Starlings by Joseph Johnson


Joseph Johnson is an instructor at Central Washington University and Big Bend Community College where he teaches English and religion. He lives in Ellensburg, a small town in the very center of Washington state, with his wife and three children.

Editor's Choice (Matthew) - 2012 Raymond Carver Contest


“It’s not that I’m prejudiced or anything,” says Carl, like I’ll believe it. “It’s just the Mexicans—the ones here illegally, I mean, there’s lots of ’em who came here the right way—they’re killing the place. Have been for years.”

I nod. I don’t mean it, and since we’re alone in Carl’s kitchen, colleagues and Chicanos will never know my complicit racism. Nodding is the polite thing to do. It’s a tactic.

Carl’s a massive man. It doesn’t matter that I’m a lawyer, aware of the legal definition of assault. Carl’s a bear, a beast with arms that could fell trees, and he’s the law in this kitchen. I try to concentrate on the signs of weakness: the ring of receded gray-blond hair, the shabby denim overalls, the waxy skin. This man’s as old as my grandfather, and grandpa wheezes walking to the bathroom.

“It’s the government and how it pays them to come up here. They just keep taking from hardworking Americans,” he says.

“The government or the Mexicans?”

“Both.” Carl pauses, pleased with his answer. “Yeah, both. It’s like the government—it just keeps taking money—wants Mexicans to come here so there’s something to spend money on, something for the government to raise taxes for. And the Mexicans, hell, I don’t blame ’em, but they come up here to get it. And they put their kids in school—and they don’t even speak English—and we pay for that, too, then apologize for not speaking Spanish.”

I’m nodding again. Adult men shouldn’t be this spineless. I’m nodding, agreeing, with this dumb old farmer—this balding, bumbling man who gets his politics from talk radio.

 “One of these days, the Mexicans are gonna want more. They’re gonna ask for my trucks or the orchard or the house, and the government will just say, ‘Take it, señor. Anything else you want? Anything else taxpayers can give you?’”

“Do you really think that?”

Carl’s bottom lip drops, moved by my incredulity. Carl points out the window, toward the trees. “When my granddad grew this orchard, kids like me picked everything. Hell, the day I finished third grade, my dad had me out here. First it was cherries, then apples. We worked all summer. And not just me. It was my friends at school, and that’s just how it was. No one complained about it, and there’s no one saying things should be this way or that way. It was just life.”

I try to imagine boy Carl scaling ladders, pocketing the biggest cherries for later. Boy Carl wears the same overalls, has the same gut, but is topped with a mess of summer-blonde hair.

“My dad said things changed with the Mexicans. He said if we weren’t careful, one of the Mexicans would fall off a ladder and then some college kid from Seattle, who came here to make a name for himself, that college kid’d sue us. Maybe some kid like you. Would you do that? Take the orchard and give it to the Mexicans?”

I stop nodding. “Did that ever happen?” I ask.

“Might as well. Now all the pickers are Mexicans and all the foremen are Mexicans, and my grandson grew up with all the Mexican kids. Who knows if they’re legal or not? I’d get arrested just asking. Hell, between the Mexican girls and his phone, my boy’s kid isn’t good for farming. He just wants to play video games and go to college and text or email or whatever garbage he does on that phone. So the Mexicans are the only ones that even want the farm anymore.”



“Ironic. Strange turn of events,” I say. “Maybe you have more in common with the Mexicans that you do with your own son.”

Grandson. My son’s dead. It’s my grandson. We’ve been raisin’ him since my boy died.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I say.

“And I know what irony is,” says Carl. “I went to college. I read Faulkner and that other guy, the fisherman.”


“Hemingway. So I get irony. And, no,” he says, “it’s not ironic. It’s not funny. It’s just the way of the world, and, hell, my granddad always said Jesus would return before the world got like this.” 

The table top is an inch of worn white oak. I rub my hands across it, wishing for it to transfer wisdom, telling me what words to use. It gives me nothing. I’m left with, “Mr. Woods, you know why I’m here, right?”

“Carl,” he says. “You can call me Carl.” He rises from his chair, walks to the orange-crème Formica counter, and pours coffee. “You sure you don’t want any? It’s good. Not the Starbuck stuffs—if you can stomach that sugar water. This is real coffee.”

“No, thanks.”

“Suit yourself.”

The percolating glass-bulb coffee pot, the doilies, the “icebox” belong to another time. Carl himself, with his Teddy Roosevelt mustache, is a walking relic worthy of museum preservation. The display plaque would read, “Racist, Right-wing, Rural American Romanticizer.”

“I know why you’re here, and I think it’s a waste of everyone’s time,” he says. “This land belongs to us and it needs to be farmed. God designed it to be farmed. He took out the rocks. He gave us the sun and the river. It’s all meant to be farmed, and, believe it or not, I’d rather have trucks stuffed with illegals driving cross this land, jumping through my family’s trees, than socialist liberals plowing it to the ground and covering it with concrete—no offense.”

I wave my hand across my chest, shake my head, and jut my bottom lip. “None taken,” I say, but I’m always offended by ignorance.

“This is orchard land. It grows, and putting up houses or a McDonald’s or some shopping center—or whatever you folks want to do with it—ain’t good and ain’t gonna’ happen if I can stop it.”

I consider quoting Joni Mitchell—“pave paradise and put up a parkin’ lot”—but I doubt Carl will accept sympathy from a Canadian folk singer. Instead, I say, “So, we’re at an impasse.”

“You could say that.”

“And there’s nothing I can do to change your mind.”

“Can’t think of anything.”

“This isn’t a threat,” I say. “I’m not going to try any hard sell, but you know it’s a matter of time. The Thompsons sold. The Shrivers sold. In five years, your orchard will be an island.”

“My orchard’s already an island, Mr. Beckley.”

“Steven,” I say.

“Alright. My orchard’s already an island, Steven, and I’m an island, and I don’t care what some poet says—a man can be an island. But the island’s all I got, and there’s lots of islands. And we know where each other is.”

My neck stiffens. I want to record this conversation. “Do you mean a network, like a militia?”

Something like a smile settles beneath Carl’s mustache. “For all your school you don’t know much.” Carl pulls out his chair and sits, then leans over the table so we’re almost eye level. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying in your head, ‘This Woods guy, he’s got a bomb shelter and three years worth of beans and ammunition.’ I know those people. Maybe they got a point. Maybe they’re just like Jefferson and Revere and all those men who fought for this country. But that’s not what I’m talking about, and I don’t think you’d get it if I told you.”

I hadn’t thought him the bomb shelter kind before, but now I envision books about the Rapture, Jesus returning in the clouds and planes falling from the sky. Maybe Carl Woods hid gold bars across his farm. Maybe he has an arsenal of unregistered automatic weapons.

“Mr. Woods,” I say.


“Carl,” I say. “I don’t think any of those things, and even if I did—even if they were true—that doesn’t mean anything to me. I figure, as long as the law says it’s fine to keep a shelter and weapons, then what business of it is mine, right?”

“It is your business Mr. Beckley.”


“All of this is your business, Steven. It’s your business to care about this country or this land, or what happens to this land if I’m not on it. You see, we grow food here. And when you put an Olive Garden or a Taco Bell where this orchard is, well, you got a problem. See that restaurant doesn’t have any food if you don’t have orchards and farms. Food isn’t something you can make without land, and if you take this land, you take the food. Now, I may not be sensitive. Hell, I may not be a person you like much….”

“I think you seem like a good man.”

“And I think you’re a bad liar, but that don’t matter. You think you’re not doing any harm.” He stands, lifting his arms like a grizzly about to swipe a salmon.

“You ever grow food?” he asks. “You ever plant something, pray over it, watch it come out of the dirt? You ever water it, trim it back, set oil lanterns at three in the mornin’ so it don’t get too cold?”

I shrug.

“I do that. I beg God for snow in the winter and sun in the summer. I do that so folks like you can have cherries when they want ’em. And I’m glad people like cherries. Hell, the more cherries you put in your ice cream, the better. We put nets up and tinsel and we chase away birds, those damned starlings. Sometimes, I pull out my .22 and I shoot at those birds. Of course that bothers some people. Probably bothers you. I hear them. They say, ‘Oh, how can you shoot at starlings?’ And I just tell ’em, ‘Starlings don’t belong here, and farmers know that it comes down to starlings or cherries.’”

“Birds don’t belong on trees?”

“Not birds. Starlings.”

“What’s the difference?” I ask.

“You take any Shakespeare when you were at college?”

“A semester.”

“And you don’t know about starlings?”

“I know what starlings are.”

“That’s not what I mean. See, starlings don’t belong here. They’re immigrants, brought here by Shakespeare lovers in England. They thought, ‘Shakespeare talks about starlings and starlings are so pretty, we ought to bring ’em to America.’”

“That’s interesting.”

“And that’s what you are—and the folks you work for,” he says. “And that’s what these other folks around here are.”

“I’m a starling?”

“Yes, you’re a starling. You’re a bird that flies in here and you see my trees and you think, ‘I’m gonna swing down there and get the fruit I didn’t plant, the fruit that I didn’t warm or keep dry. I’m just gonna fly down there and poke at those cherries and get drunk on ’em and not pay anything.’ And then you think, once you’re all full, ‘Now I’ll fly off and look for more cherries.’”

I don’t usually hate people. I think people are reasonable and deserve understanding. But I hate Carl Woods. Most people, like the Thompsons and the Shrivers, see change coming and they don’t like it, but they know it’s coming and it’s nobody’s fault. But this dumb beast, he thinks it’s my fault. He thinks there’s a conspiracy and that we’re all in on it: me, Starbucks, the government, the Mexicans, the birds.

“You sure you don’t want some coffee?” Carl asks, lifting the tin kettle before staring back out his window.

“No, Mr. Woods, I think I’ve taken enough of your time.” I reach down, grab my attaché case, the one with a laptop and a contract waiting for a signature that won’t come, not from Carl.

Carl walks ahead of me. He twists the old door knob, some brass and glass fixture that I see in all these old houses, but never in a store.

“You tell your bosses that you tried, but there isn’t anything they got that I want.”

“I’ll tell them that,” I say. I reach out my hand, and Carl covers it with his paws. I’m eight again, shaking hands with my father, with some mass of masculinity that I never became. I didn’t like the man, but almost felt sorry for him. It was in the dryness of his voice and in the black around his eyes. He’s fighting something he can’t beat.

In a few years, two at the most, he won’t be able to work his orchard. In three, it will be in his grandson’s hands, and that kid will sell it. He won’t see it as an orchard or a history or a trust. He’ll see the investment, the cash. He will be reasonable, and he’ll trade Carl’s orchard for financial freedom, a new car, and an excuse to leave this dinky farm in this forgotten town. He’ll fly away and never see these trees again.