Nebraska Center for Writers

EUCHRE AT TWO
by Jim Reese

Picture Main Street.
Pick-ups in a row like a used car lot,
Chevy vs. rusted Ford — late November after harvest.
The bar full of farmers sitting at round tables,
clean overalls and all — the stench of stale beer and
urinals run dry.
Hear fists slamming down on oak,
the louder the better hand.
See Ernest and Linus Cummins, the 57-year-old
identical out-of-towners,
pause between bites of pie
too see for themselves.

Imagine a more serious affair

than prices dropping $3.00 a bushel-Banker's pockets
swelling with sweet deals
while every decent man's job runs awry.
Hear Edsel Crampit holler,
“More money in selling the kernel to
Earl May for lawn ornnets or deecor
than giving her away!”

Loose change impatiently

slides from one pocket to another.
Like ghost feathers, there's a muffled
“Open." "In." "Come on.”
Squinting lids, shifting pupils, and
wide eyes show all their white.
Hands hold five bid, no bid, Busch Light.

Fist against table,

table on top of floor,
floor covering foundation — foundation,
over this land
they pound.

Reprinted with permission
from Wedding Cake and Funeral Ham
Copyright © 2002 by Jim Reese
Grizzly Press


WILLING AND READY
by Jim Reese

1870 – 1933. Floyd R Knipplemeyer, Farmer. Will concluded on said date of December 13th 1930, Cedar County, Nebraska:

To son Floyd Jr., 80 acres of broke ground of his choosing—quarter horses and the 30 aught 6. East side of house. All out buildings.

Son Ronald T. 87 Head of Angus. West side of house. North forty. Outhouse squatting rights.

Daughter Florence. 1 Hereford Bull. Mother’s wedding ring to do with as you choose. All household appliances, furniture and accessories except, Ronald T and Floyd Junior’s beds, kitchen table and wood stove. Said savings of $16,328 and 33 cents.

Neighbor. Floyd Sr. grants permission to finally move fence at the south end of Snake Creek. You’re welcome you son of a bitch.

Witness. Mary A Armkanecht. Dec. 13th 1933.

Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2004 by Jim Reese


707 FLORENCE BOULEVARD
by Jim Reese

"Coltrane's on the stereo, pushing up the volume once again."
Drive By Honky

is where we used to go

to buy beer back in high school.

Used to just go to the corner liquor store

until Vernon got smart and made us
pick him up at his apartment.
Always had to have an extra five dollars
to get him his fifth of Skol.

The apartment, with its flaking light blue walls,

smelled like a sweaty ass that hadn't been wiped.
Todd Anson wouldn't even sit on the couch
until he passed out on it.
We stayed — always stayed too long.
There was no art on the walls,
just his daughter's honor roll certificates
and a turntable in the corner spinning 45s.

We ate gizzards there. We drank and sang.

We danced with Vernon's wife,
until she talked dirty to us. And the night
she asked Chuck Shipley to feel her up,
and he didn't — the night she stabbed
Vernon in the stomach because he couldn't
get it up — was the last time
we bought beer on a regular basis.

from Wedding Cake and Funeral Ham
Copyright © 2002 by Jim Reese
Grizzly Press


TEN PENNY HIGH
by Jim Reese

On Friday nights at Vernon’s place
Felice, feeling loose,
unbuttoning clothes.

We chisel ice for our drinks
out of an old plastic ice-cream tub
long gone of vanilla and chocolate swirl.

The summer heat is unbearable.
Ice picks and iron fans,
humidity and cling.

Sitting on one of the kitchen’s mismatched chairs
Felice spreads her legs wide
and starts icing her cleavage and lips.

Vernon plugs in the record player
and starts spinning forty-fives.
Felice grabs us, leads us in dance.

“I got songs to bring it up,
and songs to take it down,” Vernon hollers.
“And don’t be taking advantage of my wife, you hear?”

Before long Vernon drifts off
somewhere else, sometimes
physically, looking for what he calls his
ten penny high.

“Some sugar is right through
that bedroom door,” Felice whispers,
tonguing our ears.

That’s our cue to leave.
We all think about it on the way home.
Some of us talk about it,

some of us joke about it,
some of us, sitting in the back seat,
don’t say a word.

Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2005
by Jim Reese


CAT SCRATCH FEVER
by Jim Reese

My brother-in-law Carl is one of those, "that's what she said," kind of guys. I'm in the machine shed handing him tools as he rebuilds the engine of his '76 Chevy pickup. Always buy Chevy, he tells me, piss on Ford. Through the doors I can see a slew of salvaged cars, stray truck beds and parts accumulating in tall grass and brome. The corncrib leans with a mortgaged crop. A row of round bales is covered with blue tarps and used tires.
"I don't think this five-sixteenth is going to fit, Carl."
"Yeah. And that's what she said."
Carl is quick. Over the years he has never ceased to amaze me with his backwoods communication skills. Some easterners would call Carl redneck, but he's a Yankee, entirely too far north of the Mason-Dixon to fall into such a category. And this is Nebraska—we're in the heart of the Great Plains. 13 County, to be exact.
This is blasted country. Tough country. Banker pockets swelling off of sweet deals while every decent man's struggle runs awry. Most of the men and women here have been pounding the dirt since they could first stand, continuing on with what their fathers and mothers have left. Family profit fluctuates like the wind—eye squinting tight.
After another hour of fiddling with the engine block Carl decides we ought to go hunting on some minimum maintenance roads around the place. Carl is trying his damndest to pick off a ring-neck pheasant from the cab of another rusted-out Chevy when "Cat Scratch Fever" by Ted Nugent blasts over the airwaves and he turns up the volume on his Kraco Deluxe stereo. The tweeters squeal and flush the remaining birds in the area into the thicket. Carl's singing crescendos to an out-of-tune home concert.
"Scratch that beaver — dear near near near — scratch that beaver — beer nair nair nair!"
This new rendition pleases Carl. Whatever sexual innuendos Ted Nugent has in mind will forever be lost for me on Rural Route 957, and the image of Carl bending a guitar solo on his steering wheel is now embedded in my brain.
"As worthless as tits on a boar!" Carl hollers over the remaining chords of the song as he mounts his shotgun on the rear window display rack.
"Fuck it. It's beer thirty." Carl reaches out and around the cab window to the bed for three beers. He shoves one beer in his breast pocket, tosses me one, and hammers back the other. He belches in mid sentence.
"What?" I ask.
"Drink Budweiser and drive real fast. That should be their motto. Think about it. Why else do they have racecars on their cases of beer? Why do you think Dale Ernhardt Jr. is their spokesman? If they didn't want us to drink and drive they wouldn't put race cars on their products."
He has a point. I started drinking the beer he'd given me without thinking twice about it. But here in 13 County things are a little different. Empty beer cans on the side of the road and accumulating in pickup truck beds are as common as dirt.
Carl's moments of epiphany are infrequent and often, when seen on a larger scale, irrelevant. There've been numerous times though that I've thought with the right marketing and coaching, Carl could be the official spokesman for Anheuser Busch, Remington Firearms, or NASCAR.
"My back teeth are floatin'," Carl says, pulling the truck over to take a leak. As he relieves himself he points at something.
"Well, lookee here," he hollers to me from outside the cab.
"No thanks," I say, "I have a fine view from here."
"What? No. There. Look there."
On the horizon Carl sees something. Off in the distance are rows of broken stalks. The combine's tires have made permanent ruts in this soil. About two-dozen head of Herefords are rooting in the field for left over corn. The sun has begun its slow descent — the sky is bright orange, alive and on fire.
Since I've been coming to this county, what I've learned from Carl is to really look. Some of us start out as just observers here. Some never understand. Not even an inkling of what it takes to survive years here. Hell, I've never sat at the kitchen table calculating unforgiving ground — whole sections drying up at a time — families splitting out of stubbornness and greed, going from breakdown to break away. Never felt this weather's heat or its forty-below blows — at least not at first. And city folk, like me, who fly by on their weekend excursions, don't know unless they stop. And with time you start to understand the surroundings, this land and its inhabitants. I look again into the setting sun, but see nothing.
"You're drunk!" I holler back to him.
"Drunk. Shit. I'm just getting started. Look up there on the north forty — at about nine o'clock. See that coyote? See that son-of-a-bitch?"
He jumps back into the pickup and we're off. He grabs his CB, turns it to Channel 11 and makes contact. "The old man will hear us. He's always got this damn thing on. Harold you there?"
The old man he is referring to is Harold Cummins. Harold's a 74-year-old German farmer who fought the Korean War — an old boy who has never married and never left the county since that call to duty overseas. Harold will take an old washer or dryer, or any metal object, grab his tin snips, and cut it up into one-inch squares for fun. In between meals and chores you might see him sitting on a feeder bucket, head over a rusted coffee can. In that can he breaks up glass bottles. In a rhythmic movement, he quarter-turns an old rusted ball hitch, grinding the bottles into fine sand. When the can is full he takes the remains and spreads them down the lane. Carl says he's creating his own glass highway. I wonder, sometimes, which way Harold plans to turn when he gets to the end of his lane.
"Yep." Harold says back on the line. "Where you at?"
"Go up to Benson's gate and sit. I got an eye on one of those bastards. I'm gonna head over east of there and try and pick him off. I'll call you back in a few minutes."
The coyotes here have been tearing at the livestock. Both men have lost heifers to this particular pack.
"Little fuckers. I got enough god damn problems without these mangy pieces of shit messing with my herd," Carl hollers at me as he guns the Chevy across the pasture. "Keep an eye on it if you can."
Humane or not, I'd kill the damn things too if they ate a $1,300 heifer of mine. A man has to make a living. Out here you try to live with wildlife the best you can. Most of the time it works pretty well. Other times Mother Nature and her tricksters remind us who's boss.
We blow across the pasture at full speed — hauling ass between sections and open gates. I grab the Chevy's passenger "Oh Shit" handle and press my back firm against the seat.
"It works a hell of a lot better with someone on the other side of the section ready to cut the bastards off. Hopefully the old man will get up there and stop him in his tracks," he hollers.
I lose the coyote completely. I'm not sure I ever saw it, to be honest with you. What I'm looking out for now are rocks and holes. At the crest of each new hill I see sky and feel my gut rise.
"I think my back teeth are floating now too," I holler back to Carl.
"Heeh. Don't worry. I've been hunting this land since before you had hair on your balls."
"That's comforting," I holler back as we hit a rock and my head bounces against the roof of the cab. He guns the Chevy over the crest of the hill and suddenly slams on the breaks — my head and hands smash into the dashboard. "Motherfucker," I holler as my head finally comes to rest in the palms of my hands.
Carl spots the gray-green coat at the bottom of the bluff. With his binoculars he points in the direction of the coyote.
"You got an eye on him yet?" Harold squawks through the CB airwaves.
"Hot damn! Got him."
He hands me the binoculars and puts two bullets in his rifle. He gets out and takes aim over the hood of the truck. My adrenaline is still on full throttle as I try to bring the coyote into scope myself. My hands are entirely too shaky from the ride, though. I hear him fire and jump out to see for myself.
Off in the distance I can see Harold's truck, but struggle to see the coyote. The wind has picked up. Standing here on the prairie, trying to hold ground, I realize how little we really are in the whole scheme of things. Harold's no bigger than my index finger from here. I move foreword to get a better view.
"God damn. What are you waiting for?" Harold screams through the CB inside the cab.
Turning around to see what Carl's doing, I come face to face with the dark end of his rifle.
"Don't – ever – fucking – do – that – again," Carl says it slowly in a low voice. "You about got your head blown off."
I can't say a thing. Although I have not been shot, I feel the numbness of a fired gun. I can hear my blood pounding in my veins. I turn away and spot the coyote. It paces back and forth a few times, then runs for cover. I'm stunned, unable to move. The wind whistles white noise.

What I learn is how easily it is to take from this land. How quickly, I can be eliminated. And that scares the hell out of me.

Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2005
by Jim Reese


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