Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dead Goat Caper

It’s amazing the stuff we fall into.
My sister Lisa has dead goats. Three of them to be exact, mysteriously picked off one by one this last week like flies. She and husband Jeff scratch their chins in the gravel driveway as my Dad in workgloves tosses the carcass of yet another lifeless Billie from the red wheelbarrow onto the flat bed of the truck and slams the gate. Then everyone looks at me as I stand there nodding my head innocently.
“First goat kicked the bucket the day you came back from Taiwan. Coincidence?”
My family is full of amateur detectives, German problem solving combined with Swedish mistrust. Everything’s a step that must leads to something deeper, bigger, a larger truth.
“This must be a sign.”
Now I’m standing there even more lost. I’d come back to the U.S. for just a week to tie down some loose ends still left flapping in the wind from December when the snow shut the city down and I had to get on a plane. What to do with the house? The car? The taxes? Yet after being gone three months, I’ve arrived as the chief suspect in the unsettling death of three of these horned rascals. I must be a bad omen. I’m suspicious, sure. I reek of foreign street market food, (fried pig’s blood, barbequed baby duck) I use a bearded passport as I.D., and constantly lapse into cheeky stories, mostly unbelievable, where my audience has no context as to what I’m describing.
“You mean you’re making your daughter’s speak Commie?”
“No, Dad, Chinese. They’re studying Chinese.”
“Safe diff.”
How do I get myself involved in these things?
And there you have it, once again I’ve fallen into a scene of complicated yet recreational hijinks, what might actually be called a ‘caper’. Yes, that’s exactly it. My return to the Oregon countryside has triggered the Dead Goat Caper, and there’s no telling where it will lead.
But isn’t that always the way?
Now goats can die for almost as many reasons as you can think of. I mean, they can eat a tin can for crying out loud. They have horns which slam and bang and pound against anything in their path: bathtub water troughs, wood fence posts, the shrieking legs of my nephews and nieces as they flee in terror, but chiefly the horns of other goats. It’s crazy to watch, and let’s face it, you kind of root for the butting of two goat heads, but agonize in the aftermath as the animals stumble around with their eyes rolling in their sockets, ready and set again like Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots for another chance to beat each other’s brains in.
Truly barbarian, and as a foreign tourist, I take out my camera to capture the scene.
“What you taking a picture for, you grew up on a farm, didn’t you? You’re no stranger to animals dying?” This is the voice of my Dad, mind you, a man no stranger to being quoted in many of my stories.
That’s when it hits me. I am no stranger here at all.
For the next week I would be sleeping in my old high school bed, rummaging through drawers full of baseball cards and worn out Star Wars action figures. I would be coming down the stairs to see my mother standing in the kitchen making meatloaf and baking potatoes, and taking walks in the middle of the night along the Christmas tree line following the howls of coyotes with a flashlight under a full moon. I would be plunging back deep into the memory and lives of my family and friends. This was Colton after all. This was my American home, and I could no longer fake it. Life was not about standing on the periphery and observing, like so much of my time spent overseas. Here I am no expatriate. I am immersed in everything. There is no place to hide, standing there being scolded by my Dad in the middle of my sister’s farm field. I couldn’t escape if I tried. This was America, nobody gets out alive.
Case in point, selling the minivan.
I seek out my lender who sends me to the DMV who has me fill out a power of attorney transfer which leads me to my brother Grant who will be the contact person on my Craigslist add which I will have to create before I leave on Sunday. In the meantime, I drive to the auto-detailer for a vacuum and shampoo who says he’ll have the car ready by 2 or 3 but that he’ll be there till 6:00. I look at my watch, it’s 8 in the morning. So I start walking. You know, walking the streets of Beaverton, which if you’re on a dirt road in Calcutta it’s pretty amazing, but passing the Olive Garden and TJ Max on Canyon Blvd is kind of soul crushing. So I cut behind Star Sushi and head for the Transit Center when I see a familiar face: a panhandler woman with pockmarked, recovering meth addict cheeks.
“Hey, I know you.”
We both stop in our tracks.
“Oh yeah?” The woman clutches her purse. I’ve never seen her with a purse, usually she is holding a cardboard sign that reads: Any Coin Will Help!
“Yeah, I’ve given you money before. You’re always sitting atop the exit at Walker on ramp.”
“That’s my stoop, thanks,” the woman backs away as she speaks.
“So, where are you coming from?”
“Look, I don’t want any trouble.”
Trouble, from me? I couldn’t give trouble to a fly.
“It’s just business, all right!” The woman’s face is now like a hurt animal. She begins explaining her life story. How she was raped by a stepfather at age ten, how she’s been living on the streets since thirteen, how she’s on methadone, more information that I ever wanted, her whole life story from top to bottom in ten seconds flat, a rehearsed tale of tragedy all chapter and verse ready at a moment’s notice to spit in someone’s eye who looks at her funny. I’m standing ten feet from her on the little wooden bridge above the nutria pond. I’m just trying to kill time before all the cheerios and goldfish are swept out from the seat cushions. I don’t want to know her. I should have kept my mouth shut.
So we back away without another word said. Yet I’m deep into her life now, deep inside, and I can’t pull away. I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around downtown thinking about her. She is everywhere I look, the joggers along the Waterfront, the spines of books at Powell’s, the couples in matching hats on the MAX. I can’t shake her. I’ve already seen too much.
That night I met my old friend Steve for St. Patrick ’s Day. He is dressed in English driver’s hat with a Frisbee sized pin latched to the top that reads: Honorary Irishman. It’s his usual March 17th uniform. We talk. It’s so good to sit across a table from him and eat tater tots I can’t help but grin. He’s full of plans for his business, he’s doing very well. He tells me about his daughter and wife and how he plans to visit a cabin at the base of Mt. Rainer next weekend with a buddy from high school who once sucker punched him in the 8th grade after basketball practice. Steve’s always got an eye for this kind of detail in a story. This is the same guy who graduated and entered the marines, then law enforcement, and is now a federal agent with the DEA. The cabin is his, he tells Steve, “Eat a big breakfast and bring a shovel. We’ll have to dig our way in through the snow.”
It captures my imagination. If I had still been living here this is the kind of trip he would invite me on. I would be stuck out in the snow with a shovel and a pack and grunting under the weight. I would get lost following rabbit tracks or spend all day building an igloo. There would be an adventure, but now it’s just an idea that is lost, put on the shelf for another day like so many others and I miss him even before we say goodbye. Steve is a friend who’s gotten me into more trouble than anyone I’ve ever met, and I miss it because it’s gone.
The next morning I go back and visit with Lisa. This time she tells me about her dogs. About six months ago they bought yellow and chocolate brown Lab pups for their two kids. But it was too cold so they made a pen in the kitchen, but the dogs tore that up. Then the weather turned and she let them run outside, but they destroyed the swimming pool. So she didn’t know what to do and had to install a wrought iron fence for them to run around in, and the other day while Lisa and the kids were out, the dogs gnawed through the screen and somehow opened the back door and got into the house and demolished everything inside. They tore apart the comforter and knocked over all the lamps and tromped muddy paws across the new carpet and ate ten year old Gillian’s art supplies and demolished her doll’s house and spilled everything from the refrigerator and Lisa returned and sat in the middle of her house in tears for an hour just flabbergasted.
“Dead goats… now this?”
She wanted to sell the dogs off but her little seven-year-old started to sob, sob, sob, and my sister Lisa is good and wise and loving in ways reserved only for saints, and so now she’s stuck.
“What can I do?” She shrugs. “I’ll just have to make do.”
We’re sitting in her living room looking out the plate glass window, my sister in her cozy bathrobe.
“You know Brian, nobody ever tells you that life is going to be so complicated,” she says. “You just keep living and going about your life until you find you’re in too deep to get out.” We watch her kids being chased past the window by a runaway goat. “Then one day you wind up dead and tossed into the back of a truck and hauled away.”
I look at my sister’s face. “That’s pretty bleak, Lisa.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what they forget to tell you in school, huh?”
“What? We’re all just dead goats?”
I know she doesn’t mean it, and we laugh at how silly it sounds.
That night I head out to Vancouver, “The Couve” with one of my teacher buddies. I needed to get away and we drive by The Academy and marvel at how much this once trading outpost has changed over the years, the storefronts, the brick buildings, the new infrastructure, all the investment of time and money into this place. We stroll through Elsie Sturh Park and walk down under the Interstate Bridge to listen to the roar of the cars and look out over the dark and ominous Columbia River and talk about our lives. It’s good, better than good, yet when I return home I call SungJoo and find out my kids have bronchitis and I feel terrible for being away from them. That even a night away from mangy dogs, and soul crushing landscapes, and recovering meth addicts, and tax forms, and all the weight that American life pounds into you, a night in which my mind was supposed to be free and loose, it still turns back into the daily grind of one thing leads to another without me having any control.
I leave two days later. My minivan sold, my taxes complete, my house soon to be rented. A job well done. A success.
The flight back to Taiwan was arduous. I was stuck between a boisterous gaggle of high schoolers from Redland, an orchestra of witty bantering kids touring Tokyo for a concert. I’ve always been very comfortable with this age group, but was somewhat turned off by their rambling antics. My movie player didn’t work and the turbulence was rough, so instead I made conversation across the aisle with a Navy Medical Pilot named Hastings who dazzled me with stories of being stationed in Kuwait and Afghanistan. He had pictures of helicopters and rifles and barren deserts on his laptop and we talked almost the entire flight about his life, how he was from the small town of Brookings, how his sister was getting married, how he’d worked eight months straight, seven days a week without a break and how he needed time away to think about his experiences.
“Twenty three days of leave is a lifetime,” he said. “Sometimes you need time away to gain perspective on what’s important.”
I agreed completely.
I felt like after a nine hour flight I knew that man inside and out. I heard about his high school girlfriend who broke his heart, his father’s medical condition, even drunken stories about his buddies in the pictures posing with their shirts off playing football in the sun and sand. It made me think of the periphery again. How we can fall so deep into the minutia of life, get so distracted by family and friends and circumstance that sometimes it’s best to just stand on the sidelines and watch and think.
Like my sister Lisa’s goats.
I drive out with my Dad to the place at the edge of the Colton field where he dumps the bodies. Here the coyotes can find them and drag them off into the dense trees, and I stand here looking out with the mountains and forest at my back, looking out toward my parents home and the long road that has taken me here. Lisa says her reason for buying the goats in the first place started simply with a field of grass too big to cut. She didn’t want to ask my Dad to come down the hill with his little truck and big tractor so she bought the goats to do the job instead. But the field was too big and they frolicked too much and had to be castrated, which due to the grass diet caused enormous gall stones they couldn’t pass due to the castration which led to aneurisms, and so now she has the problem of dead goats. And what do you do with a dead goat anyway? Well, you ask your Dad to come down the hill to haul it away in his little truck, that’s what you do.
Full circle, I think, chasing our tails once again, and sometimes I wish I could just erase this logic of the world from my mind, just erase everything I have ever seen or learned, just start over completely. Is there truth in that? Standing there at the edge of the field as my Dad tosses their lifeless bodies against a stump.
“Come on,” he says, “Let’s go eat some pancakes. My treat.”
“Yeah, pancakes.” I agree. “That sounds about right.”

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