The English Major

by Jim Harrison

Hardcover, 255 pages, Pgw, List Price: $24 | purchase

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The English Major
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Jim Harrison

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Book Summary

Robbed of his farm by his real-estate shark of an ex-wife following their divorce, sixty-something Cliff embarks on a road trip across America, armed with a childhood puzzle of the United States and on a mission to rename all the states and their state birds to overcome the boring names that they have been given. By the author of Julip.

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Excerpt: The English Major

The English Major


Grove Press

Copyright © 2008 Jim Harrison
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1863-9

Chapter One

MICHIGAN

It used to be Cliff and Vivian and now it isn't.

Doubtless every one starts from somewhere. We were married thirty-eight years, slightly more than thirty-seven but less than the magic thirty-nine.

I just cooked my last breakfast here in the old farmhouse, much changed during our marriage due to Vivian's whims and my labor.

I began to lose her during our fortieth high school reunion over in a park in Mullet Lake last year. Now I'm free, white, and sixty but I don't want to be free. I want Vivian back but it's been made clear to me that this is unlikely to happen.

At the reunion who would show up but Fred who left in the tenth grade. His parents were a higher sort, summer people from Petoskey who brought Fred up from Chicago to begin the ninth grade with us small town and farm kids. Fred had trouble in Chicago but he also had trouble up here so his parents pulled him halfway through tenth grade and sent him off to Culver Military Academy in Indiana where is it supposed that they straighten out young rascals from prosperous families.

So Fred shows up for our fortieth high school reunion in an Italian sports car I had never even heard the name before though we all agreed it made a growling sound sort of like the lion I heard at the Grand Rapids Zoo years ago. Anyway, he gave Vivian a ride. They were sweet on each other in high school. They were gone for over an hour and everyone got nervous, especially me, though nobody said anything even though everyone was beered up from the keg. When they returned there were grass stains on Vivian's knees and I got the idea that Fred and Vivian might have closed the deal. The last thing I expected was that my fifty-eight year old wife would become wayward. At the time there was no opportunity to get jealous or heartsick what with having to harvest fifty acres of sour cherries and ten acres of sweets, all of which took about a month during which the Fred-Vivian die was cast.

We got married after I graduated from Michigan State and Vivian had two years there. I taught history and English at the high school we graduated from and after our son left home Vivian became a real estate saleswoman of farms, resorts and cottages. I took over the farm when Vivian's dad died while fishing perch up in the Les Chenaux Islands near Cedarville. This man was a big strong asshole and had gone to glory from a heart attack trying to carry a hundred pounds of perch fillets and ice from a cabin to the pick-up. Soon after the funeral Vivian's mother, Vesper, took off to a place called Carefree, Arizona, and thus it was I became a farmer after eagerly escaping this family fate by going to college and becoming a school teacher.

The shoe dropped at deer camp in November up near Helmer in Luce County in the Upper Peninsula. The snow was too deep to hunt for long so by lunch time we were all back at camp playing poker and suddenly the game stopped and my friends told me that Vivian was having a hot and heavy affair with Fred who had his family's place on Lake Michigan north of Petoskey.

I took to drink which had never been a big item in my life. I drank a lot between deer season and the following June pretty much quitting two weeks ago after I thought I ran over our dog Lola, a thirteen year old lab-collie cross. I had been at Babe's apartment fiddling around which is upstairs from the diner where she works in town, the drawback being that the little apartment always smells like over used cooking oil and French fries which I never liked. Anyway when I got home Lola wasn't in the pump shed at the back of the house waiting for her biscuit. I found her in the weeds underneath the back of my brown Taurus. I would have seen her maybe but I hadn't cut the grass and weeds in the yard. I ran around the yard weeping over my dead dog, turned the headlights on and called my neighbor Dan and yelled, "Lola is dead," and then for some reason I threw myself over the fence into the cattle tank which was still full though I had sold the cattle in early May. Dan showed up a little later at first light with a thousand birds singing. He laughed because I was covered with green algae scum from the cattle tank and was shivering. It was a miracle I didn't catch a cold. Dan showed me how my tires had missed Lola and that she had died of old age with a half-chewed gopher in her mouth. Lola would eat anything from gophers to snakes to woodchucks to one of three piglets I once bought. That was the only time I punished her. If you want pork that tastes like the old days you have to raise your own. Dan and I grabbed two shovels and buried Lola out behind the barn. "You better pull yourself together," Dan said, tamping down the grave dirt with his boots.

Curiously my life began to turn upwards from the moment I discovered that I hadn't run over Lola.

It was strange after deer season when I called Bob our son who flew the Michigan coop right after he graduated from Kalamazoo College which cost us an arm and a leg. Now he lives in San Francisco. When I told him that his mother had left me for another man I was surprised when he said, "I'm not surprised." Since boyhood when he got involved in summer theatre over in Petoskey Bob has been all show business. I can't bring myself to get on a plane but Bob practically lives on them. He said, "You grew in different directions." Since Bob was young he had had this irritating habit of emphasizing every fifth word or so whether the word deserved it or not. "Dad, let's face it YOU never were in sync WITH mom. When she was worried ABOUT her big butt you'd ONLY say that there's nothing WRONG about a big butt. YOU were supposed to say, "VIVIAN your butt is not so BIG." Bob travels the world looking for locations for movie companies. When we found out in his teens that Bob was gay Vivian said she'd rather her son was gay than a farmer. That's Vivian for you. She was always adding fuel to the flame, or as Dad would say, pissing in the whiskey. Once I tried to detox the butt situation by saying that her butt was only big because her mother's butt was big. That didn't work.

So here I am packing up the old farmhouse which the new owner is going to tear down, or so Vivian says. The orchard will be leveled and only the barn will stay. Bob and I each get ten percent of the sale price and Vivian and her mother split the eighty. The two-hundred acres went for a million bucks which to me was an inflated price because I never netted more than thirty from it as a farm. Dan, my vet friend said that a hundred grand isn't much of a retirement but I said it has to be because that's what I got. He said you don't even have health insurance and I said that's true.

As I said my life took an upturn when I found out I hadn't run over Lola and I quit drinking so much. An even bigger item came about when I was sorting through an old trunk and found a jigsaw puzzle from my childhood. There were forty-eight pieces for the states and no state had the same colored puzzle piece. In the box there was also information about the state bird and the state flower. I came to know this puzzle all too well because I spent a lot of my young life taking care of my little brother Teddy who was a mongoloid, what they call now Down's Syndrome. Teddy loved this puzzle and we spent hours and hours doing it over and over.

I took the puzzle downstairs and put it on the kitchen table and popped a non-alcoholic beer since it was only noon. I tuned in my big Zenith Trans Oceanic to a polka program over across Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. Vivian was embarrassed by how much she loved old time polka dancing. We cut quite a figure at polka parties. She said that the billowy dresses women wore polka dancing covered her big butt.

The puzzle on the yellow Formica table before me gave me an idea. Way back when I taught over twenty-five years ago I tried to use Thoreau's Walden in a senior lit class. I was better at biology, especially botany, but this woeful group of seventeen seniors at least made an attempt at Thoreau because they could see that the writer excited me. "Why did he want to be alone? I like to hang out," a girl said. Thoreau had said something to the effect that a man didn't own a farm, the farm "owned" him. This hit home because half the kids were from farm families and their parents never got away to see much of the United States let alone the world. In my case I had been to New York City and Washington D.C. on our high school senior trip. I had gone to Chicago once with Vivian and our son Bob to see plays. They went several times but I went once. And I had been a chaperon and driver for a bunch of 4-H kids going to a big meeting at the Minnesota State Fair in Minneapolis. I looked out the kitchen window at my old brown Taurus station wagon with a hundred thirty thousand miles on it and figured she had some life left in her. I looked down at the forty-eight states and their varied colors. Tears formed when I thought of my brother Teddy who drowned at eleven when the family took the ferry from Charlevoix over to Beaver Island. Teddy never learned to swim well and when we went fishing in a rowboat on a lake or down on the Manistee River dad kept Teddy tethered to his belt with a long piece of leather rein from the draft horse harness. Otherwise Teddy would jump into any body of water. It didn't matter on our farm pond which was only waist deep. The crossing over to Beaver Island that day was real rough with two major August line squalls and a lot of people puking over the rails. Teddy jumped overboard and the rein broke. We lost him by the time the ferry got turned around in heavy seas. Dad got real drunk at the Shamrock on the island and said that Teddy died the death of a noble sailor.

I dried my tears and ran my fingers over the map puzzle. Three days later I was off after sending the auction shares by check to Bob in San Francisco and Vivian's mom in Carefree, Arizona where she only lives three blocks from the radio pundit Paul Harvey. I dropped by Vivian's office in Boyne City and she was miffed that I didn't give her the auction money in cash. "Now I'll have to pay taxes on it, you goof," she said with mean eyes. Our wedding photo was no longer on her desk. I recalled that at Michigan State she had a crush on a basketball player and when he didn't respond she had let the goldfish in her room starve to death. Several years back there was a summer month of a blue moon which is when you have two fall moons in the same month. I tried to get Vivian outside to take a look but nothing doing.

The farm no longer owned me and thus it was that I left our green valley where I had spent so many years. I skipped the auction for emotional reasons and went trout fishing on the Pigeon River with a doctor friend. He's the most unsuccessful doctor anyone knows. He can't get up in the morning because he drinks too much. He put me on Wellbutrin to calm me down and to be frank he also gave me lots of samples of Viagra and Levitra for my trip, plus the phone number of a hot chick in St. Paul, Minnesota. I always listened to Prairie Home Companion but not Vivian who thinks it's corny. When I had supper at the diner last night Babe told me that Vivian is riding for a fall. She said that Fred is having an affair with Vivian to try to recapture his high school glory. This is a little hard for me to understand because I don't remember high school as being glorious.

In the long summer twilight I went out behind the barn to bid adieu to the grave of my beloved Lola. I built side seats on my old reconditioned Farmall tractor and on the new John Deere so Lola could ride along with me. I'm not going to say that she was the truest woman in my life. At dawn I decided to take the jigsaw puzzle of the United States and throw a piece out when I crossed the border into a new state. It would be nice to throw away Michigan for the time being. Dad said I would always be "high minded and low waged" from reading too much Ralph Waldo Emerson. Maybe he was right.

WISCONSIN

Wisconsin is known as the badger state, the state bird is the robin, the state motto is Forward, and the state flower the wood violet. That said, certain problems come to mind. Of course the first day out is a shake down cruise. I had crossed the Mackinac Bridge, known far and wide as Mighty Mac for its massive splendor as an engineering feat, and was west of Engadine on Route 2 when I realized I had packed away my bird and wild flower books along with a bunch of other belongings in a storage unit. I would have to play it by ear whatever that might mean. I was mildly irritated that Wisconsin had the same state bird as Michigan and decided that when I entered Wisconsin over west of Iron Mountain I would refer to the Wisconsin robin as an orange breasted thrush. There's so much repetition in farm work that I couldn't accept the idea in state birds. The wildflowers in the untilled pastures west of Engadine were another matter I'd have to let pass as a different latitude meant different flowers. Babe had given me a dozen of those disposable cameras and also some new duds as a going away present. When I told her she couldn't afford these gifts she said she had been saving up the five hundred bucks she owed me and bought the cameras and clothes out of that. When I stopped for a whitefish sandwich brunch near Epoufette a gob of tartar sauce dripped on my new blue short sleeve shirt and the waitress rubbed out the stain with a clean rag and soda water. Her hand rubbing my chest made my neck hair prickle.

When I got back in the car I thought that though this waitress was a plain Jane about fifty years old there was something sexy about her. She smelled like Ivory soap, hair spray, and French fries so it couldn't be her scent. I had heard about phermones on NPR and read about them in the Detroit Free Press. I decided it was because her features reminded me of a girl a few miles down the road who used to babysit our son Robert now and then when he was a child. When she was a junior I had her in both my biology and American literature classes. She was too sharp-tongued to be popular with her class mates. Her parents had moved up from Mt. Pleasant to live the life of the great north but got starved out after a few years like so many do. Now a teacher would have to be a piece of damp firewood not to feel something toward the girls in his classes. Once I took Vivian down to Cedar south of Traverse City for the Polka Fest and when we got home the girl was sunbathing in her bikini out near the sandbox where Robert was playing. Vivian was pissed off and hungover and took Robert into the house. The girl gathered up her stuff on the back porch and we got in the car so I could give her a ride home. The car seat was too hot and she said "ouch" then got up on her knees with her butt in the bikini aimed at my face and spread out a shirt and jeans to protect her flesh from the hot seat. Thirty years later her butt is still a vivid painting in my neurons. I guess that's another part of the life of the mind or what President Jimmy Carter said at the time about lust in his heart. I was upset when Vivian told me that this girl was promiscuous with the boys who came up for the summer to stay with their families in the fancy cottages on Lake Charlevoix. I said "that's too bad" and Vivian, always the cynic, said, "Maybe she just likes to fuck." Anyway, the waitress reminded me of an older version of this girl and that's why my worm turned when she was cleaning the tartar sauce off my new shirt.

I took a photo of the Wisconsin welcome sign on the far side of the Menominee River west of Iron Mountain. On the other side of the road there was a big liquor and beer supermarket so Michiganders could take advantage of lower Wisconsin prices. I bought myself a pint of hooch I'd never tasted before called George Dickel. Since I was working on a clean slate why not try a new brand of liquor? I felt a pang when I saw Vivian's favorite butterscotch schnapps on a shelf. It seems to me we were fine until Robert left home more than fifteen years ago, nearly twenty actually. I mean we were just a married couple and fairly happy and worked together on the farm but not a full day after we took Robert to the plane in Pellston where the great labor leader Walter Reuther's plane crashed, Vivian got a job as a receptionist in a realtor's office, and then she became a sales person, and finally a broker. She was a whirlwind in real estate and I was proud of her but then the job gradually began to coarsen her. For instance we used to have three bird feeders out the kitchen window but after she took up the real estate profession she had no time to feed them. She'd trot out of the house in the morning with her cup of coffee and I wouldn't see her until dark. I'd have supper on the stove but first she'd take a bath with a tumbler of butterscotch Schnapps on ice. She got bigger because she didn't have time for regular meals but instead snacked on potato chips, Oreo cookies, and Pepsis. You couldn't tell her anything. At one time she'd read good books but after her job she only read paperbacks about international intrigue. I never saw any of the money she made and saved which was supposedly put away for our retirement which she planned on being in Hawaii. Since I couldn't get on a plane I wondered aloud how I was to get to Hawaii and she said, "You'll figure it out." We never talked about her money again after she refused to loan me the down payment on a John Deere tractor. I wanted to get this big snow blower attachment to make money in the winter cleaning out driveways for cottagers who came up to ski Boyne Mountain.

(Continues...)