So. The Adventures of Cloyd Blank is the first novel idea I’ve had where I’ve had the audacity to actually plan something out. Usually, I start a novel or a short story and just go with the flow. But for this project – and I can remember the exact moment it all hit me – I knew what was going to happen when.
See, I was sitting in a class called American Naturalism/Realism. We were reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This was about the fifth time I’ve read the book, so my mind started wandering when the topic of racism inevitably came up and the professor – a really nice Irish guy – started getting attacked by a couple of the African-American students for making a joke. Anyway, I started thinking about a conversation a few friends and I were talking about dealing with our ancestors. According to one of them, his last name, Null, came from his grandfather being abandoned on a farm and the Census taker arbitrarily giving him that name. (It’s really a curse, since Jake couldn’t register for accommodation without crashing the computer network.) So, I started thinking, “What if this guy had it much worse? What if there were a modern Huck Finn involving everything I hate about society?” Essentially, I set out to be Mark Twain for a little while.
It turned into what you’re going to read – well, kind of. You’re only going to be reading the first couple of sections. Sorry about that, but it’s still in progress and, once again, I’m going to try to sell this thing. Enjoy.
My name’s Cloyd. Up until a month or so ago, it was just Cloyd. Then, some mighty interestin things happened and I turned into Cloyd Blank. I don’t feel much different, though.
I was born in the woods—leastaways that’s what they tell me. Out in the woods next to the coyote den, if you want to be specific. The way the farmer tells it, he was out there choppin’ wood one day and he stumbles across thirteen coyotes all standin’ in a circle around me, growlin’ and making a racket. Well, Mr. Gamble, he’s the farmer, he reaches down to the ground grabs a shotgun—Mr. Gamble likes to bury weapons in the ground in case the Commies ever outlaw them—takes aim, and blows four of them straight to Hell. So they all scatter and Mr. Gamble, he takes me, wraps me up in a blanket he had with him, and takes me back to the farm.
Now, I reckon that my life is pretty simple. From the day I was able to walk, Mr. Gamble strung me up to the plow and said, “Git yer butt to work, sumbitch.” So, I did. The way it’d work would be me wakin’ up at four in the mornin’, way before even the roosters do, strappin’ myself to the plow, and workin’ till ten that night—only a couple breaks for a glass of water along the way. I say give me eighteen hours of work, six hours of sleep, and a peanut butter sandwich, and I’ll be happy. (I can’t read good, but Mr. Gamble says that Mr. Jesus in the Bible—you know, the book you get walloped with when your folks are in the drink—says that laziness is for the Devil, so that’s why we should all work eighteen hours a day and no excuses. Then again, that book’s about him.)
So that’s how I spent most of my days. I’d get up, work, and eat. Sometimes I’d play with my friends out in the barn, but they didn’t talk much on account of them being cows and goats. Now I got another right interestin friend named Apple. He’s an apple. One day, I sat uner a tree on a break and WHAM! Apple comes and smacks me on the top of my head. Then, he looks at me and he says, “Mr. Gamble isn’t your father.”
I say, “Well gosh, Apple, I know that. He says that Mr. Jesus is the father of everyone.”
“He isn’t either. You must find your real father so that you can learn about the world.”
I tried to tell him that he weren’t makin’ much sense, and, from what Mr. Gamble told me, the world was full of people who would steal the clothes right off your back, spit on you, take your guns, and then take everything you had by way of somethin’ called The Goddamn Taxes. But Apple, he weren’t havin’ none of that. He called me an idiot and said I’d learn what he meant soon enough. So since then, I kept Apple in my pocket so he could tell me about things I saw.
Well one day, after Goat woke me up with a lick on account of I slept in till daybreak, Apple says to me, “Cloyd, this is the day you meet your destiny.”
Well, it sure didn’t feel no different than any other day, so I just chalked it up to Apple’s habit of bein’ what Mrs. Gamble calls ‘dramatic’ (she always calls me that when I say that I could really use something more than my usual sandwich, then says that I’m not thinkin’ of the good of the farm, then kicks me back out to the barn). So I cleaned myself in the usual fashion—rubbing hay on myself and spitting, which I recommend to anyone in a rush—put Apple in my pocket, and headed out to the plow.
That day, Mr. Gamble was in a mighty fine heat about what he said was the Orientals buying up land way up north to, as he said, “Drive American companies clean out of business and send the money back to their own damn countries.” So me, sweating from the plough, I say, “But Mr. Gamble, I ain’t ever seen you use a vehicle.”
“Yup,” he says, takin off his straw hat, wipin his forehead, and sippin from his green moonshine bottle he loves so much.
“Well why don’t you, Mr. Gamble?”
He stops walking in the field, so I stop, too. He turns to me real slow and says, “Cause you ain’t allowed off the farm, boy.”
Well, Apple, from his pocket, he tells me to ask him exactly why I ain’t. “Why not, Mr. Gamble?”
Mr. Gamble walks up to me and gets all close to my face. His breath smelled pretty rank. “You remember a while back when we was talking about sin?”
“You remember how we said the world was so full of sin that it right corrupted anyone who walked out of their rightful?”
“I just don’t want you to get sin in ya and have to go to a church.”
That was good enough for me, so I nodded, he started walking, and I dragged the plough through the dirt. A few times, while he was spreading seed, he almost chucked some right into my eyes. Looking back now, I know that he done it because I was asking questions more than I usually did, but of course, that was before I started learning about the world, so I just reckoned that he was getting in the drink and couldn’t right control where the seed was going. “Mr. Gamble?” I asked.
“When’s stuff supposed to come in? We’ve been doin this for months now, and we haven’t seen much in the way of anything come out of the ground.”
“It’ll come when it comes.”
“You think we should maybe just let the soil alone? Stop ploughin it, I mean.”
He turns around again. “You tryin to tell me how to farm, Cloyd?”
“Gosh no, Mr. Gamble. I was just thinking about this last night, and it’s like when Goat tries to go to sleep but I keep pokin him with my stick? He can’t right sleep when I keep pokin him. Maybe this is like that. You keep tossin stuff on the ground like that and it ain’t gonna do nothin on account of it getting angry at you like Goat was to me.” Course, I didn’t come up with none of that. It was Apple what thought of it. I told you he was smart.
“Cloyd,” Mr. Gamble says, “there are things you can’t understand. I gots to farm like this, cause if I get me a hefty crop, the government in Nashville will come after me with pitchforks, claimin that I’m keepin’ some of my earnings secret.”
“But you do that, anyway, Mr. Gamble.”
He takes a swig from his bottle and says, “Well hell, Cloyd, of course I do. But it’s a well known fact that the minute you start doing something honest, that’s when you get punished for all the stuff you done wrong before. That’s why you gotta keep being dishonest.”
I thought about asking him about whether that was the opposite of what Jesus said in the Bible, but thought better of it when I heard him start to hum some gospel.
Bout this time, Apple starts talking again. “Cloyd,” he says, “am I your friend?”
“Course you are, Apple,” I muttered, cause Mr. Gamble didn’t like me talking to Apple on account of he thought I was crazy.
“Would you believe me when I said something about Mr. Gamble?”
“Well, Apple, I reckon you’re smarter than he is even though he’s about eighty times your size.”
“Good. I want you to know that he is dead wrong. There are two things called Ethics and Social Responsibility that I will talk to you about when the time is right.”
I had to chuckle. “Aw shucks, Apple. Mr. Gamble already told me about that whole social responsibility thing.”
“And what did he tell you?”
“He told me that you got to watch out for yourself in this world, else you get run down by a sweet-talking city-boy what just wants to take your hard-earned earnings.”
“Cloyd, Mr. Gamble is what is called a troglodyte.”
“Gosh Apple,” I said, “I ain’t ever heard that word before. It sounds mighty impressive.”
“You will know what it means soon enough. Right now, though, you need to take a look behind you.”
So, since Apple was much smarter than I was, I looked around and I’ll be darned if there weren’t a Chinaman in the nicest get-up I’d ever seen stomping through the muddy field after Mr. Gamble and me. He wore one of them suits, a black one with a blue tie, and his pants were getting all dirty. I watched him for a few seconds and saw the most curious device in his hands: It was a little bigger than my hand, black, and looked as solid as a rock. “Hey Mr. Gamble,” I said, “there’s someone trekking up to see us.”
Mr. Gamble looked around and saw the man and right near growled. He walks all slow up to me and says, “Cloyd, I don’t want you to say a word less I address you presently.”
“I reckon I can manage that.”
Mr. Gamble nods and says to the man, “Well, well, well. First y’all take Hawaii and then you come fer the South.”
The man, who was now leaning up against the plough and looking sad down at his pants, said, “I don’t really know what you’re talking about, sir.” I’ll be darned if there weren’t the slightest hint of a Hong Kong accent in his voice. “The Japanese never actually took Hawaii, and I’m Chinese-American.”
“You correcting me, boy?” He reached down to a little glint down in the mud. I guess there was a shotgun buried right where he stood.
So the man, he waves his hand, smiles right nicely, and says, “Not at all. I think we got off on the wrong foot.” He stuck out his right hand. “I’m Richard Chang from the Census Bureau.”
Mr. Gamble groaned. “I thought I told y’all I didn’t want no part in your Census.”
Richard Chang, he prodded that little device and poked its glass bit a few times. “Well, it seems that with new legislation, we are required to asses the population of agriculture-based families in order to gain a proper sense of potential future legislation.” He looked up from his thingy and chuckled. “All very bureaucratic language, isn’t it, sir? I believe that it amounts to the state trying to figure out how many farmers there are in order to determine how to distribute federal aid.”
Mr. Gamble, he started scratchin his chin. “Aid, huh?”
“Yes, sir. Subsidies based upon your crop output. I’m to get some very basic information and then report back. You’ll be receiving a packet in the mail in a week or so that will require greater information.”
“Hmm,” says Mr. Gamble. “I don’t right know how I feel about this whole information gatherin thing. Sounds Communist to me.”
“I can assure you that this has been common practice since 1790, well before Communism proper began. Now: Your name is Mr. Lloyd Gamble, is it not?”
“How many people are in your immediate family?”
“Well, you got me an my wife. Had a son, but he went to Nashville to college, so he ain’t no son of mine no more.”
Richard Chang poked his contraption some more then looked right at me. He pointed at me. “What about him, sir?”
Mr. Gamble looks back at me. “Him? Hell, that’s Cloyd. He works the plow. Say hi, Cloyd.”
“Hi, Mr. Richard Chang!” I says, wavin and grinnin.
The government man cocks his eyebrow. “Is he not a member of your family?”
“Nah, I found him out in the woods one day. He ain’t much important. He’s just Cloyd. Lives out in the barn.”
“Okay. Cloyd Blank, then.” He stopped right after that and tilted his head to the side, like the dogs do when they hear me hollerin when I step on a rusty nail. “I’m sorry? He lives out in the barn?”
“Mmm-hmm. He likes it, don’t ya Cloyd?”
“Sure as peaches, I do! And I ain’t ever seen a peach, so that tells you how much I like it!” I says. And it were true. I did like the barn. When it got cold, there was plenty of animals for me to lay up against and when it were hot, I could take off all my clothes and weren’t no one to stop me.
“How old are you, Cloyd?”
“Well, Mr. Richard Chang, I don’t rightly know.”
“I don’t think I like you askin him questions directly,” says Mr. Gamble.
“And why is that, sir?”
“Gives him the thought that he’s a person. He just plows. Basically an ox.”
I don’t think I ever seen anyone twist up their face just like that man from the Census Bureau. It was almost like you do when you bite into a hunk of meat and a worm sticks its head out and says hi to you. “Sir, you can’t be serious. How old is that boy?”
“I don’t think I like you, son,” Mr. Gamble says, startin to squat and dig around for the shotgun in the dirt.
“Cloyd, how many winters can you remember?”
“Aw, that’s easy. I can remember about seventeen or so.”
“Mr. Gamble,” the man says, “this boy is probably twenty years old and you have him chained to a plough like an animal.”
Well, Mr. Gamble picks up the shotgun from the dirt, rips it out so that dirt showers out everywhere, and cocks it. “He’s nineteen. Now you get off my land before you have a hole in your forehead rightly wider than those slits you call your eyes, boy.”
Mr. Chang gulps and nods. He looks at me and there’s a sort of flash or something in his eyes and right then I felt that somethin just weren’t right. It weren’t that somethin weren’t right in my stomach, since I know that feelin, but like being tied to a plow weren’t right. But that didn’t make no sense, either, since that’s the way it’s always been and otherwise I wouldn’t be in that sort of thing if it weren’t right. Right after I thought that, my head started to hurt somethin fierce, so I winced and moaned. By the time I looked back up, Mr. Richard Chang was high-tailin it back to the front of the farm and Mr. Gamble was laughing to himself.
I heard a car start up and tear up the gravel out front and Mr. Gamble turns round to me. “Cloyd,” he said, “I want you to forget about that Oriental comin round here actin like he can tell you what to and not to think. He’s just one of them meddlers I been tellin you bout what wants to make everyone live in concrete slabs.” He takes a swig from his green bottle. “Ya ken?”
“Good.” He took another swig and looked out across the field. “Go take you a bath in the river. I’ll have the missus cook up some dinner as a treat.”
That was rare, right there. I never got a dinner cept when it was Christmas or Easter, and I didn’t think it was Easter, but I might have been wrong.