Balmy weather has persisted in the Ohio valley throughout the month of January, with heavy rains and temperatures rarely dipping below 40 degrees. Grass is sprouting, to the delight of our chicken flock. Tree branches are budding out at the fingertips. I get daily reports from the Hoosier farmhouse, thanks to Jacque Dawn and Beez who are watching the place while I meander around Mendo.
Seven years ago, when I inherited the little farmstead and inadvertently moved to the state across the river from Kentucky with my oldest son, then 14, I thought that my youngest two boys would end up staying there part of the year with me. That logic might have been flawed, though, because their mother, my second Ex, had grown up in Mendocino County and regards the Hoosier state the same way she pictures Soviet Russia before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. So I am temporarily giving up living in that place. It is ridiculous to get up every morning and milk the cows like a good farmer when your boys are 2,000 miles away.
Last Thursday we all met up at the Frey Winery in Redwood Valley, and stayed for a couple days with Luke and Emily. For the first time in ages, all three of my boys got to spend some quality time together. We mucked out the goat pen in their barn using pitchforks to load the moist, reeking mixture of hay, straw, and shit in wheelbarrows through the mud to their biodynamic compost piles. I guess my second Ex is leaving with her boyfriend for a Primitive Skills gathering in Arizona where they both teach courses, and the Freys are taking care of her goats, so she agreed to muck out the barn.
“How many guys muck out a goat barn for their Ex?” I asked the boys, sweating as I plunged forward with the wheelbarrows they’d loaded. “I’m outta shape!”
“Because you’re getting old!” said Moses, the youngest, who sat with his buddy, Osiris, on a hay bale, both of them holding chickens, watching Demetri, Jazz, and me do all the work.
“Well what are you doing, Moses?” asked Demetri as he loaded another wheel barrow for me to ramp up an old redwood board across the relentless muck.
“Osiris and me are holding chickens! Somebody has to hold the chickens!”
“You’re a punk,” said Jazz.
At night we all made dinner together, homemade meatballs and spaghetti, fermented turnips, salad with goat cheese, nearly everything home grown. The boys played Rummy, Moses winning nine out of ten games and talking trash the whole time. Once their mom had demanded they systematically brush their teeth before bed, I sat at a card table with Emily who was working on a complicated puzzle, the kind where it takes most people ten minutes to find one piece that might even fit. I tried to help, but neither of us had much luck.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “So, you’re moving back to California?”
“Yeah, for now. I understand why [my second Ex] refuses to travel to Indiana. I’m sort of thinking about telling people I’m actually from Kentucky, now that Michael Pence is the vice president. I mean, our river valley is closer to Kentucky, culturally, than it is to Indianapolis.”
We talked for a while, however long it took her to find another puzzle piece that might fit. I told her about life in the midwest, with a farm surrounded by GMO corn fields, high schools full of kids on heroin and crank, and earnest, bold people with hearty souls who still strive to come up with something good in an increasingly jaded world. Somehow I got on the subject of forestry, because a bunch of my friends are loggers in those deciduous forests, and have informed me that eighty percent of Indiana’s top grade white oak is being hawked off raw to China. It is milled on floating factories in the Pacific, turned into veneer, and sold back to us as shitty home entertainment centers so we can lay on our couches and inject questionable substances in our veins while watching porn until failing to pay our mortgages, at which point all of it goes to the landfill.
“People like you might have an obligation to return home, once you’ve been somewhere like this,” she said. “At least that’s the theme of this book I just read, Hillbilly Elogies, by J.D. Vance. You should check it out.”
Once our visit ended, my oldest son, now 19, and I headed to Ukiah where we met up with Brandon Gerth, a traveling musician who has stayed on our Indiana farm several times, also done about five years of Woofing—working on organic farms, around the country. We headed to my first Ex’s house in the old part of town and hung out in her garage, waiting for her to return home. She’d been out drinking wine with another old buddy, a drummer, Jim, from Redwood Valley, and one of her girlfriends, so she was in an amorous mood by the time they all staggered back to the shack, wearing the pink pussy hats for the next day’s rally in downtown Ukiah. Half drunk, she let us homeless deadbeats into her house. We only had one banjo, and passed it back and forth, entertaining her and promising to do the dishes in the morning. I really love playing for drunks because they overlook my lack of skill.
Morning seemed to pop up early for me, and my first Ex drove us to Schat’s bakery for some coffee before the rest of the gang awoke. While we sipped the warm beverages, she knitted me a pink pussy hat for the rally. I mean she crocheted me one. It only took her the time to down one cup of coffee, and it was done.
When we returned to her house, my son was livid. “Your phone has been ringing all morning! Somebody tried to rob the Farmhouse! Beez shot them!”
I didn’t have Beez’s number, but I called Jacque Dawn.
Jacque Dawn was raised in the swamps of Louisiana, worked as a stripper for nearly two decades, and now takes care of animals in addition to currently pruning apple and peach trees in a nearby orchard. I trusted her and her one-eyed chauffeur, Beez, to keep an eye on the place, make sure the animals are fed. I only mention her Cajun accent because I suspect she exaggerates it some to get attention. “Okay, Spec, so here’s what went down. Last night Beez heard Mack barking. He got up to see what was going on, and the next thing you know somebody was kicking in the door. Trying to. He had it dead bolted.
“‘Give us everything you got or we’re gonna beat the fuck out of you!’ they said.
“He grabbed his .38 and fired a shot through the middle of the front door. They jumped in their vehicles and spun off through your yard. Tore up your flower bed. He got three more shots in their trucks before they left. It was two trucks, a bunch of people. They slashed your tires so Beez couldn’t get away.”
“Holy shit!” I was in the middle of setting the sink water up, starting on the dishes, as my first Ex walked by. “My house just got almost robbed! Somebody almost got shot!”
“Oh. Hey, that water’s not clean.”
“Well the dishes weren’t clean.”
“You need to put fresh water in. You know, Spec, I can’t just have you guys hanging out like this. You got to be out of here by 10:45.”
“Yeah! I’m going to the rally! Thanks for crocheting the pussy hat!”
She wielded a can of deodorizer spray and was clouding up the atmosphere with its scent. “You smell terrible!”
“I mucked out a goat barn yesterday. Sweated balls. Can I get a shower?”
“This isn’t a hotel. But yeah, you need a shower!”
I never ended up doing her dishes. I didn’t get a ride to the rally, either, because I had an open beer when I tried to jump into her SUV.
“No open containers!”
“Okay! I’ll walk!” We’ve been separated for 17 years, now. I walked up School Street, to the Ukiah Farmers’ Market, where all the people in pink pussy hats congregated, more than I’d expected. I’d seen dozens if not hundreds of Ukiah protests with the same hippies from the Mendocino Environmental Center carrying signs and making speeches, but this one had to be about ten times the magnitude. Everyone was there. I reconnected with folks from all over the place after seven years in the state across the river from Kentucky that is increasingly reminding me of Germany in 1939. There was Stacey Sheldon, the English teacher from Ukiah High who had once been a neighbor on School Street. There was Estelle Palley-Clifton, who was “going to give a speech in a minute,” she said, “talk to ya later.”
Her speech was to the point. After her, the Mendo lib crowd took over, and I emigrated to the peripheries before they finally did the one block march to the courthouse for more speeches. At that point I ducked into the former Ukiah Brewery, concluding that the rally would go on just as well with me sitting at the bar, watching, enjoying a Pilsner. Not sure what happened the rest of the day, but somehow my son and I ended up at a friend’s house up the road past the Blue Meadow farm near Philo. I suspect that global alcohol consumption that night might have set the same records as the protest marches, and have to think of John Dos Passos driving an ambulance in France, watching the German bombers fly over in 1918 as I stare at the headlines on the Press Democrat with a brain-hemorrhaging hangover.