At 4:30 AM the eastern sky was heaped with red embers -- not a forest fire, just the sun coming up -- and the rest of the sky was ashen -- not from real ashes, just clouds but not the low sodden ones that we’re tired of. On the good side, my sweetgrass is almost long enough to harvest for braids. On the bad side, the yard grass is exactly the same height as it was when I cut it -- hey, wasn’t that yesterday?
I lay in bed for a while but got bored and went to fish around in my newspaper box -- no paper. But then, I’m not sure I paid the bill. So I put on my duds and entered the day. Valier is quiet on the still mornings. Only a few guys will be up and that’s because, well, this is a geezer town and old guys get up early. The places to get coffee open shortly after dawn. I went to the remaining service station -- which removed their laundromat because it was too much hard work and because there was more profit in beer and pop -- to get a paper. Corky, whom I’ve known since he was just a little squirt, was holding down the coffee bar and hailed me.
Women have coffee in the middle of the morning when they’re gathering their wits for the day’s plans. Young moms will have gotten everyone else out the door by then. A few of them will gather on the Internet, signing off by saying, “Time to start the day.” But most women email just before supper when everything is cooking. There’s another kind that will call you up while they deal with the dishes afterwards.
I generally have my coffee while I read the paper and start my blog, but I was up so early, I thought I’d perch on a stool with Corky. Usually I don’t join older men’s groups. There are two kinds: those who are still at a boisterous age who whoop it up and are obnoxiously loud, and those who are bashful and will all tip their vizor caps down to peer into their coffee cups and peep at women out the sides. But they know things -- they’re better gossips than women because they mostly leave out the editorial comments and just give you the facts -- but ALL the facts. Even the grisly ones.
Things can get technical: a discussion of high-protein winter wheat this morning, throwing around a lot of percentages and guessing about what has shipped so far. (Mostly all.) The only thing I know is that high protein wheat is better for bread and low protein wheat is better for noodles, but that didn’t seem germane, so I tipped my visor cap down and studied my coffee.
I had grabbed my Mickey Mouse hat this morning. One of the reasons I stopped to talk to Corky was that his sister--in-law, who gave me this hat, is fighting cancer and I wanted to know how she was. She’s fighting -- that’s it. Corky, his brother Boyd, and Boyd’s wife Lila were all my students once. I hate it when people die out of order. Students are not supposed to die until AFTER the teachers go. These kids are like family. Boyd and Lila are the ones who took care of Bob Scriver -- as well as his fourth wife -- in the last months.
More men came. The one I offered to usher out of the Town Council meeting saw me, wheeled, and left. Two went out to stand in front with cigarettes, but then came back. When I was on the road all the time, I was a big breakfast-eater and sitting at the next table eavesdropping on men was better than television. I learned a lot about cattle and wheat. Since around here there are no salaried emergency responders, the local men fight fire, run ambulances, act as deputies -- so sometimes there’s a lot of sorting of emotion and thoughts from the night before.
Corky was the only one I really knew since I don’t mix into the community much. I always like to make the crowd smile but didn’t succeed with one little fellow until Corky was telling about looking for a used car and finding only gas guzzlers. “What can a guy do with a Lincoln Continental these days?” he demanded. I suggested putting it in the backyard and raising chickens in it. That got a grin. But then we remembered that the “hens” on the city council think that keeping chickens is too much of a downscale country activity for a “nice” town of 400 people with one paved road.
I was cautious about being so free and easy in Saskatchewan small towns. Their ethic was still largely Ukrainian, meaning women are classified as possessions if not beasts of burden. I’d be asked bluntly, “Where’s your man?” I learned to say, “He’s meeting me just in the next town and he has a very bad temper. Did I mention he’s big and a karate black belt?” After that I never got any coffee refills.
In Browning the people often come in couples, married or not, and the climate is far more relaxed, the gossip much wilder and less reliable. In Valier people have known each other for decades. In Browning you can make that centuries. In fact, sometimes the gossip is that old. And the doughnuts might be a little suspect as well. (Jokes. I take it back. There were never leftovers at the Red Crow Cafe.)
Years ago I read a humorous piece by a Lutheran minister who was serving a small town instead of the city churches he’d been used to. The people in this town complained that he didn’t know what was going on and was kind of a lazy fella anyway. Slept in, you know, like some high hat fancy guy instead of a working stiff like them. When the rev figured out that the earliest coffee klatches were the lifeblood of the community, he was stumped about how to survive his schedule which was often committee meetings or individual emergencies (deaths, births, threats) late at night. Then his wife reminded him that they would not know if he went back to bed after coffee. She would neither rat him out nor start vacuuming. So he did. And they all lived happily ever after.
I think I’ll go back to bed now. The day has silvered out into thin clouds and all the early birds have caught the early fish.