The Big Blow
In 1973 there was one old gal I used to sit next to in the Brass Rail Bar in Healdsburg. I forget her name, but she was silver-streaked and willowy with lively blue eyes. Clearly a looker back when she was young, she loved talking. Yet, unlike most elderly folks, she didn’t repeat herself. Capable of pulling something fresh out of the smoky air of the ancient, threadbare saloon, her observations were nearly always interesting and sometimes downright quirky.
Like one time we were sitting and talking and a fellah came in to buy himself a bottle of whiskey to take out in a brown paper bag. Pink-skinned with a shaved head and a full black beard, he tweaked the old gal’s curiosity. She couldn’t take her eyes off him, in other words, though she tried to be discreet, sneaking little glances when he wasn’t looking.
When the fellah left, she followed him out the door with her eyes. Then she turned to me and remarked, “I never could trust a man with a shaved head and a big old beard. It’s like he can’t make up his own mind.”
Out of north Texas but branded an “Okie,” in 1932 as a young woman and the eldest daughter of six kids, the old gal had migrated to Healdsburg. Raised on a panhandle homestead and having grown up doing farm work with her ma and pa, brothers and sisters, as a crew they’d started off in Healdsburg working the hop vines that used to line the Russian River.
By and by she fell in love with a native-born California boy and, after they married, she spent forty years as a hash house waitress. Before he died recently, her husband had spent forty years—excepting while he was away to war—working in the lumber mill there on the north edge of town. Now her kids were grown and off with families of their own, her rug-lying old dog was decrepit, her house cat slept all the time and TV bored her to death.
The old gal had her social security and her husband’s pension, her cottage was paid off and she even had a little rainy day money socked away in the bank. And that weren’t half bad when you took into account how she’d started off in life, having only her looks and wits going for her and not a nickel in her pocket. Then it didn’t hurt that she’d never been scared of hard work.
When she was in her prime and working as the head waitress up at the Tip Top Café on Dry Creek Road, in her head and in three seconds flat, she’d total out a customer’s check even if it listed a dozen items. Working ten tables at a time, she’d always know what order went to what table and what plate went to what person. Fun-loving and an excellent dancer capable of kicking up her honkytonk heels with the best of them, she glided between tables and chairs like a skater. During a work day she might walk twenty miles, but she never dropped anything or bumped into anybody.
She’d always enjoyed the company of people and, even when she was forced to deal with a spoiled brat customer, she could usually get him to behave himself with just her sweet smile and sunny disposition. If not, she’d gently slice and dice him using her clod buster wit and sharp tongue. She’d set out to be the very best waitress she could be, and to have herself some fun while she was at it, and she reckoned she’d succeeded and she didn’t mind saying so.
She also asked me a lot of questions, which warmed my heart. Not many old gals have the patience to listen to young boys talking about themselves, having gotten enough of that out of their brothers, husbands and sons. But this old gal was genuinely interested in me. Anytime after work when I walked into the Brass Rail, seeing me would cause her to break into a big grin and pat the empty stool beside her. Once I was settled in, she’d ask me how my day had gone down there at Hacienda de Calistoga and I’d answer with anything I thought she might find interesting. Then we’d go on to make small talk for an hour or two. Over time the old gal came to know where I was from and what my story was. She learned that my young heart had been broken, not just by war and my life in general, but also by a woman. She also knew I was drinking too much and one time—just one time—she warned me if I kept it up I’d come to no good.
I never figured out why she took an interest in me. Maybe I reminded her of her husband when he was young, or of one of her brothers or sons. Could it be I reminded her of a childhood puppy love, a path not taken? Surely it wasn’t her “maternal instincts” since she wasn’t the kind to be knowingly wagging her finger.
It occurred to me that she felt sorry for me, though I dismissed the notion. The old gal knew the war that had wounded me had also spared me, and that the woman who’d put me on the road had first saved my life. I was alive and kicking, the old gal knew. I still had some fire in my belly, my muscles and wits and—just like her—I could take care of myself.
Maybe that was it: I reminded her of herself and her kin, of red dirt, angry clouds, flinty-eyed sun, stoop, sweat, hard knocks and boney fingers. She herself had never experienced being all alone with nowhere to go, but she’d known plenty who had.
So I was surprised the night I walked into the Brass Rail, sat down beside her and saw her fretting.
“What you doing here?” She asked me. “Ain’t you heard we’ve got a big blow coming?” A shiver went through her. “It’s making landfall here pretty quick and its bringing hurricane force winds to the mountain tops and buckets of rain. They’re predicting the river’s gonna flood out there by Jimtown, and you can bet the ‘lectricity’s going out.”
“What you mean, ‘flood by Jimtown?’” I asked hopefully.
“It always floods out there when the river comes up. During the biggest floods, the water gets as high as that barn on the hill a quarter mile this side of the bridge, and it floods just as far toward Jimtown.”
“It floods the highway?”
“Sure it does.” The old gal looked at me like I was playing stupid. “When it’s high water out that way, you wouldn’t want to try’n cross the river in a boat. . . What you grinning about?”
“If I can’t get to Hacienda de Calistoga,” I intoned philosophically, “I ain’t gotta work tomorrow.” I wondered if tonight was the night I should tie one on.
“You damned city boys,” she huffed. “It ain’t right you be making light of a storm. A storm can ruin you, and you making light of it brings everybody bad luck.”
I laughed until I saw I was hurting her feelings.
“You’ve gotta respect nature,” she warned. “But you’re new to these parts so you’ll see.” She looked away, her mind drifting.
Boy did she make me feel foolish. In bits and pieces she’d told me some about how the weather back home in Texas had driven her family from their land, but I hadn’t caught on to all it’d done to her—she who never complained. But now I imagined her as a girl peering at the roiling, black towering wall of ruin charging at her homestead at sixty miles per hour. The leading winds were throwing things around and roaring in her ears while she ran with the rest of them for the storm cellar. Huddled together in the midday-midnight darkness with talcum powder dust invading through the cracks in the door, with them nearly choking with rags pressed to their faces, the bundled babies panicked and wailing, they’d listen in frozen terror as the insane siren monster tried to suck them up out of the ground.
After the fury was past and they re-emerged up into the blue sky stillness, they saw their row crops and topsoil gone and fruit trees stripped naked. They saw their livestock skinned and whatever else they’d owned that hadn’t been nailed down gone with the wind.
I realized it wasn’t the forecasted downpours, possible landslides, flooded streets, feeder creeks and rivers, or even the prospect of her losing her electricity that was unnerving her. It was the wind. The old gal was scared of the wind.
“I guess you’re right,” I admitted.
“Right about what?” She asked, distracted.
“Right about me getting myself home before the storm hits.”
“Can’t see how it’d hurt you,” she sniffed, her mouth giving in to a slight smile. She thought for a minute and then she asked me, “You got plenty of kerosene lamps out there in that barn of yours?”
“I guess we do.”
“I’d make sure if I was you.”
I chuckled, tickled by her concern. “You think maybe I might have enough time for just one more drink?” I asked her.
“I reckon so long as you don’t dawdle. It’s your turn to buy.”
You can also find Bruce here> http://4mules.com
”Walking Tractor and other Country Tales”
by Bruce Patterson
details his life as a logger, wood-cutter and ranch hand. Set in Mendocino County's "old" Anderson Valley, his stories amount to an often funny love letter to a particular place and time and a disappearing way of life.
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