Inconspicuous Teacher

Boone and I wait for the ferry to return to the Illinois side of the river. He sights the book in the backseat.

‘Now Here Nowhere… Now Here Nowhere. Hey! I read this a long time ago!’

‘You did?’

‘Yeah, in the sixties!’

‘I found it in Gavin’s garage’

The ferry clatters into the metal ramp. I drive on, turn off the car, and set the emergency break. Boone flips through the book while I stare at the sunlight scattered across the waves like a field of electricity. The car bobs up- and down.

Image

The Ohio River

We drive through Kentuckian Amish country. Boone points out a mill where he gets sawdust when he asks them for it. Twelve miles in, we enter a small town. Or a city, depending on who you ask.

‘If we stop at the bank, I can pay you for gas and the help you’re doing today’

‘okay’

We pull into the drive-thru.

‘Hello. We’d like to withdraw some money. The name’s Boone Keller.’

‘Sure. One moment please’

‘How much would you?’

I turn to Boone, but he leans his head across and shouts,

‘Forty Dollars, ma’am!’

She frowns.

‘You only have 16 dollars in the account, sir.’

‘What’s that?’.

‘You only have 16 dollars.’

‘O wow!’

‘And this account requires you to have at least 35 dollars’

‘What’s that?’

‘She says you don’t have enough money. You need more than 35’

Boone thinks.

‘Tell her I’m not a millionaire’

‘What?’

‘Tell her I’m not a millionaire’

‘Ma’am, Mr. Keller is not a millionaire’

Boone shouts,

‘I’m NOT a millionaire!’

She laughs, in spite of herself.

‘I know he, that Mr. Keller is not a millionaire. But he still needs at least thirty five dollars in his account’

A moment withers.

‘I think I have a social security check at the post office. Lets go see about that.’

‘Alright, take care.’

‘You too’.

We drive two blocks, take a left, and park in front of the post office. Boone goes inside while I tweak the dial. He returns with a white envelope. I wait to start the car while he opens it.

‘Well, it’s not a social security check… it’s an electric bill’

He hands it to me and I read $2.70. I start the car and he tells me how to get to his place outside of town.

‘The electricity’s cheap here in Kentucky. We get all our power from the water. HY-DRO-LECTRIC. Yeah! That’s great!

‘Beats coal’

‘Yes sir’

He nods wholeheartedly.

We drive a few miles. Boone tells me to get ready for his driveway, the gravel one. I turn into it and see his place- the roof is caved in, scattered across the lawn are broken machines, and it’s doubtless some form of mammal lives beneath the porch. Boone stands taking everything in. He has a good tan, strong muscles, and white hair.

‘Before we start, do you mind wearing this?’

He extends his arm out to me. In his hand is a plain green T-shirt, identical to his own.

‘That way people will see us and know it’s Natural Food, like it says on my truck.’

I remember his broken truck back at Gavin’s.

I consider it. My mind walks back to college when my friend’s mom went through chemo and I told him how in first grade our class shaved our heads in solidarity with Paul and my friend thought that was a great idea so the whole team was going to shave our heads for his mom and everybody did, except me. Simply because I didn’t want to.

‘Sure, I’ll wear it.

‘Wow! Great!’

I take off my black shirt and put it on. It’s too big.

‘Now we look like a team’

Boone nods several times and I beam, having left my ego on the other side of the Ohio.

Boone walks me back to the gardens. He points at the many weeds that need to be removed. Tall weeds with thick stalks you have to uproot with a shovel then yank with both hands. Not terribly hard work, but at first I work gingerly because my back is sore; I haven’t done much physical anything, lately, most of the time sitting in the office. Boone sings as he picks tomatoes.

We work for a while. I notice the sun move along an arc, from left to right

‘I haven’t noticed the sun move since riding through Central Illinois’

Central Illinois Road

‘You’re doing great, Gopher’

‘I feel great!’

‘Working with the Earth is the best thing you can do!’

I no longer baby my back. Sweat flows through the dirt on my skin. I pull the weeds with gusto.

We take a break to drive to Dairy Queen.

‘Wow! Dairy Queen! This is Great!’

With our matching T-Shirts, my yellow sunglasses, and Boone’s unwavering enthusiasm, the high school girl behind the counter is baffled and polite. Boone talks to her with all his vigor, as if he were 16, continuing his various monologues from where he left off.

‘I’m a doer not a talker. Some people talk about what they do I just do it… I’m not a power person. I grow things that are beautiful and healthy. Power people just want to control other people… I’m okay you’re okay…’

On the way back to the garden, I remember I have a few black garbage bags full of garbage from Gavin’s in the trunk (without a city to pick up your garbage you’d have to drive into town and look for a dumpster, usually behind a grocery store). I see a dumpster outside an autoshop. As I hurl in the third bag someone comes outside. I scurry into the car and speed away, bottoming out on the curb. Shortly after returning, a squad car pulls up. I’m sure it was about the garbage, but the cop wants to talk to Boone.

‘What’s going on Mr. Keller?’

‘We’re working on the garden, officer.’

The cop eyes the car and looks around for something. Boone shows him a bucket full of tomatoes and offers him a few. He declines.

‘This here is Gopher. He’s from Illinois’

‘Oh, where?’

‘Herod’

”ve never been there’

The cop’s performance doesn’t come to a point, except for letting Boone feel his presence.

He leaves and we return to the garden.

‘What was that about?’

‘Some people are power people, Gopher. I don’t drink. I’m not a drug dealer. I don’t bother anybody. But they give me a hard time. They’re not happy with me driving without a licence. Thanks a lot for driving me today. You’re a huge help. Sorry I can’t pay you today.’

‘Man, thank you. I feel better than I have in a long time.

I realize this is true. I began to tear weeds out three at a time.

‘Wow! Look at that Gopher- you’re working! You’re a worker- not a talker!

We finish the weeds. Boone says we should get empty buckets from the front yard. We bring them back and begin to harvest potatoes and sweet potatoes. First, you loosen the soil with a shovel. Then, your claw curls beneath the tuber and raises it and tosses it toward the bucket and if it doesn’t go in it lands in a growing pile of potatoes. If you’re not careful the shovel slices through the potatoe and there’s a wound where you can see its white hot inside.

It’s beginning to darken. We round up the buckets, at least nine full. We try to fit these, along with the shovels and hoes into the car. After some fiddling we get it, and drive back.

As we approach the ferry Boone points out a regular looking farm flooded in a low spot.

‘See that water sitting there? That shouldn’t be there; it should be in the Earth. But the farmers have rock hard soil. They don’t need good soil, because they just put special seeds and special fertilizer on top of it’

We cross at twilight and drive through the sweeping hills of southern Illinois. The highway, overwhelmed by the ancient spirit of the Shawnee National Forest, feels like a tiny temporary path. I tweak the dial and stop when Boone starts singing in a deep voice. An oldie. He whistles, and I’m about to tell him not to- that if you whistle at night spirits can pass through your breath into this world. But then, two things happen: Boone’s honest whistling seems more true than Gavin’s warning against whistling at night. And I wish the spirits to try to overtake us.

Image

Shawnee National Forest, Autumn

Like A Rolling Stone comes on. I sing along, holding it together.

How does it feel?

To be on your own

With no direction home

A complete unknown

Like a Rolling Stone

Boone points out a Baptist church he went to as a child that forbade him to dance or play cards. We get back to Gavin’s, where I am housesitting. The dogs run out to the car, their eyes shining in the beam. Boone would linger but I’m ready to disengage. He’s able to start his car and drive up to Harrisburg, which has since been destroyed by a tornado.

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