Mos, 2020 Publisher's Choice Adult Division
By Valla Shalz
Old Mos. He was lean and lanky and he always squinted his eyes just enough to show that they were blue. Mos was seventy years old and I was seven, but even with a lifetime between us, he was my friend.
Mos lived in a shack in Dixie, Idaho among crop land and fields of grass. Imagine, if you will, an old metal coal bucket filled with wood sitting on the bare planked floor with ice crystals formed on the rim. It sat next to a small wood stove which would provide the only heat against an Idaho winter where panes were opaque and the air burned the lungs it was so cold until Mos got the fire burning. Imagine,also, the flickering of the flame against a dark wall, the promise of warmth soon enough. Mos could wait. He was a tough old bird. This was his world.
Oatmeal and slabs of bacon. That was always his breakfast, and this day was no exception. It was a Saturday and I was free from the torture of school. I lived down the road from Mos in Notus in a small clapboard house near the Union Pacific Railroad Depot. My world consisted of two things: Mos and trains. When the trains came to a stop, I trembled at their quaking power, the giant drivers, and the pungent smell of hot oil and grease permeating the air. I often watched the station master change the signals and even send telegraphs. Sometimes he gave me a stick of gum. It was heaven to this small-town boy and it kept me from going crazy. That and Mos.
Today there were no ice crystals on the rim or fire in the stove for winter was yet to come. This golden autumn morning was calling for me to be with Mos, trains or no trains. As I walked, I thought back to those frigid winter days in Mos’ shack, where we huddled near the stove and listened to the sound of rain or hail pound so hard on the tin roof that we couldn’t hear each other speak. Then, there would be few walks through the bitter cold and drifted snow. Today, though, the autumn sun was high and hot and so I walked down the long road kicking the dust, wishing there was a wind so Mos and Icould watch for dust devils. I wondered what adventure Mos and I would have that day. Mos was born with adventure in his blood.
I don’t think Mos ever saw a burning bush or anything, but even with his wrinkled, craggy face, I knew he was smart. Mos taught me how to do so many things. Like how to not be afraid. “You gotta be bigger than your fear,” he used to say to me. Mos’ adventure that day was to show me the best fishing hole in the Boise River. It was not easy to get to.
He walked right up to a large metal pipe going over a ravine filled with hot, pink, slimy water, straddled the pipe and started inching across with ease. His legs were about three times longer than mine, but I didn’t want Mos to think I was afraid, so I did it too. My short, stubby legs barely reached around the monster pipe and I was scared to death, but I didn’t fall off and parboil in the natural hot water beneath us. I was proud of myself until I remembered I had to inch back across the slough on that pipe that was so hot from the sun. That time, Mos went behind me. When we got across, he looked at me and said, “Boy, you shouldn’t have crossed on that pipe. Yer legs ain’t long enough,” and on he went up the hill towards home without another word. I grew a lot that day. I was bigger than my fear.
One day old Mos gave me the surprise of my life. Think about me, a poor kid who hadn’t ever been anywhere. Mos came by with his hands deep in his coverall pockets, whistling as he always did through the hole where his missing tooth should be. I could tell something special was about to happen. My parents knew, too. Mos had tickets for the two of us to ride the train to Boise, (he told me he didn’t usually bother with the tickets—he just bummed a ride.) Old Mos. The man with the frozen coal bucket and the ratty wool plaid coat hanging on a nail by his kitchen door, had somehow saved enough money to take me to a picture show at the Rio Theater. I saw a cowboy picture and ate candy. Mos spent more time smiling at me than watching the picture.
Afterwards, he took me to a dime store called Newberry’s that had a food bar, and we ate hamburgers and chocolate malts—my first ever. It was magic. The air was filled with the scent of buttery popcorn in a popping machine, and I could not stop looking at the rows and rows of toys, the likes of which I had never seen. The most amazing thing about the big city of Boise, though, was the noise. I was fascinated by the cars, the shops, the people and the lights. It seemed like a dream. Notus was looking smaller and smaller.
On sultry summer evenings we sat on his stoop in rusty metal chairs swatting flies and mosquitoes. The air laid on us like a heavy quilt. I was miserable, but old Mos just sat there looking out yonder. He studied the clouds building up and watched the way they moved. We had had a draught for months and rain would be a blessing. It wouldn’t matter if the streets turned to mud—at least it couldn’t settle in a cup of coffee.
Mos taught me the names of the clouds and the stars. He could predict the weather by watching the birds, if they were flying high or low, ina flock or single, which direction and what their twittering sounded like. He rocked in his chair and watched the wheat turn gold and the corn rise high. It was as if he was a part of the earth itself. He could smell snow coming, and once, when the lightening was striking close enough that we could hear the sizzle, he could smell the lightening. We counted the pesky blue bottle flies and Mos told me that God put them on earth just so someone could sell fly swatters. I almost always believed him. Many years later, the fact that we found stacks of old Farmers’ Almanacs in his house didn’t change my mind about his predictions.
Most of the time Mos and I were partners…until the frogs. My ma asked me to go to Ketter’s Pond and get some bull frogs so she could cook up a skillet of legs. Mos gave me a gunny sack and taught me how to grab those big ole frogs and drop them in the sack. He told me my ma probably wanted about twenty or thirty. So, I walked down to the water’s edge and started looking for the heads barely peeking up out of the muddy water. I grabbed for one and missed. I tried again. No frog. This wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought what with the frogs being so uncooperative. Finally, though, I managed to catch a big one, and I plopped it into the sack.
Before long, I caught on to the trick of frogging and I had my gunny sack full of the critters and tied it shut with a string. When I got home, I laid the sack on the kitchen table and went outside. A few minutes later, I heard a blood-curdling scream from the kitchen. Ma came running out in horror! The sack had jumped off of the table and was hopping across the floor! “Lord Almighty,” she screamed at me. “You brought them home alive?” We had fried chicken for dinner that night. When I told Mos, he couldn’t keep from snickering. “Oh,” he said. “I guess I forgot to tell you about that.”
Mos once told me I was born into Paradise. He told me he used to be a cow puncher up in Northern Idaho where there were mountains so tall and pointed they poked holes in the sky. He told me about massive white pines and rivers and lakes such as I had never seen. He said that God created Idaho for the blessed. I looked around my little town and tried to understand, but it wasn’t until I grew up and set out on my own to find Mos’ holes in the sky that I knew how right he had been. I did live in Paradise…until life changed things. My life got bigger, my world expanded, and in the transformation, Ilet Paradise slip away. I grew familiar with new horizons and new cityscapes, but I was never truly satisfied.
I often dreamed of Mos and kicking dirt and looking for dust devils. I figured he had to be still sitting on his porch, reading the sky and living a life so quiet it barely existed, but that was oh-so-rich. I lost touch with my old world: The depot, the river, the pipe, the shack, the mountains, the heavenly smell of a grassy field after a good rain. I felt compelled, pulled back into its simplicity, but I never
returned. Why, I’ll never know.
I wasn’t surprised when I got the news. I couldn’t stay away any longer. I stood staring into the casket, a simple pine box just as Mos would have wanted. Moses Elijah Oatfield. He brought me back. Back to my roots. Back to that which had formed all that I am, deep inside, like a reminder to be true to myself. Old Mos, still teaching. I wished I had come earlier. I wish I could talk once again with my friend, my life school master. Why did I wait until now? I would miss him. Always. Although he was a simple man, he was content, and he told me that if you are content, you have succeeded. He succeeded for 100 years.
Someone had found a scrap of paper with my name on it. It was a note from Mos, his scratchy handwriting immediately recognizable. The words simply said, “Dear friend, I want to thank you for everything you did for me.” My mind raced back to the days when we were together. What I did for him? What was that? Help him stack wood? No, I never thought of that. Help him clean up his place,scythe the thick grasses outside his shaek, run to the Merc for something he needed? No. Did I even help him the time he got so sick with pneumonia? No. I read on. “Every morning when I woke up there was the possibility that you’d come walking down that long road. Sometimes you did. Sometimes you didn’t. Even if you didn’t come, I watched the road just in case, and you gave me hope. When you came, you made my world less lonely. You made me content.” I felt as if my shoes were nailed to the floor. I had no idea. No idea. I helped him succeed.
I went back to the old place, still in the grassy fields, still a shack. It was winter and there in the darkness was a metal coal bucket filled with wood sitting on the bare planked floor with ice crystals on the rim. The panes were opaque—there would be no fire. A plaid wool jacket still hung on a nail by the door. It was no longer needed, for its owner had moved on to a new Paradise. The screen door squeaked behind me and I stood on the stoop for a moment. Memories rained down and the grown up me became seven again. I could feel his spirit in the vacant metal chair beside me. He once said, “If good things don’t end, you never get the chance to remember them.” Well, it was good. It was all good and I would remember. I looked at my big boots standing on the time-worn wood of the stoop. My childhood shoes were a part of the wearing away. I knew I had returned to the place where I belonged. Paradise. Looking out across the fields, I watched the clouds. It was time to leave, for the snow was coming. I could smell it.