OUT TO PASTURE
by Ron Yates, RRBC 2017 KCT Int'l Literary Award Grand Prize Winner
He watched the hawk circling high in an infinite Southern California sky, far above the shaggy brown hills that loomed behind acres of avocado and orange trees. Every so often the hawk would dip as though preparing to dive on its unsuspecting prey, but then it would pull up abruptly, unsatisfied with the approach to its target, waiting perhaps for a better opportunity.
He knew this hawk. He had seen it before. There were two patches of vermilion feathers on the underside of its broad chestnut wings that reminded him of the red circles that adorned the wingtips of the Japanese fighter planes he used to see in the Pacific during World War II.
He closed his eyes, allowing the warm sun to wash over him. The only sound other than the crisp dry wind that blew up the long pass from La Jolla, was the dull whine of the automatic pool cleaner as it made its programmed passages back and forth in the pool next to the patio. For a moment he could feel himself being pulled back to a time when the heavy coughs of old propeller-driven fighters ripped through the dense, fragrant tropical air like a dull knife through perfumed silk.
For a brief moment, he pictured himself sitting at his old black Underwood, pounding out another story of some long-forgotten battle in World War II, or Korea, or Vietnam that he had covered. He could almost see the white typing paper rolled half-way out of the typewriter and he could see his By-Line typed neatly just above the first sentence of the story:
"By Cooper McGrath
Global News Service."
He sighed and shifted his body in the pool-side lounge chair, allowing his growing potbelly to slide slowly to the other side of his frame. “Typewriters,” he thought. “Nobody even knows what they are today.”
Then he reached for his binoculars so he could get a better view of the hawk.
"Look at old Zero-sen up there. He's going in for the kill."
"Zero-sen?" Ellen was still puttering around the patio, watering potted plants and trees.
"Yeah, the hawk. That's what I call him. Look at those red spots on his wings. He looks like one of those old Japanese Zeros."
Ellen squinted up at the sky and frowned. "You have a lively imagination, Cooper."
The hawk continued to circle, but it was moving further away. Finally, it dipped below a small rise and disappeared. When it reappeared, it was carrying something in its talons. Cooper exhaled and at the same time pounded his ample belly, the sound of which reverberated across the patio like a hollow drum. Then he pulled himself upright in the recliner.
"I always did, you know."
"Did what?" Ellen asked, only half paying attention to what her brother was saying.
"Have a lively imagination."
"Oh, that." She was on her knees pushing sticks of fertilizer into her potted plants. "And as I recall, it always got you in trouble."
"Is it time for lunch?" he asked, rising slowly to his feet. "God," he groaned. "I'm stiff as a dead tree." He looked at his watch. It was already one-thirty in the afternoon—way past his usual lunchtime and his stomach was growling.
"You don't get enough exercise, Cooper. I keep telling you, you should enroll in that aerobics class they're offering down at the clubhouse."
She stood looking at him for a few moments, hands on hips, white, wide-brimmed gardening hat shading her beige face from the hot sun. She loved her brother mightily, but it saddened her to see him in such physical and mental decline. Why had the Global News Service pushed him into retirement? He had given his life to that ungrateful news agency.
As he stretched his arms skyward Cooper's ever-expanding belly caused the bottom of his shirt to pull out of his shorts at the midriff, revealing a roll of untanned flesh the color of boiled pork. Finally, she shook her head and made one of those disapproving clucking sounds with her tongue.
"I'll call you when lunch is ready. Why not take a few laps in the pool, or even better, call the clubhouse about that senior’s aerobics class?"
Cooper mumbled some acquiescent reply as Ellen walked into the house. She was right of course. But at 70 he didn't feel any particular need to jog around a room with a bunch of other ill-proportioned old farts in tights. Hell, he was retired. Why did he have to do anything at all? Hadn't he worked his ass off all his life? Didn’t he risk his life reporting stories nobody cared about? Didn't he deserve some time off to do, well, to do nothing? Nothing at all? Hell yes, he did.
He sighed heavily, and a bit guiltily. He always did when he remembered the half-finished manuscript in his small office. It sat there day after day on the desk next to his laptop computer—unfinished, unedited and unsold. Sometimes he half expected it to finish itself, to somehow link up magically with his mind, download forty years of journalistic experience and then turn it all into some kind of marketable prose that a big time publisher would snap up without hesitation.
But it didn't work that way. He knew that. Oh, how he knew that. After years of meeting one deadline after another—thousands and thousands of them—if there was one thing Cooper McGrath knew it was that nothing got written until he sat down at his typewriter and began banging it out. Then, about five years ago, toward the end of his career as a foreign correspondent, he had reluctantly traded in his typewriter for a computer. The laptop had been sent over to Singapore by his editors. He would no longer roam the Asian continent as he had for most of his professional life. Instead, he would write a column every two weeks that focused on current events. And that's what he had done for the past few years. His job, he was told, was to insert his years of historical perspective into dispatches written by less knowledgeable, more youthful correspondents.
Cooper knew what was really going on, of course. He was being put out to pasture. Sure, the discipline was the same. You still had to sit down in front of a blank screen and create something worth reading. The difference was the burnout. He felt as burned out as an old war correspondent could feel—like the old iron kettle in which he cooked up his special chili. He had served up so many portions of his life that there just wasn't anything left to spoon out anymore. It was 1990, and the kettle was empty—empty and caked with rust.
Yet he knew he had things to say, stories to tell, history to recount. He was, after all, an eyewitness to some of the greatest history of the Twentieth Century. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, not to mention more than a score or so revolutions and coups d'état. When he thought about it that way, he could feel the juices stirring and bubbling in the bottom of the kettle, and he would get excited enough to walk into his small office, turn on the laptop and type a few lines. But after a while, an inexplicable gust of arid self-doubt would blow through his mind, and he would feel the passion receding. Then it would be gone—as extinct as that old black Underwood he used to pound on day after day in places like Rangoon, Saigon, and Hong Kong.
"Nobody gives a damn," Cooper would say when Ellen asked him why he didn't finish his memoirs. "It's all ancient history. Hell, I'm ancient history."
Ellen knew he was feeling sorry for himself. But she couldn't bring herself to tell him that. Instead, she guilefully nudged and tugged his ego gently back to its perch above the bleak valley of his self-doubt.
"You've seen so much, and you have such a gift for describing what you've seen," Ellen would say. "You must write it all down, to preserve it for others. That is your gift to the world. It shouldn't be wasted."
Cooper knew Ellen was right—if not for the sake of history then for the sake of his own mental and physical health. He needed to be doing something. And he had to admit, when he was writing, he felt like he was contributing again. It gave him a sense of power and purpose.
But after Toshiko's death most of the power and purpose he still possessed deserted him. He retreated emotionally and physically from the world. He gave up the grand old house in Singapore where he and Toshiko had spent the last ten years of their married life. He just couldn't bear living in it anymore—not when everything in the place reminded him of Toshiko and their life together.
For the first few weeks after Toshiko had succumbed to the ravages of cancer, Cooper would sit on the verandah of their house built during the British-raj, drinking one vodka-tonic after another and wondering why Toshiko had to be the first to go. He always figured he would be the first. After all, he was the physical wreck, not Toshiko. She had taken care of herself. Her 5-foot 2-inch body was as lithe and slim as it was the day he met her in 1946 in Osaka.
Cooper knew the hours spent on his verandah were nothing more than a boozy ritual of self-pity. But he didn't care. It was the only way he knew to deal with abandonment. And that's what had happened. He had been abandoned; and cheated, and irreparably damaged. By dying, Toshiko had deserted him. These were the emotions that had churned in Cooper's sozzled brain with ever-increasing velocity until late afternoon when he was, as they say, “decks-awash and listing severely to starboard.” Then, with the sun descending past the tops of the traveler palms and tamarind trees that populated his front lawn, Cooper would stumble into the house and collapse on the small bed in the guestroom. Even drunk he couldn't bring himself to sleep in the bed he had shared with Toshiko.
The self-pity finally wore off in a couple of months and so did the appeal of Singapore. After minimal coaxing from Ellen, he left Asia and moved in with his only living relative. Ellen, his little sister, lived in the sunburnt craggy hills just north of Escondido. The house was one of those rambling Spanish-style places with a red tile roof and bleached stucco walls. It had been built by Ellen's husband just before his untimely death ten years before.
Moving in with Ellen wasn’t Cooper's idea, but he was thankful she had offered. One evening in Singapore during a fierce tropical storm that had forced Cooper to retreat from the Verandah, Ellen had called, and in the course of the conversation, she suggested he come to California and help out with her thirty acres of avocado and orange groves.
A month later, after selling off five decades of Asian bric-a-brac, several rooms of teak, rosewood and rattan furniture, half of his oriental carpets and various silk screens, wall hangings and jade statuary, Cooper returned to the U.S. It was the first time he had been back in almost 20 years. When he stepped off the plane in San Diego, he couldn't help observing how sterile, how ordered, how incredibly mind-numbing it all was.
"Where's the texture?" he asked as Ellen drove him north toward Escondido.
"What?" Ellen responded.
"You know, the texture. The dirt. The coarseness. The graininess that makes a place look lived in."
Ellen had dismissed Cooper's outburst as a sign of jet lag or crankiness.
In fact, Cooper was frustrated by how little the change in scenery had done for him. He had merely traded the verandah of his house in Singapore for the poolside patio of Ellen's mountainside villa. There was one huge difference, of course. There was no booze to be had anywhere in Ellen's house. Just lots of lemonade and cases of those flavored ice tea drinks that were so irritatingly trendy.
And so it had gone for the past six months that he had lived with his sister in the hills north of Escondido. He purged the booze from his system, but not the pain. He drank lots of ice tea and lemonade and every so often the two of them took day trips to places like the old missions at San Juan Capistrano or San Luis Rey, or the old stagecoach town of Temecula, or the posh resorts of La Jolla.
If nothing else, Cooper was getting to know his kid sister once again and Ellen was rediscovering her brother. Nevertheless, sometimes she thought he would have been better off staying in Singapore. But she was the only family Cooper had left and it distressed her to know he was alone and suffering in Asia.
Cooper watched Ellen as she reemerged from the house and moved across the patio with the water hose trained on the hanging plants. He closed his eyes and imagined Toshiko standing on the long wooden verandah of their Singapore house under slowly turning teakwood paddle fans fussing with the bougainvillea and orchids. It was too easy. All he had to do was will her into his consciousness and there she would be, just as she had always been. That was the problem. As much as he had loved Toshiko in life, he found himself consumed with an even stronger love for her in death. Sometimes he thought it was becoming his own personal cancer, and he had no doubt that it was killing him.
Cooper paced the length of the patio, spent a moment or two pushing himself up by the toes, then walked back to the lounge chair, eased himself onto its thick foam rubber cushions and closed his pale blue eyes under freckled eyelids.
"That’s enough exercise for today. I think I'll take a little nap."
Ellen looked over at him and shook her head. His tanned legs with their crepey skin extended from knee-length blue shorts and his meaty, liver-spotted hands rested on a half-buttoned red, yellow and blue Hawaiian shirt that threatened to burst open with each of his breaths.
"You really are a lazy old bear, Mr. McGrath."
Cooper, muttered an indistinct reply and watched Ellen as she pottered past him into the house. He closed his eyes, yawned, and began drifting away to another time in a vanished world where his personal cloistered refuge awaited.
“Tomorrow,” he mused. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll come in from the pasture.”
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