Green Hills Literary Lantern

A West Virginia Walk-Up

 

 

 

PD had a vacation day coming and he spent it by winning a goat at the county fair. Exactly how he won it, and whether it was a game of chance or skill, are issues I prefer not to address at this time. As he and the goat were driving home on Route 79, the thought occurred to him—what am I going to do with this goat?

This is not a question he could avoid for long, since he lived in a walk-up apartment. There are more people than you might think who live in walk-up apartments in West Virginia, though very few live in elevator-equipped buildings. Despite this fact, state and county fairs in West Virginia continue to the date of this writing to give out prizes of goats, pigs, cows, and horses, as if the West Virginia landlords would be proud to have these hoofed tenants under roof.

The top prize of one county fair was a small herd of American bison, which you can see to this day, grazing on the east side of Route 79, just north of Clarksburg.

The issue of state and county fair prizes is one that probably needs to be addressed, but not by me. Issues of public policy are beyond the scope of my writing ability. One man and one goat is about all I can handle. And so back to PD, who has just begun to understand the dilemma he faces. He exits Route 79 and does what most of us do in the face of these kinds of stumpers. He heads for the nearest bar, which was Johnny’s Tap ’n Pool.

 As he left his truck in the lot, he warned the goat, “I’m going to have a beer—don’t leave the back of my truck.”

For PD, this was one of those watershed moments. If the goat heeded his warning and stayed in the truck until he came out, well, then, he might be a keeper. But if he wandered off, PD wasn’t going to go looking for him.

The inside of Johnny’s Tap ’n Pool was not unknown to PD, but as he sat down at the bar, he couldn’t remember if he knew this particular bartender. He certainly didn’t know his name. He wondered why he had to win a goat, instead of 50 silver dollars, like the second place winner, or a torch set and a lifetime of propane refills, like third place.

He went over to the juke box and studied the songs, which were listed in tiny print that you could read only by bending over and squinting. The bar was quiet because it was just after noon; night shift had already gone home and the day-shift workers were still wasting their time at work. Also, the fact that Route 50 to Grafton was closed down for resurfacing didn’t help. PD had gotten through the barricades only because he knew a shortcut across Homer Massey’s lawn.

Finally he found a tune by Willie Nelson, dropped in fifty cents, and headed back to his seat at the bar. He ordered another beer and couldn’t remember which song he put on. Was it “Red-Haired Stranger” or “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain?”

“Juke box is out of order—Give you back a quarter,” the bartender said. Because they rhymed, PD at first thought these were the opening lines to the song he had just spent a quarter on. He drank another beer in silence and reached into his pocket for a ten-spot, since he was always generous, especially with tips. Then he realized he’d spent all his money at the county fair.

“Say,” he said, and the bartender stared back at him expectantly. “Say,” he began again. “I have a goat in the back of my truck that can drink beer from an ashtray.”

 “I don’t care if your goat wrote FDR’s New Deal. I’m not wasting any beer on him.”

“You wouldn’t talk about my goat like that, if you knew he could fix your juke box,” PD responded, not missing a beat.

The bartender went off down the bar to pour a beer, because a couple of guys from day shift at the carbon factory had come in. That was the nearest plant to Johnny’s Tap ’n Pool. At least the nearest one still running. This part of the country is full of dead plants and dead mines. Some people try to make a living picking up steel and iron left around the old work sites. Each rusty tool might have a story to tell, but it doesn’t pay. About scavenging in West Virginia I could say a great deal, and perhaps I will, but on another occasion.

The bartender and the carbon-plant workers said a few words and laughed. PD couldn’t hear what they said but his ears burned. They must be talking about my goat, he thought.

When the bartender got back to PD, he said: “OK, your goat fixes my juke box, and I’ll let you drink for free tonight.”

“Hang on, Buddy, my goat doesn’t do any skilled labor for minimum wage.”

“Suit yourself. That’ll be five dollars for two beers.”

“I’ve got a credit card . . .” PD said.

“Sorry, the only thing I take is cash—or some repairs from your goat.”

As PD went out to the truck, he wasn’t sure his goat was ready for such a major role. He was almost hoping he wouldn’t be there. In that case, he could explain the situation to the bartender, who would certainly be interested to hear how PD spent his last dime at the county fair, buying chances on a goat. Whose heart wouldn’t be moved by the story of a man whose beloved pet and valuable prize had just run off?

But the goat was there and turned his big eyes toward PD and licked out of his hand. PD leaned over and whispered something into the goat’s ear, and the goat got out of the truck and followed him into the bar.

PD noticed that a couple more day-shift workers had come in from the carbon plant. They all looked at the goat and one of them said:

“Hey, barman, I didn’t know you let goats drink in this bar.”

“The goat doesn’t drink,” the bartender shot back. “He only does repairs.”

“Just a minute,” PD responded. My goat can’t do any repairs unless he’s had a few beers.”

The barman made an unfriendly gesture at PD and walked away to pour some beer.      

“That sounds reasonable to me,” one of the workers said. “Hell, a goat can’t work for nothing.”

“Look,” the bartender exploded, “I ain’t pouring beer for a goat. Does it have any ID? Does it understand English if I read it the warning about drinking alcohol when you’re pregnant?”

“I never heard of a Billy Goat getting pregnant,” PD responded, handing a clean ashtray to the barkeep. “And my goat only drinks bottled beer.”

The bartender acted disgusted, like it was below him to fill a goat’s ashtray with beer.

PD put the ashtray down on the floor and the goat sucked it up and everyone insisted that the barkeep pour another one, which the goat also lapped up. The goat looked up, and PD realized from the expression on his face that he had a pet for life.

“And now for the repairs,” PD said. “You’re going to hear the first lines of either ‘Red Headed Stranger’ or ‘Blue Eyes Crying,’ I forget which.”

He whispered something in the goat’s ear and the goat looked up at him, pawed at the floor like he couldn’t wait to do some troubleshooting, and then passed out.

The bartender gave PD a look, like, “If I carved you up and stuffed you in a bottle of vinegar, would you be as tasty as pig’s knuckles?”

“Look at my goat, you’ve slipped him a mickey,” PD said, hoping for some sympathy from the day-shift workers. They weren’t unsympathetic—just not prepared for the drama that had unfolded before their very eyes. Anyway, they stared blankly from the bartender, to PD, to the goat.

                 “Damn you all,” PD fumed, and kicked at the juke box with his muddy

size12s.

                “Blue eyes crying in the rain,” came Willie Nelson’s quavering voice from the juke box.

Then the carbon plant workers sprang to life, applauding. And more applause broke out with every beer PD downed or every ashtray quaffed off by the goat, who’d woken up as soon as the merriment began. By the end of the evening, the two of them were feeling no pain. At some point during the late night or early morning, PD got the goat back in his truck and then up the three flights of steps to his apartment.

The next morning Felix Younger—the older of the Younger brothers— showed up to give PD a ride to work. It was a well-known fact that Felix resented PD and was just looking for a chance to drop him from the carpool. He hadn’t been able to do it because of what everyone else would say, namely that PD was a fine fellow and would never do Felix like that if the shoe was on the other foot. So when PD wasn’t waiting out in front of the apartment building at 6 a.m., Felix stormed up the steps to wake him.  When he saw two big brown eyes staring out of the covers at him, Felix thought for sure it was PD, until he realized it was a goat.

“PD has a goat for a mistress,” Felix told everyone, thinking this time he had PD good.

“How could a Billy Goat be a mistress,” PD scoffed at him.

*  *  *

The acquisition of a goat did wonders for PD. He started to exercise so as to walk the goat, began cooking regular meals so he could feed the goat leftovers, and took a correspondence course in animal husbandry. To say that the responsibility was good for PD was an understatement, for he completely turned his life around.

Fortunately, the landlord liked the goat, too, and let him stay outside in the yard the rest of the fall. By winter, he and PD finished the basement, which used to be a dark, leaky furnace room. They put a mattress in one corner for the goat to sleep on, but he preferred to lie on a throw rug by the furnace. In a West Virginia walk-up, the best place for a goat to stay is the basement so he doesn’t bother the other tenants by clattering up and down the steps.

You’re probably thinking that in this case, it was all for the best for a contestant living in a West Virginia walk-up to win a goat. But that was more because of the exceptional qualities of PD and his goat. The general principle that I explained at the very beginning of this piece still stands. Hoofed creatures are not appropriate state or county fair prizes. This is an issue that should be addressed, but not by me.

 

 

David Salner’s poetry is deeply influenced by the people he knew during the 25 years he worked at manual trades. An iron ore miner, furnace tender, power plant laborer, machinist, and garment worker, he lived for many years in West Virginia. Salner received a Puffin Foundation grant to study the real history behind the John Henry myth. His fourth poetry collection, John Henry’s Partner Speaks, has just been published by WordTech Editions. His poems appear in Threepenny Review, Prairie Schooner, The Literary Review, North American Review, Southern Humanities Review, Poetry Daily, and many other journals. This is his first published story.

 

 http://www.wordtechweb.com/salner.html