Tales From Mephitis, Chapter 11: Victims of Dis

Updated on January 22, 2018

“What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness; Anger, discontent and drooping hopes? Degenerate sons and daughters, Life is too strong for you. It ta

By the end of July, the sun was rising very noticeably later; Frank was having a harder and harder time being able to see far enough out in front of him on the first leg while he rode in. It was the most pleasant time of the day though. Even this early it was still sultry, but when the sun fully rose it was just plain “The Three H’s”: Hazy, Hot, and Humid. The farmers weren’t cutting hay anymore. They had got two good cuttings in, but it’d been dry now for too long for that chancy third cutting. It was shaping up to be another record breaking hot summer.

“Naw, there’s no such thing as Global Climate Change. The same clowns that think that ‘Climate Change’ is a U.N. conspiracy also believe in little grey spacemen abducting people. They’re sane: Sure, they are.

Among farmers there is no doubt. Climate change is an established fact that they use. Since I came up here, the first killing frost is almost two months later now. The last frost is about a month earlier. That’s a lot of growing season we’ve gained. Crops that never would mature here now do.

Every prediction that was made about climate change thirty years ago is coming true before our eyes. Record breaking heat, super storms, melting ice caps.

But nothing is being done. Except arguing.”

At Melissa’s suggestion, he had started wearing shorts for the ride. He wasn’t comfortable in them out in public; a relic of his youth. He hated to fight wearing shorts; for some reason he always felt more vulnerable. Fighting naked was even worse; one is at a distinct psychological disadvantage.

When those two men tried to break into his hotel room when he was doing an Art show down in D.C. that time at three a.m., he was alone and sleeping nude. He told them through the door to just hang on a minute till he pulled some pants on and then he’d gladly kick the sh*t out of them and cut them new a**holes to boot. They didn’t stick around to find out if the loco gringo was serious: He was.

C’mon, you old bastard! PUMP those legs. Make em burn. You ain’t gonna let this hill stop you, are you?...C’mon...Few more yards...Aaaah. Made it.”

The wind whipping past him on the downhill side felt delightful, drying up the sweat. He had leisure again to look around him more. The roadsides were decorated with endless bouquets of Queen Anne’s lace, Wild Parsnip, and now that the sun was up; the pale blue pinwheels of Chicory had opened. There was a heady aroma from all those flowers; an elusive, spicy one. Of course, that only lasted till he crested the hill at Evetown. From then on the reek began from below and grew stronger and stronger with each yard. He was getting nimbler at avoiding road kills and detritus on the roadsides. There were less groundhogs dead on the shoulders now and more rabbits and possums

“Read your BIBLE! Repent!” The sign proclaimed.

“Mind your own damn business. You know, one of these mornings I ought to stop off and do a little rearranging of those letters. Wonder what I could come up with those letters?” He thought for a moment, pedaling by.

“Got it: ’Peter! Your dribblen!’…Hmm, not bad.”

“Byyyye! Have a nice day!” Tina’s chirpy voice called after Hoppin’ John’s morose figure disappearing into the doorway.

“Hiiiii!” she called out to Frank cheerily, waving her hand like a fan at him. “Don’t work too hard!”

“Too late!” he chirped back at her. He could hear her peals of laughter as she went off down the hill.

“Hey, John. Welcome back. How do you feel?”

“Like shit.”

“What happened?”

“Don’t know. All of a sudden I got this red blotch on my side, and the next thing I know I feel like I’m dyin. I got the old lady ta stop her prayin f**kin long enough to tell her I had ta go to the Emergency Room.”

“What do you mean; praying?”

“Ahhh, she watches all these Christian shows and prays with em. I told her: ‘I got a f**kin 104 degree temperature! Maybe ya better start f**kin prayin for me!’”. He stopped to slurp his coffee through his beard. “I get to the f**kin Emergency Room, and they make me sit there for four f**kin hours before they see me. I told em: ‘Why don’t ya jest f**kin kill me now!? Then the f**ker tells me it’s good ta have a fever, it’s nature’s way of killin the f**kin disease. I told em; ‘It’s also nature’s way of f**kin killin me, asshole!” Another pause for a slurp. “I was in the hospital for five days. And I’m still on prescriptions, and I still feel like shit.” He coughed a dry, racking cough that made his enormous gut jump up and down. “I can’t shake this f**kin cough either.”

The phone rang. That was the end of Frank’s presence in the room.

“Yeah. Hi, Ray. Yeah, good...Nothin much. How about you?...Uh, good...Genoa has metal and yard waste. Got it...”

Frank went on outside. John had opened the doors and dropped the trays, and as always had cranked the stereo, tuned to a pop-lite station. Frank shut it off as always. When Rod got there, he’d turn it back on again. When Anton came out, he’d turn it to classic rock. It stayed there until he left, then it was back to ‘pop-lite’. Every day.

With Rodney still being off and hence unavailable for harassing, Farina and Little Tom focused on getting Hoppin’ John going instead at lunchtime. It didn’t take much either. Within minutes they’d have him beet red and fuming. Soon he was reduced to just sputtering and grumbling darkly under his breath.

“I know I shouldn’t do it...” Tom told Frank when he asked him later why he tormented Hoppin’ John and Rod like that. “But it’s so f**kin easy, they’re so f**kin dumb! You can get em goin like nuthin. And it’s just so much f**kin fun!”

The next few times Frank worked when Hoppin’ John was on he asked him a few questions; giving him an opening to begin talking about himself. Turned out Frank had been John’s sister’s boss once in awhile at the mill.

“We hung out all the time together. Our parents were never around.” Hoppin’ John told him flatly. “She was more like a best friend than a sister.” He paused, slurping his coffee. “Don’t see her anymore.”

“Why not?”

“She married some asshole that beats her.”

“How’d you wind up here?”

“I was born here. After I got out of the service I came back here with my wife.”

“Retired?”

“Nah. Broke my ankle playin softball, got discharged. My Army license didn’t transfer here in New York. I took a few months off to figure out what to do. The wife said I was sulking.” He paused for a deep, wracking cough. “Anyway, I took the road test. She divorced me. Started work in Solid Waste in 1994 and been here since.”

“Got kids?”

“Yeah. Two boys.”

“So you’re a vet?”

“Yeah. Desert Storm.”

“Where were you stationed?”

“Don’t remember.” He plucked a thick wad of snuff out of the can and stuck his fingers into his mouth to place the wad securely.

That stunned Frank. Every other vet could deluge you with details of their stint. At first, he thought John was bullshitting and pretending not to remember to cover up something.

But he came to realize eventually that Hoppin’ John had an astonishing tendency to simply forget the past. It was only when Frank asked him about what foods he remembered from where he was stationed that he came alive. It was talking about memorable meals that triggered his recall. Over time he was able to piece together that John had been stationed in Texas, Louisiana, and Germany. He never saw action, mostly he loaded ships stateside.

“So, where’s Troy?” Frank asked when Anton came in.

“Quit.” was his laconic reply to Frank’s question. “Just you, me, and Amen here.”

“No shit.”

“He’s delivering ice now for Oakwood Ice up in Milan. The guy pays under the table.”

“Hey, I was going to ask you guys...I’ve never had a cell phone, I’m still using a land-line, and a rotary...”

“What’s that?” Amen asked, a puzzled look passing across his stolid face.

“You know...” Frank made a circular dialing motion with his forefinger.

“They still make them?”

“I doubt it. This one is older than you are by far. But it works great, I can repair it easily, and the sound is better than any cell I’ve listened to.”

“So why are you thinking about switching then?”

“Because everything now requires touch-tone, and I‘d like some way to get hold of my wife if I need to, or so she can call me. It’s time I join the 21st century.”

“Good for you.” Anton approved.

“So, what do you guys recommend?”

“I’ve got an I-Phone. For me, it’s perfect.”

“How much does it run you?”

“We got phone, internet and cable bundled, so it’s over a hundred a month.”

“Too much for me. How about you, Amen?”

“About the same as him. If you’re looking for low cost, no frills, I’d say a Trakfone.”

“What’s that?”

“You buy the phone, then you buy prepaid minutes, I think it’s about twenty dollars for an hour’s time.”

“No monthly bill?”

“Nope. It’s the cell of choice for drug dealers. Cheap, no name attached, you can just throw it away.”

Later, Anton and Frank resumed their discussions about Thoreau and Emerson. Anton had serendipitously found an edition of the complete essays of Emerson in a Gaylord. He had begun to open up more, losing his sullen demeanor as he did. Frank realized that the younger man really felt trapped and doomed to remain trapped. He hated working there, but the money was good.

Frank understood that feeling. In the past he too had felt trapped in a life he hated and could see no way out of. He knew the alternating rage and despondency that came with that.

“The ‘Golden Handcuffs’: They doth make cowards of us all.” He told him after Anton mentioned again how he wished he could just leave, start over.

“What’s that? ‘Golden Handcuffs’?”

“It was how a boss of mine long ago referred to a good paycheck from a job you hated. He hated what he was doing, but the money kept him there.”

“I get it.”

“But you’re taking steps, that’s good. And rare.”

“I don’t know. I wonder if I’ll have the courage to leave...ever.”

“Maybe you won’t have a choice. Sometimes Life sets things up like that.”

“Life is what happens while you’re making plans.”

“Lennon.”

“Right.”

Frank walked over to the back of a van that had pulled in and waited. He glanced down at the bumper sticker. “They call it ‘Tourist Season’, so how come we can’t shoot em?” There was an NRA member decal in the window. Right alongside it, a rusting minivan pulled up. “’Namaste’, ‘Co-Exist’, and ‘Greenpeace’” were its decals.

He already recognized this one. The red-haired lady of around forty usually went home with more stuff from here for her garage sales than she dropped off. But what she dropped off was sometimes very ripe. She and her husband were school teachers but also ran a poultry farm. They had about a dozen old school buses they used for coops.

“Looks like West Virginia,” she told him, “but it works. And it’s cheap.

It was against county regulations for the dumps to send any animal carcasses to the burn plant, but a blind eye was turned when they included in their garbage the chicken guts and heads from a slaughtering. As far as Frank was concerned, they could have at least not waited a week or so until they got rid of it.

“So you were raised in Rhode Island, then you went to Hartford when your mother re-married, then Colorado? Where in Colorado?”

“Outside of Denver. I was fifteen. That’s when my mother really turned on me.”

“Why?”

“I have no idea. It was like I was the slave, like she didn’t want me to have any free time to be with my friends.”

“That sucks. Sounds like Melissa’s mother. How’d you get here?”

“My stepfather is high up in a Cable company. In sales. He got transferred a lot. When he got a transfer to Syracuse, they bought a house in Beulah. My mother didn’t want me living there with them; my younger brother was her darling. As soon as I graduated I left and went to Hartford. But I couldn’t find any work there, so I moved to Rhode Island. My Grandmother lives on a farm there. But I still couldn’t get work, so I had to move back in with my mother and stepfather. I only stayed there a couple of weeks, when I got this job. I moved out again and moved into a shitty apartment in Cooper.”

A pick-up rattled in, barrels in the back. A burly, pot-bellied man got out. His long, wild bush of hair stuck out from under his cap. He looked to be about fiftyish. He pulled a barrel filled with plastic liquor bottles from the bed of the truck and dumped them on the tray.

An elderly, sweet-looking woman passing by looked down at his belly and blanched. Quickly, she turned and fled back to her car.

The fellow didn’t even notice. Curious, Frank walked over to help him. His shirt was wide open, exposing his torso. He saw why she did what she did.

A tattoo of a naked woman was splayed across his swollen gut. She was on her back, her legs spread wide, with her genitals pointed at the observer. His navel was her gaping vagina.

Good Christ. What an asshole.” He turned and walked away. ”Let him take care of his own stuff.”

He looked back. The guy had his back to him and his arm was jammed down the back of his pants just about up to the elbow and he was furiously digging at his anus. The sweat ran off his back and down the crack of his ass. The little old lady almost ran him down getting out of there.

She won’t be back.”

“You live in Beulah again don’t you?” Frank asked, picking up their conversation.

“Yeah. My mother and stepfather live in Venice now. Me and my girlfriend bought a house in ’08.”

Oh God.” “Right at the height of the boom.”

“Yeah. I love it, but the payments are killing me. I can’t afford to meet the mortgage in one payment, so the bank lets me pay it in two installments a month.”

“Where’s your girlfriend work?”

”In a vet’s office. She’s a Veterinarian’s Assistant.”

“Like her job?”

“She says mostly. She’s comfortable there. In the summer she sometimes stops by on Tuesdays, her day off, with an iced coffee for me. Rod turned me in to Barrator because she didn’t bring him any. It was actually brought up at my review. I started to explain, then said ‘Is this really an issue?’ They said no. But I still hide whatever Samantha brings me.”

“Can one of you guys help me with this?” the fellow with the close cropped reddish hair and pressed slacks asked. He looked about thirty or so. Three children between six and ten boiled out of the minivan. “I just had back surgery, and I’m not supposed to be lifting things.”

“Wonder how he got it in the van then.” Anton murmured to Frank as they went over. “He says the same thing each week. He’s been ‘recovering’ now for over a year.”

Frank scanned his bumper stickers.

“’Abortion is Murder”, “Mothers Against Abortion”, “Yes I’m the mother who home-schools”, “Jesus is Love.” “Abortion is Murdering our Children”.”

Someone had packed those barrels. As Frank hoisted one up to empty its contents, he sensed and heard a commotion.

“Watch out!”

“Holy shit!”

“Look out! There it goes!”

“What’s up?” he asked Anton quizzically.

“There were rats in that barrel. One ran across your feet. There it goes.” He pointed to a bounding black speck making for the grass in the distance.

“That’s a Wood Rat. You keep chickens don’t you?”

“Yes, we do.” One of the cute kids piped up. “We have twelve Rhode Island Reds and one Rooster.”

“A what?” their father asked.

“A Wood Rat. Neotoma Floridana. Don’t worry. They’re a different genus and species from the Black or Norway rats. Better keep your chicken feed in galvanized trash cans with good lids though. They live underground, probably right under your coop.”

“Uh, thanks.”

“You keep chickens?” Anton asked after the minivan left to spread its bumpersticker proclamations elsewhere..

“Yeah. Not like we used to when we were selling eggs at market though. I try and put at least sixty birds in the freezer a year. You have any?”

“I’ve been raising chickens since I was a teen. I’ve got three now, just for the eggs.” He paused for a moment. “I thought of starting a business raising meat birds when I was in High School. I had it all figured out, I knew I could do it. But my mother called me a monster! What kind of thing is that to call a son?”

“Why did she call you a ‘monster’?”

“She’s got this ‘thing’ about animals. She’s got as many as a small zoo.”

“Yeah, but is she a vegetarian?”

Nooo. But she still thinks I’m a monster for considering doing that.”

“What does she think of your becoming a Paralegal?”

“Don’t know. I stopped calling her because I realized I was always the one who called; she never called me. I wanted to see if she’d miss me and call. She never did.”

“I’m sorry. What made you decide on paralegal?”

“My girlfriend’s father and stepmother are both attorneys. I’d like to eventually study law, so I can get into policy-making in government, and they thought this was a good first step. They said there was a shortage of paralegals out there.”

“So you’re interested in politics, huh?”

“Not elected office. I’d like to have a hand in influencing policy and law making.”

“Behind the scenes.”

“Right. Think it’s crazy?”

“No: Interesting. Never care what anybody thinks about something you want to do.”

“I know I’m probably naive for thinking I can help change things...”

“You like Thoreau, so you’ll appreciate this. He said to not be ashamed of building castles in the air. That’s where they belong. Now put foundations under them.”

“I like that.” Anton said, looking thoughtfully pleased. “It makes me feel maybe I wasn’t biting off too much.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have a full load of classes this fall, but I also signed up for an internship with the Assembly in Albany.”

“Excellent.”

“Excuse me.” A woman asked Frank, “Where should I put this?” She held out a four-slice toaster. It looked brand new.

“I’ll take it for you.” He turned to go with it, but a thought struck him. He turned back to her, and really looked at her. She was a clean, well-dressed, upper middle-class woman about his age. “Does it work?”

“Oh, yes. But we just got a new one.”

He took it into the breakroom and plugged it in. The damn thing worked like a charm.

We just got ourselves a toaster!”

They hadn’t had one for years now, instead toasting their bread using the broiler; that is, until the broiler element died. Now they had been “out of toast”.

“’The art of our necessities is strange, that can make vile things precious’. Who’d have thought I’d stoop to ‘dump-picking’? For a toaster no less.” He wrapped it in a clean plastic grocery bag and lashed it to the back of his bike.

“That’s where I saw that Snowy Owl...” He thought as he glided down the long hill into the valley the first Friday in August. “What year was that?...I remember. It was the winter with the bright Auroras... February of ’78 . Man, that was a cold one. Forty below time and again. It was sitting on a stump in the bright sun. Right over there.”


He glanced across to the other side.

And we used to call that the ‘Firefly Field’. Those houses weren’t there then. In June my kids used to ask me and Mel to stop so they could watch all those Lightning Bugs. It was incredible...And back over towards those woods is where I saw that bull moose at sunset ten years ago, galloping like a camel, his head thrown back, antlers across his back. Huge beast.”

He had to start pedaling again for the last stretch before the entrance.

“It’s funny the way you can date something you remember by finding something else you can associate with the event, which leads you to something you can assign a date to. Like that Snowy Owl and that super-cold winter.

Or like the other day when Mel and me were trying to remember who wrote that short story, ‘The Silver Jug’. I thought it was Truman Capote. I remembered we read it together outside by the fire that warm spring night.

I thought it was last year, and I remembered jotting a few notes down about it in my journal. So, I looked it up, and there it was: May thirtieth of last year; and Capote did write it.”

“You punch in, Rod?”

Yes, I did, Hoppin’ John.

“I don’t see why you bothered.”

Why not?”

“Cause Dodgers is gonna fire your ass anyway.” The room exploded into mocking laughter.

IIII don’t think so.”

“Your first f**kin day back and you f**k up the f**kin door and bust a line on the skidsteer, and you’re late and don’t even bother callin in, an you don’t think he’s gonna fire your sorry ass?...Can’t see why you bothered punchin in. I’d fire ya. If he don’t, it’s just cause you suck c**k too good.” More laughter and coughing.

Ooooh, that’s not nice, Hoppin’!.. Ya stabbin me!”

“Yeah, Big Rod; what’s your problem? How the f**k could you run into that door?”

“It’s not my fault! I told Anton I don’t like pushin Magazines.”

“Tough f**kin shit, Rod! It was Wednesday. We all bale on Wednesdays...” Anton snapped.

IIII don’t think so! The Big Rod does what the Big Rod wants!”

“Yeah, well ‘Big Rod’ must wanna get fired today.” Hoppin’ John mumbled into his coffee.

“Why the f**k didn’t you wait for the door to raise all the way up before you started pushing the stuff in?... I’ll tell you why, cause you were in a f**kin hurry to just get it done, like always!” Tom accused him. “Now me and Farina gotta fix the f**kin thing and the skidsteer!”

Good,’ Little Tommy’. Also; You can fix that thing that does something on the skidsteer.”

What!?”

“You know. The whatchamacallit that makes the other thing do something. It’s about time you did sumthin besides drinkin Ray’s j*sm!”

“That’s your department, Big Rod.”

“Yeah, right!”

“You should see him, standing just so, so he can watch in the bathroom mirror while someone’s takin a leak.” Little Tom told Frank, giggling between words.

“I do not!”

The room exploded into laughter and coughing again.

Bullshit you don’t!” They all chimed.

“He’s always watchin while I change, y’know?” He told Frank, still chortling. “So one day I slips a banana into my long johns cause I know Rod’s gonna watch me. Sure enough; he slips inta the breakroom just as I’m getting outta my pants. Ya shoulda seen his eyes pop out!” The roar of coughing and laughter was almost deafening in the little room.

“You’re gonna go ta Hell, little Tommy! An I’m gonna be up there, watchin the gates, and when I see you comin, I’m gonna say ‘No way! Tommy goes to Hell! And down you’ll go. And I’ll laugh while you’re burnin!”

“Tell him about the time you watched ‘Tonto’ jerk off!”

“The door wasn’t locked!” Rod protested loudly.

“He went into the bathroom, even though the door was closed, he knew Tonto was in there...” Tom choked to get the words out through his laughter. The rest of the room was howling now. “He walks in, and there’s Tonto, standing there jerking off, and f**kin Rod starts talking with him! “

“I did not! “

“You did too!” they all guffawed. Frank was struck by the change that had come over Rod. There was something wounded now about him.

“You had a conversation while some guy’s jerking off! You were in there ten minutes!”

“I was not! It was only a minute or two.” The room howled unmercifully. “I just asked him what he was doing, and he said none of my business, and what was I doing coming in to a closed bathroom like that. I said the door wasn’t locked.”

They were all laughing so hard now they were almost falling off their chairs onto their knees.

“He said it didn’t matter if it wasn’t locked, it was closed, that means you can’t come in. I told him ‘Well, if you wanted to jerk off, why didn’t you lock the door first? It’s not my fault.’”

“And all this time this guys pullin his pud, and Rod’s standing there drooling!”

“I was not!

“Man, I’m sure gonna miss you when Ray fires ya!” Tom said wistfully, weary and satiated with laughing”.

“He can’t fire me.”

“And why the f**k not?”

“Cause I’m the one gettin the Union in here.”

“That f**kin Union shit!!” John sat bolt upright, almost spilling his coffee, instantly livid. “You f**kin asshole! What do you think the f**kin county’s gonna do if we vote a Union in, huh!!?? They already wanna shut us down, you f**king moron!! Whattya thinks gonna happen?! I’ll tell ya what’s gonna happen! If you f**king assholes vote the Union in on Monday, they’ll vote to close these places down on Tuesday!!”

“No f**kin way, Hoppin’ John!” Rod had gone as dead serious as John and the others. This was obviously no longer a laughing matter. “You’re a chickenshit Hoppin’ John! That’s what your problem is! You talk real tough about ‘f**kin Dodgers’ and the ‘f**kin County’, but you don’t do a f**kin thing about it! If we get a Union, Ray‘ll have to treat us with respect! He won’t be able to throw things at Anton anymore, or give you shit jobs!”

“It ain’t gonna f**kin happen, Rod! And if you’re all stupid enough ta do this, you’re gonna be out on your ass! And who do you think is gonna be a dumb enough c**ksucker to hire you? You just remember what the f**k I said!”

IIII don’t think so!”

John stormed out of the room, heading for his truck.

“What do you think, Frank?”

“He’s probably right. You unionize and that’ll give them one more reason to sell this. But they’re already talking about doing that. If you have no union, you have no protection. If they are going to sell, if you’re union they can’t just scrape you off, you’ll be entitled to all your time and there are certain rules they’ll have to follow. No union: No rules. You’re on your own.”

“Hey, Anton. I’m curious. What’s with John and the union? He seemed really upset over it.” Frank asked him later outside.

“He figures the County is gonna fire us all if we get a union in. Actually; I’m the one who first organized the drive to unionize. Ray was a wild man back then. After the union drive began, the County forced him to take anger management courses if he wanted to keep his job.”

“No shit? He was that bad?”

“Oh, shit yeah. He pushed a part timer down over in Turin and hit another one. He threw a glass bottle at me.

Anyway, before Ray was boss, the boss was a guy named Dane, another petty tyrant. We used to call him ‘Colonel’ behind his back. He’d come here to check up and stand there on the bridge looking the place over, and God forbid you weren’t busy. The drivers claimed he was screwin Farina’s wife too. Said he’d send Farina on a long run with the truck, then go over his house and shag his old lady.

He was also as corrupt as hell, and got all his buddies hired and they didn’t do a thing all day, except rip the place off of metals. Everybody got together and signed a petition demanding an investigation.

The County fired everybody that signed it but John. And Dane told him: “I’m going to make every day you work here a living hell!”

And he did. He wouldn’t let John drive at all. He had him strip aluminum and cut books all day. ‘I don’t want to see your head come up till lunchtime!’ Dane would tell him. John would come up just to eat his lunch, then go back down. Never said a word to anyone. He’d punch out at the end of each day, talking to no one. Every day we all wondered if this would be the day he goes postal.

That went on for seven years.

Finally, a restraining order was imposed on Dane, forbidding him to come here.

It used to fry him to drive past after that and see John practicing his golf drives on the lawn, just to piss him off. So, you can understand that as a result he’s anti-union; because he’s terrified the County will fire us all like last time.”

Just before it was time to put up the trays at 4:25, Frank slipped off to change into his shorts and running shoes. Mel had been right. It was a lot easier and cooler without those heavy work jeans and boots on to ride the bike. He changed in the bathroom, shutting the door. He was not about to go through the same bullshit Anton or Tom went through each time they changed.

He thought about Rod as he rode through the shimmering heat, the asphalt throwing up little mirages of wet road dancing a few feet over itself.

For some reason he reminded Frank of a chick in the flock he had raised last year. In each bunch of chicks there is always one who is at the very bottom of the pecking order. Last year there was an especially pathetic example.

It was its own inadvertent worst enemy. When this runt was pecked at, and it was constantly pecked at, it reacted shrilly and in a panic, running hither and thither looking for safety and only finding more eager sharp beaks, because that running triggered the attack behavior of the others.

After a few weeks it was completely insane with fear, pain, and insecurity.

Frank took pity on it, something he was not wont to do with chickens. He thought he’d help it by removing it from the reign of terror of the flock, and put it in a pen by itself, figuring that would give it a chance to calm down and heal. It never did. The torments had permanently seared it. You could see the insanity in its eyes.

It was even more terrified of being alone and of Frank’s hand coming in to give it food and water, which it never touched, than of the torments of the flock.

Finally, he had to put it back in with the others again. It died early and in torment, terror, and misery.

Rod’s eyes looked like that chick’s when he was being laughed at today. Frank wondered how he got like he was. What was his childhood like? He was surprised to feel a profound sadness. He had seen other chicks in the same position at the bottom that had reacted savagely, fighting back against their oppressors even though it was hopeless. One that started out harassed eventually became the Alpha rooster.

“So, what is it in chickens, humans, wolves, any animal, that determines the level of fortitude and endurance they display? What was it that determines how it will react to stresses and torments? It is not learned. It is innate. But not genetic. It’s completely individual, without a ‘cause’. So what is it?...Ah, SHIT!”

The rear wheel had gone flat again.

The next day was another cooker at the dumps and another busy one. On the way home he looked around when he picked up a familiar resiny scent: The Early Goldenrod was beginning to flower. The green-white candles of the Wild Cucumber flowers were now appearing on top of the rampant vines that blanketed whole areas.

He bent low, pumping hard to get up the top of the steep hill, the sweat soaking the headband tied around his forehead. The shoulder was very narrow near the top. Just as he was about to crest it, he heard a loud vehicle come up on him fast, and then felt a smack of air to the back of his head.

He looked up in time to see an extended fat arm drawn back into the open passenger side window of an old, dark blue pick-up with huge off-the-road tires. It disappeared over the top of the hill. He had a glimpse of four heads in the front seat.

“You SON OF A BITCHES!”

He knew what they’d done. Someone made like they were going to whack the back of his head as they passed. Real funny.

They’ll pull off somewhere ahead of me and wait for me to get there before the next act begins...F**kers. That’s all I need. I’m f**kin hot and tired. THIS pisses me off.”

He thought ahead while he coasted down the other side.

There’s not many places to pull off or turn around where they’d have room to jump me. First place is coming up around that bend, by the golf course. That’s where they’ll be. Good.”

Sure enough, there was the pick-up. It had pulled off in a turn-around at the entrance to the golf course. They thought he wouldn’t see them until he was right on them. Instead, he saw them look at each other as they saw him staring at them from a distance.

He pulled up to a stop across the road from them, and silently waited for them to start. He was ready; red-hot mad but ice-cold and calculating. That made him very dangerous. They were confused now, looking at each other and laughing nervously.

Fine. Chickenshits. You want me to make the first move?”

He got off the bike, and laid it down. When he straightened up and took a step toward them, the pick-up roared into life, throwing dirt and gravel. They were grinning and waving at him like he was their best buddy now. He watched it disappear back over the hill.

He was disappointed more than relieved. It always took him awhile to cool down. He kept an eye over his shoulder the rest of the ride home. He made a mental note to see if he could find rearview mirrors for a bike.

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