R. J. Roberts : Memoir : September 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I speak with a muddled southern accent. I lived in the north all my life, but my father’s family comes from the south, and on their trek north they didn’t bring money, brains, better ideas, or even sanity with them; nothing at all except the cumulative degenerative lunacy of generations of poor white trash living.

A donkey named Oliver, our insanity farm, and why I drink

I knew the instant I took my first drink, at age eleven, that I was an alcoholic.  I was at my white trash friends house, all my friends were white trash because that’s what I was.  His mom was a bartender and a drunk, my friend sometimes got on the school bus at the bar she worked at. 

She used to steal booze from the bar by pouring it in discarded beer bottles and taking them home.  My friend produced one of these bottles from the cabinet, took a swing of it, then passed it around to the group of kids there. 

Everyone drank from it, or pretended to, and you could tell the ones who actually drank because their faces turned sour and pale, like they just swallowed turpentine.  When it came my turn, I drank, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.  I think it must have been the cheapest available swill whiskey, but the sweet, sour, acrid taste, and wonderful burn going down my throat made me fall in love.  

We went out fishing, but I kept making excuses to go back to the house and drink more.  I actually drank the whole bottle, and then went about looking through the shelves for more.  When my friend found that I drank it all, I thought he’d be mad, but he just shrugged, his mom would never miss it, he said, she wouldn’t even remember she had it.  

One time I spent the night at his house, and got on the school bus with him at the bar.  We had to wake up at 4:30 so we could be at the bar at 5:30 for his mom to open it.  I don’t think I had ever once been up that early in my life, and I complained the whole way.  I begged his mom to call off or go in later, she was adamant she had to be there at 5:30. 

I thought, “What for?  Who the hell would want to go to a bar at 5:30 in the morning?”  But we drove down there, watched her sweep up for a while, then she opened the front door at exactly 5:30, and a long line of a dozen mean looking drunks wordlessly filed in and sat the bar.  They silently drank, all seeming to brood on something dark, and me and my friend became uncomfortable and went outside and sat in the cold, dark parking lot for two hours until the bus came.

My father bought a donkey named Oliver, Oliver P. Coltrane.  He was staggeringly, almost bleach, white.  That’s the joke.  There’s not much to say about him besides his name, and he generally was good animal.  He was the only animal on our farm who never attacked me.  He simply stood there all day, he ate if you put food in front of him, and if not, he didn’t seem to mind.  

We raised show steers…I mean, I think that’s what we did, I don’t actually know.  As a grown man I have no idea how to raise a show steer, or even how to handle a cow in general, despite spending my entire childhood doing it.  I think the key is that I didn’t know then either.  Neither did, nor does, my dad.  But still, we raised show steers, or attempted.

Oliver’s purpose was supposedly to help halter break steers, you’d tie their halter to Oliver, and a donkey being so stubborn it would boss the steer around, and the steer would naturally learn to follow.  I suppose this sounded like it was a good idea, and that was exactly how my dad liked his ideas: sounding good.  He didn’t go for ones that actually were good, just sounded.

It never worked, though.  Our steers constantly bolted, jumped, kicked, and butted us around, resisting all taming attempts and breaking several of my young bones.  I get a cold shiver whenever I see cows these days, and I always make a point to keep my distance, just like I get a little smirk and a nod of vengeful satisfaction, whispering, “That’s right, fucker,” whenever I see a hamburger.  

The steers acted homicidal towards us, but they got along fine when tied to Oliver.  You see, they didn’t have a problem with Oliver, or a problem with being halter broke in general, they had a problem with us.  

And you know…so do, and did I.  

One day, my dad was showing off his new .44 magnum, a pistol that years later he would pretend to commit suicide with, and was furious that we didn’t come running, frantic with concern for him when the gunshot went off.  My only concern was I’d have to go to school the next day and be the kid whose dad just killed himself. 

But on this day, we started shooting pumpkins still growing on the vine, big suckers the size of a bean bag chair that my dad loved growing but had no actual purpose for; just like our steers, or our farm, or us.  They’d absolutely explode in a glory of flesh when hit by the hunting loaded slugs.

Then my dad got his 20 gauge shotgun, and went to the barn and started shooting pigeons for fun.  I’d never shot a shotgun before and he handed it to me, then told me to shoot the pigeons nesting up in the rafters.  

“Now, don’t go blowing a hole in my new roof!” he warned me, as he had just spent several thousand dollars on it.  The roof on our house leaked like a sieve, the wind blew right through the crumbling siding, and sometimes snakes slithered into the bathroom through holes in the foundation; but don’t mess up the new roof on his barn, god forbid.

I pointed the shotgun up at the pigeons nestled in the roof rafters and thought for a moment.  How the hell do you not damage something when shooting a shotgun directly at it?  I looked over at him, worried with doubt, as this was very possibly one of those cruel tricks of his, where I’d get a fist in my eye or worse when I inevitably blew a hole through his roof.  

“Go on, shoot ‘em!” he said.

So I shot the shotgun, killed some pigeons, and blew several holes in his new roof.  

“Huh,” was all he said, as if confused by the results.  And that was it.  End of memory.  I’m almost disappointed that I didn’t get hit because, well, at least that would have made sense.  

Our land was a miserable swamp, quite conceivably the worst possible plot of land to put a herd of cows.  Their hooves were incredibly erosive to the soggy ground, and most of our pasture was a mess of churned mud, untraversable by foot or hoof.  I remember one time my friend coming over and asking me, “Why don’t your cows have any legs?”  I went to look at what he was talking about, and here, because of a particularly rainy month, several of our cows were sunk into the ground up to their bellies.  

We had a wood burning stove to heat the house, and on weekends we’d go back into our swampy, poison ivy infested woods to cut firewood.  We spent most of the time trying to get my dad’s tractor unstuck in the mud, and listening to his frustrated, manic rantings, then he’d smack us around for a good while when his frustration and anger peaked.

After we got rid of the stove for a gas furnace, my dad invited a friend of his to take some of our surplus wood.  He came out with a new, quiet, electric chainsaw, not an ancient, poorly tuned two stroke that was obnoxiously loud because the muffler was torn off, that belched gas and oil everywhere, like my dad’s.

His son eagerly helped him carry the cut wood, and the father talked to him politely and respectfully, he didn’t call him every swear word in the book, he didn’t crudely question his sexuality, he didn’t slap him around when he got angry.  The two just quietly and efficiently cut and hauled wood, and even seemed to be enjoying themselves.  I watched these two in awe.  I just didn’t understand what I was looking at.  

I remember my dad dragging a dying calf into our basement and giving it CPR, as he alternated between screaming, “Breathe!”, and sobbing uncontrollably.  I was hiding, like everyone else in the house.  When things went bad on the farm it was always our fault, never his, that was just the rule.  When things went right, well, I don’t know what would happen then because it never once occurred.  

After an hour of trying to revive it, it became clear the calf was a goner.  This was a big blow to my dad, as this calf was supposed to be the culmination of whatever madcap breeding program he had thought up.  I remember exactly when it became clear to him that this was all a total failure because he exploded in a semi-coherent fit of rage in which he denounced god, the bible, and everything decent in the world.  Then he drove down to the Moose Lodge to get drunk.  We were dreading his return.  

A friend of his joined him at the lodge and after downing a bottle of Jack Daniels, my dad confided in him that he was planning on going home and killing his family, he was just flat sick of us ruining his plans for the farm.  His friend promptly took him outside and beat the total shit out of my dad, and said if anything happened to his family he’d be found and killed.  Then he gave my dad a lift home.  Those two are still good friends to this day.  

Our animals became just as crazy as us, my dad thought it was just back luck that we always got the crazy ones, it never occurred to him that husbanded animals tend to become reflections of their keepers.  We had a sheep, I don’t know why we had just one sheep, there were no other sheep around and ours began to think it was a cow.  It ate from the cow feeder, which it slept in also, and fought tooth and nail with the other cows, somehow eventually becoming the alpha bull.  We had a cow herd led by sheep, that was just so us.  But the sheep was highly aggressive and violent and we couldn’t go in the cow pasture anymore because it tolerated no violation of its territory, attacking to kill.  Even Oliver stayed well out of its way.

Well, of course, sheep have to be shorn.  Their wool grows regardless, and if not shorn, it gains so much mass that the sheep can’t even move.  One night, my dad got a pair of sheers and dragged my brother and me out to barn, where we faced off with this killer sheep.  It was a brutal night, at first the sheep couldn’t move because of its heavy wool, and actually lulled us by acting quite tame.  But once we got some weight off it, it proceeded to bounce us off the wooden walls of the barn for hours, as we tackled it time and time again and sheared until all its wool was shorn off.  We also accidentally lacerated it quite deeply with the sheers several times, and it died of blood loss the next day.  The cow herd, leaderless now, got really weird and began killing their calves.

If anything, near as I can tell, what our farm grew was insanity, and every harvest was bountiful.

Oliver just disappeared one day.  That happened often with my dad’s failed, or incomplete ideas.  He never admitted defeat, one day they would just disappear, and nobody spoke of it again.  The steers and cows would eventually disappear.  So would the pigeons.  So would the fences.  So would the pasture.  So would the barn.  I still live here, and every trace of the farm has vanished, or is buried under a carpet of weeds, right where I’m glad it’s at.  

I think a lot about Oliver.  Such an indifferent, likeable animal.  I hope he left our farm and that my dad’s insanity and incompetence didn’t leave a mark on his stalwart nature, like it did to us.  Because even though our farm is long gone, it still exists, I can still practically touch it.  You just can’t erase something like that, you can’t even drink it away; trust me, I gave that a big try.

I don’t know exactly what happened to Oliver, I’d like to think he went to some better farm, run by competent, happy, sane people.  But let’s face it, we all know how the world is to Donkeys, they’re bred to be treated poorly and discarded.  It’s not a coincidence they’re psychically numb to our world’s horrors, it’s evolutionally what they need to survive.  It’s also, to put a pretty interlacing bow on all this, exactly what I was looking for in the bottle as a kid.  That numbness, that never ceasing indifference to the intolerable, so that I could just stand there and be; so that I don’t grow up to be an old man, sitting at a bar, or at a keyboard; brooding.  It’s a damn shame a man isn’t a donkey.