Other Matters: October

Any day now could be the last good one of the year for cycling, so I said goodbye to work and took advantage of a late October afternoon so perfect that to have left it out there by itself would have been a shame. Deciding not to pit the road bike against heavy, skitterish Friday traffic, I left it in the shed and headed the mountain bike toward the system of canals that criss-crosses this agricultural valley. I dropped onto the path along a canal a block from my house and entered instant peace and quiet, except for the dogs that charge with intent to kill the moment they sense a cyclist.
Is there an animal psychologist out there who can tell us what it is about bicycles that drives dogs temporarily insane? Fortunately, there’s a leash law that keeps dogs mostly behind fences in town. In the country, you can usually get up a head of steam and outrun a farm dog, but a couple of weeks ago, a big black brute roared out of a yard and was gaining on me. When he came alongside and started nipping, I yelled as loud as I could (that’s loud), “Go home.” To my relief–and from the expression on his face, to his astonishment–he went home.
Nothing like that happened today. The only annoyances were piles of mud dredged out of the canals by ditch riders cleaning up after a summer of irrigation, and the extra shirt I threw on under my jersey. The air seemed cool when I started, but the temperature quickly rose on the steep hills. Russet and red leaves along parts of the path crackled under my tires. A crow circled along in the clear sky above me for a few hundred yards, reprimanding me for some offense. Two horses looked up as I passed their pasture. Apple harvest was over in most of the orchards. One pear farmer apparently decided that his crop wouldn’t bring him enough to make picking worthwhile. The pears lay beneath his trees where he let them fall, in the first stages of returning into the earth.
On a stretch up near the valley rim, a squirrel darted across the path fifty feet ahead. To my right, I saw a bigger creature move along the edge of an expansive lawn. The man paused to pump his air gun, then stalked the squirrel. He stopped, took aim, got off a shot, shook his head, and resumed gliding slowly along the edge of his property. Not wanting to distract him, I stopped and watched for ten minutes as he pursued his quarry with no less concentration than a sahib on safari. He took two more shots, but it was clear that the varmint had escaped. As he turned around, I said, “Hold your fire.”
“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t see you.”
“I know. I didn’t want to startle you and be your next victim.”
He felt like talking. He said he couldn’t keep flowers and couldn’t grow vegetables. The squirrels dig them up and eat them. They undermined a stone walkway he built. It was sinking, he said. He pointed to two pieces of equipment, a loader and a hay rake. One of his sons was storing them there, but he told him he’d have to move them, so the son found a buyer who gave him fifty dollars for the loader and a hundred for the rake, but the buyer hasn’t come for them.
“You see that shed,” he said. “I put that there years ago to store my tools while I built the house. I intended to tear it down when the house was done, but now it’s full of my grandson’s stuff. I told him he’d have to get it out of there next year. I want this area clear so I can plant it in lawn. That camper my son put there has got to go.” His gaze swept over his property. “I’ve got a lot of lawn, two acres of it. That area there, I cleared,” he said, pointing to a space ten by twenty feet bordered with creosoted timbers. “My other son had this old Mustang. It sat there for a long time, then some fella from Australia came along and paid him ten thousand dollars for it. Shipped it back to Australia with three or four other Mustangs. I guess they like old Mustangs down there.
“I’ve had this place since 1941. Retired from the mill fifteen years ago. Raised three kids here. After we had the first one, a daughter, the doctor told my wife she couldn’t have any more children. Seven years later, we had a son. He was fine. She was fine. Shows you what doctors know. Fourteen years after that, we had another son. What happiness. She was fifteen when we met, I was seventeen. Got married when she was twenty and I was twenty-two. I love it out here. It’s quiet. Away from the road. I’ve got a long driveway. Got that ditch running by. Nearest neighbor is clear over there, but his property runs right up against mine. We get along.”
He gestured at the orchard across the canal. “The old man who owned that had property ran clear into town, down by the freeway where the mall is. He used to stop by here when he was in his eighties, and I’d say, ‘I’m going in and get you a coke,’ and we’d just sit here by the canal and talk, for hours sometimes. He’s gone now.”
I extended my hand. We exchanged names. “I ride by here now and then,” I said. “We’ll talk again.”
“We sure will,” he said. “You take care.”
I rode home feeling good. The dogs seemed friendlier.

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Comments

  1. Gene Lees says

    In one of Steinbeck’s short-story collections, possibly The Long Valley, there is an exquisite piece called either Morning or Breakfast. It’s about having breakfast with some guys around a campfire. Among its lovelier phrases are “as lonely as a lightbulb burning in daylight” and “coffee smelling better than it would ever taste.” Your piece is in a class with that jeweled bit or writing.