Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Short-a-Day: Jesmyn Ward's "Cattle Haul"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 5, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 90.

An ambitious and tragic slice-of-life debut from Ms. Ward, who uses the in media res action of Reese's cattle drive -- a rushed, forty-eight hour blitz of a drive from Louisiana to Texas with a bed full of cows -- to expand upon the solitary, deadening life of a trucker, and to show us what circumstances would put such a young man in this situation in the first place. There's a lot of shifting around in time, but Ward handles it as simply as turning from lane to lane, clearly signaling when and where we are after each section's break, and she writes with such a steady pace that there's never a sense that we're out of control. 

After I got back from the Pennsylvania drive, I went home and I picked up the phone the first ring, like I always do, thinking it might be Tanisha, when I heard John-Lee on the other end saying, Reese, you going on a forty-eight-hour cattle haul. I hadn't even gone to the office to tell him I was back.
I pulled out a box of cookies and slid out the tray to find three stale cookies and a little balled-up sandwich bag full of white powder. I threw the box in the back of the cabinet and kicked it shut and told John-Lee I wasn't going to no fucking where.
"Why not, boy?" he breathed into the phone. He said boy and I heard nigga.

Oh yeah, did I mention that Ward's playing with dialect, too? In any case, look at everything happening here: Reese is not a man in control, which we learn from the fact that John-Lee is ordering him around, that he always answers immediately, and because he's struggling with some sort of substance problem. Other cues and clues, too: stale cookies imply that he's rarely home to restock, and the sort of desperation with which he waits to hear from Tanisha suggests both that he rarely calls her and that it's been some time since they've last seen one another.

Incidentally, Ward takes her time layering in additional details: the drugs -- crystal meth -- come from Reese's father, who got him the job and then the drugs, knowing from his own experience as a trucker exactly what he was getting his son into, and yet having no choice but to do so anyway. As for Reese's former job, he worked alongside the waitress Tanisha at a gas-station/diner called Love's (he was the janitor), but after the well dried up for the trailer he inherited from his grandmother, he had to look for bigger payouts. This leads to some nice father-son stuff, too, and it's nice to see a daddy that isn't malicious, just a bit broken:

He was staring at my face, his eyes so dark brown they looked black. After he bought me to live with Grandmama, he used to visit once in a while. He'd come in from a long haul and watch me play in front of the TV with my toys in the living room. He'd fall asleep in the easy chair and I'd creep up beside him and touch him with my finger on his arm. His veins had stood out like snakes. His muscles had been big and soft when he was sleeping. I felt skinny and small facing him: I don't understand how he did it for all them years. I wasn't never as big as he was, but I was bigger than this before I started all this shit. Even when I was just pushing that broom around and mopping the bathrooms at Love's, I was still bigger than this.

In addition to this, there's all of Ward's lovingly terse descriptions of the speeding-by-landscapes ("There ain't no shade in Texas"), the interesting snippets of CB conversation ("Tell your wife I'm coming for her, Sweet Dick Willie"), and the people Reese meets along the way, from the bathroom drug dealers to sweet roadside hookers ("I see the bottom of her front two teeth is brown. I bet if she opened her mouth a little further so I could see the bottom, they'd be the same from clamping down on the pipe"). Oh, and there's the question of whether or not the cows in the back of his truck are dying or not -- he doesn't know shit about cattle, but they feel feverish to him, and that can't be good. Like the best of stories, we're learning, right along with the characters, just how much we know and don't know, and how sometimes, you just have to go along with the ride and bear it for as long as you possibly can.

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