Robert Day is a cowboy from Kansas hiding out on the Eastern Shore. He owns a crabbing boat made out of cypress, with a raunchy old Briggs and Stratton engine in it, and on wan summer nights he can be heard crying up and down the Chester River, like some crazed Popeye, "COWBOYS IN A BOAT! COWBOYS IN A BOAT!" It is a kind of fusillade to himself and four-bell warning to everybody else. When Robert Day gets his bateau away from the dock, watermen applaud.
He walks in a slouch on the outside of his boots. Owns a guitar, but he can't play it a lick. Doesn't have a wife. Has a horse and saddle, but they're back in Kansas, on his friend Ward Sullivan's ranch. Over his fireplace is a giant sepia print of somebody named Poker Alice. She was from Deadwood and packed heavy iron.
His greasy baseball cap, which he is inclined to wear slanchwise, has this on the crown: Buffalo Inn, Eskridge, Kansas.
His companion is a huge black dog named Amos. Amos is forever trying to eat his master's tennis shoe. "I have this damned Labrador retriever--Amos, get in the basement!--who thinks he can wander around here with my shoe in his mouth. Hemingway gave us this idea that a writer spends all his time banging away at bulls and firing off rounds at critics, though me, I spend most of my time looking for a tennis shoe. Amos, where the hell are you?"
He says this stumbling and mumbling around his living room in a pair of ripped maroon shorts and a T-shirt that proclaims: "A Major Regional Author of a Minor National Classic." He is trying to collect himself for a car ride.
His car has California plates, and it's a decrepit old thing. Actually, it's his daddy's car. He owned a car once and despised every minute of it. Damn thing would never start or stop when he wanted, so he sold it and put the money in the bank and told a florist to send him $15 worth of flowers every month. That was the interest he was making. The cowboy is mad for flowers. He'll stop by the side of the road to pick them. "We'll get some tiger lilies today," he says.
He also says this: "I was going to cook you a quiche, but I didn't get around to it. Out at the ranch I have to call it an egg pie. I once wrote a story called 'Speaking French in Kansas.' After they read it, my Kansas friends said, 'Oh, we speak French here: restaurant, Chevrolet.' "
In real life, that is to say moneymaking life, 41-year-old Robert Day is a teacher of creative writing at tiny, historic Washington College (800 students, English faculty of seven), in tiny, historic Chestertown, Md. He has done much over the past decade to establish a literary climate at an Eastern Shore liberal arts school that George Washington himself helped found a couple hundred years ago with a gift of 50 guineas. People like Gwendolyn Brooks and Stephen Spender have been to campus to read their poetry. Students get inspired, and the next day they'll hang around in Day's office for hours. The teach's office is rickety and woody and crammed with books and has a red leather sofa that has lost its springs. For a writer, Day is awfully gregarious.
Come this winter, the cowboy writer who has run aground in oysterman's country will sojourn in the wine districts of Italy on a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship. "I want to see what my characters are drinking."
Later this summer, out in Kansas, Hollywood will begin shooting its vision of Day's first novel, published six years ago to modest sales and huzzahs. The novel is titled "The Last Cattle Drive," and is about a herd of steers crashing through traffic in downtown Kansas City. (The cattle crash is scheduled to happen in Topeka rather than K.C.) It is a modern, profane western, something like the man who created it. Supposedly, there are people in Kansas who gather at bars and read parts of it aloud, much as Joyce lovers convene lovingly to read "Finnegans Wake." Only Joyce's book is still in print.
The Hollywood version of Day's novel is titled "Road Show" and will star Jack Nicholson and Tim Hutton and, according to gossip items, Debra Winger. (Cher was scheduled for the part at one point.) Like a lot of Hollywood projects, this one is veined with a history of ribald screw-ups. Counting all the option renewals, Day figures he has made $50,000, tops, from film folk. Of course, his friends now tell him he should have made half a million off the sale.
Day's second novel has been these many years aborning (there was a novella published several years ago in Kansas), though the end may now be in sight. This summer he's running it once more through his IBM Selectric. "People have stood up in the back of rooms where I've given readings and said, 'Yes, but what about your second book . . .?' At some level, I may not even be a writer because I've had no real sense of panic about it. It gets out when it gets out." The second work is titled "I Am in California" and is about the pope, Studebakers, television, Frisbees, Knute Rockne and some other things. Mostly, you suspect, it's about Kansas.
Kansas is Robert Day's literary country. He had to leave it to discover that. As a state it's not the most fertile fictional place imaginable, but it's his. He's chained to it, even as Joyce in his exile was chained ever to Dublin, even as Faulkner could never get a mile outside of his imagined Yoknapatawpha County. Not that Day would put himself in their league. Still, the myth of the cowboy is grainy material, and the cowboy was from Kansas, among other places. The real American cowboy had a short-lived reign--from only 1865 to 1885. Bad winters and the railroads killed off his work. And yet we still dine out on the dream. It is our single greatest legend and lie.
It takes him three years of college teaching, Day says, to save up enough money to get back to Kansas and work on a ranch for a season. The ranch he works on is near Hays, out in the wind, and has white face beef cattle and good water. It's all fenced and they cut a lot of prairie hay. "Course the price of cattle has gone all to hell now, you know." This comes out suddenly sad, not comic, just as does a later offhand admission that he was married once. "Wasn't a success at marriage," he says, wagging his head.
Ward Sullivan, who owns the ranch, is a kind of literary man himself. "He's read 'Moby Dick' 18 times. Thinks that's the only great book there is." Day worked for Sullivan for five years. One year they rebuilt the front yard after a tornado went through.
"I grew up in Kansas and was at first bored by it, and so I began to invent it as a more exciting place," Day said a while ago in a Kansas literary journal called the Cottonwood Review. "Then I jumped into my invention and started the motor and flew away."
But literary invention hinges on memory, on the past played off against the all-mingling present. In Day's fictive country, nature rolls at you like a boulder. Kansas is a place of hard men after hard reward. "I had never been in a place where the weather had so much to do with the lives of the people who worked," he wrote in "The Last Cattle Drive." "The wind is vicious and people have been driven mad by its speed and constancy. It makes you paranoid, thinking there is something you didn't do, a gate you didn't close right, a barn door not latched properly that will beat itself to pieces in the wind."
Of the mild anomaly of his living here in this small, wet province of marsh and salt air, the cowboy of the Chesapeake says: "Oh, heck, you just learn to be a crabber. You just go out and do it. Though some don't want to do it. I don't know what to do about them."
He is piloting the car with the California plates through the baking flats of Kent County, arm out the window, hat on crooked, radio jangling, one story jumping right on to the next. "This is the Road to Rock Hall," he says with the air of an expert. "That's all anybody ever calls it, the Road to Rock Hall. I don't know that anybody's actually ever gone to Rock Hall."
His mission this afternoon is the purchase of some lights and fuses for his crabbing boat. He also wants to get some blue spray paint to dress up the rancid engine that sticks up through the middle of the boat and putt-putts him up the river at 2 1/2 knots.
It is sleepy and shimmery-hot. Trucks creep by in the haze, lugging outboards and gas cans and crates of crabs and also tobacco-plugged, overalled men. The corn is belt-high. This feels like Erskine Caldwell country, not Michener or John Barth or Robert Day country.
How did he first find the Eastern Shore?
"Actually, I think it found me. I came in maybe '69 or '70, not sure. I'd earned a pilot's license at the University of Kansas and had cropdusted some and I guess I was trying to make a couple decisions. I was thinking about being a rancher, which probably meant I'd have to settle down in Kansas for the rest of my life. By the way, I have a friend, Perry Schwartz, who was so damn glad to get out of the state that he opened a bottle of champagne when he hit the Missouri border. Made his wife get out and unpack a card table and set up drinks for two right there on the side of the highway. But that's not me. I love to go back. I still have a cabin in Kansas, all my tools.
"Anyway, I had graduated from the university at Lawrence and then saw something on a board about a writing fellowship at the University of Arkansas. I applied for it and got it and one day while I was at Arkansas the chairman of the English Department at Washington College calls up. This was Norman James, dead now, God rest him. I just happened to pick up the phone. He said, 'I need a writer.' I said, 'You got one.' I didn't even know where the hell the Eastern Shore, let alone Washington College, was.
"I got the poet Donald Justice to recommend me. He said, 'Well, Day is not a bad poet, he's not a bad novelist'--meaning he really hadn't read any of my fiction and he thought my poetry stunk--'but I tell you, sir, he was one helluva baseball pitcher before his arm went dead.' "
The story has gone over biggest with the teller himself. It strikes him as unbearably funny. Maybe it's true, and maybe it's sort of true. This is a man in the business of making up the truth, after all. When Robert Day allows as how he's a cowboy, you get the feeling it's more a cowboy of the mind than the real riding, roping, steering thing.
He wheels the car into the parking lot of a marine store, haunches himself out into the heat. "Thought you were going to come in," says a lady behind the counter, not looking up, swatting flies laconically. What she means is she wondered if he was going to drive the car right through her front door. You get the idea she wouldn't have moved much.
He buys the parts, grousing at the price ($35), takes over the wheel again. "You know what that reminds me of?" he says, putting a comic grin on a fine rage. "I once bought a stockman's saddle at Shepler's Western Wear in Wichita. The regular price was $500 and the clerk said he'd let me have it for $400. And you know why? They were discontinuing it and putting in these gaudy rhinestudded affairs that cost $1,200. Now this was the classic stockman's saddle and they were gonna discontinue it because of what the traffic would bear. I figured I had to have this saddle before I disappeared from the face of the earth.
"Well, don't you see, the same kind of thing's happening on the Eastern Shore. The Annapolis chiropractor comes out on the weekend with his 65-foot yacht and suddenly you can't buy some puny lights and fuses at a marine store without spending $35. I can't claim to have worked the water very hard, but some of these fishermen are now putting their boats together at the beginning of the season with car parts and old lights because they can't afford to go into the local marine store anymore.
"At least that's my theory this afternoon. I'll probably have a new one by morning."
He has hit Piney Neck, the dock where he keeps his boat. The place is run by Stanley Vansant, Eastern Shore legend, a nonpareil "eyeball" carpenter who's been making flat-bottomed cypress boats longer than anybody can say. Vansant won't make you a boat, but if he happens to have one in his shop he might sell it to you. Tools and half-built bateaux are everywhere you look; the place has a kind of pleasant, falling-down, Steinbeckian feel. This could be Cannery Row.
"Yeah, Stanley's place is a watery equivalent of the ranch," Day says, looking around happily. Just then Stanley himself makes an appearance from out of an old house protruding precariously to the water. He is all dressed up. Going to town today for a haircut.
The next 90 minutes are spent knocking around the boat with pliers (employed as a hammer), with spray paint (which cuts a wider spraying arc than just the engine), with screwdrivers--but is anything getting done? "I'm trying to run this sunovabitch through here," he says, his face contorted in concentration.
"I live two lives, you might say. When I'm at the ranch I have all these tools, and on the East Coast I don't have a tool, not one. I guess I don't want it. Sometimes I have this fantasy I'm sitting in the middle of a Bloomingdale's living room. No wood stoves around, everything's clean."
This reminds him of something else. "You know my dad used to work for TWA and we could go anywhere on pass. I had this little card in my wallet and all you had to do was show up. For a time I had this girlfriend and I'd meet her in Athens. That's Greece. Once I was so broke I flew first class from Athens to Frankfurt just so I could eat."
Havoc and chaos, you might say. Or is it all done with mirrors? How do Robert Day's finely wrought words get onto a blank page? Certainly not with this kind of offhand banging around (although there is, he admits, a tendency to be too facile in his writing, and he must fight constantly against it). And, what's more, how does a noble savage from the prairies make it in a tiny Eastern town that George Washington used to ride through on his way to Philadelphia?
"Ha. You know what we do for entertainment around here? Watch the cold front come in down at the river. Oh, sure, living here breeds a kind of social awkwardness among us, seeing the same faculty faces three nights out of five at a poetry reading or concert or art opening. I'm sure we'd all long to go to a Juilliard opening where we'd meet a strange and tall and mysterious young woman."
Day has a friend who lives in Washington, and he ducks over every six weeks or so to sleep on his couch and hit movies and museums. Then he's ready to go back.
"The two things that are most important to me in life are my teaching and my writing. This summer we're having 50 of the best high school writers in Maryland come to campus. They'll be here for two weeks, a kind of Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. The thing I respect so much about this college is its commitment to liberal arts. Look, the college has been around 200 years, but liberal education has been around for 2,000 years. I'm honored to be here. My sense of it is that my own education may lack a certain rigor. I teach amid PhD's from Princeton, Harvard, Yale. What I'm trying to offer is my own sense of what it means to be a writer, somebody committed to putting words on paper. Nabokov, I think, made some remark about his novels being like ghosts around his house on a hazy summer afternoon. Well, we've got some of that going here."
In the evening, with the sun hanging huge and orange on the mouth of Langford Creek, Robert Day guides his ungainly white wooden boat out into open water, past osprey nests and duck blinds. With him are a friend named Kathy and an economics teacher from the college named Mike. In the middle distance is an Eastern Shore farm, its smooth green fields rolling to the river's edge. He's not going for crab this evening, just a picnic supper on the pond-still water, which, in a way, reminds him of home. Home is a far, far place.
"Cowboys in a boat!" he sings triumphantly, standing astern, squinting and strutting into the light. "Hey, you're recording that we don't know what we're doing!"
This is more or less true. Doesn't faze. "You know," he says, the Popeye grin up, "I think what I'm doing is an historical reverse. Stephen Crane used nautical language in his story 'The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.' I once saw a biography of Jack London called 'Sailor on Horseback.' The tradition has always gone the other way--the seaman wants to be a cowboy. I've just turned the damn thing around. I'm here. And I'm sailing."