The Reintroduction of Kate Wolf
Whole Earth Review
J. D. Smith
Five years before Kate Wolf died of leukemia, I was forty years old, living in a hired
man's shack with an open pint of Jim Beam and a Martin guitar which I could not chord. In
the haughty hills of Marin County, big productive Holstein cows were being branded on
their faces and sold for slaughter. The USDA had determined that there was a surplus of
milk on this planet.
I was working for a woman who owned just a little too much of northern California. The
toughest parts of the job were disposing of a thousand dollars cash money every month and
suppressing the desire to strangle peacocks. I was wearing out my bootsoles walking around
pool tables. I believed that old drunks spoke the truth.
One Sunday morning came down awfully hard. I awoke with a flash of energy as the last
of the double shots and slow dances blew through my nerve endings, then, five minutes
later, the goddess of excess smote me behind the right ear with a splitting maul, and I
crawled back into my flannel bed with the Sunday Chronicle. In it was a small panel
advertisement announcing that, on that day, there was to be held in Cotati a healing fair,
with Mimi Farina and Kate Wolf providing the tunes. Two bucks. Cheaper than church. I did
need the healing. I fired up Red-haired Nancy, the Ford stock truck and rolled down into
the flatlands above the Bay.
Mimi sang in semitongues of neoChristian joy. Kate Wolf sang of dirt and love and hands
and feathers and honest eyes and freedom lost and found. Kate sang of the bunkhouse soul.
I sucked at her voice. I jerked down my hat against the sun and studied her breasts. I was
healed. I simply had to change my ways.
It took four sober bunkhouse nights to compose a letter of courtship to Kate Wolf. I
told it all. I told of learning whiskey in the morning in the milkhouse from my Uncle
Mart, and how he died in the morning pitching hay to the horses. I told of poaching a deer
on the Pine Ridge Reservation on my wedding night and of the sweaty terror of a rotting
marriage. I told of months of imaginary chess games with Harley McGhee, through the iron
wall, in the next cell, the man without a tongue. I professed an admiration for her very
essence, and promised that if she ever needed anything, she had only to think my name and
I'd be there to help.
The bosswoman flaunted a smokey intuition. She was sure that Kate Wolf lived in
Berkeley. I laid all my whiskey need before a directory assistance operator, and he
granted me the address for Kate Wolf, in Berkeley. I whispered to the stamps as I licked
I spent a week of afternoons fixing fence within sight of the mailbox, every night
fighting the urge to shoot nineball and play Indian eyef*ck with the barmaids, until,
finally a legal-size envelope arrived for me, from Kate Wolf, in Berkeley. I squatted in
the red dirt beside the road and smelled the letter carefully before opening it.
Dear Mr. Smith,
Thank you so much for the letter.
You have led a very interesting life,
and you seem to be a very kind man.
I must confess to you, though, that I
am not the Kate Wolf who sings.
I am Kate Wolf, the nurse.
If, on the other hand, the Kate Wolf who sings
is getting these kinds of letters,
I intend to learn how to play the guitar.
She enclosed my original letter. I went to the bar when I should've gone to Berkeley.
But Kate Wolf's music continued to heal me. I learned the words and the chords to
"Green Eyes." I began to care whether I died in a barroom toilet. I drank the
whiskey stash on my mud porch dry, then didn't replace it. I washed my truck. When Kate
Wolf played the community center in Petaluma I sat with my toes curled in my boots.
Afterward I stood at the periphery of fans until it was my turn to shake her hand, and I
told her the story of the mistaken identity, and delivered the letter. She read it there
on the basketball court, patting her foot in three-quarter time. She smelled of lemon
grass. When she finished the reading she folded the letter into the pocket of her skirt,
then wrote her mailing address on the envelope and handed it to me. "Write to me
more, from Idaho." She winked.
Kate Wolf, the singer, and I became the best of pen pals. When her bone marrow
transplant failed we were discussing the perfect Koolaid mustache. This planet needs a
whole lot more milk like her.