Reviewing the Mule

We’re starting out 2019 early with a new format style on the Dead Mule. January is going to be a bit tough to get online but we’ll do it! If you notice any changes that “don’t look or work right” please let us know on our Facebook page.

We’ve been scouring the Library of Congress website for great photos. 

In Submittable, we’re having trouble with the calendar. Our bad, not theirs. Please bear with us as we wrestle with our difficulties and if you are scheduled for January and don’t appear on the Mule by the 5th of the month, please let us know on the aforementioned Facebook page. Or you can contact us via your submission on Submittable.

Life with the Mule has been very rewarding. Yes, we have truly been online since 1996. We feel this gives us a certain air of distinction. We love our Southern Legitimacy Statements and feel that they, alone, would make for a wonderful website. We’re going to try to read through some of the best and brightest and publish a “category” of Southern Legitimacy Statements. You’ll love it!

Onward and upward. Please enjoy the December 2018 issue of the Mule and read our archives. There’s some swell stuff in here!

Sincerely,
Valerie MacEwan
Editor
C. L. Bledsoe
Assistant Editor


Greg Stidham: Poetry Dec. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Dear Ms. MacEwan, I should not feel the need to apologize for living now in Ontario, for your name suggests first generation roots in Scotland, or at least Nova Scotia. My claim to a southern heritage comes from growing up early outside Atlanta before it became a “real” city (i.e., before “Underground Atlanta” and the Falcons) when I was around age 7, for about five years. Then, when I got my first “real” job, it was in Memphis, where I lived for 28 years, absorbing all the while much of the good, and admittedly some of the bad, of a southern legacy. I am a meagerly published poet and author of short fiction and creative non-fiction.

MY INFO: Greg Stidham is a retired pediatric intensivist (ICU physician) currently living in Kingston, Ontario, with his wife Pam and their two foundling “canine kids.” Greg’s passion for medicine has yielded in retirement to his other lifelong passions—literature and creative writing.

 

NOODLING THE WOLF RIVER

Just upstream from where the Wolf River
slides its clear water into the Mississippi’s mud,
redneck boys probe the banks
with six-foot poles.
July sun broils their bare backs,
water slowly swirling to the belt loops
of their denim cutoffs.
Three of them, young,
blond hair long, with wisps of chin fuzz,
pecs rippling as they prod and poke
in search of bank holes, the small caves
where catfish lay their eggs and lie in wait.
“I got something,” one yells, stooping,
reaching under water to his chin,
and like a lifter in a weight room
he grunts up from his squat,
water now a fury, his arm
thrust to the elbow in the mouth
of a forty-pound flathead,
his fingers curled out tight
around the fish’s gasping gill.

MISSISSIPPI DELTA

Endless expanses of fields of cotton, rice and soy
stretch from the river to the horizon
where the crops touch the blaze of setting sun.
It is said the delta meanders from the lobby
of the Peabody hotel in Memphis,
to Catfish Row in Vicksburg,
the rich black soil giving off its river smell,
guitar picking instead of cotton picking,
the voices of the blues still seeping out the walls
of juke joints in Clarksdale, Batesville and
Helena. The blues born here a century ago,
where the fields flooded every spring,
and white-hooded cross-burning lynchers roamed
until just decades ago: this land remains alive,
like the catfish wallowing in the river’s mud.

CICADA SYMPHONY

The cicadas’ symphony,
crescendo-decrescendo,
stirs the evening dusk
with the ebb and flow
of an insect concert.
The crusty carcasses
cling to the tree bark long
after death, like skeletons
in suburban yard corners
greeting juvenile trick-or-treaters.
Where do they go, these
falsetto-blessed baritones,
and their basso-embellished backups?
Where do they go when they leave
their perfect bodies still
clinging to the sides
of southern oaks in Memphis?

June Rogers: Sweet and Tart (fiction) Dec. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: East Texas food figures prominently in my memory of childhood where I lived in Longview (and later in Dallas and Austin): cornpone, grits, collard greens, cornpone, fried chicken, the catfish and green jello at Luby’s Cafeteria, and of course the sweets like pralines and molasses candies. It’s no wonder that when I recall my time there and write about it, the delicious smells come flooding back in.

Sweet and Tart

My Aunt Fanny is one of the kindest women I know. She always has a way of looking at me with her brown eyes, just like a newborn calf’s. 

On fair days, walking into her kitchen is like a dream. Shiny copper pans hang on the wall, silver spatulas and strainers gleam in the sunlight. She is always baking. If it isn’t lemon meringue pies or chocolate chip cookies, it’s buttery pralines or chewy molasses candies – all from scratch. She never used a cookbook. Most times, she lets me stir the ingredients and lick the spoon. The warm, sugary smell of her kitchen makes me feel like I am cocooned in cotton candy.

On rainy days, Aunt Fanny sits me on her broad lap and reads me Donald Duck and Archie comic books. She laughs so hard sometimes that I slide right off. With her mother-of-pearl hair brush with a porcelain medallion of a man and woman in the center (“beloveds,” she calls them), she brushes my hair a hundred times to keep it shiny. Then she makes one long braid and ties a fancy, blue bow at the end. (She knows I don’t like pink.)

I wake to a hot morning—the kind we always get in July in East Texas—slip on my red and white gingham shorts, and head into the kitchen where my mother is making scrambled eggs, grits and toast. The phone rings. It’s Uncle Ladd, Aunt Fanny’s husband. My mother goes silent.

 “I’ll be right over,” my mother says, “and I’ll bring Diana with me. She’ll cheer her up.”

My mother grabs my wrist and we run all the way to Aunt Fanny’s white clapboard house three blocks away. The screen door bangs behind us in our hurry. Aunt Fanny lies on her stomach in her four-poster bed and moans. The bedroom smells of pee and cigarette ashes. My mother tries to shake her awake, but Aunt Fanny refuses to open her eyes. 

“Fanny Mae! Can you hear me?” my mother shouts. “C’mon hon, it’s time to get up.” 

Aunt Fanny doesn’t move. My mother motions to me to go over to her. I wag my head, but my mother waves me on. I creep up slowly to her face, which is all screwed up and pasty like one of her raw pie doughs. One corner of her mouth droops and saliva trickles out of it. She groans. I turn to look at my mother and again she pushes her chin out at me. 

“Go on,” she whispers.

“Hey, Aunt Fanny,” I say. “How you doin’?”

She stirs and opens one eye. “Hunh?” she asks. “Wazz zzat?”

“It’s me, Diana,” I say. My mother mouths some words to me but I can’t make them out. I shuffle my feet and try to come up with something to add. “Want to bake some cookies?”

“Nooooooooooo!” she howls. I back away until I’m almost out of the room. My mother turns on her heel and heads straight for the telephone in the living room. I follow and huddle near the green-checkered sofa. She gets the operator on the line.

“Beulah,” my mother says, “would you please dial Dr. Thompson’s number for me. It’s an emergency.”

Emergency? My stomach cramps so hard I can barely stand up straight.

“Dr. Thompson, it’s Patsy. Something’s terribly wrong with my sister. Would you please come over here as soon as you can?”

My mother hangs up the phone and starts to pad back and forth like the lion at the zoo in Tyler. Uncle Ladd keeps pestering her with questions. 

“What do you think is the matter?” my uncle asks. “Why is she acting this way? She’s always been a good wife, bright-eyed every morning. I’ve never seen her like this. I’m just so torn up inside. What could it be?”

“I don’t know Ladd,” my mother says. “And even if I did know, I don’t want to say anything until Dr. Thompson gets a good look at her.”

It feels like an eternity before Dr. Thompson bursts into the house, smacks the screen door against the wall, and makes a beeline for Aunt Fanny’s bedroom. Opening up his small, black leather bag, he pulls out a stethoscope and places it on her back. He checks her pulse and then asks her to look at him, but she doesn’t move. He douses his handkerchief with something that smells awful and puts it to her nose. She coughs a little but stays prone. Dr. Thompson gets my uncle to help him roll her over in the bed. When the doctor takes a closer look, he sucks in his breath. Her mouth and one eye are really drooping now, and the fingers on her hand are all drawn up like a dead chicken’s foot.

“Patsy,” Dr. Thompson shouts. “Call an ambulance!” 

“What’s a matter with her, doc?” my uncle asks.

“Well, I can’t be sure, but I think your wife has suffered a stroke.”

“Oh my good Lord!” my uncle wails and flaps his hands.

A stroke? My head spins thinking of what it could mean. Is that when somebody gets hit by lightning? Like Jeb Traynor did last year on his tractor during a thunderstorm? He hasn’t been the same ever since. 

When the ambulance wails down the street taking my Aunt Fanny away, my insides feel all jumbled up. 

A month later, Aunt Fanny gets out of the hospital. When I walk into her house, it doesn’t smell sugary anymore. There are no aprons draped over the kitchen chair, no pies cooling on the window sill. It’s more like the scent of a clean bathroom after someone uses Lysol to scrub out the toilet. 

Aunt Fanny is sitting up in bed in a blue flannel nightgown. She smiles with half her face and grunts a strange-sounding hello. Patting the bed with her good arm, she wants me to sit beside her. So I do. Uncle Ladd is fiddling with some gauze and pouring rubbing alcohol on it.

“Hey Aunt Fanny, how are you?”

“Ohhhhkayyyy,” she says. “Wha ha yeewww bee doooi?”

“What have I been doing?” 

She nods. 

“Well, I just started school and stuff. Our fifth grade teacher really piles on the homework.”

“Awwww,” Aunt Fanny says.

“On Labor Day, Nancy, Mary and I went to the State Fair. I ate a corn dog and a candy apple and drank a Dr. Pepper and when I went on the roller coaster, I almost upchucked!” 

Aunt Fanny laughs a little bit. I study her face and notice her lips are funny looking.

“What’s the matter with your mouth, Aunt Fanny?” 

She cocks her head, but doesn’t answer.

“Never mind her mouth, watch yours, young lady!” my uncle yells. He takes the gauze and places it on her heel where there is a weeping sore. Aunt Fanny doesn’t flinch. Then he wraps it with some white tape.

“Wahhh a coooo-eee?” she asks.

“A cookie? Sure. Did you bake a batch of chocolate chip?”

“Noooo, hoh-eee,” she says. “Soh-reee.” With her good arm, she points to a package of sugar cookies on her dresser that I guess somebody brought during a visit. I don’t like store-bought cookies. They taste like dry dirt clods.

“That’s okay,” I reply. “I’ll have one later. Say, can we read a comic book together?”

My uncle shouts at me, “What kind of lame-brain idea is that?” His face is red and sweaty and all pinched up, but Aunt Fanny looks toward the living room and I know right away what she wants. In a magazine rack by the sofa, there are some comic books we hadn’t had a chance to read. I grab Little Lulu and jump back up on the bed. This time, I do the reading. Every once in a while, Aunt Fanny chuckles and I look up into her brown eyes. They look softer than ever before. 

By November, Aunt Fanny is worse. She never sits up in bed. She doesn’t want to read comic books with me anymore. Her eyes are as dull as dishwater and her hair has turned grey. I wish I could cheer her up. The only thing I know to do is bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies. I ask my uncle for permission to use their kitchen and get to work. 

In a copper pan, I remember how to cream the butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Then I beat the eggs and vanilla together in one of her white and red porcelain bowls. I combine the flour, chocolate chips and baking soda and mix all the ingredients together. When the time comes to drop blobs of the dough on the cookie sheet, they stick to the spoon – that never happened when Aunt Fanny made them. I have to shake the spoon hard to get the blobs off. I forget to turn on the oven for 350 F so I dial up the temperature to 400 F to get it good and hot fast. I shove the cookies into the oven and set the timer for 20 minutes. Or is it 10 minutes? I settle for 15, which would make it 3:25 on my watch. My mother arrives and we go keep Aunt Fanny company.

My mother speaks to her in a cheery voice but Aunt Fanny turns away and looks out the window. I’m hoping the aroma of chocolate and sugar will make her smile. I look at my watch. It says 3:20. We should have smelled something by now. My mother prompts me to check on the cookies. I walk into the kitchen and see thin streams of smoke seeping out of the sides of the oven. I put the mitts on and open the door. A billowing black cloud engulfs me. I choke and my eyes water. I reach for the baking sheet and pull it out. Every cookie is a charred lump of coal. I dump them in the sink and turn on the faucet to drown the stench. The house smells like it’s on fire. 

My mother rushes into the kitchen and shrieks like a banshee. “Hells bells! What happened?”  

“Doesn’t matter anymore!” I sob and throw the mitts across the room.              

Hundreds of people cram into the funeral parlor for the visitation and viewing. Aunt Fanny is sitting halfway up in her casket. Her curled up hands are folded over her sunken belly and the skin on her face is tightly drawn across her cheekbones and jaw. Her eyes are closed. I keep on expecting her to breathe, but she is still and shiny as a statue in the wax museum.

Her longtime friends, Mrs. Hatch and Mrs. Beamson, file by her casket. With her lace handkerchief pressed against her nose, Mrs. Hatch shakes her head.  

“She could bake like nobody’s business,” says Mrs. Hatch.

Mrs. Beamson nods. “Ooooh, I swear she had a gift with that lemon meringue pie,” she says. “It was sweet and tart all at the same time.”

Volunteers from the church serve coffee, cake and cookies. I choose a chocolate chip. It crumbles in my mouth like dust.

Jim Finley: Ned the Mule (micro-fiction) Dec. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Born and reared in Texas, but graduate schooled three years in Starkville, Mississippi, and spent three years teaching at LSU in Lafayette, Louisiana. Lived and wed a talented and sweet Cajun in Crowley, La. With mind and soul embedded in southern literature, my heart is Southern.

Ned the Mule

I love em more than horses! I used to ride one occasionally in the mesquite pasture back of my house. He was long in tooth. Coughed a lot. I worried about em. I just throw a short rope round his neck and climb on. Her was a swayback. I’d let him go where he wanted. Most of the time that was nowhere, so I’d just hang out with em. Daydream and lolly-gag. He wouldn’t care. We were both shiftless and somewhat inert. I called him Ned, as in Ned in The First Reader. It was obvious neither of us had much ambition, I was lazier, but Ned was a tad smarter. I miss em still. After I went off to college, I heard Ned ended up at Harvard. But I don’t believe it. I don’t think its true.

I think somewhere down the line I was kin to Ned. I know Ned has passed on by now, butI loved em like a brother, especially his ears. One was floppy, but the other one was just a regular ear. Ned was taller than average and rather loose-legged, awkward I’d say. He had a certain look in his eyes, sorta like he was teetering on the edge of the past while staring into the abyss of the future. That’s what made me feel so close to em. I knew right away there was a blood connection.

Chris Espenshade : The Course of a Season (essay) Dec. 2018

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Relative to this piece, I have run throughout the Southeast, for North Forsyth high school, the University of Virginia, and Wake Forest University. I raced Peachtree back when we thought 1,200 was an astounding number of competitors. I once placed second at the Tuckasegee River and Road Race, 10 miles of whitewater on Saturday, 10K of road race on Sunday. I have worn out a lot of running shoes in the South.

The Course of a Season

The race starts hot, across the practice field, down the grass ramp, and around the baseball field. Indeed, the runners have warmed up to be ready for this. College cross-country runners always go out too fast. The intensity of the first mile is the lingering heat in mid-September.

The short uphill to the mile mark is the only pavement on the course, and the jarring clacking of spikes shocks us like the first chilly dew of the autumn. In that dew — soaking quickly through the shoes each morning run and leaving toes chilled through the first class of the day — is the promise of change. The split at the mile mark, the overnight lows in the last week of September, and the reddening of the poison ivy and maples, tell us what one may expect.

The stretch through the barnyard speaks of the conflict between summer and autumn, sweater off and on throughout the day. Here are the small, A-frame houses of 20 fighting cocks. The runner here is often fighting with himself. Was that first mile too fast, meaning trouble later in the race? Or, was that unexpected split foretelling a great race to come?  

Quick turn into Possum Hollow. The fast downhill through a tunnel of trees reminds us of that consistently cool, first week of October, when one likes to imagine that serious autumn is here to stay. This downhill is the season warning us it is time to cut and stack firewood.  Alas, Possum Hollow is a loop, and the return uphill suggests an unseasonably hot, second week of October. Summer’s dying gasp.

The dirt road takes the runner from Possum Hollow to the fields. Time seems to slow on the road. Although this race is unfolding, our runner is still headed out, the wrong direction. He longs to be finished with this middle, hold-my-pace section. This is the part of the autumn that promises the eventual splendor of a Monet, but seems to be moving too slowly to get there. Let’s get on with it. Yes, there are some trees going red and orange, but there are still too many green. There is a subtle trend toward cooler days, but there is the very real feeling that the show has yet to start in earnest.

The fields represent full labor. Here, the team has run intervals all season. They run hard when the first whistle blows, run easy when the second whistle sounds. Wherever they are when the 30-60 seconds of easy running ends, they have to get back up to speed. The runners hope they are not at the foot of Hangman’s Hill when the whistle blows.  The coach knows full effort will be required at this point in the race; the truth is revealed in the fields. This is when the leaf hues are peaking, and many leaves are already on the ground. This is the frost on the pumpkin, soon to become a jack-o-lantern. This is the time that the sun and soil suck the color, suppleness, and life from the hay fields, suddenly, seemingly overnight. The road kills of diverse species tell us that the animal kingdom has become manic in its preparation for winter. This is not the time for autumn or runner to be timid.

Dirt road again, this time heading in. The gravitational pull of the finish has added to the runner’s momentum. He is also pushed by either his success to this point (“Don’t blow this.  You’ve got a good race going.”) or his disappointment (“Do something, mother fucker.  There is still time to salvage this.”). This is where the runner relies on self-loathing to hold his speed. The season, too, is gaining momentum. The trees are naked, and there is nothing to stop the cold winds of fall. The sun can still manage to be warm for a moment, but there is always a cloud on its way to produce a shiver.  

The fighting cocks. The internal argument for the runner is when to start his kick. The short stretch through the barnyard is not suited to sprinting, but the runner knows there will be no excuses once he turns the corner and enters the last mile. The seasonal struggle now is with winter, rather than summer. This is the second week in November when everybody is surprised by the morning cold, hoar frost on the goat paths, and the dark gray skies contrasting with the brightness of early-hung Christmas lights. Instead of an occasional chill, one relishes the occasional warm moment in the sun, out of the wind. Everybody now knows this will end painfully for both the harrier and the fall.

Hitting the pavement once more, the runner is offering everything he has to see this through. The end is near, and he must finish strongly. The clouds and shortened days mock the former warmth of the autumn sun, and winds are left with no work beyond wreaking havoc with the leaf piles. This is week of after Thanksgiving. The last Vs of south-bound geese call to the autumn “That’s okay.  Let it go.”  The coaches and team-mates yell to the runner “This is it.  All the way through.”

The race and the season are suddenly no more.  The runner does the strange, post-finish shuffle, hands-on-knees, trying to catch his breath.  No sign of the fall.  The athlete and the autumn have run their course.