Consider The Mule
I’m sitting here face to face with my old man in the front room of his ramshackle farmhouse wondering how in the name of Sam Hill am I going to put my foot down. I’d rather lock horns with a charged-up bull blindfolded.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my father, but he’s the stubbornest, orneriest, and nastiest old cuss I’ve ever seen. This man wears clothes that are married to his flesh, and he bathes only after I threaten him with the old folks’ home; which, here lately, I’ve been thinking might not be a bad idea.
It’s not that I want to do anything to make the old man unhappy. I’d sooner cut off my right arm. But I worry about him. I mean, I worry about him a lot, and my worries have nothing to do with his lack of hygienic concern, even though my wife claims it’s a sin and a shame to let him wear the same clothes for a week at a time. Lord knows, like I always tell her, he never did give a hoot about his personal appearance or his stinking socks. But I worry because my father is eighty years old and lives by himself out here in the sticks in this fifty-year-old broken-down farmhouse with cracks in the walls big enough to throw rabbits through, with no inside toilet or modern heat. I’m afraid he’ll die from malnutrition, or worse yet, even freeze to death.
This morning I woke up with the brilliant idea of buying the two-bedroom brick house down the street from where I live. I thought if I bought the little house, Dad could move in and the wife and I could kinda keep an eye on him. Sorta full time, you know. I told this to the wife, and she thought it was a wonderful idea. She said with the cold winter upon us, now was the time for me to pay my father a special visit. (I just saw him yesterday.)
“And this time, Tommy,” she said, “put your foot down.”
So here I am in my old man’s house, the cold December wind howling through the cracks in the walls. I’m sitting here in front of his puny fire, shivering in my Fruit of the Looms, trying to figure out a way to put my foot down. I decide I’ll sneak up on him—kinda genteel-like:
“Dad,” I say, “there’s a house for sale in town, right down the street from me and Maggie. It’s a little house, but nice and warm. I’ve been thinking about buying it. A sort of investment.”
He doesn’t say anything right away; just peers at me over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. I get up and throw a stick of wood on the fire and pull my chair up closer. He spits his snuff at a syrup can on the floor.
“A house is a good investment,” he says, wiping his toothless mouth on his coat sleeve. “And land, too.”
I suspect he’s seen through me, but I keep on. “Dad, I thought if I bought the house, you could come live in it. Yessir, you’d be mighty warm in that house.”
“I’m warm here, son,” he says, not hesitating.
I look at my old man sitting there in his chair by the window, all bundled up in five layers of dingy clothes and two pairs of stinking socks. He appears to be warm. I’ll concede to that. The strongest gusts of Hurricane Hilda couldn’t penetrate his forty-leven-dozen pounds of garb, but it must be difficult to walk.
“Dad, the house I’m thinking about buying has gas heat. Just flip a switch, and the whole house is warm. You wouldn’t need to wear so many clothes indoors.”
“These clothes don’t bother me none, and this fireplace is just fine,” he says.
That look again. With a slight cocking of his head to the side. I hate it when he surveys me that way, but I won’t be intimidated; this time I’m sticking to my guns.
“Don’t you get lonesome, Dad? Out here by yourself?”
“I ain’t lonesome, son,” he says, gazing out the window. “I’m where I wanta be, right here on my own land. And I ain’t gonna move, Thomas. Ain’t no use in you palavering on and on, thinking you’re gonna change my mind.”
I hear him loud and clear. I reckon my genteel approach isn’t a very clever idea. I wish I dipped snuff or smoked or something. Then I could spit or puff. Instead, I back my hind end up close to the fire and try to think of a new angle.
“The wind’s a rising,” my father says, reaching for his cane. “I better go put the blankets around old Sal’s pen. Wouldn’t want that old mule keeling over from the cold.”
“I’ll put the blankets on the pen, Dad. No use for you to go out in this weather.”
“Need to stretch my legs a bit,” he says, putting on his overcoat. “But you can help me, son. Get my big coat out of the chifforobe and put it on.” I go into his bedroom and find the coat.
“There’s a cap in there, too,” he calls to me. “With earmuffs. The way that wind’s a blowing, a body could get an earache.”
Snug in my father’s heavy coat and muffed cap, I rejoin him in the front room and gather up the smelly woolen blankets lying in the corner. Together we walk through his greasy kitchen and onto the back porch. The wind whips at our faces. Holding his cane in one hand and grasping the rail with the other, he carefully and slowly descends the steps, on his way to take care of his mule.
Old Sal’s pen isn’t anything but a concoction of two by fours and rusty tin sheets I myself hastily threw together last summer when my old man’s barn burned down. I tried to persuade him then to get rid of the mule, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
“Nosiree,” he had said. “You gotta consider that old red mule’s pulled many a plow for me, and in her heyday she done a good job. Ain’t no reason to put her out to pasture just cause she ain’t spry no more. I’ll know when the time comes.”
So I built the pen to pacify the old man. Smack dab in the middle of his back yard, under the oak tree, right where he wanted it, with spaces between the tin sheets so she’d be cool in the summer. That was the old man’s idea. Now as we walk across the yard toward the pen, I hear the mule bray softly as her master approaches. He gives her a pat, and we go to work tacking the blankets around her pen.
“You cold, son?” my father asks.
“No, Dad,” I answer truthfully. I guess his heavy coat has made me warm.
When the last blanket is in place, we head back toward the house, my father and me. As we go into the kitchen, he says: “I’ll rest better tonight, knowing old Sal is warm.”
“I know, Dad,” I say.
I go on into the front room and take off my father’s coat and cap. I hear him hobbling around in the kitchen with his cane, the plank floors creaking under his feet. The fire is dwindling, so I throw on some wood.
“I could do with a cup of hot coffee,” he calls from the kitchen. “How about you, son?”
“Sounds good,” I call back, standing by the window, looking out. I see the giant pecan trees just past the end of the yard where my sisters and I played many summers ago. “You younguns stay under the trees,” my daddy always said. “You could get a sun stroke in this heat. And watch out for them snakes might be crawling up here from the creek.”
I gaze beyond the trees at the fields stretching far to the south, now hard and lifeless from the harsh winter cold. I think of an earlier time when my father’s fields were alive with tiny sprouts of green things bursting through. The smell of spring filled the air, and the soil felt soft and warm beneath my bare feet. I was eight years old, and he was letting me help him break ground for the first time. I could barely reach the handles of the plow, but I felt twenty feet tall.
“You’re too young yet, son, to know if you wanta farm for a living,” he had said, spitting his snuff juice on the ground. “But this land’s been good to your mama and me, and I’m mighty proud of it. The best thing a man can have is land of his own.”
I turn away from the window. The little house in town seems a thousand miles away, and my vision of the old man living there is dim. Suddenly, it’s clear to me what I must do. I feel calm as I join my father in the kitchen. Still wearing his overcoat, he stands by the stove stirring something in a pot.
“Guess that fresh air made me hungry,” he says. “The coffee’s ready, and I’ll have supper warmed up in a jiffy.”
“Dad, I don’t want any supper. I just want to talk to you.”
“Well, if it’s about me moving, son, I already told you I ain’t gonna move.”
I pour two cups of coffee and sit down at the table. “No, Dad,” I say, “it’s not about moving. It’s about fixing up this old house and making it warmer and more comfortable.”
He stops stirring long enough to peer at me again, but it doesn’t bother me now. I’ve got a plan—no genteel approach this time, just straight commonsense talk. “I’m thinking how easy it would be to seal the walls of this house,” I begin. “I could put up some sheet rock or wood paneling. Maybe both.”
“I’ve lived in this house for fifty years, with these same walls. Don’t see no use in changing them now,” he says, still stirring in his pot.
I continue on, paying no attention to his words. “After I get the walls covered, I could have a couple of gas heaters installed.”
“I don’t take to that gas heat. You know that, son,” he says, turning the electric burner to low. He takes his place at the head of the table. “That gas heat ain’t natural. And I’ve heard tell of it blowing up folk’s houses.”
“This is the eighties, Dad; modern gas heaters have safety valves. They don’t blow up houses.”
He sits, noisily slurping his coffee from the saucer, not saying anything; like he’s waiting to see what I’m going to say next. I shiver as the wind rushes through the cracks in the walls. Outside, the sun’s going down, and darkness creeps into the kitchen. Reaching up, I pull the flyspecked light cord hanging above the table.
“Mama’s old sewing room is an ideal place for a bathroom,” I say. “I can install the commode and tub myself. I’ll just need someone to help me hook up the plumbing.”
“I don’t want no toilet inside my house,” he says. “It ain’t sanitary. I’m eighty years old, and I ain’t never had no toilet in my house. Ain’t aiming on having one now.”
“All right, Dad. I’m tired of trying to reason with you. I don’t blame you for not wanting to leave your home, but when I plan to fix up this broken-down house, you don’t want that either. You’d rather sit around in tons of clothes than let me make it warm for you.” I get up and stir the pot on the stove, my insides sizzling like the Lima beans in the pot.
“For the life of me, I don’t see why you wanta go out in the cold to take a leak when you could have a toilet next to your bedroom. Not sanitary, my foot. It’d be more sanitary than your stinking outhouse. And you talk about gas heat not being natural. Well, it ain’t natural to cook supper wearing your overcoat.”
I’ve put my foot down, and I could cut out my tongue. “I worry about you, Dad,” I say, choking back tears. “I can’t stand to see you living like this any longer. If you won’t cooperate with me, I’ll put you in the old folks’ home. And this time, Dad, I mean it.”
When I open the back door, the bitter wind cuts through my thin clothes like the knife that’s cutting through my heart. “The people from Human Resources will be calling on you next week,” I say, as I close the door behind me.
I barely make it down the back porch steps when I hear the kitchen door open. Turning, I see my old man standing there in the doorway, leaning on his cane.
“Come on back in here, Thomas,” he commands. “Let’s talk this thing over. I don’t want them welfare folks snooping around my place.”
“You talk, Dad; I’ll listen,” I say, as I go back into the kitchen and sit down with him at the table.
“Didn’t know I worried you, son. And I’m trying real hard to understand. But I don’t see no reason for you to worry about me. I’m doing fine the way things are.”
I think of his mule and the blankets tacked around her pen. “Dad, it’s kinda like you and old Sal.”
He just sits there with his toothless mouth drawn up to his nose, not saying anything. I get up and turn on the burner under the coffeepot. After a while he pushes up from his chair and hobbles to the refrigerator. He takes out some cornbread and fried pork chops and puts them in the oven to heat. All of a sudden, he chuckles heartily.
“Well, I’ll be danged,” he says, as he pours the beans into a bowl. “If it’ll make you rest better to get this old house all gussied up, then let’s get at it, starting Monday.”
I smell the chops warming in the oven. I’m famished. I help my father set the table, and we sit down to eat. He takes his teeth out of his pocket and puts them in his mouth.
“You say grace, son,” he says.
Halfway through supper, he gives me a sly look and says, “Son, I’ve been studying about that little house in town you talked about. Maybe you oughta go ahead and buy it. A sort of investment, like you said.”
“I will, Dad.”
“And you’ll know when the right time comes for me to move in,” he adds.
“Yes, Dad.” Outside the wind is still. I dip myself a second helping of Lima beans. “Dad, when we finish fixing up your house, let’s build a barn for old Sal. A small one. Just big enough for her. But nice and warm.”
“I’d like that, son,” my father says, quietly slurping his coffee.
Copyright © 1992 Ruth Gillis