In late March Bob Dollar, a young, curly-headed man of twenty-five with the broad face of a cat, pale innocent eyes fringed with sooty lashes, drove east along Texas State Highway 15 in the panhandle, down from Denver the day before, over the Raton Pass and through the dead volcano country of northeast New Mexico to the Oklahoma pistol barrel, then a wrong turn north and wasted hours before he regained the way. It was a roaring spring morning with green in the sky, the air spiced with sand sagebrush and aromatic sumac. NPR faded from the radio in a string of announcements of corporate supporters, replaced by a Christian station that alternated pabulum preaching and punchy music. He switched to shit-kicker airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home.
The road ran along a railroad track. He thought the bend of the rails unutterably sad, those cold and gleaming strips of metal turning away into the distance made him think of the morning he was left on Uncle Tam's doorstep listening for the inside clatter of coffee pot and cups although there had been no train nor tracks there. He did not know how the rails had gotten into his head as symbols of sadness.
Gradually the ancient thrill of moving against the horizon into the great yellow distance heated him, for even fenced and cut with roads the overwhelming presence of grassland persisted, though nothing of the original prairie remained. It was all flat expanse and wide sky. Two coyotes looking for afterbirths trotted through a pasture to the east, moving through fluid grass, the sun backlighting their fur in such a way that they appeared to have silver linings. Irrigated circles of winter wheat, dotted with stocker calves, grew on land as level as a runway. In other fields tractors lashed tails of dust. He noticed the habit of slower drivers to pull into the breakdown lane -- here called the "courtesy lane" -- and wave him on.
Ahead cities loomed, but as he came close the skyscrapers, mosques and spires metamorphosed into grain elevators, water towers and storage bins. The elevators were the tallest buildings on the plains, symmetrical, their thrusting shapes seeming to entrap kinetic energy. After a while Bob noticed their vertical rhythm, for they rose up regularly every five or ten miles in trackside towns. Most were concrete cylinders, some brick or tile, but at many sidings the old wood elevators, peeling and shabby, still stood, some surfaced with asbestos shingles, a few with rusted metal loosened by the wind. Rectilinear streets joined at ninety-degree angles. Every town had a motto: "The Town Where No One Wears a Frown"; "The Richest Land and the Finest People"; "10,000 Friendly People and One or Two Old Grumps." He passed the Kar-Vu Drive-In, a midtown plywood Jesus, dead cows by the side of the road, legs stiff as two-by-fours, waiting for the renderer's truck. There were nodding pump jacks and pivot irrigation rigs (one still decked out in Christmas lights) to the left and right, condensation tanks and complex assemblies of pipes and gauges, though such was the size of the landscape and their random placement that they seemed metal trinkets strewn by a vast and careless hand. Orange-and-yellow signs marked the existence of underground pipelines, for beneath the fields and pastures lay an invisible world of pipes, cables, boreholes, pumps and extraction devices, forming, with the surface fences and roads, a monstrous three-dimensional grid. This grid extended into the sky through contrails and invisible satellite transmissions. At the edge of fields he noticed brightly painted V-8 diesel engines (most converted to natural gas), pumping up water from the Ogallala aquifer below. And he passed scores of anonymous, low, grey buildings with enormous fans at their ends set back from the road and surrounded by chain-link fence. From the air these guarded hog farms resembled strange grand pianos with six or ten white keys, the trapezoid shape of the body the effluent lagoon in the rear.
Still, all of these machines and wire and metal buildings seemed ephemeral. He knew he was on prairie, what had once been part of the enormous North American grassland extending from Canada to Mexico, showing its thousand faces to successions of travelers who described it in contradictory ways: under gritty spring wind the grass blew sidewise, figured with bluets and anemones, pussytoes and Johnny-jump-ups, alive with birds and antelope; in midsummer, away from the overgrazed trail margins, they traveled through groin-high grass rolling in waves; those on the trail in late summer saw dry, useless desert studded with horse-crippling cactus. Few, except working cowboys, ventured onto the plains in winter when stinging northers swept snow across it. Where once the howling of wolves was heard, now sounded the howl of tires.
Bob Dollar had no idea he was driving into a region of immeasurable natural complexity that some believed abused beyond saving. He saw only what others had seen -- the bigness, pump jacks nodding pterodactyl heads, road alligators cast off from the big semi tires. Every few miles a red-tailed hawk marked its hunting boundary. The edges of the road were misty with purple-flowered wild mustard whose rank scent embittered the air. He said to the rearview mirror, "some flat-ass place." Though it seemed he was not so much in a place as confronting the raw material of human use.
A white van turned out of a side road in front of him and he narrowed his eyes; he knew white vans were favored by the criminally insane and escaped convicts, that the bad drivers of the world gravitated to them. The van sped away, exceeding the speed limit, and faded out of sight. There appeared, far ahead, on the other side of the road, a wambling black dot that resolved into a bicyclist. A trick of the heated air magnified the bicycle, which appeared thirty feet high and shivered as though constructed of aspic. He passed another hawk on a telephone pole.
The great prairie dog cities of the short-grass plains which once covered hundreds of square miles were gone, but some old-fashioned red-tails continued to hunt as their ancestors, in flat-shouldered soar, turning methodically in the air above the prairie, yellow eyes watching for the shiver of grass. Many more had taken up modern ways and sat atop convenient poles and posts waiting for vehicles to clip rabbits and prairie dogs. They retrieved the carrion with the insolent matter-of-factness of a housewife carelessly slinging a package of chops into her shopping cart. Such a hawk, a bit of fur stuck to the side of its beak, watched the bicyclist pumping along west. As the machine moved slowly through the focus of those amber eyes the bird lost interest; the bicycle had no future in the hawk world; more rewarding were trucks on the paved highways, grilles spattered with blood, weaving pickups that aimed for jacks and snakes as though directed by the superior will on a telephone pole.
The bicyclist, reduced to human size, and Bob Dollar, in his sedan, drew abreast; the bicyclist saw a red-flushed face, Bob had a glimpse of a stringy leg and a gold chain, then the bicycle descended a dip in the road. Alone on the highway again Bob squinted at a wadded quilt of cloud crawling over the sky. There unrolled beside the Saturn the level land, every inch put to use for crops, oil, gas, cattle, service towns. The ranches were set far back from the main road, and now and then he passed an abandoned house, weather-burned, surrounded by broken cottonwoods. In the fallen windmills and collapsed outbuildings he saw the country's fractured past scattered about like the pencils on the desk of a draughtsman who has gone to lunch. The ancestors of the place hovered over the bits and pieces of their finished lives. He did not notice the prairie dog that raced out of the roadside weeds into his path and the tires bumped slightly as he hit it. A female red-tail lifted into the air. It was the break she had been waiting for.
Bob Dollar was a stranger in the double-panhandle country north of the Canadian River. He had held two jobs in the five years since he had graduated from Horace Greeley Junior University, a hybrid institution housed in a cinder-block building at the edge of an onion field off Interstate 70 east of Denver. He had expected enlightenment at Horace Greeley, hoped to find an interest that would lead to an absorbing career, but that did not happen and his old doubts about what he should do for a career persisted. He thought a wider educational scope would help and so applied to the state university, but even with a modest scholarship offer (he had a large vocabulary, good reading habits and exemplary grades), there wasn't enough money for him to go.
Armed with his computer printout diploma from Horace Greeley he found it difficult to land what he thought of as "a good position," and, finally, rather than work in Uncle Tam's shop, took a minimum-wage job as inventory clerk for Platte River Lightbulb Supply.
After thirty months of toil with boxes and broken glass and miniscule annual raises he had had an unfortunate experience with the company's president, Mrs. Eudora Giddins, widow of Millrace Giddins who had founded the company. He was fired. And he was glad, for he did not want life to be a kind of fidgety waiting among lightbulbs, as for a report card. He wanted to aim at a high mark on a distant wall. If time had to pass, let it pass with meaning. He wanted direction and reward.
There followed five months of job hunting before he was hired on as a location man for Global Pork Rind, headquarters in Tokyo and Chicago, with a field office in Denver. He was assigned to the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle territory and sent out on his first trip for the company.
The day before he left, Mr. Cluke's secretary, Lucille, had flashed him a red smile and waved him into the office. Mr. Ribeye Cluke, the regional operations manager, got up from behind his glass-topped desk, the gleaming surface like a small lake, said "Bob, we don't have many friends down there in the panhandles except for one or two of the smarter politicians, and because of this situation we have to go about our business pretty quietly. I want you to be as circumspect as possible -- do you know what that word 'circumspect' means?" His watery eyes washed over Bob. His large hand rose and smoothed the coarse mustache that Bob thought resembled a strip of porcupine. His shoulders sloped so steeply that from behind it looked as though his head was balanced on an arch.
"Yes sir. Keep a low profile."
Mr. Cluke picked up a can of shaving cream from the top of the filing cabinet and shook it. From a drawer in his desk he removed an arrangement of braces, straps and fittings and put it over his head so that part rested on his shoulders, and another part that was a large disk against his breast. He tugged at the disk and it opened out on a telescoping arm, becoming a mirror. He applied the shaving cream to his heavy cheeks and, with a straight razor which he took from his pencil jar, unfolded it and began to shave, skirting the borders of the mustache.
"Well, that's good, Bob. Last fellow we thought could scout for us believed it meant something that happened to him in the hospital when he was a baby. So he was no use. But you're smart, Bob, smart as a dollar, ha-ha."
"Ha-ha," laughed Bob, who had increased his word power since the age of nine with The Child's Illustrated Dictionary given him by his uncle Tam. But his laughter was subdued, for he knew nothing of hogs beyond the fact that they were, mysteriously, the source of bacon.
"In other words, Bob, don't let the folks down there know that you are looking for sites for hog facilities or they will prevaricate and try to take us to the cleaners, they will carry on with letters to various editors, every kind of meanness and so forth, as they have been brainwashed by the Sierra Club to think that hog facilities are bad, even the folks who love baby back ribs, even the ones hunting jobs. But I will tell you something. The panhandle region is perfect for hog operations -- plenty of room, low population, nice long dry seasons, good water. There is no reason why the Texas panhandle can't produce seventy-five percent of the world's pork. That's our aim. Bob, I notice you are wearing brown oxford shoes."
"Yes sir." He turned one foot a little, pleased with the waxy glint from the Cole Haan shoe which retailed at $300 plus, but which his uncle Tambourine Bapp had fished from a donation box left at the loading dock of his thrift shop on the outer banks of Colfax Avenue.
Uncle Tam had raised him. He was a slender, short man with vivid, water-blue eyes, the same eyes as Bob and his mother and the rest of the Bapp clan. Thick greying hair swept back from a square brow. His quick chicken steps and darting hand movements irritated some people. Bob had been a little afraid of him the first week or two because his left ear rode half an inch higher than the right, giving him a crazy, tilted look, but slowly he yielded to Tam's kindness and sincere interest in him. His uncle's cropped ear was the result of a childhood injury when his sister Harp cut off the fleshy top with a pair of scissors as punishment for playing with her precious Barbie doll.
"He wasn't playing! He was hanging her," she had sobbed.
When he was eight, Bob's parents had brought him to the thrift shop doorstep very early in the morning, told him to sit there next to a box of dog-eared romance novels.
"Now when Uncle Tam gets up and starts slamming things around inside, you knock on the door. You're going to stay with him. We've got to run now or we'll miss the plane. Quick hug goodbye," said his mother. His father, waiting in the sedan, raised his hand briskly and saluted. Years later Bob thought it might have been the break the old man was waiting for.
At first his uncle claimed it wasn't abandonment. They were in the kitchen at the table, Uncle Tam having his Saturday coffee break.
"I told Viola and Adam to bring you over. The plan was for you to stay with me until they got back from Alaska. After they got their cabin built they were coming back to get you and you were all going to live in Alaska. You staying here was a temporary thing. We just don't know what happened. Viola called only one time to say they had found some land, but she never said exactly where and there's no record of it. The pilot that flew them to wherever they went left Alaska and went to Mississippi where he got into dusting crops. By the time we traced him it was useless. He'd crashed in a cotton field and suffered brain damage. Couldn't even remember his own name. Anything could have happened to your mother and father -- grizzly bear, amnesia. Alaska's a big place. I don't for one minute think they abandoned you." He tapped his fingers on the table, impatient with his own words which sounded stupid and inadequate to him. It was not possible for two grown people to disappear as had Adam and Viola.
"Well, what did they do to make a living," Bob asked, hoping for a clue to his own direction. All he was sure about was that he hadn't been important enough to take along. He taught himself not to care that he was so uninteresting that his parents dropped him on a doorstep and never bothered to write or call. "I mean, what was my dad, an engineer, or a computer guy or what?"
"Well, your mother painted neckties. You know the one I've got of the Titanic sinking? That's one of hers. I would say that's my dearest possession. It'll be yours someday, Bob. As for your dad, that's a little hard to say. He was always taking tests to see what he should do with his life -- aptitude tests. Don't get me wrong. He was a nice guy, a really nice guy, but a little unfocused. He never could settle on anything. He had about a hundred jobs before they went to Alaska. And there something happened to them that I'm sure they couldn't help. We don't know what. I spent a fortune in phone calls. Your uncle Xylo went out there for two months and turned up absolutely nothing except the name of that pilot. Put ads in the papers. Nobody knew anything, not the police, not our family, not a single person in Alaska ever heard of them. So I'd say you had bad luck with your folks disappearing, losing the chance to get raised in Alaska -- instead getting brought up by a crazy unrich uncle with a junk shop." He arched his back and twisted his head, fidgeted with a loose thread on the cuff of his knit shirt. "I suppose the only thing I'd like to impress on you, Bob, is a sense of responsibility. Viola never had it, and for sure Adam didn't. If you take on a project then, dammit, see it through to the end. Let your word mean something. It just about broke my heart to see the way you'd run to the mailbox every day expecting to find a letter from Alaska. Adam and Viola were not what I'd call responsible."
"It was lucky in a way," said Bob. The lucky part was Uncle Tam. He read stories to Bob every night, asked his opinion on the weather, on the doneness of boiled corn, foraged through the junk shop detritus for things that might interest. Bob Dollar couldn't imagine what his life would have been like in the household of Uncle Xylo whose wife, Siobhan, was an impassioned clog dancer and who ran an astrology business out of their front living room in Pickens, Nebraska. She had a neon sign over the front door with a beckoning hand under the words "Psychic Readings."
"I guess it wasn't easy bringing up somebody else's kid," he mumbled. The bedtime reading had welded him to Uncle Tam and to stories. From the first night in the little apartment when Uncle Tam had turned a page and said the words "Part One: The Old Buccaneer," Bob had become a sucker for stories told. He slid into imaginary worlds, passive, listening, his mouth agape, a hard listener for whatever tale unfolded.
"Ah, you were an easy kid. Except for the library fines. You were always a nice kid, you always pitched in and helped. I never had to worry about phone calls from the cops, drugs, stolen cars, minimart holdups. The only headache you gave me was when you started hanging around with that heavy guy, Orlando the Freak. He was a wrong one. I'm not surprised he ended up in the pen. I'm thankful you're not there with him."
"It's not like he committed armed robbery or something. It was only computer hacking."
"Yeah? If you think diverting all the operating funds of the Colorado U.S. Forest Service to a Nevada bordello was 'just computer hacking,' I have news for you." He stretched and fiddled with his cuff, looked at his watch. "It's almost eleven. I've got to get back to the shop."
In the early years Bob often felt he was in fragments, in many small parts that did not join, an internal sack of wood chips. One chip was that old life with his parents, another the years with Uncle Tam and Wayne "Bromo" Redpoll, then just Uncle Tam. Another part was Orlando and Fever and weird movies, then the lightbulb time and Mrs. Giddins asking him to massage her feet and her fury when he drew back, gagging, from the stink of clammy nylon. It was true that Bob had always pitched in and helped with dishes and cooking and house chores, largely because he was so ashamed of Uncle Tam's withering poverty which somehow seemed less if everything was clean and squared up. He would rearrange the books in the bookcases by size and color and Bromo Redpoll, his uncle's business partner, would say,
"Don't be such an old lady."
Uncle Tam doted on Bob Dollar but had little to offer as proof of affection beyond solicitous attention and gifts of relatively choice treasures from the thrift shop, including the recent brown oxfords.
"Bob! These look like your size, ten double E. Try em on. In a bag of stuff from some Cherry Creek fat cat. Probably the maid dropped them off."
"They're great. Now all I need is a sports coat." In fact the shoes looked odd with Bob's jeans and T-shirt.
"We got no sports coats you'd be caught dead in, but there is a real nice car coat, suede with shearling lining. Like new, and almost your size. Car coats are kind of old-fashioned now, but it could be useful. You never know. The thing is, it's a kind of -- kind of a tan. Come back in the shop and have a look-see."
The car coat was tight across the shoulders and the sleeves somewhat short, but there was no denying, despite the lemony color of a bad dye lot, that it was a well-made garment. He lived in dread that on the street someday the previous owner would recognize the coat and make scathing remarks. It had happened twice in school, once when he wore an argyle sweater, once with a knitted cap, the name CHARLES spelled out on the cuff. He had tried to ink the letters out with a marker but they showed plainly enough. Eventually a large black beret with cigarette burn holes turned up and he wore it for years, telling himself some Frenchman had visited Denver and abandoned it there.
"Now, Bob," said Mr. Cluke, slapping his cheeks with a manly heather aftershave lotion, "you cannot go down to Texas wearing brown oxfords. Take my word for it. I've spent enough time down there to know a pair of brown oxfords can set you back with those people. Despite oilmen trigged out in suits, and wealthy wheat growers with diamond rings, the figure of respect in Texas is still the cattleman and the cattleman wants to look like a cowboy. It wouldn't hurt for you to get a pair of dress slacks and some long-sleeved shirts. But for sure you have got to get yourself a decent pair of cowboy boots and wear them. You don't need to wear the hat or western shirts, but you got to wear the boots."
"Yes sir," said Bob, seeing the logic of it.
"And Bob, here's a list of the qualities that I want you to look for -- on the q.t. -- in that country. Look for your smaller cow outfits and farms, not the great big ones or the ranches with four hundred oil wells. Look for areas where everybody is grey-headed. Older. People that age just want to live quiet and not get involved in a cause or fight city hall. That's the kind of population we want. Find out the names of local people who run things -- bankers, church folks -- get on their good side. Keep your eyes and ears open for farmers whose kids went off to school and those kids are not coming back unless somebody puts a gun to their heads. Read the obits for rural property owners who just died and their offspring are thinking 'show me the money' so they can get back to Kansas City or Key West or other fleshpots of their choice.
"And here's another thing. You will have to have a cover story because you can't go down there and say you're scouting for Global Pork Rind. Some people would be openly hostile. You will be there off and on for several months at a time, so you will have to think up a story to explain your presence. The fellow we had before told people he was a reporter for a national magazine working on a panhandle story -- that was supposed to let him get into every kind of corner and let him ask pertinent questions. You know what 'pertinent' means, don't you?"
"Yes sir. Pertaining to, or related in some way to a topic."
"Very good, I imagine you did well in school. That fellow I mentioned thought it had something to do with hair implants. Anyway, he thought that was a good cover story and expected doors to open to him like butter."
"What magazine did that fellow say he was working for, sir? Doing the profile for?"
"Well, he did not pick Texas Monthly, thinking the local populace might have heard of it. And of course it would have been folly to name Cockfight Weekly or Ranch News. I believe he said Vogue. He thought he would be safe with that one in the panhandle."
"And it didn't work for him?"
"No, no. It didn't." Ribeye Cluke's little finger swept a speck of shaving cream from his earlobe. "You will have to think of something else. I would stay away from the magazine idea, myself. But you'll think of something. Now, Bob, it's perfectly fine to stay in a motel for a few days until you get your bearings, but your best bet is to rent a room with someone in the area. Find some old lady or elderly couple with plenty of relatives. That way you'll get a beeline on what's happening. You'll get the lowdown. Now you just scour the properties north of the" -- he consulted the map on the wall -- "the Canadian River. Scour them good! Whenever you find a property that looks right and the owner is willing, you let me know and I'll send our Money Offer Person down. We've set up a subsidiary company to buy the parcels and then deed them over to Global. The residents do not know a hog farm is coming in until the bulldozers start constructing the waste lagoon. Later, when you've gained experience, when you've proved your value to Global Pork Rind, you can act as your own Money Offer Person, though generally we like to send a woman, mention a sum to the oldsters right on the spot. There's an advantage to that. Another thing, don't stay in one place, after a month or so switch to another town. And so forth. That fellow I mentioned? He picked Mobeetie, so if I were you that's not where I'd go. He made people suspicious. He got into trouble.
"Lucille here has made up a packet of maps and brochures, county profiles for you, and there's your corporate credit card -- and you bet there's a limit on it, Bob. We need your signature on this card. Here you go then and I'll just wish you good luck. Report back to me by mail every week. And I don't mean that damn e-mail. I won't touch that. Get a post office box. Write to me at home and I'll respond from same so your postmaster down there doesn't see Global Pork Rind on the envelope and start putting five and five together. I'll see that the company newsletters are sent to you in a plain brown wrapper. Can't be too careful. Use a pay phone if there is an emergency."
"And remember, the thing that's really important is that -- that we -- that we do what we do."
Bob left with the feeling that Ribeye Cluke was somehow deceiving him.
That night he took his uncle Tam to a celebratory dinner at a famous Inuit-Japanese-Irish steak house where they poured melted Jersey butter from quart pitchers, where the baked potatoes, decorated with tiny umbrellas, were the size of footballs and the steaks so thick they could only be cut with samurai swords. His uncle winced at the menu prices, then overpraised the food, a sure sign he was homesick for Chickee's place down the block from his shop where he could enjoy a plate of fried gizzards or catfish hot pot. But it seemed his thoughts had gone in a different direction, for out on the sidewalk he belched and said, "I've been thinking of getting into vegetables. Becoming a vegetarian. Meat's too damn expensive. Oh. Wait a minute. Before I forget. Wayne sent you something. And there's a little thing from me." His uncle thrust two flat parcels at Bob. "Don't open them until you get there," he said.
"Bromo! I didn't even know you were in touch with him anymore."
"Yeah. I am. We are. Whatever."
Copyright © 2002 by Dead Line, Ltd.
That Old Ace in the Hole
Dollar finds himself in a Texas town called Woolybucket, whose idiosyncratic inhabitants have ridden out all manner of seismic shifts in panhandle country. These are tough men and women who survived tornadoes and dust storms, and witnessed firsthand the demise of the great cattle ranches. Now it's feed lots, hog farms, and ever-expanding drylands.
Dollar settles into LaVon Fronk's old bunkhouse for fifty dollars a month, helps out at Cy Frease's Old Dog Café, targets Ace and Tater Crouch's ranch for Global Pork, and learns the hard way how vigorously the old owners will hold on to their land, even though their children want no part of it.
Robust, often bawdy, strikingly original and intimate, That Old Ace in the Hole tracks the vast waves of change that have shaped the American landscape and character over the past century -- and in Bob Dollar, Proulx has created one of the most irresistible characters in contemporary fiction.
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Reading Group Guide
1) What techniques does the author use in the first sentence of this novel to bring the rich world of the Panhandle alive? Similarly, how do the vivid, meticulous descriptions that characterize the first chapter acquaint us not only with Bob Dollar, but with the complex and often contradictory images that dot the Texas landscape?
2) Bob Dollar describes the Panhandle by saying, "it seemed he was not so much in a place as confronting the raw material of human use." How does this quote, which comes early on in the story, set the stage for the struggle that happens between the people of Woolybucket, and the Hog industry? How does the Panhandle give Bob the impression that it is not a place, or a home, but a landscape made for human consumption?
3) Martin Merton Fronk, Cy Frease, Rope Butt, Tater Crouch. These are just a few examples of the sometimes humorous and always original names Proulx gives to the characters who inhabit That Old Ace in the Hole. How much importance should we, as the reader, give to these names? In what ways does the author use names, not only to highlight specific aspects of characters' personalities, but to show where people are coming from and where the plot might be going?
4) Is this a story about small town history and interpersonal dynamics between country folk? Is it a fictionalized account of the dangers of industrializing farmland? Or is it about the constant and ine see more