flashlight to check for trespassers. Ever since a group of teenagers from Crawford destroyed his mailbox with a baseball bat he’s been paranoid. He’s a man who’s afraid of everything, including cities. “Life is too fast paced,” he tells me. “I like quiet places. Red Owl is a quiet place.”

This is what it’s like to live in Red Owl: with fall’s dying leaves a redtailed hawk returns to its same nesting tree, in blowing wind, and red-winged blackbirds gather at the windowsill. There are opossums and skunks in the assemblage of trees across Fulton Road. At night they creep around outside and look for mice. My house sits in the country, down the road from an amber pond with moss on the bank. The pond is a decent place to fish, full of catfish and largemouth bass. I’ve seen bullfrogs and yellow-striped ribbon snakes there. I’ve seen a muskrat swimming toward the bank. In the mornings, as I walk down to the mailbox, several cedar waxwings with apple-blossom petals in their beaks sit on a branch, watching me. Early mornings in spring a fog hangs over the road. I’ve just moved here to Oklahoma, where I grew up many years ago. I have no family here, no real connection anymore, other than I lived here briefly as a child when my father taught at a small college near Tulsa. I’m now a widower. I’m now far away from Boston, only six months into my retirement. After my wife Margaret died, I wanted to move somewhere far away, somewhere quiet. I felt I needed to return to a place from my childhood.

At one time, many years ago, Margaret and I lived and worked in Boston. It’s a life I miss, but that life is gone. I’m far away from the tunnel traffic from I-93 to Albany Street and the yellow lights of the city; far from the morning jogs from the waterfront near UMASS, past the JFK Library and Museum to Castle Island to Broadway; far from the Back Bay brownstones, Copley Square, the architecture of Trinity and Old South Church; far from the North End, with its Italian restaurants and men who yell at each other as they unload trucks; far from the pubs, the good chowder and pale ale, the buildings, Commercial Street’s harbor with its dark water; far from the walks along the Charles River Parkway, the summer concerts in the park, Cambridge, Cape Cod, the view of the Prudential Tower from a sailboat at sunset; far from Fenway; far from the Red Sox and the Bruins and the Patriots and the Celtics.

The nearest city is sixty miles from my house. On my back porch you can sit outside for hours and study how branches interlace, which is riveting when you mix scotch and Xanax. After I moved in, I spent a week storing boxes in the musty attic with its scent of cedar and mothballs. The attic is now full of boxes of useless items: batteries, steel-wool buffer pads, my son’s old motorcycle magazines, paperback books and comic books. There are kerosene lamps and cloth-covered picture albums of our children and grandchildren. There are flashlights and paintbrushes and spiral notebooks and old greeting cards. There are boxes of toys I’ve never gotten rid of: wind-up plastic boats, racecars, a wooden Mickey Mouse doll, a stuffed white rabbit, a miniature bird cage, a tiny plastic house with a red roof, and so on. There are so many things I’ve kept over the years I no longer know what’s trash and what isn’t. Once a year I will go into that attic to bring down the Christmas decorations, boxes full of ornaments sprinkled with glitter, holly berries, strands of silver tinsel and tangled strings of blinking lights. I might run my hand along the curved back of a wicker chair Margaret liked to sit in, or blow the dust from an old cigar box that my father gave me when I was twelve. But mostly I will see the attic for what it is: a place to store the past, a room rarely visited, separated from the ordinary and lonely world below it.

Sometimes I sit at the back of the chapel near my house. I imagine sitting there with Margaret and listening to a choir while people around us sit with their heads bowed. At her funeral there were six pallbearers. It was freezing outside. They carried her coffin on their shoulders in a cold mist, and watching them I had a flash of her face before the tumor in her head started eating her memories. Before she died, for a while we met with a pastor who gave us hope. He kept referring to Mark 8 and the miraculous healing of a blind man in Bethsaida. Healing, miracles, hope. And now: how do you go from spending forty years with someone to being alone? Out here, at least, I have a telescope on the back deck and a lawn chair I can sleep in. I have my nights to sip scotch and look at the stars: constellations, Polaris and Lyra. I have neighbors down the road who own a dog, a terrier mutt named Batshit who sometimes tries to swim across the pond but never makes it to the other side. The dog, panting heavily, always turns around and paddles back to the bank. I’ve stood on the railed wooden bridge over the pond and watched this several times. The dog’s owner, a fourteen-year-old boy named Jamie, once told me that he screwed his girlfriend like a caveman until his legs went weak. Jamie plays bass guitar at a small country church on the south side of town.

“I’m thinking of changing my name,” he told me one morning by the mailbox. “Jamie’s a girl’s name. I like the name Elvis. My middle name’s Clyde.”

Jamie’s not the strangest person in Red Owl. Four miles north, past the only street light in town, Willie Ray Jones walks around with a knapsack full of dirty magazines that he tries to give away to people. About once a week the sheriff or on-duty police officer has to drive Willie Ray home. Willie Ray has a strabismus eye disorder (townies refer to him as “cockeyed”) and wears a tattered old fedora hat and overalls and work boots, though he doesn’t work due to mental issues from being struck by lightning when he was a teenager. At forty-one, Willie Ray lives with his mother and aunt in a small house behind C.J.’s Seed and Feed. Willie Ray’s mother and aunt drag him along with them to play bingo at the community center every Saturday night. He apparently has to be supervised at all times. His mother said if they leave him alone he’ll take off all his clothes and walk around town naked. A couple of weeks ago I saw him walking south on Main in only his boxer shorts and boots. The sheriff arrived as usual, helped him into his car, and drove him home.

My first night living here, I kept thinking I was hearing something out back, but it was too dark to see anything. Opossums, I told myself. Skunks, critters. I drank Jim Beam and fell asleep in the recliner in front of the television. Sleep is a precious thing. My afternoon naps are disturbed by a squirrel determined to torment me. Last week he came in through the kitchen window and stole a piece of banana nut bread from the saucer in the breakfast nook. The next day, while I was napping, the same squirrel hopped onto the arm of the couch and tapped on my head with an acorn. I managed to sit up and watch him run out.

“You’ll learn to deal with those things,” Jamie told me outside, where he threw an old tennis ball for Batshit to chase. “You’re in the country now, sir. Learn to drive a stake in the ground. Use a chain saw. Kick cow shit.”

Red Owl is like no other town I’ve ever encountered. Its strangeness is defined by the community in the same way the fictional town of Hooterville was defined by the farming communities in Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. Red Owl originated just after the 1889 land run. The Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad reached Pawnee Lake around this same time on its trek from Kansas down to Texas. In the 1950s and 60s, the railroad constructed the coach building center and division repair shops north of town. The railroad went bankrupt in 1980.

The assumption, I think, is that the town is as ordinary as any other small town. I enjoy these people who live on their own time: the people who act slowly, discussing the intricacies of weather, landscape, the shapes of natural creation. My neighbor, Wilbur Brunk, challenges me to look into my soul on nights he sits on his front porch and plays a fivestring banjo with all four of his grandchildren. This is a family of uniquely talented musicians: the two boys finger-pick their acoustic guitars, Chet Atkins style; the eldest granddaughter plays the fiddle and wears boots; the little one plays a tambourine. The music is wild and fast and foot-stomping. Wilbur calls it hillbilly music, and I can see by the fierce intensity in his eyes that he possesses a deep passion for it. He sometimes breaks out into fits of laughter as they play. Often I’ve found myself wanting to clap along. One of his grandsons occasionally tries to teach me a D or a C chord on the guitar, but my fingers are too stiff, all bone.

“These songs are easy,” the boy told me. “They’re your standard three chord progression, G-C-D, like most country music. Or blues. Or early rock-n-roll.”

“I wasn’t aware there was a standard three chord progression.”

“Maybe there’s an A7 thrown in at times,” he said, “but it’s pretty standard. You’re an old timer like Grandpa. You should know this.”

“Give me Sinatra any day,” I told him.

“That boy’s been thumb-picking since he was six,” Wilbur said. “He’s a hard worker. Mows lawns and works in the field all summer without complaining. I’m proud of him.”

Wilbur is a man who learned the value of hard work. He grew up in this town and quit school at fourteen to help his father and grandfather in the fields. At one time he cut hay by swinging a scythe all day. More recently, he was the maintenance supervisor at the golf course east of town before it closed down. “All the golfers are gone,” he told me. “The owner sold it to someone who let it go to shit. Moved his family down to Houston.”

In the eighties, when the oil business was booming, the town held calcuttas, golf tournaments in which people bid on 4-person teams through an auction and put all the money in the pool. At one time, Wilbur was a scratch golfer who putted cross-handed and held the course record. His team won one of the big calcuttas once and he used the money to help pay for the restoration of a 1960 MG Model A sports car. “MG stands for Morris Garage Company,” he said, running his hand over the hood. “They were early racers. This goddamn car is hell on wheels.” There’s a certain measure of ecstasy that flows through me whenever I look at that car. It is clean and fast and sprightly blue. On several occasions I’ve asked Wilbur to take me for a ride, but he never drives it due to the road dust and gravel. At sixty-four, he is worried about throat or testicular cancer, which runs in his family. Before he dies, he told me, he wants to visit Cairene and Mayan Pyramids, or maybe the island of Samos in Greece. He wants to climb rocks in Ontario. Hike in the Chiricahuas. Fall unapologetically in love with the natural world.

Wilbur’s wife Dorine works part-time in a downtown café where they serve fried onion burgers and apple cider. I can’t eat there. Two years ago, while mowing the lawn, I felt a squeezing in my chest and a sharp pain in my shoulder. Half an hour later I was in the emergency room with a minor myocardial infarction. I sold insurance for many years, and my doctor recommended early retirement, which I ignored. Six months after that, I was back at the heart hospital thinking I’d had another heart attack. False alarm. “You’re taking a huge risk,” my neighbor told me. “Unless you change your lifestyle, your clock is ticking.” So here I am in the country. Far away from that life, far away. I keep a vial of nitroglycerine pills in my shirt pocket and maintain a low cholesterol diet that consists of nothing fried, lots of vegetables. In the evenings I take walks and carry a big stick to keep the dogs and other animals away. I’m learning to like life in the country. My part is supposed to be easy: I can build a garden, work in a shed, keep to myself. “There’s not much else left for us to do,” Wilbur Brunk told me. “Eat, shit, and die. Go enjoy the outdoors. Go bowhunting with me. Kick cow shit.”

Lately I’ve been reading in the paper about bobcats in the area, which is one of the reasons I’m afraid to go into the woods, though I go anyway with Wilbur. He likes to go bowhunting, luring elk with calls. He’s not very good. A few months ago he taught me how to shoot a bow in the field behind his house. We shot arrows at a bull’s-eye stapled to bales of hay. He took me bowhunting and showed me his best hiding places. I’ve heard you have to be really good to bring elk in close. We never saw one. I moved slowly through the woods, trying to be as quiet as I could. Every noise startled me. I kept thinking something was behind me. I imagined Wilbur following a blood trail, approaching a dead elk and leaning down to admire it. Afterwards, I asked him why he enjoyed hunting so much.

“Good question,” he said.

Some nights we sit on Wilbur’s front porch, and he tells me stories about everything that’s happened in Red Owl over the past few years. I can sense his pain and worry. There is a clear history of things that have gone wrong. A year ago, a girl was found dead out on the bank of Pawnee Lake. Her death had an enormous effect on the town. Women tried to look like her. Girls wanted to be her. Adults had sex parties where the women dressed as her. But to single out this event would distort the record because other incidents followed. The first was a suicide. J.D. Hock, who liked motorcycles and guns, decided to build a tepee out of bamboo and discarded plastic. He lived in it for two weeks before he put a .38 Smith & Wesson pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. For a few weeks after the funeral, his mother began sleeping in the tepee herself, perhaps to cope with her loss. She kept to herself. Later in the summer the tepee burned down, but luckily Mrs. Hock wasn’t there when it happened. Fire Capt. Arthur Gann said he was feeding his horses when he saw the tepee burst into flames. He said a woodstove was likely the reason.

Then followed the death of Paul Franks, who worked sixty miles out of town. Paul was a foundry worker his whole life and came home every night in blackface. Wilbur’s wife said he came into the café every morning and drank coffee. He told her the story about the time a furnace exploded at work when he and some other workers were melting scrap pipe. Hot metal sprayed all over the place and nobody came away harmed. A miracle, everyone said. When Paul got lung cancer, his wife blamed it on the work conditions, breathing asbestos, being around all that talc and silica. He’d started smoking cigarettes when he was twelve, and in the latter part of his life he spent a lot of time around exhaust in his garage, working on engines. “Every single day we dragged giant buckets of hot white metal across a track overhead and poured them into molds,” he told her. “I wore an asbestos outfit, goggles, and gloves ripped at the fingertips.” He showed her the burn marks on the fingers of his left hand. But it was the cancer that got to him. When his wife found him, he was hanging from a dog leash he’d attached to a wooden beam on the basement ceiling.

On his birthday, former Red Owl calf roper Matt Cochran died when he fell thirty feet from the roof of a condominium construction project out in Tahlequah while he was removing roofing materials. He was twenty-three. There was a huge lawsuit over the whole thing. The contractor Matt worked for was fined a large amount of money for violating some sort of construction safety code that requires employees use safety belts and lifelines whenever they’re working at least fifteen feet high.

It might have been left at that, but other tragedies followed. Marty Lancaster, quarterback for the Red Owl High School Red Owls, flipped his truck off Sternbridge Road after leaving a party by the lake, and died. His girlfriend became so hysterical at the funeral that her parents had to walk her out of the church. She has since made two suicide attempts. Her father, who refinishes wood floors, keeps sandpaper and saws and containers of polyurethane in his garage. He says he’s dying a slow death from all the sawdust in his lungs.

Otto Prairiewolf, who likes to drink whiskey with us, comes over to Wilbur’s sometimes and tells us stories about healing people with bearberry leaves and juniper. He once healed a young boy of spinal problems through his Native American healing methods and prayer. I met him one Saturday afternoon when I’d drank just enough scotch to follow Jamie down Fulton Road to see a dead porcupine. “You ever see a porcupine?” Jamie asked me. “You ever seen a dead one?”

“I’ve seen porcupines,” I said.

“Otto can resurrect it.”

“What are you saying?”

“He can bring it back to life,” Jamie said. “Do you know Otto? Big

Indian guy? He lives in that cabin around the corner.”

Ten minutes later we were standing on Otto’s porch while Jamie beat on the door with his fist. When Otto opened the door I saw a large man, standing at least six-foot seven, with long dark hair that partly covered his face. He looked vicious. I had no idea he would be so large. He was shirtless and dark-skinned and wearing blue jeans. I wondered if he’d been asleep. I guessed he was in his early forties. Otto looked me over. “This your dad?” he asked Jamie.

“No, I just moved here,” I told him. “I live down the road.”

“We’re Cheyenne-Arapaho,” he said. He studied me for a minute then invited us in. His house was small and dark and warm. A ceiling fan hummed in the living room. We followed Otto into the small kitchen, where Jamie told him about the dead porcupine. Otto pulled on a t-shirt and said he had porcupine meat in his freezer. “Also deer and bobcat meat,” he said.

“We can show you where that porcupine is,” Jamie said. “Can you resurrect it?”

“Porcupine liver is good,” he said. “I can clean it if you bring it to me.” Jamie looked at me, as if for confirmation. I looked at my watch. I was drunk. “I’m making a roast for dinner,” I said. “I’d better get home.” “Venison roast is good,” Otto said. “Muskrat and bobcat is good.”

I question Otto’s sanity at times. He told me his sense of smell is so strong that, at the age of six, he detected the presence of colorectal cancer in his grandmother’s feces. A fecal occult blood test evidently confirmed he was correct. He told me others things, too: that the East African jumping spider is more likely to attack girls with Gonorrhea than boys; that taking peyote and screaming during sex can increase the spiritual enlightenment during Indian sweat ceremonies; that porcupine quills contain a sticky substance used to make beads but can cause extreme paranoia and panic if swallowed.

“Why would anyone swallow it?” I asked.

“To seek healing,” he said. “People who are dying are desperate, my friend. Dying gives us an opportunity to be interesting.”

“This man speaks the goddamn truth,” Wilbur said.

Some nights when the whiskey really kicks in, Otto tells us how much he’s in love with Mildred Thorn. Otto hasn’t told anyone but us. Mildred Thorn is a reclusive woman who lives farther down on Fulton Road with her two young sons. She is forty-seven and has never been married. She lived with her elderly father until his death three years ago. She is the mother of twin boys who were born conjoined at the forehead. They survived the surgeries, and though their heads are slightly oblong and their foreheads are large, they are now able to live and function in Red Owl. Mildred homeschools them and occasionally takes them for walks. Sometimes you can see her walking with them along Fulton Road, wiping drool from their mouths or helping them collect rocks and berries. Nobody knows who the father is. Wilbur says there were rumors that Mildred’s father repeatedly raped her, so it’s likely he’s the twins’ father. A few years ago the newspaper ran a story about the boys with their “before” and “after” surgery photos, but since then Mildred has mostly kept quiet. She rarely goes into town except when it’s necessary. The grocery store makes special deliveries just for her on Thursdays. Otto doesn’t mind any of those things.

“One day soon I shall throw myself at her feet,” he told us. “I shall stand before her and confess my feelings. And if she don’t like me, I shall sit on my roof for three nights straight and howl like a gutshot dog.”

We tell him not to waste time. We tell him the world is not made for perfect moments regardless of how much we want to believe that. Otto sips his whiskey and nods, deep in thought. He is a man who speaks little but listens well. The more I get to know him the more I see his sincerity. One afternoon not long ago, he asked me to drive him and Jamie into town. It was Jamie’s birthday. We parked in front of an old red brick building that’s been converted into a local gym and walked around to the alley behind the building. “Women’s locker room,” Otto said, pointing up to the window. He patted Jamie hard on the shoulder. “For the boy’s birthday.” I looked up and saw a small window about eight feet high. Otto knelt down, hoisted Jamie up on his shoulders and stood up so that Jamie could peek in the window.

“Someone’s definitely in there,” Jamie said, gripping the ledge with both hands.

“Look for a tit,” Otto said.

“She’s old. It’s an old woman. Oh God.” “But do you see tits,” Otto said.

“I can’t look at this.”

“Forget about age. Age means nothing. Describe the tits.”

“I can’t look at this anymore,” Jamie said, wincing. “Let me down.” Like Otto and Jamie, I have my own moments of guilty pleasures.

Walking around the pond some nights, I feel, with a sense of urgency, the need to see the young woman who sits on the bank with her young son and looks out over the dark water. She lives on the other side of the pond. I don’t know her name and don’t care to know. I haven’t asked anyone about her, not even Wilbur. I’ve seen her working in her garden in pants with dirt-stained knees. I’ve seen her roll up her pants and ease her feet into the water. There is something wonderful about watching her sit with her young son in the evenings. She looks at him for a long moment and stands. They walk around and throw bits of bread and crackers at the ducks. They see me walking at a steady pace and know I am an old man with a bad heart. Maybe they think my time is limited. Maybe I remind them of someone who’s passed on. The question I’m most bothered with during these walks is: how much longer will I be here?

“You should just get yourself a dog,” Wilbur keeps telling me. “Take the dog for walks. Go to the park, play fetch. Kick cow shit.”

“A dog’s life is too short,” I tell him. “They get old and sick. They get weak. I can’t stand to watch suffering.”

But I don’t mind being alone most nights. Despite the invitations to barn dances in town, or pig roasts, or coffee at the mayor’s house, I prefer my life remain, for the most part, solitary. This is how the rest of my life will be spent. Still, I miss my wife. During lumbering night hours, I might wander into the kitchen in a sort of half sleepwalk, expecting to find Margaret sitting there eating honey on toast, like she used to do on nights she couldn’t sleep. Wilbur once told me he liked to watch his wife wash the vegetables and potatoes in the sink. Dorine liked to take charge and do things. She shaved carrots, chopped onions, used a boning knife on the catfish he’d brought in with his grandsons. I miss those sorts of things. In truth, I’m a man who’s afraid of looking lonely.

Not long ago I saw a fox at the edge of my driveway. I tried to get a closer look, but it fled into the woods as I approached it. As I checked my mail, I heard Jamie calling me from down the road. He was running toward me, and when he reached me he was out of breath. “Batshit’s run off,” he said.

“Settle down,” I said.

“He’s run off. Have you seen him?” “No, but I can help you look.”

He seemed pleased. “I’ve already covered the area down by Otto’s,” he said. So we decided to head down to the pond. We crossed the fence and walked past Howard Carter’s old abandoned Chevrolet, where mice had built nests around the engine and nibbled the electrical wiring. Otto told Wilbur and me once that he used to screw a second cousin of his in the backseat on nights when he had family in town from Slaughterville and Thomas for the summer Pow-wow.

“A second cousin,” I told him, “is still considered a cousin, isn’t it?” “Pussy is pussy,” he said sternly.

Jamie and I walked through the field, calling Batshit’s name and whistling. We headed down toward the pond, where we saw a crowd of people. Somehow the whole place looked more colorful, or maybe it was just that I hadn’t been sleeping well and was tired. We walked by a group of boys sitting on the grass, looking at laminated images of the Virgin Mary printed on prayer cards. I saw the mayor sitting in a lawn chair, his legs crossed, his face caked in green. He waved as we approached.

“There’s a chili cook-off tonight at the high school gym,” he called out to us. “See you there?” I gave a slight wave.

“He’s there,” Jamie said, pointing. I looked at the pond, where I saw Wilbur and his grandchildren, all four of them, cheering for Batshit who was paddling across the pond. As we approached them, Jamie put two pinkie fingers in his mouth and whistled. Batshit, on command, turned and paddled back, crawled out of the water and shook himself dry. Then he stretched lazily before trotting over to us. I walked over to Wilbur and his grandkids and saw Otto with Mildred Thorn on the other side of the pond.

“Everyone came to see Otto and Mildred Thorn,” he said. “We’re all pretending to stand around, but we’re watching to see what happens.”

“Word spreads quickly,” I said. I saw Mildred Thorn across the pond, sitting on a stump with her two boys beside her. Otto stood in front of them like a giant, looking ridiculous, moving his arms in a wide circular motion as if describing something extremely round.

“I can only imagine what he’s saying,” I said.

Wilbur nodded. “That woman is distant and gloomy. She’s perfect for Otto.”

“One time Margaret and I visited Sakonnet,” I told him. “It’s a beautiful place. She had relatives in Westport who drove us there. We were young, in our twenties. We were newly engaged.”

Wilbur didn’t respond, but I knew he was listening. Then we saw Otto lift his arms and shout: “I declare that the town of Red Owl is healed!” A few people laughed. “I declare,” Otto shouted, “that there will be no more suicides! No more tragedies!” People clapped. Then Mildred Thorn stood up, and she and Otto walked away with her children.

After that, everyone left. There was nothing left to see.

We haven’t seen much of Otto, though, lately. We imagine him sitting in Mildred Thorn’s house with her and her children, telling stories of Indian warriors and eagles and healing. We look forward to seeing him. As for my own nights, sometimes I walk into empty bedrooms in my house and try to get a memory of Margaret. In the evenings I walk down Fulton Road in the streaming clouds and blowing wind. I walk down Fulton Road alone, past Nick’s Garage and then past Ellis Park, where a group of boys are always playing football, downhill toward J.B.’s Bait and Tackle where the air is heavy and filled with the smell of dead things. I tell myself there is a destiny to the journey of all objects: stones and rivers, stars and dogs and the good people of Red Owl. People drive by and wave, and I pretend I have a plan, that I’m a serious man in a hurry to reach a destination, my own destination, wherever that may be.

Brandon Hobson‘s fiction has appeared in NOON, Puerto del Sol, Web Conjunctions, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, New York Tyrant, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. His book reviews have appeared in The Believer, The Collagist, and The Faster Times. He lives with his wife and son in Oklahoma.

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