Thursday, January 23, 2014

Locally Grown

Locally Grown

Marty stood at the edge of the gully and spat. He watched the spittle launch into the dusty evening light, fall gracefully over the thick bank of overgrown bramble, and disappear, foamy and gelatinous, among the fourteen little goats that grazed among the kudzu below. The cluster of kudzu vines, strong and healthy, lush and green, undulated menacingly beneath the gaggle of pointy, mud stained hooves. Bald spots now peppered the once lush and overgrown gully, as the goats gorged themselves on the taught, leafy vines.

Goateed lawn mowers, Marty thought with a snort. Now I’ve seen everything.

The new town council had rented the goats from a farmer who lived out in the county in an effort to rid the gully of its present kudzu problem. The gully, located on town property, was the latest development project initiated by the new town council. For $600 a month, the goats would eat away at the pesky, invasive vine, thus erasing it from the zoning map, and the minds of new vacationers who found the site unsightly during their seasonal treks to their so-called “mountain cabins” actually located in the foothills of the Appalachians. Obviously, the old farmer was smarter than the new town council members, Marty mused, for any local knew that nothing could kill kudzu, not fire, herbicide, or tilling, and least of all a pack of gluttonous, wiry-haired goats. The kudzu was there before the town, and it would be there after the last strip mall was erected beneath the outskirts of old Market Street. Marty was happy that some country farmer was getting paid, but in his estimation, that was around $42 a goat. If you asked him, that money would be better suited to go towards something that would benefit other locals like himself, perhaps a scientifically engineered tacky tourist repellant.

Marty swatted at the mosquitoes and no-see-ums. He wiped sweat from his forehead and was careful not to drip on the front of his starched dress shirt. Stepping forward, he made sure not to touch the electric fence that trapped the goats in their leafy buffet. Instead, he shoved his hands into the pockets of his creased, khaki pants and fumbled with the orange plastic lighter he kept there for lighting romantic votive candles on tables at the bistro. It was one of the many required flourishes enforced by Todd—his new boss with the funny accent and smug chin—to dazzle the nightly array of bloated tourists who frequented the bistro in search of New South regional cuisine. The brochures promised an authentic, hospitably Southern experience. Marty wondered what a restaurateur from New Jersey could offer them that his mother’s former restaurant—a quaint “meat and three” known for its sweet tea and fried chicken—could not.

Marty continued to fumble with the lighter in his pocket.

I should just burn the entire pit down, he thought, but quickly stopped himself. That would only temporarily kill the kudzu. It would grow back, he reminded himself. It always did.

Something about this pleased him.

It was a natural guarantee, a horticultural rebellion against the unnatural, foreign developments he saw sprouting all around him and his hometown. Besides, then he’d have to see his brother Dwayne, the new fire chief, and then where would he be? Marty preferred to reserve their uncomfortable interactions for Sunday dinners at Granny’s nursing home. Their battles were best fought over the butter beans, not a kudzu pit.

The family restaurant had been bought out nearly a year ago to the day, but Marty couldn’t be too unhappy about it. His mother’s contract had secured him an assistant manager’s job for one year at the new establishment, and in receiving a hefty sum for selling her place— bistro chairs and all—she had been able to purchase her version of the American dream: a pink stucco house in central Florida, complete with a turquoise swimming pool and manatee shaped mail box. Mama had encouraged Marty to join her in Florida once his contract was up, but he was unsure.

“There are plenty of places to work down here,” she beamed over the telephone.

“Lots of restaurants, every chain you can think of. Shopping malls, too. Lots of business opportunities. And don’t forget about Disney, my boy.”

The thought of all that claustrophobic development made Marty shudder in his Timberland boots. He spit again and unscrewed the cap of his plastic Mountain Dew bottle, causing the pent up carbonation to release with a violent hiss. He took a swig and kicked at the pointy wooden handle of a picket sign deserted in the grass. Earlier in the day, a group of protesters had demonstrated along the roadside, holding signs and pumping fists and earnest, passionate chanting.

"No more Goats! No More Goats!” they had bellowed.

Throughout the day, the occasional rusty trucks driven by familiar faces and shiny, luxury SUV’s boasting unfamiliar license plates slowed down to survey the spectacle. Both bourgeois bikers and spandex-clad cyclists alike stopped their routine trips around the curvy local roads to stare in amazement.

According to the town paper, the protesters claimed that the goats “were not being properly watered.”

Marty found this expression amusing, as if the barnyard animals were a window box of exotic orchids or a row of precious tomato vines withering in a field. The irony was not lost on him that watering kudzu was also a bad idea. He also noted that the comfort level and state of these goats seemed to be more important than that of actual human townspeople.

Did anyone brandish a sign and defend his thirst level when Todd wouldn’t let him get away with so much as a nip off a warm Mountain Dew without hollering at him to get back to work? What about not being able to enjoy a morning’s French vanilla cappuccino at the gas station without a wide eyed tourist gruffly demanding directions to a place any local would know how to find?

Marty internal ranting blazed as he took another swig of neon green soda. The rusty squeak of the kitchen door caught his attention, and he turned to see Billy emerge, his hefty frame towering in the doorway with a bulbous bag of trash slung over his shoulder. He nodded to Marty, wiped his meaty hands on the front of his black and white checkered kitchen staff pants, and joined him by the electric fence.

“Gaddamighty,” he exclaimed as he dropped the squishy, odorous garbage bag onto the grass.
“Whattaday. The extra business we’re getting from this FFA freak show is liable to kill me.”

Marty nodded in agreement and watched a hefty goat dawdle across the bare spot in the kudzu in search of lusher leaves.

“Though the brass seems a tad mortified by it,” Billy added, and retrieved a pack of cigarettes from his barbecue stained apron. “But that’s ol’ Toad for ya.”

Marty snickered. Billy’s nickname for their new, uppity boss always tickled him.

“The hippies left yet?” Bill asked and pulled out a cigarette.

Marty nodded as he retrieved his orange lighter from his pocket.

“Earl and the other guys down at precinct calmed ‘em down after they brought over a trough and a garden hose,” Marty explained. “But then get this: somebody had the nerve to ask if the water was purified. Purified! Can you believe it?”

“Hell,” Billy quipped as he lit his cigarette and handed back the lighter. “These days I’ll believe just about anything.”

“Next thing you know, they’ll be asking for a lemon slice,” Marty grumbled.

“Hell, why not just make ‘em a batch of sweet tea. But don’t give ‘em ours. The kind Todd’s new chef friend from Atlanta has us making is so damn rancid I wouldn’t even give it to a goat!”

“It’s free trade,” Marty scoffed. The words felt foreign, poisonous, in his mouth.

“Whatever it is, it’s definitely not like your mama’s,” Billy added.

“And people have noticed,” Marty replied matter-of-factly, although he wasn’t sure how true this statement was anymore. “Locals, anyway,” he added softly.

Marty finished his Mountain Dew while Billy took long drags off his cigarette. Together, they stared at the goats and marveled at the never ending feeding frenzy. A few were clustered together in a particularly thick area of brush, while a few others dawdled around the areas that had recently been gnawed into oblivion. A few more goats slept beneath a quickly devoured shaded space by the fence. Marty watched one goat jump up repeatedly, its mouth clamped down tight in a tug of war struggle with a taut, veiny vine that would not break free.

Billy leaned over the gully and clucked his tongue. “Can you imagine what their milk must taste like after eating all this kudzu? Gaddamighty…”

“They’d prolly sell it over at the Nature’s Goddess Storehouse to tourists for $10 and say it was a local specialty,” Marty replied.

Billy pensively rubbed the stubble of his chin strap facial hair. “You know, I may just be a country boy,” he began, “but as I recall, goats were put on this planet to do two things: eat and shit.”

“Sounds like you,” Marty scoffed and eyed his friend with a wicked smile.

“Eat shit, Marty,” Billy lashed out defensively.

“Eat and shit, Bill,” Marty replied, and a smile spread across his suntanned cheeks.

“Hell, I ain’t no goat,” Billy said, laughing in response to Marty taunts.

“Smell like one,” Marty added, holding back a smile.

“Aw hell…” Billy trailed off. 

Marty found this slightly crude and juvenile rapport strangely comforting, and Billy was always a good sport about it. Billy slapped Marty on the back good naturedly, hoisted the bag of trash over his shoulder and headed toward the dumpster at the back of the parking lot.

“Better get done goat gawking before Toad blesses you out again,” Billy shouted.

“I should feed Toad to them goats,” Marty mumbled.

“If there’s on thing Toad ain’t, it’s purified,” Billy teased “Goat lover!” Billy quickly added before slamming the kitchen door, satisfied with getting the last word.

Marty’s smile faded. He crushed the plastic green bottle beneath his boot and kicked it into the gully. A fat, speckled goat greedily barreled over to investigate the newest gastronomic offering to the pit. Marty turned away as the goat nudged the flattened bottle with its nose. Marty squinted as the setting sun caused headlights to gleam across the roadside parking lot, as the slow parade of onlookers filed by to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. He shuffled toward the kitchen door. Suddenly, he found himself stop, turn on his heel, and head for his truck that sat parked diagonally from the kudzu pit. No sooner had he gotten his key in the door than he heard a familiar croak coming from the kitchen doorway.

“Martin,” Todd bellowed. “Where the hell have you been? We have collard green gazpacho and pimento cheese souffl├ęs to expedite, STAT.”

Marty looked at Toad and then back at the goats grazing in the kudzu. This time of year, the kudzu thrived in the humid, sunny climate of the Carolina foothills. It thrived all over the South. It was not native to the soil, but it had taken to it well, and noting could kill it. Over time, it had become a part of the natural southern landscape, enveloping telephone poles, gobbling up old barns, smothering rusty junk yards, and devouring any free gully or hillside that it felt free to claim. Slowly, stealthy, it choked the landscape, but overtime it became an endearing annoyance, an expectation to the locals.

“Boy, you deaf or what?” Toad’s voice grew more irritating with each slimy inflection and condescending squawk. “God you’s people are so slow sometimes…”

Marty raised his hand to his forehead in a feigned military reverence, and then turned his flattened hand into a middle finger salute to his seething, sweating employer. With that, he jumped in his truck and cranked the engine. To his delight, the radio had been left on, releasing a cathartic blast of old time rockabilly. It wasn’t a song he particularly liked, but it made its rebellious point. Toad stood horrified in the parking lot, shouting over the music for Marty to get back inside and make aluminum foil swans for the uneaten meals of tourists.

Marty quickly and gleefully backed up. In doing so, he not-so-accidentally ran into the pole holding up the electric fence. The fence came down with a crash, which caused a few onlookers to gasp. As Marty drove away, he noticed that several of the goats had escaped and scattered across the parking lot, but that many had stayed to chomp on their grand, bottomless kudzu salad, unaware that the fence was down. Marty wondered if some of them didn’t care.

Before he knew it, Marty found himself speeding down I-95, chasing the setting sun. As he twisted the top off of a fresh Mountain Dew, he thought about the goats that were hired to eat away the last patches of reality of his hometown, and decided that he would rather sacrifice himself to the New South in one grand swoop than stand around watching it be eaten away, kudzu patch by kudzu patch, by a bunch of hired, carpet bagging farm animals.

With that, he headed for Florida.



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