The Wandering Heart of Cornelius Klassen: Mennonite Cowboy

(Excerpts from a long poem inspired by the life of Cornelius Klassen, the author’s father-in-law, who was excommunicated from his Old Colony congregation in the Manitoba Colony, near Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico, in the early 1960s, for being a truck driver who bought and sold heavy equipment that had rubber tires).

Darp Mechanics: Seminole, Texas, 2008

Cornelius Klassen parked his pop-up trailer in his son’s backyard                

               after he was declared dead for the second time

on an operating table in El Paso, Texas, raised, like Christ,              

              ribs thrust upward as he gasped his first breath,

again. Popping open his kjnipse Hamd to reveal the incision              

              to his grandchildren. Skin stretched over

the thin metal box implanted just beneath the collar                

               bone. A machine, but not like the tractors he used

to haul on his semi over the mountains in Chihuahua. And air                

               compressors, diesel engines, anything second hand Dietchas

bought at auction. After he got the pacemaker put in, he couldn’t                

                 make any more bets with his social security checks. No more

scratch offs or pick six, beer or cigarettes, because he wasn’t allowed              

                   to drive anywhere (though his son kept tags on his ‘85 Cadillac,

no air in the tires, just in case he got better). Easy chair slumped,              

                  undershirt and boxer shorts. Not knowing his grandson

at the Farm Supply would have snuck him Mega Millions,                

                  Tall Boys and Swisher Sweets to share in the bag of Big

Macs he brought when he dropped by to recite Education                

                 of a Wandering Man. Lined across the spine. Pulp

westerns stacked on Cornelius’s nightstand. Stories that surprise              

                 like the sharp crack of a Winchester

and move like the lonely howl of the wind across                

                  an empty plain on the long ride home.

 

Darp Mechanics, Rebellion: Manitoba Colony, Mexico, Early 1960s

Katechismus: oder kurza und einfache Unterweisung, a brief

instruction for young people, in the form of questions

and answers. When a brother in the church has made

a misstep, how are they to be dealt with? Article 12

Of the Evangelischen Bann. Church discipline. Its withdrawal

and application. If he neglects to hear or lives in gross sin,

what should be done with such a person? The Lord Jesus

Christ gave to his church the keys of heaven to bind

and set free and commanded that all annoying

or vexing and disobedient members of the church should be

banned from his love and the church. In order to improve those

who have become separated from the church they must be kept

apart and shunned. In this way they will be ashamed, not

for destruction of the banned, but rather, for penance

and conversion of disgraced and crushed hearts. After he has

become truly penitent it is sufficient, that he was punished

by many. Kjnals, you better make sure you don’t come back

unless you’ve repented in front of the Je’meent and drive out

the Deiwel, the Old Colony Bishop snapped. Preachers and deacons

from the Darp nodded, hushed and unanimous, but fingers still

outstretched in his face, because he said he’d never stop. Driving

semi-trucks to make a living. The third person this year

and it’s only February. Otherwise, you’re going to hell. At least

that’s what they wrote on the paper. And spat

behind his back. Spatsearen in the feed store and the frutería.

Nehferein hisses and Freizeit whispers. Silent

visiting days and Sunday lunches. No Hoonsbrooden or warm

buns. Rhubarb jam, Kjnipsebrat or knocking

zoot. Sugar cubes or bitter coffee. Kjnals was

wiekjlerig. Too much for his own good. The Lord will hold him

accountable for what he knows. Somebody should have

snapped his will. A strong rod. A submissive child. Everyone knows

he’s selling tractors with rubber tires. He spent too much

time in Mexa shops and bars. Worldly women who left

their hair uncovered. His wife at home. Now it’s too late. He has gone

too far. Das geht zu weit, this rubber tire business. He didn’t

need to read it. Everyone already understood. En Kjokjebaun.

Excommunication. Thrust into his open fist.

 

Darp Mechanics, Rendezvous: El Paso, Texas, Late 1960s

Martha polished the bottom of the pitcher. Hips pressed

against the register. Metal hoops swinging as she whistled

at the cowboy nursing his last Tecate. At the end of the bar.

A regular. Small time pool hustler. Tapped his boot to jukebox

corridos. But didn’t dance when the banda played on Saturdays.

Slammed whiskey those nights instead. His face refracted

in the mirrors as he turned and walked toward her. Hey Güero,

¿porque hablas bien español? Balanced on the stool across from Jesus

peeking out her cleavage. He laughed. Nací en México. Vivía

allá en el otro lado por todo mi vida. Hasta ahora. No manches,

Güero. ¿De donde eres? No pareces mexicano. Tracing the ring

around his beer, he smiled. Sí, puro mexicano. Chihuauhense. ¡No

chinges güey! En serio. Soy de Cuauhtémoc. La tierra de los

menonitas. ¿Menonita? ¿Como los queseros? ¿En ovrol?

Sí, pero no soy quesero. Soy troquero. Y esta ropa me pones

mas guapo. ¿No? Shaking her bouffant she laughed. No pareces

menonita tampoco. ¿Si eres menonita porque estás aquí? ¿En un bar

en El Paso? His hat drooped and he tipped back his Tecate. Chewing

his lips. Es complicado. Martha touched her chin to the counter

and fingered the brim of his knock-off Stetson. ¿Como te llamas

Güero? Cornelio. Dime algo en alemán Cornelio. ¿Algo Dietsch fe’talen?

Du bas smokje Me’jal. Ne scheina Frü. ¿Que significa eso? Solo voy

a decirte si vienes conmigo. She smiled. Red and white beams splashed

against her eyelashes as he reached up and touched her cheek.

 

Darp Mechanics, Redacted: The Wilderness, 1971

Between Juarez and Villa Ahumada, Cornelius ran

out of gas. Again. Alone in his sleeper he watched honest

Abe get sucked into the Wicked Winnings

slot machine. Just one last time. Before he warmed up

the semi’s diesel engine. Logged his load and headed south

toward Cuauhtémoc. Toward crisp apples and warm

bread. Ten pairs of feet. Bare for the summer but soon

in stockings and boots for the harvest and hog boiling. Except

the pig pen was empty this year. Only a few old hens. Tired

mare struggling to pull the cart to Saturday market. No

noise on the CB until the next morning. Palm raised against

the sun. Scouting the expanse of asphalt in either direction

while mirages reverberated beneath the Sierra Madres ¿Adonde

vas hermano? El Paso. He waited. Thumb outstretched.

Hungry? Elmer’s Family Restaurant, serving you proudly

since 1959, still has the cheapest breakfast

in El Paso, $1.99. Eggs, bacon, sausage,

hotcakes and an endless cup of coffee. Bring

the family and come by for dinner to try

our fried chicken platter for only $4.99.

In the mood for something Mexican instead?

Our authentic enchiladas verdes have just the right

amount of spice. Whatever you choose, top it off

with our delicious apple pie and homemade vanilla

ice cream. Conveniently located next to the Econolodge

on Montana Street. Open late. Truckers always welcome.

 

Darp Mechanics, Resurrection: Manitoba Colony, Mexico, circa 2003

Cornelius’s brother, dressed in white, chips of ice packed beneath              

              his body, waiting, not able to rise until that day when Jesus

comes back to the campo. Watching water drip from the end                

              of the coffin, he fingers his excommunication

papers in his pocket. The Darp is different now. Mumkjes gossip                

              on cell phones, Mejalles jump on trampolines and preachers

drive power stroke diesels. Restaurante La Sierra Thiessen se vende                

             pizza estilo Menonita. Talleres almost every kilometre. Tractopartes

Dyck. Maquinarias Friesen. Refacciones Guillermo Peters. Centro                

             de Servicios Fehr. Yonke de Neufeld. Ferretería Casa

Rempel. Autos Seminuevos Loewen. Industrias Reimer. Llantera              

             Klassen. Now some young men have even started to work

for narco-traffickers. Cash money. American dollars. Fat pockets don’t come                

             from driving trucks or tractors. Two Dietchas tried to unload

a truck full of dope at Cornelius’s shop in El Paso. But he shouted, If you don’t                

             get those drugs off my property, I’m going to call the cops. It’s just

business, Kjnals. Don’t you want to make money? Cornelius spat. Yes,              

             lots of money, but a very short life. Don’t be afraid

of honest work. I already told your boss no. I don’t want to see                

              you here again. At Faspa after the funeral

his sister whispers, Kjnals you should try to get your excommunication                

               removed. That way when you die you’ll be, in seelich Soawen,

a state of grace. Exiled. Deported. Excommunicated. Mennonites are                

               like ants. We always find the cracks and crawl back up.

 

Darp Mechanics, Redux: El Paso, Texas, 2007

Cornelius looks up and sees his roof strained under

the weight of a few raindrops that he catches with five

or six metal buckets inside the house. No wonder

Martha left after his second heart attack, taking

all her Vicente Fernandez records, George Jones

eight tracks, Tigres del Norte cassettes. Even before

she moved in with her daughter, he played solitaire

down at Border Machinery. Middle-Aged Mennonite

men deal with all the heavy equipment now. Darp mechanics

and businessmen raised up by their fathers to drive

truck. He sold them his last machines to pay off

his gambling debts. Before he lost another accordion

and ten thousand in Vegas. Cash from his brother to start

a new business. They let him hang around. Slurping

coffee and smashing cigarette butts. He fingers the machine

under his skin and presses his hearing aid against the receiver.

 

Translations of Spanish expressions, in order of appearance:

Why do you speak such good Spanish?

I was born in Mexico and I lived there my whole life. Until now.

Stop messing around. Where are you from? You don’t look Mexican.

Yes, pure Mexican. From Chihuahua.

Are you f—ing with me? Seriously, I’m from Cuauhtémoc. Land of the Mennonites.

Mennonites? Like the cheese makers? In overalls?

Yes, but I’m not a cheese maker. I’m a truck driver. I’m much more handsome in these clothes, don’t you think?

Well, you don’t look like a Mennonite either. If you’re a Mennonite what are you doing here in a bar in El Paso?

It’s complicated.

What’s your name?

Say something to me in German.

What does that mean?

I’ll only tell you if you come with me.

Where are you going, brother?

Sells pizza Mennonite style.

Mechanic shops

Dyck’s Tractor Parts

Friesen’s Machine Shop

Guillermo Peters’s Parts Shop

Fehr’s Service Center

Neufeld’s Junkyard

Rempel’s Hardware House

Loewen’s Used Cars

Reimer Industries

Klassen’s Tire Shop