The first mornings after the autumn equinox you really feel the shift in season on the west side of Anderson Valley, with the redwood forests shedding cold drafts that undermine whatever heat is in the air. In the days when I harvested the highs and lows from a digital thermometer, back when there was still a farm to tend to, I remember extremes of 35 in the morning and 105 in the afternoon. If you don't like the cold or the heat, wait a few hours and undress in layers.
I had no trouble dragging the two youngest boys out of the sack before six in the morning, Saturday, no matter how close we were to freezing our nuts off. They were jazzed. The big plan was to catch a ride up to a ranch on Signal Ridge where some friends had one of those frequently-appearing wild bulls harassing their herd of brood cows and unlawfully breeding and butting heads with their big guy. We were going to plug the wild bull between the eyes, make a bunch of hamburger. The boys were fired up for this action, so we ate a breakfast of eggs and potatoes cooked in leftover albacore tuna flavoring I couldn't manage to warsh out of the cast iron skillet with a copper scrub pad. “These eggs taste like fish,” the boys told me.
I wished I'd stocked up on catsup. We go through catsup like rush hour traffic does gasoline, in our camp.
“Aw,” my 13-year-old told us when we tried to rouse him. “He ain't coming at no six o'clock. I saw him last night outside the Lodge, leaning against his truck. I was all, 'Hey, we're meeting you at six in the morning, right?' ”
“'Very early,' he said, wagging his finger. 'Very, very early!' Before his girlfriend put him in the cab and drove him home.”
“That was when?” We'd all gone to the high school football game at the fairgrounds together, but the teenager had stayed on. I'm not a big football critic but I had to tell my boys that the game was pathetic and I didn't see any Anderson Valley players perform a proper tackle. I don't care if you win or lose, but when you hit you gotta HIT, boys! Instead of tackling, the Panthers looked like they were reluctantly trying to tie thorny blackberry vines into a Christmas wreathe. My son did mention he thought maybe the ground was too pocked and compacted from the previous week's rodeo, so maybe that was the real problem.
So we choked down our fishy eggs and after that waited around in front of the barn, suspecting the teenager was right and the guy wasn't going to show, all of us in a dismal mood as the sun burned away fog and we took inventory of our situation. We have three dogs, at least one too many. “Well, boys,” I started. We have to thin everything down in our last weeks at the historic Boont Berry Farm. My biggest mistake in nine years of farming was to allow my three boys to keep the best two pups, as they joined their mother to become a pack and terrorize every jogger who tries to lose jiggles from his or her thighs while bouncing over the gravel along the creek. They nipped a jogger on the calf the other night and we are fully responsible, though I have to say it was a little strange for somebody to go jogging after dark. The same heeler pup nips me about 20 times every day, and he and his brother might be the reason we got the boot from the farm. You never know. “Well, boys, one of the pups has to go. Call it, heads or tails.” I tossed a quarter in the air after our four year-old called, “Heads.”
We'll never know whether it was heads or tails because the mother of the two juvenile delinquent pups caught the quarter in the air and carried it off to chew it to submission. She catches everything. She's the best dog in the damned world. To be fair, maybe we should get rid of all our dogs. I mean I hate to make my boys give up their dogs and then me stick to the love of my life, so far, the blue heeler who stays by my side and chases all the women away. She ought to. My Ex bought her for me, and to this day every time my blue heeler meets up with my Ex she wags her tail and gets more excited than I ever did, even at Orr Hot Springs in the isolated tub rooms. It's embarrassing.
“All you care about is beer, buds, and babes,” she told me a couple years ago in that terrible drought that turned our farming hopes into the kind of dust that could probably blow over the hill and darken the skies of Ukiah.
That wasn't true, I told her. Beer, buds, and babes had once taken a backseat to baseball.
“You ought to write a book and call it, 101 Ways to Strike OUT!”
“Thanks.” With the farm crumbling, I thought I'd take her advice.
Then she promptly left me over the course of the next few weeks. “I can't live with you if you're writing! You get moody!” She left me thinking I was almost a guru in the ways of striking out, and therefore I harkened back to my freshman year of high school when I was the back-up catcher on our proficient squad, only playing varsity games when the starting catcher, Brad Isaacs, was pitching. I was skinny and fourteen. It was a great place to start.
“When Brad throws the ball and it hits your mitt it sounds like a .22 magnum firing,” our team manager told me. Her name was Debbie Jo Johnson. She wore glasses and blue jean cut-offs that barely covered her ass, and her father was Mr. Johnson, the history and economics teacher. “When you throw it sounds like a BB gun.”
“What are you doing Friday night?”
She had the best legs in the universe, especially when I look back on it now from the distance of nearly two decades, but I didn't want to date her then because of my immaturity and the fact that she wore glasses and her dad was the History teacher known to the students as “Football Head.” Mr. Johnson's head wasn't really shaped like an American football but it was in our imaginations because that was what we called him, and I knew if I went down to the river with Debbie Jo the next thing I knew she'd be showing up at my locker after English and German and wanting me to sit with her at lunch time, write notes and all that crap. Worse, yet, Debbie Jo was friends with my mom, Mrs. MacQuayde, the English and Comp teacher. They were both big fans of the St. Louis Cardinals. DJ, as we called her, was a baseball nut and as far as I know she still attends games in St. Louis habitually, harassing the outfielders on the opposing team. Last I heard, anyway, which was ten years ago.
I couldn't go out with a girl who was friends with my mom and made it clear to DJ with enough stupid awkwardness that eventually she snubbed me and apparently went after the baseball coach himself, Mr. Schinkel. “I want a more experienced—” she told the guys on the team, ridiculing me. DJ was trouble with a capital “T,” as they say, and way too vocal about it.
There was this Monday in the middle of April when Mr. Schinkel showed up with the worst case of poison ivy covering and splotching and swelling his cheeks and eyelids, and then at practice DJ had the same symptoms manifesting around her eyes and neck, her legs, her whole gorgeous example of God's love for us all. They were both smothered with hellfire guilt and got busted by their own complexions and consciences in that rigid religious community, and it wasn't long before our baseball program was suspended, partially my fault — everyone knew. That was it.
I watched my restless boys fidgeting in the morning sun, aching for something to do, and thought about how DJ would have been perfect for me, and if I'd hooked up with her the baseball program would have survived and hell, I'd probably be catching for the Giants here in this exciting pennant stretch. It wasn't true, but I liked the ring of it. DJ and I had a lot in common. Last I saw her, she also was actually into beer, buds, baseball, and babes, she said.
I was still fantasizing about DJ when the friend who'd been planning to drive us up Signal Ridge to corral the wild bull and retrieve the carcass finally rolled his thundering diesel rig through the gates amidst a throng of barking dogs, telling us he'd seen the weather forecast and decided not to do the job on such a hot day because the yellow jackets would swarm from miles around when they smelled the blood.