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Paul Burks, ZeekRewards and Southern Fraud

Had to post the latest indictment from the Western District of North Carolina.

We only met ZeekRewards through a guy who knew a guy. The original guy was Robert Hukezalie who left Wilmington NC for the Sarasota Florida area after take $$ from friends for investment in ZeekRewards.

In full:

ZeekRewards President Indicted On Federal Charges For Operating $850 Million Internet Ponzi Scheme

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 24, 2014

 

United States Attorney Anne M. Tompkins Western District of North Carolina

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The president of ZeekRewards, Paul Burks, has been indicted on federal charges for operating an Internet Ponzi scheme that took in more than $850 million dollars, announced Anne M. Tompkins, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. The criminal indictment was returned today by a federal grand jury sitting in Charlotte, charging Burks, 67, of Lexington, N.C., with wire and mail fraud conspiracy, wire and mail fraud, and tax fraud conspiracy.

Russell F. Nelson, Special Agent in Charge of the United States Secret Service, Charlotte Field Division and Thomas J. Holloman III, Special Agent in Charge of the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation Division (IRS-CI) join U.S. Attorney Tompkins in making today’s announcement.

According to allegations contained in the indictment, from January 2010 through August 2012, Paul Burks was the owner of Rex Venture Group, LLC (RVG), through which he owned and operated Zeekler, a sham Internet-based penny auction company, and its purported advertising division, ZeekRewards (collectively “Zeek”). The indictment alleges that Burks and his conspirators induced victims – including over 1,500 victims in the Charlotte area – to invest in their fraudulent scheme, by falsely representing that Zeekler was generating massive retail profits from its penny auctions, and that the public could share in such profits through investment in ZeekRewards. Indeed, the indictment alleges that Burks and others claimed, at one point, that investors would be guaranteed a 125% return on their investment.

The indictment alleges that Burks and his conspirators represented that victim-investors in ZeekRewards could participate in the Retail Profit Pool (RPP), which supposedly allowed victims collectively to share 50% of Zeek’s daily net profits. The indictment alleges that Burks and his conspirators did not keep books and records needed to calculate such daily figures, and that Burks simply made up the daily “profit” numbers. The indictment further alleges that, contrary to the conspirators’ claims, the true revenue from the scheme did not come from the penny auction’s “massive profits.” Instead, approximately 98% of all incoming funds came from victim-investors, which were then used to make Ponzi-style payments to earlier victim investors.

In addition to promising massive returns on investments, the indictment alleges that the conspirators also used a number of ways to promote Zeek to current and potential investors. For example, according to the indictment, the conspirators hosted weekly conference calls and leadership calls, where participants could call in listen to Burks and others make false representations intended to encourage victim-investors to continue to invest money and to recruit others to invest in Zeek. The indictment further alleges that Burks also organized and attended “Red Carpet Events,” where victim investors came to hear details of the scheme in person. During these events, according to the indictment, Burks and his conspirators made false representations about the massive retail profits generated by Zeek. The conspirators also used electronic and print media, including websites, emails and journals, to make false and misleading statements about the success of Zeekler to recruit victim investors.

The indictment alleges that as the Ponzi scheme grew in size and scope, it began to unravel as the outstanding liability resulting from the bogus 125% return on investment continued to rise beyond control. According to the indictment, by August 2012, the conspirators fraudulently represented to the collective victims that their investments were worth approximately $2.8 billion, but had no accurate books and records to even determine how much cash on hand was available to pay such liability. According to the indictment, by August 17, 2012, Burks and his conspirators had only $320 million (or approximately 11% of $2.8 billion) available to pay out investors. The indictment alleges that over the course of the scheme, Burks diverted approximately $10.1 million to himself.

Burks is also charged with tax fraud conspiracy for failing to file corporate tax returns or to make corporate tax payments for his companies, among other things. In addition, the indictment alleges, for tax year 2011, Burks issued fraudulent IRS Forms 1099s, causing victim-investors to file inaccurate tax returns for phantom income they never actually received.

The court has issued a summons against Burks and he is expected to appear in federal court for his initial appearance in the coming days. The wire and mail fraud conspiracy charge, the mail fraud charge and wire fraud charge each carry a maximum prison term of 20 years and a $250,000 fine. The tax fraud conspiracy charge carries a maximum prison term of five years and a $250,000 fine.

The details contained in this indictment are allegations. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Two of Burks’ conspirators, Dawn Wright Olivares, Zeek’s Chief Operating Officer, and her step-son and Zeek’s Senior Technology Officer, Daniel C. Olivares, pleaded guilty in December 2013 to investment fraud conspiracy. Dawn Wright Olivares also pleaded guilty to tax fraud conspiracy. Both defendants await sentencing.

In making today’s announcement, U.S. Attorney Tompkins thanked the U.S. Secret Service and IRS-CI for investigating the case, and the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission, Division of Enforcement for its assistance with the investigation.

The prosecution is handled by Assistant United States Attorneys Jenny Grus Sugar, Corey Ellis and Mark T. Odulio of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte.

Additional information and updated court filings about this and related cases filings can be accessed at the district’s website: www.justice.gov/usao/ncw/ncwvwa.html.

What is the south coming to?

macewan pump

We love the South. (Buy a Mule T-shirt) We appreciate all the quirks, follies, and faults that have brought the region to where it is today. If our beloved “below the Mason-Dixon Line” self  gives way to the influences of a status quo world which requires all people to be of one idea — to walk in lock-step with all others — we cease to be The South.

Simply put — Let us celebrate the individual. The South revels in individuality. Freedom and the right to be southern. It’s not a curse-word, or a curse. (Buy a Mule T-shirt) It’s just little old us. Not one race, not one religion, and certainly not just one cause… the South contains all sides of all arguments.

motel

Help the best of “The South” stay as is.  Let the bitter past be studied — not re-lived — and let us not seek to destroy a unique culture. (Buy a Mule T-shirt) Remember, please, we are not simply a bunch of back-ass swamp-dwelling moonshine-drinking coon-hunting mother f’ers. We are — arguably— the last true bastion of individuality left in the US. The Dead Mule Southern Legitimacy Statement is about describing those things which are uniquely southern, wherever you are. (Buy a Mule T-shirt<-Dead Mule subliminal advertising campaign, is it working? did you buy a shirt yet?

The great, the bad and the ugly all come together and learn to survive right here along with the no-see ums, bullfrogs, water moccasins, tadpoles and crawdads. Embrace us. Enjoy. Enjoy. Enjoy.

 

Andy Fogle : Edward, an essay

Edward

 

There is a story that says a black man once came to Edward White’s door, telling him he had no money, hadn’t eaten in days, was on his way to Carolina. Edward took the man into his house, made him a big meal, let him shower and spend the night in the guest room, and made him breakfast the next morning before sending him on his way with a few dollars. It’s a story my grandmother told me. I don’t know if it’s a lie, or maybe she told it to me in a dream, but that’s what the story says.

 

*

 

This is the worst way I can say it: He was an alcoholic, a racist, and he knew he was right about everything. You could argue with him, but there was little way you could penetrate his fortress of knowledge derived primarily from watching Donahue (which he pronounced Donahoo), one of the first daytime talk shows. One afternoon, he urgently phoned his sister, my grandmother.

 

“Lorene, turn on channel three right now.”

 

“Edward, I don’t give a dern about what that old Donahue is talkin’ about.”

 

“Lorene, you got to see what’s happenin’!”

 

“Edward, I don’t care about what’s happenin’ on that show.”

 

‘It’s awful, Lorene, I can’t believe it—it’s terrible what these crazy damn people do these days. This mess is disgustin.”

 

“Well Edward, then why do you watch it?”

 

“Well good God, Lorene—I’ve got to know what’s goin’ on in this world don’t I?”

 

*

 

One Christmas Eve, everyone got together at Aunt Diane’s house. Edward was so drunk he couldn’t hit himself in the ass with a pair of deer antlers, but he was still fluently trash-talking.

My father, Will Ed, and Uncle Roy took turns arguing with Edward. At some point in their “conversation,” Edward took the lead and my dad challenged him for it, and so they took over while Roy and Will Ed drank and looked around. Roy was a master of silence, and Will Ed always seemed calmly amused at the world. At one point, while Edward was in the bathroom, my dad was half-furious, about to either give up and go home or take Edward’s head off. He reached into the refrigerator.

 

Will Ed grinned. “Sonny Paul, do you need a break?”

 

“Hell yes, Will Ed. I’m-a kick his ass if I don’t and here it is goddamn Christmas Eve.”

 

“Arright, I’ll tend to him for awhile, and you go on in the living room. Roy, let’s go listen to my brother holler for a bit.”

 

But it wasn’t long before my dad heard Edward say something he didn’t like, jumped up, and was toe to toe with his uncle again. Most of the distant grown ups ignored them; a few would laugh and shake their heads.

 

This went on all night, Dad and Edward the main players, and Roy and Will Ed taking turns as moderators. After one of his shifts was over, Will Ed came into the living room, said “It’s your turn, Roy” and everybody howled. Roy swallowed a smile, and decided to express himself for the first time all evening in a quiet, single syllable.

 

“Damn.” He went to serve his family, while Will Ed updated us.

 

“I can’t deal with them two. Edward is wound up tonight, and Sonny Paul is right there with him—politics, the economy, the dern Redskins, Edward’s complainin’ about the blacks…he’s about to get going on about the damn War.”

 

I think Edward and my dad needed a third person there to keep them from getting too deep into each other. If it was just them, one on one for too long, I don’t know what might have happened, but by the end of the night, they had memorably butchered an a cappella version of “Silent Night,” my dad had been crying, and my mom was behind the wheel of the truck, driving us home.

 

*

 

Edward didn’t have much social grace. It was Thanksgiving Day on Harrell Avenue in Norfolk when my dad was a kid, and Edward was stuffing the turkey. Little Sonny Paul walked up to the edge of the kitchen table, which he was just a touch taller than, and pointed at the part of the turkey that Edward was running his hand in and out of.

“Uncle Edward, what’s that?”

 

He stopped, stunned that anyone would need to ask such a question—everybody knew what that part was. Temporarily dumbfounded, he stared at the innocent child.

 

“That’s his asshole, boy.”

 

*

 

Edward loved my father. When he was a kid, it was Edward who taught him about fishing, cars, baseball, golf, the woods. Edward would drop by the house on Harrell Avenue in Norfolk out of the blue and say, “Come on boy, I’m takin’ you fishin’.”

 

One summer decades later, at three in the morning, around a bonfire on his property and a treasure chest of beers, my dad stressed, “I ‘went’ fishing with Daddy, but it was Edward who took me fishing. Hell, Edward really raised me more than Daddy did.”

 

But he also used to make my dad hate him worse than anything in the world. He’d push people. He would stay on them that they weren’t doing this right, they weren’t doing that good enough. My dad remembers being on the field during a ballgame with the stands full of parents and kids, and Edward was drunk and hollering at him to get the goddamn lead out. Another time, he drove my dad and a couple of teammates to practice, so drunk he was bumping up onto the curb, and my dad was so embarrassed that he was his uncle.

 

But Edward loved my father.

 

*

 

I was nine and we had gone over to Gramma’s house to eat, and he was there. I was sitting in the recliner playing a handheld electronic football game I’d gotten for Christmas when he passed by.

 

“Whatcha got there, son?”

 

“Football game I got for Christmas.”

 

“You winnin’?”

 

“Yep. Me and Dad used to play together, but he ain’t played for awhile. He’s always asleep.”

 

“Oh, well…now son, don’t you be too hard on your daddy. He works mighty hard for you and your momma and he gets tired and deserves a little break, a little rest now and then.” And then he walked off.

 

I was mad. Here was Edward, who I already knew was the asshole of the family, who could as far as I knew barely get along with anybody. And here he was defending my father, who I had felt ignored by lately. I just didn’t put much stock in him.

 

He made me feel like I was complaining, like I was a whiner, something I’d always been praised for not being, not like most other kids begging and crying when they didn’t get their every way. I was an only child, who did generally get his way, but my way wasn’t outrageous. According to the adult world, I wasn’t like most kids; I was a good boy. I had more respect and dignity and sense, but maybe most of that was just shyness. Years later my dad would crack jokes in front of friends while we were all playing horseshoes and getting drunk, “He wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful.” Most of the time, I didn’t really care if I was alone or with others, but when I did want to be with someone else—to praise me, talk or listen to me, or someone to compete with—well, they should be there, and my dad, at this time, wasn’t. Whether he was genuinely worn out from work or just lazy or partying all the time doesn’t really matter. What matters is Edward recognized I was hurt and, except for being a kid, had little reason to be, and that maybe there was a good reason my dad couldn’t play with me much at the time. What matters is I don’t think my being a kid went but so far with him.

 

*

 

One rainy night, a Chesapeake police officer had been out to dinner with his wife and happened upon Edward’s car stuck in a ditch not far from the Great Dismal Swamp. Edward was out of the car, drunk, trying to wedge wood or rocks or anything he could find underneath the rear tires for traction. As the cop approached Edward from the roadside, never identifying himself as an officer, he asked Edward what he was doing.

 

“Well goddamn, man, what in the hell does it look like I’m doin? I’m tryin to get my goddamn car out of this son of a bitchin ditch!”

 

The cop told him to move away from the car, then started down the slope. Somewhere among these gestures, he pulled his gun. Edward was drunk, didn’t know the guy was a cop, and interpreted the act as one of aggression, as a threat.

 

My dad imitates Edward’s explanation here as something along the lines of “So I’m stuck here in the fuckin swamp and here’s the bastard givin me orders, tellin me to move away from my own damn car, comin at me down into the ditch, pulls a damn gun on me…”

 

They wrestled. Edward got the gun away, tossed it up to the road, and threw the cop down into the heart of the muddy ditch.

 

He saw the car up on the side of the road with its headlights still on and a figure in the passenger seat. He worked his way up the muck-slope, picked up the gun from the road, then recognized the shape in the car as that of a woman. He tapped on the window, which she cautiously rolled down, and handed her the gun.

 

“Ma’am, I think it’s better for you to hold onto this. He might hurt himself with it.”

 

*

 

When I got older, my dad, Edward and I went to a Tidewater Tides baseball game—they were the big minor league team in town, the AAA affiliate of the New York Mets. We went in my dad’s truck, which later became my truck, a 1984 silver Mazda SE5 B-2000. I sat in the middle, straddling the gear shift, shifting for my dad, getting “practice” for when I’d start driving. It was just after my parents separated, so I was twelve.

 

On I-64, on the way to Met Park in Norfolk, Edward put his left arm behind me on the back of the front seat and said, “Now son, your momma and daddy are goin through some tough times right now and I know it’s hard on you too. But things’ll work out somehow. I dunno. We’re all still here, boy.”

 

I started crying, Dad looked straight ahead, steadying the truck in its lane, and Edward stilled his arm behind my shoulders.

 

*

 

According to my grandmother, Edward’s little sister, they used to get in the worst arguments. Edward had a friend named Matt who lived down the street and to whom Edward would lend money on occasion (he rarely saw repayment, and rarely asked about it). They were all three shucking corn at Edward’s place one day when he and my grandmother got into a horrible argument over God-knows-what, and he just verbally tore her to shreds. She stormed off, kicking up gravel and clouds of gray dust as her car swerved out of the driveway.

 

Matt said nothing, but Edward fumbled, “She’s a good old gal—I don’t know why I’m so bad to her sometimes. I don’t mean to get so mad, she’s my little sister and I love her much as anything, do anything in the world for her. I don’t know why I…”

 

*

 

Edward had a few special words. “Folareepus” or “rickashallups” was used when he couldn’t think of or didn’t know the name of a part of machinery or gadget. For instance, if he and my dad were working on a car together: “Uh, Sonny Paul, this damn, um, ah, what in the hell, this damn rikkashallups ain’t workin right; hand me that there damn, uh, the goddamn, you know, well just gimme that folareepus over there.”

 

The next two were probably racist in origin. “Spadjo” was a suped-up and sassier equivalent of “hotshot” or “boy”—”Well you think you got it all figgered out there now, but I tell you one thing spadjo…” The other one was “rodriguez” which he used if he didn’t want to say “pecker” or “ass” in front of women or children, or occasionally shouted at bad drivers, as in, “Up your rodriguez!”

 

He cut grass at Stumpy Lake Golf Course during the eighties, and during one Fourth of July picnic, a twelve-year-old boy was lying down in a chaise lounge chair, and had a light blanket pulled up over him. He had a bag of pistachio nuts underneath the blanket and was eating them, and every now and then he would pass a handful back to Edward, who was standing behind the chair. After several handfuls, and right when there was that great lull in the general conversation, Edward thought the nuts tasted a little off.

 

He leaned over the top of the chair, leering at the boy under the blanket.

 

“Boy?…you playin with your rodriguez?”

 

*

 

I was sixteen and there was a family reunion at Uncle Jimmy’s. There was a little park right behind their house, so that just beyond their back fence—an area where they’d play horseshoes—there was a baseball diamond.

 

My Uncle Jeff used to play baseball in college, so he started hitting to a few of us kids. He started with high, heavy ones right to us, then moving on to gappers that would split us, short line drives we had to sprint in for, or just plain shots-over-our-heads that we could never possibly catch.

 

I liked to show off: run hard, throw hard, and even if Uncle Jeff messed up and hit a grounder, I’d still charge it and fire it right back at him, so I had worn myself down by the time Edward swaggered over to the edge of the dirt with a cigarette and beer, and commenced to preach to no one on that field but me about I’m slow, I ain’t got no arm, come on boy, what’s the matter with you. He might give a little “Bah!” or “Mm!” if one of the other kids didn’t make a play, but when it came to me, he cut loose and opened up. His words burned.

 

Jeff was enjoying hitting by now and it seemed like every play was a tough one. I got one to my right that I had to run forever for, dive, and still miss, and another one straight over my head that I had to back-chase—both tough plays that I got a good jump on, but just wasn’t fast enough, both missed, and both times caught an earful from Edward. I finally hollered, “You wanna see me make a damn play, Edward? You wanna see me make a play for you? Huh?”

 

“I only been waitin out here all goddamned afternoon, son!” He knew I was embarrassed and frustrated and probably knew I hated his guts at that moment, and just like he did to Sonny Paul, he kept pushing, he kept talking.

 

One of the next flies Jeff hit to me was far over my head again and I took off on a long run which ended with, truth be told, a spectacular diving catch.

 

Somebody hollered, “Arright, nice play!”

 

“Go ‘head, boy!”

 

“Well it’s about goddamned time he made one of them plays!”

 

I got up, thought, “Yeah motherfucker, it’s about time,” hurled the ball as hard as I could straight at him, and immediately felt scared.

 

It got to him after a bounce, was a little off line, but close enough to make him take a few quick hops in the other direction and spill some of his High Life. Although Edward wasn’t standing far from Uncle Jeff, and I tried to play it off as an errant throw, I was embarrassed to see the ball streaking towards him, and relieved to see it bounce. I don’t remember anyone saying anything about it later.

 

*

 

It seemed to me the preacher was struggling for proper things to say about Edward, which wasn’t really surprising given his reputation, but I’d begun to grow a tiny soft spot for him, one that I couldn’t explain or defend, and tried very hard to resist. After all, he was Edward the racist, Edward the drunkard, Edward the instigator, Edward who was always right. I knew that he was hard for even my dad to get along with sometimes, and I wanted to be like my dad and not back down to him, but fight.

 

In 1983 he saw me with a magazine that had Michael Jackson on the cover.

 

“You like him?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Mm. Negger music.”

 

“Well, it’s ok.”

 

In the later 1980s, he sneered at the popularity and power of Mike Tyson. At the time I admired Tyson, so I argued with Edward during a backyard cookout at my grandmother’s house.

At some point, frustrated, I excused myself to go inside. As I crossed the lawn, I heard someone say, “Lord, Edward must’ve really said something for Andy to pipe up like that.”

 

In 1991, he got cancer, just like his brother Will Ed. My dad and I fished with him one day at Northwest River Park Lake, when a black man and his son came up and my dad and I talked with them for a few minutes.

 

After they left, I said to my dad, “I’m surprised Edward hasn’t said anything yet.” I wanted us to agree on opposition; I wanted him to admire my cynicism.

 

He looked over at his uncle, sitting a short ways off, looking into the water, entirely bald beneath the ball cap that read “Stroh’s.”

 

“I think Edward’s getting kinda quiet. Mellowin’ out in his old age.”

 

“Think it’s because he’s sick?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

*

 

My dad once said, “There’ll never be another like him,” and I quickly silenced the first word that came to mind—“Good.”

 

*

 

At his funeral in Norfolk, he got a twenty-one gun salute because he’d been in the Marines in World War II. A short line of men marched out into an open part of the cemetery, rigid and sure in their movements. Even though I knew they would, I was startled when they fired. A man played “Taps,” and all of us were spellbound, even in the aftermath. Not a word.

Hey yall, we’re still here…

The Mule is still kicking but she’s a bit stable weary this month.

Haven's Wharf, Washington NC USA

We’re restoring databases from 2007 and then grabbing the 1990s files, making a great mix tape for our girlfriends, and we’ll even work on 2000-2006. Meanwhile, work continues on everything Mule-related when time allows.

love you,

mean it.

-valerie

Sara Whitestone “An Outsider’s View of Guns…”

Library of Congress: Frances Benjamin Johnston photography
 

An Outsider’s View of Guns and the Men Who Shoot Them

 

My daughter, born and raised in Virginia, had already sided with Robert E. Lee by the time she was five. Maybe it was all those Civil War reenactments we enjoyed over the years. Or perhaps it was all those conversations we had, where I tried to present a balanced view of states rights vs. federal jurisdiction, that pushed her toward feeling that, like Lee, Virginia and its values was not just her state, but her country.

My son, also southern bred, seemed to enlarge his libertarian views with every inch of his growing height. Man Day—where he and his twenty-something buddies drink beer, smoke cigars, and shoot targets on the private property of an apple orchard, is now a long-standing tradition. The right to make choices for themselves is something my son and his friends feel very strongly about.

Unlike my children, I am not native to the south. While I have spent most of my adult life in rural Virginia, and several of my acquaintances are gun owners, I still sometimes struggle with the idea of weaponry and its potency to kill. I understand that if our hunters didn’t manage the deer population, so many of those speckled fawns that we enjoy watching cavort across hay fields in late spring would die of starvation in their first winter. But I have never had the slightest desire to shoot a buck myself. In fact, I have never even cared to find out what it feels like to pull the trigger of a firearm at all—until now.

As I writer I get all kinds of unusual assignments. Currently I am contracted by a retired army psychologist to tell the story of a former patient whose duty as a soldier in early 1950’s Europe was competitive long-distance target shooting. But, in secret, this soldier was a sniper who used his military issued rifle to hunt Nazi war criminals. Of course the book would be intriguing to any writer. But I have one problem—and it is a big one: I know nothing about guns.

I started my firearm education, hoping that watching movies and reading books would be enough. But soon I was convinced that I needed to meet knowledgeable enthusiasts and gain first-hand experience in order to write my novel more authentically. Through an internet search I found a vintage rifle match that would be held about an hour from my house. It was open to the public. Here was my opportunity.

On a sunny weekend morning I drove through the countryside and to the rifle range with both hesitancy and expectancy. I had asked two male friends to accompany me, but each had different conflicts that day, so I was a lone woman, pushing way past the boundaries of my comfort zone, into a largely male sport. The unknown is an adventure, I kept telling myself. Who knows what will happen?

I had imagined two scenarios upon arrival. One: I say I am a writer, start asking questions, and immediately a 300 pound militant NRA guy takes me by the arm and escorts me off the property. Two: I say I am a writer, start asking questions, and immediately very friendly riflemen gather around, letting me pump them for information while they demonstrate their shooting techniques.

Not knowing where the long-range shooting field was, I found the trap range first, took a deep breath, and got out of the car. I knew enough, at least, to stay behind the firing line and to keep quiet until the round was over. I settled onto a bench and just tried to focus on the shooters.

“Pull!” they yelled. Then they gauged the trajectory of their clay pigeons and fired their shotguns just in front of where they expected their targets to fly. With each hit, pieces of clay scattered into the wind. And with each hit, I was fully engaged, losing all sense of my own intimidation through my admiration of their skill.

After the round, I went up to one of the shooters and said, “Hi, I’m a writer. Can I ask you a couple of questions?”

Before that man could even answer, the very real flesh and blood persona of my imagined Scenario  Number One loomed in front of me. He was 300 pounds. He was militant. He was every NRA stereotype possible. And he escorted me off the property.

“We don’t allow the press here,” he said.

“But, I’m not the press,” I answered. “I’m just a writer trying to get information . . .”

He cut me off. “We don’t allow writers here at all. This is private property. You have to get permission to come here.”

“But,” I protested weakly, “both your website and the sign at the entrance said you welcome the public.”

“I need you to leave now,” he growled. “And don’t even think you can write anything unless you get authorization from us first.”

I sat in my car for a few moments, tears stinging my eyes.

Maybe the press sometimes does have real reasons to portray people who own guns in a bad light, I thought.

Driving down the hill, I felt defeated. But when I turned a corner and saw the sign for the long-distance range, I parked the car and screwed up my courage to try again.

What is the protocol here? I wondered.

I didn’t even know enough to wear ear protection, and as I was climbing the stairs, a rifle shot boomed in my left ear. On the covered platform there were five men—some seated, some standing—all shooting at targets that were 200 yards away. Most stopped as soon as they saw me.

“Hi, can I help you?” one of them asked.

Before I could answer, another came forward.

“Here. Put these on,” he said, handing me protection muffs. “Just covering your ears with your hands isn’t enough.”

I thanked him, put the muffs on, and sat on a bench. The men went back to their shooting.

“You’re flinching right before you pull the trigger.” A veteran in his late fifties was instructing a teen-aged boy. “You can’t muscle this. It’s all about being relaxed.”

I watched another shooter sit at his bench, take a long time to aim, and then calmly fire at a target so far away it seemed impossible to hit. But when the shooter looked into his spotting scope, he commented that he had done well. Once again, watching these riflemen hone their skill, I was moved out of my intimidation through my hunger to learn.

When the men called a ceasefire, I went over to one of them and said, “Hi, I’m a writer. Can I ask you a couple of questions?”

The riflemen all gathered around me. When they heard about my book, each had opinions as to what kind of gun my soldier would have used.

“Mostly likely it was a M1 Garand,” said one.

“Or maybe the A-4 1903 sniper rifle,” said another.

“Too bad that you just missed our vintage competition,” said a third. “It finished early.”

Then someone stretched out his hand in welcome.

“I’m Steve,” he said. ‘Have you ever shot a gun before?”

“Once,” I said. “When I was about 15, a friend talked me into trying his 12 gauge shot gun, but he didn’t show me anything. All he said was, ‘pull the trigger.’ The gun recoiled into my shoulder so hard that I fell backwards.”

“Well,” Steve said, “let’s see if we can give you a better experience here.

He sat me on the bench with his M14, showed me how to position the gun, and then taught me to look through the sight so that I was lining up the post to just below the black dot of the target. When I was ready, I pulled the trigger.

I’m not sure anyone can fully describe their first high-powered rifle experience—the force of the gun in your hands, the sound of the shot in your ears, the knowledge that in just milliseconds your bullet has hit its target over two football fields away—and the adrenaline that pumps through it all.

Steve looked through the spotting scope.

“You’re going to want to see this,” he said.

Through the telescope I could view the target clearly.

“That mark in the 8 ring at about 3’oclock is yours,” he said. “That’s a great first shot! Do you want to try another one?”

“Absolutely!” I said.

Because Steve instructed me on how to move the rifle just a hair this way or that, with each try I got better. My last bullet hit just to the left of 6’oclock in the ten ring.

“Are you sure you haven’t shot before?” Steve asked, with a wide grin.

If I had left the shooting ranges right after my encounter with Mr.-300-Pound-NRA-Stereotype, I never would have met Steve and his friends. My son, who cares so much about individual freedom, would say that I don’t need to beg permission from anyone to write what I have experienced or what I believe. It’s a good thing, then, that these gracious riflemen made my Scenario Number Two come true much better in real life than what I had imagined.

These men more than made up for my negative first impression. Not only did I gain knowledge for my novel, but more importantly, I developed a new appreciation for firearms and for why so many Americans are passionate about them.

To me these riflemen represent the true gentleman gun owners of the south. They share that same kind of decency and respect for others that Robert E. Lee emulated so long ago.

And this conduct of kindness is what 5-year-old schoolgirls and 50-year-old women still fall in love with today.

Becky Meadows “Three Seconds”

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The wind rushing in her ears gives a feeling of freedom, a letting go of the past and an embracing of the future, whatever that would be. There will be no more “say no to drugs” or “be sure to vote.” She welcomes the rush of the wind against her face. Would it tan her? What would it do to her hair?

Visions rocket through her. Her little brother falling on his bum as he ran down the dewy hill. Her grandmother standing at the stove in her pink cotton gown on Saturday morning, the smell of bacon frying and biscuits. Her grandmother throwing the flaming brown bag of trash into the creek out front. Her grandmother’s bright pink thumb with cotton blisters. The smell of cows in the pasture, the white beacon of stars at night, sitting on the front porch swatting flies in the sweltering summer heat, hollerin’ at her cousins across the field between her grandfather’s farmhouse and her uncle’s renovated trailer.

She is a child of God, a work of the most high Lord, so she must be perfect. Achieving perfection hadn’t been easy, though. It had meant giving up green pastures for pavement. It was manmade, hot and hostile and unforgiving. She had had to hurry because it burned her feet and her insides, and that made her drop her bag of groceries one day. The pastures were moist and squishy and fulfilling.

She knew the cows were unhappy when they stood near the barbed electric fence and stared at her.
She had felt that same look as she stood at the rail of her apartment balcony.
The cows had turned back to green pastures and forgotten the fence. She could not.
And then she hit the bottom.

Mark Pegram “Moonshine in Piedmont North Carolina”

Some Lovely Creative Non-Fiction. Enjoy …

Moonshine Piedmont North Carolina

Intro

Nick Pegram, Nicholas Talley Pegram, my grandfather was born in the Piedmont of North Carolina 1864 during the height of the Civil War. He was six generations from his ancestor, George Pegram, who came to America to Jamestown in the mid 1600’s.

Nick was called Stuttering Nick to separate his identity from another Nick Pegram who lived in Kernersville, Drinking Nick. Drinking Nick and his sons would get liquored-up, ride their horses onto the platform, and shot up the train on Saturday nights when it passed by the Bass Café.

Tobacco and alcohol financed America so that it could become the bright and shiny city on the hill. In 1900, twenty percent of tax collections came from tobacco and sixty percent from alcohol excise tax.1 Of course this was before the constitution was changed to allow the individual to be taxed. The addictions of revenue lead to the addiction of alcohol by the government as a means to drive the economic engine. The government encouraged the manufacture of liquor as it filled the need of the politicians to become drunk with power.

It was the same case for Nick and his family as well. Everyone wanted to make shine. It was an easy way to make money and not let the excess corn, wheat, oats, pumpkins, or anything else that would ferment go to waste. After all, wasn’t this the American way as George Washington financed the Revolutionary War with his distillery? Also it soothed the mind and lubricated the aches from hard work and emotional turmoil. I am not so sure you could go as far as to say that it was a happy time, but a time non-the-less.

Of course the government did not want anyone to become too rich from an easy source of income. The control of power was always in the hands of government and greedy distillery owners who greased the palms of the politicians. To accomplish this feat, the government limited the amount of alcohol that could be made in one year by an individual through legislation. In 1890 Hiram and Sterling purchased over 200 tons of special paper for the government and a foot long Special Tax stamp was issued to still owners and tobacco dealers.¬2

To overcome the limit as to the amount of alcohol that could be made from a private still, the Pegram brothers became very inventive. At the beginning of the year, Nick would make as much liquor that was allowed under his Special Tax stamp. He would then trade the still for six acres of land to his brother John. John would then make as much liquor as his Special Stamp would allow. It would then be the beginning of the following year and John would buy a Special Stamp for that year and make as much liquor as was allowed. He would then trade the still back to his brother Nick and the cycle continued for years.

The brothers became so successful that they hired a hand to run the operation of the still. They built a small house for the hired hand just down the hill from the Pegram ancestral home that was built about 1780. It was below the spring and the still operated from the fresh sweet water. It was especially tasty because of the rich source of magnesium and fluoride in the spring.
1. http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/153529/
2. http://www.rdhinstl.com/taxpaid.htm

Moon Shines over the Piedmont – 1903

The hired hand was named Nugent, a wiry-determined man. Nugent’s wife was very pretty. Not only was she lovely and beautiful, she was so enchanting that John could just not keep his eyes off her or his hands either for that matter. Word had got around the neighborhood that John was ditilin’ with Nugent’s wife. To say that Nugent was upset is like saying a blizzard is a mild spring snow shower.

There was a regular poker game played on the premises not far from the still. This of course was to leverage the appetite for the alcohol that the Pegram brothers produced. It was a slick sales and marketing scheme. What better way to escape from one’s trouble than an evening lubricated with fine moonshine and the hope of winning a big pot in a game of five card stud. Gentlemen of the neighborhood would show up on a regular basis to take in the glee.

On a particularly warm spring Saturday evening, the sap was running high into the trees and the bulls sniffed with snorts the sweet juices of life. As the juices flowed, an emotional stirring inspired Nugent to tell John to back away from his wife. After all, it was through Nugent’s talent and labor at running the still that allowed the Pegram brothers to be so successful at making shine. It was just dastardly that John was even messin’ with Nugent’s wife.

The shine glittered in the moonlight and the fire reflections sparkled on the gold pieces in the large poker pot. Excitement at winning such a large pot was more than could be handled by an alcohol enlightened ego. Bluffing and lying, the skills of poker, were in extraordinary display. If a bull could wear his gonads on his horns, then you would understand the intensity of this night.

John, with a curl of the lip, sneered at Nugent’s last raise. Was it a bluff or the real thing? This was all that Nugent needed to lash out at John over suspected cheating. A cheat is a cheat both at poker and women. As the heat climbed, the other players backed away and tried to find shields from the flame in any available objects.

Nugent flared out, “You d**n lying and cheating S*B, you have cheated once too much.” “You are the scum of the earth.” BANG!

Before anyone could react, Nugent had gone to his pocket and produced a revolver that he plunged into John’s chest. With some mild gurgling, John inhaled his last breath and past as the others scattered. It is hard to believe today, but the sheriff did not even come out to investigate because everyone knew that John was a cheat.

Shine on Moonshine – Late 1940’s

The Bethel community was alarmed by the amount of violence that emanated from the alcohol produced at Nick’s still. The fact that Nick’s brother had been killed did not ease the mind of the women at the local Methodist Women’s circle either. That other Nick, Drinking Nick Pegram and his boys, got their shine from Stuttering Nick. Surely the shine was the only reason he and his boys shot up the train in Kernersville on Saturday nights. Alcohol was evil, evil, evil.

When it came time for the amendment to initiate prohibition, there was not a single person in the neighborhood that would admit he was not for the end of legal liquor. It was the destruction of community. After all, if Jesus could turn water into wine, it should be within the capacity of government to turn shine into water. Ah, the hypocrisy of man to think he can overcome evil in an act of rules. Evil is in the lie.

Nick’s youngest son, Troy was born in 1905 or two years after his uncle John had been shot in the poker game for cheating. Troy with his three brothers had spent his early twenties in chasing a living by setting stone and tile on the large houses of tobacco barons and wealthy distillery owners like the Reynolds and Vanderbilt’s. As now, the construction industry for large buildings is a hard way of life; always traveling and living somewhere else.

Troy took a likin’ to a very pretty girl in the neighborhood named Edna. She was very fetching and had a brilliant mind as well as a vivid body. Troy had spent his time with plenty of women while on the road in the construction industry. He wanted to settle down and rear a family. Not only that, he understood that religion, especially the belief in Jesus, was not the only opiate of the masses. Belief in a greater power and how we perceive life is the very fundamental nature of being. Memories and thoughts, without emotional disturbance of the essence, is wisdom. Edna was of the same bent. Not only that, she truly understood the nature of energy flow, a very modern and ancient concept.

They both had seen and felt the blight of too much alcohol. Troy with the shooting of his uncle and Edna with the death of her brother at the tender age of seventeen from an alcohol inspired wreck, believed no alcohol was best. Married in 1927, they had lived the early part of their life with prohibition and felt it was the right thing. With no understanding of economics, they did not understand how the ban on liquor had helped to bring on the Great Depression.

Nick did understand how the loss of revenue affected him and his family. The still was moved into the deep surroundings of Rocky Branch. The land plunged down more than one hundred feet into a steep sided gorge. What a great place to hide a still from the government. Nick lived very comfortably through the depression. He even purchase each of his sons a Model T Ford in the late twenties as the economy boomed before the fall.

Now Troy had the desire to preach the Lord’s word as he felt this is the duty of all Christians. He became a lay minister in the Methodist church. He was good enough to have his own two-church-charge in the later part of his life. Edna knew that it was not so much his skill as the lack of ministers in the Methodist district. However, she faithfully supported him in this effort of reaching out in faith.

Troy felt so strong about the evil of alcohol that he decided to preach about how the evil of alcohol had destroy the peace and tranquility of the Bethel community. He thought it cruel of the moonshiners to make liquor which ultimately resulted in so much pain. Of course, he most likely did not realize the extent to which his own life had been made through the production of alcohol. Having been born of a moonshiner, it was a hard sermon to preach, but he felt a worthy job. Who knows how Nick felt about the sermon, but then Nick was long dead by this time.

The shiners took exception to the hard line that was laid down by Troy. Surely he did not believe that all men would go to hell just because they were trying to make a good living through shine. It was such a natural thing to not let their excess crops go to waste. It also provided much glee to the users. How could anyone deny such synergism of life, liquor, economics, and a good time!

“You bad boys are going to hell!” Troy drummed on.
It was early fall. The last of the green hay had been put up into the hay loft of Troy’s large barn. It was large enough that it had ten stables, enough room to bring the cows, horses, and mules into the barn. The family went to bed early on that cool fall evening. They were awakened by the shouts of one of their children who had been awakened by a bright glow. IT IS THE END OF THE WORLD! – No, wait, the barn is on fire.
A mad rush was made toward the barn in an effort to save as many of the animals as possible. Some were saved, some were not. It was a sad time in the Troy and Edna household. What would they do with such a great loss of wealth as the family barn? How would they keep their animals warm through the winter and store enough hay to feed them. Milk and eggs collected and sold through the use of the barn was also a prime source for Edna to clothe her family.

Later that week, Troy was pulled aside by the local sheriff. The sheriff had information on one of the shiners that was bragging at the local store. A claim that he had burned the barn down because of the nasty sermon that had been delivered by the right-reverend Troy. Troy was a forgiving man. He believed in total forgiveness. He repeated the words of Hebrews often, “There is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.” He would then repeat the Good News – Jesus has shed all the blood that is necessary. Troy refused to file charges against the braggart. Green hay has always been known to be easily auto-combustible.

I am sure that Troy would have liked the quote of modern author Anne Lamott, “Not forgiving is like eating rat poison and expecting the rat to die.” Mash ferments and the shine flows, and nobody but nobody knows where it goes. The neighborhood came together in unity and rebuilt Troy and Edna’s barn.

Note: The second largest still every busted in North Carolina was busted just one mile from Nick’s house in 1970. It was the result of the consolidation of the shine industry after the building of Belew’s Creek Lake by Duke Power. The building of the lake had destroyed much of the prime hollows for hiding stills. This area was called Little Egypt because of the belief that shiners lived the hedonistic life of the Egyptians. When the still was busted, there were three- two- thousand gallons tanks of finished shine destroyed.

Jackson Culpepper “Judgment House”

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The pines by the house are one shadow and our van’s headlights push the darkness far back into the woods. It rushes back when they cut off. I know hell is not in that house.

The sun was setting when we left Delia. Waves of heavy cloud hung over us, so bright it looked like if they dropped they would incinerate us. I pointed them out to Ashley and she looked into the small glaring sun with me and said “Yeah, it’s beautiful.”
I tried to sit next to her in the van but she sat in the back with the other girls. I listened to my music and watched the lit-up parking lots of Albany pass by.
Tommy, our youth director, acted like we all already knew what the house was and didn’t explain it. The others said it was about heaven and hell and people dying. Then you get Dairy Queen after.

In class we read that the woods are lovely, dark, and deep. The woods behind the house would be quiet—I can tell by looking. Besides, there wouldn’t be a hundred laughing youth like there are here, and no blaring music. Maybe Ashley would go back there with me, just to hear the quiet. How do you ask a girl to do that?
Tommy gives us bright yellow wristbands and says, “Once you get your wristband, go on in and wait in the lobby.” He adds, “Don’t get Cokes or anything, you can’t carry them through.” Jim comes over to me. We’ve known each other since preschool. Jim spent the night at my house last weekend and we talked about girls. It took a long time for me to admit that I like Ashley. He likes Brittany. Neither of us have ever asked a girl out.
Ashley wears sweaters with just her fingers poking out of the sleeves. She never sits at our lunch table and we never sit at hers because it’s full of girls. Tommy talks sometimes about how lust is a sin and so is masturbation and the two go together because you’re not thinking of like a tree when you do it. But with Ashely, I just wish her niceness was mine—or that she’d point it at me.

The house is old. Its paint peels in strips and its windows are the old kind with thick glass. I get the feeling like it’s tired of having all these kids run through it. The windows upstairs are blacked out so you can’t see in, but we hear people screaming up there.

Ashley told me she saw a ghost once at the church campground. The counselors took her group straight through this creepy ruined house, past the fallen staircase and out the back door. Ashley knew there were people waiting to jump out at them. Once they got outside, sure enough, a counselor in a black robe ran after them. Ashley knew it was coming so she didn’t run. Instead she stayed and looked up at the window in the top floor, where she saw a white face disappear behind a curtain.

I like ghost stories but I can’t get them out of my head. Like when I’m in that sleep where I’m awake but I can’t move or scream, I see things in the corners of my room.

Inside the house, kids and their parents drink Cokes. There aren’t enough seats for everyone so we camp out on the floor, which is warped like crazy. I sit by Jim. Ashley is in her group of girls. Jim says, “I went through one of these last year but it wasn’t this big.”
“Is it scary?”
“The hell part kind of is. It depends on how they do it.”

I read the Bible and try to do the things Jesus says to do but a lot of it is about divorce and money and I’m not married. I don’t have any money either. Tommy never talks about the parts I have marked with pencil—Jesus drinking wine or the demon-possessed guy they chained up. That’s the stuff I’d like to hear about.

We’re going in. The hall is dark and tall. There are those little windows above all the doors. Our whispers echo.
The first scene has people standing in front of school lockers, talking. They aren’t really talking, just moving their heads and looking around like they were talking. Two people in front are actually talking. One wants to go to a party and the other doesn’t. The first guy gets louder, he really wants to go to this party, and the second one backs down, says okay. The second guy carries a Bible, so I guess he’s not supposed to be going to parties.
We move to the next scene. I hear Ashley’s voice behind me. She talks too quickly for me to understand. The cluster of girls giggle. I wish I knew what they were talking about.

Once Dad and I went to a crazy lady’s house. Dad told me she was our cousin and she went through phases of being really depressed and then really happy and now she was in the happy phase. She lived by herself and had piles of things everywhere: columns of magazines, stacks of kitchen utensils, rows of empty pots. Upstairs we came to her son’s bedroom. She told us he shot himself in that room and what was weirder was how calmly she said it. Just like the rest of the house, that bedroom had neat piles of things everywhere. In fact there were Playboy magazines stacked on his bed. The top magazine’s cover showed a big-haired woman with her arm across her boobs. The picture was faded it had sat there so long. I thought about taking it. I didn’t, not because of lust or whatever, but because there was something sad and gross about it. By then the crazy lady and Dad had gone back downstairs and I was alone there where he’d shot himself.
I thought, later, when I was in bed almost asleep, that the boy’s ghost might have come after me if I took the magazine.

The next scene is two girls at their school lunchroom. More people are in the back fake-talking. The girl tells her friend about being depressed. The depressed girl wears a lot of black, but you can tell it’s not her usual thing. Her nails aren’t painted black, either. The depressed girl’s friend talks about how much God loves the depressed girl and has her Bible out. Shaking her head, the depressed girl leaves. There is no God, she says. Her friend stays and says a prayer, Help Jenny dear Lord, help Jenny find her way Lord.
She should have said There is no love.

Once Ashley wrote me a note. I don’t understand how girls have such perfect handwriting when guys’ handwriting looks like we’re still in first grade. The note just said hi, asked about my classes and said how bored she was in hers. She drew a turtle beside where she put Your friend, Ashley. I wrote her one back and tried to fold it like she did hers.
That night I had a dream that my house was floating on the ocean and I was in the attic looking out through the windows.

I have nightmares many nights. When I was little, they were of something big and evil chasing me through the house. I tried to scream but couldn’t. It chased me but I never saw what it was—I only knew it was big and it stank like when you find a dead thing in the woods and it wanted to kill me. Later I had the same dream but the big evil thing was different. Instead of being in once place, it buzzed the air in the attic and all through the house. I couldn’t run or scream because it was in the house and there wasn’t any getting away from it. I woke up those mornings, always Saturday mornings, and didn’t move until I finally forgot the smell.

I have nightmares, too, where I see the shadows of demons coming down the hallway toward my bedroom. These nightmares, I know, are of my parents somehow. The demons scream and cackle and it is so, so loud.

Party scene. People dance and there’s loud music. Everyone drinks from red plastic cups. It’s kind of weird because they have all the lights on. Bible guy from earlier sips. He doesn’t have his Bible anymore but he looks really uncomfortable. Why doesn’t he just drink? Keri, one of our group, dances too and the girls giggle all over again. Bible guy wants to go home, he says. Other guy, who’s pretending to be drunk, says fine, he’ll drive, he’s only had a few. Jim looks at all the people dancing in the back, particularly at one hot girl.

The first time I drank out of the bottles in the dining room it gave me a coughing fit. My stomach felt empty in a weird way but I didn’t puke. I felt lighter and kind of happy. My parents keep other bottles in the desk, in the kitchen, all over the place. I found out the more you drink the less weird it gets. If you drink enough, you drift off past the spins to a place nightmares can’t seem to get to.
Tommy tells us not to drink.

The depressed girl is in her bedroom. There’s a poster of a band with wild hair on the wall and her bed isn’t made up. She has a bottle of pills, the red round type of bottle, not the white, square kind. She cries and says There is no God no one can help me and she takes the pills. In like a second she slumps over and dies. I didn’t see how many pills she took but you don’t just keel over like that. She looked way too calm, too.

I’ve heard people at church say that suicide is the one unforgivable sin.

Maybe the whole thing about God is made up but I’m scared to think that.
Sometimes I feel something when I pray. Like God’s presence with me.
Why is it so easy to feel like that thing from my nightmare is after me, but so hard to feel God?
Mawmaw says to pray for my angels to protect me. Tommy says God loves me and Jesus died for me and I am saved. Satan can’t get me. I don’t think Tommy knows much about the devil.

How can a short prayer save anybody, when every night is so hard?

Mom’s room is next to mine. I heard her crying in there with the door locked. I kept my eyes closed and prayed. Dad was out there so I couldn’t go get a bottle.

We are quiet while the depressed girl dies. On the way to the next scene, the girls talk and I can tell Jim wants to talk about computer games or something but he won’t right now.
The party guys have wrecked their car. Fake fire made from lights and streamers shoots up from the busted hood. Paramedics check their pulses and the drunk one is alive but Bible guy is dead. The paramedics don’t yell or cry. They just check the pulse and lower their heads.
Ashley and the other girls’ faces flash in the yellow ambulance lights. I have never seen them silent before. Ashley chews on her nails.
At the end of the hall Saint Peter is a fat man with a beard and a white acolyte robe. Ambulance lights flash on him and the dead girl and the dead guy, who stand before him. Saint Peter opens a big book and says Yes, you knew Jesus, go on to your reward and Bible guy walks through a door on the right. You, however, never knew Jesus, and cannot go to heaven, he tells the girl. Someone in black, hunched over and wiry, runs through us. This thing runs and grabs her and pulls her through the door on the left. The door stands open, gaping into the dark.
We go in. Tommy says Put your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you, and I put my hands on Jim’s shoulders. Keri’s hands are on mine. The way Tommy talks about it, God and Satan can look into your brain. They have seen what I’ve done, what I’ve thought.
We’re in the room in the house. Heat burns my eyes. They’ve got it turned up so hot you can’t breathe right. That depressed girl wails. We walk in a line in the dark and I hear her wailing. Is that what happens if you kill yourself? The girl screams, Why didn’t I accept Jesus, and they’re torturing her somehow. Other people scream too, but we can’t see anything in the darkness.
Buzzing in the air, in the heat. It’s the same feeling.
If I say I won’t drink anymore, I won’t think about girls, I’ll read my Bible more and pray more—then will it stop hurting? Will God make it stop hurting?

Can you die from losing track of yourself? Like, wandering so far off in your mind you stay gone, separated?

It was the time I drank all the liquor I could and drank my old expired cough syrup too and I lay there for a long time wanting to sleep without nightmares and be done. I kept drinking liquor because I knew I hadn’t drank enough. I woke up the next day and thought I still might die. By Monday I went to school and spent lunch in the bathroom wanting to die.
Mom and Dad didn’t notice because they were drunk too that night.

A new room. Light. Jesus is tall, bearded, and he smiles. Bible guy gets a hug and joins the angels. The angels are girls in bedsheets but lots of bedsheets. Jesus tells us that if we pray that same short prayer we will go to Heaven and be in Glory with Him. He says if we need to pray, there are ministers in the back.
There is silence. The room feels cool and empty.
I go to the back after a few others do and a minister with buzzed hair whose breath smells a little takes me to a corner and asks if I want to be in Heaven with Jesus when I die.
Yes, I tell him. He prays with me and I repeat what he says. The minister smiles and says angels are partying big time because in the Bible it says that the hosts of Heaven rejoice over one sinner that is saved. I tell him, I’m not saved. He smiles. You are if you say the prayer, he says. You can be sure of it.
But I need more saving. He asks what I mean.
My parents, they tell me we can’t let it out around town. Dad is respected. At Mom’s job, they couldn’t have it. So when I break down without saying anything, the minister puts a hand on my shoulder and prays for everything except what it feels like I need.
The minister hugs me and his shirt is sweated through.

One of the retired preachers at church is short and stooped. He has to tilt his head up to look directly into my eyes, but when he does, I know he’s really looking. I can’t think of another adult who has that much kindness in them—it’s like a cloud of kindness around this man. During Wednesday Night Supper one week, he put his hand on my shoulder, tilted his head to see me, and smiled. I’m praying for you, he said.
I hope he keeps praying for me. Maybe his prayers will work.

There’s no face in the window when I look back at the house. We go to Dairy Queen and I sit away from everybody. My face hurts from trying not to cry. Jim sits with me but I don’t talk and he doesn’t either. The others talk and laugh and giggle.

I look out of the window on the van ride home. Once we leave the city the woods turn dark. Turning up my music is like going away inside myself, only the nightmares are there, waiting. Every shadow I see looks like one. And where I’m going it’s only more darkness, more heat, and being alone.
Who will save me?

Erin Kelly “Sound No Trumpet”

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There are no windows in the church. No clocks, either. That’s what bothers Rayne most about the service. She doesn’t mind the elder at the pulpit, glaring at them, judging them, positioning their fate, wondering about their salvation. She doesn’t mind the cramped rows of chairs before him, thighs to thighs, and the cramped, suffocating atmosphere of the dozens of faithful followers there, shoved in this ever-warming box. She doesn’t even mind that her mother drops twenty dollars in the basket when they have only two heels of bread and a quarter of milk at home. She just minds the absence of time. The disregard for hours or minutes; the assumption that every moment belongs to this building on Henne Street, on this narrow road in central Louisiana. The concept that there is nothing else for them to do than worry over their providence, which is something they all do anyway.

The elder leans forward so they know he is serious. He is always serious, but when he leans forward he is very, very serious.

“He puts no trust even in His servants. And against His angels He charges error,” he says. The elder is a humorless man with olive skin and a straight mouth, like a razor. He has the whitest and straightest teeth Rayne has ever seen. This irritates her, because she is only seventeen and believes that her teeth should be straighter and whiter than a church elder in his sixties. But that is how this goes: The elder isn’t just more wise and pious in spirit, he is also superior to her in the ways of teeth. Today he quotes Job through them: “How much more than those who dwell in houses of clay? Whose foundation is in the dust? Who are crushed before the moth!” Here, he bangs the pulpit with a closed fist, but only lightly because this isn’t meant to be a brow-sweating show where people speak in tongues and jump out of their seats. When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you. So says the Bible. So says the elder.

He has his Bible open in front of him, but he doesn’t reference it. This way, everyone knows, as they sit uncomfortably in their chairs, daring not to move, that he needn’t any reference for Scripture; it is all tucked neatly away in his head, an envious vault of godly information that would one day lead him down a pearly, brightened path to the kingdom—and them too, if they would only listen. Not even the other five elders, who sit in the very-front row like obedient kindergarteners, have a vault as sturdy as this.

Rayne shifts her leg to the left, just a bit. The fat thigh of Miss Winnie Rodemich spills over to Rayne’s seat and the only thing that separates their skin is the patterned print of their skirts. Rayne hears Miss Winnie breathing. Rassp, rassp, rassp. Like a sleeping snake. But Miss Winnie is no snake. There is nothing stealthy about her. She doesn’t notice Rayne’s movement. Miss Winnie keeps her eyes on the elder, nodding accordingly and dutifully. Rayne’s mother does the same. And between them: Rayne herself.

The elder goes on to explain Job to them, so they can appreciate all its lessons and teachings, so they can also delight in a tripling of riches one day; all they had to do was have faith, even when their lives crumble around them, even when everything they love is gone, even when they lose every morsel of their existence—even then, especially then! notes the elder, pressing the tip of his index finger against the pulpit—they should trust and believe. When you trust and believe, he says, you are rewarded. Maybe the rewards won’t be here on Earth, he adds (now raising that same finger), but you will be rewarded.

Rayne wonders what time it is. How many ways are there to count the time?

There are ways to tell time without clocks or windows, of course. Watches and cell phones and such. But the elder discourages wristwatches. He doesn’t forbid it—that is a violation of free will—but he discourages it. And cell phones? No one would even consider such a thing. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

It’s difficult to keep mental count when someone is speaking and there are only two slivers of fabric separating your skin from Miss Winnie’s, or when the air has grown so humid and warm that you feel a dryness in your throat and a coldness on your neck, so instead Rayne counts heads. Row one, seat one, is one-second. It is the head of Hattie Milburn. She sits in the same seat for every service. She is closer to her providence than anyone in the room. Old, very old. Tired, very tired.

Rayne grows weary of counting heads when she reaches Verah Hamlett on the third row. Verah Hamlett has the blackest hair Rayne has ever seen and it sits just at the shoulders. When Rayne sees Verah’s black hair, she forgets the hotbox of salvation in which she’s trapped and remembers another day that the Lord had made. Two weeks ago, when Verah’s grandson kissed her in the hidden trail behind the dairy factory. He went up her shirt for a second, but only a second.

Rayne’s cheeks burn. The elder looks at her, like he knows what she’s thinking. Then Job answered: I know what Rayne Miller did with Ben Hamlett. Who does not know such things as these?

Rayne runs her tongue over her imperfect teeth and wonders what time it is. It could be noon. It could be later. It could be raining. Who can say?

There is nothing to do but move your thigh to the left, just a bit, and listen to your elder. So says the Book: The Lord will raise up for you a prophet from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.

The elder straightens his back, closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He tightens his lips between his perfect teeth. Rayne straightens her back, too, because this is it. This is the end of the service. She knows all his movements and a straightened back means the end. Miss Winnie knows too; she drops her head and relaxes her shoulders as if she’s worked very hard for these many hours, and maybe she has. Listening can be hard work. Very hard work, indeed.

The elder’s eyes sparkle when he opens them, as if God placed two perfect crystals in the center of each pupil before bestowing him with the holy spirit.

Rayne glances at her mother as the elder begins his closing remarks. Her mother is stoic and expressionless, as always. She will not move until the elder wishes them goodwill and blessings and sends them on their way. She is committed to the appearance of obedience.

When, finally, the elder wishes them goodwill and such, the dozens of people rise from their chairs, but none of them stretch. Stretching would mean that they’d been uncomfortable, and what is discomfort when you’re learning how to save your soul?

The mutterings of conversation begin once the elder has left the room. The group separates in little packs that move toward the door like trained mice. They mutter: Great service. Wonderful talk. Much to think about. What a pious man, Job. The lower mutterings concern dinner and lunch and other non-service things. The Other Five Elders shake hands. Yes, good service. Very good service, indeed.

“I think I’ll cook soup for dinner,” Rayne’s mother says, once they’re out of the hotbox. She never talks until they’ve officially left the service and now that they’re halfway to their car—the one with the spare tire and dented fender—she feels it’s okay to speak. Rayne’s mother doesn’t talk about secular things when they’re Inside. It’s one of her personal unspoken commandments. Thou shalt not speak of soup in the Lord’s house.

“Okay,” Rayne says. She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. It’s not raining; the sun shines bright, but it’s impossible to tell what time it is. She won’t know what time it is until her mother unlocks the passenger door and they get in the car. Then she can look at the clock on the dashboard, and she’ll know. Only she has to subtract two hours and twelve minutes from the dashboard time, because the car’s clock stopped working long ago.

Rayne immediately looks at the clock when she gets in the car, but today it will not tell the time. Today it says 88:88. Rayne taps it with her index finger.

“Clock’s broken,” she says.

“Doesn’t matter what time it is,” her mother replies. “It’s Sunday.”

This is the day the Lord has made.

“Still,” Rayne says, “I’d like to know what time it is.”

Her mother starts the car. It takes two tries, but it finally rumbles to life. The lot outside the hotbox has cleared out quickly. People are ready for lunch. Or early dinner. Who knows which, when you don’t know what time it is?

“Pass me that tape from under there,” her mother says, motioning her chin toward the floorboard of the passenger seat. Her mother listens to the same three tapes because the radio doesn’t work, even though the cassette player does. Rayne suspects that they own the only vehicle in the civilized nation that plays tapes.

When Rayne reaches under the seat, her fingertips brush against something papery. She pinches whatever-it-is between two fingers. It’s a five-dollar bill.

“Hey, look,” Rayne says, waving the five dollars in front her mother’s face like a found bar of gold. In the following moment she regrets this and wonders why she didn’t just secretly shove it in her pocket, because her mother, who has not yet pulled out of the lot, says:

“Well, shit. Bring it inside, then, before we leave. You heard what the elder said today, about Job.”

Tripling of riches.

Rayne glances at the five dollars then at the hotbox. Even though she has no idea where the money came from and she knows it isn’t rightfully hers, she feels a sense of ownership because it was under her seat. And now it would go toward their salvation, instead of inside her pocket.

But no point in arguing.

Honor your mother. Whoever reviles mother shall surely die. So says Matthew.

“Alright,” Rayne says. She opens the car door and says “be right back” over her shoulder as she steps back into the sun. She cranes her head back and squints at the sky. Two o’clock, maybe. It could be two o’clock.

The hotbox is deserted. Cleared out, just like that. The chairs are all empty. Pulpit unoccupied. Rayne clutches the money.

“Hello?” she says. She peeks around the pulpit to see if the offering basket is sitting there. It is, but it’s already empty.
Cleared out, just like that.

She considers dropping the money in there anyway, but worries that it’ll be found by someone other than the elder, and she knows the elder is still there because his car was still parked in the same place, under the awning. Might as well give it directly to him.

“Hello?” she says again.

She walks down the short hallway that leads to the church offices. There’s a crack in the door of the elder’s room. It’s a small room, a clean room. Tidy, like his suits. Rayne raises her knuckles to knock—ready with the five dollars—but something stops her. A wash of curiosity stops her. An as-yet unknown voyeuristic spirit stops her. And something else, too: The elder’s teeth.

A straight-lined set. White, like pearls. Detached from the mouth, resting between the soft pads of the elder’s fingers, lingering over his desk as he brushes them gently with a toothbrush. An odd place to brush your teeth, Rayne thinks. An odd thing to see a set of teeth in someone’s hand. An odd mouth, the elder’s. It doesn’t look thin like a razor anymore. His lips sag inward like a deflated balloon. He doesn’t see her. He’s focused on his teeth. The way he brushes them reminds Rayne of the time a harpist visited her high school. The woman played song after song, but Rayne looked at the woman’s face more than she listened to the music, and the elder’s face reminds her of the way the woman’s face looked that day. Like every note was to be played carefully or the melody would fall apart.

Your teeth are like a flock of shorn sheep that have just come from the wash. Each of them is matched, and none of them is missing.

So says Solomon. So says the elder.

Rayne steps out of the light and drops the five dollars at the foot of the door. He’ll discover it, think it fell out of the basket. He’ll put his teeth back in his mouth and become whole again. The salvation of his people, five dollars richer. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.

Just before she turns from the hall, she sees the clock at the other end, above the exit door. Out of sight, with moving hands.

It is three-seventeen.

Barbara Nishimoto “Identifying Trees”

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Andrew and Deborah were driving south on the Natchez Trace. They didn’t expect to get as far as Natchez or even to Tupelo. They were only out for a Saturday drive, traveling slowly and enjoying the fall weather. They stopped at the overlooks to admire the view, and they hiked a few of the easy trail loops. It was sunny and cool, and there was the rich smell of the damp earth and pine and decaying leaves. Above their heads the light flickered through the branches.

Deborah was hoping to have the chance to use her tree identification book. Since retiring she had thought of it as a project she could take on. But she was having trouble even distinguishing the types of leaves. “They all look toothed to me,” she complained to Andrew. “Would you say that was compound?” She knew her husband wasn’t really listening to her, knew he was happy that she was occupied with something that didn’t require his attention or participation. She had developed the habit of asking, “What was best about today? What was your favorite?” Little tricks to coax. “You’re just humoring me,” she used to shout at him. Deborah paused in front of a scaly barked tree. The memory of all those arguments. She marveled at how angry she had been. Surely the neighbors had heard. “Unbelievable,” she whispered. Andrew turned back to her, waited. “What’s that one?” Deborah shrugged, “I can’t tell.”

In the afternoon they pulled off the Trace into a little town. “No chance of finding any franchises here,” Andrew mumbled. Across from a restored train depot was a narrow wooden building. Mom’s Family Restaurant. For some reason the place was built on stilts, the windows some ten feet above the small parking lot. A wooden ramp led up to the entrance.

As she walked from their car Deborah heard a woman’s voice. Parked close to the foot of the ramp was an old Taurus. The windows were down, and Deborah could see a woman in the shadows sitting in the passenger seat. “I’m almost there,” the woman said. “I’m stopping for lunch now, but I’ll be there by tonight.” She lifted her head and laughed, and because there was no one else around, Deborah assumed the woman was talking on her Bluetooth.

The restaurant was small and low ceilinged with plywood paneled walls. The linoleum was warped and spongy, and the dozen or so tables were covered with shabby oil cloths. Deborah heard the clatter of a pan and turned and saw a large window, a pass-through, that looked into the kitchen. “Sit wherever you want,” a woman called out. Her back was to them, and she flipped her hand as though brushing at a piece of lint. “Mom,” Andrew whispered.

The only other customers were two women seated at a table in the middle of the restaurant. One of them glanced up at Deborah, smiled, gave a quick little nod, and then looked back at her companion. The woman had short gray hair that curled around her chubby, friendly face. She was wearing white plastic earrings and a beaded necklace to match, and she kept fussing with her companion’s table setting — aligning the silverware, pushing the water glass closer to the plate and then moving it farther away. Her companion kept her head down, apparently focused entirely on her meal. She was younger and thinner, and she was in a wheelchair.

Deborah and Andrew sat at a table by a window; she could see the little train depot and the base of the town’s water tower. There was a dusty mirror mounted on one of the walls, and Deborah could see the reflection of the other customers and the back of Andrew’s head.

“This ought to be good,” her husband sighed. “I don’t know what they’ll have for you.”

Deborah opened her tree identification book. She had placed a leaf as a marker, and now she held it up to him. “See if you can find the picture that matches this.”

Without looking he pointed at the book. “That one,” he smiled.

For a moment Deborah wondered how they must look to the gentle woman and her companion. She and Andrew were old, had been together a long time, and she thought that somehow they each had sunk deep inside themselves. Just like the stereotype.

“Come on.” She smiled, knew she was performing. “Help me. I can’t find it.”

“You’ll get it.” He picked up the menu, squinted as he read down the page. “Probably just takes time. Be patient.”

The door opened, and the woman from the Taurus stepped into the restaurant. “Is there a restroom in here?” She was dressed in a chambray shirt and mannish trousers. “Oh, never mind. I see it.” She turned to the women, laughed. “How could I miss it?” Her voice was loud, almost harsh. She had a sharp straight nose and clear skin, and her gray-blonde hair was carelessly tied back with a bandanna. There was something sloppy and jiggly and loose about the way she moved as if she were braless and had no muscle tone.

When the woman opened the bathroom door Deborah could see the toilet and sink, and even when the door was closed she could hear the sound of the woman relieving herself, running the water. She glanced at Andrew, but he seemed oblivious.

The woman came out of the bathroom and began walking around the perimeter of the restaurant. She paused to study the wall clock and went on to read a framed document hanging close to the pass-through. Then she leaned through the opening, hands clasped behind her, “I’ll take a glass of water and some kind of salad. Nothing over five dollars. I’m traveling on a budget. Three fifty would be closer to what I want to spend.” She straightened, turned back to face the restaurant, and Deborah instinctively ducked her head, hunched her shoulders.

But the woman decided to sit at a table next to the other two customers. “I’m Reverend Belinda.” She sounded a bit breathless as she scooted her chair too close and then had to inch it back.

The other woman put her hand to her mouth to cover her chewing; she bobbed her head. “Judith. This is Tiffany.”

“You heading north or south?”

“We’re just enjoying the weather.”

“I’m on a pilgrimage traveling all the way from Mississippi. Hope to get to Nashville by dinner. Think I’ll make it?”

“You should,” said Judith.

“Traveling all alone, but I’m not worried. I’m like Sarah Palin.” The Reverend chuckled, cupped her hands on the edge of the table and leaned back. “Lock and load.”

Andrew drew a breath and sighed. He turned to the window, gave a slight shake to his head.
“I’m not what you call a women’s libber now. I don’t do any of that. But I do like Sarah. She keeps those boys in line.” She kept turning her head, watching each woman as though looking for something in their expressions. “You like Sarah?”

“Mmm,” the older woman said.

“Mama Grizzly.” She sat back, stared at the woman in the wheelchair and smiled. “Actually,” the Reverend said, “I’m a healing minister. I pray for people, and it helps them. I have some pamphlets in my car.” She paused, leaned forward, tried to make eye contact though the younger woman’s head was bowed. “May I ask how you injured your back? Or is it your legs, or maybe your neck?”

“It’s not an injury,” Judith said. “She has MS.”

“Oh,” the Reverend nodded. “Does it bother her to talk about it?”

“No. It’s just she’s very shy.”

“You shy, Sweetie?” The Reverend ducked her head, leaned closer to Tiffany. “I could pray for you. That’s what I do. I pray for people. I could pray for her.”

“Oh.” Judith drew a breath.

The Reverend bent forward, her chest almost touching her knees. Both hands were atop Tiffany’s wrist. Her eyes were closed, her lips were moving, but Deborah couldn’t hear any of the prayer. The young woman was motionless, hands in her lap, her head still bowed. Judith’s eyes were open, her brow furrowed. She too was leaning towards Tiffany, her hand gripped around her companion’s thin forearm. The Reverend finished, straightened slowly and lifted her arms, palms up. Smooth brow and slight smile. Her eyes were still closed. For a moment she was a young woman again, and Deborah saw that she had once been pretty. The Reverend held that pose, drew a deep breath then opened her eyes. She placed both hands on Tiffany’s. “I’ll pray for you always.”

Andrew tapped her fingers, and Deborah turned to face him.

“If you like I could also perform an anointment. It’s a special part of my ministry.”

Judith stood, fumbled with her purse then put a hand on her companion’s shoulder. She bent forward as if to whisper in the younger woman’s ear.

“It wouldn’t take very long,” the Reverend said. “I have some healing tokens in my car and some literature you might be interested in.” She swiveled, her hands on the back of her chair as though she might push herself out of her seat and follow the two women. “I help people, that’s part of my ministry. I help people.”

Judith stopped at the register, placed some bills on the counter. “Thank you,” she called into the kitchen. “We’re leaving.” The cook came to the pass-through, stood with her hands on her hips. “All right then.”

“Do you need some help with the door?” the Reverend asked. “Here, let me help with the door. Please.”

“We’re fine.”

“Please.”

Judith had her hands on the handles of her companion’s chair. She pivoted and began to back towards the door. “No, Dear. You stay where you are. We don’t need any help.” Her voice was gentle and sweet as if she were talking to a young child, but she did not look at the Reverend. Instead she seemed to stare at the top of Tiffany’s head.

For that moment Tiffany was fully visible. Her face was very thin and pale, her long fingers oddly curled, clasped in her lap. She stared at the Reverend, frowned, her eyes ticking over the other woman’s face and shabby clothes. Then she lowered her gaze and was expressionless again, frozen, even as her chair bumped across the threshold.

The door closed, and in the silence Deborah heard footsteps on the ramp. The Reverend stood and began to move about the room again. Deborah looked at Andrew; he rubbed his forehead, pursed his lips then smiled. “I’ll protect you,” he whispered.

“Remember,” the Reverend called into the kitchen, “just ice water and a salad. I’m on a tight budget.” She turned and faced the room, and Deborah lowered her gaze from the mirror; she was sure the woman was staring at them. But the Reverend didn’t approach, instead she returned to her table. She sat with hands folded, head bowed in prayer; and for the rest of the time as Deborah and Andrew placed their order, were served and finally finished their meal in the uncomfortable silence, the Reverend sat staring at the wall, sipping her water and leaving her salad untouched.

Andrew placed his hand on the small of Deborah’s back as they left the restaurant and walked down the ramp. They passed the Taurus, and Deborah stopped, stooped to look in through the dusty windows. Laundry baskets and shopping bags stuffed with clothes and towels and dishes were piled in the backseat. Plastic and wire hangers and wadded up panties and T-shirts littered the floor.

“Jesus,” Andrew said.

“I wonder why she didn’t talk to us?” Deborah shrugged, felt a little sheepish. “I was sure she would.”

“She was nuts.”

“Maybe we don’t seem so kind.”

Andrew snorted, unlocked their car. “She better put a move on if she wants to get to Nashville tonight.”

They pulled out of the lot, followed the signs back to the Trace. The car was stuffy, and Deborah opened her window. She leaned back against the seat, stared up through the tinted glass at the blue sky and wisps of clouds. “I liked our lunch.”

“I did.”

“She sure chased those other two out of there.”

She smiled, “You’ll protect me?”

“She didn’t sit by us, did she?”

Years ago he had come to Virginia after she finished her course at the university. It was silly; their friends had rolled their eyes. Two cars, driving back separately. In the time before cells he had signaled the need for a gas stop by waving his arm out his window. Not flamboyant, he could never do such. Straight armed, a slight wiggle to his fingers. After filling up they had parked, sipped bottled water, and Deborah had laughed and fallen into him. “It was your signal to me,” she giggled, and all the way home to Tennessee Andrew kept repeating the gesture. She remembered seeing his head tilt to look back at her through the rearview, and now in her memory she saw his dark eyes and brows, and she couldn’t help herself, and turned to the window and kept smiling and smiling, holding onto that memory, filling up with it, why she didn’t know.

“Look at all the trees,” Andrew said. “You’re missing your chance. Shall I stop?”

“I only know two trees. A maple and an oak.”

“The magnolia.”

Deborah laughed. “Three.” She closed her eyes, felt she could fall asleep. She liked feeling the motion of the car, the warm sun on her face and throat, the slight cool breeze from the open window. “It’s just it wasn’t what I first thought,” Deborah said. “Do you think none of it was true?” she asked softly. “And if none of it was true, who do you feel sorry for most of all?”

John Davis, Jr. “The Legend(s) of Mailman George”

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Everyone in Steadman knew how Mailman George got his scars. In our town, when you were old enough to learn, your parents told you the cautionary tale of his affair with Carol Colletti – a woman on his walking door-to-door route – and her husband’s revenge:

Pete Colletti, a welder for the city’s transportation department, returned early from the shop one day to find George and Carol entwined on the guest room futon. She was wearing his blue, short-sleeved uniform shirt over nothing, and he was bare other than his white athletic socks. After the expected screams were exchanged, big Pete subdued skinny George and bound and gagged him using the only thing handy – three rolls of blue painter’s tape from the recent guest room remodeling. He dragged the near-mummified man into the driveway and tossed him into the back of the city’s pickup truck. Also in the old stick-shift Ranger’s bed was a roll of barbed wire. Pete had planned to cordon off Carol’s backyard garden during the approaching weekend. That project would have to wait.

On the far edge of the city dump, there lay one hundred acres of swamp. Pete plowed the truck instinctively toward the big marsh, unloaded his mostly blue prisoner, and kick-rolled him deep into a stand of cypress trees. There, he propped up George, who twitched and pitched beneath the sticky bindings. Pete unrolled his barbed wire bale, wrapping it round and round the interloper, starting at his still-socked ankles and finishing at the business end of his mullet haircut. Using the wire pliers from the glove box, Pete twisted the wire against the cypress tree, binding George tightly. He turned it harder and harder, deep into the blue painter’s tape and the encased victim. George stayed there all night, struggling beneath two excruciating layers of industrial adhesive and gaucho wire.

The next morning, two garbage men on their smoke break spotted something bright blue a ways from landfill pile number five. George was found and cut loose, but the barbs had dug into him all over. He gave an account of his torture to the local police, who did nothing since they sided with Pete.

This was the story everyone understood and politely never mentioned in public. Everybody was content with their discreet knowledge of George’s indiscretions until Aaron Ross and his family moved into town. They’d purchased the old Baxter place over on Eighth Avenue, and our parents had instructed us to make them feel welcome, even if they were “different folk.”

My friends and I rode bikes with Aaron for our part. His speech was funny to us, as he had moved to our little town from Rhode Island. What we called water fountains, he called “bubblers.” Cokes, meaning any carbonated soft drinks to us, were “pop” to him. The list of vernacular contrasts went on, and to add another alien element, he and his father played tennis. The only people we knew who played tennis were old ladies trying to stave off heart attacks. Aaron’s dad, a used car salesman, had taken a job with Victor “King” Reynolds, the owner of Steadman Ford. Our parents felt that tennis-playing Yankee car salesmen belonged in the same category with serial killers who made needlepoint samplers during their time on death row. But in the name of graciousness, they forced us to be outwardly nicer than they were behind closed doors. Besides, Aaron’s mother, Judith, made marshmallow fluff sandwiches – a delicacy we would never have at our PB&J-loyal homes. So we could muster up niceties for her, anyway.

Still, we should have known Aaron would screw things up. It happened in the middle of summer vacation. On our bikes, we were chasing down the Pinky-dinky ice cream truck when Aaron noticed Mailman George and all his scars.

“What the hell happened to him?” he asked us, still pumping toward the wavy sound of “Arkansas Traveler” warbling from the ice cream truck a block away.

“Don’t ask,” said Robbie, a towheaded, freckled boy two years my senior. “It’s a long story, dude.”

Aaron was insistent: “Nah – I want to know, man. Was he in the war? What?”

“Let it go,” Robbie advised. “Let’s get some snow cones.”
“Yeah, just let it go,” I parroted, ever the follower.

With that, Aaron skidded his bike around and began pedaling back toward Mailman George.

“Oh shit,” I said. “New boy’s gonna ask him!”

“Aw, hell no!” Robbie shot back.

We had to stop the poor fool. Catching up to his sleek yellow ten-speed, we arrived just in time to hear him blurt, “Hey mister – mind telling me what happened to you?”

Aaron’s hands were gesticulating about his face like flies were there, but alas, there were no flies. Only stupid Yankee-boy making an ass of himself. Robbie and I buried our eyes beneath our hands, shaking our heads as if our own gestures could somehow apologize.

“Son, you got guts,” Mailman George began. “In the twenty years I’ve been delivering mail around here, nobody’s asked me that question.”

“We’re real sorry, Mr. George,” Robbie said. “He doesn’t know…”

“No, no. It’s okay. I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask, and now that you boys have had the guts to, I can finally tell you my secret.”

We leaned forward, eager to hear the salacious confession that was sure to follow.

“Never coach little league,” he said.

“WHAT?” Robbie yelled back. “You’re saying you got all those scars from coaching little league?”

He was on the verge of indignant when I butted in: “How’d that happen, sir?”

With that, Mailman George’s eyes glazed over in reflection, and he leaned against the picket fence in front of the Moore’s place. He looked off into the oak tree canopy above us.

“I’ll tell you boys since you asked, but you’ve got to promise not to go telling anybody,” he almost whispered.
We nodded our sweaty heads in agreement, and he began his recollection:

“All Gabriel Delagarza ever wanted to do was be a relief pitcher. He was a boy about your age, and his favorite baseball player was John Franco, a fabulous reliever for the Cincinnati Reds. Most boys followed Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, or some of the other big-name hitters on that team, but not Gabe. He knew every John Franco stat that existed, and even had a red ‘Big C’ cap that Franco had signed during a spring training game. Gabe kept a baseball card of his hero tucked into the frame of his bedroom mirror so that every morning when he got ready, he could remember his goal: Be like John. Be like John.”
The postman’s right fist pounded into his left hand to hammer home his point.

“He daydreamed about closing games with consecutive strike-outs, sealing no-hitters for starting pitchers, and signing autographs after big shut-out games. So, when fall ball tryouts rolled around, Gabe came and saw me, since I was the coach at the time. We had quite a team: the Johnston’s Hardware Eagles. A great group of kids, that bunch. Thing is, they were all white – ‘Caucasian’ is the right word, I think. There wasn’t a brown or black face to be found on our roster. So when Gabe showed up, I figured there would be trouble. I came up with an excuse pretty fast, and told him, ‘Sorry, son. Your name won’t fit on the back of our uniform jerseys. Maybe next year when you’re a little bigger.’

Gabe was heart-busted. All he had wanted was to throw during a couple of final innings, and I was afraid that his being Mexican would have gotten him hurt somehow. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have made him a starter.” Mailman George’s eyes left us for a moment, glanced down at the sidewalk, then back up to us.

“Why?” Aaron prodded.

“Here’s what happened,” the deliveryman continued. “Gabe was so upset, his mom and dad took him to see the circus over at the big flea market that weekend. They had a whole bunch of sideshows, and one of them was a knife thrower. Gabe watched the man burst balloons, stick swords around a lady on one of those circular turntables, and he was hooked. He knew he had a new calling in life from that night forward.

He went home after the show, took down his John Franco baseball card, and shoved it in his desk drawer. He put his Reds cap on the top shelf of his closet. Then he began looking through the back of his dad’s Soldier of Fortune magazine. Sure enough, there among the ads was one selling a set of genuine throwing knives, just like the ninjas used. Gabe used his pitcher’s glove fund to get a money order from the local convenience store. In a few weeks, he had his new obsession. Every afternoon, he used his big right pitching arm to chuck those blades over and over into an old propped-up stump out back of his dad’s shed. He learned how to change his throw for different distances, how to make them stick at different angles, and his best trick was splitting a card at ten paces without looking.” The postman’s eyes grew wide and sincere. He lowered his voice just a little: “One day, he went out to the stump, taped his John Franco card onto it, and cut it dead down the middle from fifteen paces using his left hand. He was ready.

By that time, Gabe was in ninth grade. Circus posters went up all over town right about the time that fall ball tryouts were being held. Gabe went down to the flea market and asked to speak with the manager of the circus. An unshaven little man with a holey shirt came waddling up to the main entrance and eyed Gabe over.

‘No refunds,’ he said.

‘I don’t want a refund; I want a job,’ Gabe said back to him.

‘Don’t got any.’

‘Look, mister. I’m the best damn knife-thrower in these parts. I can work for you or against you,’ Gabe hissed, flashing his ninja knives from beneath his shirt sleeve.

‘I don’t respond to threats, boy. Tell you what I’ll do, though. Miss Christina is our resident knife act. If she says you’re good enough, I might take you on. Minimum wage, lousy hours.’

‘That’s more like it,’ Gabe said.

The manager, who finally introduced himself as Mack Snyder, led Gabe to a trailer in back of the flea market. Mack knocked on its door, and a tall, black-haired woman wearing only her bra and panties appeared.

‘What do you want, leetle man?’ she spit at him. ‘You know I’m very beezy.’

‘Leave your soap operas for just a second, sweetheart,’ he answered. ‘This here is, um…what’s your name, boy?’

‘Gabriel. Gabriel the Great. The finest knife thrower in all of Steadman.’

Miss Christina covered herself with a tiger-print blanket from nearby, and said, ‘So what? Anyone can throw knives. But can you heet anything?’ Her teeth were intense white beneath maroon-painted lips, and her blade-curved eyelashes batted her frustration away.

‘Lady, I can hit a gnat’s eyebrow from a mile off,’ Gabe bragged. ‘I can probably throw better than you do right now.’

‘Oh reely? Let’s see you try.’

Miss Christina closed the door kind of softly like girls do, and then she tossed on one of her show outfits, a little blue tasseled number that was no less revealing than the underwear she had on before. The only real addition she made was a headpiece – a kind of crown-looking jeweled thing that had peacock feathers in it.

She led Gabe out to the pasture behind her trailer. There, she’d set up a bunch of targets ranging from a plywood silhouette of a man to a round wheel that had playing cards painted on it.

‘We will play a leetle game,’ she began. ‘Have you ever played pig, young man?’

‘You mean like the basketball game? Sure. It’s like horse, only shorter.’

‘Same thing here,’ she said, withdrawing five silver knives from pouches in the back of her sparkling bikini top. ‘I throw, I heet. You throw, you heet the same thing. You miss once, and you’re out. Got eet?’

‘Got it,’ Gabe said, rolling his eyes all sarcastic-like at her fake accent.

‘First, tall man’s head,’ she told him, pointing toward the wooden cut-out. She whistled one of the knives through the air and it stuck into the top of the target with a vibrating ‘thwack!’”

Mailman George was now using his hands to demonstrate the sound of the blade wiggling back and forth in the target. We were entranced. Aaron stood silently, his mouth hanging agape, waiting for whatever happened next.

“Gabe pulled the knife loose from the target, backed up, and threw. His knife stuck exactly the same as Miss Christina’s, and let me tell you, she was miffed. The gypsy-looking woman threw one into the wheel of cards, hitting the ace of hearts dead-center. Gabe did the same thing. Well, by now she was getting downright pissed. She knew she’d have to pull out all the stops for her final shot. She backed up toward her trailer and turned around. Her slinky back was facing the field of targets. Without a breath, she spun around and hurled all five of her knives at the card wheel. They whooshed through the air and jabbed into every other painted card around the big wooden disc. That is, there were ten of those painted-on cards I told you about, and she had stuck every alternating one perfectly.

‘Beat that, leetle man,’ she said to Gabe, running her long finger along his jawline.

He says, ‘Fine’ back to her, just like that.

Gabe gritted his teeth and backed up. He turned his back to the targets and held his own five knives in his right hand. Spinning around, he flung his left hand out repeatedly, sticking the rest of the cards on the big wheel, filling in those gaps that Miss Christina had left. He was hired on the spot.

The circus even made up big posters with his name on them: ‘Gabriel the Great.’ They had these fancy drawings of a Mexican man with knives at the end of each finger and a sword clinched between his teeth. At the time, I didn’t even know that it was our Gabe that they were talking about. Hell, he was only fourteen. I never should have gone to the circus.

You see, they let Gabe pick a volunteer out of the audience. I just happened to be sitting on the very front row, over near the knife throwing sideshow. He came over to me and held out his hand.

‘Rise, my good man,’ he said in a showy voice. I didn’t even recognize him, but I know he recognized me. They had him outfitted with a sequined green and yellow vest, and these shiny red skin-tight pants that ended with slick vinyl-type boots. His hair had been plastered back and sprayed with some kind of glitter. For all I knew, he could have been anybody.

He escorted me to one of those upright turntables in the center of the ring. He had me step on two platforms on the table that kept my feet far apart, and he had me rest my arms on these two other little boards up top. Then he bound my arms, legs, body and neck with these big leather straps,” George explained, showing us the length of the straps by placing his hands about three feet apart. None of us moved.

“He had a rack full of about fifty throwing knives set up. The platform I was attached to began to spin, and pretty soon, I heard him talking to the audience: ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, our main event!’ I remember hearing the first knife hit right above my left thumb, and I remember thinking he had just cut me, even though it didn’t hurt at first. I could feel a little trickle of blood moving down my hand, though. More knives came, up by my ear, down by my ankle, over my shoulder, all over.” He pointed at each one of his visible scars. “And every single one cut me just a little tiny bit. I was bleeding bad, but everybody thought it was just part of the act. I remember hearing cheers when Gabe threw his last knife, and then I passed out. The next thing I knew, I was laid up in the hospital covered in bright blue bandages from head to toe.”

“So what happened to Gabe?” Aaron asked.

“Oh, him? Nobody knows. The circus left town, but he didn’t leave with it. Some folks say he’s still around here somewhere, but nobody can say for sure. His parents never heard from him again, but I’m still left with all his little reminders.”

“Great story, Mr. George,” Robbie said. “Thanks a lot.”

“It’s not just a story, son. It’s the God’s honest truth. Let that be a lesson to you – never judge somebody on their skin color. You never know what might happen. Yall go on now. I have to finish my route here, and Mrs. Colletti has promised to fix me some of her famous cookies today.”

Robbie and I exchanged knowing glances, and Aaron broke the tension: “Thanks again, Mr. George. Have a great day.” What a Yankee suck-up thing to say, I thought.

Mailman George began whistling and walking, and we rode our bikes slowly toward the sound of the ice cream truck, which was now working the other side of town. Arkansas Traveler was a little harder to hear, and we never found our snow cones that day.

Some weeks later, the Ross family had to pack up and move again – Aaron said something about a “car superstore” in Michigan. Robbie and I never told our parents about what Mailman George said. Today, though, when I go in to the post office, I see him once in a while working the counter. He always offers me the special stamps. Last week, they had Roberto Clemente on them.

Diane Thomas-Plunk “The Call”

Dorcas was just getting ready for bed when her cell phone chirped. Pulling up her jeans to avoid tripping, she retrieved her phone, looked at caller ID and froze. She shot a hard look at her husband and held out the phone for Tony to see. Despite his frown, she answered.
“Yes?”
“Where are you? I don’t even know how long I’ve been waiting and you’re still not here. You’re late. Why do you always keep me waiting like this? You never could keep up with the time.”
“Mother, where are you?”
“You know exactly where I am. I’m on the porch of the old folks’ home where you stuck me. Just stuck me away like I stick away your presents that I never like. You never had good taste.”
“Who is this really?”
“Good grief, child. Don’t you know your own mother’s voice? I’m ashamed of you. Now come get me for my visit.”
“There is no visit.”
“Listen at you! Always a bad daughter. Almost never came home for holidays during college, then ran off and got married without even telling me.”
“Mother, I always tried. I always tried to make you proud.”
“Well, you didn’t. You were a great disappointment to your father and me. Thank heaven I only had one child to break my heart.”
Dorcas looked helplessly at Tony and he took away the phone and smoothed her hair.
“She’ll call back, Tony. You know she will.”
“We need to go to sleep, baby. It’s too late for all this.”
The cell phone continued to ring throughout the night. At seven o’clock she answered.
“Well, sun’s up and you should be, too. What time are you coming? I’m still waitin’.”
“My eyes aren’t even open. I can’t deal with you yet.”
“Deal with me? Deal with me? Shame on you for talking like that to your loving mother.”
Tony knew the tears that would come and fetched her medication.
“I want your phone,” he said. “I’m going to put an end to this.”
“No! No, you can’t do that. You can’t shut her off.” Dorcas shoved the cell phone under her pillows.
“Okay, for now. I’ll leave it alone for now, but this has to stop.”
The sun was setting when Dorcas woke up and groggily checked her phone. Four more missed calls. Tony walked into the room munching on some snack. It must be past dinnertime.
“She called four more times while I slept. See?” Dorcas handed the phone to Tony. He looked at the calls missed list.
“I see.”
“You don’t understand. You had normal parents and don’t believe that this woman continues to torment me. She’s relentless.”
“She’s not, sweetheart.”
“That does it. That just does it. You have to stop patronizing me. I’m getting dressed and we’re going to see her. We’re going to the home right now.”
“Baby, that’s not a good idea.”
“I don’t care what you think. I need to face her.”
They parked in front of the porch and empty row of white rocking chairs where mother and her friends used to sit. Tony put his hand on Dorcas’ arm as she reached for the door handle.
“Baby, please don’t. No matter how many times we do this, she’ll never be there again. Try to remember. She died. We buried her. We grieved. Let it be over.”
end

Katherine La Mantia “Vines”

P1030192

My mother always tried half-heartedly to beat back the kudzu that found a home on the brick of our house. She insisted it would damage the roof shingles once it finally wormed its way in there, but I liked how it looked reaching across our porch and climbing up the windows. I imagined that one day I would see a little green leaf poking out from my windowsill or between the floorboards. I don’t think I would mind. I would let it take over, grow over the walls and the ceiling. I would live in a house of vines.

 

The vines turned to bleak, bare stalks in the winter. That’s when my mother would strike with a rake and hedge clippers. Maybe she didn’t know, or maybe she did, but kudzu is one of those things you have to pull up by the roots to get rid of. It goes deep into the Earth and anchors itself there, deeper even than the foundations of our house. I’ve seen a lot of them. Early skeletons. They dig up the dirt around the footprint of the building to keep things like this from happening, to get rid of all the rooted things, but they must have missed the kudzu plant. Missed it, or nature found a way, blowing a seed into the minuscule gap between the gravel in the garden and the bricks.

 

Kudzu is an invasive species, brought over from Japan. They had good intentions, I’m sure, but Americans don’t know how to handle it like the Japanese. They make cakes and tonics and paper; we just watch it grow. It twists around tree trunks and branches, stealing sunlight and carbon dioxide. It’s a quiet massacre. I passed whole kudzu forests on the way to school, a green ivy blanket draped over every pine and oak. I sat at the edge of it once. You can’t go any further than that or you’ll fall straight through the ivy floor, and I didn’t know how deep it was. So I sat and watched the stillness. I wondered if the trees beneath the canopy were still clinging to a last bit of life, if the kudzu left open some shafts of light.

 

My worries sprout up from under me like kudzu from the soil, coiling around me higher and higher until they’re up to my neck, where they choke the life out of me. And I could stop them, but I can’t. Vines only grow with stillness, I know, but I can’t find the will to move, and eventually they entangle me so much that I couldn’t if I wanted to. Which I do. Desperately, I do want to, but the vines, they whisper to me about what lies beyond. If I move, I’ll fall through a hole in the floor or step out into an abyss. I’ll be alone, without any vines, even, for company, or worse, I’d find that they were all around. Trapped in a house of vines.

 

Schimri Yoyo “Root For The Home Team”

Jack’s birthday was this past Saturday, but we’re throwing his party tonight. You’re more than welcome to attend.

Being the East Coast VP of Sales for the largest health benefits company in the country, Jackson Lee Custis is responsible for overseeing all the branches from upstate New York to Miami. And as such, he’s accustomed to doing some traveling from time to time, even on his birthday weekend.

So the kids and I decided to postpone their daddy’s birthday celebration. It’s going to be an extravaganza. Uncle Tommy and Aunt Judy, Frank from Accounting, even Mayor Wallace and his wife—they are all coming. And why wouldn’t they? Everyone loves my husband.
We’re going to grill steaks, have a catered barbecue, and even a live band and fireworks. The kids and I are pulling out all the stops for this one.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Abigail Custis, how’d you manage to get fireworks? And why even get them for a birthday party?”

I’ll let you in on a little secret. The fire marshal, Bill Longstreet, just happens to be one of Jack’s golfing buddies. And since his birthday is July 7, 1977, or 7-7-77, Jackson has always been associated with a pinch of luck and good fortune—that’s why his parents nicknamed him “Jackpot.” So, fireworks just seemed appropriate.

Now, where are my manners? I haven’t even told you when the party starts. It’ll begin at six o’clock and last till—gosh, I don’t know. I mean, the last scheduled event is the fireworks at nine, so I imagine most people will stick around until then.

Don’t you lose any sleep over some people not showing up or leaving early, okay? They wouldn’t think of it and neither should you. What else would occupy their time on a Tuesday night in July?

Oh, you’re hinting at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, aren’t you?

That’s tonight, isn’t it? Must’ve slipped my mind. But why would anyone in Richmond be interested in that? Just because Richmond native, Austin “Bull” Pickett of the San Francisco Giants will be the National League starter? So what? Big deal.

Oh, alright! You got me. I may have deliberately scheduled Jackson’s party to conflict with the game but I did it for good reason. Jackson and Austin are best friends and they always dreamed of playing in the major leagues together. Austin made it and Jackson didn’t. I fear that seeing Austin in the national spotlight might make Jack resentful.

Not that Jack is jealous by any means. On the contrary, he’s always been Austin’s biggest supporter. He keeps in touch with Bull regularly and even helped him get his finances back in order after a nasty divorce almost ruined him.

We all know that Jackson was the better athlete. Both were phenomenal baseball players—Jack, an all-everything shortstop and Austin a top-notch pitcher—but if it came down to choosing between the two, everyone in the Richmond-Petersburg area—and all of Virginia—would’ve chosen Jackson and not thought twice about it. I’m afraid if that game’s on, Jackson will start picking a fight with the Woulda-Shoulda-Coulda’s—a wrestling match that I ultimately would lose.

What would I have to lose, you wonder? Oh, now you’re really trying to get me to talk out of school. You must take all Southern gals for gossips. Well, I for one am a daughter of the South who won’t air out my family’s business. But if you’re to understand why tonight is so important, then I must start at the very beginning.

Jackson, Austin, and I all grew up in the same neighborhood. Born ten days apart and living across the street from each other, Austin and Jackson were destined to be best buds. The two were practically inseparable. I was a year behind the two of them and my house was adjacent to Jack’s.

At the time all the families on our quarter were blessed, or cursed depending whom you asked, with having all females. Of the eleven families, seven of them of them had produced nineteen daughters and nary a son. Even in my family, I was the youngest of three girls. When Jackson and Austin finally broke through as the first and only boys on the block, the whole neighborhood adopted them as their own sons. They were treated like princes.

Since everyone else was older than us by at least a decade, Jackson, Austin, and I spent a great deal of time together. I tagged along with them wherever they went. If either of them were ever bothered by that it, they were gentlemanly enough to never let me know.

But do you want to know who was bothered by all the time I spent with the boys? My Momma, of course. Daddy was a lawyer for Big Tobacco and is a very influential man in town. Momma feared that the reputation of Patrick and Eleanor Fitzhugh would suffer irreparable damage if it got around town that their youngest daughter was a “tomboy” and a “rugrat.”

She’d always be after me to be elegant like my older sisters. I can still hear her admonishing me, “Abigail Marie Fitzhugh, rolling around in the sandlot is no place for a young lady!”

Momma would try to get Daddy to side with her. But he wouldn’t pay her no mind. Daddy always came to my defense. Why wouldn’t he? I was his little princess, the daughter of his old age. He couldn’t refuse me any request. He’d tell Momma, “Oh Eleanor, just leave the child be. She only gets to be a kid once.” I love my Daddy.

So, besides the occasional disapproving look from Momma, the boys and I enjoyed a playfully pleasant childhood. I watched as Jackson and Austin would imitate their favorite players. Jack always pretended to be Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves. We watched so many of their games during the dog days of summer. Murphy was our best hitter back then, so naturally Jack gravitated to him.

Austin, on the other hand, always preferred pitchers. Unfortunately, the Braves pitching staff was horrendous in those days. The glory years of Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine didn’t arrive until we were all deep into high school. So Austin favored Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers as his boyhood idol. Hershiser, who was nicknamed “Bulldog,” had that magical run in ‘88 where he pitched 59 straight scoreless innings. During that stretch, nobody was happier for the Bulldog than Austin.

Everywhere he went, Austin told everyone that he’d be a great major league pitcher like his idol, Bulldog Hershiser. Jackson was always tall for his age but not Austin; bless his heart, he didn’t shoot up until his senior year of high school. He was always a runt of a fellow, so whenever he would sing that refrain about being the next Bulldog, the people around town would derisively call him “Baby Bulldog,” which, over time, was shortened to “Baby Bull” until it was just “Bull.”

“Jackpot” and “Baby Bull” built up quite a reputation for being fierce competitors on the field and gentleman off of it. They loved to compete: baseball, collecting cards, board games, riding bikes. You name it, Austin and Jackson could make a competition out of it. The two them competed over everything, except for me of course.

It was clear to everyone for as long as I can remember that I was firmly on Jackson’s side of the equation. I’ve been crushing on him since I was four and he was five.

That didn’t seem to bother Austin none. He really wasn’t interested in girls like that as a lad. To him, a girl was a necessary nuisance at best, and at worst, an unintelligible crybaby. He tolerated me because he said I was different. I wasn’t a regular girl; I was one of the gang with him and Jack. To be honest, Austin really didn’t pay females any mind until late in middle school. But by the time he finished high school, he had developed a reputation for being a notorious flirt, a distinction that has followed him to the major leagues even to this day. But you didn’t hear that from me.

Once high school started, Daddy sided with Momma and forced me to spend less time with the boys and more time training up to be a proper lady. That meant piano and voice lessons at church and weekly elocution practice from a private tutor. It was all such a bore to me. I wanted to be out at the practices watching Jackpot and Bull tear up the diamond. But we all have to grow up some time, I suppose.

Meanwhile, the boys had become even more serious about baseball. By their sophomore year, they both were full-time starters for the varsity team at Tee Jay, Thomas Jefferson High School. Jackpot and Bull were the main cogs of a Vikings team that won back-to-back state championships. And the more attention they were getting on the diamond, the less I was seeing either of them off it.

During that time my love for Jack never waned. In fact it grew more intense because he was intentional about making me feel special even though we weren’t seeing each other as often. Following the advice of his mother—Jackson always was a bit of a momma’s boy at heart—he would write me notes and send me cards and the occasional flowers just to let me know I was still his belle, and he my beau. That reassurance was all I needed. Until the summer going into my junior year.

Jackson and Austin were going to be seniors and had just claimed the first of their back-to-back titles. Talk was that they both would get drafted the following year and each sign six-figure bonuses before shipping off to God-knows-where to begin their careers in the minors. This threatened to ruin my lifelong dream of becoming Mrs. Jackson Custis.

I began panicking. If what everyone was saying were true, I knew that I’d be stuck in school one more year while Jackson rode the buses through countless backwater towns playing ball without me. I couldn’t bear to think about it. While everyone in Richmond was praising the boys’ success, I was secretly loathing that my storybook marriage was dissolving before it had even begun.

That summer, Jackson and Austin played together on a traveling Legion team. Coach Abernathy managed the all-star team and organized a series of barnstorming exhibitions across the southeast United States. His goal was to garner more exposure for the local players to help them win scholarships to college or perhaps catch the eye of major league scouts. The two-week trip was a roaring success. Austin and Jackson were again the standout players. Upon their return, Coach Abernathy informed the entire town that Jackpot and Bull had both received invitations to play in the USA Baseball Tournament of Stars the following month. Coach Abernathy would serve as one of the coaches.

Coach Abernathy ensured everyone that a good showing would all but secure a high draft position for each of them. Everyone was thrilled beyond belief. Everyone but me, of course.

I ran to Daddy, bawling and demanding that he do something to prevent Jackson from going away without marrying me. Daddy just gave a bemused look and said, “Darling, what do you want me to do? You should be proud for Jackson. He’s got a shot to do something extraordinary. I can’t stop him. And even if I could, Sweetheart, I can’t hold the boy to a pledge he made as an eight-year-old.”

“He was nine,” I shouted back through stifled tears, “and he promised. He said he was a man of his word! That should mean something, right? He said he was a man of his word!”

“That he did, Munchkin, that he did.”

For the first time in my entire life, Daddy had failed me. He failed to reassure me that everything would be okay. And he failed to solve my problem. Or so I thought.

In the month leading up to the Tournament of Stars, Coach Abernathy was a frequent dinner guest of ours. After we ate, Momma and I would be excused from the dinner table so that Daddy and Coach Abernathy could discuss “pertinent business.” I’m not exactly sure what all they discussed but I have a sneaking suspicion it had something to do with money.

Coach Abernathy was a wonderful baseball man but a terrible investor. He had built up so much debt over the years and the multiple baseball leagues he’d help organize were running thin on local sponsorship. It doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to figure out what Coach Abernathy wanted from Daddy.

The week before the big all-star game, there was a press conference at the West End Community Center announcing a major financial investment by a group of local businesses led by Daddy’s law firm, a couple of his Big Tobacco clients, and some neighborhood banks to save the recreational sports in our area. They pledged a combined $10 million to build a state-of-the-art rec center and three new baseball fields in the upper West End.

Coach Abernathy was named the day-to-day director of the new facility, while Daddy and some other men on the board handled all the financial decisions of the operation. Of the three new baseball fields that were built, the most prominent one was named after Daddy. To this day, Patrick Fitzhugh Field is the crowning jewel of the West End Fieldhouse—The Weef for short.

It was at that same press conference that Coach Abernathy announced regretfully that he’d only be taking one of the local heroes with him to the Tournament of Stars. I don’t remember all the specifics but the decision was made that only Bull would attend. There was a small outcry at first but that died down quickly as neither Jackson nor his parents objected.

You can guess the rest of the story, can’t you? Austin performed brilliantly in the Tournament of Stars, increased his national profile, and got drafted by the Giants the following summer. After being left off the team, Jackson finished his senior year, then quit playing baseball altogether.

The following year, I graduated high school and Jackpot and I were married six weeks later. I gave birth fourteen months after that.

While Bull Pickett fast-tracked his way through the minor leagues on his way to the big show, Jackson rooted on his pal. Jack watched Austin make one All-Star team after another, while he got one lucrative promotion after another and I gave birth to one child after another. So you see, we all ended up getting the lives we’ve always wanted.

You don’t agree? I know what you’re thinking and shame on you for thinking it! You’re suggesting that Daddy bribed Coach Abernathy to keep Jackson of that team, aren’t you? How dare you!

First off, nobody knows what was said between Daddy and Coach Abernathy in those evening meetings. I didn’t overhear them talking and neither did you. Secondly, everyone knows how much Daddy loves athletics. There’d been talks about revamping youth sports in town for decades. That deal was probably in the works years before the all-star games. The fact that the announcements were made simultaneously is purely coincidental.

And, even if what you’re thinking about Daddy is true, can’t you see that it was the right thing to do in the end? Sometimes, a man has to do the wrong thing but for the right reasons. You can see that, can’t you?

Just look how our lives have turned out. Jackson and I have been married for sixteen wonderful years and have five beautiful children who adore him. He’s a wealthy businessman and a respected leader in his industry. And he’s been living out his boyhood baseball dreams vicariously through his best friend, whom he still loves and supports. I shouldn’t feel guilty about any of this, right?

“Oh, Honey! What are you doing home so early? You ruined the surprise. Please say hello to our guest.”

“Howdy. I’m Jack, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Jack the kids and I planned a big party to celebrate your birthday. Everybody’s coming.”

“That’s great, Sweetie! When’s the party? Is it tonight?”

“Why, of course it’s tonight, Silly.”

“But the All-Star Game’s tonight and Bull’s starting. How could you forget?”

“Must’ve slipped my mind.”

“That’s okay. I have bad luck with all-star games, anyway.”

“Yeah, it still gnaws at my gizzards how Coach Abernathy left you off that team. That was so unfair of him!”

“Leaving me off the team was kind of Coach Abernathy. I’m lucky that’s all he did. It could’ve been much worse.”

“Jackson Lee Custis, what ever could you mean?”

“While on the road that summer. Mrs. Abernathy bought alcohol for Bull and me. Bull got hammered and passed out immediately. Mrs. Abernathy and I were wasted and she made a pass at me. Coach caught us making out and was mortified. He was so embarrassed by the incident—and so was I—that he kicked me off the team with no commotion. He should’ve beaten the tar out of me!”

Jennifer Green “Keeping a Dead Mule Down”

“Don’t be using Papaw’s saw.”

Chills jaunt up my back and down my arms at the same time. My eyes close and I grimace. I’m not sure if it’s the genuine sound of my sister’s voice or just conditioning from doing it for years. I set my face straight and shift my head to her. She stands at the barn entrance, the sunlight illuminating her from behind as if if she were one of Heaven’s angels sent straight from the Lord to remind me not to use the good tools.

“I’m not.” My voice is dull and ragged, like the lowly moral I am. I’m thirsty. Hard work and lack of supplies made it so. Molly interrupts our mild conversation with an abrasive groan, snapping her jaws in my direction. The mule attempts to crawl towards me, her two front legs were broken from one of my previous visits. It makes movement difficult.

My sister’s silhouette moves from the blessing of the angelic glow, that we all know that she rightly deserves, to a more earthly shade as she joins my side. She looks to Molly, her lip curls. “That thing is gross.” Something she would have been inclined to say even before the infection.

Molly wasn’t always, well, gross. The mule’s hair was once a smiling bay, but nowadays I can only akin the color to old fecal matter. I don’t know if it was virus that made it change color or the constant killing I gotta do to her. The killing at least explains the broken bones and patches of bare skin.

“It’d be simpler if I got to use a saw. Or a knife” I tell her, but won’t look at her judgmental expression. I feel sorry for Molly. I’ve killed her twice today, seven times this month total. Shovel, hammer, lead pipe, Billy’s guitar, shovel again, locking her in the garage the Chrysler running ’till it ran out of gas, shovel a third time and now number eight is the old wrench we use to keep the big freezer door from popping open. “Or a gun?” I ask with hope. My self-righteous sibling and I have never agreed on a thing, but I know she’s got some goodness in her. “She’s in pain.”
I see out of the corner of my eye that she’s also refusing to look at me. She’s also refusing to address a direct appeal to her morality. “Papaw said he don’t want the sick germs on his saw.”

“Peachy.” I can only sigh. I step forward, dodging the now carnivorous jaws of the mule as she tries to attack. I use the wrench to put her to sleep.

My thinking goes to the pastor and the day that he got ill. Daddy and Uncle Tom took care of him before he reached the third pew. Now Sundays mornings are free. I’m pretty sure the only thing Daddy regrets is that it had to happen after the cable company got runned over by the sick things.

The dark work now done, I let the wrench hang at my side. My gaze is on the mule, but my mind is on that day. My sister, in her infinite wisdom, seemed to read my mind. “You couldn’t have stopped it. No one knew he had the sickness.”

Molly’s back leg twitches. The groan is from my own mouth this time. I raise the wrench once more, but the grasp of a soft hand on my arm stops me from making a blow. The wrench falls from my hand with a clang and I back up. I grip my arm where she touched me. I know it’s in my head, but her touch burned like acid.
“You’re not to lay a finger on me!” I shriek, backing from her until I hit a wall. “We decided that when the pastor got me, you ignorant bitch!”

“No!” Her scowl matches my own. Always the demanding one, always the one to had to make the decisions, “You decided that. It’s been over a month.”

My eyes fall to my forearm. The bite the pastor gave me has healed now, I don’t even bandage it anymore. As if it mattered, I know the virus runs within my veins. Molly jerks. She’s going to wake again. “The TV said it can take up to four weeks to turn you.” I push off the wall to go grab the wrench again. Molly won’t get up this time, I won’t let her. The only thing I’ll allow is for me to be left alone to let this infection run it’s course.

“It’s been five weeks.” She snatches the wrench up before I do, holding it behind her back. I pause in front of her. I try to will the infection to come out, just to prove the hateful woman wrong.

Our standoff lasts for about ten minutes before she shakes her head. The wrench falls from her grip, freeing up a hand that she offers to me. “Mama made a roast.”

I glance at her offering. Clean, pale, perfect. She was always the spoiled one, never had to do a hard day’s work. She’d never stay behind to kill a mule eight times in a row. She wouldn’t have it in her. If she were infected, the entitled brat wouldn’t quarantine herself. She’d merely spend the rest of her days with her… Oh.

I extend the silence by twenty seconds. My supplies have dwindled, I really could use a good meal. “… She makes the best roast.”

Our hands grasp and she escorts me back to the house. “Yeah, she does.”

It’s one thing we do agree on.

Jo Heath “Sweet Tea and Ice”

Janie smoothed her hand over the cool white satin. She arranged the pattern pieces, carefully using the selvages to edge the long seam down the back. As she pinned the frail paper to the white cloth within the seam allowances, Janie pictured herself on her wedding day. She wanted to look nice in her gown but didn’t want to be vainglorious; she’d—

Suddenly, Janie spotted a roach scooting along the edge of the room and into the kitchen. She shuddered.

Leaving behind the white satin, she ran for the bug spray. Armed, she checked behind the refrigerator and under the sink but couldn’t find the critter. When she heard Hank’s motorcycle in the distance, she put away the spray can, washed her hands, and set out lunch for the two of them: butter, salt, and pepper in the center of the small table and two white plates on opposite sides, with cutlery to their right on white paper napkins. She began to heat the leftover chicken stew in the heavy iron pot and started four pieces of toast.

When Hank’s motorcycle squealed to a stop in her driveway, she poured sweet tea over ice in two tall glasses. Hank entered without knocking, and the screen door slammed behind him. The sharp sound made her jump.

“Can’t you make less noise?” she asked.

“What noise? How’s my sweetie-angel today?”

Hank irritated her when he ignored her complaints that way. He leaned toward her for a kiss, and Janie turned her head slightly to divert his kiss to her cheek where it wouldn’t smear her lipstick.

“Roach!” Hank said as he stomped the floor, and Janie heard the sickening crunch of a cockroach being squashed.

“Ewww!” Janie said. “Now you’ll have to go outside and clean off your shoe.”

“It’s the floor, not a dinner plate,” he answered.

However, when he saw a horrified Janie, he opened the screen door and scraped his shoe on the edge of the first step. “Satisfied?” he asked her as he sat down to eat.

Despite knowing she’d have to mop the floor thoroughly when he left, she nodded yes.

She placed the glasses on coasters and smiled at the settings. The toast popped up, and she distributed the hot slices. It bothered her sense of symmetry that her plate had one piece of toast and Hank’s had three. She ladled the hot stew into thick white porcelain bowls, placed them carefully on the plates, and sat down across the table from Hank.

Hank’s hand squeezed her knee.

“Hank, remove your hand. Remember our agreement? No sex before marriage.”

“Yeah, but that’s actual screwing. This here’s just a feel. Don’t you like it, at least a little?”

“Henry Walter Anderson, it doesn’t matter if I like it or not. We both know where a feel might go. You said yourself you wanted a virgin.”

“You do like my hand,” he said with a grin. “I could feel a quiver.” The frown on her face convinced him to remove his hand. “Okay, okay. I can wait a couple more months.” He began to eat noisily while Janie cut her chicken meat into small pieces that she could eat without opening her mouth wide.

His helmet-hair stuck out over his ears, and it looked to Janie like roach antennae. She smiled at the thought.

After a few bites, Hank stood. “I’ll be right back. There’s beer strapped to my bike that needs to be in the fridge.”

“Don’t you like the tea?” Janie asked nobody as the screen door slammed shut. Why did he always ruin everything she planned? “Hank,” she said when he returned, “you said you drink beer because my sex rules are frustrating. Right?”

“Right, Babe.”

“And you’re going to stop drinking as soon as we get married?”

Hank sat back down across from her and made short work of the rest of his stew and toast before opening a bottle of beer. When he threw his head back to gulp down half the beer in the bottle, Janie reached across the table to straighten his dishes. Why hadn’t he answered? He belched and covered his mouth with the side of his fist. Janie noticed for the first time that the dark brown of Hank’s leather motorcycle jacket was the color of a cockroach.

“Well,” he finally said, “there might have to be a tapering off.”

“How long is ‘a tapering off’?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never done it. You’re the only woman I’d ever quit my beer for. You’re extraordinary-perfect in every way.”

Janie smiled. He would quit for her. She knew it and felt in charge again. “Why, thank you, Hank.” Had she blushed? She felt warm. Then she remembered what she’d meant to tell him right away. “Hank, I’ve finally decided on the gold-rimmed white china at Ware’s Jewelry. If you bought it today, it’ll be ready even if the monogramming takes a month.”

“Uh, sweetie, I meant to tell you a few days ago that I used the cash for new tires and a carburetor job on my bike. The money’s gone for a month or two.”

Her china! His promise!

Janie felt the blood draining from her head. When she lowered her forehead to clear the dizziness, she knocked over her tea and didn’t care. The glass rolled off the edge of the table and, when it hit the white linoleum, spewed ice, sweet tea, and shards of glass.

Slamming doors, beer belches, and a messy man who spent their china money on his motorcycle clarified her mind. He was a roach, a dark brown selfish roach with antennae.

She decided: she would break up with the cockroach, mop the floor with bleach water, unpin the wedding dress pattern, and return, yet again, the bolt of white satin to her hope chest.

Donna J. Dotson “Gus”

Gus showed up at the widow Haynes’ house about a year after her husband’s death. He was three years older than her eldest son and she offered him a bed in the attic. He ate hot meals with her nine kids and worked on the farm from sun up to sun down, seven days a week. The Depression years were lean and when the boys joined the Army and went off to fight in wars, Gus stayed on in his little room in the attic and kept the farm alive. The widow Haynes was a bossy woman and she didn’t listen to any lip from the people in town questioning why this man was living in her attic. She didn’t care what anybody had to say, she was grateful for the help. She was busy keeping a roof over her family’s head and food on their table. Gus paid them no mind.

In the winter time, Gus built huge fires in the woodstove and put plastic over the windows to keep out the cold air. He insulated the attic walls with empty feed sacks and some of the many blankets that the widow Haynes crocheted. Heat from the wood stove didn’t reach upstairs. The widow Haynes gave Gus a shoe shine kit that had belonged to her late husband. It came in a wooden box with an upside down foot on the top. Gus stored it under the edge of his bed. His work boots were never shined. He always wore dark green pants and plaid shirts…cotton in the summer and flannel in the winter. He only owned white socks and his undershirts were stretched and stained from years of wear. Gus never complained.

Gus never married. As far as anybody knew, he hardly ever left the farm except to go to the Feed and Seed or occasionally to drive the widow Haynes to the mill. Rumors followed them to the movies on Saturday nights. All the kids grew up and moved out and had children of their own. When they came around for Christmas dinner or to hide the Easter eggs, Gus was always there. On Sunday afternoons, Gus liked to sit with the radio up to his ear and listen to Nascar races, mumbling obscenities at the announcers. Gus’ jaw was always stuffed with tobacco and he talked so fast, one could barely understand a word he said. Gus found it impossible to complete a simple sentence without the use of at least four or five curse words. Children giggled at his mettle. Nobody ever thought he was a bad influence.

Folks often said that Gus and the widow Haynes bickered like brother and sister, though to the best of anyone’s knowledge they were not any relation. There were whispers sometime around the late 1960’s that the two had gotten married by a Justice of the Peace when they went to see the Biltmore House. It had just opened and harvest season was over. The kids never questioned it. Nothing changed after that. Gus slept in his room in the attic and worked on the farm. The widow Haynes crocheted blankets or scarves, preserved vegetables and fruits from the garden, cooked meals and bossed Gus around. At Christmas time, Gus bought the widow Haynes bedroom slippers and she bought him new white undershirts. All the grandkids came to visit and everybody was glad to see Gus, with his jaw full of tobacco juice and fluent profanity.

A heart attack stole the widow Haynes’ penchant for bossiness. Gus took over her part of the chores as well as the task of nursing her back to health. He slept lightly in his attic room and the kids struggled to understand his tobacco slurred words over the telephone when they called to check on their mother. She never really regained her strength, but Gus never faltered. He stoked the fire in the woodstove in the winter and canned green beans in the summer. He kept the tractor running to work in the fields where he planted corn and potatoes and wheat. Every Saturday night, Gus shined a pair of black loafers he bought to wear with his dark green pants and white socks in case the widow Haynes felt up to going to church on Sunday. He still listened to the race on the portable radio propped on his shoulder but turned it down low, so she could nap. He prepared the same meals she had cooked for him for years and washed the dishes after they ate.

A house full of kids and grandkids gathered around the dining room table at Christmas. Everyone brought a covered dish and colorfully wrapped boxes filled with white socks and undershirts for Gus and nightgowns and matching slippers for their mother. The younger children all gathered around Gus’ chair to giggle as he cursed playfully over helping them assemble their model cars and comb Barbie’s hair. The fire in the wood stove was roaring and the family all melded together in the cheer of the season. The air was filled with love and the silent understanding that the end was near. When the day was over, each bed was filled and children slept on every spare sofa and carpet. Gus crept slowly to the top of the attic stairs and tucked his shiny church shoes under the edge of the bed. Kneeling next to the shoe shine kit, he thanked the good Lord for family.

When the widow Haynes passed away quietly in her sleep, Gus called each child. He cursed through tobacco-stained teeth and sadness. Neighbors brought casseroles and cakes. Gus tidied the house. Everyone gathered in for the funeral. At the church, Gus followed behind the long line of family into reserved pews. Prayers were offered up for the family. Tears of grief flowed. Gus reached in his pocket for his handkerchief and touched a tarnished silver band.

Kelly Jones “24 Going On Nothing”

1.

The car I used to race Lance in is gone, broken into and caught on fire by someone trying to get out of the rain. Whoever was in there tried to put it out with the sweater strewn on the floorboard. They took the warmer winter jacket and all the CDs but left the copy of Moby Dick. My back seat is ten shades lighter where the book had been. The cops said I was lucky they shut the door when they fled, that if they hadn’t it could have turned into a full-fledged fire and spread to other cars or nearby flammables. This college town is safe, but seedy in areas. Drug deals go down on our corner in the middle of the day while a few houses up a stay-at-home dad parks his Prius and gets ready to take the kids to the sustainable farming camp a few miles away.

2.
I last heard from Lance via MySpace. He sent me this message:
“hahah some how I knew this was kelly!! how the have have you been / WTF have u been up 2???? I havent seen u in like 2 yrs. Damn Lets see right now i’m in Iraq finishing up my 2nd and final tour I got 9 fucking days to not die and I get to go home :) and i’m getting out when we get back soo Yea for ME!!! How a shit ton has happened ….Got a DUI, Got Arrested for Assult got Engaged got un- Engaged….still doing the whole fighting thing …still wanting to be a profighter…I plan on moving to Thailand in Feb of next year :) and since I’ll be out of the Army I’ll be able to….IDK I’m sure there was alot more than that has happened, but mostly fighting , fucking , and ocasionally geting fucked as hell…..And being forced to Play Army :( so what about you?? Hope all is well
Lance”
I responded, but didn’t hear back. Then I got a message from his cousin letting me know that he’d been killed by an IED in Baghdad.

3.
I met Lance when I was seven. His cousins were my best friends and he often stayed with them. His Aunt and my mom led the Brownie troop; they were sitting in the kitchen discussing the crafts for us girls. Lance was in the bathroom crushing up chewable Flintstone vitamins to spike Kool-Aid with. He was nine and had been told by some other fifth graders that overdosing on vitamins was like being high, so he was trying it. His cousins and I were in the hallway, knocking on the bathroom door, threatening to tell on him. Eventually he let us in, and we helped him sort the Flintstones out by color, popping one in our mouths every once in a while.

4.
So many people were at his funeral that I didn’t know. The rural Baptist church was full, stifling hot and ripe with sweat, tobacco, and flowers. Speeches were given by men in Army uniforms about how great a loss Lance’s death was, but how it was not in vain. As this was happening a group of southern bikers stood outside and made sure that anti-war protesters didn’t disturb the service.

5.
Before his second tour in Iraq we met up and walked in silence around the rock quarry while smoking cigarettes, not worrying about our ashes and the dry leaves that covered the ground. Little things like droughts and wildfires weren’t worth worrying about. Besides, the coastal plains were already burning. Another fire in the Carolinas and maybe they’d declare it a state of emergency, get some sympathy flowing our way from the rest of America. There were signs around the quarry saying “Danger, Deep Water. Swim at your own Risk.” There was an inflated raft floating in the middle of the water, I swam out to it. Lying with my feet in the water, my skin getting sun-burnt, trees limited my view so that all I could see was the lake and sky. I closed my eyes and fell asleep, woke up scared because I dreamed he was gone.

6.
The first concert we went to together was The Black Crowes. We stashed his bowl in my corduroy bag. I was seventeen, cute enough to just get a pat down from the security guard before being told to have a good time. We smoked up while singing along about talking to angels. He was right behind me, swaying his way through the show. At the end of the night we fumbled around by our cars as we tried to quickly decide if we were just friends or if it was more than that.

7.
I moved back to North Carolina from Seattle to get away from miserable grey days full of rain. It’s been cold and rainy here all week, like Seattle but without all the bodies of water, big buildings, and things to do. I’ve been job hunting and rearranging the new apartment, trying to not run off again, calling up credit card companies and student loan officers, changing my address and getting repayments postponed. Buying thrift store furniture and trying to make this place feel like home, doing everything I can to make myself stay here.

8.
The last time I drove by his parents’ trailer Lance’s old VW bug was still parked in the yard. The grass had grown tall around it and I wondered if they were going to sell it or keep it there forever. We used to race our old hunks of metal down NC-64, late at night or early in the morning, on the way to or from some house party or concert.

9.
I’ve sent him a few emails since he died. Can wireless signals carry things to the dead? Hopefully they can. There are things I need Lance to know, things I need to apologize for. Maybe he knows already, maybe once someone dies the whole world opens up to them and they get a bird’s eye view of everything they were involved in. If so, now he knows that I never wrote because I didn’t know how to write to someone that far away, that I didn’t ask questions while he was gone not because I didn’t care, but because I was scared to know the answers. And when I die I’ll find out if he really forgot saying “I love you” one night, or if he was pretending the next morning, too.

10.
We ran into each other once in Asheville unexpectedly, right before he redeployed. I was outside on a smoke break and he was shitfaced in the afternoon and stumbled into me as he exited the bar next door. Later that night I met up with him at his hotel’s bar; I got too drunk to bike home so went with him to his room. He kissed me once I closed the door and I froze. All I could think about were the Iraqis he may have killed. Lance picked me up and tossed me onto the bed and kissed me again. I caught my breath and told him I couldn’t, because his hair was gone and his muscles grown so much that I could barely recognize him. He nodded and then wrapped his arms tightly around me and we slept until his commanding officer pounded on the door a few hours later. Lance began suiting up and I left the room alone, noticing the eyes of other soldiers following me down the hall and away from him.

11.
Recently I watched a documentary about the resistance fighters in Iraq. There was a scene at sunset with a mosque in the background. Birds were flying around it. They looked the same as the ones here, except they were flying around mosques instead of bell towers, floating around God instead of time. Whenever there was a young American soldier in a scene I squinted my eyes to see if it was him. I was trying to catch a glimpse of Lance still moving, still smiling.

12.
Lance wasn’t lowered into the ground right after the funeral. They waited until the mourners went away. So I came back that night with prayer candles and a bottle of whiskey. I drank some and poured some on the dirt where I thought his head might be. People had already left things at his grave. Dog tags and little American flags, flowers and a small cheap wooden cross. After a while it began to rain, so I returned to my car, leaving behind the half drained bottle by the headstone.

13.
Spring is coming on now, which means it will feel like summer soon. The rain will only come in the form of quick thunderstorms. By June the grass will be turning brown and the lakes will be drying up. People will keep watering their lawns and washing their cars. I’ll empty the rain barrel outside my apartment so that my flowers survive and continue attracting butterflies. I’ll take daytrips to the beach to get sunburned and float away for a while in the ocean.

14.
My uncle had a heart attack yesterday. He’s thirty-seven and in good shape. Too young and too healthy to have his heart give up already. The doctors are putting a stint in right now. They say he’ll be fine. But what is fine? Maybe fine is falling apart and then paying someone you don’t know a lot of money to piece you back together.

15.
Lance, what are the birds like in Iraq? I assume there are birds there. There are cities and things that shine in that country, two things that birds are attracted to. I used to think that I would see a bird as I was dying, that however I went, a bird would be there, near me, waiting to lead me somewhere. Maybe that’s why I take pictures of all the dead birds that I see. I know that they will carry me away one day, so for now I carry them with me.

16.
If you climb the correct hill in Joshua Tree, California, you can look over the Coachella Valley and to the Salton Sea. Millions of birds migrate to that area every year, seeking out the only large body of water within hundreds of miles of desert. The Salton Sea was a manmade mistake. It doesn’t belong there, and won’t always be. Each year it gets smaller. Every few years the salinity changes enough to kill off the fish and birds. Skeletons of animals wash up on shore and people with boats stop going there for vacation. Without the boats and the trash and our chemicals, things get back to normal.

17.
When I lived in Seattle I saw so many dead birds. I’d take artsy pictures of them, paying attention to their angles and scale. Once I watched a bird fly into a window repeatedly. Was it determined to die or just attracted to something on the inside? Since being back in North Carolina I haven’t seen any, but at the beach last week I found a bird’s wing in some sea grass on the dunes. I took it with me and strung its bones into a wind catcher that I have hung by my window. It never makes noise, but spins around beautifully whenever it’s windy.

18.
Sometimes I’ll read something and believe it wholeheartedly, not because it seems that it is true but because I fear that it is. I learned from one of my all-time favorite books that hummingbirds are attracted to the color blue. They will scavenge for it in nature, taking it in their beaks to weave into nests. Bodies have been found with pulpy eyes because hummingbirds have pecked the irises out. I’ve never researched this, but I like hummingbirds less because of it. If only I could find something written saying that Lance is here hiding out on an island, I’d believe it and send him postcards religiously.

19.
A bird almost shat on me this morning. It was perched on an electrical wire a few yards ahead of me. I was watching it as I walked, wishing I had a hat on, convinced that this bird would be the sixth one to get me. It missed though, unloaded itself two paces too soon. I laughed at it and continued home.

20.
Last night I woke up from a dream about high school and friends I haven’t seen in years. I tried to get back to sleep, but couldn’t. It seemed that I had forgotten how to breathe. I stayed awake awhile, trying to retrain my body to inhale and exhale. Strange things like this get the best of me. Sometimes my legs get tingly and I become convinced that my veins aren’t working. I’ll kick my legs around until the tingling stops. I’m afraid of blood clots, of dying from an aneurism in my sleep, like a kindergarten classmate almost did. That boy was paralyzed from the waist down, wheelchair bound from the age of five. The thought of collapsing lungs also frightens me, so sometimes I breathe purposefully, trying to figure out how my lungs pull in and release the oxygen that keeps me moving. My blue eyes get bigger as I do this; I watch them grow wide in the mirror as I try to find where this life is coming from and where it is going.

21.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
I said “Nothing.”
He said “Something…” and then we laughed and headed home.

22.
Deserts are for dying. No water, no shade, just sand and sun, stretched out and running off into the horizon. I love them, though. The ones I have seen are otherworldly. No buildings, no cars, no strip malls, no people. Nature wins there and it always will. Things don’t sound the same there, either. Sounds seem to last longer, fading away slowly. And colors are different. Blue is more blue, green is greener, and blood spilled on sand may not look red. It might just look wet and out of place.

23.
Doves are for peace and crows are for death. The day after Lance died there was a crow on my porch. We stared each other down until I began to think it was him. The crow flew at the screen door. I asked what it wanted and it cawed out a reply. I told it I didn’t understand, that I was sorry but there was nothing I could do.

24.
I’m living at a cooperative now, about half an hour from where we grew up. It’s called the Bolin Creek Co-op, though the creek is miles away. We call it The Bog because it turns into one whenever it rains or snows. The garden between the two hills our buildings are perched on becomes a marsh in inclement weather. One hundred years ago the area was a landfill. Before that it may have been a cemetery, but the town didn’t keep precise records back then, so no one is sure about that. Thirty years ago it was Section 8 housing, until the area attracted too many affluent college kids and graduate students and the poor residents got pushed to different towns. Five years ago a group of activists bought the abandoned property from the county and fixed it up. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re good enough.

Al Lyons “Tilt-O-Whirl”

He did not want to ride the Tilt-O-Whirl. He hadn’t wanted to go to the parking lot carnival, at all. He wanted to go to the movies. It was only their third date. She had run toward the midway, and he had no choice but to follow.

Since their arrival, he had been scrambled on the Scrambler, plunged from the Tower of Doom, hung upside down from the Loop of Fire, and survived the spinning, twisting yellow cars of the Octopus.

“We’ve got to ride the Tilt-O-Whirl,” she said, “it’s my all-time favorite ride.”

“I thought the Scrambler was your favorite ride?” he protested.

“No, no, no”, she clarified, “The Scrambler is my second favorite ride. The Tilt-O-Whirl is my favorite”.

He did not want to ride the Tilt-O-Whirl. He’d only just finished a Polish sausage sandwich, half a funnel cake, and a fried Twinkie. He had vivid fears of their expatriation. His stomach was uneasy, and poised for revolt.

“The Tilt-O-Whirl, silly!” she said, pulling him forward. She studied the motion of the cars, as they waited in line, to identify the one with the most spin. When it was their turn, she selected that car, accordingly.

He did not want to ride the Tilt-O-Whirl, but there he was, nonetheless. Their tickets taken, lap-bar in place, the ride proceeded to move. Slowly at first, then gathering momentum, the cars began to spin. They were spinning first, in one direction, over the bump, then the other direction. He could hear her screaming ecstatically beside him. His knuckles were white on the lap bar and his head pressed hard against the back board as the G’s of spin pinned them to the wall of the car.

Somehow, his queasy stomach held its own, the ride slowed, until the car was just rocking back and forth, then braking to a stop.

“That wasn’t so bad,” He thought, and suddenly, he felt flooded with feelings of exhilaration from the entire evening: the lights, the food, the rides, the spectacle. Most of all, he was aware of how much he loved her. He wanted to tell her right then and there. He wanted to scream it to the world. He wanted to tell her before the moment got away.

He turned to her, but she was quiet and looking in the other direction, toward the bright lights of the midway. He nudged her on the shoulder, and she turned to him slowly. Her face was ashen, her eyes red, her lips quivering.

Then, she vomited in his lap.

Joe Seale “Bona Fide”

“I can’t tell your mama shit no more. She done got clever.” Hammer cursed and spat a fat wad on the dry dirt. He rubbed it in with his steel-toe. “How you think she got so clever?”

I grunted at him.

“You don’t know?”

I squinted at his mud-spit and chewed on my cheek. “I reckon I might’ve told her you ain’t never told her a true thing in all her life. I reckon I might’ve said something like that.” I watched his boots to know when or if I needed to duck. I shrugged my 17-year-old shoulders. I felt strong.

He laughed. “You told your mama I been fucking around on her?” He wiggled a foot at me. “You done snitched on your old man?”

My daddy made me start calling him Hammer when I turned 13 because he said I was starting to stand up too straight. Said I needed to round my shoulders to carry the weight of his name. Said he’d be the Hammer and my back’d be the nail. Hell of a way to enter my teens.

I looked down at him, him almost six inches shorter than me, him with shoulders as big around as a barn. I nodded and spat by his foot.

Hammer put his hands on his hips and whistled. “You done let some little girl make you feel like a man, ain’t you? Now you standing up to ya old man like you got a pair. Like I ain’t the one that gave you that pair. Don’t be unwise, son.”

Don’t be unwise, son. That’d been his mantra to me since grade school. Any time I did anything acting like I might be getting some kind of independence, like my first black eye or my first girlfriend, he’d sit me down. Put a big wad of chew in, making his bottom lip swell like a cancer had taken root. He’d spit. Put a hand on my knee and say real slow, “Don’t you be getting proud on me, boy. Don’t be unwise, son.”

I shook my head at him. “Ain’t being unwise, Hammer.”

He squinted at me. I watched the vein in his neck protruding, the muscles in his jaw twitching. His fingers curling and uncurling, fisting and unfisting. His mustache wiggled. My daddy was mad.

“You done told on your daddy then,” he said.

“Ain’t like it mattered. Mama ain’t left has she?” I stood up straighter, looking down my nose at him. A boy can stand straight sometimes

“You just remember that, boy. You didn’t do nothin but hurt your mama. That’s what getting wise does for ya, son.” He squinted at me and shook his head before turning and walking away.

I stared at his back and wondered if Hammer might not be the wisest man I’d ever met. I swallowed and decided I hope he ain’t. I hope he ain’t even close.

Mark McKee and Julie Sumner “Bucket List”

He goes out to put the cat to bed. While Pumpernickel sups on the concrete porch in the backyard the trellis fence behind him starts to shake. Over come two raccoons. They eye the cat food hungrily.

He stands up from his rocking chair, clap his hands.

“Hey!” he says. “You just go’n back over that fence.”

They stop, look at him, wait.

“Go on, now,” he says. “Yall, just go on.”

Clap, clap, clap.

The clapping persuades them. Reluctantly the raccoons climb to the top of the fence. In unison they turn back to him. By the moonlight he can see it in their eyes. The eyes that say, “I can’t believe you’re making us do this.”

He claps twice more and the raccoons bow their heads, defeated They scurry over the fence, back to the neighbors’ yard.

Inside, before he switches off the lamp to go to bed, he scratches another item off his bucket list: Insult raccoons.

Scott Rooker “Food Lion”

I was driving up the highway with four kilos of cocaine sewn into the faux leather seats. I was as always, going just under the speed limit. My headlights and brake lights were all in working order; blinkers, interior lights, windshield wiper blades, and plenty of windshield wiper fluid. I had a perfect driving record.

There is an old saying, that goes, if you get 5 people standing around together in North Carolina, then a Food Lion is bound to happen. One did.

The speed limit slowed down to 35 mph as the road went through a small town. I slowed accordingly. In my rear view mirror I saw far off headlights gaining on me. I stayed slow and they crept up. I could make out the undeniable shape of a Ford Crown Victoria. THE COPS. They pulled up close to my tail, shining their halogen beams. Stay cool man. I really began to sweat. What are they doing? I bet they are running the plates, right now. I should make a run for it. Relax. What would Johnny do? You’re right I thought. Do like Johnny would. Stay true.

I held the wheel steady. The headlights burned into the back of my mind. Why hadn’t they pulled me over yet? Were they taunting me? By now a line of cars had amassed. Everyone was trying hard not to get pulled over.

In the blinding lights, I saw my arrest. I saw the jailhouse confession. I saw the incompetent court appointed lawyer, and the twenty years of hard time. I lifted a lot of weights. I became a born again Christian. I even learned how to make a grilled cheese sandwich on a heating vent.

And then as the road became two lanes I saw that this wasn’t the police but simply a Ford Crown Victoria with a rooftop storage rack.

Will H. Blackwell, Jr. “Literary Brushcut”

The neighbors, down the meadow, wanted to borrow my large Bush-hog. But, macho—and, transiently, bold as a Bard in a pub [rather, having already partaken of drafts of home-brew]—I said, “No, I’d prefer to just do it for you, myself!”

So, bodaciously, I commenced the cut—rapidly shearing strips, leaving curved, grainy stripes—like flattened dunes—down the uneven slope, toward their silted, rain-swollen farm-pond.

The straying fescue and boney stalks of rattle-pod—scythed—flew out from under my trailing, unevenly hovering rotary-disc, like scraggly, stiff side-head-hair spewed straight from a barber’s rough-cut clippers.

The lower ground seemed firm as well, until the climbing, capillary moisture wicked up around the weighted, gouging wheels—which began to squish like fat-toed feet, treading where they most certainly should not.

The tires, spinning deeper into mud, turned suddenly sideways, slipping slowly but inexorably toward the water’s annoyingly indefinite edge—curse-words whirling off like the just-sliced spikes of blue-grass—the Hog, finally stopping, angled-back at such a tilt as to flirt precariously with submersion.

Nothing to do now, I thought, but back my Pickup up, i.e., down, the muck of the slumping hill, and chain the John Deere to the magnum bumper-knob—recently bobbed to the rear-lift of the jacked-up truck.

But, a bit of a jerking start, and the linked metal-umbilicus snapped, releasing the tractor, backward, into the sucking womb of water, where the bulky mulcher sank beneath the temporarily roiling surface—in a welling, dirty fluid, deeper than I might have guessed—dragging the hapless J. Deere in behind it, in an odd reversal of pull.

In recent times, the combined-machine emerges in episodes of drought, rising as a soggy, jointed Phoenix from the lowering water level—The precision cam, crank, and differential (that no longer turns) clogged with minnow carcasses and cow dung—The seat, and at-first-merely-rusted handles, layered to smoothness with a dingy-green of pond-scum algae, and darker, bacterial slime.

Each time I think of rescue—from its sodden, wiry moorings of reeds—a re-submergence of the Hog-assembly begins, when the erratic rains decide to start again.

Well, I suppose there’s nothing to do, these days, but reflect on Shakespeare in such cycles—You know, something about, “full fathom five”*—something like, “rich and strange”*—something regarding, “a sea-change.”* The rods, tubes and fittings of the tractor are mostly become—by these mineral-thickened waters—encrusted, calcified, and mired!

Gradually rising, and falling, like a recalcitrant wave, the formerly mechanical colossus has been transformed—and is likely so to be for some decades to come! It is now of sludgy, fluxing, horribly sticky “coral made.”*

I told the neighbors yesterday (when they asked), I thought it would do no harm if my B-Hog stayed in their pond, yet a while (I actually said, “a month or two”). Because, after all, “the gas-tank and oil-case are sealed!” [to which I add, today, for you who read this—“at least until the lime ions, mixed with agricultural phosphorus, blister through”].

*Quotes (two and three paragraphs above) are from Ariel’s lyrical utterance in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

Running Water by Ted Harrison

macewan pump

I have no idea how many rural homes were without running water in North Carolina in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I know there were at least two in my home county: my Grandfather’s and my uncle’s. They lived on a dirt road some 75 yards apart. Farming a tract of land together and striving to be self-sufficient they raised cotton, wheat, corn, kept some cows and pigs. Wood cut from timber on the land served for heat and cooking. Each family had a vegetable garden. My uncle raised watermelons and cantaloupes and extra patches of produce that he would peddle door to door in town. “Hearts of Gold”, one of the cantaloupe varieties, was my father’s favorite.

Poppa, as my grandfather was called, was a man set in his ways. Allowing his daughter to marry my father was a major concession. Poppa thought you could see too much of the whites of my father’s eyes. Poppa required three hot meals each day.

With weather beaten wood and a tin roof, Poppa had a typical rural farm home; only the modern conveniences of a telephone and electricity in the house. Maw Maw cooked on a wood stove. The only other source of heat was the “fire room” wood stove. By 1950, my family had moved to another part of North Carolina so visits to Poppa’s and Maw Maw’s were less frequent. This was a time when most people associated long distance telephone calls with death, sickness, accidents and similar personal tragedies, so mother placed very few calls to the crank telephone that hung in the front hall at Poppa’s, although periodically she would telephone her step-sisters, who still lived near my grandparents.

 

A three-cent stamp sent the letters back and forth between mother and Maw Maw. So it was a letter that brought us the news Uncle Richard was going to put plumbing in his house. This was welcome news to Mother’s siblings. Running water. From a faucet. Into a sink, a washbasin, a bathtub—no more hand pumping cool water from the deep underground into a bucket. Bucket to house. Water into the wood stove reservoir to keep a little humidity in the air. Water into a pan on the stove to cook; water to wash dishes or human hands, feet and body. No more trips to the outhouse in the way outback for Uncle, Aunt, cousins rain or shine, July or January. Or to empty the “slop jar” as the porcelain bucket was called that stayed under the bed, covered with newspapers until morning. Uncle Richard took things one step further: he broached the idea of running water with Poppa.

Past the days of plowing with his mules across the fields, Poppa had other things on his mind. Around this time a series of survey stakes stretched across part of his land. Surveying several possible routes for a superhighway that would bypass the town, the state had put the stakes out. The stakes cut right through the site of his favorite strawberry patch. Poppa was plagued with worry about losing part of his land.

In his younger days, Poppa had been known to walk to town. He owned a car at one point, but gave up driving because of a minor accident that happened when he failed to yield the right of way. With this history, he sure wasn’t happy with the idea that cars might be zooming by within sight of his barn. He need not have worried, though; the superhighway followed a different route and took years to become a reality. (For that matter, the route went so close to the south of town that it could hardly be called a bypass at all.)

Discussions about running water for Poppa’s house are lost in the vapors. No doubt Maw Maw kept her usual quiet and personal counsel on the idea. She was a farmer’s daughter, a farmer’s wife; a help mate. If she longed for running water in the house, no one ever knew.

Work on the plumbing for Uncle Richard’s house started. An electric pump with a switch replaced the up and down motion of the old fashioned pump handle. Ditches were dug for the pipes that would carry the water into the house. The kitchen sink was put in place. A bath room: indoor toilet, tub, wash basin, water heater—those then-modern conveniences that most of today’s homes have in duplicate or triplicate.

Word came that Poppa was considering the idea. It seemed the economical thing to do – to have work done at his house while the work progressed at Uncle Richard’s. So he agreed. Running water was going to become a reality for Poppa and Maw Maw.

Some months after the work was finished, we went to visit Poppa and Maw Maw. The old man, only about five feet, seven inches tall and weighing about the same as one of today’s runway models, was happy to show my Daddy what had been done. I went along as Poppa led us to the well house.

Sitting where the old pump had been was a large square wooden box, about the size of two huge old oak stumps if you put them side by side. The box had a thick wooden door about knee height, and was insulated to prevent the water from freezing in winter. The walls and door were about four inches thick. What a sight it was to behold!

Another sight came when Poppa took a bucket, held it under the spigot, and turned the handle. Water flowed into the bucket, with such little effort. Running water had come to Poppa and Maw Maw’s house. Well, near the house anyway. Sure, the hand pump was gone. But there were no pipes running through the yard to the inside of the house. The electric pump was as much modern life as there was to be. The spigot was Poppa’s running water.

Poppa died a few years later, long before the superhighway was finished. But with a bucket held under the spigot at the well house, there was running water.

By English Turn: River Trilogy, Part Two by Robert Klein Engler

[Part One, The Tourist]

II. BY ENGLISH TURN

The side door of St. Sebastian church is flung open. A shaft of afternoon sunlight floods across the tile floor, then the sunlight is cut off as the church door slams shut. Heads turn to see who is rushing in. There are whispers. Arthur hurries up the side aisle, out of breath, to the altar.

“Am I too late?” he asks panting.

“Look at you,” I say to him, shaking my finger in his face. Your shirt is all muddy.”

“Am I too late?” Arthur asks again, begging to hear that he’s not.

“No, you’re not too late. What happened to you? I was so worried!”

“I’m sorry Father. The alarm clock didn’t go off. I overslept. Then, I rushed to get here and slipped in the mud in front of the old courthouse. You know, the building they’re fixing up on Royal Street.

“It’s not polite to keep half the important families in New Orleans waiting, Arthur.”

“But the alarm clock…”

“No more excuses. Get changed.”

I follow Arthur back to the sacristy, encouraging him to walk faster. When we stand before the wardrobe that holds the alter boys’ cassocks, I ask him, “You’re not going to put that cassock on over your muddy shirt, are you?

Arthur looks at me wide eyed. He can’t imagine what to say.

“Take that muddy shirt off, right now.”

Arthur turns away and unbuttons his shirt. He hands it to me and I drape the shirt over a stool. When I look up, I see Arthur’s perfect body in the golden light coming from the sanctuary. His curly, black hair cast a blue shadow on the back of his alabaster neck. I am stunned to see in the flesh what we have seen come up to us in stone from the debts of ancient, Greece. Arthur is a living statue before my eyes. In another time he could have been a slave in the Emperor’s brothel or fought over by Athenian philosophers. This is what Aschenbach saw as he waited for death in Venice. How can such beauty be born from ordinary, bayou families?

Then, I notice that the organist is beginning to play the welcoming hymn. The music is low at first, like the breath of passion, but soon rises to a reverberating song. I look across the sacristy and see Monsignor Reynolds signals that the ceremony is about to begin.

“Arthur,” I say softly. “You must be more mindful.

“I will, Father.”

“Now, go. All is well. The wedding begins.”

While the Gaines family watches their son slip the wedding band on his new bride’s finger, and Arthur serves at Holy Mass, the body of another boy floats down the Mississippi River towards Chalmette. No one from the deck of the tankers or the towboats that sail up and down the Mississippi sees the body because by now it is the same dull brown color as the muddy river. The churn of propellers and the wash of waves has worn away many of the human features that were once adolescent beauty.

The body bobs and rolls in the river until it snags on driftwood by the bank, and then rests ashore near English Turn. Now, only the lap of the river’s current raises and lowers what is left of Billy Gordon. It is as if a sack of rags was trying to breathe. A week in the river and it’s hard to tell who or what this lump of flesh is. It could be a boy or a large animal.

A graduate student from the Tulane Research Laboratories was walking down by the river when he saw an odd shape of clothes snagged among some driftwood. Sunlight glint off a gold chain and what looked like a carved skull caught up in the mass of a T-shirt. The chain sparkled with light reflected off the slick mud of the riverbank. A buzz of flies filled the air around the rotting corpse.

What is this, the student wonders? Once he realizes what he sees, he uses his cell phone to call the police. All he can say to the officers when they arrive is that when he got close enough to see it was a body, he felt like vomiting.

Of course this death is not the first time beauty and youth were wasted. The earthquake that devastated Mycenae thousands of years ago, the destruction of the Temple by the Romans on the ninth of Ab, the murderous hordes of Attila the Hun, the trenches of World War One, and the endless lust of men and women, they have all wasted the beauty and youth that comes into the world as a marvel from beyond. So much of what is wasted is nameless and then forgotten. Perhaps it is taken up into a wondrous plan. That has been my hope for some time.

It took investigators a week to identify the corpse from dental records. The boy was a runaway from Chattanooga. He was sixteen years old. An autopsy said he either drowned or was smothered to death. What about the rest? The ones blown up in war, or lost at sea? They are now nameless ashes. Who cares? Unless the poet Rilke is right, and there is one who holds us tenderly as we fall.

I promised detective Gresham I’d keep my cell phone with me in the confessional and call him if my dark visitor came back. It was the Saturday afternoon after the Gaines wedding when I kept my promise. I was waiting in the confessional with my phone placed on a small shelf next to my missal. I waited in the dark a long time and may have drifted off to sleep.

After a while, I hear the left door to the confessional open hesitantly. I’ve been at this long enough to know those sinners who are coming back to the church are usually the ones who are cautious when they open the confessional door. There is a moment of silence and hesitation. I hear the weight of a man rest on the padded kneeler. Then that terrible voice breaks the silence and my nightmare returns.

“Bless me, Father, I have sinned, again.”

“Again? Not again.”

“Yes. They will find the body in the river.”

“Why, my son, why? Tell me why and maybe we can find a way to forgiveness.”

“I want the police to find them, Father, but not right away. That’s why I throw them in the river,” the voice says from his darkness to mine.

“There’s no need for that. Such deeds are not beautiful.”

“What good is killing them if no one knows about it? I want them to be found so that the police will know I can’t be caught. It’s not the killing that troubles the police. Not being able to catch the murderer, that’s what troubles them the most. I want the bodies of the boys to be found because it shows the police I am powerful and they are helpless. This is my revenge for being helpless, once.”

I cannot listen to any more. I fumble for my cell phone, but drop the phone onto the dark floor of the confessional. I try to find it by slowly searching with my foot. I do not want my insane penitent to leave until I am able to call detective Gresham.

The voice drones on and on, unaware I am searching the floor in vain. “Besides,” he says, “I am done with them once I have tasted their juice. I have seen their fear turn into the spasm of pleasure then back, again, to a deeper fear.”

“Is there not another way?” I ask, realizing he does not wish to answer any questions but just wants to confess, while at the same time I’m stalling to find my phone.

“I knew it would end like this, Father. After that fat slob of Brother Brian made me take him into my mouth, I knew the taste of his piss would never leave me. I was twelve years old, for chrissake!”

“I knew when he promised me never to tell as we walked from the dark stairwell of the gym into the light of the hallway. And if I did tell, I would be “terribly sorry,” he said. I knew, that whole semester he made me satisfy him, that I would end this way.”

“So, you were abused and now you think by abusing you find peace?”

“I will get to the boys before the priests get to them. The last one I saved looked like one of the sons of Laocoön, once I stripped him naked. That’s why I have to save that dark haired alter boy, Arthur, from you, Father.

“What do you know of Arthur?”

“I will save him, too. I will save all of them from abuse. I am gentle with them. I hold the cushion over their nose and mouth until they stop breathing. It doesn’t take long. Some don’t even let out a muffled cry. They just go to sleep. I will never mutilate their beautiful bodies. Try to understand, Father, I am not only the Angel of Death. I am also the Angel of Mercy.”

By now, I finally locate my cell phone. I reach down and pick it up. As I flip it open, a green light from the phone fills the confessional. I know he sees the light of the phone in my hand, now. I hear the faint rustle of a body rising and then the slow scrape as the confessional door opens.

“Wait, don’t go,” I say waking from my dream.

“There is silence. I stare down at the number on the cell phone screen and push the button that says, “call.”

When I can’t sleep at night I go for a walk. I put on my habit and walk around the French Quarter. Somehow, I feel safe in clerical black. The best time for walking and thinking is early in the morning. The best early mornings are when a fog comes off the river and the Quarter is wrapped in a mist like a holy gauze. The world is shades of gray and shadows on these foggy mornings. The fog helps me turn inward and wonder at all that has passed and all that is yet to come.

I see in the fog halos around the yellow flames of the gas lamps. My silver cross protects me. If there were vampires lurking in the shadows, they would turn from me. They would find my blood too bitter. When a priest takes away the sins of others, he also takes with him something of the sin’s dust. If you’ve ever tasted dust, you know it has a bitter taste.

I prefer to walk about Jackson Square, and down the slate banquettes that border the Pontalba Apartments. I look into the shop windows. Here, the live oaks bend their hunter green arms over anyone who walks under them. Then, I will head down river on Decatur, towards the old US mint. I will go up Esplanade towards the lake and turn at Bourbon Street. Ahead are the lights and music of the bars.

Here are the alternate churches of the lonely and unhappy. I do not begrudge them their prayers. The bars and music are a step upwards on the ladder of release. The bright temples of the flesh are always open, here. I turned away from those shrines by growing older, by reading and by seeing love’s betrayal. The hardest thing for a man to do is not to harm after he’s been harmed.

Tell me, what can I do to turn Arthur away from the danger he faces but does not suspect? The truth may save him, but it may also turn him away from me. Listen, the blare of horns from the river travel up through the fog, even here. Above, a blossom falls heavy with dew from the basket hanging on a wrought iron balcony. The blossom lands on the banquette ahead of me. Its beauty is spent. It will be trampled underfoot, and swept away.

“Forgive me, Father, they ask.” No, they do not ask it. They demand it. I must tell them to find their own way in the fog, to look for the light, the light that is like a gas lamp in the distance. Why is Arthur lost in the fog of his beauty? Why does another boy sell his beauty or has it stolen from him? Even if no one remembers or knows their names, each man or woman has a destiny. I tell them that. The fact is, I probably couldn’t prove to anyone the truth of the Cross, or what I believe.

I’m tired of arguing with the world. All I can tell you is what I have chosen and what the Cross has accomplished in the world for 2,000 years. Faith is not an argument but a choice. The hope of the Cross asks us not to abuse beauty, but to cherish it. When I discovered that truth, I made my choice. I am a priest forever, now, after the order of Melchizedek.

Later that morning, detective Gresham comes by the rectory for breakfast. When I have a guest for breakfast I serve them croissants from Croissant D’Dor Patisserie on Ursulines Street. Otherwise, it’s just simple toast for me. There will be coffee with chicory from Cafe du Monde for the detective, too, along with fresh butter, and thick cut marmalade.

I like detective Gresham. He is a young man and handsome. In summer he wears a white suit and a straw hat. In winter his suit is darker and he sports a fedora. I suspect he comes from an old family with money. His suits are carefully tailored so that you never see the outline of his service revolver on his hip. I always think it odd that for a young man his taste in clothes is that of a gentleman from another era. I see him sometimes standing guard with his partner in the back of the church during Sunday Mass. There is always a silk handkerchief in his jacket pocket that matches his tie.”

“The Gaines family wants to thank you for the wonderful wedding, Father. You were the only one they knew who could say the Mass in Latin”

“It was the least I could do. They are a large contributor to our organ restoration fund.”

“There’s a problem with your organ?” detective Gresham asks.

“Well, it’s actually not my organ, it’s the church’s organ.”

I could not help but smile as detective Gresham picks up on the double meaning of our banter and carried it forward.

“Pipes or bellows?”

“A little of both. It happens when they get old. See what you have to look forward to.”

“In my job, growing old is a luxury.”

“Speaking of luxuries. The Gaines wedding cost a pretty penny. Do you know that New Orleans family?” I ask.

“I do. I went to school with their daughter.”

“So, there will be another wedding, soon?”

“I doubt it,” detective Gresham says with a wink. “But don’t be surprised if there is a baptism in six months instead of nine.”

“But the bride wore white.”

“Brides in the Gaines family always wear white at weddings, Father, no matter what.”

“That is what I hear; but you’re not at breakfast to talk about brides, are you?”

“No, Father. I want to talk about this.”

Detective Gresham removes a copy of the Times-Picayune from his jacket pocket and lays the newspaper on the table.

“Did you see this story about the body of a boy we found by English Turn the other day?” detective Gresham asks.

“Yes. I fear he may be the victim of a penitent.”

“I wish you had made that call, sooner, Father.”

“So do I, but I dropped the phone on the floor of the confessional in my excitement.”

“Understandable. Try to be more mindful, Father, when he returns.”

“How do you know he will return?”

“That altar boy, Arthur, he will return because of Arthur.”

“I see you have an eye for beauty, too.”

At that remark, we pause our conversation to look away from each other. I take a spoon and stir my coffee. I watch the swirls of steam circle and rise from the cup. Detective Gresham sets a half eaten croissant on his plate. The touch of my silver spoon on the porcelain saucer rings like a small bell.

“Is there anything else you remember, Father? Something more we can go on besides what you cannot disclose from his confession?”

“I believe, detective Gresham, that I may safely say our man may have been educated in a Catholic school. He may even be an ex-priest.”

“Why do you say that?” detective Gresham asks, anxious for any clues he may get.

“I can’t tell you under the Seal of Confession what anyone tells me, but what if someone were to say “Chichero,” instead of “Kikero.” What if he used the ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation for Cicero, not the Classical Latin one.”

“He probably was educated in a seminary and could have been dismissed because of a questionable incident?”

“I know it is a small detail, but sometimes in criminal investigations small details are important.”

“That’s not much of a clue, Father. Perhaps you’ve been reading too much Sherlock Holmes,” detective Gresham says with a tinge of dismay in his voice.

“It’s the best I can do for now.”

“I suppose I could put a man on it, but do you think it leads anywhere? Serial killers make up stories all the time. What he told you may have been just said to torment you.”

“If that is the case, then he has succeeded.”

“I’m sorry, Father, I know this is a burden for you. I appreciate your help. That Sherlock comment wasn’t called for.”

“Not to worry, detective,” I say, reassuring him. “We both want to end this horrible series of events.”

“Just call me Marc, please, Father. It’s Marc Gresham.”

“OK, Marc, it is.”

“We could use a Sherlock Holmes, right now,” Marc says, running his fingers through his thick hair and trying to make up for what he considered his faux pas. “Why on earth stuff like this happens is beyond me.”

“For those who hope in the World to Come, Mr. Mark, Arthur Conan Doyle was correct when he wrote, “We cannot command our love, but we can command our actions.”

“We cannot command our love,” the detective repeats slowly. He savors the words as if each one had the sweet flavor of an insight.

“The reason why stuff like this happens, is because some men cannot command their actions,” I add.

“Well, when it comes to catching serial killers, I want to be in command,” Marc says, then he gets up with authority and walks towards the window that overlooks Charters Street. He pulls the curtain aside, and looks out. Morning sunshine has burnt away the fog. The day is clear and open to possibilities.

“Maybe you must trust in the Cross, Marc,” I say.

“The Cross?” Marc comes back to the table and sits down. He reaches with his knife for more marmalade to spread on his croissant. “Do you have a better idea, Father? At the moment, I’m not keen on the Cross.”

“As a matter of fact, I do have an idea. I sense our killer can no longer help himself. That being the case, let’s set a trap for him.”

“A trap?”

“Yes, a trap he cannot resist.”

“You mean, Arthur?”

“I mean first you must finish your coffee and then take me to English Turn. I want to see where they found the boy’s body.

Cock-a-doodle-doo by L. E. Bunn

chicken coop at tractor supply

The first day of first grade I wanted to make a new friend as soon as possible. Kindergarten was a tough time dealing with a certain manipulative five-year-old. Olivia had told me it was good to pick your nose. She spilled the beans about sex and the real meaning of F-U-C-K, a word that would result in getting my mouth washed out with soap at home. Olivia made me feel young, naïve, and ignorant. Even in my six-year-old mind, I knew it was time to move on.

Early into first grade, I met Marina, a city girl from Chicago, with luminous curls and large eyes. She already had offers of modeling jobs and child movie roles. Big into hospitality, my Mom invited Marina over for a play-date at our farm. I felt less than thrilled.

She arrived on my gravel driveway, not a hair out of place. She wore white pants and perfect little light up shoes, even a hint of lip-gloss.

She skeptically glanced at me, “What do you feel like doing?”

I looked like a ragamuffin freshly baked and popped out of the toaster oven. I pulled on my ratty old farm boots, hitching the strap of my overalls back onto my shoulder. She awkwardly followed me down the dirt road to the old red barn.

I opened the latch. The essence of chicken excrement surrounded us. She wrinkled her nose. Great. The sound of roosters crowing punctuated the air like a series of ellipses emphasizing my discomfort…

Marina regarded my unconventional family, the puffed out chest of the Buff Orpingtons, the stocky legs of the Jumbo Cornish X Rocks, the silvery feathers of the Silver-laced Wyandottes, and finally the unique spots and textures coating the Araucana chickens. I held my breath, waiting, waiting, waiting.

She peered closer, brown eyes widening, “What are their names?”

I grinned, “We can name them,” I decided to ignore the unstated farm kid rule of don’t get too attached to the ‘pets.’

A small smile twisted onto her lips.

A room full of roosters crowing like alarm clocks, yet I named one Henrietta, and she named the other Grace.

We danced around the green plastic chairs taunting them and ducking from outbursts of feathers and pecking.

She has remained my best friend for the last 12 years.

Death’s Sister, Silence by John Bach

“I’m gonna walk to the ocean, Daddy!”

The boy thrust a spoon into his bowl of cereal.

“Didja hear, Daddy? I’m gonna walk clear to the ocean! Timmy says he’ll go with me!”

Chewing noise.

“Daddy!”

The mother took notice, standing by the sink. She cleared her throat.

“Daddy.”

“Tom?” The boy’s mother turned and chimed in.

“Hmm?”

“You hear our boy?”

“Hmm…”

The boy crunched on another mouthful of cereal, a drop of milk spilling out and making its way aggressively down the side of his chin.

“You cn go too ifff you wnnt!” he forced out.

“Chew your cereal,” the mother intoned.

More chewing noises. A slurp of milk from his cup.

“Can I, Daddy?”

The boy finished his mouthful, looking at his father.

“Can I go to the ocean?”

“When?” the father lifted his paper and turned a page.

“I don’t know… maybe tomorrow!” The boy thought hard. “Probably need to start early.”

Silence. A turn of another page.

The boy grabbed a piece of cereal with his fingers and held it up, squishing it.

“Would you look at that?” the father leaned in closer to the paper and squinted out over his glasses.

“Tom!”

“Huh?”

The mother took a napkin and wiped the boy’s face.

The boy continued, “Timmy says Union Creek joins up with Flat Creek…” He dropped his spoon on the floor, clambered almost upside down to pick it up, finishing his thought in the process, “…down by his uncle’s place.”

“Yep, it does. That it does.” Tom looked up, first at the mother and then to the boy.

“And I saw in school that Flat Creek joins up with the Soldier River!”

“Mm hmmm.”

“So that’s gotta be getting close! I ain’t never been to the ocean before, have I?

“Nope,” the father’s gaze returned to his paper.

“Well, I will tomorrow! Timmy says the Soldier River joins up with the Mississippi River somewhere over there…. somewhere.”

“Yep.”

The boy chewed another spoonful, thoughtfully.

“So we can just get there, and then that’s the last stop before we reach the ocean.”

“Mm hmmm.”

“You have quite the imagination,” the mother said.

“Yeah!”

Silence.

“I can’t remember which ocean it is. You got a map, Daddy?”

“Mmmm…somewhere.”

The boy chewed a final bite quietly, pushed his bowl away, and climbed down to go watch TV.

Princess by Gardner Mounce

“Am I a commoner?”

“Yes.”

“Why am I a commoner?”

“The difference between princesses and commoners is the way you look and the way you feel.”

“You don’t know how I feel.”

“I’m a princess because of how I look and how I feel.”

“You’re naked. Are all princesses naked?”

“Sometimes.”

I checked the timer: seven minutes left. There was an 11×17 framed photograph of Princess in the bathroom. It was high above the toilet. The eyes looked straight ahead, judging everything. All over the house there were photos of her.

A little saline leaked out of Princess’s butt hole. I checked the instructions her mom had written. It said to add air to the enema
using the syringe, so I did.

“Does that not hurt?” I said.

“What?”

“Nevermind.”

“Could you get me another snack?”

“As soon as you’re on the toilet I can.” To drain, the instructions said.

“How do my parents know you?”

“Through Mrs. Cantner.”

“Did you babysit for her?”

“Yep.”

“Are you the babysitter that let the twins draw all over their painting?”

“I didn’t let them.” I was in the other room for five minutes. Jesus Christ. It wasn’t like it was a Picasso. It was just a pre-framed Hobby Lobby one. Some guys fishing. Big deal.

“Why did you let them?”

More saline leaked out and formed a dark pool on the beach towel beneath her. I added air. “I didn’t let them. I had to take out the trash and when I came back they had done it. I wouldn’t have let them. Does this thing always leak like this?”

“Was it your first time babysitting?”

“No. I’ve babysat for over a hundred years. I’m the best in the world.”

“So that’s why my mom got you to babysit for me!”

Mrs. Cantner had tried to blacklist me from the St. Michael’s league of bitchy moms at the worst possible time, but my mom, one of St. Michael’s bitchiest, begged Princess’s mom on my behalf for a second chance. Plus, Princess’s mom was desperate. No one else wants to give a kid an enema.

“Yep.”

Five minutes left, then I would put Princess on the toilet to drain, her mom would be home in an hour, and I’d have all my money. I repeated the mantra I’d been saying all week: Panama City; hotel; Kevin; Panama City; hotel; Kevin.

Saline streamed down her butt cheek. I added air.

A sound like bubble gum popping inside a mouth emitted from inside her butt. Saline and the rest rushed down her butt cheek onto the towel. My first thought was to check the instructions, but then I was scooping her up, dodging the streaming enema, the streaming butt hole, setting her on the toilet seat. She inspected herself, her mouth tight and serious, like a car mechanic would his own car.

“Are you okay?”

“How much time was left?” she said. She was so calm about it.

“Five minutes,” I said.

“Ugh. That means we have to do it again.”

“Wait, let me check. It might have been less.”

I balled up the beach towel–the saline had formed a dark circle on the yoga mat beneath it–and took it to the laundry room.

“You should call my mom,” she called. “We might have to do it again.”

I checked myself in the laundry room. My clothes were wrecked.

Panama City; hotel; Kevin; Panama City; hotel; Kevin.

Screw it. I dialed the number.

“Hey, Mrs. Shotley. So, I was doing Catherine’s enema and the bubble–popped? There was just a couple minutes left. Um. Let me check my phone. Two minutes and two seconds left. Okay. The cabinet.”

I opened the cabinet to look for the spare enema tube, but instead I found a hundred dollar bill.

“Found it. Yeah. I can do it. I know you went out on a limb for me. I can do it. K. Bye.”

“Do we have to do it again?” Princess called.

I put the money under my foot in my shoe. I don’t know why, but that seemed safest.

“No,” I said. “She said it’s fine.”

Then I walked straight out of the front door and left Princess to drain. I shouldn’t have left, but I did, and I walked the three miles straight to Kevin’s house.

Life Mission by Byron Crownover

fishing

On October 31st 2006 I should have died. I had a heart attack in an area of the heart that, more times than not, kills the owner of the heart. I could bore you with the med speak for the actual location, just suffice it to say that its nick name is the “widow maker.”

 

I tried going back to my previous life ignoring the fact that my life had been changed forever. I found new limitations and boundaries that could not be ignored and pushed aside. Eventually I found that I could not deal with the stresses of the everyday working grind. I stopped working in 2009 because of increasingly frequent physical issues, and eventually received disability.

 

I had always liked fishing and in my younger years, squirrel hunting. After the heart attack I didn’t even consider these activities until three years ago when suddenly my life became enriched with the addition of an eight year old grandson who came to live with his mother my wife and I. Of course he being a somewhat normal young man was interested in anything outdoors, hunting and fishing amongst his favorites. If he has a choice of being outside or inside he chooses the outside.

 

As you can imagine my life suddenly became more active. It started with fishing mostly. Going here and there on my good days and when we had time. Then he got his first pellet gun. “Hunting” became a big deal with him. He stalked birds and the neighborhood squirrels. Taking shots that mostly missed but getting better with more and more target practice.

 

As time passed squirrel hunting became central to our outdoor activities. I found that we live in an area of rich hunting opportunities and little pressure on the squirrel population. In the years that I did not hunt, hunting had changed. When I was young in the last century, kids started hunting small game; squirrels, rabbits, doves, etc. Now days kids start at the big time, deer hunting, skipping all the learning opportunities that small game provides. The stalking, patience, and taking the time to learn how all of nature interlocks and works together. Yeah, right! Who am I kidding? They just miss the thrill of the chase provided by the small game.

 

That aside, I decided that my grandson needed to start small to see how he would react to actually hunting and killing of game. I broke out the old 20 ga single shot that I had had for the better part of 40 years. Bought some ammo and made sure it was still in shooting condition. Immediately youthful enthusiasm took over and he wanted to skip ahead to hunting quarry best suited for an automatic or pump shotgun.

 

The hurdles to shooting a shotgun were soon enough gotten over and defeated. First the loud noise was tempered by ear plugs, then the fear of the recoil. At the back yard ranges we worked and worked on these things and the fundamentals of marksmanship for both rifle and shotgun. Through it all, he still had an inherent fear of the shotgun, something he just could not get over.

 

The day eventually came for the first squirrel hunt. Starting out it was sparse success. Working mostly on the fundamentals, how to walk, what trees to look for, game signs, how to move with the wind, etc. He carrying the shotgun and I a .22. His breakthrough came with his first successful hunt. The sighting of the squirrel, the stalk and the shot, all done by himself. He had no more fear of the recoil or noise, replaced by the excitement of the hunt.

 

I had purposely started him out with a shotgun so that he would have a better chance of hitting a squirrel, especially with the leaves still on the trees. Little did I know, with success his confidence soared along with the eagerness to advance and use the .22 like I did. If you have ever dealt with young kids you know how persistent they can be when they get an idea in their head. It took a while but I finally relented and let him use the .22.

 

Secretly, mentally I crossed my fingers for him. Minutes stretched. Tension built. Eyes searched. Breathing slowed. Finally, slowly, the rifle lifted, the sights settled. A squeeze of the finger and the bullet was on the way. His first squirrel with a .22 was on the ground. A hunting rite of passage fulfilled.

I am proud to have been a part of his life, to have helped in some small way in his journey through life. I know that the work of guiding him through life is not done, but then again when is it ever done for any of us? He has a five year old brother who will have challenges of his own for us both to overcome. I look forward to that.

 

More importantly, now, I know why I was allowed to live on that fateful day of my heart attack.

 

“My Disqualification” by Prosenjit Dey Chaudhury

It had been raining a lot. The sodden boughs of the high trees along the road were wrestling off all the water that was clinging to them. I came out of the institute of higher technical learning at the close of class. The rain, which had come suddenly in the afternoon, was in fact slackening but a spell of gusts had set in. The branches and leaves of the canopied trees rocked themselves furiously to discharge a barrage of spray at those who were waiting for a bus or other conveyance to take them home. The road was wet and lined with determined puddles and the rain was not going away soon. I considered it best to reach home at the earliest instead of waiting for the habitual but tardy bus.

 

I closed the umbrella and still held it over my head to shield against the buffeting, while at the same time scrambling hastily into the passenger cranny of an auto rickshaw that I managed to stop at a distance from the other waiting people on the sidewalk. All of them appeared anxious to find a quick means to take them home. It had been a long day and the accustomed lassitude in the afternoon had been somewhat mitigated by the onset of the rain, which, when it comes in a gentle yet insistent manner, introduces a soothing sense of escape from the unbroken, dry stillness in the air. Classes would come to an end in just a few days and then the terminal exams would begin, after which the prospect was open to explore the world with your skills.

 

Inside the snorting and darting three-wheeled cab open on both sides, I sat in the middle of the seat in order to reduce my chances of getting splashed from above and below. The wait at the traffic lights was longer than on other days as everyone was eager to reach destination by stealing the march of a hairline on everyone else. I could leave them to their ways and the cab to the driver because memory was humming the redolence of the years of my education. Isn’t it remarkable how, as I now recall the past, my mind must alight upon a time when I was in another mood of recollection? It was the end days in university that especially came to mind then. The years in school and college had all passed so tamely, it appeared from this distance; there was fun, there were lessons, and there was, of course, the raillery at the supposed gravity of my demeanour. The passage to university brought to every one a sense of sobriety at first, but as the final semester came closer, it became routine for the class to indulge itself in celebration at the anticipation of freedom on lofty wings born of a distinguished degree.

 

For the qualification acquired at the end of the learning period would open up doors to milieus in which legions of valued information technicians spend their time sitting before consoles in brightly lit halls or moving rapidly across smooth floors from one corner to another. It was not just an assured prospect but quite a giddying one. We were enrolled in a superior course of computer applications that made us privileged both for the moment and for the future. The lessons however progressed into a never-ending corpus of rules and terms that taxed the mind severely and provoked a wish to submit to the final examinations sooner than the prescribed date. Many of the other girls in my class tried to sink both study and self-contemplation into oblivion through levity and frolic. The capering got wilder, almost delirious, as the lessons approached their relieving end.

 

The others might well have deserved their long-awaited release from the bondage of learning and their passage into an exciting world made nevertheless rather domesticated by all the keys and functions in their heads. I had no objection to the revelry even if it should at times overstep certain bounds, but to me the idea of celebration was a serious one that belonged in a set of circumstances where work and play complemented each other. It was time to play after a certain onslaught of work just as it was time to work after a certain measure of play. I tried to keep my lessons first before me without letting the charge of pedantry or prudishness be made to my account. I guess I did not present the aspect of a glamorous scholar invested with all the trappings of good choice, luck and privilege that the others demonstrated so immediately. I thought I was lucky to be able to dress according to my taste and to educate myself according to my inclinations; any superfluous zest or means were to be put to the services of those I loved and those who were not so lucky as I was.

 

I wanted to learn more. I had no great desire to be satisfied with the induction of those codes and programs that you write out or type in endless combinations and thereby manipulate a sea of tools to serve your requirements in pleasing colours and frames on the screen. My wilfulness urged me to those heights where I could contemplate designing systems on my own at the behest of every whim that contained a measure of credibility. I wanted not just to manipulate with the knowledge of language and grammar but to plan and execute my own extended circuits, connections, modules and overarching functions, pursuing every recognizable potential to the limit. A few of the other girls—a frail minority, to be sure—did stay on to continue their education within other walls, which accepted you more for the sufficiency of your money than for the largeness of your sincerity. I am not blaming these institutions but I had not the means to pursue my interest in like manner at home and abroad.

 

It so happened that a company that made pioneering information systems and tools used across the globe helped to set up a school of advanced learning and research in the city, and a small number of seats for students, along with bursaries, were allocated to those who gave proof of their merit in a fairly demanding entrance examination. In my opinion, the courses on offer had the content that answered my academic objectives; at least they would pave the way for the autonomy I was seeking. I prepared for the test and sat for it; those who evaluated my performance deemed me qualified enough to participate in the courses.

 

It was a more sophisticated ambiance that prevailed in this specialized institute of learning with respect to the quiet professionalism exhibited by the walls, the floors and the professors. The natural light filtered in through windows with Venetian curtains and artificial lights shone from behind glass panels; all the light was reflected in the multitude of screens upon the desks. The spaciousness of the laboratories made near silence reign even in the presence of a plethora of throbbing platforms, casings and instruments with wires of many kinds neatly set in or spilling out in a bunch. I was going to be tested for my skills and knowledge in the prestigious examinations to be, and thereafter I was to be put on trial, on terms that were by no means unfavourable, in and by the wide world of opportunities. As the lessons, training and demonstrations progressed, the other students seemed to have contentment written on their faces. Life seemed to be written out for them as neatly as a flawless program for the execution of a routine. I was also content. I did not wish to function like a program for the rest of my life, but for the bumps, starts and challenges that I might encounter in the future, I thought I was arming myself sufficiently with the value of my higher education.

 

Thus, taking me back from this institute, the auto rickshaw stopped in one of the inside lanes of the residential quarters where my family lived in a flat. It was still raining in a splattering way and I got out my umbrella again before scrambling to the stairway of the building. Mom would be inside and so would my brother; Dad would return from office after the passage of an hour. All the flats around were coloured dun yellow and each had its letter and digits imprinted upon level walls; this was where we had lived for a long time. The trees were quite dense in the locality and they seemed to cradle the dwelling units as so many nests in their branches. The buildings looked starkly lacklustre in contrast with the variety of the rich enveloping foliage although each home was furnished on the inside with accessories and comforts that took away the sense of monotony. Surely, I thought, life for me was going to move on from these surroundings. And why not? I would miss the family that was mine and they would doubtless miss me, but though I would no more live in that family, it would always be mine and my responsibilities would grow to encompass other families, mine again and those related to the person who was to be mine for ever.

 

As I write this, I still feel the excitement of the heady prospect that opened before my eyes then, the prospect of a new journey in life in a new world with my sweetheart at my side. He worked in the research department of the national affiliate of a certain global enterprise but was engaged by the institute occasionally to provide special lectures and demonstrations, for he was an expert in his field of circuit design and frontier programming. I shall not dwell on the beginnings of our acquaintance and the intimacy that sprung up between the two of us in very little time. There are many in this world who wax cynical at the notion that two people who meet each other and who then stay with each other are necessarily made for each other; all I shall say is that if the most righteous event was waiting to happen in our lives, then it happened the day that we found ourselves talking to each other longer than on any other day. We had never before spoken so fully from the heart to anyone else in such an effervescence of good feeling.

 

From that moment on, the casting of our relationship and its sealing was as imperative as the injunction that led me to aim higher than the rest in the making of my education. I learnt to love him and if it sounds silly to say that I learnt to worship him, then I state that I learnt to call him not my boyfriend, not my beau, not my lover, not even my fiancé, but my Would-be. He was my Would-be and nothing could alter that fact. As jerky as the title might sound, it summed up the feelings and purpose in my heart to my satisfaction, and gave to me what I thought was a distinct advantage over those who used more familiar terms to refer to their daylong or lifelong partners.

 

After reaching home in the rain I wanted to meet my Would-be while the day was still bright, but realized that it was just too wet to move out with any measure of comfort. He lived quite a few miles away and my wish to be with him had intensified in recent days more than I could have foreseen. I could not see him at his home but once he knew of my coming he would in all likelihood go out as far as he could in order to meet me. He would have to negotiate not just the eddies and swirls in a considerable part of the roads and streets after the demise of the rain, but also the deep lakes that settled smugly in place of some of those ways. I had not the least inclination to get my Would-be soaked and, in any case, the all-crucial final examinations were approaching, for which I should be at home studying under the yellow lamp and listening at times to the dripping leaves against the walls. My parents had long before accepted his presence in my life and they would not have minded if I had gone to see him. All the same, they would worry about me on more than one account and I did not like to make them fret. I just longed to find the sanity and comfort in his arms that, among so many other things, made our love so right. It made such good sense to be together and to know we should always be together. Five months from the time when we hit up each other with the bubbliness of talk on that quiet late afternoon in the institute, he said to me, as we were sitting on a common bench in the shaded corner of a tea-and-sundries eating house, when it was again a hot but quiet afternoon with very few souls around—he said, “I love you, Poornima. Will you marry me?” A girl is not supposed to say an immediate yes in such circumstances but I was dying to break the millennial unwritten rule and tell him he was mine and no one else’s. Instead, I placed my hand in his, and he understood.

 

 

 

 

The final examinations of the institute, set according to rigorous standards by an international panel, were conducted on schedule. I emerged with colours that modesty may diminish but which a stubborn point of pride will insist did justice not just to my aspirations but to the reputation of the institute among other institutes in the field, enterprising companies and potential students. The continental chief of operations of the pioneering multinational company himself conveyed personal congratulations in a hand-delivered message, expressing a wish to see me in the presence of colleagues and partners and sounding my interest in a top-level scientific position within the international research division that he oversaw. Did this mean that matters were coming under my hands such that I might be the envy of most people? Let us see. I wanted to be close to my Would-be and the most dazzling position in society or the workplace could have no interest for me if it meant or implied our separation. Ideally I should wish to work under the same employer as that which took him, but if that was to stretch the notion of practicality a little too far, then I should certainly desire to do the kind of work that kept our separation as little as possible. He meant and means the world to me; everything follows from our togetherness, nay, I should say that everything else makes sense only in the light of our togetherness.

 

He told his family that he wished to marry me. Dear reader, I may not be as fair and shiny as the other girls who found immediate acceptance in the homes of their in-laws, but am I at fault if, on the basis of the traditional names given to denote the supposed ranking of my ancestors in society, my blood is certified not pure enough? God knows that I have tried to think well of everybody and develop my own potential so that I may do proud to my own family and to others. What great mischief have I done that I should be so instantly demoted in the very eyes of the one person that I love with everything I have got? They told him that they must know all about the rung and the ranking that my birth and my blood carry. Then they told him that they could not accept his marriage to an inferior. He persisted in his words that I was his chosen life partner and no other. One day he took me to his house. They would not see me in the front rooms. I sat in a small backroom that might have been used to examine those interested to enter the order of servants in the house. Eventually his mother and a couple of his uncles came to see me. They said they would accept the marriage but on condition that they should never be constrained to see me after the marriage. For all my other qualifications, I was disqualified everlastingly for their eyes and for their homes.

 

I wanted to be close to my Would-be more than at any other time in the past. He was being transferred to the south of the country for a certain period and our marriage could not take place until that time was over. Eight months to me was an eternity and I simply could not brook the thought of being alone even if my own family gave me support. I wanted to be with him every moment of the day. Our love for each other carried meaning even if nothing else had meaning. The comfort and peace that I found in his arms was priceless at this moment in my life; I cared for naught but his protecting arms and the home that we would make together. I formed a resolution to be with him in the south even if it meant making an effort to find a quick job over there to support myself. I wanted to be with him and I termed my quest to join him “Mission South”. I was successful. I found the means after a couple of months to be once more in his presence.

 

I am writing this in my room in a Toronto apartment. My Would-be is now my husband and we shall soon return home upon the completion of the present professional assignment. We work together and we travel together to countries where we have projects to undertake and finish for companies that wish to put in place intricate, streamlining systems of information. Having choice to make a home in more than one country, we have taken a decision to come back to this city and stay. In the spaces of the many enterprises in which we work, every one is equal. There are so many pressing issues that it is impossible to indulge in notions of fine or crude discrimination against those you see and work with. Yet there are other spaces in this world that I shall never be sufficiently qualified to enter and the thought does make for a grimace. Nevertheless, should I really keep brooding about it? Our children will grow up at least in a less stringent world. My hope for them is that when they fall in love, they will remember that love can teach you to shed other tears than those for the one you love.

Eula Shook, a love story by Grant Jerkins

truck on dead mule

It was a plain, polished granite slab that sat flush to the freshly wrenched red Georgia earth. On the left:

HUBERT SHOOK
OCT 1, 1939—SEPT 29, 2013

And to the right:

EULA SHOOK
APRIL 8, 1942—

Eula found that dash worrisome. If they’d just left off the dash, then maybe it would set right with her.

The funeral director had called it a companion marker. To be purchased “pre-need.” Although, for Hubert, two days dead by then, it was really more of a now-need.

The death man had dark eyes. Eula had never met a blue-eyed funeral director. Not once.

He had said, as though reading from a catalogue, “A companion marker reflects the bond between a man and wife, so that the two will be remembered as a couple for as long as history is kept.”

And although she was not typically prone to flights of fancy, this made Eula imagine an apocalyptic future in which hardscrabble survivors might find her and Hubie’s tombstone and know that they had been made one in the eyes of God.

Still, it was morbid to see your name on a granite slab, and it wasn’t until the sable-eyed, sable-suited death merchant mentioned the cost savings of purchasing pre-need—her date of death would be added later for “a nominal fee”—that she agreed to it. With their son, Jerry, dead and buried in the Marietta National Cemetery, there would be no family left behind to be burdened with final costs. Still. It was best to save money where you could. And Eula found herself wanting to please the death seller. She had always been drawn to men with eyes of murk.

Now, two weeks after the funeral, the temporary marker had been taken up, and this permanent one (for as long as history is kept) had been put down. Eula looked at her own grave. It still didn’t set right. She looked again at her husband’s born and died dates. Hubert always did love fall the best. And he damn near held on till his birthday. Eula and Betty had both decided that’s what he was doing. Holding on until October first. But he didn’t make it. No. The throat cancer took him. The Good Lord called him home.

But that wasn’t true. That was just what they told everybody. That God had sent for him. That The Good Lord blessed us and took Hubie home. But Hubie took his own self home.

He’d been lingering for some time. The Hospice nurse had told Eula and Betty that it happens like that sometimes. They linger. It was hard on the family mostly. The Hospice nurse was the one that put it in Eula’s head that maybe Hubert was aiming to check out on his birthday. She’d seen it before. She’d seen them hold on until their wedding anniversary, or their child’s graduation, or until their favorite show was playing on TV. Andy Griffith’s on. I can let go. That nurse was full of similar observations.

All he was, was a morphine-addicted skeleton. Monster-movie sutures draped from ear to ear to ear like a necklace. As though a slow-witted child had tried to carve a jack-o-lantern and put the mouth six inches too low.

They linger.

The cancer had spread into his brain and who knew where all else. And Eula had prayed to Jesus Christ every night not to let him linger, to take him. She prayed that He would be merciful and take Hubie now. Right that minute. Don’t make him wait. It was a shameful way to live. Soaking in his own waste. Playing in it. Smearing his feces all over himself. He’d been a proud—not vain—man who took care in his appearance, kept his hair oiled and his shirt tucked even if he’d spent all day tending the hogs. So she prayed.

He got to where he got real active at night. Restless. He would sleep and dream his Dilaudid dreams by day, but at night he was up and talking and running the top sheet through his fingers like a nervous little girl playing with her petticoat. Talking. Plain talking. Maybe not as clear as a bell, but lucid. Vibrating what was left of his vocal cords. And just a talking. The information-laden nurse said Hubie was sundowning. Where they perk up and come to life at night. She’d seen it before. (Eula figured if Hubie clucked like a Rhode Island Red and laid an egg, this woman would say she’d seen it before).

The nurse said sundowning usually lasted two or three days, then they passed. Well good, Eula thought. She sat up with Hubie and talked with him the same way they had talked as teenagers. Easy. They talked easy. He told her about the time Homer Smith fell into the scalding vat at the slaughterhouse. Boiled him alive. How he could still hear the man-screams sometimes. And he told Eula about the time J.T. Thompson had his legs severed in the industrial meat grinder at Douglas Meat Packing Plant. How he was pretty sure old J.T.’s legs ended up in a batch of liver cheese and shipped across the country. Hubie wouldn’t eat baloney, or hot dogs, or Vienna sausages, or any processed meats. He’d seen too much.

He told her about how pretty his mama was, and how he thought she was an angel like the color plates in their family Bible. That his father was a mean son of a bitch. That he caught three ten-pound bass out of Turner’s pond, and Mr. Turner chased him off his land firing rock salt at him. How he had his eye on that Eula Graybeal. Pretty little thing.

He talked to her like they were friends. Hubert and Eula had not been friends in a very long time. They’d been husband and wife.

The sundowning came and went and Hubie held on.

They linger.

The man was stubborn. Eula kept her eye on the calendar. He never celebrated his birthday when he was fully alive and healthy, so why he would be shooting for it now was beyond her reckoning.

Then, at 10:30 in the morning on September 29th, Hubert came down the stairs and walked in on Eula in the kitchen. She was just sitting at the table having a cup of decaffeinated Nescafe. No need in brewing a whole pot when it was just her drinking it. He scared Eula when he walked in. She had not heard him approaching, because Hubie only weighed eighty-five pounds, so his weight had not been sufficient to make the floor joists squeak. And, in any regard, Hubert Shook had not been out of bed in three weeks. His walking days were behind him. Or so she thought. That’s what the helpful Hospice nurse had said. But there he stood. Like something that ought not be alive.

He did not speak to her, but held her eyes with his. It made Eula feel like she’d been caught doing something wrong. Something nasty. She was too surprised to speak. And as they looked at each other across the kitchen, something came out of Hubert’s nose. It was black as tar and as thick as a man’s finger. To Eula, it looked darkly alive. Like a parasite that had been living inside Hubie and was ready to get out while the getting was good. Of course it was the cancer. His body so used up and stove in that even the cancer was fleeing it. And she could see the torment in Hubie’s eyes. Pain that no narcotic could ever numb.

And he lurched to the cabinet drawer directly under the Amana Radarange. The drawer where they kept the gun. A .22 caliber revolver had been in that drawer as long as Eula could remember. Since before she even knew there was even such a thing as microwave ovens. Hubert kept it handy there because he liked to sit on the front porch and pick off squirrels that were bad to get into the bird feeders, and the raccoons that would tip over the garbage cans at night.

Hubert raised the bore to his temple and put a bullet into his brain. While Eula watched. It was loud. But the funny thing was that the mess wasn’t nearly as bad as Eula would have thought. The TV shows made it look like brains and blood and bone fragments would spray across everything and spackle the ceiling too. But it wasn’t that bad. Probably because the gun watn’t but a itty bitty .22.

She called Betty first. Betty was Eula’s best friend and her bus monitor too. Betty had sat with Eula in the hospital when the breast cancer took Eula’s sister, Mary Alice. Cancer was bad.

Betty told Eula to hang up the phone and call 911. So that’s what she did. She told the dispatcher there wasn’t a number on the mailbox, but just look for the house with a yellow school bus parked in the front yard. Under the black walnut tree.

In the ten minutes she had to herself before either the ambulance or Betty would get there, Eula sat in the kitchen with Hubie and finished her coffee. She told him she was sorry he was dead, but she was glad he was gone. Glad he was out of his pain. But she was also glad he was dead because she had been ready to have leave of him. She thought saying that out loud would relieve her of the burden of guilt she had been carrying, but it didn’t. There was no feeling of the lancing of a wound. No release. So she went on. She told him that she’d been tired of him. Sick of him. And she was sure the feeling had been mutual. And that was okay. She forgave him. And she asked him to forgive her too.

Still, she didn’t feel any better. Something was wrong inside her.

After that, she prayed in silence for Hubie’s soul. It was just a gesture, because Eula was pretty sure suicides went to hell.

And now, two weeks later, she nodded her final approval of the grave marker. Although she did not approve. Not at all.

She kept eyeing that blank spot after the dash.

The death man smiled at Eula and held her in his eyes of murk.

_____

The call from the doctor’s office had been like a mean joke.

The day had started off good, though. When she went outside early that morning to warm up the bus, the air was perfumed from the black walnut tree—sweet and tangy, like something boiled in a cast iron pot at the county fair. The boughs were heavy with the ripe green fruit. An overnight rain storm had sent many of them to the ground. They were the size of crabapples, and split open under Eula’s shoes, spewing out black, spore-like flesh. She brushed them from where they had collected in the wiper well of her bus. It was a wonder the squirrels hadn’t got to them and carried them off. Maybe with their executioner having turned the gun on himself, they would feel more comfortable and come get these that were littering the yard.

She’d run her morning route. It had been a good run. Uneventful. The morning runs were usually smooth. The children were still groggy from getting up early, and they had crusty sleep in the corners of their eyes. The inside of the bus was cozy warm and smelled like instant oatmeal and Sugar Frosted Flakes and Log Cabin syrup. It was still dark outside. The morning runs generally went smooth.

She got back home around 10:30 and had a cup of Nescafe at the kitchen table like she always did. After that, she went to the living room couch and lay down to take a little nap. She put a dish towel over the cushion so the hairspray from her hair wouldn’t stain the fabric. She was just drifting off when the phone rang. Probably a telemarketer. They were so bad anymore it made you afraid to answer your own phone. She was aware of caller ID and cordless phones and cell phones and all of that, but Eula still used the hard-wired rotary phone that had been in the house even longer than Hubie’s .22. She sat up, lifted the receiver, and spoke a suspicious hello into the mouthpiece.

It was the doctor’s office.

They weren’t supposed to give you that kind of news over the phone. Even Eula knew that they were supposed to tell you that you needed to come in and review your test results with Dr. Parker. Maybe they figured Eula was so old that the news of her imminent death wouldn’t be as disturbing to her as it would be to a young person. A young person with their whole life in front of them might become depressed or do something crazy.

But no, the nurse said that the ovarian cancer had reached her liver. Stage four. And she would need to make an appointment with Dr. Parker to discuss treatment options and would you like me to connect you to the scheduling desk?

Eula said she would call back later. She sat on the couch and imagined a finger-thick cord of black cancer worming its way out of her woman parts. She could not let that happen. She prayed that wasn’t what The Lord had in store for her.

Why was there so much cancer in the world today? What are we doing to make this disease so common? It was like the world itself had cancer. The eating kind.

Eula never did get her nap in that day. She paced a lot. Walking from one end of the house to the other, like a cancer worm was tracking her. She pulled out the family photo album. There was Hubert, just a shoat, crew cut, his teeth not yet stained from the plug of Beech Nut he always kept in his lower jaw. There was Hubert and his brother Reid pouring the concrete foundation for this house. Hubert had built this house himself. The plumbing, the carpentry, the wiring, brickwork, roofing. All of it. The man was talented. Hubert was dead now, but his house still stood.

And there was Jerry. Their son. He was dead now too. There was Jerry in the front yard on his Big Wheel. The black walnut tree was a lot smaller back then and there was still grass in the yard. She remembered Jerry rode that Big Wheel until the black plastic wheels just disintegrated. As a Cub Scout. As a football player. With his prom date. Pretty girl. Eula couldn’t remember her name now. She’d come to the funeral, though. There he was with the harsh shorn head of a new recruit. He looked so young and strong like life was just busting out of him. Dead.

And there was Eula herself. She had been pretty in her way. Dainty, almost frail. A world away from the solid thing she was now. As the harried mother of a newborn. As the mother of a toddler, lines starting to set in around her eyes. Jerry was a handful. There she was reading nursery rhymes to Jerry. This is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built. There she was, stouter, after the news about Jerry. The lines set in permanently now. The life gone from her eyes. This is the maiden, all forlorn.

She was dead now, too.

Eula cried some. She didn’t care nothing about dying. But she thought of herself lying in bed, digging BM out of her own rectum and smearing it in her hair, and the hospice nurse smiling and saying “that’s the way they do sometimes. I’ve seen it before.”

They linger.

She thought of the death man, the twinkle in his sooty eyes as he used a hammer and chisel to fill in that awful blank space after the dash.

A little bit after noon, she put the album away and went to the kitchen. To the cabinet that held the microwave. That sat above the drawer. That stored the gun. That held the bullet. That finished Hubie. This is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built. And in the bottom of that cabinet, Eula found the corn liquor that Hubert kept stored there. It was in a wide mouth Ball jar. Home made. He kept it filled from a jug in the basement. He made it down there. Kept a still. Eula had seen it. He had bags of corn meal and cans of yeast. Bags of sugar and malt. This is the malt that lay in the house that Hubie built. She stayed away from all that. He only made it once, maybe twice a year. It was a wonder he never went blind.

Eula unscrewed the metal ring and pried off the lid. She brought her nose down to the jar and sniffed. Her head rocked back. She brought the jar to her lips and tasted it. It was like dipping your tongue in lye. It was like her mouth was telling her every way it knew how not to subject it to that poison.

She forced it down. Medicine. This is the rat that ate the malt. It helped. The fire in her mouth became a fire in her throat that became a fire in her chest that became a fire in her stomach that radiated through her whole body. This is the liquor that burned the mouth that seared the esophagus that bore the cancer that ate the body that Hubie built.

Eula shuddered against the cold fire. She wanted more and decided to take the liquor on a spoon. She used a good solid stainless steel spoon that was bigger than a table spoon. It was her favorite spoon. She used it to dip and eat ice cream. It was probably silly to have a favorite spoon.

She got the photo album out again, taking spoonfuls of moonshine as she browsed. It didn’t hurt as much this time. She started wishing for a cigarette. She hadn’t smoked since 1976 when she was pregnant with Jerry. Kent Golden Lights. That’s what she smoked and wanted now.

After a while, she took the spoon out of the canning jar and laid it on a crochet doily on the coffee table. She sipped from the jar. She felt okay. Happy, even.

When Eula looked up at the clock, it was 2:30. She had to be at the school by 2:45 for her three o’clock run.

When she left her house (the house that Hubie built) she left the door unlocked, and in her purse she carried something that belonged to Hubie, and in her womb she carried something that belonged to her alone.

_____

Eula made it to Joe Frank Harris Intermediate School on time and pulled into her empty slot in the loading zone. Usually, the drivers slid into their slanted spaces and opened up their doors and driver’s windows so they could talk and gossip. But today, Eula kept her Wayne International sealed tight. She just stared straight ahead and never even made eye contact with her fellow drivers.

At three o’clock, when first-grader Nathan Tattnall tapped at the loading door, Eula Shook reached forward and lifted the thumb clasp

That released the handle

That opened the door

That let in the students

That trusted the widowed driver

That bore a dark secret in the womb

That was numbed with the moonshine

The was stored in the cabinet

That held the microwave

That sat above the drawer

That stored the revolver

That held the bullet

That brought down the house that Hubie built.

Russell Roxburry, Wanda Lumpkin, and Mandy Slade were the last ones on the bus. They were fifth graders, ten years old. The third and fourth graders loaded earlier. Nathan Tattnall, seven, seated in the first seat to the driver’s right, leaned across the aisle and tugged at Eula’s sleeve.

“Miss Eula, are you sad?”

“Nathan, no sweetie, I ain’t sad. Why would you say that?”

“Cause you cryin’.”

Eula looked up to the oblong overhead mirror and was surprised to see her face wet, eyes red. She didn’t feel sad though.

Eula reached over and pulled the Wayne’s manual jack-knife handle. The folding door closed with a loud mechanical squeak. The bus was old. Sturdy, but old. Eula pulled forward out of her slot and into the exit lane, as she had ten thousand times before. Today she clipped the protruding corner of the loading zone sidewalk, rolled a rear tire over it. The bus shook and rocked the students left and right. It was fairly common for the drivers to clip this concrete corner that stuck out too far. Eula herself never had.

She waved to the officer on traffic duty just as she always did, and pulled the twenty-foot Wayne International onto Highway 41. The Wayne took the turn too wide and spent too long in the oncoming lane. Eula maneuvered the steering wheel hand-over-hand to get the bus back in the correct lane before it hit the white Volvo that headed the line of stopped traffic. She over-corrected and the bus ended up going onto the soft shoulder and into the shallow roadside drainage ditch. One of the first-grade girls (Belinda Edwards, who was high-strung anyway) screamed, but Eula maneuvered the Wayne cleanly out of the culvert and back onto Northbound 41.

The bus was quiet for a Friday afternoon. All the children were watching Eula. She had never so much as taken them over a pothole before, so they wanted to see what she would do next.

What she did next was to angle her arm down to her big brown pocketbook and reach herself out the greatly depreciated Ball jar

thatsatinthecabinet

thatwasunderthedrawer

thatheldthegun

thatfiredthebullet

thatbroughtdownthehousethatHubiebuilt.

The bus was so quiet that everybody could plainly hear the metal-on-glass of Eula unscrewing the top off the jar. She held the open container out to Nathan, but he shook his head and launched into a snotty crying spell. Eula had always found the boy to be a little effeminate. Sissy. But she tried not to judge a child so young. Still, it was plain. No telling what kind of man he might grow up to be. What kind of house he would build. What would ultimately bring that house down.

Eula took a good long swallow of the corn liquor. It still burned, but she didn’t mind it as much now. It lit up her whole face with warmth. She replaced the lid, securing it with the aluminum ring, and as she reached the jar back down to her purse, the Wayne International sailed through a four-way stop without slowing down even one little bit.

It was so quiet. Eula was tempted to turn on the radio, but she didn’t approve of popular music for little kids like that. It used to be songs had innuendo and double meanings, but now they just come right out and say shake your boombah and put it in my face. She would like to play Christian music for them, but she got reported for that one time.

Mandy Slade’s was the first stop. The only stop on Stockmar Road. Eula engaged the flashing yellow caution lights, glided to a stop in front of the Slade’s redbrick ranch style house, and extended the lighted stop sign. (Cars are supposed to stop—if they safely can—when the yellow cautions start flashing. Lots of people didn’t know or didn’t care and would speed up to get past the bus so they wouldn’t get stuck waiting. Eula could understand this and tried not to let it bother her. But she kept a notepad close by to write down the tag number of any vehicle that passed her once the stop sign swung out).

Eula waited for Mandy to gather her backpack and stride to the front. Eula opened the glass curtain door and waved to Mrs. Slade who was standing at the end of the driveway. The real young kids had to have someone waiting on them or Eula couldn’t let them off. Margie Slade waved back, and Eula wondered if the woman knew how bad that Clorox dye job was ruining her hair. She looked like a scarecrow.

Eula lumbered the Wayne back into motion. In the side mirror, she spied Mrs. Slade running behind the bus, her face pinched red, her lifeless hair scattering in bleachy wisps. The woman was waving her down. These people. These people were always wanting something.

Eula sighed and stopped the bus. She opened the door and waited. Mrs. Slade climbed up to the second step and looked back at the scared, quiet children. Then she looked at Eula, her face painted with grave concern.

“Eula, are you all right?”

“Hey, Margie. I’m fine. Why?”

“Why?”

Eula blinked at her. She was having trouble following.

“Why, is because you just took out my mailbox.”

Eula blinked several more times. “I did? Are you sure? Maybe the mailman. Or teenagers.”

“It wasn’t teenagers. Look, it’s right there in the middle of the road. You dragged it twenty feet.”

“Well, my Lord.”

There was a moment of silence. Perhaps for the fallen mailbox.

Margie scanned the seats again and asked, “Where’s Betty?”

“Female trouble.”

“Oh.”

“Margie, I believe your mailbox was already down before I got here.”

“No, ma’am. No. I saw you snag it on the bumper. Snapped it off at the base.”

“We’ll have to agree to disagree.”

“Eula, I want you to do something for me. I want you to breathe in my face.”

“Breathe in your face?”

“Yes. Please.”

“I will not.”

“Just blow in my face.”

“Margie, you’ve lost your mind. You’re not allowed on this bus. Get off.”

“Not until you blow in my face.”

“No, ma’am. Get off. You’re breaking the law.”

“I will not get off this bus until you breathe in my face.”

Eula saw the woman meant it, so she reached out and shoved Margie Slade backwards. Hard. The woman fell back a step, pinwheeled, was still falling, and one of her hands caught the vertical steel pole. Before Margie could completely right herself, Eula pulled the jack knife door handle, and the folding mechanism caught Mrs. Slade, pinning her half on and half off the bus. Eula put the Wayne in motion, built up some speed, then swerved the bus back and forth across Stockmar Road, trying to shake Margie off like a booger stuck on her finger. It worked. Margie took a tumble. Rolled into some blackberry bushes like she was Br’er Rabbit.

The kids were coming out of their awe now, whimpering. Low grade terror. It couldn’t be helped.

Once the Wayne International was back on 41, Eula took another swallow from the shine jar. To settle her nerves. She turned on to Cheatham Hill and into the Legacy Isle subdivision. Three of the kids were supposed to get off here. She saw the mothers waiting, but before the bus came to a complete stop, Eula took her foot off the brake and stabbed the gas pedal. These buses had more get up and go than most people would think. She just couldn’t let these children off with them crying and snotting.

In the side view, Eula could see the perplexed parents, their heads bobbing, fingers pointing. She turned on the radio. Full on gospel.

She heard kids calling out Miss Eula! and what’s wrong? And please stop please. She flew right on past their stops. She couldn’t hear them. She had other things on her mind. Eula was drunk.

She turned around in her seat, wanting to see the faces of the children without the filter of the mirror. As she did, the bus drifted across 41 and off the opposite shoulder. The Wayne slid down into a young stand of loblolly pine. The limbs slapped the bus thwap thwap thwap thwap thwap like a playing card on bicycle spokes. Eula thought Wheeeee! Some of the passenger windows were open, and the tender green limbs sprung through and were immediately snapped off due to the bus’s high speed. Boughs of clean young pine were flying through the Wayne International’s interior. The fresh sap released through the violent amputation filled the bus with a sharp clean scent that was somewhere between turpentine and Christmas.

The children were outright screaming now. Some of them hysterical. Something was bad wrong with the world today. They were running up and down the aisle. Pandemonium. Russell Roxbury had his hands to his head, elbows poked out, in a cartoonish image of consternation. It was downright comical.

Eula righted the bus back onto the two-lane and told them to hush up. She didn’t usually snap at the children like that, but they were really being babies today. This was fun and they didn’t even know it. Their parents kept them so keyed up and high strung. This was really just an adventure.

Eula got the bus rolling smooth down 41. It felt good. Music was on the radio. A choir singing At the End of the Road, talking about how sweet relief from all care will be waiting for me there when I come to the end of the road. Eula reckoned that was where this trip was going to end, at the end of the road. She felt good. The music sounded good. She loved driving the bus. She had been on this road a long long time. It had been a long life. She had seen a lot of things change. Change. Change could be hard. Children with pink hair and black fingernails, baby girls in makeup and bare stomachs, pants that sat on their pubic bone—these were just children.

She saw that they had their little cell phones out now. Calling people and taking pictures. Children with little Dick Tracy gadgets. Their little phones and games and movie cameras all of it hooked up to the outer space thing. They were calling their parents. They were taking movies of her. Although Eula didn’t know the word “upload” she knew that’s what they were doing. Taking movies of her and putting them up there in outer space for everybody to see. She had seen these videos on the news. That story about the poor bus monitor with them nasty mouthed children poking her rolls of fat and filming her until she cried. Eula wasn’t going to cry. She was smarter than she let on. She knew damn well the outer space thing was called the Internet; it just suited her mind to play the old lady sometimes. And she knew all their nasty words too. The F word. All of them. She just chose not to wallow in such.

In the side mirror, she saw a Chevrolet Equinox fall in behind the bus. It was Margie Slade, her scarecrow hair flying in the breeze. Margie was on her cell phone too. Eula could see bleeding scratches on the woman’s face and forehead. From the blackberry briars. Then a Cobb County sheriff pulled alongside Mrs. Slade. He waved her off then hit his lights and siren. But Margie stayed right alongside him. She was mad, probably.

Eula’s gaze fell to the Georgia state flag decal mounted in the lower corner of the windshield. The old one with the rebel emblem. All the buses had it at one time. Then they changed the flag. Said it was racist. Eula got a letter in the mail from the superintendent of Cobb County schools. Said remove the flag decal. But she refused. She was proud of her heritage. She didn’t hate. She wasn’t a racist. Didn’t believe the flag was racist. Didn’t believe that no more than the man in the moon. She voted for Governor Sonny Perdue because he said he would bring the flag back. But he didn’t. Sonny lied.

The South was disappearing. Hell, it was gone. It was up there in outer space with everything else. And when she was dead, they could forget about laying her in the dirt with Hubie, they could just shoot her out there in space too. It used to be people were proud to be from the South, and now they acted like they was ashamed of it.

The Sheriff’s cruiser was angling up in front of her, trying to slow her down, cut her off, stop her. Lights going off like blue flashbulbs, siren giving her a headache and drowning out her gospel. But she just swerved around him, like he was nothing. And she could see there were more parents back there, joining the chase, lining up in their white SUV’s. They loved those SUV’s. Loved ‘em as much as they loved their cell phones.

It was all just too much. Too much of everything. Eula stopped the bus. Stopped right in the middle of Northbound Highway 41, and took a last pull off the liquor jar. It was empty now. Thank you, Hubie. She wasn’t stopped but just a minute, but that was long enough for things to start sliding away from her. Russell Roxbury and Wanda Lumpkin got the rear emergency exit open and jumped on out. Most all the fourth and fifth graders followed them out. Not Nathan Tattnall, though. Him and all the other real young ones stayed on the bus. They trusted Miss Eula.

She could see parents popping out of their shiny vehicles and scooping up their kids. And she could see the sheriff’s deputy sidling up the bus on the driver’s side. He had on his brown and tan uniform and his ranger hat. Eula could see he was being real cautious like she was dangerous or something. He was edging along the side of the bus, his fingers playing over the grip of his service pistol.

Eula leaned out the window and threw the Ball jar at him. It hit him right in the face. She saw his hands go up to cover himself and some blood was there too. She called him a motherfucker and took off.

The ramp for the interstate was right up ahead. I-75. She wanted to feel some wind in her hair. Maybe cruise on down to Atlanta. Look for the gold dome and go shake the hand of the man who ousted Sonny Perdue. Or maybe hit him in the eye. He wasn’t going to bring back her flag either. And then she realized that she never gave a damn about that flag anyway. It was just something to go on about. None of it mattered. Nathan Tattnall was weeping. A steady stream. Like a little girl. Eula didn’t understand why there was so much anger in her. There was the ramp to the interstate. The bus flattened two metal signs that said WRONG WAY and DO NOT ENTER in red capital letters.

It was fun dodging the oncoming cars. She did it for a long time. At first she thought it was them moving in the wrong direction, after a while she realized they were moving forward and she was moving backward. It was probably dangerous, but she could handle it. She thought about white SUV’s and cell phones and dirty words and text messages and satellites in outer space and her little bus moving the wrong way, against all of it. She thought of children dressed up like harlots and thugs and she wondered if kids today would ever know the simple pleasures of childhood, like Hansel and Gretel and Mother Goose and nursery rhymes. Then she saw that an eighteen-wheeler loaded with gasoline (actually nine thousand gallons of isobutane, the driver would later tell the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) was bearing down on her. She thought of the fireball that would result if she maintained her collision course. They’d probably be able to see it from out there in space. But the rig driver saw her and hit his brakes. The tanker jackknifed. It went into an oblong skid that covered four lanes of the interstate. Eula thought of a joke the kids liked to tell each other. The punchline was crispy critters. She kept her eyes open. The tanker continued its skid, turning. It slid right on past the bus like pistons packed in grease sliding next to each other. It was that close. It kept on sliding and went off the interstate and into a stand of crape myrtles.

She could see there were several sheriff’s deputies back there now, sirens screaming at her. A little trail of white SUV’s. And looked like a news van from one of the Atlanta stations. Eula was going to make the news. They would ask her what were you thinking? That’s what they would want to know. She had no idea what her answer would be.

Eula gradually noticed that she wasn’t dodging oncoming traffic anymore, which was a disappointment because she really liked doing that. They must have shut down the interstate on her account. They could do that fast nowadays in this world where people blew up buildings and spread poison gas.

There was a helicopter up in the sky, thumping away, trying to get her attention. She wished she could tell them that she didn’t want to hurt anybody, that she had no poison to spread. And she saw that up ahead they had set up some kind of blockade all lit up and flashing big as Christmas morning. Police cars and ambulances, little armored tank things and what looked like a prison bus. All strewed across the blacktop like game pieces across a Monopoly board. Even Monopoly was different today with plastic credit cards instead of cash money.

Eula reckoned she would not be passing Go today. She was at the end of the road.

She didn’t know what to do next. She looked over to sissy boy Nathan, but he was curled up into a tight ball on his seat. Reminded Eula of a roly poly, protecting himself. The other little kids back there didn’t have any suggestions either. Jazmyn Hughes. Lakesha Moon. Jeff Cain. Gail Stevens. She loved them. They couldn’t help how their parents raised them.

Eula stopped the bus. Because she loved them. And this made her realize that she loved Hubert too. That she really did love him. This surprised her. And it made her realize that if she really did love him, then he probably really did love her too. He was the man, all tattered and torn, that kissed the maiden, all forlorn.

Eula could see nothing but emergency flashers ahead and behind her. She could hear nothing but sirens and radio crackle and the whomp-whomp-whomp of rotor blades. And she thought of the dark thing to which she would soon give birth.

They linger.

She reached into her purse.

She looked at the children in the overhead mirror.

This will probably scar them for the rest of their lives.

But it can’t be helped. And it won’t be that messy. Not nearly as much mess as you would think.

Cock-a-Doodle-Doo by L. E. Bunn

The first day of first grade I wanted to make a new friend as soon as possible. Kindergarten was a tough time dealing with a certain manipulative five-year-old. Olivia had told me it was good to pick your nose. She spilled the beans about sex and the real meaning of F-U-C-K, a word that would result in getting my mouth washed out with soap at home. Olivia made me feel young, naïve, and ignorant. Even in my six-year-old mind, I knew it was time to move on.

 

Early into first grade, I met Marina, a city girl from Chicago, with luminous curls and large eyes. She already had offers of modeling jobs and child movie roles. Big into hospitality, my Mom invited Marina over for a play-date at our farm. I felt less than thrilled.

 

She arrived on my gravel driveway, not a hair out of place. She wore white pants and perfect little light up shoes, even a hint of lip-gloss.

 

She skeptically glanced at me, “What do you feel like doing?”

 

I looked like a ragamuffin freshly baked and popped out of the toaster oven. I pulled on my ratty old farm boots, hitching the strap of my overalls back onto my shoulder. She awkwardly followed me down the dirt road to the old red barn.

 

I opened the latch. The essence of chicken excrement surrounded us. She wrinkled her nose. Great. The sound of roosters crowing punctuated the air like a series of ellipses emphasizing my discomfort…

 

Marina regarded my unconventional family, the puffed out chest of the Buff Orpingtons, the stocky legs of the Jumbo Cornish X Rocks, the silvery feathers of the Silver-laced Wyandottes, and finally the unique spots and textures coating the Araucana chickens. I held my breath, waiting, waiting, waiting.

 

She peered closer, brown eyes widening, “What are their names?”

 

I grinned, “We can name them,” I decided to ignore the unstated farm kid rule of don’t get too attached to the ‘pets.’

 

A small smile twisted onto her lips.

 

A room full of roosters crowing like alarm clocks, yet I named one Henrietta, and she named the other Grace.

 

We danced around the green plastic chairs taunting them and ducking from outbursts of feathers and pecking.

 

She has remained my best friend for the last 12 years.

A Tribute to Shann Palmer by Debra DuPree Williams

I had just found my muse only to have her taken away by The One who put her here in the first place. Reading the words, “We will miss Shann Palmer‘s unique vision, poetic voice and gentle spirit. ” on the Dead Mule website took the wind right out of my sails.

I was looking through my 2014 Poet’s Market book when I ran across Dead Mule, School of Southern Literature. I felt I just may have found a place for my orphaned works. I logged on, full of anticipation and excitement. I clicked on “poetry” and there found a chapbook written by Shann Palmer, Skip Tracing Angels, along with her southern legitimacy statement, and four more poems.

At first, I didn’t pay any attention to Dead Mule’s line about missing her. I was so excited to have found her work, I just went straight to reading. Wow! I thought, this is so like my own family and the experiences I have had. It was as though Miss Palmer were speaking to me, telling me, “You can do this. This is who you are. This is your voice.” Then, like a ton of bricks, it hit me. Had I read something about her being missed? Where did she go?

I went back to the poetry page and that was when it sank in, to my mind, and my heart, that Miss Palmer was no longer with us. I have to tell you, I cried like a baby. This woman I had known for less than an hour, had had a powerful impact on me, and here I was, weeping for her as though she had been a long-time friend. That is how powerful her words were. In just four short poems, she had said more to me about writing and how it should and could be done than all the “how to” books lining my shelves. Her words were personal, as if she had written them just for me.

I lay no claim to being an essayist. Poetry is my chosen genre. I already have a poem running around in my mind, and parts of it written on my heart, in memory of this one special lady who impacted me so deeply on December 23, 2013, the day I first logged on to Dead Mule. One line I’ll share with you here, with thanks to Carly Simon for the idea. Two hot girls on a cold winter’s night, searching for words. Sadly, no more words will be forthcoming from Shann Palmer, she took all of them with her to The Promised Land.

Athena Sasso: Throw Down

The weekend before the season started, my father decided the lawn by the bath house needed attention, and that’s how I came to be wasting my last Saturday morning before opening day at a sod farm in Semmes, testing how close to Charlotte’s heel I could fling a dirt clod. My father complained the chlorine streaming from Mr. Wilson’s skimmer tools had thinned out the grass by the bath house so it wasn’t thick enough to protect his feet from the acorns. We left Semmes with a ton of sod in the truck bed and I spent the ride home watching the load in the rearview. The full pallet weighed on the shocks and pushed us down Spring Hill, flattened the bridges over Mobile Bay where, at low tide, mud flats percolated above the surface and reeked like the inside of a camp boot. I tried to hold my breath all the way through the Bankhead Tunnel. In the darkest part, I stuck Charlotte’s thigh with a pine needle and she fought back with the palm of her hand and a declaration: “You smell like a polecat.” To Charlotte, I was a stinky, grotesque human being, but she was my twin sister and I loved her like mad.

 

Laying sod was a task my father never hired out and once I yielded to the grime and rhythm, I enjoyed the unaccustomed coordination of our labor. We placed and stomped and watered in, and when we had finished, the bath house stood taller, whiter in contrast to the new blanket of green at its feet. To demonstrate our success, my father, wrapped in a towel, carried his scotch with him and took his shower there. He didn’t wear shoes and boasted he didn’t need them anyway.

 

That season, our assistant coach was Chip Ford, a junior infielder on the University of Alabama’s disabled list. As a favor to Chip’s uncle, my father had spoken to the right someone so Chip could do his Secondary Ed student teaching to coincide with the season. It was a good thing, too, because by mid-season, Coach Gaffney’s cancer treatments had started up again and Chip Ford was pretty much running things.

 

Coach Chip told us we had talent and he didn’t drill us to death for no good reason. He never freaked on us, even when that squealer Charlie Cox ratted about the doobie Mitch hid inside his glove. Parents loved him. Charlotte swooned at the mention of his name. He was easy to talk to.

 

Coach taught us to think about our game twenty-four seven and to carry with us as a reminder an object. It didn’t matter what it was, he said, as long as it kept your head on the game. If it was a smooth rock, it should burn your leg through your pocket. If it was a necklace, it should rest heavy against your skin.

 

I chose for my lucky object the first game ball I got in Little League, signed by my teammates. While I ate breakfast, it sat next to my cereal bowl. When I went to the movies, I held it between my legs and nearly pulverized it when the stupid but heartbreakingly beautiful girl descended the basement stairs, followed close behind by the brutal psycho with the bloody ax. I even carried it into the shower.

 

It seemed to work. By the middle of the second game I had quit thinking about how awesome my ass looked to the girls behind the backstop. Mitch had pitched to me since JV. Denny played shortstop and Robert, second base. Mitch didn’t give up that many hits, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. We could turn two, run a player out of the baseline, or make the play at home. Hell, Denny, Robert, Mitch and I were the team. We were decent hitters, too, but like Coach said, you don’t have to make that many runs when your defensive game is tight.

 

Coach taught me how to pop up and throw down to second with my body and not my brain. Every day after practice he pitched to me and I threw the ball at a spot a foot above second base. Over and over, one more throw than my knees could stand.

 

“Forget about your target, kid,” he’d say. “When the pitch hits your glove is no time to hang back. Denny will be there, or Robert. You think about it, you missed it.”

 

Before long I believed him. A glove would be waiting when my throw shot in. I learned to tell whether a player leading off first was going to run or chicken out. It was statistical, sure, and some guys are just better stealers than others, but I threw out so many runners that season, they were stealing just for the challenge of beating me. They couldn’t resist, even when their third base coaches signaled a hold up. And Coach had been right, Denny and Robert were always there. When we didn’t make the play, it was on me. You couldn’t bet against me though.

 

For his object, Mitch chose something less concrete than a game ball: Warren Zevon, The Best Of, fed into his brain through sweaty earbuds. It was amorphous as objects go, but it was Mitch, who was himself a bit of a mystery, among the four of us the least likely to own up to pain or hunger. I wondered whether it owed to the thing that made him different from the rest of us, his family’s lack of means. He could save his words for something that seemed to amuse him, go for an hour without a peep and then, as soon as my bald father left the room, pick up with Zevon: “His hair was perfect.”

 

No one doubted we were playoff bound. My father loved a winner and he’d ask Coach over a couple of times a week. Sometimes they would go in the study and shut the door. Coach’s uncle was in charge of recruiting for Alabama, so it wasn’t too hard to figure out why my father treated Coach like a second son.

 

When Coach was at the house, he would flick up the bill of my cap, just like one of the guys. Father would stand between us and clap both of us on the shoulders, and we’d look at each other and pretend to agree with whatever he said. It was great, except for Charlotte acting uncharacteristically nice to me when Coach was around, which was just creepy. Mitch thought so, too.

 

On the night before the game with Foley, to decide who would advance to the playoffs, Mother placed before us one of her feasts, the perfect complement of starch to protein to pie and a timely diversion from the pre-game nerves that had settled in my gut. Mitch and I ate quickly, anticipating second helpings. Mother sat straight, her eyes darting, attentive to potential need. Charlotte leaned to her right, attentive to Coach.

 

“That was something you did in the Baldwin game,” Coach said to me. I sat across from him at the table. Mitch sat across from Charlotte.

 

“Damn right,” my father said. “Mitch, you hadn’t dove out of the way, he’d have laid you out. I swear, best damn throw down I ever saw. Quick like lightning.”

 

Charlotte started to roll her eyes and caught herself.

 

“It’s just muscle memory. Right, kid?” Coach winked at me, then glanced my father’s way. “Still, I thought the runner had that one beat,” he added.

 

Mother asked Coach if he would have another helping of snap beans and Mitch piped up, “I’ll have some.” Charlotte’s mouth knotted. She kicked Mitch under the table and he blurted, “Wha―?” as my father spoke.

 

“Hard to believe you boys’ll be going away to school in another year.” He looked at Coach and raised his eyebrows. When Coach didn’t say anything, my father continued, “Cub, you stay healthy and keep playing like this, we’ll get you a full ride. Ain’t that right, Coach?”

 

“Right, Mr. Cooper.”

 

The pronouncement pinged around the dining room. Mother’s hand went to the pearls at her neck. All their eyes settled on me like a huge searchlight. It took ten seconds to swallow my load of mashed potatoes. When I finally did, the first words out of my mouth were, “What about Mitch?”

 

Coach looked to my father for a sign and my father beamed. “Mitch, too,” he said.

 

 

My father was going to do what he always did, try to buy something that wasn’t for sale. He was going to make sure Cub Cooper played catcher for Alabama. It irked me that we wanted the same thing, but we could still disagree over how to get it. I could earn my spot on the roster. If he didn’t screw it up. I could feel it, he would get in the way, get a greedy recruiter in trouble and me, banned for good. There was no tack but keep making the plays.

 

Cub is what my father called me when he wasn’t ticked. When I raised his ire, he called me by my birth name: Howard. Howard Ellis Cooper the fourth. In a rare moment of collaboration, Charlotte and I had vowed never again to refer to ourselves as Coopuhs, though when my father passed, I found myself slipping back.

 

The day we clinched our spot in the playoffs, Coach’s uncle, Edward Sweet, was in the stands. He had come down from Tuscaloosa at my father’s invitation, so it wasn’t an official scouting trip, just one of those friendly accommodations, you might say. Still, he was Alabama’s head scout and we tried talking ourselves down while we dressed in the field house. That the game, once won, would put us in the playoffs was the important thing. That Edward Sweet could be sitting up there scribbling notes on a little pad wasn’t.

 

By the end of the first inning, Edward Sweet might as well have been on Pluto. I had no peripheral vision outside the baselines and I had to turn my head to see Coach’s signals. He mostly gave me the knee brush, which meant he was leaving it up to me. Coach Gaffney would never have done that. I could sense the coiled tension in each Foley hitter as he dug into the batter’s box, straining, the strength he needed for the swing seeping away while Mitch pushed the umpire’s patience with his wind-up.

 

Foley’s second hit came in the top of the ninth. We were up 1-0. Coach had not relieved Mitch, who, through eight, hadn’t pitched the quota and was better than any fresh arm in the bullpen besides. With one out, Foley had hit a double and now the runner led off second while Mitch pitched to the edge of a full count. On the three-two, I signaled heat and that for-shit hitter connected. The ball sailed toward right field where our weakest link, Sonny Robinson, ran to get under it. I knew from the look on Sonny’s face he had lost the ball in the sun and when it got there it skimmed the tip of his glove, bounced off the fence and died on the grass. He danced around it while the runner tagged up.

 

The runner was one of Foley’s fastest and his third-base coach gave him the Ferris-wheel, circling his arm as if to speed him up as he passed. I turned my left foot up the baseline so he wouldn’t take out my knee when he dove for the plate. Sonny threw hard. It would come in short. I lunged. The ball hit my glove. The ground under my feet shook as the runner pounded toward me. I tried for the tag and it felt as if my shoulder was a caught hinge that wouldn’t get down quick enough. I slapped at the runner’s hand.

 

The next thing I remember, Mitch was looking down at me, his face close, his hands on my shoulders. He made me tell him his name – “Arse-crack,” I said – and he sprang up and ran backwards with his arms in the air while Denny and Robert pulled me to my feet and dragged me into a writhing celebration in front of the plate.

 

In the field house, Mitch told me I had laid the tag down clean, but the runner had knocked me cold when he barreled at me. The hitter was getting the go-ahead treatment, and Mitch hadn’t seen the ball since Sonny threw it in. It could have been under me. Mitch ran to the plate praying for a miracle and got one. He dug the ball from my clamped mitt, turned open-chested and threw hard to third, where the best baseman on the planet that day made the catch and tagged the runner’s clay-caked cleat.

 

 

My father invited the team over for a party that evening. At four o’clock Charlotte leaned over the coffee table and smoothed pink polish over her nails. Mother had Mitch and me stuffing gold and blue napkins into the casual-cookout napkin rings and Mitch took a break now and then to flick one – table-football technique – into the sunken living room where Charlotte practiced her senseless personal preparations. I had developed quite a rhythm with the task at hand when Mitch nudged me and nodded toward the window. I could see Coach and his uncle getting out of Coach’s car.

 

“They’re early,” I said.

 

Mitch skipped over the step into the living room and slid down next to Charlotte. He leaned in and said, “Better not let him in,” right before the doorbell rang. Charlotte squealed and jumped up, blowing on her fingertips. Mitch bolted toward the door but pulled up short and waited gallantly for Charlotte to clear the area before he let them enter.

 

Coach and Edward Sweet walked in and Mitch pulled out his earbuds, an overt sign of respect coming from him. He even shook hands with Mr. Sweet. Mitch had grasped the situation before I had, and finally I caught on when my father entered, filling the room. They were not early but right on time. My father led them into his study and closed the door.

 

Mitch and I looked at each other across the wide living room. I shot him my game ball and he slammed it into the sofa cushions.

 

“You’re getting an offer,” Mitch said. “You’ll have to look surprised, man – they’ll announce it during the cookout, I know it.”

 

“You, too. You deserve it. Give me back my ball.”

 

“Yeah? I’d pull a faint. God, the pressure. I need a breakdown.” He said it with his flat voice.

 

Mother came in to check our progress and seemed not to notice Mitch throw the ball to me as the Bayside Caterer’s van, mother’s little helper, appeared at the end of the long drive. They would pull around the side, as usual, and for a group of young men who lacked the capacity for appreciation, Mother would make sure it all looked and tasted ideal.

 

During the party, Mother never let a platter go empty, though she did pause from her fussing to give me the mortified look when I climbed out of the pool and my shorts threatened to slide off from the weight of the game ball in my pocket. Besides event execution, her other big ambition was never to be embarrassed by her offspring. It was as if she could see only me and not all the other guys, already a little too loose, crowding the keg the way they might huddle next to the fire on a freezing campout. My father and Edward Sweet were right in there, too.

 

Mitch slouched in a chair under one of the umbrellas, his foot propped on the side of the table. As I hiked up my shorts and reached for a towel, he caught my eye, put his thumb and index finger to his lips and cocked his head toward the gazebo.

 

I passed the bath house and met Mitch another thirty yards down the slope. He looked over his shoulder at me as he held the joint between his knees and lit it. I waited while he took his time handing over the tightly rolled spliff. It was cooler there, closer to the bay, where the commotion of the celebration faded. The paper lanterns that Mother had turned on hours ago began to glow in the dusk. A line of them encircled the pool deck and floated all the way over to the bath house, casting pale circles of light onto the grass. As many times as Mother had employed the lantern trick, it always enchanted me. I tried to spin my game ball on my index finger. No go. I reclined on the lawn and closed my eyes.

 

“Right now, I don’t care,” I said.

 

“About what?” Mitch asked.

 

“About anything. About baseball, about Alabama, Edward Sweet.”

 

“Thanks for reminding me.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

Mitch said, “I can do that, too,” and he lay down and reached for the joint. “Right now,” he said, “right now” – he took a hit – “just for this instant, I don’t care about Charlotte.”

 

I opened my eyes and rolled up on my elbow. “Huh?”

 

“Yeah, man, right his minute, I don’t even care that she’s sucking face with Coach.”

 

I sat up. He sounded like he cared.

 

“Over there.” He nodded toward the dock. I squinted and in the dusk could just make them out, not involved in a lip lock, thankfully, but walking slowly up the grade toward the house. Now and then Coach would walk ahead a few paces and turn around and walk backward, grab Charlotte’s hand and make her laugh.

 

“Oh brother.” I lay back down. I wanted to be invisible. Mitch must have felt the same, and they didn’t appear to notice us as they passed near the gazebo. I heard Coach say I know you and Charlotte reply I doubt that.

 

Charlotte laughed loudly and I looked over and saw Coach put a finger to her lips to shush her. I couldn’t look away as he pulled her to the side of the bath house, out of sight of the pool deck, and twirled her in a circle. He stopped her where she was facing me and stood behind her, burying his face in her neck. He curled around her and swept his forearm down the front of her cover up. They were close enough I could see her stiffen. She tried to get away, but he stationed his legs wider and grabbed her down there. Quick, like lightning, I was on my feet, my game ball flying from my fingers. Only when I heard Mitch groan did I perceive the risk I had taken.

 

I blew Coach’s kneecap to smithereens. By the time the ambulance pulled away, my father had used up all his juice making sure no charges were filed. There’s a limit to everything.

 

 

My father died before another season had passed. You should have seen the funeral Mother put on. Mitch wore the navy jacket Mother had bought him for when the recruiters called. Mitch got his offer, and I got a letter from a no-name school in North Dakota. I couldn’t see myself training in the snow, so I applied to Troy State to try my luck walking on.

 

The service was at St. John’s, followed by a quick graveside ceremony and Mother’s reception at the house, which began at four and ran into the night. Charlotte seemed to like Mitch’s cleaned-up look, and his chances I guessed, and she let him console her. As father would have done, mother ordered a keg for the guys. After the somber service, the guests seemed relieved to return to the socializing for which they were better suited. A bourbon-breathed man stood in front of me with a hand on my shoulder and called me Mr. Cooper. He assured me I’d do fine without the man who’d always guaranteed I slid in safe.

 

When I had made my way to the edge of the deck I slipped out of the crowd and down the slope. I took off my shoes and socks and worked my toes into the grass, letting the bath house prop me up, whispering Mister, Mister Cooper while the lanterns on the dock blurred into halos.

C. L. Bledsoe “Stray” [2007 revisited]

Paul waited till his fiancée was gone, ran downstairs and hopped in his car. He didn’t know exactly what he was going for, maybe ice cream, maybe that pie that you could buy two pieces of at a time, frozen. The closest place was Kroger so he went there, though the ice cream shop was just down the street. He didn’t know how long his fiancée would be gone. She was on a lunch date with a friend from her old job, so the friend would have to go back to work.

He and his fiancée both had the day off because they were getting married that weekend. That’s why they had been on the diet for the last two months. That’s why he was making a raid.

He heard an ambulance siren at the light but didn’t see anything, so he drove through and parked. Inside, he grabbed a basket and made his way to the bakery section. When he passed the pharmacy, several employees were gathered around an old man slumped in a chair. Paul thought “old”, and then immediately realized that the guy’s age was indeterminate. He might be forty, but he looked sixty or seventy. He was thin as faith, and his face was ringed by a dirty grey beard, stained yellow around the mouth. The man’s head was slumped down like he might’ve passed out. Paul’s first thought was that the man was homeless or very poor and couldn’t afford to refill his medication; that’s why he was in the pharmacy, causing a scene. His second thought was about Bill.

Bill was an old redbone hound Paul had found when he was a kid. The dog had probably belonged to their neighbor Mr. Martin, a middle-aged electrician and carpenter who lived on the next hill over from Paul’s father’s house. Paul had been playing out in the valley between their houses when he saw the dog watching him. Paul had dropped to one knee and held out a hand and the dog had come and licked it. The dog walked slow, but Paul led him home and fed him a little from the fridge. He named him Bill and when his dad came home, asked if he could keep him.

“We’ll have to ask Martin,” his Dad said. “That’s an old dog. It belongs to somebody and they’ll probably want it back.”

But it was already late, so he let Paul have the dog for the night.

It was around two, three a.m. when Paul woke. He’d heard something or felt something, he didn’t know. He went outside where Bill was sleeping in a makeshift doghouse Paul’s dad had made by leaning some plywood against the wall and stuffing it with blankets. Bill was standing, watching him like he’d been earlier. Paul went to the dog and hugged him, listening to him breathe until Paul realized he was quiet.

In the morning, Paul’s dad called Mr. Martin. “Leave him by the road, and the city will haul him off,” the man had said. Paul’s father had chatted with Mr. Martin for a few minutes before hanging up, something Paul never understood. “He’s not a bad man,” Paul’s father told him. “He just doesn’t understand why anyone would get worked up over a dog.”

Paul and his dad buried Bill out behind the house. “When they know their time is coming, sometimes things just want to go somewhere safe,” his dad had said to him that night.

Paul hadn’t thought about Bill in years. It had made him feel better, what his dad had said, cause it was like he’d helped the dog, even though all he’d done was feed him.

Paul came out of his reverie and found himself at the donut case. He grabbed a couple, without thinking, and went to pay for them.

He passed the pharmacy again. The paramedics were there. They had the man laid out on a gurney. Several employees were gathered around watching. Maybe that was it; they weren’t acting like he was some crazy homeless guy making a nuisance. They all looked like he was dying, or dead. There were a couple girls who looked like they were about to start crying, and the pharmacy manager (or a man Paul assumed to be this) was watching with his hands on his hips, helpless. The paramedics were talking soothingly as they worked. It was odd to Paul that they didn’t seem jaded and professional like the ones on TV.

Paul went to the self-checkout and dodged out of the way as the paramedics rolled the man past and out the door. No one else moved. Paul paid for his things and left, feeling oddly angry about this.

Outside, the ambulance sat parked by the door. Maybe they weren’t taking the man to the hospital because he wasn’t bad enough off. Paul walked past and went to his car, his donuts forgotten. He watched the ambulance in the rearview as he left the parking lot, and even as he moved out onto the road, waiting for it to move, or the man to walk back out, or something.

Annette Cooper: “The Red Crochet Skirt” from Oct 2000

The Red Crochet Skirt

When I found
the faded photograph
of me
taken forty-something
years ago
wearing the red
crocheted skirt,
I remembered
the balls of red yarn
bought one a time
from Newberry’s Five and Dime.

I remember
the evenings, watching
that flashing silver hook
pulling yards of string
through endless tiny loops,
forming row upon row
of red lace,
and you holding
it up to my thin
ten-year-old body,
until it fit perfectly.

You made me put it on
with a white cotton,
puffy sleeved blouse,
white shoes and socks,
and paraded me
around to the neighbors
who oohed and aahed
to your satisfaction.
Then you stood me
in front of our apartment
and took the photograph
of me
holding it out
to the sides
like I was about
to take a bow,
with the best smile
I could afford.
I didn’t want you
to know
I didn’t like the skirt.

I wore it to school once
and a boy asked me
why I was wearing a doily,
and I hated you
for working
so long and hard
on it.

The red skirt
hung in my closet
and when it
disappeared,
I didn’t ask,
nor did I
ever tell you,
I didn’t like it
and I hope
you never knew,
but how
could you not?

John McCaffrey “Clamming in January” [2007 revisited]

Ray always believed that T-Rex possessed an instinctual sense of its impending doom. He was convinced of this whenever he viewed a picture of the prehistoric beast. In those savage and smoldering eyes, he saw flashes of despair. And the short, spindly arms—attached as they were to such a large and muscled torso—seemed to Ray a cruel trick, a tangible reminder of an incongruent existence.

Ray was thinking of dinosaurs because the clam rake in his hands, with its hollow metal basket and sloped teeth, suggested to him the outline of the T-Rex’s head. He twirled the rake’s wooden handle in his calloused palms, and made his first thrust into the murky bay. It was early January, usually much too cold a time to be standing in waist-deep water, but winter had yet to hit with full force, and Ray felt comfortable in rubber hip boots and a hooded sweatshirt. He looked about him as he worked the water, absorbing in the day’s complete grayness. The dreariness made him strangely happy, and he remembered with a smile his father’s steady proclamation that “sunshine was no friend to the fisherman.”

An elongated squeak—almost like the skin-chilling sound of fingernails scratching a blackboard—cut through the soft sound of swells lapping up against Ray’s waders. With rote response, he wormed the teeth deeper into the sand, making sure to get well under the shell, before pulling the basket toward the surface.

This was always the most exciting, and sometimes the most frightening, part of clamming: seeing what you’d dredged up from below. When Ray was still too young to wield a clam rake, but would go anyway to be with his father, an ink-black eel, its snubbed set of teeth snapping at the air, bounded out from his father’s basket and landed with a splash next to where he stood. Ray recalled the moment with shame; at the sight of the eel, he had screamed loudly—“like a girl,” his father said—and ran out of the water and to the shore and all the way back to their truck where he sat trembling.

The incident with the eel was long past, but he was now the same age his father had been when it happened. It gave him a start to think he might follow the same arc as his father. He never imagined as a child that he would one day become an adult; as an adult, he never imagined he would one day become old. But that’s exactly where he was heading.

His father had never stopped clamming, even up to a few weeks before his death; when he was so frail that a few pulls of the rake would nearly double him over with pain. Ray thought of his father again as he yanked harder on the basket. This had been their favorite place to clam: a lonely swatch of water ringed by high, grass-topped dunes. Ray felt a symbolic connection to this isolation. He was not married. Had no children. And no parents, as his mother had also passed. There were no siblings.

The basket felt unusually heavy, and Ray slid his hands lower on the handle for leverage. It was odd, he thought as he strained, that he should be so accepting of his solitude. He had not truly envisioned such a singular point to his life; he rather thought he would get married and have many children; be surrounded by loved ones. But somehow time for him had moved ahead in increments that spurned companionship.

Still, he was not entirely unhappy; he was content in many areas. And he had developed the ability to think, to think really hard—even if what he was thinking about was troublesome. He had discovered this mental aptitude after his father’s death, when he had holed up in his house for days on end and went over, moment by moment, their entire relationship. It was a process that brought him nearly to the edge of panic, but he was able to stay in the moment and achieve a full and complete memory record of their time together. This he placed in his brain as if storing a tax return in his financial file, and he had a flood of pictures and words and feelings that happened between him and his father at his ready disposal, whenever he liked.

The basket seemed to resist his pull, fighting back like a hooked fish on the end of the line. Ray figured he’d caught on a heavy rock. Or perhaps he’d dug into a bed of seaweed. He lowered his shoulder and slid his hands even lower on the rake’s shaft, until his knuckles dipped into the water. With a final jerk, he finally heaved the basket into open air. And as water and sand drained free from the basket, Ray, without blinking an eye, watched as the eel trapped inside began its leap to freedom.

Celia McClinton “About Dr. Smilnik” [2007 revisited]

And once he slipped his neck in the strap of Fate,
his spirit veering black, impure, unholy,
once he turned he stopped at nothing,
seized with the frenzy
blinding driving to outrage-
wretched frenzy, cause of all our grief!

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, ln. 217-222

About Dr. Smilnik, Chairman, or to be politically correct, Chair, of the Department of Philosophy, there is little to say. He is not the kind of person to generate gossip and anecdotes about him do not circulate through the university or the community the way they do for other personalities. On the surface, his life seems uneventful. His undergraduate education is superlative. He survived, but only barely, a mandatory encounter with the US Army, and upon discharge, he immediately returned to graduate school. He completed his studies promptly, married exceptionally well, and began an academic career at SUC that saw him rise on schedule through the ranks to professor. He became a department chair at an extraordinarily young age. What a bore. But he shared a bed with Lou Foque when she was the hottest dancer at The Humble Harlot’s and the most formidable whore in all of Carolina.

Dr. Smilnik is uncertain how he became Chairman of the Philosophy Department. In fact, Dr. Smilnik is uncertain about most of everything in his life. He is, for example, uncertain about where he came from. He was raised in Washington, DC, or more specifically, the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, but his parents, like many people in Washington, came there from somewhere else, and being temporary, never came to think of Washington, DC, or its surrounding area, as home, or anything like home. Since his parents never considered Washington, DC, home, neither did Victor, as Dr. Smilnik was addressed before he became Dr. Smilnik. In his parents’ case, home was somewhere in Montana, or possibly Idaho. Somewhere that meant nothing to Victor. At some point between the time he left home and the time he started keeping part of his wardrobe in Lou’s bedroom closet, his parents left Washington, DC, to return to Montana, or possibly Idaho, but he was also uncertain about how that came to pass. Or why.

When he was 18, he left Washington, DC, because he graduated from high school, and because he had nowhere else to go, he went to college. Where he went, he can only now remember by reading his transcript. He majored in—well, his transcript would show that too. Somewhere he learned to read ancient Greek. Of that he was absolutely certain. But he was uncertain how that came to be. He can’t remember struggling with its alphabet, its verbs, its complex nouns or its nightmarish declensions. In fact, he is so uncertain about how and where he learned to read ancient Greek, a skill that even he agrees is as esoteric as it is useless, that he assumes he never learned it but acquired the language in his mother’s womb. Might have been something she ate.

He graduated from college, but he couldn’t say just when. And then—was it the next day or a year later? The Army got him. It was common enough in those days. The threat of creeping communism, especially the form then skulking through the jungles of Viet Nam, required every male to become a soldier. Well, every male too poor to buy his way out or too stupid to make other arrangements. Victor wasn’t rich and had been too stupid to make other arrangements.

He was absolutely unprepared for the savagery and brutality of basic training. The physical strain. The searing heat. The sand. The rain. The brutality of the sergeants. The illiterate vulgarity of his fellow trainees. He heard the stories of life, and death, in Viet Nam and was barely able to contain his fear, his fear that whatever basic training might be, the future held things much worse. When orders came, he was assigned to an explosives demolition training company, which frightened him almost as much as the prospects of Viet Nam.

But when Victor arrived at his duty station, the First Sergeant, Charles Donaldson, greeted him as the new company clerk. Victor didn’t object that he knew nothing about being a company clerk, but thought he could fake his way through it. Hell, he reasoned, anyone able to master ancient Greek could surely master what little a company clerk had to know. Particularly anyone motivated by fear of the alternative, as Victor was.

Over the next 18 months, the First Sergeant, a fantastically ugly, ill-tempered man, both shocked and sheltered Victor. Offensively competitive, indeed aggressive, savage and uncouth, the sergeant’s fearlessness was tempered with precision and attention to detail when it came to explosives. Not that Victor had anything to do with the explosives, but he heard the stories about First Sergeant Charles Donaldson.

Compared to the First Sergeant, Victor was a complete jellyfish. Sergeant Donaldson scared Victor half out of his wits, which was something less than the thought of Viet Nam scared him. Eventually, Victor understood that Sergeant Donaldson intended to scare everyone because he really didn’t like people. It was his way of keeping everyone away. Incidentally, fear of Sergeant Donaldson motivated everyone around him. The Army called this leadership.

But as long as Victor did his work, the sergeant left him alone and indeed sheltered him from many of the Army’s less desirable duties. Sergeant Donaldson assumed that company clerks are sissies in the same way that cats have hair. All he expected of Victor was that he clerk competently, and as long as Victor did that, Sergeant Donaldson was not inclined to torment Victor. Or to allow anyone else to do it. Victor repaid the sergeant by working carefully and relentlessly. He did everything he could to make his work prompt, precise and flawlessly accurate.

So under Sergeant Donaldson, Victor learned a work ethic he could never have acquired as a civilian, a work ethic motivated by the fear of pain, suffering, and possibly death; by fear of what Sergeant Donaldson could do to him; and finally by the fear of failure and of being humiliated by letting Sergeant Donaldson down. Victor would remain convinced of the instructional efficacy of fear. Later, as a professor, he would argue firmly for the virtues of stark and utter terror as a teaching method. But he also knew that civilian education lacked both the tools and the will to instill sufficient terror to motivate students. Consequently, Victor cynically regarded teaching as pissing into the wind, and his colleagues admired and trusted him simply for this scornful attitude. He was held in great esteem. Nonetheless, Dr. Smilnik loved the university because it was the one place that would pay him to read Greek.

Those two lost years in the Army were an important watershed for Victor, a watershed that divided his life into two eras. One he called Before the Army or BTA. The other, After the Army or ATA. BTA was an era of disjointed memories, debris that arose like random flotsam in his mind. Images from the BTA bobbed momentarily in his consciousness only to sink back into the black sludge of his subconscious. They were glimpses of a bygone, forgotten age. These peeks into the past were always discomforting, but Victor was no Freudian. He rejected these visions. They had nothing to do with him.

Life in Victor’s new world, the ATA, was equally curious, uncertain, and inexplicable, but it was at least a coherent sequence of vivid and vivacious events. Victor had no doubt what he would do in the ATA. He would read Greek. Philosophers. Tragedians. Comics. Historians. There was nothing he liked better than reading Greek, so he would read Greek. And he did. He read Greek at William and Mary and then at the University of North Carolina. At UNC he wrote a doctoral dissertation on lines 217 through 222 of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. He intended to examine more of the play, but his advisor insisted that Victor narrowly focus his inquiry, and everyone agreed that his 512 page dissertation was the final and definitive word on those six lines.

Next he took a job at State University, Carolina, in Statesthorp. There he could teach Greek, which he seldom did since demand was never great. But he could teach about the Greeks, their literature, their philosophy, their civilization, and that was good enough because once he finished those minimal and enjoyable tasks, he was free to read Greek to his heart’s content. And, like most classical scholars, he often joined archaeological excavations. He wasn’t picky. Anything in that vast Hellenistic World would do. And that is how he became close friends with Dr. Condor.

Shortly after his colleagues made him their chair and leader, Wolsey Mullin, SUC’s 18th president, closed the Philosophy Department for no apparent reason except the unbelievable rumor that it was because the SUC’s Women’s soccer team won a national championship. There were mutterings in the Philosophy Department that Dr. Smilnik wasn’t doing his job or that he should at least fall on his sword in protest. When Wolsey Mullin suddenly reversed his decision, all was forgiven. Dr. Smilnik must have played his cards close to his chest. He had acted with finesse. His political maneuvering was astute if not brilliant. Dr. Smilnik, however, never spoke of how he got Wolsey Mullin to change his mind. And little wonder why. Adultery. Kidnapping. Blackmail. Murder. A variety of lesser crimes and indiscretions. Not to mention fortunate coincidences and a large measure of good luck. Nothing becoming to a serious scholar. By the time Wolsey Mullin announced that he would not close the Philosophy Department, Dr. Smilnik’s life had entered a third era well beyond the ATA, one where impulse and betrayal were commonplace. There in that new world, he might be a snake in the grass, but he was no longer a jellyfish.

Dr. Smilnik veered into this new black, impure world by virtue of a mistake he hardly noticed at the time. He got married. Sue Aiakos studied home economics at the University of North Carolina. They dated. He appreciated her good looks. He enjoyed her demure company.

The Aiakos clan was one of the South’s scion families, particularly well established and influential in Carolina’s western Piedmont. He thought this immensely entertaining, even impressive. So he ignored the slight unease Sue’s presence caused him and soon enough found himself a curiosity in a very posh Presbyterian Church with a seating capacity of 1,500 followed by a country club sit-down dinner for 750. The governor and his wife attended, as did the mayors of several towns and two cities. The press was there along with two TV stations and a similar number of Episcopal Bishops. During that ostentatiously tacky dinner with those 749 other people Victor’s vague feeling of discomfort turned into animosity. He knew he had made a mistake but felt certain that in time he could pull Sue away from her aristocratic family and their friends. He would reshape her into a person of his own handiwork even though he was uncertain what the design should be. He would reform her.

Sue was unaware of any of this and didn’t reform worth a damn. Opulence and privilege were hers by right, of that she was certain. She would not be tricked out of any of it, least of all by a professor, as much a show piece as one of her hybrid orchids. As long as he did what he was supposed to, to rise in rank and prestige, she would be satisfied. As long as he did what he was supposed to, she hardly need take notice of him.

They moved into the palatial house bought for them by Sue’s daddy. The house was well beyond the means of any assistant professor and conspicuously so. She redecorated the house and furnished it with antiques painfully pricy even by museum standards. Every direction he turned reminded him that he lived on handouts. He suffered his humiliation in silence.

Sexually, Sue was reserved if not frosty, and she completely rejected his attempt to introduce the reading of Greek poetry into their love making. She devoted herself to the country club, the Cotillion, the DAR, the Daughters of the Confederacy, her bridge club, several Presbyterian Church organizations, the Republican Party, the Statesthrop Garden Club, the Bascomb County Orchid Society, and the local chapter of her college sorority. Despite everything, they rapidly produced three children. Well, two, since a pair of them came in a single package. The children, casually indifferent to achievement, participated in ballet, piano lessons, karate, soccer, and other fashionable activities at their prominent private schools. Dr. Smilnik, unable to abide them, avoided the trio as much as possible.

As often as possible, Dr. Smilnik escaped to archaeological excavations scattered about the eastern Mediterranean. This occupied many a summers though Sue scarcely noticed he was gone. Neither did she notice that he spent ever more time at the office, administrative duties providing him an excuse she never really demanded of him. He never turned down an opportunity to attend a convention or meeting of any sort.

He also began popping into this bar or that for a couple of beers with friends or colleagues after work. Dr. Condor introduced him to The Humble Harlot’s after his return from Africa where he had dumped The First Mrs. Condor, a debutant every bit as pretentiously aristocratic as Mrs. Smilnik. It was not, in fact, Dr. Condor who did the dumping but the other way around. Had Dr. Condor left The First Mrs. Condor, he’d have been crucified. The First Mrs. Condor, however, could do as she chose, and when she chose to leave, Dr. Condor ceased to exist as far as the aristocracy was concerned. He became untouchable, but the nobility bore him no hostility.

Dr. Smilnik understood completely the implications for himself. No matter how bitter he became, he could not leave Mrs. Smilnik. Not if he expected to keep a job at SUC. Dr. Smilnik was envious of Dr. Condor’s good fortune, and he must have come out of it pretty well, too, judging by the house and land he bought The Second Mrs. Condor, the little African as black as an eight ball that he brought home with him. She was rumored to be a witch, something Dr. Smilnik suspected to be absolutely true.

Of all the local drinking establishments, Dr. Smilnik liked The Humble Harlot’s best. It was to be avoided on weekend nights—Thursday, Friday, and Saturday—when crowds of rowdy students turned orgiastic. If a SUC football game coincided, things got worse still. But Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, it was a convenient place to stop for a sandwich and bottle of beer on his way to his own home. On his way home to his own cooking, generally, since Sue was seldom around evenings. Neither were the children, thank heavens. University faculty or administrators seldom frequented The Humble Harlot’s. The atmosphere, unsuited to academic posturing, kept them away. Consequently, the few university people who dared cross its threshold were assured considerable confidentiality.

What talk there was did not center on the byzantine university politics like it did at every other gathering place in town. In fact, there was little conversation between patrons. Rait’s Place next to The Humble Harlot’s was for conversation. At The Humble Harlot’s, bargirls might sit with patrons on slow nights. Provided they were supplied with drinks. Steadily. Their capacity astonished Dr. Smilnik until one of them confided that he was paying $7.50 for 6 ounces of tonic water with a little gin sprayed over the top to give it a deceptive bouquet. Patrons were given full strength drinks and had to buy themselves a drink every time they bought one for a waitress. Each fifteen dollar round increased the false impression that the girls were drinking themselves into a lubricious haze. The patrons, drunker by the sip, tipped extravagantly or became cross as sore-tailed bears. Or both. But The Humble Harlot’s maintained an impressive stable of bouncers with blackjacks as big as mule cocks prominently sticking from their jean pockets. Dancers, waitress, bouncers and bartenders shared the tips and a cut of the liquor sales, their only pay for an evening’s work. When Sally, the bargirl who regularly served him, hinted at her take-home pay, he was dumbfounded.

You don’t make me buy you drinks,” Dr. Smilnik protested to Sally, who had once taken a course from him and who was still enrolled at SUC.

Professors are different. We don’t like to fleece our teachers. On slow nights, as long as you have a drink the bouncers will leave us alone. On busy nights, it doesn’t matter who you are. The drinks are kept moving as fast as I can swallow.”

For Dr. Smilnik, conversation with the bargirls was the main attraction of the Humble Harlot’s. Sally would sit at the table, her bared bosoms bouncing when she tittered, her long legs in pink fishnet stocking, emerging from a tight skirt barely covering her fanny. Sometimes she’d be joined by Bridget or Morgan. Most bargirls and some of the dancers were students or wives of graduate students, but the unspoken rule was that they were always bargirls, never students, inside The Humble Harlot’s. Anything the bouncers allowed was fair. What the bouncers didn’t allow was touching the girls—girls could touch customers, customers couldn’t touch girls, and even with the girls’ touching, there was a fine line. Sex talk, however, could go as far as the participants pleased.

Dr. Smilnik, however, avoided the erotic chatter and stuck to subjects like philosophy, politics, sports, current movies and movie stars about which he knew nothing, and auto racing about which he knew even less. For the girls these topics were a relief. He was surprised, but knew he shouldn’t be, by their conservative, if not libertarian, opinions though they often contradicted themselves three times in a single simple sentence. Most claimed to be born over again Christians and saw no paradox between their convictions and topless whiskey hashing in a jiggle joint. Several were adamantly anti-religion in any form. There was no in between. Most agreed with the assertion of one of them that, “George W. Bush is a manifestation of Jesus Christ on Earth.” In the same breath they’d damn American involvement in Iraq while wishing death and destruction on Moslems everywhere. They favored strong government that could act with impunity but regarded a policeman even walking into The Humble Harlot’s as harassment. “Hell,” said the redhead with small tits who was majoring in economics, “they aren’t protecting us or protecting the customers. They’re sniffing after bribes. Or a piece of tail. But that’s the same thing, isn’t it? Just a different kind of currency, that’s all.”

Their society wasn’t egalitarian either. Bargirls and dancers were of different sorts. The dancers would sometimes come out and sit in the hall but when they did, they were always dressed head to toe and chattered only among themselves. If they sat with patrons, they did so selectively, choosing from among regulars and favorites. Sometimes they would sit with a stranger who had tossed a lot of cash on the stage, but when they did, they positioned themselves to be simultaneously close to a bouncer and one of the two doors leading to the back stage. Sally told Dr. Smilnik, “If there’s trouble, nine times out of ten it involves a dancer. I walk around nearly naked, and sure I get pawed, but I can generally turn’em before things get to the point where I need a bouncer. But the customers can really get nasty with the dancers. I guess watching all those lewd acts gets ‘em so lathered they just don’t know what they’re doing. Watching it, you don’t come away with a very high opinion of humans. Well, of men, anyway.”

Sally?” Dr. Smilnik asked. “What are you majoring in.”

Early childhood education. Why do you ask?”

Just wondering.”

The dancers’ performances were lackluster on weekdays, a fine example of profit motive, the silent hand of the market at work. On weekdays, dancers were unmotivated unless a work crew came in. Then they quickened the pace and spiced up their acts in a hurry. But even so Dr. Smilnik imagined this was soft stuff compared to what the dancers could do on weekends when they turned the crowd into a pack of free-spending, sex-crazed maniacs.

No, weekdays were slow and Dr. Smilnik barely paid the dancers any attention. Except one. Lou Foque, the blonde with dreadlocks as thick as sheep’s wool and an obscenely titivated pelvic region of remarkable conformation and ceaseless shimmy, twist and grind. She danced solo or sometimes with another blonde, Crystal Laze, who appeared to be a few years older. Even lackadaisical and indifferent, Lou had more drive, more forward motion, more callipygian effrontery than any other dancer. Daring, risqué, wanton, she was a maelstrom of unhinged carnality and contemptuous depravity. She, unlike so many of the dancers, enjoyed what she was doing or put on a convincing act, anyway. He learned from Sally that Lou was the Happy Harlot’s main money earner, that she danced only on weekends and on Tuesdays, and that she’d shot the manger’s big toe off while she was in bed with him. “How does a girl do that?” Sally wondered aloud.

He watched Lou only on Tuesdays when he happened to drop in and his happening to drop in became habitual. He looked forward to seeing her, but of course, she paid no attention to him. He didn’t expect her to. He sat in the back center of the hall where he couldn’t have thrown money onto the stage if he’d tied it to a brick, and in the dark where he sat, she couldn’t see him anyway. He did nothing to draw attention to himself.

Then came the Tuesday evening when she surprised Dr. Smilnik by boogying to a fast rock an’ roll number, “She’s Got a Cute Pussy She Keeps So Nice and Clean,” with unusually raw gusto. He was captivated but horrified by his turgid condition especially with Sally sitting next to him, topless, her hand moving slowly in his lap. And he imagined that Lou stared right at him all during the spectacle, but he knew that couldn’t be true. She couldn’t have seen anything from the brightly light stage.

She ended her act in a naked sweat, and he had hardly recovered his when she came through the right stage door. A black leather motorcycle jacket with silver studs over a white t-shirt. Low cut jeans plastered to her like furniture wax. Motorcycle boots. To his surprise, she marched straight toward him, and when he realized that he was definitely her destination, he started to rise to offer her a seat, but she was quicker and had seated herself reverse style before he could finish rising.

Extending a shockingly sensual hand, soft and warm with long fingers tipped with carefully manicured, frog-green nails, she said, “Hi, I’m Lou Foque and you’re Dr. Smilnik, and Sarah,” she said to the bargirl who had already stood to take orders and leave. “Bring Dr. Smilnik a jar of whatever he’s drinking and bring me my usual and put it on my tab cause this is my buy cause Dr. Smilnik and I got business and tell the bar ape to leave us alone so Dr. Smilnik and I can do the business we got to do but I guess I said that already, that we got business, so scram along now Sarah darling and God how I hate people who are all the time calling people darling and honey and sweetie, don’t you, but this job does provoke some of the damnedest bad habits ever. I hear you speak Greek.” She said it all except the last as one breathless sentence. She said the last like it was a punctuation mark.

Sally,” he said.

What?” Lou asked.

Sally. The girl’s name is Sally”

Oh yea that’s right but keeping them girls apart is a chore since they all look alike unclothed but anyway it was Sarah, one of your students or maybe she used to be one or your students, and maybe it was Sally told me you know Greek, and she said you’re a pretty good teacher even if you’re tough as an old shoe. So what’s it like?”

What’s what like?” he asked.

Speaking Greek, what else do you think I’d be wondering about, maybe Sally jiggling your love muscle like she was. Under the table.”

Dr. Smilnik and Lou talked quietly, he getting used to her funny style of speech, until she rose and said, “Time to go back to work so you hang around and I’ll prance just for you and the next time you come around you bring one of them Greek books cause I’d like to hear you read from it, the Iliad, since it’s the best. Ain’t that so?” And the dance she did was somewhere between some sort of Greek thing and a Turkish belly dance only she started as near to naked as the law allowed and ended in the same predicament, and he wasn’t sure what came between.

She would take him back into the dressing room where it was quieter than in the hall. He read to her in the Iliad’s chant-like decameters in a room full of glitzy women, some dressed, some half naked, and some more than all naked, and none of them gave a damn about him, even if he’d been reading from the phone book. And only she could understand what he read, and she understood only because she listened with some part of her body that wasn’t her ears. And none of them cared except her, but in their not caring they were indifferent, not hostile.

And then one Wednesday afternoon she stopped by the Philosophy Department. She said she was on her way to Wolsey Mullin’s office which puzzled him at first. Sue, thankfully, seldom came to his office where her presence always made him awkward. He would become uncomfortable and sometimes felt belittled or humiliated. He had never told Lou not to come to his office and was surprised by her visit, surprised by how proud he was of her. She set the secretaries abuzz, not because they knew what she was or even thought she was what she was but because her demure gray pinstriped business suit and her brown display case that made her look, as she intended, like a business woman contrasted dramatically with her richly hued dreadlocks and her speech, that mountain twang dancing through her threadless paragraphs.

Sitting in his office facing him, those magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows behind him, she told him with indifference about her meretricious commerce with Wolsey Mullin, SUC’s 18th president. She told that she had fallen in love with the Iliad when she pulled it at random from one of his shelves and read that first line about sing oh goddess, “…cause for some reason he likes to keep me waiting. He’s just funny that way.”

Dr. Smilnik sat through the revelation with an amused look on his face, his right eyebrow slightly raised to give him a worldly but stoic air while inwardly he was stunned, bewildered almost beyond words, but not by the sordidness of her story, but by his reaction to it. Almost as an afterthought, she asked, “…can you come to supper Sunday that is if you can tear yourself away from the Mrs cause we won’t mix well cause I don’t like wives much cause they don’t like me. Much.”

Ah Lou, I can’t afford you,” Dr. Smilnik protested.

Dr. Smilnik, I ain’t hustling but inviting friendly cause Sunday is the only day we cook so we can eat and then you can read to me in Greek so be sure to bring that pretty little book with you and I’ll fry chicken just to insult Wolsey who don’t like chicken in any form at all. He’s just funny that way.”

After she left the room, Dr. Smilnik sat quietly bathing himself in her perfume and contemplating what he had just learned. First there was his relationship with this strange woman and his fear, now a certainty, of where it was leading. A fear that, he now admitted, was really expectation, anticipation and hope. Until just then, he had denied her, but when she unbusomed herself and told him about Wolsey, he was engulfed by an overflowing of lust. And he recognized then what he had known all along: that his reading of Greek to Lou was purposefully salacious. He read to Lou because Sue would never allow it, and reading to a whore in a room full of naked women, all of them undoubtedly whores, added a masterful stroke of revenge.

Then there was the matter of Wolsey Mullin. He had been so shocked by the revelation because Wolsey had only recently announced the closure of the Philosophy Department. The unexpected edict mortified Dr. Smilnik. He had failed his colleagues, and while they remained polite to him, he knew what they thought. Dr. Smilnik, along with most of the tenured faculty, would keep his job by being transferred to another department, probably English, while the untenured faculty and the staff would be let go. This alone made him look like a weasel since surely he had known about the announcement before it was made. And even now, he did not, indeed could not, act. He felt like a groveling worm, and he hated Wolsey for it.

Wolsey, of course, had intended insult, even though Wolsey wouldn’t have known Dr. Smilnik from a June apple. Being the product of industry, if only in the sense that the industrial production of chickens had made him rich, Wolsey hated the intellectuals he now supervised because they exposed him for what he was, or believed himself to be. Small. A wool-hat chicken farmer disguised as a university president, a job he had bought and everyone knew it. Shutting the Philosophy Department, the most serious intellectuals on campus, relieved his sense of inferiority, and affirmed his position of power and dominance. Though insult was intended, there was nothing personal about it, but for Dr. Smilnik, that insult was so personal it was as if Wolsey had placed his balls on an anvil and beaten on them with a hammer.

Now Wolsey had added more insult. It wasn’t that Lou was a whore and Wolsey had hired her. It was that his hiring her wasn’t just for her whoring but so that he could humiliate her as well. He enjoyed insulting her. He enjoyed keeping her waiting. He rubbed her insignificance in her face. Even at $2000 a tumble, or maybe precisely because it was $2000 a tumble, he could take what liberties he wanted with her, including the most important of them all, to treat her as a mere convenience. A nothing. It wasn’t that Lou was a whore and Wolsey had hired her, he thought to himself. But then, correcting himself, he said aloud, “No, that’s precisely the point. Goddamn you, Wolsey. Besides everything else you’re trifling with her.” Dr. Smilnik was jealous. He was also, for maybe the first time in his life, angry. And that made him very dangerous.

He got his first taste of revenge that Sunday night. Lou and Crystal Laze shared an apartment in what had once been a large Victorian house. He learned their real names, Easter’s Lynn and Polly Coe. He learned that, no, neither of them had had chosen their vocation and neither relished it. Easter’s Lynn admitted, “For me, weren’t many choices but sex cause I’ve only a third grade education, married when I was 15 and the bastard got himself sent to prison rather permanently when I was 18 so I come down here and Polly helped me get started though she wouldn’t be doing this herself but for being betrayed by a mule fart of a man and she didn’t know no better even if she is educated. She’s been to high school.”

He learned that Easter’s Lynn could speak in simple, though ungrammatical sentences, when she was calm and thoughtful. He learned, even though they offered him a drink, bourbon of an exceptionally good make, and his choice of water or soda, that neither of them drank. He learned they couldn’t cook, either, and neither of them cared. He did not learn, so much as surmise, that the two women were lovers deeply devoted to each other in some odd way. Unlike Easter’s Lynn’s commercial transaction with Wolsey Mullins, the affair between Easter’s Lynn and Polly Coe didn’t offend him but knew he’d better respect it, if only because the two women expected him to do that. But he learned the most that night as he read the Iliad to her in the privacy of her room, and as he left late that evening he felt he’d squeezed some satisfaction from Wolsey. But not nearly enough.

Over the weeks that followed, Lou kept coming around to his office on Wednesdays, and when that maniac attacked her on the campus, it was Dr. Smilnik she asked for. He was with her at the campus clinic as the doctor put stitches in that beautiful breast. He was with her when the policewoman took her statement. There would be no charges against her, of course, but there remained the possibility of a law suit. She had given the fellow a thorough beating, the policewoman observed. What she meant was that Lou had given him what a civil court might consider a thoroughly unnecessary beating.

He was with her frequently in her apartment but not so frequently that he might irritate Polly, or so he hoped. Lou allowed him, encouraged him in fact, to move in several changes of clothing and a few toilet articles. And it was there in her bed that she told him the story of how Willis Chapman, the manager of The Humble Harlot’s, became Toeless Joe. He could see the un-patched bullet hole from where he lay next to her. He asked her if she weren’t afraid of a vengeful Toeless Joe and that’s when he learned about Pork Chop Donaldson, owner of that open-air nightclub on the Roanoke Highway. “He come down off that mountain to have a little talk with Toeless Joe while he was still recovering, and when Charles Wesley has a talk with you, you knew you’d been talked to. That’s true.”

Ah, Charles Donaldson? He hasn’t been in the Army, has he?” Dr. Smilnik asked. And that’s when he learned that his old first sergeant, a man he both feared and admired, both loathed and respected, was the infamous curmudgeon, conservationist and outdoor tavern keeper in the mountains north of Statesthorp. He pondered what he should do about this revelation. Should he make a special trip to renew their acquaintance? He decided no. Theirs had been a relationship of convenience, like so many in the Army, and while Dr. Smilnik still felt respect and something like gratitude for Charles Donaldson’s indifference, the very name still sparked fear. Becoming a civilian, apparently, had done nothing to temper the sergeant’s, well, temper. He could imagine explaining to his former sergeant, “Well I was in bed with your cousin. The one that’s a whore down in Statesthorp that calls herself Lou. She told me about you.” He could imagine it, but maybe he didn’t want to.

Easter’s Lynn never asked about his wife or the children. Neither did she let him talk about them. Paying customers, she explained, could talk about what they wanted to talk about. It was their time, their money. But boy friends were a different matter. Dr. Smilnik had another life, and she didn’t care to know anything about it. It was none of her business. Frankly she didn’t give a damn about families, didn’t like wives or children, and didn’t give a damn if his home life was happy or not, so let’s stay off that subject. Please. So her call to his home to bid him, to command him, to summons him to her apartment as soon as possible came as a surprise. He left immediately without bothering to tell Sue. Not that he could have. She wasn’t home, anyway.

Sitting at the same table where they ate badly fried chicken together, Easter’s Lynn explained that a man, Stetson Grady, had called her to his table after one of her performances. He claimed to be SUC’s head accountant, and he knew about Wolsey and her. He was intending a scam that amounted to blackmailing her. She wasn’t about to put up with it.

Fine, what are we to do about it?” Dr. Smilnik asked.

And it was Polly who explained to him that Easter’s Lynn was going to do a little blackmailing herself. She was going to take Wolsey Mullin to the cleaners for something like $250,000 and was going to do it the very next day and that would leave Stetson out in the cold. In more ways than one.

What makes you think he’ll pay up so easily?” Dr. Smilnik asked.

Cause I caught every word we ever spoke on a little digital recorder and it’s right here on this little CD and he’ll want to be buying it from me cause it wouldn’t hurt me none if it get out but it’d be something else for him if it got out that he was paying a whore more than $50,000 a year out of university funds, cause I don’t think Wolsey wants to go to prison at his age, the poor, fat, worn out old fart. That’s why.” She didn’t mention that she’d be selling only one of many copies because she assumed Dr. Condor would know that, while he was so naïve it never occurred to him to doubt that she was selling her only copy.

Okay. I get it, but where do I come in?” Dr. Condor asked.

It was Polly again who explained that part to him. When she’d finished, he agreed without pausing to consider, to consider that he was risking everything, his job, his reputation, his wife, his children, his freedom and maybe his life, on a reckless escapade with a pair of whores in the back alleys of a small southern town. He saw only the opportunity to gain some satisfaction, and for that, he’d risk everything. He asked only one thing from the women.

There’s one thing, though, Easter’s Lynn,” he said when Polly had finished her story.

Yes what’s that?” Easter’s Lynn asked, and Polly thought: Oh, God, he’s going to want a share of the money.

But instead, he said, “While you’re at it, see if you can persuade him to change his mind about closing the Philosophy Department.”

And the next evening, as Easter’s Lynn explained to Wolsey Mullin about her little digital recorder, downloading and other technical matters she had in fact learned from Polly, and as she explained about the note Wolsey would write in his own hand ordering Stetson to his office the following afternoon, and as Wolsey Mullin wrote that note, signed it, and then counted out a terrific pile of cash from the President’s Discretionary Fund kept in the vault in the basement of the Aphlak Administrative Building, Polly and Dr. Smilnik were busy kidnapping Stetson Grady. Stetson never understood the seriousness of his situation, not to the last. He didn’t know Polly from his own scrotum and was puzzled that Dr. Smilnik was involved in this game, because that’s surely what it was, a game, a practical joke. He’d humor them. But his turn would come.

It was Dr. Smilnik who drove him to the alley, but it was Polly who gave him the first drink of that awful whisky. And then the second. And the next. And he was shocked when Dr. Smilnik put that little five shot .32 caliber pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger, doing it, in one swift motion like he’d been doing it all his life. Dr. Smilnik, for his part, was shocked by the pistol’s report but more by the satisfaction he felt. And he knew in that moment that he had passed into his life’s third era well beyond the ATA, one he didn’t have a name for yet, but one where nothing would ever appear again to be what it seemed to be. But the killing didn’t happen until after Easter’s Lynn had emerged from the night. She stood there and watched without expression as he murdered Stetson and then placed the note written in Wolsey Mullin’s own hand in Stetson’s pocket. And they all left.

Sometime around 10 AM the next morning rumor began to spread that Stetson’s body had been found behind Colonel Steller’s Drugstore, the victim of an apparent suicide. Over a period of several days more and more evidence emerged to confirm the initial suspicion. There were rumors about a large amount of cash missing from the President’s Discretionary Fund, and there were rumors about an angry note from President Mullin about the President’s Discretionary Fund found in Stetson’s pocket. There were rumors that Stetson was hopelessly drunk when he shot himself in the right temple with a .32 caliber pistol.

Two days after the discovery of Stetson body, Wolsey Mullin announced at a press conference that he was asking for an audit of the President’s Discretionary Fund. And he wasn’t fiddling around either. The audit would be done by the State Criminal Investigation Division. That afternoon he quietly announced that after a careful reconsideration of SUC’s financial situation, the university’s educational goals, and the role of the Philosophy Department in meeting those goals, the Philosophy Department would remain open and its faculty, in fact, increased.

Dr. Smilnik’s reputation was restored instantly. He wasn’t a poltroon after all, but an accomplished political tactician. Many said they had though he was doing nothing while the whole time he was working quietly behind the scenes. Others claimed to have known all along about his intricate skullduggery. Nobody ever put together the two events, the suicide of Stetson Grady and the decision to keep the Philosophy Department open, possibly only because they were such disjunct events nobody had any logical reason to connect them.

They had agreed that he should avoid the two women until things to cooled down. He wished he hadn’t agreed to that because he was afraid what his reaction to Easter’s Lynn might be after a murder and weeks of separation. Or her reaction to him. So, it seemed an eternity before Easter’s Lynn dropped into the Philosophy Department office and asked if she might see Dr. Smilnik.

This time she was dressed casually in skintight jeans and a frog-green SUC t-shirt, and looked more like a whore, which is to say, an average SUC co-ed, than the business woman she had seemed to be once upon a time. She was told that Dr. Smilnik had a student in the office, but if she would have a seat, it would only be a moment.

After 20 minutes, the student left, and she was told she could go into Dr. Smilnik’s private office.

She walked in and closed the door behind her. He was sitting with his back to her, looking out those ceiling to floor windows that made the office so beautiful but so painfully hot in the summer. She stood silently, as if afraid, and said nothing.

Finally he said, “Yes, what is it,” without turning around to face her.

I come to ask if you’d take supper tonight or tomorrow night or any time really, cause Polly and I ain’t dancing at The Humble Harlot’s no more, and we got ourselves a little house to live in, all paid for, and I’d like you to see it, and your togs is hanging there in my closet so if you ain’t going to come around to supper, you’d better come around and get ‘em, but if you do come to supper, bring that Greek book with you so you can read to me cause I’ve missed that. Cause I’ve missed you.”

He sat in silence without turning around for a long moment while he savored his satisfaction, complete at last. And it was after dinner that night, after the eating of the badly fried chicken, but before the Greek reading began, that he asked her if she would take him to the mountains. Sometime soon. Because he was eager to meet her cousin. “That fellow, what’s his name, Charles Donaldson?”

“Life Story” by Lauren “Elyse” Phillips (58 word micro-fiction) 2007

All that dreaming comes down to this: The sky is full of birds pushing south and I am northbound again. My back seat is a bookshelf- Bukowski, Capote, a few other derelicts. McMurtry rides shotgun, a story about long hair in Texas. I edge it up to 90 as the cat settles in around the gearshift.

“Searching for Amy Spain” by Merry Speece [2007 revisited]

An old man she’d never seen had sent her a map. Late in her research the professor had come across the man’s name, and she found where he lived. He was an old man in a home who claimed to know more than he’d ever tell – over the phone he’d rasped that out to her. Then he’d laughed and started to choke. The way he spoke, this is the way she pictured him: white native, longtime shut-in, deathly, dead-on white.

So she had the man’s map, and she was beginning to think she was lost. The man must be mistaken or the place in his mind she needed to get to was gone. Or he was enamored of a lie. Or the man was having, at her expense, a last laugh.

For from where she now found herself she saw nothing, neither house nor grave, that in any way brought her closer to the figure Amy Spain.

One of the martyrs of the cause which gave
freedom to her race was that of a colored woman
named Amy Spain, who was a resident of the
town of Darlington, situated in the rich cotton-
growing district of South Carolina.
Harper’s Weekly, 30 September 1865

The professor tried to look back where she’d come from, but she could no longer see the field she’d just crossed. It had been a strange gray field, ash gray, in a land, this Pee Dee, that was otherwise parched and needy sand – or rust clay. Now, down into woods, she did seem to be stuck in a Carolina bay, inland, this bay dry, in that most oddly pocked state of all the states of the union.

Earlier, by car, she’d tunneled through walls of pine. Over the Lynches. Through the jarring spectacle of azaleas in bloom. Through tatters of spent flowers of live oak and under maples with buds raw red (and many of the maples partly uprooted). Past the house of worship with bell tower stuck in back. Past cemeteries with a waste of bloom, all plastic, decoration piled high – snuff death. Past the three-cornered field, a ragged field, where for some reason the cotton had never been picked.
She was short of breath. She let herself sink to the floor of the bay, into the pine dust on a mat of long needles. She smoothed out the map in front of her and took from her daypack her notes.

For Amy Spain’s mistaken notion that with the arrival of Union troops and the end of the war she was now to be free and the equal of any white, she was hung.

As Amy Spain stood on the cart under the sycamore at the Darlington courthouse, with the rope around her neck already, the seventeen-year-old proclaimed that she was going now to that place where she’d receive her crown of glory.

The cart, on signal, was driven out from under her. Died, young Amy Spain, with one convulsion.

Springtime, early March. Days of rain, and the streets of Darlington mud. In the air, smoke, burning cotton.

Only days before the death of Amy Spain Union troops had made it to Darlington and told her and the others they were free and had thrown open the doors of a warehouse that held the belongings of Charlestonians of means. The people were told to help themselves. Amy Spain chose a walnut bedstead, mattresses, a fine Brussels carpet, and a leather mailbag.

From Huggins’ store she took a bit of her fair share: ginger, mace, a keg of nails. (Asked what she wanted with a keg of nails, she replied she intended to set up a house of her own and take a white Yankee for a husband.)

At the home of her owner (former owner – so she thought), she stuffed upstairs curtains in her new leather mailbag and picked out, too, sheets and pillowcases and calico. She took up possession of a house in the backyard for her belongings.

Young Master told her she’d better go chop wood, and she told him, do it himself, he’d just better get used to the idea.

And to the white children she’d been nurse to (as their nurse always “uniformly kind and attentive”) Amy Spain cursed, “Damned sons of bitches!” (That not quite the truth, said something much worse, her owner later wrote, after she was dead, disparaging her: eye-servant, traitor with skin of Ethiope.)

The Union force left Darlington for Florence and its railroad.

Confederate troops, Wheeler’s, came through, and they caught the people making new lives for themselves. Whipped them, sent them home. Amy, after her whipping, refused to go. Did she want, an officer threatened her, to be taken back to camp?

“Brother,” she said, called him Brother, “I’d rather go through the gates of hell.”

With that the soldiers arrested her. They tried her, and they sentenced her to death for robbery and insubordination.

When Amy Spain was dead, and she was hauled to her owner’s, she was discovered to be wearing the clothing of the Young Mistress, and a pocket held the gold pencil of the Young Master.

Amy Spain was buried in daylight, not at night like the negroes do, and given proper rites, the owner wrote. At her grave the little white folks wept.

The littlest daughter, as long as she lived (and she lived a long time), remembered she’d put her finger in the deep mark at the neck of the body of Amy Spain.

The professor straightened the note cards, tossed them: the truth at random. By day she’d cut up sheets of words and paste them on the walls of her dwelling, and she’d fill at night her shoes with crumpled words. This was the way to do “to confound evil spirits.”

She’d grown stiff, and she shifted in the needles, and saw then at her ankle through the pants leg she was bleeding again.

In her last visit to the little history library, that strange old depository of rare papers with its closed up rooms and locked cabinets and closed in and winding stair, she hadn’t noticed she was bleeding across an old manuscript, the priceless document of a plantation family. It was only when the attendant came up to her table with another book, and she caught the pale young man’s stricken look, that she glanced down. A paper cut wouldn’t stop, bad sign of her dysplasia. The professor wouldn’t be coming back.

From pine needles now she picked up a last stray photocopy of a picture in a book that described an investigation of one of the mysteries of local history. This was a photo of the path on which the author’s informant had often walked: no photo of the woman herself existed! The woman had died after telling her story.

“ ‘Who will come and go with me?’ “ Amy Spain sang and sang from her jail cell.

The professor struggled up.

She headed across the bay and out and forced herself deeper into the woods. When she came to a body of water, she steadied herself at a tree and stared. It was the darkest water, “a paradise to the lovers of black water.”

She’d cross over on a fallen tree to the next point of land. “Let us cross over the river and rest . . . .” She had lost much of her sense of balance; she took her time on the tree. Swayed. Plaiting. She kept a look on the water. Pine pollen this day yellowed it – “the color yellow a symbol of a contest with the forces of evil.”

The other side came up to her before she was ready, and she was surprised next to see in front of her, not far, grand stone steps. But steps to nowhere and unconnected to any dwelling. She climbed two and sat down. She tried to catch her breath.

Her shoes had yellowed. Out of a crack in the steps termites, long winged and elegant in gray, appeared one by one, and each flew off alone.

She sat so still a mockingbird lit close. It sang and sang the song of another bird. Then it gave up.

Another bird flew down, and the mockingbird flew off. This bird was a small red vulture: cardinal in moult.

A little ribbon of air stirred, carrying over wisteria’s sickening perfume; a nearby heavy drape of white wisteria twisted up and suffocated the trees.

“First day white./ Second day red./ Third day dead.” From the poem “Cotton.”

She was ready to give up.

“Bless the Lord,” Amy Spain cried, “the Yankees have come.”

“Christmas I-55″ by John Calvin Hughes

Maybe it was the curve of the windshield, but the snow fell straight at him as if down a long tunnel, through air already darkening with dusk. It was freezing, even in the Impala, since it wasn’t running, since it was outta’ freaking gas. The big old car sat beside the pumps at the Quik Spot Café Shoppe and Gas, but the pumps weren’t on. It was Christmas Day. Nobody would be working at the Quik Spot Café Shoppe and Gas on Christmas Day. Ford had been sitting in the car, listening to his flashers clicking, for the better part of an hour. He looked up through the windshield again at the tumbling snow flakes, and foresaw with fortune teller accuracy his sister’s complaints about him–being late, not showing up at all. Then a flash of red out of the corner of his eye, and he saw them. Two women inside the café were just sitting down at the table behind the huge café window with steaming cups of hot coffee. He hugged himself and shivered with a combination of relief and freezing to death. Then he threw open the door and sprinted toward the building.

The Impala had run out of gas half a mile up the road. He had gotten immediately out of the car and climbed up onto its roof, looking ahead for a service station or another car somewhere, but he could see nothing in the distance except the pencil straight line of pitted concrete between tall pines. He got down and paced around the car, and he cursed himself for pushing the limits of the gas gauge, for driving this particular highway, Highway 49, that runs parallel to Interstate 55 where, by now, he would have seen a hundred cars, had he driven on it like a normal person; then he cursed himself for brooding over these choices that were already history when he should be thinking about how to get out of this present situation, i.e being stuck in the middle of nowhere on Christmas Day. He was kicking the front left fender as hard as he could when heard the truck’s engine winding down through the gears.

It was a big, black, battered pickup truck, and it stopped and sat idling about six feet behind the Impala. Ford walked back to the driver’s window and stood stamping his feet while the man inside rolled down the glass.

The driver was about two hundred years old. His hands were like bones on the steering wheel, but blue

ined and liver spotted. “Hell of a note to get broke down on Christmas, fella. Where you going?”

“Memphis. Got presents for my sister’s kids and all.”

“Boy, you oughta’ be over on I-55.”

“Yeah. Well, I ran outta’ gas cause my gauge is broke. I never know how much I got in it.” Ford was huffing in the cold. Nothing was said for a minute. The old man just stared at him.

Ford said, “I gotta’ get some gas somewheres.”

The old man nodded his head as if this were the wisdom of the ages. Finally, he said, “I’ll just push you down to the café, and you’ll be on your way.”

Ford thanked him and headed back to his car. The old man called out something about Ford writing down his mileage to keep up with his gas. Ford waved, got into his car, and put it into neutral, then groaned when the truck banged into the Impala’s back bumper. He began wrestling the steering wheel which was stiff without the power steering.

Ford had pushed and towed and been pushed and towed many times during his broken-down car life, but this was something else. The old man was quickly picking up speed and now approaching sixty miles an hour with no sign of slowing down. Ford was worried that if they came to a curve he might not be able to turn the wheel enough to hold the road. It was an eerie sensation, at nearly seventy miles an hour, to feel as out of control of his car as he, in fact, was, strange to hear the wind whipping by with no sound of motor, only the grinding of the tires against the concrete and the clicking of the emergency flashers. The phrase “unsafe at any speed” crossed his mind, but he couldn’t think where he’d heard it. Suddenly Ford could see an intersection up ahead, one with a traffic light. On the far side of that traffic light, off on the left, sat an old café with rusty orange gas pumps out front. When the Impala and the truck were within a hundred feet of the intersection, the light, which had been green for them, turned yellow, and the old man sped up even more. They must have been doing ninety miles an hour as they passed under the light, now red, and the black truck veered off sharply to the right, heading up the crossing road, and leaving Ford to brake hard and coast alone onto the broad concrete apron, coming to rest finally next to the regular pump.

There were no other cars at the pumps. A brown Datsun pickup was parked beside the café, but there was no one in sight. He tried the double glass doors of the café, but they were locked, and except for a couple of lights left on over the counter, the place was dark. He couldn’t see anyone inside. He walked a few steps back toward his car, turned and took one step toward the restaurant, then ran back to his car and got in shivering.

He spent half an hour trying to decide whether or not to call his bastard of a brother-in-law and trying to turn off his emergency flashers. He couldn’t remember how he had gotten them on in the first place. Did he push or pull? Actually he had pushed and pulled, and twisted, and yanked, and jiggled, and finally they had come on. But now they wouldn’t go off. Now they just blinked and blinked and clicked and clicked, and he was worried if he couldn’t turn them off, they might run down the battery. Then, even if he did manage to get some gas, he wouldn’t be able to crank the freaking car. So now he pushed and pulled and jiggled and finally tried to tear the goddamn switch off, so desperate was he to stop the tick tick tick tick tick tick tick ticking of the flashers, like an atom bomb about to go off. It had started to snow just then, and he watched it fall for a while, trying to ignore the ticking, trying to be the snowflakes that should have fallen gently, but seemed instead to be flying straight at him like bullets. It was then that he looked over at the café and saw the women sitting down at the window with their coffee.

He climbed out of the car and walked over in front of the window where they could see him, then pointed toward the locked glass doors, and headed that way, expecting one of the women to get up and let him in. But neither moved. One was middle-aged with blue-black hair and a bright red blouse. The other was older, with gray hair and wearing some kind of waitress uniform. While the older woman stared indifferently at him, the other cut into a piece of pie with a fork.

He walked back to them. “I need to get some gas,” he said loudly at the window. He could read the woman’s lips saying Closed. She turned and said something to the other woman, and they both laughed.

“No, “ he yelled, “I’m completely out of gas. I can’t go anywhere else to get some. Please, help me out.” This time the women did not acknowledge him, but sipped their coffee and talked to each other.

“It’s Christmas, for God’s sake. I’m freezing. What else am I going to do?” It was very cold now, and he turned and sprinted back to his car. He sat there a moment shivering, and then dug into his ditty bag and got out all the money he had left for the trip, fifty-seven dollars. He ran back to the window where the women sat.

“Lady, hey, lady. Look. I’ll give you twenty dollars for ten dollars worth of gas. Hey, look.” Ford pressed the twenty flat against the window. They looked at him like he was crazy. He slid a ten up next to the twenty.

“Thirty dollars. Thirty dollars, for God’s sake, for ten dollars worth of gas, please.” They stared and said nothing. “Or just five dollars worth, thirty dollars for five dollars worth.”

The older woman made a beckoning motion with her hand. Ford took out all the money and held it up.

“Fifty-seven dollars. It’s all I got in the world.”

The woman got up and walked back through the cafe to the glass doors. She shook out some keys and unlocked one of the doors. Ford stepped out of the cold into the warm foyer. The woman was short and squat and held out her hand, palm up. He gave her the money, and she walked over to the console that controlled the gas pumps.

Ford smiled his best smile. “You’re not really just gonna give me five dollars worth of gas for fifty-seven, are you?”

“I don’t have to give you nothing, creep. You want the five dollar’s worth, go get it. You don’t, who cares. Now get the hell outta’ here.”

But Ford just stood there watching the woman count the money. She put five into the register and the rest in the big pocket of her blue apron. She looked up and saw he was still there. “I said get the hell outta’ –”

But she couldn’t say anything else once she saw the mean little .22 pistol he had taken out of his jacket and was pointing at her face. Her mouth stopped wide open mid-sentence, and she made some quiet gasping sounds. He put the barrel of the gun into her mouth and reached into the apron pocket, taking back the money. Then he fumbled with the cash register a moment until it opened, and he took back his five, and the rest of the money too. “Set the pump to thirty dollars.”

When she didn’t move, he slammed the butt of the gun against her cheek, then pulled the hammer back and pointed the barrel at her left eye. She set the pump, and he motioned her to sit down behind the counter.

“Call her over here.”

The woman was crying now, saying please don’t hurt me, please don’t. He drew his arm back to hit her again and told her again to call the woman over. She managed to call out to the other woman. Ford made them lie face down behind the counter. They were both crying and begging him. The younger one, with the pretty red blouse, asked him not to rape her.

“What’s the matter with you people, it’s Christmas, for God’s sake. Christmas, you hear?”

He leaned over and almost put the muzzle behind the older woman’s ear. His face felt like it was on fire, like a burning mask. He hurried outside and found snow falling harder than before. The cold felt good now, welcome. He got back into the Impala and sat watching his breath. The flashers were off. The battery was dead, of course. He couldn’t think what to do. It was very quiet. Nothing was coming to him. What to do? It was so quiet. He thought he could just hear the snowflakes tick against the windshield.

*MuleNote: There’s nothing like a Christmas story when it’s 100° in the shade!

Gideon Kennedy: Blast from the Past

By Gideon C. Kennedy

 

The Desire of Wrestling

A southern experience

 

“Weighing in at 250 pounds and hailing from Shermer, Illinois, The Nature Toy Devin Desire!” The goateed ring announcer directs the audience’s attention to one of the side doors. It’s Thursday night, June 29, in Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency and every part of the hotel swarms with klingons, storm troopers, and vampires as the 13th annual DragonCon sci-fi and comic convention begins its four-day invasion.

 

Over a thousand of the approximately 30,000 visitors to the convention fill the Main Regency Ballroom to capacity, leaving still others outside.

 

The crowd watches and awaits the beginning of the third match of seven for the evening, a bill including such known performers as The Jung Dragons, Glacier, Jerry Only and Abdullah the Butcher.

 

Everyone focuses on one of the main aisles leading to the wrestling ring in the center of the room. As the KISS song “I Was Made For Loving You” blares through the P.A., a 6 foot 1 inch purple haired man, bedecked in matching purple boa and wrestling one piece, floppily struts towards the ring, escorted by four tightly dressed women.

 

The tone of the audience’s reaction is quickly set as the lavender clad Devin Desire falls through the ropes into the ring and, taking the mic from the announcer, begins to demand silence from the uncooperative crowd. He invites their scorn and leaves himself open for attack.

 

“I think there was a typo on the billing. My name is Devin Desire. My name is not Barney.” One of the announcers begins singing, “I Love You.” The audience quickly picks up a chant of “Bar-ney! Bar-ney! Bar-n…”

 

In fact, he is neither. Outside of the ring and the purple attire, he is Chuck Porterfield, a 23-year-old Georgia State University graduate, independent filmmaker, former Salvation Army corps cadet, and, ultimately, performer. This is his first public match and the culmination of nearly a year of training.

 

With an audience over 10 million nationwide, professional wrestling has begun to see new heights in its popularity and exposure in recent years. Not including the slew of Pay Per View wrestling features on television, there are currently at least 12 hours of wrestling programming on each week. The industry as a whole takes in around $340 million in annual revenues. The largest pro wrestling organization, the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, recorded $251 million in revenue last year, twice that of its previous year, and has recently begun offering public stock.

 

But with such increased exposure, professional wrestling has also received its share of bad publicity. After exposes on such news programs as ABC’s 20/20 and NBC’s Dateline, the growing phenomena known as backyard wrestling, in which children harmfully recreate and videotape wrestling maneuvers, brought to question wrestling’s impact on young viewers. Somewhere between these two, the multi-million dollar entertainment industry and the homegrown insurance hazards, lay Chuck Porterfield.

 

Nationwide, there are legions of independent pro wrestlers building records in local circuits, something like the minors of professional wrestling. They play in convention halls and hotel ballrooms instead of sold-out arenas. They pay for their training, anywhere from $2000 to $6000, and get paid relatively nothing, if anything, for the matches they perform. Chuck is one such performer, wrestling simply out of his desire to entertain.

 

In mid-sentence and to the cheers of the audience, Devin Desire gets slammed from behind by his challenger Homicide, a 6 foot 3 inch wrestler dressed in pseudo-SWAT attire who has just swooped into the ring. The microphone is knocked from Devin’s hand as Homicide takes him to the mat. Devin Desire struggles under the punishment.

 

To meet him, the title “professional wrestler” does not cross one’s mind. As affable as he is funny, Chuck is good company any time. Usually decked out in Hawaiian shirt, simple slacks and sneakers, he carries with him an easy-going demeanor. He wears glasses for his vision and has a slightly nasal touch in his voice. He has a knack for telling stories and a unique perspective on most topics of conversation, not least of which is his encyclopedic knowledge of film. The last thing one expects from meeting Chuck is picturing him slamming heads into turnbuckles.

 

A lifetime fan of professional wrestling, Chuck’s transition from spectator to participant was a relatively easy one. While working towards Bachelor’s degrees in both film and religious studies at Georgia State, Chuck found an opportunity co-hosting Nitrate 88, a movie and television themed radio show on Album 88. Having heard of local wrestling promoter Jon Waterhouse through friends, Chuck invited him and a wrestler of his choice to be guests on the show. Accompanying Jon on the show was Greg Herman, aka Demon Hellstorm, a former bodyguard and stuntman who, besides holding a degree in physics and running his own auto repair business, trains aspiring professional wrestlers. After the show, Greg suggested to Chuck that he should pursue professional wrestling. Although Chuck was hesitant at first, Greg seemed to allay some of his misgivings. “He told me he had no athletic ability and I told him I could make a wrestler out of him.” Pretty soon, Chuck was enrolled at Greg’s school.

 

Stunned but standing, Devin Desire turns just in time to get clotheslined off his feet by Homicide running off the ropes. The arm moves across the neck so fast that it’s hard to tell if it made contact. Devin Desire slams to the mat with a satisfying crash all the same.

 

Training sessions with Greg and his other students meant learning everything, including building and breaking down the mat. With significantly smaller budgets than their multi-million dollar counterparts, independent wrestlers and promoters have to know the ins and outs of production and be able to assist with putting on the show.

 

While Chuck was still training from September 1999 to July 2000, the mat, when not used for a show, was either in a warehouse or in one of the wrestler’s backyards. The latter location lead to jokes about their credibility.

 

“When we had our ring outside it was in a guy’s backyard, so we used to joke to each other, ‘Now all we are are backyard wrestlers.’”

 

When asked about it seriously, he does see a legitimate moral dilemma in the problem of kids getting injured and where the responsibility should rest. But he also states emphatically, “You’re not going to find a single wrestler who is going to support the idea of (backyard wrestling) because it’s like a kid with a fire extinguisher running after a burning blaze. They’re just not trained for it.”

 

Meeting two or three times a week, depending on the weather, training sessions lasted anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours long. After stretching out and learning to taking falls, the wrestlers “ran spots,” performing series of moves and doing scrimmages in order to put together a match. As Chuck puts it, “The difference between wrestling and the martial arts is that in wrestling your trying to put together a story, do something entertaining.”

 

For a beginner, this can take a while. “When I tell people I’ve been wrestling a year and I’ve only wrestled one match, to them that doesn’t make sense. But you’ve got to realize I’ve got nine months of matches under my belt prior to doing that.”

 

After being struck full on by Homicide, Devin Desire’s body pauses for a split second before crashing to the mat, like Wile E. Coyote suspended mid-air before plummeting to the desert floor. Desire’s timing could easily be that of an actor’s or a comedian’s. Like one of the Three Stooges, he gets the maximum laughs for his lumps.

 

“Stand up comedy and pro wrestling are closely related,” Chuck says. “It’s all about the rule of three. The third time is the funniest. Comedy and pro wrestling works in threes. Three’s a beautiful number. Most movies are in three acts.” Besides knowing the “rule of three,” Chuck gained even more experience as a ringside announcer. A natural pick due to his radio experience and his knowledge of wrestling, he learned what worked and what didn’t as he commentated several matches.

 

When asked how he was to train, his trainer Greg says Chuck was a fast study. “He picked up everything really really quick, even to his surprise. He was ready before the other guys, you know. He just picked it up. He’s in the entertainment business. The entertainment business is the entertainment business, you either got it or you don’t.”

 

Greg clarifies by saying, “Some of the other guys can wrestle better than him but they don’t know the psychology, how to interview and do the crowd like he does.”

 

Chuck is not a stranger to crowds. After attending services at the Salvation Army since the fourth grade, he began in 1997 to make the move from senior soldier, an adult member of the congregation, to corps cadet, one of the first stages of training for an officer, the Salvation Army’s version of a preacher. It was then that he began attending the Fulton Corp in Cabbagetown and got the chance to deliver sermons himself. At least once a month for close to a year, Chuck got the chance to address the congregation.

 

“I definitely made some people cry. Yeah, making the spirit overcome them or it was sometimes just somebody saying something that they wanted to hear. I was known to cry because it meant a lot to me what I was saying. I mean, I guess in a way I was trying to invoke emotion and passion in people’s hearts.”

 

Over time, however, Chuck’s sermons began to shift focus from the evangelical to the more secular as his ideas about religion began to change. “Salvation became unimportant. Which is kind of essential to the Salvation Army.”

 

Soon after the Fulton Corp was closed down in 1998, Chuck left the church and organized religion entirely. As he explains it, “I have a lot of respect for people in the Salvation Army who that’s their lives, to serve their god and to help out people. However, the way I was interpreting, the way I was internalizing my faith, all in all I don’t think was entirely positive. I think I just used it to fuel my negative self image that I had at the time.”

 

In a way, his relinquishment of faith has empowered him to do more. “I’m trying to see myself more as a valuable person as myself and not just, ‘Hey, God said I’m good…except God said I’m a sinner and I’m going to Hell so I need to trust God.’”

 

Ironically for Chuck, the Salvation Army International Millennial Congress is taking place just around the corner at the Georgia World Congress Center on the same weekend as DragonCon. The MARTA trains are packed with a strange mix of red uniforms and dark capes. Meanwhile, Homicide straddles Devin Desire’s back and chokes him with the ropes. Devin flails and twists and grimaces but can’t seem to find his way out of Homicide’s grip. Though much of it seems to be an act, genuine pain shows through as his face begins to match his suit in color.

 

So what would make someone endure actual pain just for the entertainment of others? To Chuck, the illusion is what is important. “They create an illusion of reality. Sometimes that is more impressive than the reality itself. Sometimes I would say that if I saw a sorcerer, a real person that had honest-to-god magical powers, do something and then you had an illusionist, a prestidigitator, a magician, make something appear to disappear using the physical means they have around them, to make it happen, not really happen but make it appear to happen, to me that’s even cooler than a sorcerer just saying, ‘Look, I’m a magician, POOF! It’s gone.’”

 

As a performance, Chuck makes another interesting analogy about professional wrestling. “I consider it sort of like the jazz of athleticism because you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to do when you go out there and you have a pretty good idea of what your audience wants but for the most part, it’s improvised. You have some maybe general structure about what you’re doing but you’re going out there and you’re improvising and for that aspect it’s a performance. And the art aspect is, I mean it’s similar to dancing and ballet. You have to figure out a way to use the physical limitations and tremendous abilities that the human body has and being able to figure a way to take those and create a show. I think that that is the art of it.”

 

A small faction in the audience cheers for Devin’s success in the ring. They scream insults at Homicide and cheer on their champion. Despite the fact that he is losing, there are still some rooting for Devin Desire.

 

As Chuck explains it, the character of Devin Desire makes him a gimmick wrestler. Pro wrestlers, like any other group of performers or athletes, are divided into many different categories according to their specialty. A high flyer uses more acrobatics; a hardcore wrestler takes extreme physical punishment (i.e. hit with various objects), etc. Probably more populous but less popular within the wrestling community is the gimmick wrestler. Unlike the other types whose classification depends heavily on their athletic style, the gimmick wrestler derives his or her act primarily from the character that is played and is not so dependent on variety of moves.

 

But for Chuck, this has not been a disadvantage. As he explains, “I was able to take the short-comings of my athleticism, the fact that I’m clumsy and I fall down and things like that, we were able to adapt that into a character that uses that to his advantage as far as entertaining. I can still take a bump and take punches as well as a lot of people, but I looked pretty goofy when I delivered a lot of them. Which actually had an effect as a bad guy that worked well because there were a lot of people out there who hated the idea that some nincompoop could go out there and beat the crap out of their hero.”

 

So how did he devise the character of Devin Desire? As Chuck describes it, the creation was a collaborative effort between himself and his trainer Greg. Imitating the rough voice of Greg Herman, Chuck plays out the exchange that happened early in his training and lead to his wrestling alter ego. “(Greg) just looked at me and he said, ‘You are going to be the Nature Toy Devin Desire,’ and I said, ‘Okay.’ ‘Will you bleach your hair?’ I said, ‘I won’t bleach it but I’ll die it.’ ‘What color?’ ‘Purple’s my favorite color. I’ll do it purple.’ ‘All right, yeah, you’ll wear purple and you’ll have purple hair and you’ll go out and act fruity and people will hate you.’”

 

Chuck’s character development of Devin Desire, however, didn’t stop there. “I saw my character as being a way of me expressing some emotions and ideas that I had held that I personally didn’t think that glamorous or that good.”

 

Devin Desire’s heredity also traces back to KISS, one of Chuck’s favorite bands. “I sort of tried to adapt the Devin Desire character to being an inept Paul Stanley (guitarist/singer). So I wanted Devin Desire to think of himself as a sexy rock star type and to think that he’s really as awesome as he claims to be. However, I wanted there to be some delusion to his character that he would say all this stuff and he would genuinely believe it but he couldn’t always back it up. So that would be the reason he would have to lead to cheating and it would also be his motivation for wanting to attack pretty boys because subconsciously he knows that’s really what the people want, but outwardly he thinks ‘I’m what they want.’”

 

Just as it seems Devin Desire has been beaten for good, Desire’s ladies distract Homicide. Entering the ring and fawning over the referee and the apparent victor, the four women who accompanied Devin to the ring now get Homicide to let his guard down. Before he knows it, Homicide is suffering a surprise attack by “The Big Baller” T.C. Carter. In typical fashion, the referee remains distracted. When he finally turns around, there is nothing left in the ring except Devin Desire’s body strewn over an unconscious Homicide. Much to the audience’s righteous rage, Devin Desire has won the match.

 

Will Homicide get the opportunity of a rematch with Devin Desire? No one knows, not even Chuck. For now, he has decided to set aside his spandex and leave Devin Desire’s record 1 win, 0 losses.

 

When asked what the impetus behind this decision is, Chuck responds, “Some people can write poetry for fun, some people can make a living at it, but unless somehow you pull the strings in just the right way to make a living at it, even if you’re doing it causally and are making some money at it, you got to have some kind of backup. You’re kind of a lucky individual who can make a career out of writing poetry, but if you can’t make a living writing poetry then really there’s nothing lost. You’re able to express your emotions on a piece of paper or your feelings of your situations of the world and there’s nothing lost and it’s all a game. But pro wrestling is a profession. It’s not just an art form, it’s not just a performance, it’s a profession. That’s why it’s ‘professional wrestling.’ The wrestler who goes out there puts their body on the line.”

 

And for the time being, Chuck would rather not take that risk for his hobby.

Barbara Conrad “Scar Tracks” from 2000

My daddy got branded on a day in a southern summer
hot enough to make a plow mule kick, and that’s just
what happened along a dusty old road, Daddy out to fetch
the mail with my uncle marvin, his older brother.

Maybe that old mule got a fly or what just tired of them
straddling her sweaty back. Daddy seemed to remember
pulling her scruff of a tail, then not remembering much
except a soup pot of blood and mud. He was only three.

Imagine how his mamma fretted, waiting two days
for the doctor to come, then how it must have made
my daddy wince, that old codger scraping open the sour
wound in his head a like a farmer digs rotten potatoes,

sewing him up there in the kitchen
by the butter churn
and wood burning stove,
seven brothers bearing witness.

His savage scar was a railroad track, rough
as a tiger’s tongue, long as winter.
Touching it
would take me on a train I’d never know.

Life me up, Daddy, I’d beg,
girl in pink with daisy chains.

Tell me about the day the mule made meatloaf
out of your eyebrow. Lend me your memories
of pigs for pets, field turnip snacks on walks home
from school, crickets crooning you to sleep at night.

Groan out the tales about
your hound dog Loud, dead
under the tractor; father dead
at twelve; mother Christmas Eve.

Sugar rations.
Atom bombs
not rationed.
Battle scars.

Paint your flaming stories
on my heart.
Pierce this pouty princess crown
of mine.

And please Daddy, because
some day you’ll go
and I won’t know…
Plant your turnips in my daisy field.

Interviews and the Challenges of Responding with Grace and Humility

Before traveling any further into this blog post, let me state for the record that Grace and Humility are the sisters of Goodness and Mercy, children of Horrendous and Liberty Virtuous from Tomato, Arkansas. What with the current Hollywood fad of naming the babies things like Mysteri [RHoBH] or a rainbow of colors [Blue, Violet, Puce], or some odd adverb or adjective (Tawdry, LipBillySmacker, NorthSouthEastWest) — the original siblings of the Virtuous family are named following a century’s long tradition of bi-fervent religious excess stemming from the Southern Inability To Focus once someone brings a King James Version of the Bible into the vestibule or anteroom.

No good southern fiction is complete without a dead mule.

Publishing a literary journal for nearly 20 years has made me the target for interview requests. It must be admitted heretofore that most of the responses found online are inane and ridiculous and fraught with inaccuracies. Some of the best responses (IMHO) are triggered by an inability to refrain from sarcastic discourse when personal information is sought by an earnest journalist or writer. I simply cannot refrain from being a

smart ass.

To take myself seriously would require me to believe in the validity of my own actions at a level far beyond the scope of my imagination.

Daddy frequently told me to stop being such a “wise-en-hymer.” We had a unique vocabulary in the Heinold household. Words like “verbace-in” (spelling phonetically here) meant an alcoholic drink. As in: a child was forbidden to drink this medicine. Bear with me, there’s more I can say and I certainly will. My parents, as a general rule, refused to use curse words. They firmly believed that curse words were a sign of a lazy mind and should only be uttered when one hits one’s thumb with a hammer or any like circumstance. One’s vocabulary should include more than four-letter words. In kid-speak, John (my brother) and I knew if Daddy said “Jeezus H Christ” or “goddammit” he was not making a Bill Cosby joke, he was absolutely, positively, without any doubt — furious, livid, and incontrovertibly disappointed with our behavior. Like when I was about eight years old (1963), riding with my dad to pick up my brother from karate lessons and I thought it would be really REALLY funny to walk “like a spaz” across four lanes of traffic in downtown Fort Smith on a busy Saturday morning as a hunched-over cripple, dragging one leg and waving my arms in the air as I passed in front of my dad’s stationwagon. For anyone reading this who does not understand the repercussions of such behavioral transgressions, let it be known that it is NOT really REALLY funny to walk “like a spaz” in front of your dad’s stationwagon. Never, ever, is it funny.

Stream of consciousness anyone? (Every time I think of my father’s face upon my return to the car — I am in awe of his restraint.)  Where was I? Oh yes, trying to figure out how to answer interview questions when the inquiry is personal and not academic. Subjective rather than objective…

Contacted last month by Amy Wilson, who is trying once again to publish The Red Truck Review, her email questionnaire/publisher interview contained this:

Hi Valerie, thank you for taking the time to chat with The Truck about your long-running journal, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Could we begin with you providing us with an overview of this staple of contemporary Southern Literature?

 My first thought? “Cheese biscuits.”

Collards. Black-Eye Peas (not the band). Sweet tea. Yard dogs. Red Eye Gravy. (never thought about black eye peas and red eye gravy, now I need to look up other southern “eyes” and conduct cultural online survey to determine if trend exists)

Southern staples. I wasn’t born in the South. My roots are decidedly midwestern. Ohio. My mother didn’t fry anything.

bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Damn. I need to do laundry. The MacBook must sleep and other activities must bear witness…

–Valerie

Made it through the holidays …

And now, here we are.  The Mule has updated its back-end, its ass is now secure with WordPress updates and we move forward into 2014 with a glad heart.

We will let loose with some mighty fine fiction in February … we found some amazing fiction from 2007 and we hope you enjoy reading it.

March is a big month for everyone here. All new fiction, essays and more. Join us every month for the best of everything.

Let’s see, who’ve we got coming down the Pike?

John Bach.

Byron Crownover — who gives us this fabulous Southern Legitimacy Statement: SLS: Having been born in the middle of the last century, I sometimes feel as old and worn out as some of the farmland surrounding my home. Weeds taking over my mind much as they do to fallow fields, pushing up memories with their roots. Not all of the weeds need to be pulled, but once pulled one thought leads to another and stories, if not exactly true, should be, follow.

I find more and more that the stories surround, and revolve around, the joys that are grand-kids. Having six of said creatures I have plenty of raw material to choose from. I also congratulate myself on not killing their mothers when they were teenagers, although I was sorely tempted at times.

Having been born and raised in the state of Arkansas, I don’t consider myself as a Southern Gentleman, or even a Colonel of the Old South, but rather as just a man, much as my father was, trying to do his best to do the right thing, to be kind to dogs and kids, and to be respectful to my elders, who get fewer and fewer each year.

I guess I am best summed up in the saying, “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God.” There is no other place I’d rather be.

Jackson Culpepper

Gardner Mounce

Kelly Jones

Erin Kelly

and more more more…

Shann Palmer Chapbook “Skip Tracing Angels” or “Uttering and Publishing”

Precis

The woman is a barnacle, word scraper,
parasite, stealing a phrase from here,
a name from somewhere else.

She begs spiders spin thin narratives
to tie to the bedposts, ready for a good whipping
before love-making, tender as a murmur, an exhale

from lanky men who write fiction solid as pines
holding words like cigarettes, long-necked bottle men,
who usually conquer pretty women, pulling truth

from back pockets, pleated pants, high cheekbones.
She stares into darkened rooms, picks at skin tags,
sneering angry at whatever God grants her words

for play. Short, everything about her falls short.
In fugues she spins dust balls she finds under tables,
on bed pillows, bringing poems to fallow places.

He sings stories, so she takes his voice and runs,
coming to understand he is formulaic, packaged,
while she is sand and debris caught up in a dust devil.

**

Death in the Family

This is the first time back home
since she left them there, since
she ran off into a different life,

her name spoken in passing
and like a spilled tin of buttons
incidents roll in every direction:

how she caused her father’s death,
broke her mother’s spirit, forgot
where she came from, denied

complicity, the smallest mote
to bear affinity for what was taken,
for what she chose to leave behind.

Buttons under the dresser, the rug,
swept up by strangers, connections
unmade, garments rent and revealing.

**

History Illuminated

Mamma played trumpet, Mamaw sewed
costumes for the Houston opera, Margaret
was a secretary at Esso, Wynter Grace wrapped
packages at Neiman-Marcus every Christmas
and Genelle was the favorite until she moved
all the way to the arctic circle to save heathens.

Uncle Howard was wealthy, had an ex-wife, a son
dead from polio, saved even though he was a Jew
and divorced but we didn’t talk about that, not ever.
It was enough he loved Wynter, called her be’be’.
Sent her carnations big as pie plates every birthday,
took care of all of us, had a drawer full of surprises:

chattering teeth, a Ginny doll. He’d cuddle me up
at the lake house early mornings, loved me best
over all the other nieces and nephews, I was good,
knew how to be quiet and learn, try new things.
He hated my daddy, bought all my school clothes
kept everybody straight, smoked Cuban cigars.

Uncle Lew pinched my legs, said I was ‘spoilt’
looked me in the eye and saw the devil, twice,
saw the devil, twice, died on Christmas Eve
a few years ago, now Aunt Genelle goes to Branson
for the nativity play with stars as old as she is,
doesn’t so much as send a card or phone anybody.

Even after twenty-five years gone I talk to Mamma,
every day, she finally killed herself with cancer,
sat up straight in a chair her last day, they told me
she did, bargaining. I believe it because I would too,
looking out the window, waiting for Prince Charming
or Jesus to actually show up as the sun set.

Then there was Nanny (Ila Faye) with Ruby, Falvey,
Virgil and a lot of others in nameless pictures.
The night she died I stood out on the landing
at the Barn Dinner Theater and saw a shooting star.
I played Lady Brockhurst for three long months
only to find fifteen dollars a show wasn’t enough.

When I left Texas, left everything I ever knew
in the front hall laying on the faux-marble floor,
moved to Arizona to change the world, change.

It’s too hard to rout out what might have been
under different circumstances, before it all went bad,
pieces ease together as if the edges were worn
smooth like Aunt Ola’s butter churned to gold,
making mad money to put by for a hat, or red shoes.

**

Dancing with Danny Kaye

Swept up by the red-headed stranger
she laughed belly-deep, loving this man-
this big-nosed Russian bear of a man.

At eleven, she had no idea who he was,
but understood arms strong enough
“Ya-kosh try-ee-ya sva-ba-dos” he sang

something like that, she sings it again
turning out of ridiculous choices,
ugly scenes, bruises slow to disappear.

Dictionaries are built from hopeful words
no one says to her in any language
what he said, no one could even guess.

**

Reflections from the Looking Glass

I don’t know where
my mother lived before she died

with her blue willow lamp,
the what-not shelf,
a cartwheel of snapshots
out of sequence filled
with strangers, daddy,
who packed a rabbit’s foot
in my lunch box each morning
with unsweetened tea in a thermos.

A chair forgets the shape of its owner,
in time a hand print fades, painted
over in Williamsburg Blue, eggshell.

There is a color  no one remembers
it’s sibilant chant, names rustling
through willows. In this foreign land,
I have forgotten my song.

**

Annabel Lee of Dumbarton

Mornings, weekdays, she makes the trek
from Azalea Avenue to Hermitage Road
with a blue visor and cane. We note time
from her locus on the curve. Too far down
and we’re late again, mid-way, we’re okay,
no specious excuses to be made at school.

Imagine she sells tricks at Divine Magic
in the strip mall at the bottom of the hill,
or shoots pool at the Luxor Salon next door.
More likely she’s out for her daily exercise,
a suggestion from her young gerontologist
at Westminster-Canterbury, senior home.

We depend on her to be our railroad whistle,
rooster, church bell that marks our passing.
In rain we are a boxy white Volvo slipping
through layers of time between concrete
and sodden clouds, no wizened beldame
to prophesy, recall jonquils, quote Poe.

If Annabel is not her name, it should be,
or Alice, who leaves us to wonder, does she
speak to ghosts at Upham Brook, soldiers,
the woman swept from her car by Gaston?
Anywhere you go around here, the past
intrudes, watches from the kudzu shadow.

**

The Ball Blue Book of Home Preserving

It was her other bible, dog-earred and falling apart,
tucked in the back cupboard all winter, eager
for first fruits, beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers-
things that had to be put by in a jar.

The ritual was precise, timing life or death, hunger or plenty,
a false step meant a wasted day. The book stayed open
on the sideboard as a quick reference, close to the wall clock.
Every flat space covered with produce, water boiling on the stove,
Mamaw would roll her stockings down and can
into the cool night, TV on for “Gunsmoke” or “The Hit Parade.”

My job was to stand on a stool and wash jars and lids,
inspecting each rim carefully for chips and spots, sweat
dripping into my eyes, I could have a cold bottled coke
as long I kept working, paid close attention.
She’d tell stories about how she met Papaw
(at a camp meeting in Tyler, Texas) when she wore
a crisp white shirt (high-necked and starched to high heaven)
and a long blue and white striped heavy skirt she’d made.

He transported her with his melancholy Irish tenor,
and if her friend Ima Clem hadn’t near fainted
from the heat and been taken to a nearby house,
she might’ve never met him and I wouldn’t be here at all.

She used to say things like that-
how my very existence depended on a sequence of events
that seemed magical, almost random: a butterfly in Elkhardt
flying left instead of right, an open window where a panther
climbed in one night when my Momma was a tiny baby,
and Papaw was off working in Houston, how she stood
over the crib and locked eyes with the big cat for an eternity,
then collapsed to the floor and wept when it finally left.

That beast would’ve taken Joyce if I hadn’t been
right with Godand we wouldn’t have you then, would we?

But where would I be? Would I be at all?
I wondered, fearful of God’s serendipity.
Sure she wouldn’t answer, I pondered
these questions in my heart, like Mary.

As I grew older, I’d help less often, besides,
she’d started freezing more by then in plastic bags
standing up in wax-coated boxes with no personality.
Even over the boiling water blanch we didn’t talk as much,
I must’ve been a mystery to her, awkward and moody.

I have a Ball Blue Book, ordered fresh off the internet,
but I’ve never used it, why bother? It’s hard to can alone,
my daughter would roll her eyes, microwave a Lean Cuisine,
never caring where my mother met my dad (in an elevator)
when she winked at the guy behind him (who didn’t notice)
and my dad followed her to her office and asked her out
charming her with his thick auburn hair, his jokes.

They fell in love so fast their world changed in a blink,
assuring my existence, and consequently, my daughter’s,
though that story will never be preserved in a summer kitchen
to be taken from the pantry and shared.

**

Ruby Redd in Alice, Texas

Ruby’s trailer was not the finest in the park,
not a double wide or fancy deluxe model
that resembled a house or cottage,
but she was proud of what she had.

Red awnings graced the sun-side windows,
matching flower boxes and lawn chairs
gave an ambiance of neatness and quiet living
that belied the simple squalor behind
the K-mart special screen door, purchased
at forty percent off with the last check she got
from the just closed Curl Up and Dye Salon
where she’d washed hair and swept up since
the day Frank, her common-law husband went out
for cigarettes and apparently was abducted by aliens.

He was coming back, she said, keeping a six-pack
of Lone Star cold in the icebox beside her Gloria Jean
Italian (she called it EYE-talian) gourmet cappuccino blend
he’d bought her at the mall the day before, as if
these tokens might be a beacon for him to home in on
when they dropped him off. Stacks of tabloid papers
covered every surface, red magic marker circles around
each story she thought might be pertinent to his case,
typewriter always ready for the next letter in her head:

to the FBI, her congressman, Billy Graham and even
that nice Fox Mulder on the TV show that investigated
such things. She’d quit church when Brother Bob said,
in a blatant sermon that everybody knew was directed
right to her there in the choir, that people who lived waiting
for something to happen should get on with their lives
and quit wasting God’s time with foolishness.

She pondered that over and over, stabbing
her Salem menthol out so hard she eventually broke
the red ashtray her little boy made in school
before he was lost in that war, twenty-three
days before Nixon would’ve called him home anyway.
It just seemed like everybody left her there to wait.

She went to bed, lighting the last red strawberry
scented candle in the box, like she did every night,
but this time she woke to find the couch on fire,
what with the newspapers and all. She shrugged,
resigned to fate’s callousness, grabbed the beer, the coffee,
and her son’s bronzed baby shoes and walked off.

The trailer burned to the ground and at the memorial
service everybody cried real tears when Brother Bob said:
“At last, at last, she is reunited with her boy.”

**

Honky-tonk Angels

Jewel and Ila Faye were the best
looking women in the whole of
Corpus Christi, that’s what some
people said but some people
don’t get around much tending
to stick with the places they know.

One place they knew the girls would be
after work was down at Gilley’s Drive-Up
just off the South Houston freeway exit ramp,
big old dry oil rig in the parking lot, corrugated tin
bar, pool table, and a few shabby booths
bought when the Howard Johnson closed.

A new man might talk up to Jewel
until one of the regulars would take
it upon himself to play the angry beau-
sometimes getting more than he bargained for:
a black-eye sucker punch, a bottle smash,
then a bouncer would make ‘em shake hands
or take it the hell out into the parking lot.

The women were sisters, but took a great
deal of care to keep that fact secret from
just about everybody. Jewel wore a blonde wig
like Barbara Mandrell and Faye was a little slip
of a woman. Any old cowboy could lift her up
on the side of the pool table for a quick kiss,
rough hands almost touching round her waist.

The best time they had was when Jean Ellen
(Roy’s wife) rolled in the door with an old pistol
claiming that one or the other had slept with Roy
and she was gonna kill somebody tonight.
The two wanton women slipped out the bathroom
window and ran laughing across the road
where they threw themselves down in the ditch while
Jean fired over their heads. Roy was a-crying
that he’d never slept with anybody but her in years
til pride got the best of Faye and she stood up
and yelled, “Yeah, I did it, but he ain’t no account.
We did it during a commercial on “As the World Turns.”

Roy nearly died right then cause it was true.
That just about caused a real tragedy when
Jean Ellen, who had drunk more than a few long neck
Schlitz by then, took off running and was nearly hit by
a Shell Oil tanker truck pulling into the right-hand lane.

They used to tell that story over and over adding
and subtracting pertinent details depending on
who-all was listening. When Jean Ellen died
a few years later of blood disease, the sisters
sat right up front with Roy and the kids.
Faye wailed like she’d lost all hope and Jewel
took altar call, rededicating herself to Jesus
like she did every Sunday, but it was a nice gesture.

**

The woman who holds on to things

Her house is as cluttered as her mind is sharp,
which may not be much of a compliment.

She says she knows where everything is
yet buys still another box of sixty watt bulbs,

bills that aren’t paid late are rare, her checks bounce
while deposits burrow beneath some recent project:

a cross-stitch Hebrew house blessing left undone
for want of one skein of cornflower blue DMC126

which she won’t purchase since she’s pretty sure
there’s an extra one in the big box in the closet,

the box full enough to keep her stitching forever,
far past her capacity to see such small work.

She hoards supplies, certain authors’ books,
tin boxes, votive candles, and exotic teas;

calls it collecting, these objects to be cherished,
a kind of love always around, though misplaced.

**

The Necessaries

Doing what she always does, mumbling,
she is a gnome in the alcove, head down,
hid in shadows. In a bygone century,
she might have been cobbling shoes
or pilfering scraps, but here she is
setting out ginger snaps and finger food,
arranging soft drinks, finding extra napkins.

He’s a wizard but for the lack of hat,
smooth-skinned head to toe, stretched
snug but not alarming. A sleeve eased
into a seam, he curves into crowds
like syrup on pancakes, delighting bankers
and children with sporty anecdotes
and stagy gestures, fixing what needs it.

They slip into unseen gaps,
negotiate what no one else can-
where the ladle got to, the cake knife,
extension cord for the podium microphone
so the power mongrels can get and give
back-pats and golden-carrot incentives,
big trucks that stop short in intersections.

Watching from her crevice, she coos and claps
in genuine delight at someone else’s gain.
He, too, is pleased for others, glory not his goal.
They glance at each other though nothing passes.
She looks another way, he sighs, and wonders
why she strives so hard unrecognized. Turning,
he removes his party face, takes the long way home.

**

Passover

Easter of her fifth year she found out she was different
after the tent-meeting evangelist failed to cast out her demons,
rubbing on mud made of Texas red clay and Jordan River water
Uncle Howard paid for the operation to sever the muscle
that made the baby eye roll up in her head, ever since
she perpetually looks like she’s winking, particularly in photos.

At six, she saw her first indoor movie: the Houston premiere
of The Ten Commandments. Aunt Wynter wore a fox wrap
with beady black eyes and teeth, she, new patent leather shoes,
a lacy pink dress, and a tight new Toni permanent wave.

When the Pharaoh’s son died, she wept for want of lamb’s blood
at her door, fearful from that day forward when fog rolled in
off the Gulf of Mexico, rising up from creeks and sloughs.

First grade beckoned at seven, Uncle Howard presented her
an incantation: “Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai” to say as she walks
through the hallways of the shadow of death unafraid, to whistle
when she faces enemies, so they will not know her concern.

Children believe in magic, she does, even though it’s too late
to go back and tell herself at four You are special, at five Believe,
and at six, The angel of death takes only the male first born,
and at seven, A wink is as good as a smile and you are beautiful.

**

Thanksgiving

He sings “Lucy in the Sky”
and “Maggie May”
to make her laugh,
pokes her dimples,
kisses her nose.

Love simple.
his momma said,
life’s full of complications,
God is a lawyer
you can’t afford.

Head full of television
trivia watching thirty seconds
over Tokyo, nobody remembers
what it means anymore.

He skip-traces angels
in the bathroom mirror,
steam on cold glass,
her reflection looks fine
looking back from the bed.

**

Being hungry

She hides doughnuts in the oven,
crackers in the bedroom bottom drawer,
onion dip and chips consumed at once,
empty containers buried in the kitchen trash
with coffee grounds, peels, and clotted grease.

Absorbed by routine, painfully aware
it isn’t sustenance she craves, but order,
the imposition of a secret priesthood,
a divinity no one else would suspect,
a peculiar sacrament observed in solitude.

Obligated to canonical hours, she keeps
all things holy: collects cookbooks, tins,
serving pieces, commandeers specific vessels:
the cast-iron pan for steak, the wok for fish,
a chipped brown Hull bowl for mashed potatoes.

Some dishes are resplendent in the light,
salad, pasta fagiolo, scrambled eggs and cheese.
Other fare rests heavy as her unsaid confession;
leftover meatloaf, cassoulet, moussaka- meals
that hold her close in the substantial night.

Left alone, these ceremonies serve her well
as she builds the wall she wears, friends
accommodate her picayune ways, concerned
for her, afraid to ask. In mixed company
she holds herself apart, picking at her food.

**

Telephone Road Supper, November 21, 1963

Smells like LaTrobe’s got chicken on the grill,
making me hungry coming through the open window.
You ‘bout ready for supper, baby?

Walk up to the packy for some Lone Star,
there’s frosty mugs waiting in the freezer.
I’ll peel and soak some spuds in salt water,
when you get back you can cut‘em up
paper thin, ready for the hot Crisco.

See that white wrapped package in the fridge?
That’s one-inch thick sliced beef bologna, on sale
ready-to-fry, and Opalene brought tomatoes by
so fat and so red you should take a picture.

When we’re done let’s head over to the Trail Drive-in
and watch a movie, it sounds like a good one,
somebody said at intermission there’s a special show
with prizes and stuff for the kids.

I’ll make some fresh tea. Oh, your mama called,
she wants a ride to the airport to see Jackie Kennedy
leave for Dallas, then you can drive her to the doctor
and after to the store to get the cranberry sauce.

She started in again on your sister not lifting a finger,
wants us to have everybody for dessert after turkey.
Fine with me, though nobody wants to watch our little TV,
nothing on but football anyway, every year the same.

**

At the Museum, Molly

reads poems long and thin
as her loblolly legs
rise from the hardwood floor.

With a mouth full of feathers,
she hums Dulce Domum,
the air tastes like fresh pears.

I would embrace her there
while the sun slides into the wall,
touch behind her ear, treasure her

until a draught takes the words
off the page onto our skin.
Then we can feast on syllables

in front of a new acquisition;
the statue of a faceless woman,
Jaipur marble perfectly carved.

**

Angels in the Architecture

She spends too much energy
censoring what gets scribbled onto the page:
like when everybody did crystal and blow
in the upstairs room where a guy called Easy,
who wasn’t, said
Get me a beer, I’ll roll a fat one just for you-
and she was just fine,
it seems someone always shows up
to run interference- keep her in a bubble,
away from bad boys, hard stuff.

She’s picture perfect with no
visible bruises,
now she wonders what got by her, why
she needs angels appearing to carry her away,
with all sorts of diversionary devices.

She finds out later that guy she wanted,
up to his blue jeans in anarchy,
beat up the girl he took home,
and it wasn’t her-
but it could have been,
after all, she’d had a mouthful of his politics
before the real party had even started.

It can be pleasant under glass, looking out
while other people take risks
so you don’t have to
because some guardian angles the shots
to bank right, you gotta figure maybe
if bad things happen early on,
you get a break later in life.
A hairline fracture,
the kind that shows up in an autopsy
but hasn’t hurt for a long, long time.

**

Bread n’ Butter Pickles

They make or break a sandwich she’d say
you got to have real beef bologna
and American cheese,
summer tomatoes and salad greens,

jabbing with the knife for emphasis
two slices of meat, two pickles.

She always cried if it was right before her period
telling anyone who’d listen
how she’d never had two slices of meat
on a sandwich until she was grown.

After a wine cooler or two it’d be the tuna fish tale,
how she had to make lunch for seven people
out of one six ounce can, half a jar of relish,

he wanted to say just shut up about it,
you have what you need now

but he’d grunt and nod, no use begging trouble

She could always suck him in, had a way
of sticking her fork, twirling him like spaghetti,
and before he could untangle he’d be hers.
Comfortable, familiar warmth between two people
who might’ve have done better.

**

Adios Jole Blon

He’d sing that song in his drunken, Cajun way-
Rembert Randolph Darby- Ila Faye’s last husband,
number seven in a long and undistinguished line.

He died in her arms, daddy said- like number three,
or two, he wasn’t sure, but Rembert was the one
she loved most of all. He was a tall dark pine of a man
from Houma, Louisiana, full of whiskey and talk.

When they weren’t fighting, they made crazy hot love,
passion more than sentiment, hard-scrapple lovers.
He towered over her tiny frame, but when it came to fists,
being the better drunk, she bested all his punches.

He moved the trains at night working as a snake, or a swing
in the hump yard, lost three fingers when a switchback popped.
We’d go pick him up if his driver’s license had been suspended,
everybody there had something missing, and damned proud of it.

He could cart Nanny and me on his shoulders at one time,
the ‘wobble and bobble express coming through’, he’d yell.
Sometimes he’d have a paid for photograph taken of me,
on the car hood, on a Shetland pony, as if I was his own.

When he took his teeth out, you couldn’t understand
a word he’d say, except for her. She’d always tell me:
Marry a railroad man, you’ll never want for a thing,
though sometimes she did. She wasn’t a real blonde,
I was for a few more years. By the time my hair went brown,
they were both long gone and  I can’t remember the tune.

**

Deus ex vagina

Typing into black pre-dawn, he stands
frustrated, stranded in the lining of a story.

Across the gravel parking lot he grendels,
drawn by neon flickered promise- Waffle House.

In syrup and savory sausage, he finds his muse
at last, the waitress Wanda Prine,
full-figured and alone at sunrise.

She gets off at six, again at seven,
wrapped in grease and grits, her perfume
on his fingers, sticking to task he types
while she snores in beauty, tattoo taut
across her butt- a single Jacobean rose.

This novel undertaken, overcome
he falls beside her, limp and spent,
his book rewritten, ending still not done

**

Relief

A recurring dream of perfection
gone awry, I move out of my skin
smooth, accomplished at sliding
into simile from another direction.

I long for simplicity, to be grisaille.
If history must repeat then let it,
I welcome authority, to rest secure
beneath someone else’s sheets.

Odalisque, but for the century:
Instruct, command- I am too tired
to decide what to what movie to watch,
what to cook for dinner: Let’s talk about you.

Ambition is for the energetic,
I am bruised from bumping ceilings,
falling from ladders, jumping ships.
Carry me off to your secret places

**

Imperfect peace

To accommodate God’s immensity
scales slide, curve into a new measure,
here hummingbirds are miracles.

Numbers abandon significance,
in ten years only a few remember,
soon we move on, no longer bound.

Seasonal flowers out of petals, empty
heads where glory crowned before, listen-
they sound like trophies being put away.

Life begins when breath pulls us awake
into bigger rooms, to wrestle tradition,
bend rituals, cross one river, then one more.

**

Previously published: “Annabel Lee of Dumbarton” in Wicked Alice, “Ruby Redd in Alice, Texas” in Gin Bender, “Being hungry” in Shakespeare’s Monkey, “At the Museum,”Molly” in The Bedside Guide to the No Tell Motel, Second Floor, and “Bread n’ Butter Pickles” in Moondance.

Shann Palmer – Four poems

Originally published in February 2012.

Mamaw’s Biscuits

The story never varied at the start:
there wasn’t enough flour or grease
so she prayed hard as she ever had.

Interrupted by a tap on the screen door,
a sad looking man stood there asking
if she had some work he might do for a meal.

She offered him cool water,
got him to tote some yard trash out back
and settled in to make what she could

with what she had there was sufficient
for him to take a couple on the road
wrapped in cloth with muscadine jelly.

My Aunts Margaret and Wynter Grace
were still little babies, gobbled every crumb,
kept them full till Papaw could get home.

He worked in Houston then, hard times,
everybody had hard times, but Palestine
wasn’t all that far, and he made city money.

She told me that visitor was an angel
sent from Elijah to reveal her faith,
she must’ve passed ‘cause they had enough.

Everybody got fed at her house, friends,
strangers, even gypsies, like the one
who prophesied I would be born a star

destined to see the world my own way.
After that, Travellers let her house be,
they left their mark on the sidewalk

so she would be safe from drifters and scams.
Turned out true, too, even at ninety-five
no one ever took advantage of her.

Except she could never keep me full
of biscuits or pan gravy. The memory
rolls on my tongue when I get Hardee’s

(a hard comparison) and I miss her stories
Once, I thought I saw an angel by the fig tree
at the house on Caroline, watching out

when Aunt Genelle left the upstairs door
wide open while we went to Saltillo to shop,
but that’s a start to a whole different tale.

**

Song and Dance

The old ones are dropping off the radar
faster than rotary phones, usable transoms,
cheap gas, and popping the clutch on a hill.

Tom’s mom fell, Susie died while knitting,
Genelle hangs on because she’s contrary,
and Russ simply stopped, just like that.

We shuffle through wondering who’s next,
what it will mean to be the last one to ask,
the story-teller, the only one who remembers.

Even poets fall back on massaging metaphors
into credible elegies, measuring blank verse
out in coffee spoons. Some tribute.

Today, I picked out my funeral hymns, swearing
I’ll get a hold on my affection for gimcrackery,
write names and dates on all these photographs.

Now is the time to reflect in this moment,
tomorrow I get busy, there will never be
enough time, labels, or plastic containers.

It isn’t being mortal I mind, it’s the old ones
tumbling before me that brings this side-step,
hoping no one calls me out to go too soon

**

Always from Pasadena, Texas

Since the day she looked in the rearview mirror
watching the state line sign shrink to a dot
she hasn’t looked back, hasn’t wanted to return-
not for them, not to see anybody special anymore.

Life was hard sky and welfare food for some time-
canned meat, peanut butter and white beans so much
it was twenty years before she could bide them again.

If it was too hot, the family slept on the hood of the car,
waking to flies in their faces, ants crawling in shoes.

When it rained, they’d all snuggle up inside, rolled
doodle bug style in the seats. Nobody paid attention
in those days, people didn’t meddle, they might
be nice enough to offer coffee or some food,
but anyone on the road knows what not to take,
where not to sleep, even with everything locked.

She hopes no one can tell what she went through,
and they can’t, but there’s a whiff of hard times
that clings to her choices, informs every movement,
she falls between extravagance and penny-pinching.

It’s in her voice when she orders at fancy restaurants,
at parties in big houses with lots of mucky-mucks,
she can’t help still seeing herself as a little girl
in charity shoes more at ease at Walmart than Saks.

She always finds herself chatting up old bartenders
at Windsor Farms affairs. They talk about the city,
make fun of the snoots, wonder what’s gonna change
two insignificant people making very small talk.

She’ll never go back again but can’t seem to wash
the stink of refineries out of her clothes, or grow up.
No matter how much she reads, how much she learns
she’s that kid in the rearview mirror, leaving home.

**

Attainable love

won’t show its face  in a crowd, meet you
wearing a red carnation or be your BFF.

The very fact it’s
*attainable*
should be of some concern–Groucho knew that.

Of the two of you it’s the most disorganized.

It will always be <  in any equation,
near the bottom in social stratification.

It will never  pick up after itself,
make the bed, put the seat down,
take out the trash.

Not even when it leaves,
you in tears.

Three Poems by Thomas Alan Holmes

08755r

A. C. Lambert, Appalachian Poet, Studies Abroad in the United Kingdom

I bet in pubs he plays up
Southern drawl—I’ve heard the Brits
are buying JD for him
just to hear him talk
about Virginia, Tennessee,
and he will call them “y’all”
and change a lot of “ahs” to “aws”
and “eyes” to “ahs.” I hope he
holds it back a bit and sounds
a lot like Brick; too much, like
always, sounds too much like Blanche.

I bet in pubs he lays on
Southern drawl–he’s droppin’ Gs
and growlin’ Rs like Killer
and Roy Orbison,
the moan, the “Mama” glottal stopped.
And he will curl his lip
and comb his hair to pompadour
and twitch his stance. I hope he
belts it out a bit and sings
a Conway song, not Elvis;
always, Brits expect the King.

I bet in pubs he trades in
Southern drawl, not leave it all
behind, affect a British
accent, drop his jaw
and talk like water fills his mouth.
He’ll make it currency.
He’ll make those kids hear melody
and want to sing. I hope he
draws it out a bit and sounds
a lot like home, like ours here,
and, including him, theirs there.

***

Beautician

You found the broken glasses
in the kitchen cabinets,
just days ago you saw
translucent mayonnaise
out on the counter.
You read in his red-rimmed eyes,
his hangdog stoic face,
that he lied along with you,
that it was only Parkinson’s
and that his neural breakdown
had just to do with hands
but not his swallowing,
his bladder control, or even
his heartbeat. When you peek
in here, our hair salon,
and you chuckle at the thought
of elderly vanity,
seeing the manicures
and thinking to ask if men
can get their haircuts here,
I will cheerfully assure you
they do, and I will mention,
smiling, my manicure
and pedicure service, too.
Counting costs, you will consider
manicure and pedicure
a bit beyond your means;
your father will not want them,
you decide, and you will move
him in before the weekend.
A couple of weeks later,
when I am cutting his hair,
I will ask about his feet
and soon he will admit
that he has not been able
to cut his toenails for years,
even before his wife passed.
Although he has washed as best
he could, his nails will be thick
and yellow, and we will be
grateful there is no fungus.
I will soak his sore feet
in Epsom salts with mint, pat
them dry, and spend an hour
tenderly trimming his nails
and soothing his ache away.
Diverted by my work,
I will seem not to notice
when he cries, and the first
pedicure is on me.

***

Icing Down the Cat

It would not do to bury her
out back, that goddamned cat,
oh, no, convulsing and put down
on Wednesday, great big vet bill, not
a chance that he’d dispose of her
when Emily, in tears, said Winks
is family and ought to rest
in peace at Eustace Gap where all
our buried people are. She hugged
the ziplocked Baggie to our house,
and I convinced my wife and her
at last that I could not miss work
another day, that Saturday
we’d all load up and go on back
up in the hills and do it right.
But when I grabbed the freezer door,
Faynelle cut me a look that made
me wish we were in church so she
would stare off into space and I
could read a Bible verse and try
to make it fit my life somehow,
but I gave her a look that said
“By Saturday . . .” without a word,
and she stuck out her jaw and clamped
her eyebrows down. Oh, hell, I broke
my old foam cooler, so I said,
“I’ll go to Wal-Mart”–no, I had
to get my Igloo Playmate, grab
what ice I could, and pack dead Winks
still in the Baggie on the spot.
I kept her in my truck bed, but
I never checked on her except
to hope someone had stolen her.
And now Faynelle and Emily
are bawling all the way to lay
that cat to rest, and I’ll bet you
before the month is done, there’ll be
another cat before I earn
the extra pay to get it fixed.

 

River Haven by Pepper Smith

wheelerstation

Everything sounds like a magical lie when I talk about Mississippi,

like Libba in her 60s living with her 87‐year‐old mother, Mimi,
on a small island noted for one dive bar and county trash collection.
No one dropped by on accident.
In the patio shade overlooking the Tombigbee, slow as cane syrup,
we could just make out through the kudzu the last water skier
as we drank a vodka punch Mimi called Red Rooster,
same as the hummingbirds sipped from the feeder,
and we’d ask Mimi to tell stories
of chasing off a tugboat with her grandfather’s Navy Colt revolver,
or giving foxtrot lessons to Governor J. P. Coleman,
“If you know the reverse, you’ll be confident in any situation,”
and watched her yellow teeth frame high laughter.
It’s a good story if you’ve heard it a hundred times and still want to hear it.
We’d burn citronella for the mosquitoes
and that antiseptic‐citrus smell would blend with Red Roosters,
honeysuckle, and the dog hair on the vinyl seat cushions to call the evening
and still you’d slap mosquitoes and see your own borrowed bleeding.
Cooking, are you serious? Later, we might de‐thaw a ground beef & green bean casserole,
if all the paper bowls of popcorn and party mix didn’t fill you.
Mimi and Libba had done enough of their wishes,
raised children and lived contented. What remained was conversation.
To slow down and hear, hear talk so clear you could watch it happen like dancing,
the pause, the pivot, the lead you followed, that reverse turn you had to master
…but don’t fret over the footwork, it’s your smile people are watching.
We sat with our Red Roosters and spoke and listened until we were finished,
only the woods, the river, the distant traffic.

Rapid I Movement by Alexandra Edgeworth

Library of Congress

March 20, 3:05 a.m.

I am in the woods walking along a dirt pathway and I can hear the music coming from the house. I hear the sweet melody of the piano and the violin chirps between the breaths of ivory keys. I am walking with Daniel, my husband, and he is smiling at me.

The trees are whispering as the wind howls through them. Leaves scatter themselves into makeshift tornadoes and suddenly turn into orange birds.

I am dreaming, I realize.

We enter through the door of the giant house and inside is a tropical rainforest. There are no guests except for a man in the corner with cages. I am already in front of him, asking him if I could buy his yellow parrot, and he gives the parrot to me for free.

Daniel is gone.

I am at Daniel’s parents’ house. Deserted and empty, I search the rooms and find in the dining room a small television with a bean bag chair before the white screen. The parrot on my shoulder says, “They have taken him. Go to the lake.”

I am at the lake. I can hear the piano again. The water is black and I am scared.

“Take the buffalo,” the parrot says. “They are the only ones fast enough.”

The parrot whistles like a flute and a massive buffalo rises out of the lake. He has ram horns and grunts at me. I am on the back of the buffalo and he is galloping across the top of the water.

The parrot is gone.

I think about what might be faster than this buffalo, why we must make such haste across the lake. I see no end to the lake.

I hear a scream behind me. Out of the water leaps a man with fins for arms and legs. His torso is the only thing that is human. His face is contorted. His mouth is that of an angler fish, unnaturally long teeth and a horrible scream that deafens. His eyes are empty sockets.

***

“Stupid fish man,” I remember saying to myself. I sit up in bed, feel my hands shaking, and get up to fetch myself some water.

I get out my dream journal and write this nightmare down. Lately I’ve only been writing down the weird ones. Ever since I was in middle school I’ve kept dream journals. My Dad and my guidance counselor both thought keeping accounts of the dreams that disturbed me would help get rid of them. They were wrong.

Most of the really bad ones have actually dissolved. Sometimes I get dreams that come close, but I wake up before anything gets too awful. Recently the nightmares are only jarring, not so much horrifying.

Through discovery I find that my dreams are strangely vivid; they contain some sort of back story, a plot sometimes, although the plot is usually subconsciously understood and never needs explanation, and somehow most of the people are known to me but carry no distinct features.

The angler fish man, for example. I knew he was a man, even though I saw nothing that would make him a male. I can’t even remember if he had breasts or not. I suppose that wasn’t the point. The angler fish man’s only purpose was to frighten me.

Sigmund Freud uses symbolism to interpret dreams. He writes that everything represents something in the waking world, and interpretations are universal. Everything is based upon wish fulfillment, even the nightmares (the wish to never be). According to Freud, my main three symbols would have to be the parrot, lake, and the androgynous fish thing. As I look through my book titled The Complete Book of Dreams, I examine colors first: the yellow parrot and the black lake.

Yellow represents cheerfulness and optimism. Orange too is encouraging, like the leaves that became orange birds in the beginning of my dream…when it was still a dream. When the parrot disappeared, the black lake appeared. Black in dreams is a warning, symbolizing depression.

Now parrots in particular are noted for imitation. Strangely, the parrot never repeated anything I said. I don’t even remember actually speaking in my dream. The parrot, by all accounts, did no mocking or mimicking of my actions. Damn thing left me when things got creepy. My optimism flew the coop.

Lakes are considered yonic imagery. Psychologists say it also represents the amniotic fluid where we float inside the womb. Thankfully there’s no birthing process, I’m merely riding a buffalo along the top of the water. Like that’s any better. But I’ve never heard anything about buffaloes. I don’t even recall watching anything about them on National Geographic. No movies either.

That’s not to say Sigmund Freud is right. I feel his methods are outdated, many creatures and symbols left unturned, and, sorry, but I’m actually really happy, so black as depression doesn’t work for me. I happily deny such a thing to be true.

The black lakes in my life are gone.

***

 

 

May 18, 4:27 a.m.

Dad still asleep and I don’t want to wake him. I’m so scared I can’t move except to write and remember what I have dreamed.

I was in my tent in my bed. I thought I was awake but I was not. I heard noises, scratches along my tent. I heard whispers but I couldn’t hear them. There was a bright light under my bed and I begun to hear screams.

The screams were bad. I started crying when the screaming started. I called for my dad but he was gone. No one was there. Something was there.

Things were falling from my ceiling. I see their shadows. The light under my bed is fire. Fire burns and the screaming won’t stop. I have to see what is screaming.

I look outside my tent. My bed is floating. Above me there are feathers falling. Angels dying. They are men and women crying as they fall in the fire under my bed. In the fire I see naked people screaming and burning and hurting each other. There are things flying in the fire and they throw daggers at the angels and make them fall. I think they are demons.

Something is coming. I scared and want to wake my dad up.

***

I was six years old when I wrote that. My first official entry before I started making a dream journal. I had a rough time deciphering the words, respelling things, and still trying to leave the basic structure.

I don’t understand why I didn’t wake my father up. He always fell asleep on this weird-ass turquoise couch we had in the den. The TV was always muted. The couch was made up of three segments and the end pieces could be reclined. The middle piece was so stiff you could feel the metal skeleton poking into your coccyx. His snoring was comforting when I was very young, since I couldn’t conjure up noises of things creeping out of my closet.

My dad once told me that some nights I would scare him half to death with the creatures I said I saw in my closet, under my bed, and he said I was so convincing he’d bring a bat just in case. They would be anything from giant dolls, drowned animals, and deformed wildlife to man-eating inanimate objects. He said my active imagination gave him gray hairs.

Carl Jung based his methods of dream analysis off of the collective unconscious and archetypes. The collective unconscious is a collection of every single personal unconscious, a reservoir of an individual’s unique experiences and memories. Those experiences and memories that are similar among humans are part of the collective unconscious. Within the collective unconscious arise inherited forms, or archetypes, most notably figures such as the trickster, hero, and the self.

This I find interesting because archetypes also included are mythic and Biblical. At the age of six I confess I knew nothing of the Bible except prayers and the main stories. It isn’t until years later that my dad tells me about angels and demons and how they fight daily for our very souls.

“There is a place within a place,” my dad once said to me after a discussion on demons and angels. He was making cheese omelets in the kitchen. I watched him sprinkle herbs and spices delicately with his big grease-monkey hands. His right thumb was sealed with super glue where a blade had split it like a grape.

“Like here? In our home,” I asked.

“Everywhere,” he said quietly as he flipped the omelet. “Our plane, their plane, all interconnected. Without us, no them. Vice versa. Damn, I keep forgetting you hate omelets.”

“It’s all right Dad,” I said. “They’re the only ones I’ll ever eat. But what does that have to do with my crazy-freakin’ dreams?”

“They find ways, I suppose,” he said. “Of coming in and out of our plane. Dreams most certainly. Near death experiences. Death, death, death and life.”

Many individuals throughout history reportedly suffered from these fights, pious people who endured the stigmata and demons would come and attempt to deter their victims from a righteous path. Even ordinary people have stated to have chance encounters with unexplainable beings that would visit them on the battlefield, provide miracles, and even bargain for their souls.

Had I awakened on some distant plane where Hell and Heaven met? The people in the fires were the damned for sure, the demons spearing the angels and laughing as they burnt in the flames of chaos. One startling thing I recall is that in my dream no angels succeeded in killing any demons.

I am conflicted with the idea of a collective conscious. I feel like it’s meant to explain away phenomena such as these.

Oh? You had a dream about angels and demons before you were educated in their existence? Well, that’s alright because your mind is connected to the collective unconscious and you inherited these images.

Inherited?

Yes, from everyone in the world before you. Our unconscious minds are linked in a network of patterns and neuroses.

I don’t even know what you’re saying.

Or what I’m saying, for that matter. For me, this method of analysis is flawed. Certainly Jung doesn’t explain the unique recurring dreams that haunt you for years. They are not part of any collective, except the deep recesses of your mind, and certainly do not represent the self in any facet.

Where is the self in a genetic network of inheritance?

***

December 9, 2:00 a.m.

Shit, shit, shit. I hate that dream I freaking hate it! Hey everybody I’m Zandra and I’m a freak who has disturbing dreams about a big black mass that calls itself Mr. Shadow. Oh that sounds like fun, yes? What did it threaten you with today Zandra? Oh just my legs, today it wanted my legs and I said fuck you! You can’t have my legs get your own asshole!

I was in my old room when I was a kid. Not the big room the little one with the creepy closet. I was a kid in the dream, riding around a stupid plastic tricycle. I tried to get out of that tricycle, but I was pretty much glued to the seat. So I wheeled my way to where my dad used to snore on the couch, but some sort of force field kept me from leaving my room.

Then I heard the wheezing. The closet was only cracked slightly open and I saw dull white eyes. In a half roar it said to me, “Zandra! Give me your legs!”

At first damn, I couldn’t say anything. My tricycle just started wheeling itself toward the closet and I started screaming. Finally I heard myself say, “No!”

Well thank God I woke up before I was completely immersed in the darkness of the closet. I woke up in the bathroom again. The upstairs bathroom. At least I didn’t wake up outside again. I could have died; I’m just wearing thin pajamas.

***

For a long period of time I suffered from sleepwalking. From the age of nine to fifteen I woke up nearly anywhere within an acre of my house. I’ve awakened on my best friend’s back porch next to her pool, in the woods, under one of those electricity towers, in my bathtub, under the dining room table, and thankfully sometimes in my bed.

I devised traps to keep myself from leaving my bedroom at night. Those plastic covers you put over doorknobs, tying one leg to the bedpost, using a Furby as a guard dog so when I passed it I would wake up from its horrible, inhuman voice, and sometimes I would ask my dad to order me back to bed if he saw me wondering the house.

One time I woke up at eight in the morning to make my dad some coffee before he went to work, and he stared at me for a good while before I finally said, “What’s up, doc?”

“I didn’t think you would remember.”

“Extra scoop? Some spice? ”

“To make me coffee this morning. I asked you last night because I knew I’d be running late.”

“Dad, stop drinking Gran Mariner,” I said. “I didn’t talk to you last night. I was asleep.”

“You were awake,” my dad said. “It was half past one and you came into the kitchen, poured a glass of water, and then dumped it all down the sink. I asked you if something was wrong and you said you were skipper.”

“‘Skipper’? Come on dad,” I said. “Who uses that word?”

“You did, last night.”

He didn’t initially pick up on the clues of my sleepwalking habits. He rarely saw them in action. He said my eyes were wide open. Every time I had a nightmare I’d end up somewhere other than my bed. My night terrors however, kept me from sleeping.

Trust me, there’s a difference. Night terrors occur within the first thirty minutes of falling asleep and happen during NREM sleep. Nightmares occur during REM sleep and they are harder to wake up from than night terrors, where usually there is a lot of thrashing and screaming. Mr. Shadow had no preference; In addition, he quite enjoyed appearing in both my night terrors and nightmares.

He was a recurring character in my dreams, but the dream itself was never recurring. The first time he showed up I was nine, nearly ten, and despite Freudians who would like to jump on this case I still didn’t have a clue about female repression or societal dysfunctions. Mr. Shadow and I would never be in the same place twice, at least from what I recall and see in my dream journals, and he never said much but a great one-liner. It was either “Give me your arms” or “I will eat you now.” He was very obsessed with my body parts and I find that disturbing.

If I ever fell asleep and found myself in my old room I knew I was dreaming. These are commonly referred to as lucid dreams where the dreamer is aware of dreaming. In some cultures they are called false awakenings. Especially in cultures which practice meditation, they experience a dream and define it as a sort of vision. Some have sensory experiences as well, saying they could feel and hear everything as clearly as they would awake. This is also the same time when individuals say they were abducted by aliens, saying their bodies were frozen and their eyes wide open. Science explains to us that sometimes when the body has completely shut down during REM sleep, the dreamer will awaken, but the body will not. In a sense you will be dreaming, almost hallucinating, in the waking world, but your body remains in sleep stasis.

The final theory of dream interpretation I come across is Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy, invented by Fritz Perls, emphasizes solely on the moment, what one is feeling in that moment, and the action taken during that moment or dream. This is the only theory that throws out professional analysis, stating only the individual can understand the symbolism within his or her own mind and dream if he or she chooses to accept the dream or nightmare.

Gestalt therapy uses dream dialogue to solve issues in the individual. Those suffering from nightmares are encouraged to confront their attackers or pursuers and ask them questions. By doing this, one can take control over the entire dream. Though, after attempting such feats, I will say it is much harder in practice than said. Once I was being chased by a man with a mace, and I turned to him, realizing it was a dream, and asked him a question. “Why are you chasing me? What have I done?”

He proceeded to bludgeon me until I awoke.

After all of my research, I came across something that I know is impossible: activation-synthesis theory. This theory suggests dreams and nightmares mean and are nothing, just random brain activity. But, something can only be random so long before it becomes a pattern. Human beings constantly search for meaning in everything.

I have three dream journals full of episodes I’ve never seen before in my life, heard of, or done. They are all eidetic, but I make them real by writing them down and drawing the things I’ve seen in those places.

Is it my imagination or some collective? Who shall I then give the credit to? Is it what Hopkins called God? Oh, of course not, my dreams are just random firings that produce images and elaborate tales as my mind empties out the previous day’s unwanted knowledge, organizes my memories, and files them into fleshy brain folds. They’re just angry because they dream in black and white.

Transcript of Audio: Miss Jewell Eppinette by Nonnie Augustine

Library of Congress

No one has touched me for a long, long time and I believe that is why I am dying. This is a notion that is new to me but it has persisted over the last few weeks and I believe I finally have apprehended the truth. There was a time, I remember all too well, when I might indeed have died from being touched too often, too deeply, and too profoundly but the dangers present at that time in my life have certainly been gone for some time. My insides down there and my outsides all over my body are becoming numb and will, I feel sure, soon cease to carry on with their intended purposes. The skin on my arms and shoulders has not been kissed or caressed and my navel has continued without attention or admiration for a fair number of years. I do touch myself and of course my dear cat will sit on my lap but I do not see that these touches are adequate. Neither am I speaking of the tactile attentions of doctors, servants and so forth. They are in my pay. No, I am dying because there is no longer anyone who desires, with passion or even warm affection, to touch me. I have lost this pleasurable experience, and, yes, I believe its loss is what is killing me. Maybe I should consider an encounter with one of those Burmese pythons that are overwhelming our Everglades and let his intense squeezing kill me quickly. I wonder how I might obtain one?

 

Dr. Lyle has determined that heart failure is in progress within me and I agree with him. My heart is failing, but as I’ve explained to him as emphatically as I could during our brief consultations I do not believe he perceives the true nature of this unfortunate circumstance. Hearts wither when we require nothing from them other than

the maintenance chores they perform for us as a matter of course. For a heart to remain in good health it needs to be exercised, challenged, torn, pulled this way and that and above all enlivened by engagement with robust humanity. I follow my doctor’s instruction in every possible way but I continue to weaken and have come to rely on my own assessment of my dilemma. Although I am often alone, when I am in the company of others they are invariably unwilling or unable to penetrate this sphere that surrounds me. There is a barrier that neither they nor I can see but I feel it and I believe they do, too.

 

For some time now all I’ve encountered in my life is respectful or indifferent behavior. I am thankful that I at least have memories of lusty men who used me as thoroughly as I did them and who felt free to express themselves with uncensored speech. I also cherish those women who laughed and cried with me and who revealed themselves in conversations on thousands of occasions. I remember people who sought to know me and that is a fine thing indeed and one which I failed to appreciate until fairly recently. I can’t name anyone now who I think of as more than a polite acquaintance. No one has raised their voice to me or employed rude language in years! It is no wonder that I am becoming deaf. Hearing is a sense that needs to be stimulated by vigorous conversation between people who want to damn well be heard. I have given up alcohol, but I might consider going to a tavern in order to hear the boisterous, belligerent and morose or the gleeful, silly, and inane talk from people who have lost their inhibitions and damaged their judgement through over-indulgence in consumption of their preferred drink.

 

My vision at least continues to serve me well, I feel sure, because of my collection. As you assuredly already know, my parents were friends of Georgette and René Magritte and were excited about the artistic direction he was pursuing during the time they were all together in France. Monsieur René painted me dozens of times and my parents then bought the paintings which of course was of great benefit to both my family, as it later developed, and to the Magritte household at the time. I continue to spend some part of every day with these images and this study has kept my vision and I believe, my mind sharp.

 

Here, in this painting, as you can see with your no doubt excellent young eyes, I am depicted as a pretty seven year old girl, dressed typically for a well-off child in 1927, but I ride my hobby horse on bare floorboards. The room, with its large windows, was unlike any room I had ever been in whether in Paris or anywhere else I traveled with my parents. The views were so strange to me– stormy seas, dark streets lit by street lamps that have eyes peering from them, rolling hills and meadows seen from a very high perspective as if my room were in a tower. Or are all those scenes paintings within the painting, I wondered. (I was a precocious child.) And who are those formally dressed men who stand around me but steadfastly ignore me and my wooden pony? This was the first painting with my image in it that I beheld of Monsieur René’s and it frightened me. Madame Georgette smiled and told me that her husband (who was in Germany for an exhibition at the time) was a man who adored mystery and that he also adored me and would not want to make me cry. She said she would ask him to talk to me about the painting to me when he returned, but we never did have that talk.

 

However the suited gentlemen in the painting did talk to me and they explained to me how I could climb out of the window onto the street scene. I did this four times, and although the sidewalk was always empty of people, I did hear voices from inside the various buildings, dogs barking, and cats yowling. My walks in the painting were always at night, of course, so I never did hear any birds. Even though I was very young, I intuited that this was something I had better not share with my parents. Then, after my last exploration of this kind, my father happened to walk into the library, where the painting hung on the north wall, and saw me climbing down the library stepladder. Daddy was upset because he found me out of bed late at night, my skin felt icy to his touch, and there was dirt on my slippers. My father didn’t often get angry with me and every time he did I would cry, which is how I responded to his anger that night, but unfortunately I pointed to the painting and said it was not my fault, it was the fault of the gentlemen in the painting. My parents removed the oil and kept me from seeing the other paintings in which I appeared until I was in my teens. When they hung the Magrittes in this house, which they built in 1934, I discovered I had lost the ability to visit “my” street or converse with those mysterious men. I believe that loss was due to my having gone through puberty. Even when I could only enjoy the paintings in an ordinary way, they have been a wonder to me and, as I may have said, I’ve continued to ponder each of these canvasses every day even now, well into my 94th year. I have set myself the task of finding a good home for them and you will have to persuade me that you will take care of them, ensure that they will never leave the South, and make them freely available to others, especially children under the age of fourteen.

 

Please, have another piece of my cook’s lemon cake. I envy your apparent enjoyment of it. I have lost my sense of taste and my sense of smell–losses which are abominable to me and I am glad I didn’t know these senses would disappear with prolonged survival or I might have surrendered to death a few years back. I do not wish to linger on in life much longer, however. I have several more curators to interview and once I have made a decision and seen that my collection has found its proper home I will depart this diminished life of mine in a fashion of my own choosing. I do miss being touched and the feeling of another’s warm flesh under my fingertips, perhaps more than I regret any other loss that has come with advanced age, but I suppose finding someone to furnish me with a Burmese python is rather eccentric, even for me. Once the python squeezed me to death with his nasty, forceful pressure I would be gone and unable to protect my cat, or much less cherished neighbors, as I’m sure a python could slither over my walls, from his or her–the females are larger I’ve read–aggression. I will abandon that line of thinking altogether.

The Subway Bride by Meg Stivison

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Yeah, I am Subway Bride! How did you know? I didn’t think anyone down here would read the New York papers! We practically eloped, you know, I’m thirty-four and Charles is going to be forty, and once we knew we going to be married, there was no reason to wait. We called a few friends the night before, and got married at City Hall. It almost didn’t happen, on account of Charles having a baptismal record and not a birth certificate, but it got sorted out eventually. It was just Charles, me, my friends Jake and Katie, and Charles’ friend Thompson, and even the city clerk stopped looking sour and bored, and got excited for us!

We all went for a few low-key drinks afterwards, but when other people heard that we’d just gotten married — how could they not, with Charles and me calling each other Husband and Wife and laughing uproariously — some folks bought us rounds of drinks and some others drank toasts with us, and that’s why we thought it would be a good idea to do that ridiculous returning-sailor kiss on the subway back home.

So then we were married, and about five minutes later, Charles brought me down here, where I met his family, and first, let me tell you about my husband. Charles is a smart guy, and really well-read and well-spoken. He’s funny too, with a quietly understated humor. And he’s artistic, even though he downplays it with Southern modesty. He’s romantic, too. And really handsome — oh, right, you saw the Subway Bride photo.

He says he’s from Liberty City, North Carolina, but actually we drove straight through town — honestly, can you call a couple shops and a traffic light a town? — and out the other side, to a trashy trailer park and then to a trashier, dirtier trailer park, and then we pulled up at the unkempt side. I got mud all over my practical ballet flats and skinny jeans just picking my way through the overgrown lawn from the truck to the trailer. His mom opened the door in a housedress and slippers and the whole time we were there, everyone’s chainsmoking and flicking ash on things.

My new in-laws are friendly enough, but of course, I feel like they’re all watching me and sizing me up, which is exacerbated when some of Charles’ extended relations just happen to stop by. His brother Bobby, and his aunt, whose real name is Patsy Jo Ann, — I am not making this up — both live in the same park.

Someone asks me what I do for a living, and I tell them I’m a Brand Image Visionary, and then there’s a silence, so I explain that I’m a consultant for tech startups who have solid business plans, working tech and good usability, but disappointing sales, and then I come up with a new name and new branding for them. I’ve been very successful at it, actually, I think it’s because I screen my clients carefully. I’m good at what I do, but a new name can’t save everyone.

There is a long pause after that one. Finally Charles’ father asks if I’m a professional namer.

“There’s a bit more too it than that,” Charles says, which is good because making up names does sound like a stupid hipster career. “She’s the best.”

Charles’ mother, Agnes, says through a haze of grey smoke, that some of them new companies up Raleigh way are going to need names, too. I miss New York a lot right then.

I slip out just after dinner, and go around the corner of the trailer, to call Jake, my best friend in Brooklyn.

“How’s the south? Thumped any bibles today?” Jake likes Charles, he was one of five guests at my wedding, he actually witnessed my marriage license, but he’s gets twitchy when he gets too far from Manhattan. I was that way, too, before I met Charles.

I tell Jake about Charles’ parents, Aging Elvis and Mama Boo Boo, and how they literally live in a trailer with weeds and broken-down cars in front, and that my sweet and well-spoken Charles is clearly a changeling baby.

It feels good to get it out, and to have a laugh at the strangeness I’ve wandered into, but as I’m telling Jake that I think Charles is a changeling baby, my new mother-in-law comes around the corner and I think she might have overheard. I tell Jake to give my love to the rest of the shtetl, and hang up.

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Mama Boo Boo — I have got to stop calling her that, it’s going to stick — Agnes has been really kind to me, so I feel terribly guilty if she did hear me say that Charles is so amazing he can’t possibly be her child. Right after I got there, she dug the family Bible out — did I mention this trailer was just crowded to the roof with piles of junk? — and drew a horizontal line from Charles’ name on the family tree, and carefully wrote my name in. It felt so ancient, so medieval, but Charles seemed so comfortable with the whole thing and I tried to be too. It seemed just as binding as our papers at City Hall. Actually more so.

And then next time I saw Charles’ family, we were telling them about the baby! I thought it would take me much longer to get pregnant than it did. Charles and I were both so delighted, we’d wanted to start a family, and I’m already thirty-four, so it had better be sooner, rather than later, you know? With all the risk factors over thirty-five. But this is already my second trimester, and I haven’t had even a minute of morning sickness.

Mama Boo Boo was almost as excited as I was, she even dug out Charles’ baby book for me.

Later, in our apartment, taking my required rest for aging mothers-to-be, I flipped through the baby book. It was pretty beat up, but Mama Boo Boo had carefully affixed his newborn photo, and written Charles Michael Stone, First Son of William Ray Stone and Agnes Cleary Stone, 8 pounds 7 ounces. He was born at home, with his mother’s sister — Patsy Jo Ann — and his father’s mother and someone called Aunt Maybelle attending. Then Agnes had written in all his measurements, and cute milestones like when he smiled first. His first giggle. The first song she sang for him. She snipped a few strands of baby hair, too. I think she wrote down everything he did for the first week of his tiny baby life.

The rest of the baby book was filled in in blue ballpoint, start to finish. I had a strange feeling it had been completed in one sitting. In the newborn picture, the baby looks like a miniature, brown-eyed Old Elvis. Charles has blue eyes. I know sometimes a baby is born with blue eyes and they darken later, but I’d never heard of the opposite happening. It isn’t natural.

Now I understood why Charles was just a little bit smarter, quicker, and more handsome than any other man I’d ever met. He’s going to stay amazing, too. This isn’t some infatuation that’ll wear off, or some stupid whirlwind romance, my husband really is just a little bit better than other people. And he’s my husband! Mine! Soon I’ll have a baby that’s half Charles and half me. All mothers think their baby is special, but this one really will be.

No one’s going to take this baby, I won’t let them. A Manhattan hospital might protect me. An open pair of scissors in the delivery room might work, I think that’s why Agnes left them over here. But I’m not taking chances on might. When you read about it, it sounds at first like Christianity or holy water or something protects little babies from changing, but I know that a baptism is really just a naming ceremony. And I already have the right name in mind.

The Wink That Saved Me by Cindy Shearer

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The first time I saw the Devil, I was learning to drive Daddy’s new 1940 Ford coupe—still shiny black like a giant beetle. Perched on the edge of the seat, my bare feet barely reaching the pedals, pigtails brushing my shoulders, I was wrestling the big steering wheel as Daddy directed me along the dirt road through Uncle Clarence’s hay fields. It was a blistering July afternoon between dinner and suppertime when most folks were down for a nap or sitting in the shade with wet rags draped around their necks. Air blew through the open windows, warm and dusty, as I bounced along, thrilled to be the one in control, while Daddy sat watching the road from under the brim of his straw fedora, his right arm crooked on top of the door.

I heard it before I saw it: the sputter and clatter overriding the steady hum of the coupe. I took a quick peek out my window and saw Uncle Clarence’s red tractor barreling toward us through the high grass.

“Looks like Clarence found a hand to make hay for him,” Daddy said. He focused on the tractor while I tried to stay in the center of the road. But the thump-thumping grew louder and the tractor grew larger, pulling my eyes against my will. When I looked again, I saw the driver leaning over the side to check the mower. He was dressed like any farm boy in overalls with his shirtsleeves rolled up, except he had what looked to me like goat horns attached to the rim of his Western hat, one on each side. He jerked up in the seat as we passed and glared at us through the windshield without a smile or a wave hello. Daddy stared back and didn’t wave either.

The man’s face was hard, with wide-set burning eyes, a bushy mustache and a scraggly goatee. He reminded me of Cole Younger of the James Gang—not Dennis Morgan, but the real Cole Younger in the newspaper photo Daddy showed me after we watched Bad Men of Missouri. When he fixed me with his angry eyes, I forgot I was driving and the car swerved into the weeds at the edge of the field.

“Watch the road, Emma Jean!” Daddy snapped, grabbing the steering wheel.

After that, I drove straight down the middle all the way back to the highway, where Daddy took over the driving. “Who was that man on the tractor?” I asked, as soon as we were underway again.

“Name’s Sonny Gray—younger brother of that new circuit preacher Mama’s been going on about, like he was the second coming.”

I shuddered, remembering their conversation from the night before. I was still awake on the sleeping porch when Daddy came home from the café. Mama followed him through the porch and they sat on the metal lawn chairs right under my bed while Daddy smoked his cigar.

“I hear Brother Gray has baptized more than 200 this summer already,” Mama said. “Everywhere he goes folks are pouring in to see him. They say he’s the best—

“I threw his brother out of the café tonight,” Daddy interrupted. “He came in staggering drunk and commenced to heckling the McSwain boys, looking for a fight.”

“Well I’ll swanee! Lola told me Brother Gray baptized his brother just a few weeks ago—after he got caught with a band of no account drifters trying to steal a calf out on Wade Leicester’s place.”

Daddy snorted. “I reckon he’ll need more that a dunk in the river to straighten him out. I had to threaten him with the Billy club before he would leave.”

“Oh my word!” Mama clucked her tongue. “Poor Brother Gray must be mighty ashamed to have a brother like that.”

“Maybe the little brother was part of his show,” Daddy said.

“Part of his show!” Mama sounded outraged.

Daddy muttered something that I couldn’t hear and Mama came back inside, letting the screen door slam behind her.

As I watched Daddy driving, cool as a cucumber, I couldn’t imagine him threatening anybody with a Billy club—even though Mama said he had used it a time or two. I didn’t think he would stand a chance against a young, bloodthirsty buck like Sonny Gray. “Is Sonny Gray a bad man, Daddy?” I asked.

Daddy considered a long spell before he answered. “I don’t know if he’s a bad man or not. He’s hot-tempered, for sure. But he’s doing an honest day’s work. That’s more than I can say for his brother.”

**

I saw Brother Gray for the first time that evening at the gospel meeting. He preached in the arbor where it was a few degrees cooler than in our one-room church and where more people could crowd in to hear him. I sat between Mama and Aunt Lola on a front row bench looking directly up at his face—clean-shaven and more handsome than his brother’s, but with the same wide-set eyes that burned right through me.

After he led us in prayer and we sang a few hymns, he launched into his sermon about the tortures of hell awaiting all the unsaved souls when they die. He worked up such a sweat in his three-piece suit that he had to stop and wipe his face with a handkerchief. As he was folding it, he stopped suddenly and craned his neck, looking high and low, left and right. “Satan is here,” he said. “Right here among us. Can you feel his presence?”

Everybody was still and quiet as a burst of hot wind blew through the arbor. Though I couldn’t see behind me with Mama and Aunt Lola squeezed so close beside me, I knew the Devil had risen from the ground outside the arbor.

Brother Gray gazed over our heads at the back rows. “Satan is here, looking for unsaved souls. You know who you are, and so does he.”

I hid my face against Mama’s shoulder while Satan stalked the center aisle, searching for the damned.

“Come forward all you sinners and repent!” Brother Gray cried, throwing his arms wide. “Confess Jesus Christ as your savior. Be saved from the fires of hell.”

All around the arbor, people rose and shuffled to the front. I worked up the courage to stand, knowing the Devil would spot me when I did, but I figured if I made it into the line with the others, somehow I would be safe. “Sit down, Emma Jean,” Mama whispered, pulling me back onto the bench. Though I begged her with my eyes, she shook her head sternly, and I knew I was doomed. The devil had seen me.

**

That night I dreamed I was chasing a jackrabbit through the cotton field on the edge of town. When the rabbit disappeared down a hole, I spun around and found the whole town had vanished. There was nothing but cotton balls in every direction. I was running up and down the rows, trying to find my way home, when suddenly a red tractor—twice as big as Uncle Clarence’s—appeared in front of me.

I froze, too scared to move, as it rolled down the row, spitting and sputtering, black smoke belching from the stack. And then I saw the driver. It was the Devil himself, as red as the tractor, with black horns sprouting from his head, Sonny Gray’s angry eyes, and a pitchfork cocked back, ready to spear me through the chest. As he loomed overhead, the cotton field caught fire and burned all around me, but I still couldn’t move.

I woke up screaming. Mama came running out to the porch, wrapped me up in her arms and made me tell her my dream. “The Devil lives in hell, way down underground,” she said, stroking my hair. “He doesn’t come up here and take little girls.”

“Brother Gray said he does, when they die,” I said, wriggling out of her arms. “What if I die before I wake?”

Her eyes turned sad. She had lost two babies before me, so this was a touchy subject. “You’re not going to die. Now lay down and go back to sleep.”

I put my head on the pillow but didn’t close my eyes. “Mama, I want to be baptized.”

“You’re too young, honey. You need to be old enough to understand what sin is and what it means to be saved.”

“I’m almost ten, and I do understand. If I die, the Devil will take me away to hell, unless I’ve been baptized.”

Mama pulled the sheet over me and kissed my forehead. “Don’t think about the Devil anymore, Emma Jean. You’re an innocent child. God won’t let him take you.”

Mama’s assurance was not convincing, but I fell asleep anyway. The next morning, I went to McSwain’s store to see if any new comic books had come in. When I opened the door, Sonny Gray was at the counter buying a pack of cigarettes. He was taller than most men, with grease-smeared, muscled arms, and he leaned on one leg as if he might pull a knife at any moment. He wasn’t wearing a hat, so I had a full view of his unshaved, scowling profile. Little Jimmy McSwain behind the counter was scared of him too; I could tell by the way he kept his head down as he scooped up the coins and dropped them in the cash register. I let the door go, ran into the alley between the store and the café and waited there until I saw him leave the store and swagger down the street in the other direction.

That night, I had the same nightmare. I begged and cried so much, Mama finally agreed to let Brother Gray baptize me at the end of his two-week stay. The next evening at the gospel meeting, I was so relieved I didn’t hear a word of Brother Gray’s sermon about the fires of hell. I was thinking instead about how beautiful heaven must be with streets of gold and angels flying everywhere. I was imagining myself there, sitting on Jesus’s lap, when Mama nudged me to go forward for the confession.

I slipped into the line of converts, and while Brother Gray took each person’s hand and asked them to repent their sins and confess Jesus Christ as their savior, I searched the arbor for any sign of the Devil. All I saw were folks I knew well and a few ordinary-looking strangers, but I figured he was watching invisibly, fuming to himself about all of us sinners who were about to be saved from hell.

Brother Gray stepped in front of me and I gave him my hand. He tucked in his chin, looking down his nose at me in mock surprise, as if my small size amused him. I looked him square in the eyes and answered yes to his questions extra loud, so everybody could hear and nobody could say I was too young to understand what I was doing.

**

On Brother Gray’s last day with us, Daddy drove us down to the river where the whole town was gathering in the shade of the pecan trees. Daddy said I looked pretty in my new white dress, but he didn’t say a word about the baptism. As soon as we got out of the car, he joined a huddle of men folks at the edge of the grove, while Mama showed me off to all of her friends. I wanted to get back to my thoughts of heaven, but the scene was too lively with people joking and jabbering and kids running around everywhere like they were at a picnic.

When Brother Gray arrived, he led us in a long prayer, which forced everyone to hush up and settle down. Afterward, the bunch of us who were going to be baptized followed him to the gravel beach where we all took off our shoes and socks and waded a few steps into the river.

Brother Gray stood in the middle of the river where the water was over his knees and motioned to us to come to him one at a time. I’d been swimming in that river since I was a baby but never in a Sunday dress with folks singing hymns on the riverbank and a strange man waiting to dunk me. The experience was so peculiar, I might as well have been walking on the moon. By the time I reached him, up to my waist in cold water, I was so dazed, I thought my head might float away like a balloon, until he placed his hand on my head and said the magic words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”

I hated it when he clapped his big hand over my face, but he dipped me into the water and out again so fast I wasn’t even out of breath when he let me go. Everybody was singing “Shall We Gather at the River” as I opened my eyes, hoping to get a glimpse of Jesus descending from the clouds. Instead, I found Brother Gray with his chin tucked again, grinning down at me. Then he winked, and it was like I had stepped off a carnival ride—still dizzy, but everything was suddenly back to normal.

That wink meant he was pulling my leg, just like when Uncle Clarence winked after he told me not to swallow watermelon seeds because the vines would grow out of my ears. That wink meant his baptism wasn’t worth a hill of beans. Daddy was right, Brother Gray was just putting on a show. As soon as he was through making fools of us all, he would collect his pay and go on to the next town. I was so mad I wanted to punch him in the belly as hard as I could.

As I waded back to shore—my dress dripping and clinging to my slip and panties underneath—I was planning to tell everyone that Brother Gray was a fraud. But as soon as I stepped onto the beach, Mama rushed down to hug and kiss me. Seeing her smiling face, beaming with pride, I couldn’t say it. “Now you’re saved!” she cried. “Do you feel any different?”

I hung my head. “I feel more grown up,” I said, and that was the truth.

**

The next afternoon, Daddy took me on another driving lesson through Uncle Clarence’s hay fields. I had just gotten behind the wheel, when I spotted the tractor in the distance, moving in the same direction we were. When we got a little closer, I saw it was Sonny Gray mowing again. “Well I’ll be darned,” Daddy said. “Clarence said he’s been missing the last three days. Looks like he showed up to finish the job after all.”

Sonny Gray had changed. He was slumped over the wheel like a worn out old man, coughing every few seconds and spitting over his shoulder. I remembered how much he had scared me, how the Devil in my dream had his mean eyes, but there was nothing threatening about him now. Even the goat horns dangling from his hat looked pathetic.

Just like his brother, Sonny Gray was not what he first appeared to be. I was remembering Brother Gray’s wink in the river, how it made me feel like such a fool, when lights went off in my head like fireworks, and suddenly I knew the truth about the Devil. The baptism was only one part of Brother Gray’s joke. The Devil was a joke too! Nobody went to hell when they died, because hell was not a real place. There was no such thing as a big red monster with a pitchfork who tortured people in a fiery prison underground. The Devil was no more real than Santa Claus. I was so tickled, I nearly laughed out loud.

As we came up behind the tractor, I saw it was halfway on the road, mowing the weeds. “Get on around him, Emma Jean,” Daddy said.

I pushed my toes down on the gas pedal, and then a little more, until we were going faster than I had ever dared to go. Daddy put his hand on the dash, but he didn’t say a word. “Whoopee!” I hollered out the window as we whizzed by that slowpoke on the tractor. When I glanced back in the rearview mirror, he was fading away in a cloud of dust.

Blackout by Alan Watson

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As she crossed by the threshold of the top of the stairs, Emily saw the shadow creeper out of the corner of her eye. Thinking there might be enough light from the bedroom to keep him at bay, she bent down to pick up a non-existent something from the floor. She knew not to look in his direction or he’d break into a run. His strength was the element of surprise, and he’d much rather sneak up and pounce on you than lose a footrace. The shadow creeper started its ascent; there wasn’t enough light to keep him at bay. She flipped on the hall light, and as quick as the light flooded the stairs, the shadow retreated into some unknown, dark downstairs corner.

It had been months since she’d last seen the creature she had dubbed the shadow creeper. Always when she was alone; always in the dark; always when she was at her most vulnerable. It’s why she slept with a light on at night. So many times the creeper had been so close…one time she woke up with it towering over her, ready to consume her. A quick lunge for the light switch got her out of that one. She would never make that mistake again. Now she always had a light on when she slept and a generator outside in case the power ever failed.

She continued on with the original reason for this late night walk, the bathroom. She flipped on the light in the bathroom but didn’t close the door. She lived alone, so why not keep it open in case the creeper darted into a corner or one of the adjoining rooms? She looked up at the row of Hollywood lights above her bathroom mirror. No shadows here; those lights bathed each nook and cranny in that bathroom so that not even a cockroach had a chance of going unnoticed! Just as she was thinking how great it would be to have all of the rooms in her house just as illuminated, one of the lights flickered. One of those flickers where you can’t tell if it was real

or if you just blinked too slow and perceived it.

Somewhere down the street, one of the neighborhood teenagers crawls out from the now mangled car that he had borrowed from his parents earlier. Maybe if he hadn’t had that last one for the road, he’d have been able to navigate the street he had been down a thousand times without hitting the electrical box. He looks around and notices that one side of the street has lost power – that’s Emily’s side of the street. He swears off alcohol forever…again.

The prolonged flickering made Emily painfully aware that she wasn’t imagining the flicker. She could almost hear the creeper outside the bathroom door licking its lips with anticipation – maybe it was just electrical sounds, but in her mind she was imagining a long, black tongue running across slimy lips as a smile spread across the thing’s face; that’s assuming it had a face. She had never really seen its face except that one time it almost got her, and somehow she couldn’t actually remember what it looked like. Then the final flicker came…then darkness. She knew it would waste no time coming for her. Just as she saw 4 black fingers through the darkness grasping the door, the generator kicked in with a loud click and then the hum of a motor. The lights flickered again, this time in reverse as the generator resuscitated the light. She sat there breathing heavily; even in the mere seconds that there was no light the sweat had already begun to trickle down her forehead, and she just needed a minute to catch her breath. Click…BOOM! The sudden burst of the generator was too much for the circuits…all of them either tripped or exploded and left Emily in complete darkness. This time there wasn’t going to be any escape; there was no working light switch to lunge for. Emily closed her eyes; all she could hear was the sound of her own breathing. After a few seconds, she held her breath and listened…it was like she hadn’t stopped breathing…the shadow creeper was breathing in time with her. She exhaled as she shut her eyes even tighter and awaited the inevitable….

Photographs for November 2013

This month’s photos come from the Library of Congress. They belong to you and me. While many of us take our own photos of the South, those available from the archives of Our Library speak volumes from the heart and soul of this country. If you don’t visit the LOC website on a regular basis — now is the time to familiarize yourself with the best our government has to offer. Remember that the LOC is paid for by your tax dollars and what a wonderful bargain it is. It is run by amazing men and women dedicated to preserving this country’s heritage.

From the collection:

African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition

  • Images collected by W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway for the “American Negro Exhibit” at the Paris Exposition of 1900 (Exposition universelle internationale de 1900).
  • Reportedly displayed as part of the American Negro exhibit at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

Most of the photos were taken in the South, in GA, SC and MS. It’s a fascinating online exhibition and I urge you to look into it further.

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Three Poems by Charles Edward Wright

LOC

Wretcheder Than a Stone or Tree

Self-loathing without humility is a waste of precious insight.
—R. St John Cowie

When I could sleep, I lay on my back
like a newborn ready to be cradled,
or a body waiting to be raised.

Now I don’t sleep.  I lie with my fingers curled on my pounding chest.  The handwriting is on the ceiling, the urgent timetables to be worked out and the pressing actuary tables to be worked through, accommodating all proposed travel and revenge.  Slights and injuries are catalogued.  I relive my Olympian feats and my venial crimes.  I weigh my remorse.  I wait for an international prize.  I guess how long until my hypochondria is finally vindicated, first with a tooth pulled, next a kidney taken, then a leg lost.  I wonder at the callously slow miracle of compound interest.  I resolve to cultivate mourners.

I stare at my parents: my father dead too soon, my mother dead not long.  I stare at myself in a hand mirror my nostrils cannot fog.  I feel the shovel pound the earth flat over my shallow chest.  I watch as my flavorless carcass is slighted by lions and jackals in turn.  I peer out a dumpster through the funneled end of a furled and blood-sodden carpet.  I spill from an upended urn.  I bob in formaldehyde.

Let me die abruptly and absurdly.
Let Otis speed me to the lobby at 9.8 m/sec².
Let my rib cage ruin the alignment of a luxury sedan.
Let my most needful organs be done suddenly to a turn while I levitate above a thunderstruck meadow.
Let me cower in the glare of limousine headlamps beneath the low ceiling of a parking garage with crime syndicate ties.
Let me displace my own volume in molten lava.
Let my entrée’s attendant toxin be both tasteless and odorless.
Let me chance upon quicksand after pruning all the lower limbs.
Let me somersault down a rocky incline in an open car.
Let my seat in coach sustain me for a time against the North Atlantic.
Let me fidget with a cramped arch while inside a magician’s sword basket.
Let my trapeze partner surprise me with a seizure.

There will be afterward no equestrian statue,
no memorial bridge,
no federal holiday,
no eponymous sect,
no void.

A Discontinued Railway as a Metaphor for My Practiced Adolescent Despair

On vacant days in summer I would walk
alone along a line of idle tracks
soliloquizing unrelievedly
in canvas shoes with hollow-diamond soles
that gripped the rusted loaf-topped rails until
I dropped to stutter-step across the stride-
short ties before I tried my steadiness
on gravel ballast mile by bending mile
to nowhere in particular and back.

The Emerald Bottle

From a heavy glass dimpled green bottle,
opened and smoking its effervescence,
opened and sweating its chill,
on a night stand
in a guest house
atop the terraced hills
of India’s narrowing edge
where lizards pace the ceiling
and monkeys walk the roof,
I taste the forward sweetness
of simulated lemon
and imitation lime,
and I am suddenly wistfully home.

Poems by D.M Aderibigbe

Library of Congress photo

SANDY SUNDAY

After Hurricane Sandy -

It’s a joke,
I assume, so I presume. So I resume,
Back to 3 days ago.

It’s a joke,
So I think, until a friend on my
BBM contact list shows me truism,

I see gloom stirring the sky, above
The aloft hand of the tallest creature
In the world,
The white man, who’s stood for as many years in New York,
As I could remember, without shaking
His hand.

Hurricane Sandy, he titles the
stagnant rumble.

I log on to CNN, to see authenticity,
To read originality,

Flood, rambunctiously running down from the ocean,
Sweeps through the East Coast,
Like a house owner clears
Spiders’ webs around his room with
A broom.

16 lives were washed clean,
Later 40,
Electricity impounded by the police
Officer of nature.

The sprightliness of New York,
The tranquility of New Jersey,
Flushed into the over 7 billion
Worried eyes of the world.

My feeble temerity wouldn’t let me
See more,
I hide under the universal-length blanket of
Social networking sites.

Grievances, commiseration, despondence,
Advices, stalking my twitter account,

Facebook statuses, splashing the missing bloods
Of the victims on my home.

I switch of my phone,
And try to forcibly make the
Journey to the land of respite,
I feel flood, sloshing in my heartbeat,
I hear wailing of the victims in my ears,

I could even see some, struggling with the water,
Yet, they are submerged, like a bad swimmer gets
Drowned in a swimming pool.

I go outside, to join my family members,
Who always have
One trifling thing to
Schmooze on,

Still, I see Hurricane Sandy,
Hovering around the grey sky
Of my street.

My heart flips to the Asian screams in
Japan,
Black tears in Nigeria,

Without bun-fights, destruction is the
New culture of the
Universe.

MOTHER MISSISSIPPI

For the Mississippi River

The earlier the better they say.
I’ve known River Mississippi, before
I knew the subjects, taught in

Secondary school. The longest
River in the world, the white bearded
Beninoise, the

Chief mason, who laid the
Foundation of my intelligence, who
taught me Current Affairs, and

Social Studies, will sing in class.
But I’m a skeptic, like the Philosopher,
Who sometimes, doesn’t

Want to believe my mother
Is a black woman, and mind you,
Skepticism knows no

Age. Skepticism becomes
a teenager inside of me. The
American embassy,

A stone throw, a mile away.
I could drive in, get a visa, and visit
Mother Mississippi,

Me as an ideal illusionist.
The world is rewarded and remodeled
By science and his kid,

Technology. I can stay and learn
about my liquid interest. So I’ve learnt.
Mother Mississippi is 3 places

below the whistle the white
bearded beninoise blew; there are 9
others, larger than you.

In the water world of the
United States, you’re larger than life.
You exert tributes from

More than 12 other wiry water-holds.
And spread your clout around 10 states.
Mother Mississippi!

I knew you were important,
But didn’t know your importance
Was this important.

Maybe I should ask the
Native Americans! I mean the
Hunter-gatherers,

The herders! They’ll tell me
their history survived, because it
thoroughly tasted

from your hospitality.
The American Civil War! So you
assisted the Union in

securing victory, rather than
be seen as a perfidious personality?
Mother Mississippi or

Messipi? I’ll come to you,
And see you perform your magic,
Divide yourself

Into 3 – the Upper, the middle
And the lower Mississippi, I’ll swill
Myself with your pallid

Skin, which sharply shatters
Into incorrigible particles, like the
Flesh of a

Suicide bomber. I’ll go to
the thirty one defined territories of
The State, and

Two parasitic provinces in
Canada, structured by God to
Be between

The Rocky and Appalachian
Mountains. I’ll tell them to remain
Grateful for

Perpetuity, like a good kid,
Will remain to his parents for sending
Him to school.

Then, I’ll lower myself, so
you could get a hold of me, I’ll feel
your cold touch.

But after then, I’ll say thanks
To Lake Ithasca, for keeping you alive,
Till I finally met you.

GULFPORT

Homage to Natasha Trethewey

The first trip I made to Gulfport was
Through her poem, it’s amazing how

Words would pack pictures into man’s mind,
When it’s not a video. It’s the handiwork

Of God. We are God of creativity,
Weaving words wonderfully with

The tips of our fingers, and creating
Images beyond the ordinary. The

Pier you painted with your
Master-like skill, the beach

Invented by man, which you invented
With words, the 26 miles of sand,

And then I find my fact. The highway
Sign, along U.S Route 90, the home

Of the Seabees, the brainchild of
William Hardy and Joseph Jones.

Gulfport! The root of the poetry of
the roof of my poetry, hope you’ll

Pass my regards to your twin, Biloxi.

HURRICANE KATRINA

exhuming past regrets with the
Honed lips of my pen, might

Be tantamount to evil. But sometimes
Evils prevent evils. Hurricane Katrina,

So beauteous is your last-name, that
It reminds me of the expensive hooker,

Who went by the same name in the
Hotel sharing one of the fences with

My childhood memory. What a
Coincidence! I hear you’re the

Costliest natural disaster. 3 times
The price America paid to your

Older Brother, Hurricane Andrew,
Who checked in, in 1992. I hear

youíre one of the 5 deadliest. Maybe
I could ask the over 1,900 prospects

you swept away in New Orleans or
Louisiana. I could also go to your

Home in Bahamas, where you were
born sometime in 2005, or Southern

Florida, where you crossed over to.
I wouldn’t mind visiting the Gulf

Of Mexico, where you became a god.
Well, I’m gloating over your many

Records, the most prominent of
which is the steep 108 billion

American Dollars, the American
Dream coercively coughed out.

October Poetry

This month’s poetry selections follow the theme of the issue:

Personal Memories.

We think the verses are powerful and evocative.

Writers and readers take note: while a list of previously published material may not be available, using the “search” function will find all of the Mule issues. If you have a link to a specific article, story, or poetry page — it is the same link, no changes, and should work just fine.

 

Four Poems by Robert Wooten

carshow99

Counting Out the Change

Raymond’s mother couldn’t count
the 100 pennies out
he needed for a kite
because she was sleeping late.

Her answer floated up from the croaking face
where her eyes were closed.
She looked like a newborn pup, a lump
beneath the sheets and bedclothes.

Raymond brought the penny jar
into her bed-
room, where it was shadowy and dark
and he could hardly see.  Then, he counted out
each penny slowly
so she could hear.

It was Saturday,
and Mother was tired.  She would probably sleep
all day, she always did
on Saturday.  So Raymond slipped away
to the grass of the churchyard,
the free feet of Raymond.

The Church

Raymond wrestled down
the second grader
who was following him—
“Do you give?

“Do you give?” he asked,
sitting on the older boy’s chest,
pinning his arms.

“What do you want me to say?”
he asked.  “Uncle?”

“Do you give up?”

“Yes,” he replied.

It was that
the older boy had tried to follow him
on his short-cut home
when he didn’t want to be followed—
but that was it.

Turning the Engine Off

Turning the engine off, Ray often coasted downhill on 70.
This saved gas, he believed, in keeping with his feeling
that cars should coast downhill and shut off at long red lights.
Between Burlington and Raleigh, the hills were long and one-sided,
falling from lower heights and into much deeper vales.  This was
a view which he had shared with nobody else but his son;
Raymond, in the backseat, felt the engine’s cool vibrato go.

Visiting Father

Suddenly, Raymond
found he had a lot of energy.
Father fixed him corned beef hash,
then they went walking
and Raymond ran ahead.

He climbed a great pine tree so fast
he didn’t hear what Father said
in time.
“Raymond, that tree is rotten.”

And then, near the top,
he walked out between two limbs,
holding the one above
and walking on the one below.
The one below broke,
and Raymond,
who had been talking loudly
the whole time he climbed and walked out,
didn’t let go.

He hung from the branch above.
It was lucky he was only
five years old.  Still talking loudly,
lightly, he pulled himself back in,
laughing
to his father below who looked up
with raised eyebrows
at his only son.

Spring Break

Of the bed in the back at Grandmother’s,
and watching his mother’s VW
wind away through the road into its horizon
toward his city’s and Tuesday’s scheduled work,
and rethinking that his answer to the question,
‘Do you want to get up early and leave
with me, or stay in the bed?,’
may have been precipitant, he feels
that his choices could just as well shift gears
now as they slip away into that silent country.

Two Poems by Hattie Wilcox

River Glistens

river glistens and flows in my direction
bathes me in the peace of its rippling
trees lean in to canopy the shelters
beavers have built against its banks
a lawn of insects hover and hunt
birds twitter and so do I

what is it about a river’s glide
why does it soothe and call my soul
to rest in the depths of icy cold
where fish stand and tadpoles dart
in the shallows of their quiet
private few inches of the world

flower petals float in the current
ducks dive for bugs, right then left
paddle, honk, stretch their necks
in the shimmery crystal silver light
the wind begins to whistle, whips up
near-dead leaves to dance, spin
twist, and after one last leap
drift to the ground to sleep

the shore edge beckons
I squat in the mud and listen
inhale the ebb and flow
of jays and sparrows
as they flit and dot the branches
then no sound, exaggerated
seconds of utter silence
before a ragged, bearded fellow
steps from behind a thicket
shuffles to the bank
and casts his makeshift line

the sun begins its descent
something new plays in the air
an edgy, percussive rhythm
hiccups of profanity, a cough
the smoke alarm of a burning cigarette
the swish of a fishing line
in and out of the water
all the while hunger, relentless
hovers like dusk as it rolls in
a soft blanket on the hard night

Class of 1949

Raleigh NC. Nicknames.
If you didn’t have one
you were not in style:
Billy “Ugly” and “Fat Boy” Jimmy
Henry “Nose” and “Weazie” Louise
Sara “Dude”, Iris “Stinky”
“Popcorn” John and “Monkey” Moran
Ronny “Lover” and Clara “Little Bit”
Charles “Gorilla”, Ann “Horse”
Janet “Rabbit Eyes” and Bobby “Goose”
Francis “Shotgun”, Nancy “Sluggo”
Louis “Moogoo” and Margaret “Peeps”

The high school newspaper
asked everyone to state something
they were wild about. Cheers rose for:
dancing with short boys
cigarettes, whiskey, and wild women,
Studebakers, guns, back seats, and
black Pontiac convertibles
any kind of smokin’ engine
fried chicken, banana splits and blondes
drinkin’ wine spo-de-odee
sipping socials, be-bop
and a big brunette

and something that irked:
wasted sunshine
pigs and bad tempers
homework on the weekend
insects on the beach
flat tires, Monday mornings
and the miles between
here and South Carolina
poetry, apple polishers
and dateless Fridays
oysters, oil trucks
exams and onions
speed cops, geometry
and insincerity

Seniors at last, all said goodbye
with their dreams and desires:

move to China
own a country home in
bluegrass Kentucky
take Sinatra’s place
grow to be five feet tall
a pearl diver, nurse
psychiatrist, drummer
swim the English Channel
become the first woman president
run an orphanage, get a tan
learn to drive and
stay out of trouble
own a horse farm
move to the beach
weigh 200 pounds and
make the Duke basketball team
learn to fly, see Honolulu
get back to Texas
ride into the sunset
in a white canvas
top-down baby blue
Cadillac convertible
yeah!

 

Three Poems by James Kimbrough

rosewell ruins

I-65 exit 19: Satsuma, AL

I see we have a Pilot
truck stop,
a Chevron station,
a McDonald’s,
a Waffle House,
and a church.

I liked it better
when there
was nothing
but a bait shop
and a liquor store.
Is the bait shop
still here?

Can I still get
a pint
of Old Forrester,
some cokes,
some minnows,
and some gas
for my boat.

That’s all I want,
and all I need.
I liked Satsuma
a lot better
before all this progress.

To Gunnison Creek, Thank You

Swimming in Gunnison Creek
in April, the water is cold like
ice just beginning to melt.
The surface of the water
is covered in the places
where it’s still, with yellow
dust, the pollen from the flora
along the creek shores.
Pinks, lavendars, whites,
yellows, flowers in all shades
of pastel attract bees,
buzzing around pistols
and stamens, gathering pollen
on the trichobothria
on their black legs.
I would like to thank
the pollen gatherers
for keeping that yellow
dust from me. It causes
my immune system to produce
an overabundance of histamine,
clogging my nasal passages.
I’d like to thank the frigid
water of the creek for opening
That blockage, letting me breathe
free, and enjoy the season
if only for a few hours.
At night, I’ll be tossing
and turning again, gasping for air,
but for now, I’m free.
South Alabama Tomatoes in Late February

Tiny stalks poking their heads through the black soil
seeking the warmth and light of the sun.
In a plastic greenhouse perched on the windowsill
the plants begin their short lives.
In two weeks time they’ve gone from flat yellow seeds
a centimeter in diameter to these four inch stalks
with two maybe three fleshy green leaves.
Hard to believe looking at them that the fruit
they will produce in a couple months
sells for three even four dollars a pound
at the local grocery stores thanks to the extra cold
winter, but thankfully winter won’t last much longer
and these young stalks will find their four-months’
home in the soft soil of the garden where they can
soak up the spring sun’s rays feeling its warmth
and letting its light work with the chlorophyll
in their leaves to produce the food
on which they will thrive.
The season of death is almost done.
Life in the form of tomatoes will flourish again.

My Father The Millionaire by Travis Turner

Looking back, it was hard to believe at first. At only 22 I thought I knew more than my professors, but was about to learn one of the greatest lessons of my life. My father had achieved millionaire status. Unbelievable. Sr. A millionaire.

The day began like any other. I had just made it home from my commute to the local university. I wasn’t allowed to stay on campus because of “the work I had to do around the farm”, although I really knew it was because my father wanted to keep an eye on me. Rites of passage were hard to come by in such a small town. It was around 6:30 and darkness slowly blanketed the old ranch-style home where me and my old man lived off of Highway 17 in isolated West Alabama.

“Well, there he is,” my old man said as I carefully shut the door and dropped my books on the couch.

“Hey Dad. What’s goin on?”

He was sitting at the kitchen table with papers spread abound. He sipped a High Life while eating sardines and saltines. My dinner would be the same.

“Just tryin to figure out some of this tax stuff. Short and easy my ass.” he mumbled.

“I may’ve found a place to stay while I do my graduate work. Gonna be teaching an online course and working as a GA in the English department, so driving back and forth might get to be too much. Don’t know if I’ll be able to split my time here anymore”

He looked at me and then looked back down at his paperwork, never saying a word. After another sip from his beer, he raised his head with a look I had seen a thousand times before.

“Richard, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. I need you here. To take care of things while I’m workin.”

The old take care of everything bit rears its head. I had taken on that responsibility shortly after my mother passed away. I was only 11, and for the most part my childhood had ended. No sleeping late on Saturday mornings. No hanging out with my friends after school at the park sneaking cigarettes and looking at nudie mags. No attempting to get to third base with my date after the Homecoming dance. I was sick of the constant sacrifice.

“You know Dad, we’ve talked about this before and everything will be just fine. You can handle everything around here. You don’t need me.”

“Don’t see how you can tell me what I need or don’t need. They teach you that up at school?”

My father had never attended college, but insisted that I did. Hell, he didn’t even finish high school, but got lucky and got a job at the local lumber mill when he was 17 and had been working there ever since. He was now 56.

“All I’m saying is maybe its time for me to get out of here.”

“Boy, you don’t get it do ya? I need you here, son. One day all of this is going to be yours and…”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it. All of this. This decrepit house, an acre and a half of land. And how can I forget an old beat up 4×4 that needs a new engine? How could I forget! Dad If I’m ever gonna do anything I’ve gotta get out of here and start making some connections.”

“Forget it. Move on up there with your buddies if ya want. I’m not gonna beg ya to stay.”

Victory. At last my old man got up from the table, grabbed the rest of his six-pack from the fridge with his truck keys and walked out.

“Just don’t forget where ya came from, boy,” he said slamming the door on his way out. The paper-thin frame of the house shook at his might.

How could I forget. I had grown to loathe it. All of it. I walked over to the fridge and looked for a beer. Should’ve known better. I poured a glass of milk instead and sat there at the table like my father was before. That’s when I noticed something. One of the papers had been a statement from the sawmill and had my father’s total earnings dating all the way back to 1967. The man had made over a million dollars over the course of his life. A million fucking dollars wrung out from the sweat of my old man. To the left of the paper was something else just as startling, if not more. My old man’s bank statement. The available balance was $88,744.63.

He’d been saving every penny he could. Why? Why did we live in such a shithole, drive these old cars, and eat deer meat and whatever would grow out back for dinner? And suddenly it all made sense. Why he had pushed me so hard. Why he wanted me to do the things he’d never had the opportunity. I was his life. He had worked night and day, 12-16 hour days, sometimes 7 days a week, coming home soaked in sweat, body aching, the perfect example of working class America and I had been so resentful for what many would have killed for: a chance at a better life.

I rinsed my glass out in the sink and went to bed. Around 1:30 that morning I heard the rumble of that old 4×4 and my father stumbling into our home. I had made my mind up. I would continue to take care of things in my own way and drive back as often as possible, but I would have to move away from it all. Sacrifices were made, but not in vain. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was, the only person he really had in his life giving him shit and wanting to leave, but it was late and he had to work the next morning.

In My South by M. David Hornbuckle

For most of my life I have known that I was a writer, and since I was fifteen and read The Sound and the Fury for the first time, I have been acutely aware that I was a Southern writer in particular. So I have spent a great many full days wandering under an Autumn moon pondering the similarities and difference between my experience of the South and the experience of the South captured in the Southern literature I grew up admiring. In many ways, this literature is the strongest connection I have to what most would consider the historical South—the antebellum South, the Civil War South, the Reconstruction South.

My family, like many families in this late century, is fractured. Some of my ancestors may have been in the South during the Civil War. I know my earliest paternal ancestor came to Virginia as an indentured servant in the eighteenth century. The family moved South and West from there. My father’s people came from Missouri. Other than that, however, the history is murky. Moreover, I grew up in Birmingham, a city that didn’t even exist until Reconstruction, a city that many have said resembles more the Old West than the Old South because people came here to mine and make steel. The agrarian story of the Old South is not the story of Birmingham, nor is it the story of my family. I have never lived on a farm, and neither my parents nor grandparents ever lived on a farm. For at least four generations, most of the people in my family have been teachers, engineers, and accountants. By the time my family came to Birmingham in 1971, even most of the drama of the Civil Rights era was over. This is not an especially Faulknerian background for a Southern Writer to emerge from.

Even the food of the South was an acquired taste for me. I didn’t grow up eating things like collard greens and scratch biscuits. I discovered these delicacies when I was in college in Mississippi. My mother rarely made any traditional Southern food when I was growing up, and she continues to be baffled and amused that I grew up to have a fondness for it. She and grandmother both leveraged easy recipes from women’s magazines with many prefab ingredients. This is yet another legacy from which I have broken in search of “genuine” experience and capital T Truth.

Growing up in Birmingham, I was keenly aware of racial tensions. My neighbors and schoolmates frequently made racist comments and jokes that in my family were verboten, so I knew there was something strange and intense behind it, but it took me some time to gain any understanding of it. I didn’t go to school in Birmingham city schools; I was out in the county at Bluff Park, which had not been thoroughly integrated at that time, the late 1970s (it may never have been integrated, until it became absorbed into the larger Hoover school system in the 1990s). There was only one black family at the school, as far as I knew. When I was ten, we moved to Dothan, where the school I attended was at least fifty percent black. Because I played basketball, I became friends with a lot of black kids, but they were very different from the friends I made in my own very white neighborhood. The one moment of racial cowardice I ever saw in my parents occurred when I wanted to invite a couple of my black friends over to the house, and my mother said no, afraid of what the neighbors might think. Only a few years before that, she had been the only white teacher at an elementary school in Fairfield. It was a moment of intellectual and moral tension I would remember the rest of my life.

I have also always been conscious of a sense of loss in the South and the stereotypically conservative resistance to change. This feeling is very present in Birmingham where the economic aftermath of our past Civil Rights issues still lingers. To find one of the most tangible examples, one only need look at how Atlanta has grown in the past fifty years. This happened, to a large extent, because of the international airport built there, an airport originally planned for Birmingham—at the time a more thriving industrial city. But the people with money behind the airport were reluctant to invest in Birmingham because of its resistance to change, particularly with regard to Civil Rights, whereas Atlanta (at least officially) embraced such changes. In a sense, I am glad that Birmingham didn’t grow as quickly as Atlanta did. I think Atlanta made a lot of mistakes in its city planning, and Birmingham now is a more pleasant place to live, I think, than Atlanta ever will be. But the sense of resentment, the sense of loss, and the sense of having been part of a vast injustice are still very much alive here. That, I suppose, is what much of my writing is about and why I label myself as a Southern writer.

Photo on the Cover of our October Issue by Al Lyons

I received a wonderful photo from Mule writer Al Lyons that is absolutely perfect for this month’s personal memoir theme.

I remember Stuckeys when we traveled — looks like that could be the original intent of this building.

Al included this with his email:

This is of Florida Souvenir Land, which is located on Hwy 301 between Lawtey, FL and Jacksonville, FL. It is a long stretch of US Hwy that remains the only direct route from central Florida to Jacksonville, unless one wants to go 50-or-so miles out of the way, up I-75 then across I-10 (Which is the AAA recommended route). There are speed traps in Waldo and Lawtey, where the posted MPH limit transitions suddenly from  60 mph to 30mph. These are a primary source of income for these one-stoplight towns.

Thanks,
Al Lyons

Writers and readers take note: while a list of previously published material may not be available, using the “search” function will find all of the Mule issues. If you have a link to a specific article, story, or poetry page — it is the same link, no changes, and should work just fine.

 

Let The Honey Soak Through by Connie Bull Stillinger

BeeBaby by Valerie MacEwan

Uncle Jesse and I paddled the old canoe through the black water of the Edisto river running through the low country of South Carolina in a rambling deep black- water journey, headed deep into the heart of the swamp teeming with life. There was a small handmade barge attached to the canoe and on it a special platform with eight sturdy stainless steel containers for holding the trays of raw honey, called Supers behind us. It was just after daybreak and there was a curtain of warm gray fog that draped and slid over and around us like damp silk. Uncle Jesse pointed out the great heron fishing for bream and cautioned me about keeping my hands and arms inside the boat.

“Connie, the swamp is a lovely place, full of life and mystery but also dangerous.”

He drawled in a husky scratchy timbre.

“Don’t put your hands or arms down in the water; there’s alligators and cotton mouths in these parts.”

It was early May and we were headed to find the treasure that Uncle Jesse brought out each spring. White Tupelo trees are famous for the quality of delicately flavored honey the blossoms provided. Most White Tupelo honey comes from north Florida but there were a few groves of the trees scattered throughout the swamps of low country South Carolina. The grove in Tupelo Swamp in Colleton county was one of the largest. The trees only bloomed for about four weeks each spring; from April through early May.

Uncle Jesse courted the special bees that made honey from the blossoms. To make sure the honey wasn’t diluted with nectar from other flowering plants Uncle Jesse brought the eight hives full of worker bees and a queen on the barge behind his canoe each March. He then made daily trips in the canoe to all of the hives to feed them until the trees bloomed. The honey from these hives brought top dollar from fancy restaurants in Charleston and from folks as far away as California who appreciated the health benefits of White Tupelo honey.

I was eleven years old that spring and my grandfather and I made the fifty mile drive from rural Orangeburg County on Thursday, the day before. Granddaddy picked me up after school in his 1965 red and white Ford Fairlane with red leather seats and we rode all the way with the windows down and singing along with Merle Haggard on the radio. The perfume of Old Spice, Brylcream and Winston cigarettes bathed over me in a comforting cloud.

Spring, honeybees and flowers have always fascinated me. I can remember asking my grandfather how bees collected and made honey and how they knew where to go and then get back home again. His answer was to take me to spend a few days with his twin sister Tillie and her husband, my great Uncle Jesse and help him tend his hives. The spring was his busy time with the bees and growing vegetables. They had a farm of sixty or so rich black acres that embraced the river and the nourishment it provided.

Our adventure to Uncle Jesse’s place on the Edisto River began on a warm May afternoon. He and Aunt Tillie had a huge old white farmhouse with screened porches that enveloped the structure. There was a long winding path and dock that ended on the river itself. A screened room on the end of the dock was where we sat that evening with the two men and my great-aunt Tillie. She had a huge pitcher of sweet tea that seeped condensation on the wooden table in the middle of the room and a pound cake made with honey for us to snack on as we sat in the lavender twilight and listened to the night music.

I could hear the buzzing tenor of the mosquitoes, the croaking alto of the courting frogs and the rumble underneath of the gators as they woke hungry. The splash as they slid into the black water flowing underneath our outdoor room reverberated in the space. I was happy to sit and listen to the grownups until I was nodding off. Aunt Tillie shooed me up the path, into a huge old claw foot tub for a bath and then tucked me into soft cotton sheets on a real feather mattress under a ceiling fan that creaked a soft breeze in the still night air. She whispered that Friday and Saturday would be full days helping Uncle Jesse collect and separate the honey from the hives and the comb.

Just before daylight I was awakened by the sound of creaking bed springs and water running in the kitchen. I slipped from bed to join Aunt Tillie as she made coffee in a percolator on the eye of the stove. She quickly rustled up a breakfast of creamy buttery grits, honey cured ham and redeye gravy. My chore was to set the table with soft milky green Fiesta Ware dishes with matching cups and saucers. She sent me to get dressed, and when I returned, the men were waiting on me at the table. She poured them cups of strong black coffee and handed me a cup of coffee flavored warm milk that had me feeling much the adult. She also placed a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice at my place and told me to eat up. Aunt Tillie was a compact tidy woman with a crown of snow white curls, twinkling brown eyes, and she smelled of lilac bath powder and lemon verbena soap. The men laughed and teased me just a bit about being a pale ghost of a beanpole and how I needed fattening up, but I felt enveloped in a cocoon of love in that old farm kitchen.

The sky was just lightening on the horizon as Uncle Jesse wiped his mouth with a spotless white napkin under his thick white beard, winked at me and said to meet him down at the dock in ten minutes. He was a burly giant of a man, but his movements were gentle and easy. Aunt Tillie buttoned me into a soft blue long sleeved shirt and plopped a faded tan panama hat on my head with a crown of soft yellowish tulle folded all around the brim. She handed me a worn canvas tote with a jug of water, several ham sandwiches and slices of pound cake wrapped in wax paper. On top of the tote were a pair of soft leather work gloves that had buckles over the wrist of them and they fit snuggly down in the tote.

I was wildly excited on this morning. I rarely if ever had any free time, and this was the first time I had been allowed to be away from home without my parents. My role in my immediate family had been established early with the birth of my sister three years after me and the strain and unease of my relationship with my father. As a young girl I didn’t know the circumstances that had caused him to treat me differently than my sister, I only knew he did treat me much less kindly and lovingly than he did her. He looked for reasons to fault my behavior, however and he gave me more work chores than he did her. In fact I had decidedly more of those to complete daily and weekly than any of my friends. He kept me busy with household and garden chores until dark every day after school, and then I had to complete my homework and oversee my sister’s each evening before bed. Anything less than his standard of perfection was not allowed and failure to meet his rigid standards in any regard resulted in swift and harsh punishment.

In the way of children I didn’t question the obvious difference in this house I just accepted it and felt the love that oozed from the land itself as I ran down the dock to Uncle Jesse waiting at the edge of the river. He stood next to an old wooden canoe that shone with years of care and hand polishing. He placed the tote carefully in the bottom of the canoe and instructed me to button the sleeves of the shirt tightly around my wrists and the top button against my neck. His hands playfully adjusted the old panama hat on my head and then lifted me over and carefully placed me in the front of the canoe and told me to hold on while he eased himself down into the back seat. Uncle Jessie had a twin of my hat on his shiny bald head, and the shirt under his overalls was buttoned in mimic of mine. He handed me an oar and told me to follow his lead as he rowed us up the river and then deep into the swamp.

The swamp is full of life that sings with each breath. That morning it seemed we rowed back in time. The music was a symphony of water rushing along, the rhythm the splash of frogs and fish made that accompanied the trill of song birds. The loud keening cry of a single red tailed hawk echoed in the air as it sailed directly above the water searching.

The only sounds were those of nature and the murmur of Uncle Jesse pointing out things to me as the fog slowly drifted around and over us even as the sun began to burn the heavy moisture away. After steady rowing for at least thirty minutes, he finally slowed and brought the canoe to the edge of a small island deep in the swamp. The light was filtered through the trees overhead that rained greenish white petals on the water around us. As we stopped I could hear the drone of bees over our heavy breathing. After a cup of water from the jug, Uncle Jesse instructed me to lower the netting around my face and to make sure it covered me to my waist, then put on my gloves and buckle them snuggly.

He eased himself sideways and out the boat and then tugged the barge up until it rested on the bank of the island. He helped me out and picked up one of the large stainless steel containers. He told me to stay close to him as we made our way to the first bee hive nestled under a Tupelo tree in full bloom. We could hear the hum of the hive from the canoe, but Uncle Jesse winked and smiled as he said his bees wouldn’t sting, cause they loved the blues.

As an adult I know that bees can be somnolent and sated from a combination of pollen and heat and the morning was quite warm as the sun burned away the early fog. The eleven year old girl that day was in awe of Uncle Jesse’s seemingly magical ability to calm and then charm those bees with his singing of low country blues. He sang and those bees just hummed and buzzed around him, never stinging either of us.

”I can’t stand to hear him buzz, buzz, buzz / Come in, bumble bee, I want you to stop your fuss / You’re my bumble bee and you know your stuff / Oh, sting me bumble bee, until I get enough.”

His deep growly bass echoed through that swamp and those bees seemed to harmonize with him. He lifted the huge honeycomb out of the hive and brushed off the bees as he laid it seeping a delicate light amber honey, into the container. He slid an empty Super, which is what the comb attaches to, back into the hive, and he sang one last chorus as he motioned me to follow him back to the canoe. We repeated this ritual seven more times before the barge behind us was weighed down nearly to the water with honeycomb and honey.

We ate our lunch at the edge of the swamp and drank the water from that huge old jug in the bottom of the boat, and to this day I don’t think I’ve ever had a better ham sandwich in my life. Uncle Jesse told me tales of the Edisto Native Americans who once lived on and fished those waters. He told me of the loss of his and Aunt Tillie’s only son in the Korean conflict years before I was born and how the bees and river gave them hope and kept them going when all they wanted was to crawl into the swamp and die.

“We all bleed red,” he said. “We all have hurts that we don’t think we can survive, but God and good people are always around to help if we just know to ask.”

He said Aunt Tillie’s way of coping was to take in any stray that came her way. That included Ralph, the three legged cat, and Barney the blind hound that slept on the kitchen floor. It had also included a number of young folks and a few old drunks. He laughed at that one and said he didn’t touch liquor anymore, but he had been an old drunk before the bees.

“I had lost the will to live after losing Jake and tried to drown my sorrows in whiskey until Tillie said it was either her or the drink. I chose her, and I don’t think I made a wrong choice,“

he laughed and wiped his eyes with his huge old red bandana.

Uncle Jesse knew my father was hard on me, and he knew the reason why, but it was not his place to tell me. On the edge of Tupelo Swamp that day he made sure I knew there was a safe place to come and people who would love me always.

Bees have a built in system of homing into their hive. They can fly for miles and find their way to safety into their correct hive where they are always safe. Uncle Jesse said it was one of God’s miracles, and we humans would do well to emulate. We paddled that boat back out into the flowing water and the current carried us down river to the dock where Aunt Tillie and Granddaddy were waiting in the screened room with another pitcher of iced tea. We drank our fill and Aunt Tillie hustled me up to the house to freshen up as she called it, while Granddaddy and Uncle Jesse unloaded the trays and took them to the honey house.

I spent the rest of the afternoon with Uncle Jesse and Granddaddy as they spun the honey from the comb and then dripped it through a special funnel into labeled jars. It was my job to wipe them clean and then tighten the lids. Uncle Jesse sang while he spun the honey, more blues songs and by the end of the afternoon I was singing with him.

“I can tell the wind is risin’, the leaves tremblin’ on the tree / Tremblin’ on the tree / I can tell the wind is risin’, leaves tremblin’ on the tree / All I need is my little sweet woman / And to keep my company, hey, hey, hey.”

The remainder of the weekend was spent in the company of these three old folks who loved me unconditionally, who told me stories of the good ole days and who let me help them as they went about their daily chores. The evenings were spent down on the river with them talking, Aunt Tillie crocheting and me looking through books on bee-keeping and nodding off to sleep under the lullaby of that creaking old fan. I helped Aunt Tillie in the kitchen as we cooked and ate from the huge garden behind the house. Sunday afternoon came entirely too quickly, and I tried hard to hold back the tears that seeped down my cheeks when it was time to leave. Uncle Jesse gathered me in his huge arms, tickled my cheek with his scrubby white beard and wiped those tears with another clean red bandana.

“You’ve always got a place to come, when you want or need to, sweet girl. Just have your mama call us, we’ll keep your bed ready.”

He put my hand in Granddaddy’s and Aunt Tillie placed a huge basket full of garden goodies and a warm pound cake sweetened with Tupelo honey glaze on the back seat for me to take home. She hugged me and kissed my cheek as her sweet scent of lilac and lemon verbena wrapped me in a similar embrace. My last memory of that weekend was the two of them snuggled together in the back yard, waving at me as that Ford Fairlane headed up the dirt road and home. Grandaddy asked me if I had figured out the secret to making honey. I nodded as I answered him.

“I reckon making honey requires patience, love and Uncle Jesse singing the Blues.”

 

Possum Holler Morning by William Matthew McCarter

“You touch that dial, my country cousins, and I’ll never speak to you again. Right here, right now, on good ole’ KREB is where you’ll hear the best, the latest, and the greatest country music. Right here, in the Parkland… That’s right, here in the Lord’s own playground where the greatest American people call home. Now, you just relax and sit a spell and drink your morning coffee with ole Joe Bob and I’ll play your favorite country hits all the way to high noon.”

Each morning she woke up to the obnoxious voice of Joe Bob Bennett, the DJ on the local radio station. She preferred that good old gospel music of KTRI – Trinity Radio – the sister radio station to KREB – also owned by the Dobbins Broadcast Group, but her husband, Jerry always complained about her using KTRI as an alarm. He said all that “Jesus talk” gave him “night horses.”

The inner eye of Suzi Beth Davis came to life to the sound of Joe Bob’s voice each morning and then it quickly turned its attention to the image of a kind old man with a shock of long silver hair and a long silver beard – an image that looked somewhat like an unkempt Kenny Rogers or Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments. Surrounded by an ethereal fog of heavenly clouds, the image also resembled the scene in the Superman movie where Superman’s dad – was it Marlon Brando – I forget the actor’s name – stood bright and shining – like a matured Apollo – Zeus really – dressed in heavenly white with a booming voice that could shake the heavens and the earth. The inner eye of Suzi Beth Davis recognized this image as being the face of God.

It was this face – this Kenny Rogers, Charlton Heston, Superman’s dad, dressed in white surrounded by an ethereal mist – that looked down on her little postage stamp of the big blue marble called earth – a postage stamp called Possum Holler, Missouri.

What Suzi Beth Davis’ image of the Lord, our God, saw when he looked down over her little postage stamp was the rooftops of the homes that made up the Possum Holler Lake community. Possum Holler had once been a bustling resort for wealthy patrons from St. Louis and beyond. However, that Possum Holler had faded away – disappeared into the ash heap of history – and was now made up of permanent residents doing all that they could to hang on to their lake cabins and bungalows that dotted the landscape of Possum Holler. In spite of the fact that the community appeared to be forgotten – or at least nearly forgotten, Suzi Beth Davis believed that the Lord God had a tender spot in His heart for this sleepy little community in the Piankashaw Valley of Southeast Missouri.

As Suzi Beth opened her eyes in the milky dawn light of another Piankashaw morning, she sighed and then silently sent a prayer up to the Kenny Rogers, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Superman’s dad face of God – “Lord, please bless my home and my family. Bless this house and all of those who live here. Bless our little community here in Possum Holler. Bless all of us up here in the Piankashaw hills. Remember us, Lord,” she pleaded.

“God will not forget us,” Suzi Beth reasoned to herself, “God is all knowing and all seeing – omnivorous or something like that” – she didn’t remember what the preacher said – Suzi Beth recalled that Joe Bob Bennett liked to refer to her little postage stamp of Southeast Missouri – The Parkland – The Lord’s own playground and Suzi Beth could feel His presence in the hills and hollers of the Piankashaw Valley, especially near her home in Possum Holler.

Each morning that Suzi Beth got out of bed – at least lately – she felt herself getting older. Her joints were beginning to stiffen and , at times, especially after a really hard day at work and an even harder and longer day of taking care of her family, she felt as if she might break – as if she might break into a million little pieces – break into a million pieces that would blow away into the hills, into the lake, into the rocky clay of the mountains themselves – until those million little pieces – until she, Susan Elizabeth Davis – just disappeared like the dust in the wind. However, Suzi Beth offered her pain up to God, knowing that life is a part of nature – that its beginning is impossible to recall, and its ending is not to be contemplated for we know not when it comes. But God does and that is yet another reason why we must put our faith in the Lord.

Each morning, as Suzi Beth turned off Joe Bob Bennett on the KREB, she thought and felt all of these things before the soft light of dawn settled and shined in on her through the window. The sunrise was one of the little miracles that the Lord had brought to her each and every day. She took in the sunrise with a cup of coffee at her kitchen window. After she had had enough of this little miracle (and enough coffee), after she had felt that she had felt the hand of God reaching into her and revealing itself through that early morning sunshine, Suzi Beth gained the strength that it took to ignore those nagging pains that threatened to break her into a million littlie pieces – the pains that came with working too long for too little – and took in that little bit of peace that she prayed for each morning before she went down the hallway to wake up the rest of her family.

“Jerry, honey, get up,” she said. Suzi Beth looked in on her husband, Jerry, but he didn’t move. If she had not seen the quilted blanket that she had made years ago for a 4H project move with each breath that Jerry took, she might have thought that he was dead – that the Lord may have taken up to be with Him for all eternity. For a second, she wondered if he husband, Jerry, would make it up to heaven to see the Lord face to face. She wondered if he would ever stare into the majestic face of Kenny Rogers, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Superman’s dad, because Jerry was, as far as she could tell, pushing the limits of what the preacher, Brother Clarkson, called the Lord’s “infinite grace and forgiveness.” At times, she wondered, especially when it came to her husband, Jerry, if the Lord could possibly be that tolerant of a member of His flock.

“Jerry, it’s time to get up. Now, wake up.” She yelled this time, partly because he was still asleep and partly because she got to wondering about that “infinite grace and forgiveness” thing. She loved Jerry with all of her heart – for better or for worse – and she didn’t even want to think about being without him in the afterlife. Even though, through most of his waking moments, he often made her wonder. She tried to remind herself that her God was a just God and that being without Jerry in the afterlife would be pure hell for her. Surely a just God wouldn’t put her through hell like that.

“God damn it, I’m awake,” Jerry yelled, growling from under the covers like a hibernating bear.

Suzi Beth closed her eyes as if doing so would make Jerry’s words just disappear – as if they were really out there – as if they had spilled out of his mouth like alphabet soup out of a bowl and all she had to do was not look at them. Quickly, Suzi Beth yelled, “Don’t you take the Lord’s name in vain in this house again, Jerry Jeff Davis, and I mean it.” Once again, Suzi Beth thought about that “infinite grace and forgiveness” and hoped – no prayed – that the omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient God was just too busy to be listening to Jerry Jeff Davis, knowing full well that an omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient God would somehow know anyway, even if He was too busy to be worried about what came out of Jerry Jeff Davis’ mouth at 6:34 in the morning.

Jerry blinked a few times before wiping the sleep out of his eyes, trying to orient himself to the here and now of where and when he was on this big blue marble called earth. Jerry hated it that he had made Suzi Beth mad even before he had gotten out of bed. He really loved that woman and hated to see her angry or disappointed in him. Trouble was that he had been having a dream and just didn’t want to wake up.

Now some people dreamed of performing heroic deeds and travelling to faraway places. Some folks had them dirty movie dreams of lust, some dreamed of love and some dreamed of loved ones lost long ago. Some dream of grandeur or glory or fame, but Jerry Jeff Davis was a simple and practical man that dreamed of simple and practical things. Jerry Jeff Davis dreamed of a world where all of his bills were paid, his wife and his two children were well taken care of, and the neighbors in his community at Possum Holler Lake were all doing equally well. In his mind’s eye, Jerry Jeff Davis had been at a community block party on the 4th of July with all of his friends and neighbors. Everyone was happy and all of their needs were met. Jerry Jeff got the feeling that no one was struggling in his dream and that was the very moment that Suzi Beth’s yelling had pulled him away from this Possum Holler utopia.

As he took a deep breath, ran his fingers through his dark brown hair and prepared to face the morning, reality had set in. Hell, it wadn’t even summertime. It was fall in Piankashaw County and the leaves were beginning to change colors in Possum Holler. He even heard that god damn Reagan campaign commercial coming from the radio in the kitchen. It was morning in America and for Jerry Jeff Davis that meant that the realization was setting in that there may not be enough money to get through til payday.

“Too much month and not enough money,” Jerry thought to himself. He decided right then that if there was any overtime to be had down at the factory, he was going to work it. But first, he had to fight off the urge to go back to sleep. He wanted to go back to the dream. There was some reality to that fantasy in his dream. Jerry Jeff did have a lot of friends and neighbors and they often did get together in the summer time. However, Jerry couldn’t remember when there was that kind of material prosperity in his lifetime – at least since he had been old enough to earn a paycheck. That was why he had such anxiety… he had bills to pay. He was living for a future when he would be out of debt. That anxiety was the price he paid for living in the future.

Jerry Jeff Davis was nearly forty years old and had no idea that it would take this long and be this hard to not be that close to getting even. Jerry was a factory worker in what the folks on the radio and on the news called “the heartland” – which meant all the places that made up the little dots on the weather maps between the big cities. Like most of the folks out here in the heartland, Jerry Jeff Davis was the native son of a working America that had been going downhill for at least the last ten years. That damned commercial said it was morning in America but all Jerry Jeff Davis and his fellow workers down at the shoe factory woke up to was the anxiety that came from holding down a decent but endangered routine production job as a soldier in the dwindling American industrial army.

Each morning Suzi Beth Davis worked her way down the hallway of their little bungalow on the shores of Possum Holler Lake. First, she woke up her husband Jerry and then she made her way to her daughter’s room. Suzi Beth opened the door to Bobbie Sue’s room and flipped on the light. The decorative light switch cover was the Care Bears. That was the first thing that Suzi Beth saw each morning when she turned on the light in her daughter’s room. It made her smile. She recalled the day that Bobbie Sue had installed it her own self. “Lefty loosey, righty tighty,” she had said as she twisted the screwdriver, just like her daddy had taught her.

“Bobbie Sue,” Suzi Beth said, “It’s time to get up.” Suzi Beth watched her daughter unroll herself from the body pillow that she had been hugging in her sleep and look up at her with her sleepy blue eyes.

Bobbie Sue wrapped an old fashioned chenille bedspread the color of buttered popcorn around her body as she sat up in the bed. Suzi Beth looked at her sleepy blue eyes and the long flowing hair that was tied back into a ponytail and thought to herself, “Lord, my baby sure is pretty. Thank you, Jesus for giving me such a beautiful baby.” It was hard for Suzi Beth to believe that Bobbie Sue was sixteen years old and that her oldest, JJ, was nearly eighteen and would be graduating from Piankashaw High later on that year. Her babies were growing up right before her eyes.

“Try not to be mad at your daddy when you come to breakfast, Bobbie Sue. You know he means well,” she said as she turned to walk out of the room.

The night before, Bobbie Sue had been complaining that Jerry had been treating her different than her older brother, JJ. Jerry’s response to her criticism was abrupt and immediate: “When you got a boy, you only gotta worry about one prick. With girls, you gotta worry about all of em.” Suzi Beth hated it that Jerry could take something so precious as the well being of her children and reduce it to its least common denominator – something so dirty. He had a knack for doing that very thing and Suzi Beth was concerned that this might be one of those “infinite grace and forgiveness things” that she had been concerned about. She had always hoped that she could be a beacon of light for the rest of the world to see – a model of Christian living – and as a result, those who lived around her and with her, for that matter, would see what a blessing it was to be washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. But when Jerry acted like – well, when he acted like Jerry – she wondered what good it really did her.

As Suzi Beth turned around to go back down the hallway, she noticed a book laying on the nightstand. It was a notebook lying open filled with her daughter’s handwriting. “It makes me proud that you’re so smart,” Suzi Beth thought to herself as she took one last look at her baby girl, “It makes me feel like I did something right.” Bobbie Sue was such a sweet girl and she studied every night. Suzi Beth wondered where she got her intellect from. Jerry had just barely made it through school and Suzi Beth, well, it was all that she could do to get through the nurse’s aid program at Piankashaw’s Vo Tech School. Suzi Beth looked up in air toward the old man who looked like Charlton Heston and said a little prayer of thanks, knowing that Bobbie Sue’s talents must have been gifts from God.

Suzi Beth had one final stop before she could go back into the kitchen and have another cup of coffee before she got breakfast ready for her family. She dreaded this final stop each day because her oldest son, JJ, was even more difficult to wake up than his daddy, Jerry. Her first child has always slept like a rock. He had slept through the night almost since day one after arriving home at the hospital. When he was a baby and Suzi Beth was a new mamma, it was a real blessing that JJ could sleep through a hurricane or an earthquake. However, ever since kindergarten, Suzi Beth has been paying for the little gift from God each morning that she got JJ off to school. She pushed open the door of JJ’s room and flipped on the lightswitch. He, too, had a custom switch over his light that he, too, had installed himself when he was a little. JJ’s was a Confederate flag and he liked to think of himself as a “good ole boy” cut from the same cloth as Bo and Luke Duke. He also thought of himself as something of a headbanger and filled his room with black light posters of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. JJ’s room was lit up with black lights and the posters, the fixtures, and all of the clutter began to glow in the early morning darkness. Suzi Beth looked down and saw JJ’s clothes laying on the floor beside his bed as she walked over to the window and opened the curtains to let in the early morning light. It was a heavenly light and it made Suzi Beth sad to see this lovely light – God’s own light from the early morning sun – falling all over the junk and the dirty clothes that cluttered up JJ’s room.

Suzi Beth looked down at JJ. He was in the first stages of manhood, his upper lip displaying a proto mustache, mouth drooling on his pillow. Suzi Beth called to him at first and then picked up a dirty bath towel and smacked him with it: “JJ, what have I told you about sleepin buck nekkid,” she screamed. JJ opened one of his eyes, looked up at his mother and then slowly began to move.

“Now what if the house caught fire and we had to leave right quick… why you’d be standing smack dab in the middle of Possum Holler Lake right next to the state highway with your tallywacker waving in the wind hanging out for all the world to see. Now, what would the neighbors think about that?”

“Mamma just hush…. I’m up, OK.”

“Don’t you, “Mamma hush” me, young man. Now I want you up and ready for school and I want this room cleaned up as soon as you get home tonight.”

“Come on mamma, just go, I’m up,” JJ replied, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

“Don’t you sass me, boy. Now get ready for school,” Suzi Beth said as she turned and walked out of JJ’s room, down the hall and into the kitchen. A hot cup of coffee was waiting for her there. Each morning she would stand at the kitchen sink with that cup of steaming hot coffee and stare out the window at the new day. As the radio played a commercial proclaiming it was “Morning in America,” Suzi Beth Davis enjoyed a few fleeting moments of peace and quiet as she meditated on the wonders of God’s little miracles on Possum Holler Lake.

A Brief History of My Hair by Jeanne Lupton

My hair flows and floats down, soft. It lifts in the breeze. Dark, dark brown. So pretty. It brushes my shoulders and my back. Down to my butt. When my hair is down free and loose, I can sit on it. Mother braids it every morning for school. She says that is neater. It is more grown-up and neater in braids. My hair feels soft on my skin. I have never had a haircut. I have thick hair. It is thick and soft and long, down to my butt. I love my hair. It is Virginia, 1952, and I am the girl with long hair.

The only bad thing is some days the boys at Abingdon Elementary School chase me home trying to pull my pigtails. One boy Ricky yells “Princess Summer Fall Winter Spring!” and “Pocahontas!”

This year two bad things happened. Grandpa died. I said why why I don’t know why Grandpa had to die. I miss Grandpa. Where is he? Poor Grandma. Poor Daddy. I knew Grandpa my whole life.

The other thing, I went to the hospital for two weeks. My hair got so dirty and the nurses wouldn’t let Mother wash my hair there. I had to have an operation to take out my old pendix. It hurt so bad. After visiting hours Mother came outside the window near my bed and talked to me. She said she could hear me screaming and was so worried what they were doing to me. One thing they were doing was the nurses were putting the wire where I tinkle. They put the wire in again and again. It wouldn’t go in right. A bunch of nurses. It was terrible. It hurt. Then after the operation my middle hurt so bad I wet the bed instead of getting up on the bedpan. The nurses had to change the sheets again and again. I didn’t mind. Somebody could have washed my hair.

I feel better now.

Mother washes my hair in the kitchen sink. I climb up on the stepping stool and lie down on the counter on my back. Then all my hair is in the sink and Mother washes it and scrubs it and runs the warm water on my head to rinse it. It feels good when Mother washes my hair. This is every week, and this is how my hair always shines in the sun. It feels very good. I sit on the back porch and dry my hair in the sun.

Then it goes like this.

Mother says, “You’re getting so big. I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you Mother.”

“I think you might want to have big girl hair now. Maybe you’d like to have short hair like me.”

“I like my hair. I like it long.”

“You could wash it yourself. You can take a shower like me and wash your own hair. How about that?”

“I don’t know. I like you to wash it.”

“Well, I have Lynnie to take care of now. You’re the big sister. She needs me too.”

“I know, Mother.”

“It would be a big help to me if you could wash your own hair.”

I’m getting afraid of having a haircut.

Lynnie was born and Mother forgot me. Lynnie took Mother away. She was my mother. Now she’s Lynnie’s mother. I was the only. Now Lynnie is the only. I’m supposed to be happy. Mother lets me take Lynnie for a walk in her baby buggy through the apartment back courtyards along the sidewalk. I do like to hold her. She isn’t crying so I can’t hold her. So I pinch the tip of her little finger real hard. Then she cries. Then I can pick her up and hold her for a minute. She feels nice to me.

Mother takes slides of me so the family can remember my hair was long. I have my back to the camera. I am wearing my slip. In another picture I am wearing my red valentine heart ballerina costume. All down my back flows my brown hair.

Mother is busy. Mother is so busy.

Mother takes me in the car to Garfinkle’s Department Store, to the children’s barber shop. A barber shop. The bald man says don’t cry. I close my eyes. I hear the scissors cutting into cutting cutting my thick soft hair, brown hair, my long hair. Cutting cutting one braid gone. Cutting cutting the other braid gone. My long hair gone. That I could sit on when I was little. I open my eyes when he says he is done. My hair is fluffy around my head. For Mother I don’t cry.

“That looks so pretty, she says.” Mother shows me a certificate from the barber shop. It says I have Graduated from Babyhood. I am seven years old. The man hands me my braids in a box. My brown, thick braids. I am shocked to see them dead in the box. Like Grandpa. Cut out. Like my old pendix.

Shower. The water is too cold. The water is too hot. Soap in my eyes. Mother never got soap in my eyes. Mother never touches me now. No reason to hug. She is so busy. When I was little I would lie on the kitchen counter with my hair in the sink and Mother washed my hair. Once a week. It felt lovely. Then I would dry it sitting on the back porch in the sunshine. Clean and sparkling. Shining. In summer. I would have lemonade. That was mostly when it was just Mother and me. Now I’m a big girl. I’m a big sister. Short hair dries fast.

The Dry Box by JL Myers

My brother Jayson was crying into his end of our phone conversation. He didn’t try to hide the tears, as most men do, when their envisioned lives unspool from the preview reel that plays in our heads as grown men. His idea of the perfect life and home was the natural byproduct of being the youngest child left to be co-parented by The Cleaver’s, The Brady’s, and The Huxtable’s, where within twenty-two minutes, problems arise and are solved neatly amidst the precisely timed and spaced eight minutes of cutaways to commercial breaks.

He did nothing to prevent me from hearing him try to calm his voice, his occasional deep inhale or exhale, his wiping of mucous on a sleeve, the blood of a broken heart. Jayson didn’t know what to do with what would become his life without Renee and her two-year-old daughter, Chloe. With her and her daughter, he had told me during one of his sporadic late night phone calls from Colorado, he felt like he finally wanted to settle down.

“Are you still looking for a job?” I asked.

Renee left him, for the true reason behind the love that many women offer to men: security. He had been unemployed for several months, released from his latest job, towing cars away from the Denver International Airport, for pissing a hot UA. The security that Jayson may have once offered or represented for Renee had diminished and she moved on with another man, someone capable of being a provider and a father-figure for her daughter Chloe. The cruelest part of the end of their relationship was because Jayson met Renee when she was four months pregnant with Chloe. He did not have children, had never been married, yet he fell in love with her and her unborn child.

“I won’t get to see her grow up,” he said. “Not at all. Not anymore.”

I knew he was talking about Chloe and it made sense to me that Renee would want to prevent any future relationship problems and confusion for Chloe by excluding Jayson from their lives. The loss of the being a step-father didn’t make the breakup any easier for him.

“I’ve lost everything,” he said.

“You still have family here,” I offered. “Come here.”

“Can’t live with Mom and Dad,” he said. “I’m too old, thirty-six.”

“Move in with me,” I said. At 41, I lived alone and had a small two-bedroom bungalow just off Riverside Drive in Tulsa. I would have to rearrange some furniture, put his unneeded furnishings in the garage, but Jayson was family, and my brother needed a home. He would have time to get a job and back on his feet while he worked his way toward beginning his life again. I wanted to be present while he healed, to offer help.

*

Headed east, I-70 hummed under us, my truck pulling the small packed U-Haul trailer hitched to the bumper. I planned to drive the full route to Salina, Kansas, south through Wichita to the highway 412 exit north of Perry, Oklahoma, then the last leg east to Tulsa.

On the seat between us was a half empty traveler bottle of Jim Beam. I used to work in a liquor store and this was the preferred style of bottle for those folks that made drinking a way of life. The bottle carried the same fluid amount as a regular fifth at 750ml, but rather than having a square body and base, the bottle was narrow and rectangular, the width of a hip or inside jacket pocket, so the bottle could travel discreetly. Jayson had filled the largest fountain drink cup available at the Flying J truck stop in Limon, Colorado, halfway up with Dr. Pepper. He topped the cup to the rim with his traveler of Beam, snapped on the lid and poked the straw through. Jayson planned to sleep the whole way.

My phone vibrated and Alison’s picture appeared on the screen. We had been seeing each other for several months after meeting on a film we had worked on together. I picked up the phone and thumbed the green answer button.

“Are you getting close?” she asked.

“We’re near half way,” I said.

“How’s your brother?” she asked.

“He’s been better.”

“Text me when you get in,” Alison said.

“Will do.”

Jayson grumbled something unintelligible, shifted lower in the seat, pulled his jacket over his head and went back to sleep.

 

My brother and I had shared a home as single men before, in 1996, roles reversed, my relationship had collapsed and his sex life still had that new car smell to it. He helped me through my breakup by listening to my rants, jumped on a few grenades for me along the way and cut through the relationship haze I was in with his hard advice. His counsel wasn’t misogynistic, but it was indeed meant for me to utilize as self-serving. He told me to take my time, see plenty of women, lock down with no one. Because of his input, I’d closed myself off from real relationships for some time, opting for the occasional sweat with any random woman that I encountered, that was amenable, that I found attractive. After a while, I disconnected from even this diverting activity, preferring to be alone.

Six months into our house sharing, a faulty floor furnace charcoal etched the underneath side of the oak floor in our house. After weeks of smoldering, during the coldest January in 20 years, the floor ignited, flames cut along floor joists and jagged up inside the dry walls of the saltbox house. The smoke painted the inside of the windows, mirrors, the bathtub, the spines and tops of my library and the protective plastic box that held a baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio, a ball that was once cradled in a hand that held Marilyn Monroe. The coat of soot was wet from the outside elements — elements allowed in when I opened the front door, the precipitation carried on the damp air being inhaled by the house.

When the house exhaled that one and only time, the kitchen and dining room windows blew out and the flames knifed out the open front door and through the ceiling into the attic. The firemen came soon after, flooding the house, destroying with water what had not been taken by fire.

Jayson moved in with a friend and I took a job transfer to another state, eager to make a home elsewhere. Twelve years had passed and now we would share the same address again.

*

“Can I change the color in here?” Jayson asked. “I need something other than egg shell surrounding me.”

The extra bedroom he was moving into had been my office. It had occurred to me several times to roll on a nice calm, light shade of green or blue, at least on two walls of the 12×12 room, but thought better of it. You can‘t be too comfortable in a home office. There’s plenty enough out there to pull you out of the chair, to divert you. I didn’t need a relaxing room to put me to sleep anytime I needed to work.

I sat at my desk, which was positioned facing outward from the corner at the far end of the long rectangular living room. The furniture was in disarray; couch and chair pushed askew along the walls, boxes of my brother’s belongings sat unpacked in the new surroundings.

“Let’s run get some paint,” I said. “I’ve got rollers and pads in the garage.”

It was a busy weekend at the big box hardware store and we sat on the display lawn furniture near the paint department, waiting our turn for the tone that would cover his surroundings to be blended and agitated.

“I’ve been thinking, I’ve got that old Isuzu Rodeo and it’s just sitting,” I said. “You need it to find a job, get to and from work.”

I circled the spare key off my key ring and tossed it to him. He regarded the key, holding it between his thumb and forefinger and then looked over at me.

“You don’t have to do this,” he said. “I’m used to taking the bus.”

“You should go make copies of the car key and the spare house key while we’re waiting.”

Jayson nodded and stepped away slowly into the store. I saw in him that day, and occasionally into the early summer months, sparks of what John Keats tried to explain to his own brother about his idea of Negative Capability — the idea that a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Yet Jayson continued to reach for alcohol when the struggle with his own facts and reasons overtook him.

After his room was painted, he set about putting his belongings in order. A shelf unit held his paperback copies of On The Road and Yonder Stands Your Orphan, DVD’s of When Harry Met Sally and The Getaway, toiletries and a scattering of unframed pictures. The top pictures showed Renee asleep on a couch, another had Jayson smiling, turning burgers on a grill in the back yard, and finally, a sonogram of Chloe in utero. A small dresser held his folded clothes and a clock radio that I gave him sat on top reminding him when to get up, get the day started and of the hours that passed by each day.

“Time and distance,” I said to him. “It’s all you need. That and diversions, like the float trip.”

Jayson had agreed a few weeks before when I suggested he come along with me and my friends on our yearly float trip down the Elk River, just above Noel, Missouri.

“A little strange will help me forget,” he said.

“You don’t believe that,” I said.

“Sure I do,” he said. “Just need somebody I can talk to long enough, show the fresh paint in my bedroom to, put my dick in and then drop off when I’m done.”

“That’s pretty misogynistic, bro.” A new facet emerged that I’d never seen before in my brother’s behavior.

“That’s life,” he said. “We all get screwed in some way.”

*

“Jesus, you brought a lot of shit,” Jayson said as we unloaded the camping gear from the back of my truck.

In front of us, ready to be unloaded, were two coolers, the smaller one for food, the larger one for alcohol, were surrounded by a camp stove, two tents, an inflatable mattress, several bundles of firewood, a hand axe, three camp chairs, two padded chairbacks for the canoe, fishing poles, a tacklebox, a Coleman lantern, a metal can of Coleman fuel, a flat of water, Nalgene bottles for mixed drinks, a camp box with cooking pots, utensils and dry groceries, and a duffel full of clothes for our weekend at our temporary river home.

“What’s this?” he asked, picking up a translucent blue plastic box. Attached to the box was a thick rubber lanyard with a snap ring on the end, a lightweight version of the D-rings used in rappelling. He popped open the two latches on the lid and fingered the seal encircling the opening of the box.

“It’s a dry box,” I said. “You put everything you don’t want to lose in it. Cell phone, wallet, cigs & lighters, car keys, whatever’s important – that’s what goes in there.”

I showed Jayson how you attach the snap ring to the canoe brace or your belt loop, so if you get swamped out nothing valuable is lost.

“Got enough room in there for my stuff too?” he asked.

I nodded and we spent the next few hours setting camp. By the time we finished, our cohorts that hadn’t taken Friday off, started arriving, pitching tents and cracking beers.

“Where’s Alison?” was the question asked repeatedly that first night by the others in our camping party. I told them what she had told me: “I’ll be there as soon as I finish the mural.” Alison had taken on the commission and had pushed the completion date twice. Now she was scrambling to get the painting finished and promised to get to the Elk River when she could, if she could.

Anytime that Jayson heard the question posed to me, he felt the need to interject. As the night went on, his comments became more acerbic.

“She’d be here if she really wanted to.” “She’s not coming.” “Women, pfft.”

The men would laugh, nod heads in agreement and cut sideways glances at their women, to make sure they weren’t in dutch with them; the women wouldn’t pay attention, except to chide Jayson for being a jackass.

I sat up until 2 a.m., occasionally texting with Alison, and keeping watch until all the members of our group made their way to their different shelters. Jayson was the last to stumble into his tent.

Worked late. Can’t make it for the float tomorrow morning, but I’ll drive over to stay Saturday night, Alison’s text read. Promise. ☺ <3

I snuffed the campfire and called it a night.

 

The next morning we made a group decision to take the long float, eight miles. When the river is high and running fast, it takes six hours from the time you drop in until you drag the canoe onto the banks of the pickup point. We put into the slow current at 9am. As we had done on past float trips, we lashed three of the four canoes in our party together, creating a barge that took the skills of only the two men in the rear seats of the outside canoes to navigate. Jayson sat in the forward position of our canoe. The leisure of the forward seat afforded him the opportunity to do nothing but drink, offer occasional steerage when needed, and plenty of banter with others we encountered.

By noon we had travelled only just over two miles. We stopped on a convenient bank to have lunch. I took my phone out of the dry box to check for messages or missed calls. The screen showed no signal, so I snapped a few photos of our group and the others gathered at the point we stopped on. I turned the phone off to save battery life, closed it back inside the box, fished out my Nalgene bottle of cranberry and vodka from the cooler and took a long pull.

“No word from your woman,” Jayson asked. He had a pleased look on his face.

“No signal,” I said.

“Well, they never give signals,” he said. “They just make their decisions.”

“Right,” I said, turning away from him and toward the group. “Let’s head out.” We shoved back into the river toward home.

By 3pm we had made our way past the low bridge, the drop point for the shorter five mile float and the intermittent grumbling began that we should have signed up for that trip instead.

“You don’t see as many tits on that trip,” Jayson said. He had come prepared with party beads draped around his neck, the kind you see during Mardi Gras being thrown to women who bare their breasts just to get the colorful, shiny plastic necklaces. These same rules apply every weekend on the Elk River.

Eight hours into the trip, we made our last stop before home. It was 5pm. Those of us who had travelled the river before made our predictions that we still had about two hours to go. I picked up the dry box to check my phone for a signal and noticed water collected in the corners inside of it. I opened it and took out the phone and powered it up. After a minute of waiting, the touch screen lit up, scrambled and locked up.

“What the fuck?” I looked at Jayson. He stood by the water’s edge, taking a drag of his cigarette and had that same pleased look on his face again.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Water, that’s what’s wrong,” I said. “Two more hours of water to get home, water in the dry box, water in my phone.”

“I was getting my smokes out,” he said. “Must’ve gotten wet then.”

“Alison’s on her way,” I said. “I didn’t tell her which campground to come to and we should’ve been back two hours ago.”

“That’s your bad,” he said. “She ain’t coming anyways.”

“Whatever.”

“If she really wanted to be here with you, she’d be here, but she ain’t.”

Fights never really start because of what what’s happening at the time of the fight. They start because of what’s been brewing for a while. It is about something else, something bigger. And what’s been fermenting, whatever has put a person on the fight, is like an angry kid kicking at the gravel inside their head.

I stepped down the bank and faced him at the water’s edge.

“Don’t do this,” I said. “Don’t project your bullshit on me. You won’t like what comes back.”

“You won’t do anything about it,” Jayson said. “You never do.”

We stood assessing each other. Jayson and I had never had a physical altercation. Growing up, me being the oldest, he being the youngest, my job was to look out for him, keep him protected, no matter what he may have done to light the fuse of a fight.

“Pussy,” Jayson said.

A chest bump and a head butt pulled us toward each other.

When we were boys, when Jayson was six years old, he was considered small for his age. Our parents took him to several doctors to seek their advice on getting him up to a normal weight and height. The doctors told us that underweight children are usually more prone to disease and infection as they normally lack the natural vitamins, minerals and proteins to help their body effectively fight off any serious threats, but that a number of children are simply born underweight. While most of them will gradually bulk up to the standard size, others may not do so due to slower metabolic rates and lack of appetite. So Jayson wasn’t made to feel different than the rest of the family, we all began taking multi-vitamins and zinc supplements. Within a year he was up to a normal weight and nearly measured a normal height for age seven. Now as grown men, Jayson and I, with five years difference in age, squared off at roughly the same height and weight.

Fists against jaws knocked us apart and into the water, cooling our anger.

The other men in the group rushed to keep us separated; the women told us we were scaring them. Back on our feet, Jayson and I regarded each other, no anger, no confusion, only a flash of regret.

“Thank you,” Jayson said to me, looking downward, then toward me.

“What?” I asked.

“For standing up to me,” he said. “I was out of line. I was pushing your buttons because I got your back, because I don’t want you to get hurt by Alison. I love you bro.”

In that moment, I remembered the small boy he once was, the brother I was to always stand up for.

“I know you do,” I said. “I love you too, man.”

Jayson and I cut our canoe loose from the group, initially gliding away slowly, and then, without words to orchestrate, we sank our paddles deep into the river, and pulled with resolve, cutting a path toward home, an echoing wake opening behind us.

Jesse Lee by Sandy Ebner

This is how I learned what abuse looks like:

I was sitting at the bar with Jesse. Nineteen years old, sipping my Jack and Coke, I thought I knew everything, was so sure I had the world figured out.

“So, why did you and Ronny get a divorce?” I asked her. Marriage, for me, was a foreign concept, an event likely to occur far into the future, if ever. And so my question to Jesse was asked in passing, between drinks, while the band took a break and we could hear each other talk. Her answer, therefore, came as a shock.

“He used to beat on me,” she said, as calmly as if she were describing a blouse she was planning to buy.

I looked at her, unsure how to react. “You mean he beat you, like… he hit you?” How naïve I was. She looked at me and laughed. “What did you think I meant?” she said, not unkindly.

My friend was beautiful, and men walking by couldn’t help staring. I was used to this and, for some reason, because it was Jesse I didn’t care at all. She spoke in a Louisiana dialect that, to me, sounded like music. As I sat, trying to think what to say, Jesse told me her story.

She and Ronny had been married for only a few months when he came home early one morning after spending the night in the bars. This was not, she assured me, an unusual occurrence. I knew that already. It was the 1970s. That’s what we all did.

She had waited up for hours before finally going to bed. At dawn he stumbled into their bedroom and shook her awake, demanding that she make him breakfast. He smelled like perfume. Instead of confronting him–like I would, I thought–she got out of bed and made him a plate of eggs. This surprised me. After growing up in Northern California, where woman’s rights were debated constantly, I thought about what I would say. Make your own breakfast, asshole.

Ronny sat at their kitchen table, took two bites and said, “This is shit.”

Jesse got mad, naturally, complaining that not only had she just cooked him breakfast but that he’d been out all night without so much as a phone call and, apparently, from the smell of him, with another woman. Ronny stood up and threw the plate of food in her face. And then he punched her.

“This happened all the time,” she said. “Eventually he just left me.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He left?

Being young and single, my ideas about what marriage might be like were as remote from reality as they could possibly be. But, I thought, at least I knew what marriage would not look like. I would not be serving breakfast on demand to anybody, much less a man who had just spent the night with someone other than me.

All I could manage in response was a pitifully inadequate, “Oh God, Jesse. That sucks.” (Or words to that effect.) Such is life when you are young and stupid.

I had never met anyone who’d experienced anything like what she was describing. (Later, of course, I would learn that I had, they just never talked about it out loud.) My parents had a loving marriage, and never fought in front of my sisters and me. None of the men I dated–or slept with—had ever raised their voices to me, much less hit me. Sadly, this would change, and eventually I would come to understand Jesse in a much clearer way. But when she first told me her story it was as if she were speaking a different language. I was shocked, not just because this seemed to be a normal experience for her, but mostly because I didn’t understand why she would allow herself to be abused.

 

I met Jesse in the summer of 1976. I don’t remember how, probably in a bar, but we soon became inseparable. We both worked at different clubs. We saw each other as often as we could, after our respective shifts, or on our nights off.

The differences between us didn’t seem like much then, but she was a local, raised in the rural south, and I wasn’t. Sadly, this meant that our lives would take very separate paths.

When I moved back to California later that year, we assumed we would see each other again soon. The morning I left we stood on her front lawn taking snapshots until it was time for me to go, Jesse with her boyfriend Dan, who would become her second husband, and Trina, her daughter from her marriage with Ronny.

She was living in what would turn out to be one in a long line of rundown houses that she would live in over the course of her life: an old shotgun house with holes in the floor, a leaky roof, and appliances that only occasionally worked. Filled with mismatched furniture and a single mattress on the living room floor, it was not the kind of house I ever planned on living in, but then neither had she. But for her that’s the way it turned out.

I wouldn’t see Jesse again for eight years. But during that time I heard from her often.

The first time she called in the middle of the night, I put the phone to my ear and heard someone crying. Disoriented, I tried to think who might be calling me at that hour.

“Who is this?” I began to panic, thinking it might be one of my sisters calling, that something had happened to one of our parents.

Then I recognized Jesse’s voice.

“Jesse?” I said. “What’s wrong?” She didn’t answer, just continued to cry.

“Jesse. What happened?”

“He beat me again,” she said.

“Who? Dan?” I was stunned. I had introduced Dan to Jesse, thinking they might be suited to one another.

“Where is he?” I finally asked.

“Gone. New Orleans I think.” Of course, I thought. The bars in New Orleans stayed open all night.

“Jesse,” I said. “I’m so sorry.” Meaningless words that wouldn’t do a thing to help her, but the best I could do from 2,000 miles away. I pictured her huddled over the phone, alone and in pain. I lay there, half asleep, and listened to her cry.

After that, the calls came regularly, every few months, and our relationship developed a disturbing pattern. I would answer the phone and hear her cries.

“He hit me,” she would say, and again I would listen to her sobs, again not knowing what to say. I was horrified that my friend was in pain, but after the first few calls my responses became rote, as if I were following a script: “Where is he now?” I would say. “Is Trina okay?”

She and Dan had two daughters together, but eventually they divorced. And yet the calls kept coming. Each time we would have the same conversation, but one involving an entirely different person. Dan. Jimmy. Charlie. They beat her, she said, or punched her, or kicked her, or threw her against a wall. Who would do these things? I thought. A lot of people apparently, judging from Jesse’s calls. It was around this time that I began to wonder if this was a cultural thing.

These phone calls, for a time, became the basis of our friendship. Someone would beat her, and she would call me; someone else would beat her, and she would call me again; on and on, year after year. Each time we talked I felt utterly helpless. There was nothing I could do but listen, to let her cry, to tell her that I loved her, until she was too tired to stay on the phone any longer. Why don’t you just leave? I would say. I begged her to take the children and go to her mother’s house. Sometimes she would, in fact, take the kids and go. But she always went back.

I was no longer naïve (that had long passed), and I knew there were more complicated reasons why Jesse stayed in these abusive relationships beyond the fact that she had three children to care for, but by now I was beginning to get angry. I had gone through some difficult years myself, and was tired of always being there for her. When had she been there for me when I needed someone? What could I do for her if she wasn’t willing to help herself? This is how my mind worked then.

Over time she seemed to accept this life as her due. Many times I heard her say, “Well, at least he’s not hitting me right now,” when she talked about her boyfriend, or husband, as if that alone made him a good person. I had heard other southern women say the same thing, as if this were normal behavior, something you put up with in order to have a man in your life. I was disgusted by this, not understanding it at all. I couldn’t conceive of being in that situation even once, much less multiple times.

As Jesse got older her relationships, thankfully, became less volatile, and the late night calls finally stopped. For the next few years we talked at Christmas or on birthdays. We wrote each other often, signing our letters with an acronym: YBFITWEW, Your Best Friend in the Whole Entire World. Corny, maybe, but it was a habit we’d started when we were young. (Thirty years later, we still sign our letters that way.) But we had such different lives, and were separated by so many miles, that eventually our letters became scarce.

Over the years I visited Louisiana once or twice, and when I did we would see each other in the French Quarter, or in the town where we’d first met. But by now my view of our relationship had changed. I had come to see it as selfish, one-sided. Why was it always up to me to take the initiative? I always went to her. I always paid for dinner. I always took her to New Orleans. I, I, I. It’s painful to look back now and realize that I was the selfish one.

Jesse’s girls grew up and started families of their own. I married, and settled into a stable, happy life. I thought of her often, but never made much effort to maintain the friendship. But, I reasoned, neither did she.

My circumstances changed when my mother moved to the Gulf Coast, which meant that when I visited her I would be only a short drive away from Jesse. But, as it turned out, I rarely took the time to visit. Her life seemed always to be in a perpetual state of crisis. Her phone was cut off regularly, which left her impossible to reach. I had a hard time summoning up the energy required to find her, and felt a twinge of guilt each time I got on the plane to fly home, vowing that I would see her next time. But as each trip came and went I always found another excuse not to seek out my old friend, until last year when I flew down to visit my mother for Christmas.

After the holiday I had several days before returning home and one morning I grew restless. I told my mother I was going out to look up some old friends. I thought I’d try to see Jesse but wasn’t sure I’d be able to find her or that I even wanted to. I had no phone number for her, no way to know where she was living.

When I got to the small town where I hoped she still lived I drove to the last address I had for her. The place looked the same as every other house she’d lived in, which is to say deeply depressing. Despite the knot in my stomach I got out of the car and walked to the front door, half hoping that no one was home. I knocked, and after a moment an older man opened the door. He looked wary, clearly assuming I was there trying to sell something.

“I’m looking for Jesse.” I said.

He hesitated, but opened the door a bit wider. Finally he said, “Yeah. Come on in.” I followed him into a house filled, literally, with junk. A mattress was upended against one wall, and boxes were haphazardly stacked everywhere. A filthy overstuffed chair, apparently vacated by the same man who had answered the door, sat across from a small TV, the volume turned low.

He motioned for me to follow, leading me to a closed door at the back of the house. He knocked and said, “Hey Jesse. You’ve got a visitor.”

I waited for her to appear, happy to finally be seeing her again, but really just wanting to leave. It was almost noon and she was still sleeping? Either she had worked late the night before, or she was still involved with a lifestyle I had long ago given up.

“Jesse!” He knocked again. “Someone’s here to see you.” Then the door opened, and there she was. Groggy from sleep, it took her a moment to recognize me. When she did, she started to cry. We hugged each other for a long time, each of us crying now.

“What are you doing here?” she said.

“I drove over from Waveland.” I said, “I had no way to reach you.” I hugged her again, surprised to realize how much I’d missed her. A man was standing behind her, looking at me as if he knew who I was. “You must be Sandy,” he said.

Jesse turned towards him and smiled. “This is my husband, Tom,” she said. Husband? This man looked young enough to be her son. Nothing ever changes, I thought.

We made small talk for a while, but finally I asked if she might like to get some lunch. The house was making me claustrophobic and I was beginning to feel anxious. I didn’t know Tom, or the man who had answered the door, but I knew one of them was selling drugs. Several men came and went while I was there, each of them taking a turn in the bathroom. I knew what a drug house looked like, and I had to assume Jesse was using also.

She got dressed and we walked downtown to find a place to eat. We sat at the bar and talked, laughing about things we’d done together, our times behind the bar, the friends and customers we’d known.

“They used to call me ‘Swamp’, remember?” Jesse said.

“Who did?” I said, confused.

“Oh, my regulars, because of where I was born. They never meant anything by it.”

“But why?” I said. “Ponchatoula’s not the swamp.”

“I was born in Manchac,” she said. “I didn’t move to Ponchatoula until later.”

“I never knew that.”

Manchac was out in the bayous between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, a place you passed on the way to somewhere else. There was a famous seafood restaurant there, at least famous in south Louisiana. To go there meant parking, having a nice meal, and getting the hell out and back to wherever it was you came from.

I knew that the gap in meaning between ‘bayou’ and ‘swamp’ couldn’t possibly be wider, and had nothing at all to do with their geographical differences. One was romantic and mysterious, while the other conjured up images of poor white trash, which to some people was just about the worst thing you can be.

She hadn’t been trying to hide this. She must have known I wouldn’t care one way or the other. It had just, surprisingly, never come up.

“My father threw my mother out of the house when I was five,” she said.

“Your mother in Ponchatoula?”

“That’s my stepmother. She’s the one who raised me. My real mother lives in Amite. I’ve only met her a couple of times.” Amite was a small town less than twenty miles from where we were sitting.

She told me that her father beat her mother for years, eventually throwing her out of her own house and taking their daughter for himself. I thought about all the late night phone calls, my burger untouched in front of me, as she described her hellish childhood, one that I now knew had become a template for her entire life.

Now, many years later, she had no money and no medical insurance. She could no longer work. Several years before, she had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and suffered from debilitating bouts with fibromyalgia. She had no car, and was dependent on anybody who could take her where she needed to go that was farther than walking distance from the house. Her daughters lived nearby but refused to see her. I asked her why, and she said it was because they disliked Tom. I suspected that it had more to do with her drug use, but didn’t say so.

She lived under appalling conditions, which I’d just seen a glimpse of. She and Tom rarely had enough to eat. They shared the house with his father, who Tom had only met recently. This was, apparently, the man who had answered the door. He spent all day, Jesse said, in front of the TV. He paid half the rent, but also stole their food, and anything else they left lying around. They had no privacy, padlocking the door to their bedroom when they left the house, to protect the few possessions they had. They were virtual prisoners in a house most people wouldn’t want to step foot in, much less live in.

I took her to New Orleans that night, because it was the only thing I could think to do for her. We walked the streets of the Quarter, eating beignets and buying silly trinkets, things that tourists do. I took her to dinner at a restaurant that, in hindsight, must have made her uncomfortable. She looked at the menu and I saw that she was afraid to make a choice, faced with entrees that cost more money than she could ever spend on one meal. But I also saw that she was struggling to have fun, something she hadn’t done in a very long time. She tasted goat cheese for the first time, and drank two glasses of expensive Chardonnay. We laughed and laughed, as the friend I had loved for so long let go of her pain, if only for a few hours.

The next day, instead of goat cheese and risotto, we drank sweet tea and ate oyster Po-boys. That night, we stood on the hotel balcony in the cold, watching the tourists laughing below.

“You know what I want?” she said, as she lit a cigarette and watched the lights of the city. “All I want is a trailer of my own, and enough room for a garden.”

My old prejudices bubbled up again. You want to live in a trailer? Why not dream for a house, I wondered, or at least a house with a shower that worked or a front door that locked?

Later, as I listened to her softly snoring in the bed next to mine, I thought, how did I escape this? A life where the most you can hope for is a trailer on the side of a two-lane highway? Even with all the problems I’d had in my own life, it had been a winning lottery ticket compared to what my friend had lived with.

I felt my resentment towards her begin to disappear, my anger at her for not being there when I needed her, for continuing to let men abuse her. My ignorance had colored my view of our relationship for so long that I had been unable to see the truth. There were many times I had not been Jesse’s friend, and she hadn’t been mine. The difference is that I should have known better.

I watched her as she slept and suddenly, at the oddest of times, realized that what Jesse had given me over the years was something for which I would never be able to adequately thank her: friendship and unconditional love. Why had it taken me so long to recognize such a simple thing?

Six months later, she called me again. She was going into rehab. Her daughters had insisted, saying that was the only way she’d ever see her grandchildren. She and Tom had separated because he wasn’t willing to give up the drugs. I thought, not for the first time, how much can one person endure?

My friendship with Jesse has lasted for over half my life. I have resented her, been angry with her, ignored her, and thought less of her for her weaknesses. But I have also laughed with her, cried with her, and shared the deep love that only true friends can. She will turn 60 this year, still beautiful, still turning heads. I know that beauty has nothing at all to do with domestic abuse, yet I often wonder if that same beauty that has drawn so many men to her over the years has been more of a curse to her than anything else.

I have been lucky, truly lucky, to have her as my friend. My only regret is that it took me over thirty years to realize it. If I could do only one thing for her, besides love her, I would buy her the one small thing she wants out of life: a trailer, with a garden. A place of her own that no one can take from her, a place where I will always be able to find her.

 

 

 

Adam Smokes by Kim Ferraez

My new husband and I built a small, one-story, handicapped-accessible house on the banks of Tibbee Creek. After my husband’s bout with Hodgkins-lymphoma and the subsequent package deal of chemotherapy and radiation, I decided to enlarge doors, have a wheelchair-accessible shower and open my floor plan up with big, beautiful arches between many of the rooms. We did not incorporate any steps going into the house. Might as well since we were building anyway. Since I have two healthcare degrees, I could take care of him if he really got down. Most folks don’t realize that people are forced into nursing homes due to something as simple as not being able to fit a wheelchair through the bathroom door.

This home is where my husband and I brought my first cousin, Adam, over for Thanksgiving dinner. Adam and I are the same age, but he lives in a nursing home that is only seven miles from my house. I feel a surprisingly heavy guilt that he has inherited Huntington’s disease from our grandfather and I did not. My side of the family dodged that bullet. My grandfather terrified me as a little girl and I dreaded seeing him because I was convinced that he was actually a living, breathing monster that would eat me. He smacked his lips and writhed uncontrollably and his arms and torso flailed about in a strange dance called chorea. His eyes darted back and forth. Just like Adam’s eyes do now, thirty years later. Only Adam is no monster. He is my blood. And I do not run from monsters anymore. Adam is also a double amputee. Talk about rotten luck, it’s no damn wonder he chain smokes every chance he gets.

When I went to pick him up on Thanksgiving Day, he was excited. He was waiting for me, ready to go, on the front porch of the nursing home He was easy to pick out in the lineup of patients because he was the only person flailing his torso and arms about and grimacing and blinking his eyes real fast. He could not stay still. I thought he might face plant himself on the concrete straight out of his chair. I was walking toward him when the thought suddenly struck me. How in the hell was I going to get a man with little arm control and no legs up into my SUV? I opened the passenger side door and stood there like an imbecile, wishing I had brought some back-up when he said loudly “Move. Just move!” I stepped aside and with that, Adam barreled straight up into the seat of my truck using his arms, trunk and residual legs in one fast motion. He literally exploded out of his wheelchair into my truck. He was as fast as a monkey! I stood there with my mouth wide open, as he sat there grinning like a kid with his too-long pant legs tied in a knot below this non-existent knees and his seatbelt on. “How about that,” he said. “Show off,” I replied.

On the way to my house, I stopped and bought him a pack of cigarettes. I fussed at him about smoking, just like he expected me to do, but my lips twitched despite myself. All that fussing was one gift that I could give him. I am really good at it and he really seemed to like it. During dinner, he opened our wheelchair –wide door and went outside to smoke so many times that I lost count. I fussed and asked him if he was trying to heat the whole neighborhood, kill himself by smoking, smell up my entire porch, et cetera, but inside I saw that he was happy. It made him happy to roll up to a dining room table again, get himself in and out of the house whenever he wanted and to smoke if and when he wanted to. I can see that he liked my ‘Aunt Bea’ style of fussiness. This fussing was good for him and was just what he needed. It was a small piece of normalcy. Precious stuff. He smoked eighteen cigarettes in four hours. Good for him.

Two Points for Charlie by Beth Gilstrap

Charlie Reese flicks his ears and starts walking backwards. Trace talks me out of the mistake.

“Put your hands lower on the reins. Pull once to your belly. Don’t forget toes up, heels down. Reins in between your belly button and your pelvis.”

Charlie Reese stops with a stomp, lets out a lippy snort. I am stiff, not blinking, clenching my jaw. My friend Danielle is behind me, saying how beautiful I look on a black stallion. I don’t dare turn around to talk to her and I leave the hair that’s stuck to my lip in place.

Trace leads Danielle up to a plow horse named Molly. She must be 10 feet tall. Charlie Reese is petite, standing a head above me. He has a white stripe down his muzzle. I want to scratch him behind the ears like I do with my dogs, but I am marble.

Trace puts a step up to Molly, asks Danielle if she needs a push. “I think I got it,” she says. She has trouble getting her leg over; the pain from her fibromyalgia is always a problem.

“She doesn’t seem too happy with me on her back,” Danielle says. She worries about her size but she looks small on Molly, her legs short and kicked out sideways. Her wavy hair gathers at her shoulders, redder in the sunlight than I remember. “I’m bigger than she expected.”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” I say. Danielle has gone pale, but she reaches up to Molly’s neck to pet her. It is a silent conversation.

“Yeah, Molly hauls carriages at Christmas,” Trace says. “Now, y’all set still and I’ll get on my horse and lead us down the trails in a minute.” A cigarette hangs from Trace’s lips; he never touches it with his hands, just sucks in and eventually spits it out. His Wrangler’s are dirty and his beard’s filling in. He’s skinnier than me and his skin has taken on the patina of a man who’s worked outside his whole life. He saddles his horse and hops on him in a quick, fluid motion. I wish I could absorb his knowledge through proximity.

Danielle had been pushing me to stop working so much, to get outdoors and get on some horses. She had said it might help my writing, my melancholia. We used to have lunch once a week but since I’d been writing this book and going through my second round of graduate school, I’d found a lot of reasons to blow her off. She knew I was spending too much time in my muddled head. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. I needed to surrender, to grab at some kind of faith.

Charlie Reese is skeptical of me. He digs at the dirt, pulls his head down.

“You got to let him know you know what you’re doing,” Trace says.

“But I don’t,” I say, trying to find a comfortable spot in the saddle.

“Sit up straight,” Trace says. “Toes up, heels down, and don’t let him eat nothin’ on the trail. God knows he’s gonna try.” He loops his reins around one hand. I wonder why he has us using both hands. “And you,” he says to Danielle, “Molly’s a strong girl, gonna jerk them reins, best hold on.” He smiles over his shoulder, adjusts his ball cap so we can see his eyes. “You ladies ready?”

“Sure?”

“Kiss at ‘em and give ‘em a bit of heel. Let’s go.”

I almost cancelled this morning. I’d done it once before when it looked like rain. There is something out here in the wilderness I can’t face. I’m fighting for some string of self-confidence to keep going with my writing, to keep from losing the last ties to a higher power that flicker through me. I’ve stopped praying but being on Charlie’s back makes me want to.

I put my tongue to the roof of my mouth, making a clicking sound. I press my heels into Charlie Reese’s sides. I try to relax. Bobbing up and down and side to side in the saddle, I feel pressure on my tailbone already and we are just walking. The trail is rocky. Charlie’s hooves slip occasionally. We fall behind Trace.

He yells, “Give ‘em some heel. Kiss at ‘em.”

I do and Charlie moves into a trot. I bang up and down on the saddle.

Trace laughs when I pull the reins for Charlie to stop. “If you press into the stirrups you won’t be smacking your behind so much.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” I say, embarrassed.

We move on, keep walking through the forest. It smells of pine. The leaves are just starting to get orange and red; the tips look as if they have been dipped in color.

“It’s beautiful out here,” I say as we move into a clearing with tall grass.

“You ought to see it at Christmas time,” Trace says. “You celebrate Christmas?”

“Yeah,” I say because that’s the easiest answer to a complicated question. I go through the traditions of Christmas. Trees, presents, baking and family. I don’t share the fact that I’m agnostic with just anyone. Not even Danielle knows. She’s always talking about Jesus and praying for me. It would break her heart. Today, I look for peace in the simple connection of human and horse.

“Come Thanksgiving, we sell trees, do carriage rides, do an old country Christmas thing. Last year we even got a little snow for it. You oughta come out.”

Danielle says, “We should do that, Beth.”

I’m too busy trying to get Charlie Reese out of the weeds he’s started chewing. A big purple-coned flower and something white, like baby’s breath hang from the sides of his mouth.

“That’s two points for Charlie,” Trace says. “Get him outta there.”

I pull the left rein down to my knee; bring my right hand up over the horn. He comes out of it and into a circle.

“Bring him back around and pull the reins to your belly,” Trace says.

I pull the reins. Charlie finishes chewing. I hear the plants crunching between his teeth. He flicks me with his tail.

I’m proud for getting control of him. I let go of the internal chatter and focus on the trees, the wind, and the wiry texture of Charlie’s mane. I feel him starting to trust me but he’s not finished testing me. I pat his side, whisper, “good boy.”

“Molly has gas,” Danielle says. “And she keeps pulling at her reins.”

“Y’all are gonna wanna lean forward and give ‘em heel to get up the ridge over there. Then, when you come back down, lean back and pull up on the reins some.”

We lumber forth over the ridge and back into an overgrown section of trail where brush hits my boots.

“You sure you’ve never ridden before?” Trace asks.

“Not since I was seven,” I say.

My mother had taken me riding at a friend’s house. The horse was white and speckled brown. My mom, her friend, my brother, and I rode together through her property –a wide expanse of field. I rode ahead, alone. It was the first time I can remember being free from the weight of my parents’ divorce.

I was so small then.

“What do you do?” he asks, leading us around a sharp curve. I click for Charlie, pull to the right. He’s listening to me for the first time.

With a mess of a book under way and no real contribution to my household, sometimes I wonder if I’m just a dreamer. But not today. Not with my thighs aching and my head clearing. Not with Charlie. In this moment, I believe.

“I’m a writer,” I say with my thumbs poking up, wrapped in reins.

Ridge Runner by Nicole Yurcaba

The Ol’ Bear Hunter, he never tried to stop me. Knew better than to try, too. Knew I’d merely look at him with a smart-assed smirk on my wind-reddened face, mentally challengin’ his lightly spoken cautions with a thought-but-not-said “Make me”.

 

No, he never tried to stop me. Never once protested with “Ya ought not to do that.” He let me learn on my own. Maybe because he remembered. Remembered what it was like to be

youngdumbbulletprooftwentyone.

 

The Ol’ Bear Hunter, slippin’ a few essentials–water, mainly–into the worn knapsack strapped to my broad back, offered one simple bit of friendly advice–”Ya be careful. Ya don’t know ‘er like ya know them others, so don’t get all hotheaded an’ go t’ runnin’ like a hellion.”

“Okay, I lied, “I won’t.” And before I slipped feet first on her creviced face’s rocky dimple, I glanced over my shoulder. To see him, cross-leggedly sittin’, on a moss-licked boulder. His mouth, upturned at its corner slightly. Quiet pride, glistenin’ vibrantly, in his sixty-somethin’ blue eyes. Pride because he had taught me. Taught me his mountain ways. Taught me well. And I could tell he remembered. He remembered. Maybe, he even wished he could be, once again

youngdumbbulletprooftwentyone.

 

Lowerin’ myself onto her leafy cheek, my Guide Gear leather boots hit the ground with an unladylike THUD! A few angled paces I walked. Dippin’ down further on her cheek’s downward slant, I turned around. Turned around to make sure the Ol’ Bear Hunter could not see me…

 

Instinct. Instinct kicked in. The sort of instinct most young woman lack. The sort of instinct The Ol’ Bear Hunter had seen flickerin’ wildly in my fierce eyes years ago. Instinct he and his backwoods trainin’ had helped hone. Trained ears narrowed in on the hounds’ deep baying. Instinct. Mind over matter. Woman over mountain. Grace would not defeat me. After all, I was

youngdumbbulletprooftwentyone.

Arms pumpin’. Legs leapin’. Findin’ footin’. Huffin’. Puffin’. Heavin’ lungs burnin’. Mind over matter. Woman over mountain. Instinct. Separatin’ beauty from brutality. Separatin’ woman from girl. Guide Gear hunting boots thud-thud-thuddin’ over leaf-hidden stony pimples, narrowly lippin’ leaf-hidden crevices.

 

Her jagged, angled features grew narrower. Sloped downward. Narrower, nearly instantaneously. One strainin’ stride, the trail was wide open, cascadin’ down her rock-pocked cheeks. The next strainin’ stride, narrow, barely one boot-length wide. My free-for-all boundin’ slowed to a tight, calve-clenchin’ airborne shuffle. Hidden rocks threatened stumblin’ carelessly landing steps.

The Ol’ Bear Hunter, he’d told me once that when in his twenty-somethins, he could run. Run across two ridges–mean ridges, separates-men-from-boys ridges. Run right behind his racing footloose hounds. And never break his stride.

 

Hounds. Below. Hounds in the holler below me. Down. Down. Down. I angled. Perpendicular to the holler’s flat bottom. The hounds. Keepin’ the black bruin treed. Amidst them I saw him. Him. The Ol’ Bear Hunter. Standing, greyed head tilted back, surveyin’ the current situation. Bullheaded, I rushed to the tree. Rushed in amongst the bayin’ hounds. Unsnappin’ the well-used lead strap from around me, I rushed in. “Were ya skeered?” The Old Bear hunter called.

Lookin’ up, meetin’ his aged blue-eyed gaze with my young, brazen brown-eyed one, I grinned. I grinned the widest nothin’-gets-the-best-of-me grin I could exhaustedly muster.

 

“Hell, takes more than ol’ Grace Mountain to skeer me,”

I snickered.

Mind had conquered matter.

Woman had conquered mountain.

Grace Mountain did not defeat me.

I’d defeated her.

 

And the Ol’ Bear Hunter?

He knew.

He knew.

But he didn’t yell. Didn’t raise his voice. Didn’t chastise.

No, he didn’t.

 

He smiled.

And I smiled.

Knowing he remembered. Remembered what it was like to be

youngdumbbulletprooftwentyone.

Quick Change on a Street Corner by A. J. Tierney

The summer before 7th grade, Oklahoma Kids, a talent group I was part of, performed in downtown Muskogee. A stage was set up on the street in front of the old Roxy Theatre. I would be doing a couple of routines, which required a quick costume change. I started to panic when I looked around and found absolutely nowhere to change. There were no wings off stage to run into for at least some privacy from the audience. Everything was in the open. Maybe my mom had a plan and would tell me later; I didn’t bother asking her.

I came dressed in my tap costume since I would be performing that number first. I had gone over how I needed to undress over and over in mind to make sure I could get it done in less than three minutes before I’d have to take the stage again doing my jazz routine. I’d strip off my hat and neckpiece and throw those off while my sister unhooked my corset and my mom unbuckled my tap shoes. Then I’d whip off my white leotard and my sister would hold out my purple leotard to step into while my mom would guide my feet into my jazz shoes and tie them. I’d slide my belt through my leotard and snap it in the back. One final check of hair and makeup and run back to the stage.

As I took the stage to do my first routine, I searched frantically for any sight of a tent or sheet or anything to shield me from the prying eyes of strangers. I didn’t have full-grown boobs yet; I was in that terrible “nubbin” stage, as my grandma affectionately called it. But they were my nubbins and I didn’t want anyone looking at them, especially boys. Boys I went to school with who were on the street roaming around with their friends and parents.

I finished my tap routine and looked for my mom and sister. They stood outside of the J. Beck Jewelry store on the corner waving for me to come over. The ball in my stomach began to release a little contemplating a quick change inside the jewelry store. As I got closer I saw my purple leotard thrown over my mom’s shoulder and my jazz shoes laid out on the ground in front of the jewelry store. Oh my God! She wants me to strip naked on the street corner!

“Hurry, hurry, Adrianne! Get your hat off!”

“Mom, no! Please, no!”

“Tiffy, start getting her corset off.”

My sister unhooked the corset and my mom unbuckled my tap shoes. I had no choice but to continue taking off my neckpiece. My mom pulled the shoulders of my leotard down. I grabbed her hands.

“No! I’m not getting naked out here!”

“Stop it, Adrianne. You have to get your other leotard on.”

“I’m dancing in this one.” I continued to struggle against her taking off my leotard.

“Get this leotard off now and get into your purple one!”

“Mom, there are boys right there!” I thrust my finger past her face.

“What difference does that make? You ain’t got nothin’ to show anyway.”

My sister took off her jacket and held it out to screen my body from the people who were now hovering around to see what all the fuss was about. “Just get behind my jacket.”

I grabbed the purple leotard off my mom’s shoulder and backed up against the brick wall. I held the purple leotard in my teeth and wiggled out of my white leotard. I jumped into the purple one and pulled it up faster than I ever had before while my sister moved back and forth covering my naked body with her jacket.

They called me to the stage as my mom tied my jazz shoes. I heard the boys laughing and I felt myself start to cry. Stupid boys!

As I ran back to the stage, I slid my belt through my leotard and snapped it together. I took the steps two at a time up the side of the stage then waited. The crowd cheered and I struck my starting pose in the middle of the stage. I looked out into the audience and saw the boys laughing and pointing at me, doubling over from their laughter. In that moment I couldn’t decide who I hated more, my mom or those stupid boys.

One Nation Divisible by Alan Samry

The subject of secession in the book, Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map, by Bill Kauffman got me to thinking on a larger scale about the importance of local people determining what’s best for their own neck of the woods.

If we in Fairhope, Alabama are “eccentric,” as a city official claims because it was founded on the utopian principles of Henry George, and slap full of nudists, socialists, and worst of all, artists, then a crying jag for a new local school district was just the tip of the iceberg. I’m a patriot to the core. I grew up loyal to Falmouth, Massachusetts, hometown of America-the-Beautiful songstress Katherine Lee Bates, and I have now clearly realized something in my new hometown is amiss. The ratings of our state and national representatives are at an all-time low. Wars for democracy against tribal factions, and out of control spending are undermining core values of American independence. The nation or her respective states are too big to be governed from one city.

Take a deep breath here and keep an open mind. Let’s secede from the Union and form our own nation, or state. Treasonous you say! Well, yes, and that’s precisely what our nation’s foundation rests upon. What are our other choices? Refusal to pay taxes equals an automatic go directly to jail, so that’s not an option. Secession means to withdraw from and it’s not a new idea. In fact, its origin is in the Declaration of Independence, which states that England had “an absolute tyranny over these states.” Now our federal and state governments wield all the power.

Today, there is no self-governance in Baldwin County because Montgomery and Washington make our decisions for us. Beyond that they take our wealth and redistribute it throughout the state. I’m all for paying my share, but why are we paying more than our share? The Tea Party shouts reform, and I admire that and would join them if I thought that their movement could move mountains. The problem is that the federal and state governments are so big; they will simply swallow up the Tea Party over time by wearing it down and dividing it against itself, especially in a two-party system. Don’t be fooled by the shift in power at the state and national level either. We’ve seen it before and it doesn’t seem to matter who’s in charge.

Our separation idea is not unique as there have been other secession movements. It’s true. There was Secessionist talk in New England in 1804. Roughly a half century later South Carolina seceded and the War of Northern Aggression was on.

Please consider joining me in forming the new state, nation, or nation state of LA. In Lower Alabama, we’ll take along whoever is willing to break away, including Mobile, Mobile County, West Florida, and any adjacent counties in Florida clear across to Mexico. Maybe we could become the Gulf States of America or the good ole’ GSA. This area has been frontier territory for so long anyway that we should just break away. We’ve been under so many flags isn’t time we had our own? Perhaps we could put in a large claim to BP since we’d have most of the Gulf coastline.

Our community could do just what hundreds of other nations have done when forming a new nation, use the United States Constitution, and the earlier, and some say better, Articles of Confederation as a template. Experts argue today that the US Constitution is more suited to smaller countries, and that’s why no one here in America seems to be paying much attention to it anymore.

We don’t need to look any further than Alabama’s “proud” secessionist history. We can be inspired just cradling our buns in a porch rocker on the gray boards of the first White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery, Alabama. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, smart West Point graduates both, read William Rawle’s textbook, A view of the constitution of the United States of America, in 1825. It was in Mobile among the live oaks and tall pines on the Campus of the University of South Alabama that I have learned about Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, a former slave and fake leg wearer, like myself, who was a radical abolitionist. He gave a sermon to Congress when it was a place for doing the nations’ business and doubled as a religious congregation of more than 2,000 people. His sermon followed the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. He was the first black man to speak in Congress. Another Montgomery/Davis connection is worth mentioning here too. Jefferson Davis’s brother Joseph owned a large plantation at Hurricane, Mississippi. After the war, the elder Davis gave property to his plantation business manager and son, Benjamin and Isaiah Montgomery. Isaiah founded the all black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. (For further study on the Civil War come into my place of employment, the Fairhope Public Library, and feel free to browse our newest collection, all 129 volumes, including a fabulous color atlas, of The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies / Prepared under the direction of the Secretary of War by Robert N. Scott If you decide to take a look at the volumes, you’ll be in mixed company. You may find yourself sitting between Canadian snowbirds, war re-enactor types straight out of Confederates in the Attic, or even the former editor of The New York Times, Howell Raines, who is working on a novel.)

The secession movements Alta California and the Nation of Alaska have been alive and dead, at the same time, since before the Civil War. Alta California was the brainchild of John Sutter, according to Kauffman’s book. Before gold was even discovered at Sutter’s Mill, Sutter fantasized about Alta California. His vision of a republic, he wrote in a German-language, would not answer to Washington. I wish I could tell you in a few sentences about the Nation of Alaska. They are such an independent minded people up there; they really don’t seem to care what we do in the lower 48. John McPhee, most famous for his essay, “The search for Marvin Gardens,” pretty well summed up the Alaskan attitude when he profiled John Vogler in his book, Coming into the Country. “A roamer, a garrulous companion, a sort of cartoon Alaskan self drawn,” is what McPhee wrote, but Kauffman really captures the man and mantra of Alaskans. Vogler is the “Tundra Rebel,” and, “a fuck-you-I’ll-do-it-my-way gold prospector.”

Secession is a cultural issue, not a patriotic one. Conservatives, liberals, and independents are working together separately attempting to break away from Uncle Sam. Did you know that Vermont was a Republic that governed itself once? The Second Vermont Republic wants another crack at self-governance. There is no doubt that the south is beginning to look a lot like the rest of the United States too. The Holiday Inn Express, a Waffle House, or Cracker Barrel sits at the bottom of every exit ramp. We must defend local diversity against national conformity!

Can secession work?

What of currency you say? Well shinplasters worked for Fairhopians, and by gum, they oughta’ work for us too. In the early 1900s, the Fairhope Industrial Association created association scrip AKA shinplasters. They were accepted at the cooperative store and were used to pay teachers too. (I don’t have the space to explain Fairhope’s complicated yet colorful beginnings, so Google any of the key terms in this paragraph, or socialist movement, Fairhope Founder E. B. Gaston’s “cooperative individualism,” utopian community, or Familistére for more background). Back then, the Single Taxers even used shinplasters to buy shares so they could build Fairhope’s first wharf for commerce, that’s now become the pier, the city’s signature recreational attraction.

Now that we have our currency, let’s use Aaron Burr’s likeness on the money since he passed through Baldwin County. In irons. If you check your history, you’ll find buried in the wee small print somewhere that he was found not guilty. The key is to make sure the new nation’s dollar holds its value and for that you need a commodity to trade.

My vision, snatched from history, is to build a new wharf, a “green” port to export our goods. What goods? Agriculture, of course, in the tradition of early settlers is our best and already existing prospect. If Texas can have an Organic Cotton Growers Association, then LA or GSA can have a cannabis crop. Yes, there is a long storied farm history in Baldwin County of growing cotton, soybeans, strawberries, peanuts, pecans, corn, and potatoes. I believe under this new pot plan, there will be again. What crop has extremely high value and can be cultivated on a large scale that has an unlimited market? Marijuana. Forget legalized gambling, that’s so Native American. Let’s re envision Jefferson’s Agrarian south. Yeah, let’s grow thousands of acres of grass. And not just centipede, the heat tolerant perennial called grass. Plush commercially grown centipede in Baldwin County is resurging. Truckloads of the rolled or rectangular sod are earmarked for farmland turned over for subdivisions and marked for new single family homes. But now, we could also have the large scale farmers cultivating Columbian or Acapulco gold. Micro growers could be focused on high quality, high THC strains of Kush, Goo, and Skunk. We’d be competing against our former government for customers. The U. S. Government has been growing pot in Mississippi and has been selling it to people, including Floridian Irv Rosenfeld, since the 1980s. Yes, the 1980s. Here in Alabama, we could get two crops in each year too, I’d bet, but I don’t have to bet because we’ve got farmers, and after a little studying they’ll know exactly what Mother Earth can yield. Maybe the Auburn University Cooperative Extension off County Road 104 could help us out. People would look at our crop and think we’re crazy, so we’d have to continue to grow some pecans and pea-nuts.

The local food initiative would supply our community with food. We’ve got lots of loca-vores already. Heck, the Master Gardeners that frequent the Fairhope Library easily outnumber the librarians. Hippie types who not only live green, they look green. Grass stains, dirt under the nails, a few sticks and twigs in their hair. Their community gardens at Homestead Village and off St. James Avenue are thriving and could become models for expansion.

Simply reducing the layers of government and its regulations means more and better local control. We decide; not some Washington pencil pushers. These are the same bureaucrats who conducted a study on the population of “Walruses” and “Sea Lions.” In the Gulf of Mexico! Our own studies, I assure you, will include manatees and dolphins. Our crop needs to be out of the grow houses and back outdoors. In Alabama, we already have the “Sunshine Law,” which shines a light on government activity to make sure our state leaders are acting on the up and up. The GSA Sunshine Law will shine Mother Nature’s light on our buds.

Let’s consider national security. Our former police chief hailed from Miami, a city of, like, 10 million people. I’m confident he can protect LA and even GSA. With everyone so happy with our national crop, I hardly see a need for a defense budget. I like the sound of local militia. It has a revolutionary ring to it and it’s grounded in community. Moms, I’m sure, would be glad to keep their sons and daughters on their own nation’s soil. Well perhaps the Mexican drug cartels would have a beef, but most of these criminal gangs are growing marijuana crops in the US. They’re already using national parklands and forests.

So, that’s the way I see it. At least think about joining my secession movement. But don’t take too long, or I’ll have to take my leg off and start beating some sense into yall.

Langland’s Grocery by Dempsey Miles

It looked from the outside like a small house or maybe a barn. The wood plank walls were even colored that garish barn house red like you see in Pennsylvania Dutch country. There was certainly no chance of you missing it sitting on Whitfield Street. It was the first store that I remember being allowed to walk to. It sat less than a block out side of Curtis Quarters and the foot traffic from my neighborhood had to be what kept the gaudy colored place in business.

 

 

I don’t know if it was coincidence or genius on Mr. Langland’s part that caused him to place his store in that location. Langland’s was the true corner store way before Stop & Go Mart or Seven Eleven discovered Starkville. Mr. Langland’s store hours were 7 am to 8 pm Monday through Saturday. The store was closed on Sundays and every government or religious holiday. I mean we were in the deep south after all. Mr. Langland and his wife were the first white people I can recall meeting. Mr. Langland was a tall man who was starting to get that hump in his shoulders that old men seem to get if they lived long enough. His hair was shiny black like Kiwi brand liquid shoe polish and styled exactly like Bob’s big boy. In the insane humidity of Mississippi summers I never saw that man with a hair out of place. Mr. Langland’s dress usually consisted of long sleeve, buttoned shirt, white with stripes of daily varying widths, pleated trousers sometimes with an unadorned black belt or daring red suspenders with little gold colored clasps, and black wing tipped shoes. I always got the impression he was quite the natty dresser in his young man days. Mrs. Langland wasn’t as put together as her stylish spouse. She could usually be found behind the cash register wearing simple powder blue or beige dresses; the kind with the short sleeves and little plastic zipper running the length of the back. Mrs. Langland was known to wear grayish-blond beehive wigs. My six years old mind wondered who picks a gray wig to wear? Mrs. Langland continuously fanned her self with a card board Outlaw & Carter Funeral Home fan. I assumed she got the fan for free since the funeral home was black owned and the Langland’s were as liver-spotted milky white as you could get.

 

 

As diametrically opposed as their fashion choices were, it was obvious they loved each other and could be seen fussily doting on each other in the way that truly loving couples who have been together forever do. Whenever she spoke of him or asked him a store related question she would call him Mr. Langland and he would call her Miss. Langland when the scene was reversed. I liked the Langlands’ a lot.

 

 

The store they owned was as much a personality as the Langlands’. The store definitely had a soul of its own. The door leading into the store could not have been more than five feet from Whitfield Street. It had a porch no more than a foot high and two wooden steps to the left of the porch for those who cared to use them. Upon entering the store it was apparent that the Langland’s intent was to have everything that you even though you may need. In all my times going into the little red store on countless recovery missions for my mother or one of the neighbor ladies did I ever not find exactly what I was sent for. It was as if the sheer need of the item caused it to materialize on one of the many crowded shelves in the crowded aisles. Being the shrewd business man he was, Mr. Langland made sure he kept the candy right inside the doorway at kid eye level. To the chagrin of my dentist, it was here I fell in love with such delights as Boston Baked Beans, Red Hots, Ike & Mike’s, Now-a-Laters, Jolly Ranchers, Sugar Daddies, Baby Ruth’s and other sugary confections. To the right was a red and white Coke- a- Cola Cooler with a lift up lid. The beautiful metal chest contained endless amounts of Nehi sodas of every flavor: grape, peach, orange, strawberry and even root beer. Once I had found my treat or errand item I would go to the counter where his ancient cash register sat. The cash register was a pale olive green with a glass pane in the front that would loudly crank up the chalk white dollar and cents as Mr. Langland pushed the flat circular buttons with deft fingers moving in a blur, his lips silently mouthing each total. The counter was always adorned with standing racks of Tom’s salted peanuts, or small grab bags of Golden Flakes pork skins, hot or plain flavored. Sometimes I had to buy lunchmeat that Mr. Langland sliced right there behind the far end of the counter: Country thick slices of red ring bologna, liver cheese, hog’s head souse or Virginia ham. Mrs. Langland would always chime in, “Mr. Langland put an extra slice in there for the chillen.” to which he would always reply, “I was Miss. Langland.” Did I say I liked the Langlands’ a lot?

 

 

A lot of bad stuff happened around that little red wooden grocery store. There were knife fights, shootings, and drunken fist fights among the normal weekly activities. But no one ever disrespected Langland’s Grocery. No one ever stole from them, not one piece of penny candy, not one bag of plain skins, not ever. The Langlands’ were as much a part of our neighborhood as the families that lived in it. And even though no one knew of their life outside of the store or where they went when they locked the single wooden front door; they were our family too. Extending credit until you got paid on Friday or when your pension check was late. Never judging when you had the colorful book of food stamps as payment. Never following you around the aisles to make sure you weren’t pilfering. I believed if you really needed an item they would have given it to you with a smile and a,” Just pay us when you have it next time.” I miss the dapper Mr. Langland and the sweet, bee-hived, fanning, Mrs. Langland. I really liked the Langlands’ a lot.

Grand Man by Deb Jellet

Joni Mitchell would sit beside him on the piano bench and play until the wee small hours of the morning. He played for the Monkees, Red Foxx and Tom Selleck, to name a few. Paul Harvey featured him in a broadcast and called his music heavenly. He couldn’t remember your name, but he could always remember your favorite song. He was a one off, larger than life New Orleans Cajun musician who neither drank nor smoked. He was the pianist and band leader Sage “Jack” Normand.

Early pictures of Jack, almost always sitting at a piano, show a trim, dark man with wavy hair, unruly, bushy eyebrows and a dapper moustache turned up at the corners. He always has a smile on his face. There is a certain devilish Gallic flare in his look and attitude. Something of the bravado of Maurice Chevalier. As if he is about to deliver the punch line of some delicious joke. By the 1980’s, the moustache had turned gray and drooped, the wavy hair receded and the waistline expanded, but the smile and the affability, the larger than life qualities of the man, were undiminished.

Born in 1917, Jack Normand grew up in New Orleans. From solid Cajun stock and proud of it, Jack had little formal training, beyond the few piano lessons his mother made him take. During the Depression, he was making 50 cents a week working in a grocery store and playing music in his free time. One night he and a friend were hired to play at a dive. They only knew three songs, but they made it work. He never went back to the grocery store.

By 1940, Jack and his trio were playing the Fountain Lounge at the Roosevelt Hotel. Then a happy accident. In 1941 Jack and his group were booked for the reopening of the Grand Hotel in Point Clear Alabama. It took them a while to find what was then a sleepy little backwater on the map. It was not love at first sight. They couldn’t wait to finish their two week gig and get back to the bright lights of New Orleans. Then World War II intervened and Jack joined the Army Air Force. After the War, he returned to New Orleans and his music. But by 1951, he and his band were back at the Grand. They stayed for forty years.

The first Grand Hotel was built in 1830. Point Clear, Alabama, on the banks of Mobile Bay, is an affluent enclave of people who play golf and polo. Long before the Civil War, summer homes were built along the waterfront and Point Clear became a popular resort. Nestled on 550 acres along Mobile Bay, the Grand is a combination of sumptuous guest rooms and stately paneled day rooms filled with flowers and strewn with Persian rugs and overstuffed sofas. It has been knocked sideways by fires and hurricanes, most recently Katrina, but it has always made a comeback.

Jack and his band played most nights, first on a drafty veranda and later in the paneled dining room at the Grand. After a time, the management was forced to build a dance floor, as diners, lured by the rhythms and tunes, were dancing between the tables and bumping into them.

Jack’s five children eventually joined the band, morphing it into the Normand Family Band. Each of the three boys and two girls played several instruments and they would switch from one to the other and back again. The band’s theme song was, appropriately, “Stars Fell on Alabama”, but Jack and his group could turn their hands to anything from jazz to contemporary rock. The only family member who was decidedly not musical was Mrs. Normand, Genevieve. She was, Jack said, the best Cajun cook in the country. Family, food and music fused to form the Normand way of life.

Jack and his band became an institution at the Grand. Children of the original 1950’s diners came in during the 70’s. Grandchildren made appearances in the 1980’s. If you had been there before, Jack almost always remembered “your” song and greeted you with it when you came in the door. Children of diners would sometimes sit on Jack’s lap and tinkle the keys with him or hit a few licks with the drummer.

Jack died in 1990, at the age of 73 and it seemed the whole community mourned and paid tribute. In eulogizing Jack, a friend said, “He had a natural ability at the piano and the natural way to make people like him . . . Anything you can say about him would have to be good.”

Little White Girl by Sheryl Rider

I was a little girl in the south who didn’t know anybody who didn’t look like me, but not on purpose.

 

I was taught that I need only be afraid of bad people and shouldn’t hate anybody, and I would know the bad people by what they did. “Monsters don’t always look like monsters, baby.” I liked other kids or didn’t, because they were nice or they weren’t; and I didn’t hate anybody, except maybe Marybeth Harper in the third grade, because she wasn’t.

 

I sat on the porch shelling butter beans until my thumbs were raw and snacked on fried-out fatback while Mama fixed supper. I went to Vacation Bible School and memorized all sixty-six books of the Bible, because I knew she would frame the certificate. I also knew “because I said so” was a pretty good reason and was sent to cut a switch when I forgot.

 

I played outside on sweltering summer afternoons spinning upside down bike wheels, and in the cool of the night, catching fireflies in mason jars. I dressed in front of an open oven door in the winter and wore socks for gloves when it snowed so I could make snow angels and pack snow in stainless steel bowls so Mama could make snow cream.

 

I was a little girl in the south who didn’t know anybody who didn’t look like me, but not on purpose. Then somewhere in the middle of being a little girl, I became a little white girl and the world went crazy around me and I didn’t know why.

 

Somehow, now, I was a little white girl – privileged and spoiled, and selfish. Except Mama was still rolling pennies to pay for a tank of oil and then whispering to the oilman, “…take half of it to the lady down the street – she’s got five young-uns.” Daddy was still working two jobs and Mama was still canning tomatoes and okra to get us through the winter.

 

I couldn’t go to my school any more, and the people on the news said I ought to be ashamed because my school was better, and that’s why I was a good reader. I went to a new school but the teachers there didn’t like little white girls very much so I stopped raising my hand, or reading out loud.

 

Daddy was a police officer, a civil servant, and in those days, he was required to list his address and telephone number in the phone book so people could get in touch with him if they needed help. Back then, you could call the police station, or if you knew a policeman’s name, you could look up the number directly. I heard him on the phone a lot, making peace between neighbors mad about their fence lines or calming down the two widowed sisters who called regularly because they were convinced communist spies were trying to infiltrate their house. He gave directions to the bus station, first aid advice for skinned knees and chigger bites, and the occasional dressing-down of a surly teenager whose mother called at her wit’s end.

 

But during that long hot summer, other people started calling and for a long time after that, I couldn’t remember my own phone number anymore. That was the first time anyone ever called me “little white girl” and the first time it seemed like it wasn’t just something I was, it was something I did. Something bad. So Daddy changed our number over and over and over.

 

I was a little girl who cried when someone shot the president, and then his brother, and then that preacher in Memphis. But then the riots came, and curfews, and Mama was scared because people were throwing things at Daddy, and they might shoot him too. I heard the screams when homemade explosives, wrapped in tinfoil and left on our front porch, nearly cost Mama her sight. And my own screams one Sunday afternoon, when we came home from church and found our dog, the little runt we’d picked out from a neighbor’s litter, dead in the backyard. The smell of burning flesh mixed with Old Spice as Daddy scooped me up and tried to hide my face so I wouldn’t see the blistered skin where the scalding grease had been poured.

 

He wasn’t fast enough and I cried myself to sleep that night, only to wake in a cold sweat with the acrid smell of burning flesh filling my nostrils. I stopped playing outside and the bike wheels rusted in the yard. Every evening, the fireflies blinked on and off, on and off, through the safety of double-paned window glass.

 

With my face pressed against the glass, I realized that all this was my fault, that my people had caused this. Except, until that moment, I hadn’t known I had any people. And it was then, in the knowing, that I learned what I had never been taught – to be afraid and to be ashamed. But mostly to be angry.

 

Anger is easier when you don’t know how to fix it, or undo it, or say you’re sorry, because you don’t know what you’ve done. Except be a little white girl.

Bob War by Don Stewart

Hung like a frozen bug on a spider web, my tiny body bobbed rhythmically a foot above the ground, front-back, up-down, front-back, in a slowly dying circular motion. I tried to cry out, but the fear was overwhelming, wider than my open mouth, colder and deeper even than the pain. I was afraid even to breathe. Spit pooled beneath my tongue, spilled down my chin with a silent runnel of tears, spattering into the dust where it mingled with fresh crimson pearls of blood that dripped from tiny cuts in the tented skin of my arms, legs and forehead.

 

We were out together on a fishing trip, not long after mother’s funeral, Dad, Grandpa, brother, and me. Just off for the afternoon; it would do everyone good, Grandma said.

 

Grandpa hauled a borrowed aluminum boat into the back of his rusted red pickup and drove us all to a neighbor’s farm, bouncing along the way to the pond at the far end of the middle forty. We followed a parallel track of bare dirt cut through acres of cattle pasture, bordered on all sides by ancient brown barbed wire strung between ranks of weathered grey railroad ties and chest-high cedar stumps. Grandpa stopped the truck at the corner of the field and got out, lifting the loop of wire that held the hand-made gate, nothing but three or four rows of “bob-war” stapled to a few sturdy branches and strung across the gap. Lift the loop, drive through, stop, get out, stretch the gate back across the road, loop it shut again.

 

The dusty dirt track followed the fence line for a couple dozen yards before it split to circumnavigate an oasis of willow and cottonwood trees, ringed around a small body of water. This was a naturally occurring pond (differentiated in these parts from a tank, a pool of artificial construction, created by a bulldozer operator over the course of a weekend) an acre or two in size, with an irregular border of grass and weeds, and a scattering of lily pads and cattails that promised a bounty of fish. We were told that this spot had not been exploited by anglers for a while, not since the owner’s kids had grown and gone off to college, and since it was likely to be a while longer before they brought any grandkids of their own to bother the fish, we might as well avail ourselves of the opportunity.

 

The track that bent back around the pond and into itself was joined in one place by a side trail, more a path for the cattle than an actual road, but wide enough to accommodate a pickup truck or tractor when needed. A new set of corner posts had recently been sunk on the spot, and a new suspension gate constructed using heavy galvanized wire that still retained its dull silver hue.

 

My brother and I took turns pairing off with the grown-ups, one group at a time in the boat, the other taking positions around the pond, wherever the weeds gave access to the water, and the ground was flat enough to set up a folding chair. According to the habits and disposition of a physically healthy five-year-old, I danced freely about the perimeter of the pond, plopping hook and bobber into the water here and there, whenever there wasn’t anything more interesting to occupy my fancy, like chasing dragonflies or pointing a finger too closely at the green, greasy, irregular layers of a fresh cow patty, squealing “EEEeewwww!” loud enough to chase away the green bottle flies, and distract everyone else from the lazy business at hand. Not surprisingly, my approach to angling yielded little in the way of positive results.

 

After some while my grandfather invited me to come with him into the boat, and for an hour or so we tossed worms, crickets, and minnows over the side in a generous ritual, attracting and feeding fish hardly larger than our bait. Now and again the bobber would dip, and we might pull up a hand-sized bluegill (my hand, not granddad’s), but the promise of the farmer’s aquatic bounty was never fully realized.

 

Only once did my big, round, red and white float plunge below the surface of the water, and that happened while I was busy investigating the contents of the tackle box, asking grandpa if he didn’t have some cookies or crackers or something else I could eat to take my mind off the fact that we weren’t catching anything. “Ho!” he cried, and grabbed for my fishing rod, just before it lurched over the side of the boat. “That’s gotta be a big one!” he said, but before he could reach the reel and set the hook, the bobber popped up a good ten feet from where it went under, and quietly resumed the passive activity for which it was named.

 

Disappointed when the line came back empty, and with a clean hook besides, I fussed and whined as indulged children can, until Grandpa decided that it was as good a time as any to beach the boat and allow it to take on a new crew.

 

For me, it was a good time to stretch my legs. I remember running around in circles in the pasture, catching yellow sulfur butterflies and chasing winged grasshoppers until the sun began to set. The meadowlarks chirred and whistled from the fence posts, the blackbirds flocked to the pond with their chattering racket, and I ran around and around with arms outstretched, buzzing like an airplane motor. I heard the truck start up as Daddy and Grandpa pulled the boat from the water, and prepared to head back home. They called my name, and I ran toward their voices, rounding the long curve of the dusty road with a smile on my face and the warmth of baby fat burning through my tiny legs, oscillating pistons that carried me swiftly down the path. “Hurry up!” they called. “Hurry up! It’s time to go!”

 

And I did hurry, afraid in the way of five-year-olds that I might be forgotten and left behind. Hurry was the word that filled my mind as I strove to lengthen my stride, pointing my legs and feet forward in a straight line, propelling myself into the air between bouncing steps.

 

It’s not as though I never knew what hit me. I knew exactly, precisely what had happened the moment it occurred, which unfortunately turned out to be one moment too late. The leaden strands of new, off-the-coil barbed wire that stretched across the shadowed path had caught me mid-stride, and held me there like Velcro, just high enough so that my sneakered toes were unable to make contact with the ground. The recoil of the wire juddered me to the bones, but instead of slinging me backward onto the ground, the wire’s vibrations served only to wedge its twisted metal barbs deeper into my tender skin as I trembled in vertical orbit, too stunned to move on my own.

 

Daddy was the first on the scene. It took only seconds for him to realize that his noisy son had gone suddenly mute, and that only something serious could account for that. He carefully lifted me from the sharpened points, one prong, one limb at a time, allowing the taught wire to hum back into line, the deepest string on a bass guitar.

 

He carried me back to the tailgate of the pick up truck, to be consoled and evaluated. From somewhere, Grandma’s cookies appeared, and soon the world became a warmer, softer place.

 

The marks on my forehead, arm and hands have long since faded away, but I still have scars on my leg: three small white ovals, perfectly arranged in the middle of my thigh, another on the ridge of my shin. People seldom got stitches in those days, even for full-thickness penetration wounds that gaped white-rimmed and open-mouthed beneath the sick, pinky-brown cover of self-stick bandages. Paint on the Mercurochrome, put on a Band-Aid. Stop complaining. Sure it hurts, but you’ll live, won’t you? You should have watched where you were going, anyway.

 

Had I known, I would have. After that day, you bet I did.

 

Later on I would be reminded of that afternoon, as I pushed the curved points of fishing hooks through the soft pads of patients’ fingertips, clipping the barbs with wire cutters before slipping the headless hooks backwards, and down, and out. This was a trick I learned not from the lecture hall or any medical text, but from books on camping and woodcraft, read on hot summer days beside grass-rimmed ponds in the middle of cattle fields, watching a bobber do what it does best.

Portrait on Eight Seventeen by Susannah S. Cecil

I remember the way she always stood to bid farewell, tipping her gaze up to look at the boys – so much taller than she. I remember the beauty of her flowers; the quiet care, her consistent, daily honoring of their needs, and how they returned her favors with glorious show. I remember the way she added, “honey” when addressing me, always at the end of a phrase, the dénouement, a soft punctuation sealing her emphasis.

 

When I try even now, I can hear her laughter, a rasp of breath in her throat, escaping the seal of her soft palate and back of her tongue. (It sometimes catches my ear through her son’s voice too, and it hiccups my attention with surprise.) And when she laughed, it was open-mouthed; delight more than sound bursting through cheeks drawn wide toward her ears, and eyes crinkled with mirth.

 

I remember the last time I saw her, standing in that space she so carefully, firmly cultivated. I can smell the ashen black silt beneath our feet, its almost-oily scent breaking free in gentle puffs as our shoes shifted, grinding summer heat back into the earth. She had to lift her gaze, even to me; and one more hug, then goodbye. Even now, if I close my eyes, I see her on that small parcel of partnership with God, waving, getting smaller as the distance between us lengthened. And if I were back there again, would we still drive away? Would I still turn my gaze so blithely toward my future, and never look back?

 

I miss her; have felt her niggling the edges of my attention lately. Am I supposed to unravel some delicate web of knowing, to gain some otherworldly insight? Maybe I’m simply supposed to enjoy her presence, and remember that today would have been her 104th birthday.

 

She comes to me sometimes in dream-swept sleep; and sometimes while I cultivate my own parcel of dirt and roots and hope. I’m not even sure why: if it’s because the cellulose in my hands has her fingerprints woven into the chlorophyll? Maybe it’s because, like she once told me herself, my awareness becomes blissfully suspended while I wrangle worries into the earth. Perhaps these moments open a window for her to ease temporal bounds and come closer, watch quietly, and to brush past as a soft breeze through her scapes. Or maybe it’s because she knows of my struggle to be this adult woman I’m supposed to be, that she approaches through our common femininity, with a depth of connection reaching beyond consciousness, traveling backwards along threads of lineage, calling forth that which stands resolute and powerful and sure. Her wisdom then becomes my wisdom, her strength arises as my strength. Her legacy transposes into my birthright, and I capture its reality with each glimpse. And then I can become. After all, I am her only granddaughter.

Saved In a Cornfield: My Great-Grandfather’s Conversion by M. R. Byrd

It was probably a warm Kentucky summer night, that night everything would change for my great grandfather, George Elzie Niceley. Hunted by the local authorities for killing a man that had threatened his father, the only way he could see his wife and children was to hang low during the day and then stalk across corn fields by cover of darkness. Why he did not simply abandon my great grandmother and their brood of children escapes me. By all accounts, he was a mean man. A railroad worker, he had tried once to kill his wife Maggie by pushing her in front of a train. He is remembered to have freely beaten his children with whatever articles were convenient, too. Hearing the stories of him before his conversion make me think of Pap Finn, drunk and violent and totally ignorant of just how he spoiled the peace of those around him.

 

But it would be wrong to assume that my great grandmother Maggie was at home praying that George would stay away, that she would have one night of peace and quiet with her children. From what my grandmother and mother have told me, I have no doubt that, if she were not too busy cooking or washing dishes or putting the children to bed, she was on her knees praying for George to come home. Honestly, the fact that she had any kind of faith was a sort of miracle in itself. Her own mother, Fannie Murray, had rejected Christianity in favor of a kind of folk witchcraft. But while Fannie was busy making “tables walk”, Maggie had found God while giving birth to her son Morris, my grandfather. From that moment on, though completely illiterate before, she was gifted with the ability to read and write. A gift she immediately used to study and teach scripture to others.

 

And so I see her in some cramped little house on a rural Kentucky road kneeling quietly by oil lamp or candle light praying that tonight would be the night her husband would finally change. But first and foremost that he would be safe. “Just keep him safe, Lord,” she repeats, her eyes glancing now and then at the window through which she can just glimpse the halo around the biggest full moon she’s seen all year. I imagine her pausing in her litany to look at it startled and awed, just as God intended.

 

It was the same full moon that drew George’s attention away from himself. He was half way across the cornfield he now knew by heart, and was taking a rest. He looks up at that expansive blue sky stretching out regally from the crown of the hills in the distance, and that’s when it hits him—the Holy Spirit. Hits him like a sudden awakening maybe—an awakening to how sorry it is to be a man crawling home like a criminal, and still worse to be any kind of criminal at all—to be a man cruel to the best wife in the entire state.

 

Or maybe the awakening had nothing to do with the past, but was simply the introduction of a man to a mystery, the beauty of an invisible power catching George’s spirit up in the air, uniting a once hard heart with the very stalks of corn and blue sky and bright moon surrounding him. In either case, whatever it was, for the first time in his pitiful, wayward life, George Niceley felt connected to something bigger than himself.

 

—What would he have said to Maggie when, afterward, he reached home, knocking on the door feeling more the stranger than ever? Would he have already known the story of the Prodigal Son, learned from his wife’s own lips as she repeated it to her children as a catechism? Or would he think himself the lost sheep or the lost coin, or, better still, the woman at the well? Maybe he was too struck to think so theologically and instead stood there, not thinking or speaking, but simply weeping.

 

They wouldn’t speak for the time being, just stand embracing. She rocks him in her arms like a child as he cries. Each tear he sheds is a confession, coming not merely from his memory or his heart, but from his gut. She sweetly wipes each tear away with her handkerchief as the children look on in wonder from their place in the corner. When he can finally speak, he says her name softly, “Maggie, Maggie.” And she replies, “I know.”

***

The mystical, mysterious event that happened in that cornfield cannot really be captured in words. Family tradition about it is as terse as the line “And Enoch walked with God and was not, for God took him.” George Niceley was saved in a cornfield. That is what I have been taught happened, and hungry as I am to understand how it is that an illiterate railroad worker running from the law, totally ignorant of God one minute could suddenly become the preacher of God the next, I cannot. All we know is that when George went home that night to Maggie he was different. Her prayers had been answered and he was now the husband she had so ardently longed and prayed for. My grandmother recalls going to hear my great grandfather, her father-in-law, preach. Even over the phone, I can hear the admiration in her voice. And although she could not recall any specific message that he preached, she insists that he did it well. I want to believe that he preached on conversion the rest of his life—the need for each of us to take stock of how we live and what we are living for. I would hate to think his own conversion made him intolerant of others, as sometimes is the case.

 

I’ve often searched for this compassion when peering at the few pictures of my great grandfather the family has preserved. In one he’s all dolled up in a preacher suit looking the picture of respectability. His loving wife has her arm in his. Her round face and bright eyes shine out in gratitude. In another, the two of them pose outside next to a grassy field. He’s wearing a white shirt and little bow-tie with black pants and suspenders. His is looking down at his feet like a bashful beau who has just said something romantic or foolish to the woman he loves. She, in her turn, stands cradled tightly under his arm. She’s wearing a simple flower-print dress, and her hair is brushed close to the head in a neat bun. It’s really her face that’s extraordinary. She is smiling. This woman who is revered as a saint in my family is smiling, a telling detail not lost on me who often thinks of the sorrows she endured, sometimes forgetting the joy that was equally hers.

 

It isn’t the pictures, however, that give me the clearest indication of what my great grandfather’s conversion had done for him. Pictures, after all, can hide a lot. Instead, it’s the image of my own grandfather—George and Maggie’s son—as he sat on the front porch leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. It was a posture he had learned from his father. It’s the posture of a contemplative. My grandmother confirms this when she tells me that Great Grandpa George was “a quiet man.” Although he was a preacher and could have endlessly talked away, telling others what to do, or talked about himself, he was a quiet man.

 

My mother says that later in life, when my great grandfather had gone blind from the plastering work he took up to support his family, she and my Aunt Kathy would go to stay with their grandparents from Wednesday until Sunday, and invariably her grandfather would be sitting forward with his head bowed clapping his hands as he listened to his gospel music playing on the radio. “He would listen to it all day,” she says, and I can just see him, bow tie and all, eagerly waiting for the day when the hymns would be fulfilled and he would go home to heaven to meet with the God who saved him. My mother says that my grandfather used to make her and my aunt Kathy sing at church, although my mother didn’t like to, and now I think of it, it was probably his way of impressing upon her the message of these songs of hope. It is fitting, then, that she, in her turn, introduced me to God through songs. And, although I am now Roman Catholic, it is the old Gospel songs from my Pentecostal days, these songs that my great grandfather loved so well, that still speak most powerfully to me of the hope that fuels my Christian imagination—a hope in a new day, a better world, a merciful God.

Of Mothers and Whores by Coco Papy

When I was a still girl, somewhere in between feeling forever trapped and the new found power of breasts, a woman, an acquaintance of my mothers (though one she did not trust as far as she could throw), came over to me and grabbed my arm tightly, forcing her own physical presence over my body. ” Your mother is a whore,” she whispered at me through Chiclets teeth, pink satin lips pressed, and eyes narrowed as to show how very serious she was in laying this claim. “A Whore.”

 

I did not respond, nor do I remember looking at her in the eye, only watching the dangling gold cross that hung around her neck, a self-proclaimed symbol of the good southern Christian woman she was. Perhaps you are familiar with this type, if you have lived parts of your life in the humid, darkly contradictory part of this country: The woman with highlights all too high, an uncanny acceptance of that old colloquial of “the southern belle” or “Miss Georgia Peach”, some sort of queen or miss or winner of some sort of seasonal crop. There is a well-manicured look, crisp, clean- physical and all the right symbols that indicated the essence of a “good woman”. A good woman with a husband who took care of her and had money and did not have to use her hands to put food on the table. She would have not had to touch a certain part of life that was relegated to “the other”. I don’t mean to castigate this woman as some evil stepmother-queen figure, only to point out for the bulk of my life, this woman defined what “women” were supposed to be, and for that, I was deeply resentful. I knew not one of those women in my family. It was something we could never be.

 

Whore. I do not remember much more of this encounter, not even where I was. Only the word “whore” echoing in between my ears, as I stood, still light-headed from this encounter. Whore. The word rang through my body, singing every inch of my skin, and while provoking nothing at the time, now leaves me in a balancing act between the angry fire that lights up my entire body when I hear it used in the way it has been used so many times, to destroy so many women. And yet, on the other side of the coin, whore, is a term I embrace now. It is quite a bargain with the devil.

 

The word whore, which has its etymological roots in almost all languages and exists ever so deeply within the conscious of history, is never neutral, never just “is”. Höra and kohoron, are both descriptions as old as this game has been played. Proto-Germanic words, both relying on reconstructed Indo-European roots: Hraz indicates “desire”, but roughly means “adulterer”. Kā meaning “desire”. Whore itself is a word of ambiguity, and much like it’s reconstructed language roots, becomes tantamount to the ultimate shape-shifter throughout the ages.

 

It was not that I was unfamiliar with the word “whore”. If anything, I knew the word all too well, as it slipped from the lips of those around me, with a casualty that seemed as regular as poured milk. Men like my father, my classmates, boys in my neighborhood, boys who taunted me, God – every man I knew had something to say about whores. Whores were responsible for every bad thing, whether the rain that stopped the party or the fact that the lotto ticket was bad. The worst though, was that nothing really kept one safe from being a whore, being that the definition, though generally solid, changed with the emotions of the crowd day in and day out. By most standard definitions, whore tends to stay in the linguistic realm of 1. Sex worker, particurarily referring to prostitute (however archaic that word is now) 2. A woman who is sexually promiscuous (indeed, a woman who has sex like a man) and, the final definition, which seems to be the most indefinite of all, 3. To compromise one’s principles for personal gain. Whore was less and less like a fixed notion and more like kudzu, creeping, crawling, growing a mile a minute, engulfing everything it crossed, earning the distaste of everyone who had to whack through the invasiveness of what seemed to be an indestructible, noxious weed. Nevermind that kudzu is beautiful and one of the most recognizable aspects of living among the low country. That you can eat it when hungry, and that kudzu can be used as medicine, keeps the soil clean, and can count a thousand other uses, before just being scapegoated to “bad”.

 

I had come to expect the sling of whore from men in my life, but what worse, is when the word would escape the lips of women. Coming from women was much like a fresh wound on top of the other slowly healing ones. With men, they always seemed to have to have someone as a whore, that women who never kept her place, didn’t shut her mouth, and who reminded them of all the collective failures and worst fears. That was to be expected. But when women said it? It offered a particular type of pain, a one that struck deeper. We were supposed to be together, right? From a woman’s mouth, it was a sign of the forces closing in, of judgment, of those like “the whore” turning on one of their own. The collective banished the one who would ruin it for them all- it being the chance to finally be accepted as “like or similar to a man”, a fate that at this point in my life, I am frankly not interested in.

 

 

 

So, what was my mother’s sin, the act that threw her into whoredom? Officially, it was because she dared to divorce my father, a man, whom after many years of said sin, she still remains close with today. But this moment only served as a catalyst for banning my mother into the land of whoredom, the final nail in a coffin that many had been waiting to seal for years. I am nothing but certain that there were always whispers, slings of ” who does she think she is” in living rooms with pictures of children with everything, stitched embroidery of Bible quotes, monumental tokens to whatever football team you happened to side with that year. My mother’s sin was not that she got divorced; it was that she dared to be her own person. She was a threat- a temptress, even though she wanted nothing to do with the people around her, much less their husbands. She was a temptress who was creating a life that was ones own – an authentic life that was not defined by the opinion of a husband or what a woman should be. Daring yes. Honest? Yes. Actions worthy of having her friends abandon her, women turn on her, and scorn surround her?

 

Back to the dictionary. The third definition for the word whore is this: ” A person considered as having compromised principles for personal gain.” Was this my mother’s biggest sin? That she had decided to compromise the principle of marriage for her own personal gain, which was happiness and independence? Was that all what a whore was?

 

The word remains alive and chaotic, like a live cable knocked down after a hurricane, both enticing and severely damaging. In my ease of growing older, I find that the word whore is a power source, a place where I know I am in good company. However, with as much ease as it brings me, even when used against me in the worst type of fashion. To this day I can still feel the sharp pain of hopelessness, each and every time I hear these ways of communicating it, though in my gut I know it only denotes a woman who has failed at being the woman she was intended to be. Perhaps this is the greatest curse that can befall a woman. Perhaps it is the worst. I only know for sure that it is a certain, a given. No matter how much one attempts to be above the plight of womanhood, masking as a chameleon, as “one of the boys”, the reality of womanhood will always, always come down like a hammer, somewhere, at some point. You are still no different.

 

In Fried Green Tomatoes, Fannie Flagg’s romantic dedication to the Depression era, Jim Crow south, one that still seems to sit in cradle of both the worst and best of the cultural imagination of America, the main character Ruth is considered a “good woman”. She is the closest representation of what Virginie Despentes describes in her book, King Kong Theory:

 

“…This ideal of the attractive but not whorish white woman, in a good marriage but not self-effacing, with a nice job but not so successful she outshines her man, slim but not neurotic over food, forever young without being disfigured by the surgeon’s knife, a radiant mother not overwhelmed by diapers and homework, who manages her home beautifully without becoming a slave to housework, who knows a thing or two but less than a man, this happy white woman who is constantly shoved under our noses, this woman we are all supposed to work hard to resemble – never mind that she seems to be running herself ragged for not much reward- I for one have never met her, not anywhere. My hunch is that she doesn’t exist.”

 

Far be it for me to point out the obvious, that this good woman can only be found in a book, though life does try and imitate art. While the good women who took comfort in damning my mother to whoredom may not even know who Flagg is, the point remains that they were not concerned with “whore” proper. They were fearful of someone they knew not being or caring to be this mythical woman and were terrified enough to banish any threat to it. They were fearful that they, after they had tried and tried and tried so hard to be this mythical women, they would still fail, not be enough. They were fearful of being banished from the comforts of what being a good woman meant. That banishment came in the form of being a whore, a fate that history has known time after time. In Flagg’s book, Ruth, after being beaten senselessly by her husband, ponders what it means to be cast out:

 

“What was this power, this insidious threat, this invisible gun to her head that controlled her life . . . this terror of being called names?

She had stayed a virgin so she wouldn’t be called a tramp or a slut; had married so she wouldn’t be called an old maid; faked orgasms so she wouldn’t be called frigid; had children so she wouldn’t be called barren; had not been a feminist because she didn’t want to be called queer and a man hater; never nagged or raised her voice so she wouldn’t be called a bitch . . .

 

She had done all that and yet, still, this stranger had dragged her into the gutter with the names that men call women when they are angry.”

 

So, what of concrete answers and easy, succinctly wrapped up endings, that give the impression that I myself, have come to a place where I completely and fully understand it all? Much like the mythical woman, it doesn’t exist, at least not in the case, and especially not for me. I do know this. Much like kudzu, the word whore is a powerful force, much stronger than all the methods used to try and control it. Entire departments have been dedicated to the care and control of kudzu, enacting laws, creating strategies, razing and burning and slashing, and any other method that can give the illusion that kudzu is somehow able to be controlled. Everyone has an opinion on kudzu: what should be done with it, how to get rid of it, how they hate it or love it, the list of opinions is as long as the day itself. Yet, kudzu keeps on growing, affected by each and every attempt to slash or burn or rid. It stays alive, time after time, riding out the attempts of control. It climbs and coils and sinks it’s roots deep into the soil, and has for years and years and years. Kudzu is not going anywhere and as far as I can see into the future, neither will people’s attempts to control it.

An Honest Trade by Angie Mayfield

I was a frightful sight lumbering across the field in milk boots, pajamas, and my husband’s filthy barn coat. My long auburn hair flailed wildly in the brisk April wind, slapping me in the face almost as wickedly as the neighbor’s early morning attack. A low, roaring rumble woke me long before I planned on climbing out of the warm quilts, but with Bernie gone only two months, I still couldn’t find the energy for living. Each day was just a painful, crippling disease running its course.

At first I thought a local farmer was preparing a nearby field for spring planting, but succumbing to curiosity, I forced myself to lift the shade and locate the source of the annoying racket. To my horror, a massive bulldozer viciously ripped away fence, trees, and dirt on the backside of our forty-acre farm.

“Damn that Miller,” I muttered, pulling my collar up to protect my ears from the chill and wishing I’d grabbed the warmth of a shotgun on my way out. “Who does he think he is?” My face flushed and rapid gasps of wheezing air escaping my chest, I finally reached the intruder, trembling with fury.

The unfeeling machine had stripped a thirty-foot wide path along the edge of the property, shoving a giant mound of earth into the corner of our beloved woods. Toppled trees, twisted wire, and broken posts protruded from the heap like the remains of a nuclear war or sci-fi horror movie. Lush blackberry bushes where the kids picked fruit for their mom’s summer cobblers were mere memories. The white oak where Bernie and I watched two baby coons play while picnicking fell victim to modern vanity. I clutched a dirt clod and heaved it toward the lump of worthless flesh responsible for the destruction of our beautiful farm, turned landfill.

Marlin Miller, a man with more cows than there appeared to be stars in the sky and a heart and brain combined that didn’t equal his ego, was surprised by the thud and splatter of broken clay against his seat. However, nothing prepared him for the appearance of an enraged woman in the thralls of grief.

Although he’d never actually spoken to me, Marlin determined by the icy stare and rigid stance I was not the soft-spoken, subservient housewife he assumed. My petite form pounced like a rabid dog before my prey could lower himself to the ground. “What do you think you’re doing destroying my property?” I ranted, almost spitting on the pile of blubber with mere slants for eyes.

“Whoa, slow down little lady. Bernie and I worked this out over a year ago. That fence is twenty-five years old. Hell, I was just a boy when Bernie and his dad put it up. I told him I wanted to replace it, and he said he would take care of the mess. Now that’s fair, isn’t it?” Miller shifted his weight like Jell-O, wiping the sweat from his forehead despite the cold, the cocky smile never leaving his wet lips.

“That’s pretty low, putting words in the mouth of a dead man. Bernie loved this land, and he would never allow someone to ruin it this way!” I was sobbing now and felt faint from the injustice of being a woman and alone.

“I swear to you that Bernie was okay with this, and the sheriff will tell you my word’s as good as gold. Hell, I’m doing you a favor. The fence I’m having put up this afternoon is the best there is,” he concluded, a satisfying smirk contorting his splotchy face. Everything on Miller’s sprawling 300-acre spread was the best there is, except Miller.

“You haven’t heard the last from me. I know you’re lying!” I stomped off, realizing the battle was hopeless but refusing to show it. I could have made more progress trying to stack BB’s during a tornado. The only thing more respected than a man’s word in these parts was his money, and Miller inherited plenty. A poor woman had little weight in the rural Midwest, but I refused to surrender my dignity as well.

The next morning a rusty, Chevy pickup missing a muffler barreled down Marlin Miller’s driveway, arousing him from his deep slumber. His trousers and gate hanging open, he watched as the kids and I loaded two of his best dairy cows and three beef calves into our stock trailer, cutting off their ear tags and throwing them in his driveway.

“Where in the hell are you taking my cows?” Miller yelled, jogging toward us, his gut sloshing up and down in rapid rhythm. I strolled up to the unlikely rancher with an outstretched hand, clothes and hair neatly tucked, and a genial smile that twinkled like sunlight reflecting on pond water.

“I’m sorry about yesterday, and I just want to thank you with all my heart for your neighborly generosity,” I cooed. My voice floated like melted butter.

Miller’s rage turned to bewilderment as I handed him a folded paper. “Bernie kept track of everything and I’ve been finding notes everywhere telling me how to do this and that, since I’m just a simple woman, you know. And lo and behold, when I looked in his farm files there was this letter telling me about your transaction, and how you agreed to give us four cows in trade for tearing up our property. And I must admit it is a beautiful fence. You can’t imagine how much this means to me just when I’d lost faith in humanity.”

I stopped long enough to catch my wind, but not long enough for Miller to find his. “Well, we have to get going. I have to get the kids off to school, and I know they’re starved, but thank you again, Marlin. I am truly blessed to have a neighbor like you.” I patted Miller’s arm, turned, and headed toward the truck, the sun shining softly on my blushing face.

“Hold on a minute,” Miller interrupted, reading the note and mumbling obscenities under his breath while following me to the truck.

Briar with his coy charm and eyes as blue as the spring sky, intercepted him, adding quickly. “Oh, you can take that note down to the bank and verify Dad’s signature if you’d like. A man’s word means a lot around here, Mr. Miller, and I’m certainly proud you kept yours. I know Dad would be too.” With that, we climbed into the rumbling old truck and waved goodbye. The dumbfounded cattleman was still shaking his head, but seemed to understand that an agreeable neighbor was more important than a few cows.

I watched our new stock of milk, meat, and hope graze contently in the pasture outside the kitchen window while I prepared breakfast. My sentinels, protective men disguised as mere boys, hugged me as I filled their plates. “I think we got a pretty good deal,” Josey claimed, clamping down on a biscuit like a snake on a frog.

“Most people come around when they’re no longer leading the rope,” I offered. “He can’t help his upbringin’. But I’d rather have my oak tree and blackberry bushes back.”

“Funny,” Briar chuckled and winked, “but I didn’t think Dad even had a filing cabinet, let alone ever kept notes about anything.” Like me, he didn’t miss much.

“Life is full of surprises,” I smiled, enjoying a moment more glorious than all the stars knowing how proud Bernie would be of us. “It’s an honest trade.”

September 2013 is complete!

val macewan The Dead Mule

Hey yall, got it all up and running early this month. Wow do we ever have some great flash fiction! And Mark Vogel’s poetry? Just insanely good bunch of reading here for everyone to partake.

We seem to have a conflagration of western North Carolina folks this month. Yall introduce yourselves to each other and make welcome.

The Mule is more than an online journal but everyone knows that. Please be kind and remember to hold the door open for each other.

Hope Denney “Waiting for the Undertaker” [flash fiction]

val macewan dead mule

The day Daddy died he was mowing the backyard in the manipulative heat of a July afternoon. Our families all live within twenty minutes of each other so the congregation of appalled relatives was just another inevitability like the paramedics chain smoking in the driveway and our neighbor across the street twitching her blinds up a half inch. The sunlight illuminated Donna’s doughy form hunkered down on her ottoman, peering at our house like a rarely seen beast on a National Geographic special.

“What is taking so long?” Grandmother kept asking as she fanned herself with the backs of her knotty hands.

“They can’t load the body into the ambulance until the undertaker pronounces Mike deceased,” Momma explained for the tenth time that hour.

“He’ll never find us out here,” fretted Granny again. “When Minnie’s husband stroked out last year, the undertaker kept getting lost on the back roads. Gary was in their bed all night and stiff as a board when they moved him.”

“I talked to him myself,” Aunt Susan said. “He knows the way here. He came out this way when the Dodson brother accidentally electrocuted himself years ago.”

“Accident my foot,” muttered a cousin.

“I know what Donna is saying to her husband right now,” mumbled Momma into her handkerchief.

“What?” I asked, turning the box fan to high.

Sweat was beading the upper lip of every woman in the room. We were like meringues weeping in the humidity.

“She’s saying that if I had just agreed to the riding mower, Mike wouldn’t be dead right now. She’s saying he’s dead because we’re cheap! I hate living across the road from her! That twit!”

Fresh sobs renewed throughout the room.

I wandered to the window, biting back tears. Everyone had turned their blinds up. Someone was nonchalantly pulling their push mower out of their garage as if they were getting to work but kept gawking at our lawn. I avoided gazing at the vulnerable, limp figure in the grass and stared up into the blank blue sky. I felt the thrum of the katydids through the windowpane as their orchestra converged.

“I’ll gather some clothes for the undertaker to take for Mike,” Susan said kindly, going to the closet.

The soft sound of fabric being sorted and Momma’s hitching breaths were the only noises in the hot room.

A gasp abruptly cut the melody. Susan held in her hands the unopened box of photo coasters that she gave Momma three Christmases ago. They had rested on the closet top shelf since then and Momma had never customized them with our pictures.

Everyone in the room knew something really terrible had just happened.

 

 

Thom Bassett “Keep It In There” [flash fiction]

Attacked by the Mad Butcher and left for dead.

The winter he turned 13 his in-grown toenail became infected. Each day after school he shut his eyes and pulled the sock away, stuck to the top of his foot by dried blood and pus. Held it to his nose to breathe in the sweet-sick stink.

 

His mother made him soak the foot at night in her roasting pan filled with scalding water and Epsom salt. She shouldered open the door without knocking and walked almost without a limp into his room to stand near him, her shins pearly in the light cast by the little black and white TV. He could smell the heat coming off the refilled kettle in her hand and hear the small ticking sounds inside it.

 

She asked how it felt, then pressed the lever that lifted the cap on the kettle’s spout. He breathed hard through his nose and stared at the thick vein across the top of her foot. The vein twitched fast with her heartbeat and that was enough to attract the long green-black fish with chainsaw teeth that ripped her foot away, its poison fins stabbing her calf as it flipped and dove back down through the carpet. Her flesh instantly swelled and turned green-black and cracked open, all the way up to beneath her pale blue nightie.

 

“How is it?” she asked again. He said nothing, listening to her whimper his name as she fell away.

 

She shifted her weight from one hip to another. Finally he turned down the basketball game. “Fine,” he reported.

“Keep it in there,” she said, pouring the water over his foot.

The following week he screamed at his teacher when she asked after algebra class why he was limping so bad. It was the first time he called a woman a fucking bitch. He lied without deciding to about the three days of detention he got.

In the years after he moved away it came to him again and again how she whitened her work shoes every morning, hours before her shift, the kitchen smelling of sugary chemicals and instant coffee and menthol cigarettes. Eating Big Macs and she said of out of nowhere the only time her feet didn’t hurt was at the nursing home. The cheap canvas tennis shoes she cut holes in to relieve the pain from calcium growths on her big toes. Wearing them when she trimmed the scrubby hedges in front of the house or repainted his room. His $2.99 gym shoes in ninth grade, pulled from a bin in the Safeway cereal aisle.

She had refused him cowboy boots when he was a boy because, she said, they’d pinch his feet. In his early 40s he lost two nails while hiking and the woman he was living with at the time counted eleven blisters as he slept the night he returned.

 

Cleaning out her house last year, he found his mother’s high school yearbook: “Love always, Elvis Presley.” In the picture she scrawled across, she looks like the bright-eyed girl on the Little Debbie snack cakes box. The last night in the house he sat on their toilet and used a razor blade to slice calluses from his heels, thinking the whole time the trick is to cut along the length of your wrists, not across.

Heather Adams “Warmer Over Here” [flash fiction]

waiting for grandpa by val macewan

Caleb holds his grandmother’s elbow, a little surprised that she doesn’t pull away. The driveway is full of potholes and he’s worried about her falling. The gutters of the house are hanging down, barely still attached. Sometimes, most of the time really, his grandmother is that way too: barely still attached. The doctor said that portions of her brain are disintegrating, and when Caleb heard this, he thought of snowflakes melting.

The white paint is peeling off and the boards have rotted in places. Out of habit, they go around to the back of the house. The porch is covered with brown leaves and cobwebs, swept to the side as Caleb opens the screen door. The wooden door behind it sticks and Caleb kicks it, hoping his grandmother doesn’t notice. When he was growing up, if he had so much as put a toe on the door, she would have lectured him about the smudge mark.

“Here we go,” Caleb says, reaching for her elbow again. But she shakes her head.

“I’m fine.”

“Okay, have it your way, Nana. But I’m right here if you need me.”

She doesn’t say anything, just looks around. The kitchen barely looks like a kitchen anymore. All around them things have fallen apart. The green walls, which Caleb remembers as warm and cheerful, are covered with dirt; the color looks like something that someone planned to cover up with another shade but never got around to it. The cabinets are scratched and some of the cabinet doors are missing.

“Somebody might have been in here sometime,” Caleb says, opening what used to be the silverware drawer and finding nothing but a couple of rocks and a rusty mouse trap. His grandmother is still standing near the door, looking. In the air, there is a dry, stale smell.

“I know it looks different. But maybe you’ll remember something. Maybe something about it seems familiar? Here, you can sit down.” He pulls out a stool and brushes off the dust with his sleeve. She sits down carefully, fingering the bottom edge of her cardigan.

“Look, you had all your cookbooks lined up right here.” Caleb points to a shelf on the wall, remembering the laminated covers and spiral edges. He waits to see if she will react, but her face doesn’t change.

Caleb keeps on anyway. “And over here you’d roll out the dough for biscuits.” He touches the counter, now covered with wood shavings.

His grandmother tries to smile. “You always liked my biscuits.” He can tell she doesn’t remember anything. She is only saying what she thinks Caleb expects her to say.

“It’s a little chilly. Do you want me to move your seat over here?” Caleb points to where the sun is shining through the back window.

“The sun,” his grandmother says, reaching out her arm. “I remember.”

Caleb waits to see if she will say more and when she doesn’t, he smiles and nods, letting her think that is something at least.

Ashley Fields “Legacy” [flash fiction]

etsy: TheAssemblagist

They discovered the first one in cupboard above the stove, beside an unopened bottle of malt vinegar. Grandfather had not been dead for very long, but since the entire family lived on the other side of the continent, time was of the essence. Directly after the funeral, aunts, cousins, and children gathered to clean out the estate. The emotional tension peaked when Great Aunt Ethel, Grandfather’s oldest sister, shrieked loud enough to shake the dust from the rafters. Tucked away with the condiments and spices was a lewd, topless hula dancer. She jiggled merrily as a shell-shocked Aunt Ethel plucked her from the cabinet.

The next one resided on the center shelf of the downstairs linen closet, amid the Egyptian cotton sheets, and Italian lace tablecloths. It was immediately heaved in the garbage by a scandalized second cousin from Charleston. Less than an hour later, Sue Ellen caught her husband trying to smuggle two of the half-naked imps out in his coat pockets. The ensuing argument must have been quite loud because the cops showed up soon after. My mother, Grandfather’s only daughter, was quite traumatized by the entire spectacle, and retreated to the wine cellar to take an inventory.

In the master bathroom, it wasn’t a hula dancer, but a topless mermaid that caused the older women to gasp and sputter. She stood just inside the door on a tiny shelf, guarding the light switch with an exaggerated come-hither look. After the seventh one was found, the women dismissed all the children and men from the house, insisting that the property needed surveying. “Surely,” someone muttered, “there’s no nudity on the lawns.” My mother never returned from the basement. It must have been hard work digging through all that stuff in the basement because she had a headache the entire next day. After two days, it was decided that the emotional turmoil of cleaning out the “old lecher’s” house was too much, and a company was hired to clean out and auction off the entire estate.

Though we laid my grandfather to rest, the memories are nothing but fond for me. The hot, itchy crinolines my mother had insisted on that long ago summer served their purpose. When I start feeling lonely or depressed, I simply go into my kitchen, open the cupboard above the stove, and set the naked cherub to jiggling and dancing.

 

Mark Vogel: Poetry: Three Powerful Poems

handprints

Who owns what

 

They crawled up the house like we could never do,

and brazen lived in the chimney behind the metal grate,

coughing, snoring, making hidden beds behind walls.

Unbelievable how at home comfortable they were,

so that more than once, in yellow evening, with

the back door open, they walked in to eat cat food

in the kitchen like we were sleep-in servants

hardly worth noting, here for their needs,

like we could never own anything.

 

At a time when spiders lived in cities in the stone basement,

an unreal chattering seeped from darkness. I tiptoed

so tentative on creaky stairs, ready for a horror show,

and flipped the light and saw actors in a cheesy sit-com.

Five adolescent coons amongst ripped trash bags

eating pizza and cantaloupe rinds sprinkled with

coffee grounds. Eyes a-glitter saying stanky party

with no boundaries, like shame could only exist for us.

 

Decades later, ripe torn flesh like an insult is headless

in the barn—a peace loving duck rendered red meat

and bad dream, while round the corner an unearthly

growl promises to rip and tear without reflection.

In a gray metal trap a grizzled murdering boar coon

with rough eyes aches to hurt, a twisted lone ranger

gone bad. Within an hour, searching for someone else’s

rocky woods, I drive fifteen miles of mountain roads.

 

On a ridge top lonely and stark, just us two,

I look down on blueberries, rhododendron, laurel,

the blue hills going forever. Ignoring his continuous

threatening rumble, I release him from his wire cage.

Without hesitation he turns west, his powerful legs

churning, heading straight back home.

 

 

When the Appalachian states

have been made into mega prisons

Confident Talking Head 843 rips apocalyptic chaos

from context, stating one in thirty U.S. males

has experienced the Penal System as home,

while outside the cable world in a blue beaten rental

ten miles up an Appalachian road pot-head Ronnie,

with flecks of pepper in his beard, wakes Southern proud,

but ashamed of having done time.

 

Up another road, mumbling to himself, John Henry’s

molasses talk no longer smells of whiskey drinking

in a neglected dog pen—a decade since Fat Pansy

rescued him from county lockup and submerged him

in primitive baptism. Now he grows beard

and belly, never neglecting children,

or his precious hogs in the woods.

 

In this intimate and isolated Meat Camp, North Carolina,

Max drags a bum leg up the ladder to caulk,

above his nine year old boy learning lessons building

shaded Lego castles. At lunch Max will share

sandwiches, RC cola, tales of long gone cocaine days,

the wildness living behind a quiet smile—

his poem a tattoo of records glued to skin,

 

while closer to town scarred Danny tweaks a ring

in his eyebrow, his Martian orange hair rattling

with electricity. His college degree earned inside

feeds manic teaching for nursing students eager to cure,

the story of being busted once, twice, three times—

Quaaludes, primo pot, a fist of pills—learning

to dream while locked within state limitations.

 

Off the mountain swirling fear injected wind fuels

bogus blinded toughness eager to punish, to open wide

a blackened maw. So tiresome this soiled morning,

state and federal wallets lying on the bureau ready

to pay for a thousand crowded holes. Even with

churches on every corner, no one dares speak

for those no longer innocent.

 

 

 

 

the necessary interludes

 

Fresh spring mounting splashing

love making is over and Leonard sunbathes

on the rocky clay shore, eyes closed

while two black and white sons in the yard

shift and preen, waiting for a cue.

In the absence of his mate Joanne and her

king-making eyes, Lenny is awkward,

dull, neutered, dreaming her nudging pecks,

seductive walks through garden jungle,

her sleek flights to water. Not so far

removed in the dark barn, Joanne deposits

one egg a day into her feathered nest,

then sits with faith on a growing young.

Her internal clock counts meditative time.

For weeks Lenny wallows lethargic

even with worms in the garden and corn

in the barn, an algae-rich pond for swimming.

He walks instead of flying and hisses

at amoral sons crass enough to fuck

their own mother, until the air itself tires

and stalls. Then Bingo one shining May morning

like it was all planned, and fourteen yellow and

brown fluff balls bounce in a happy line,

nothing cuter quacking eagerness, and Lenny

all a-move is tall, red wattle vibrating, knowing

to strut, preen, stare down cats as the gaggle

rub close, then swirl in water. Amazing,

a growing summer appears as one whole

continuous line. For the thousandth time

a tired past has been painted over, immediately

forgotten, like it never existed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Hesitation

 

Another motley game on a know nothing August night

in a league where no catcher can catch, in bottom

division play-offs rigged so every team can win.

Blindly loyal fans seek excuses to cheer, but instead

they get kid-movie scenes with insects swimming in lights,

slow motion pop ups, dribbling rollers—son/dad/boyfriends

acting communal molasses parody.

 

Another strike out and players cluster, plotting strategy,

seeking energy as the game drains for the final last inning outs.

Then a blink in the lights error—a man on, followed by

a slap double where comical boney legs churn,

and the air quickens like it does when baseball congeals,

finding evolving form. The opposing captain

for so long so stolid, takes charge, steals third,

 

and umpires gather in deliberate stall, the game drifting

in black clear night collecting in the hills. Then before

waiting stares an aluminum bat connects—a fly to center—

an intent runner waits like a frozen statue, then heads home.

With momentum hard the ball whistles straight/true,

faster than the determined running captain bald and bold,

and the catcher snags the rocket, and in one motion tags,

 

so much like art that the forgotten crowd erupts feeling/knowing

surprise reversal, how one thin foot makes all the difference.

Without a pause the championship trophy is held high

for snap shot grins, for all to clutch and hold. When

adrenaline settles into wet grass players walk bowlegged

and proud wearing dust and grass stains, collecting one last time

bats and balls, satisfied enough ancient ritual again,

 

as predicted, has produced a hero.

 

Poetry Submissions

IMG_1593

Due to the heavy increase in poetry submissions throughout the summer

We are not going to accept any more poetry submissions

Until

Further

Notice.

We are swamped.

Craig Owens: Two Poems

glasgowhouse2dogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Grandmother’s House

The scent of cinnamon
hangs softly
in the air
at my grandmother’s house.

The leftovers of
uncountable years of baking
waft gently
in the background

sneaking through the
coal warmed rooms.

Sleep comes easily there.

There exists a decided absence
of modern noise,
save for the
tender hum
of the ancient Frigidaire,

but it is that ever present scent that
hugs the senses—
ferociously sweet,
intensely loving—
with grandmotherly familiarity.

 

Gorgeous

Like those guys on television
who appear in gum ads
or beer ads
or ads that feature jeans.

The kind of guy you have to
stop and look at
on your way to the fridge
for another pint of ice cream.

Those guys who have such fun
playing billiards,
hiking in the woods,
or just sitting half naked near a rotary fan.

I’d love to be gorgeous like that.

Like a wilderness man
with manicured nails
and an L.L. Bean catalogue.

Like the mountain biker
with well-defined calves
and a giant S.U.V.

Like the guy who parties all night,
drinking flavored beer,
unconcerned with work the next day.
I‘d love to be gorgeous like that.
Youthful and butch,
with stubble and mussed hair,
sweating beads of salty sweat
that’s far more clean
than dirty
maybe a little dirty
a little dangerous
but the good kind of danger
the kind that makes
your jeans tingle
and your lips quiver.

I want to be gorgeous like that.

“Pretty, Black, Shiny Shoes” by Dean Stracener

Haven's Wharf, Washington NC USA

It was in the summer of 1939, and I was five-years-old. My mother had been very sick, and, while she was in the hospital, my brother, Don, and I stayed with our aunt and uncle, and I had accidentally broken my aunt’s glasses, but that’s anotheer story. Now I want to tell you about the prettiest, blackest, shiniest shoes that I have ever seen.

My mother was doing better and had finally come home from the hospital. One day a lady, who was dressed in beautiful clothes, came by for a visit. I knew who she was. Her name was Miss Gloria, and she was married to the son of the owner of the plant where my daddy worked, and she brought her little girl, who was wearing a pretty, white pinafore over her dress. Miss Gloria told me that her daughter’s name was Alicia and she was four-years-old. Miss Gloria suggested that we go outside and play. Instead we sat down on our front steps, and it was then that I noticed her shoes. They were black and shiny and they each had two little straps that went around her ankles. I thought that, if I could have shoes like that, I would never ask for anything else, for they would make me happy forever.

Daddy worked hard; I knew that because, when he came in from work, he was always tired and dirty. He’d take a bath, we’d eat supper, and he’d read the paper or listen to the radio for a little while. If it was in the winter time, after Don and I had our baths, Mother would wrap blankets over our pajamas, so that we could sit up awhile and listen to the radio. We didn’t have slippers or robes, but we were warm and happy. When it was time for us to go to bed, Daddy would carry Don and Mother would carry me so we didn’t have to walk on the cold floor. We didn’t have much money; I knew that because sometimes at night when they thought I was asleep, I would listen to them talk – about the hospital bill and the rent and things like that. How could I ask for shiny shoes that would cost a lot of money, anything that pretty had to cost a lot of money.

So, I didn’t tell my parents about those shoes until I was a grown, married woman. Mother said I should’ve told them for they would have found a way to get them for me. I smiled for I knew that, even then as a little girl, and that’s why I didn’t tell them. But I’ll never forget those black, shiny shoes.

“Not Nihilistic” by Pete Armetta

The DeMille family crypt, Cecil B.'s family. Washington NC.

It’s a common thing around here. Family cemeteries in people’s backyards. Or on their land somewhere. On land that’s been passed down from generation to generation. There are laws on the books nowadays protecting this sacred land from development too. Would you want to build a house there? And the word on the street is that when folks try to sell they run into all sorts of problems.

 

There’s a particular family cemetery on a twisting, curving and sparsely traveled country road where the sky is big and the panorama magnetizing. Back in the day, I passed by it all the time, when I’d regularly hightail it down this fun country road. I used to look at and wonder about it- cemeteries just do that to me. It’s been awhile since I’d thought about or seen it, but for some odd reason this cemetery has come back into my life lately with a whole new meaning.

 

Funny how things happen, no?

 

Across the street from the cemetery is a little church: Saint Andrews Chapel 1895- that’s what it says on a sign in front. It’s a small, white clapboard church and steeple, with green-painted shutters on the windows and a set of ancient, green-painted double doors in front. Quite charming and interesting- pretty too. It sits close to the road and is surrounded by woods, with mountains beyond. Folks say the church isn’t used anymore and I’ve never seen anyone there. And I’ve always been curious about the hows and whys of it.

 

Just how I roll.

 

We get older it’s true. Some memories we never get over and they leave wounds and cause strife and make for bad dreams. They’re kind of like a milestone or rite of passage or a segue in life that permanently marks a place and a time. You know how it goes, we all have them. And these memories also can provide inspiration. Or a spark. When at the time we may not even know it.

 

Right?

 

I have a good friend who grew up down the road from this cemetery, although if you knew him you’d know that he’s light years away now from that childhood and place. Years ago the cemetery was the second part of an important journey for him. At the time this journey was one of those “defining moments”, and it is still; and a lot of goodness has come from it too, much to his chagrin.

 

He discovered his only way to live.

 

At least that’s how he tells it.

 

So my friend tells me that a few years back he was barreling down this particular road in the pouring rain one night, heading toward the cemetery and the church. He heard sirens and saw police lights in his rearview. Being who he is he punched the car up toward eighty miles per hour, and being he grew up on these roads, he knew the twists and turns much better than most. My friend kept that car moving fast on that dark and wet road. When he looked in his rearview he’d left the police way behind. No more lights.

 

Then he hit.

 

He misjudged a tight curve right before the cemetery and smashed head on into a big old line of pine trees on the side of the road. The car flipped and rolled.

 

Then he slipped into black.

 

A helicopter took my friend to the university hospital thirty miles away. When he woke up he didn’t remember anything about the accident. Except for when he hit. And then woke up. He was pretty banged up but the only thing on his mind was that black.

 

My friend says he died then.

 

Today he thinks of the accident quite often, particularly when he’s driving down this road and passes the spot where he hit- the cemetery within view; Saint Andrews Chapel 1895, quiet and alone. As a matter of fact, I just heard this story last night while he and I were lollygagging and bullshitting and goofing around in the gravel parking area beside Saint Andrews. It was pitch black, except for fire we’d built and the big star-filled sky. My friend told me that before the accident he was particularly nihilistic and melancholic about his life overall. And in the years since that night, his interpretation of “the black” has changed.

 

He told me about his journey in the dark at this church and that his coming out of the black was the beginning. He knows now with absolute certainty he has a PURPOSE in life- there’s a reason and meaning to who he is. He said the way he saw things before he hit was all wrong and that he’s now in his right place and time. He knows that his purpose is to be true to his heart and do right and wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

He’s not nihilistic anymore.

“Our Nativity – 1970″ by Dawn Wilson

(an adult story to get you ready for the upcoming holiday season … )

Downtown Washington NC waterfront

We had to borrow a baby. That was the least of our troubles. There were half a dozen teen mothers in the parish who were more than glad to give up the kid for a couple hours twice a week.

 

We made a list. We didn’t want a kid from a mom who was never coming back, once she got a greedy taste of teen freedom again. The pastor was pretty adamant that even though little Willy Schafer didn’t scream much on account of his vocal cords weren’t fully formed, that we couldn’t take him. His mama, Tina Schafer, would be on the first bus out of town. Even Tina’s own mama wouldn’t look after the baby.

 

So we couldn’t have a quiet baby.

 

The next best baby, we all agreed, would have been Lacy Sparks, on account of her not being smelly. Lacy was pretty young, and you know that age, they don’t stink nearly as often as the ones just a few months older.

 

But one of the wise men, a man named Esteban, said we couldn’t use Lacy Sparks ‘cause she was a girl. Esteban was really into his role as wise man. He came bearing Frankincense, you know. And he was a perfectionist. He said if we were going to do some sham nativity, he didn’t want a part of it, not even at Christmas. Christ was not a girl, and so we couldn’t use Lacy Sparks. Of course, the other two wise men said that it shook Esteban because there was a rumor going around that of course Christ the Savior had been a girl.

 

And I was Joseph. Joseph didn’t have a lot to do. Joseph got overlooked. Joseph usually ended up in a corner helping the two kids playing the fatted calf up and down the back stairs and helping them bow without their head falling off. Joseph had to make sure the ass didn’t forget its cue and the person playing the lamb didn’t get any funny notions about Method Acting and start chewing the baby’s swaddling clothes.

 

Tina Schafer begged to be the Virgin Mary, but then there would have been a scandal. Everyone in town would talk. Tina said all she really wanted was to be accepted into the congregation again. She said she missed all the townsfolk while she was in the convent waiting to give birth. She never once spoke about the nuns at the convent. But apparently she had regained the Fear of God.

 

Too bad she couldn’t be the Virgin. She looked real swell in blue, ‘cause she had that real dark hair.

 

There were rumors going around that this baby of hers, Willy, wasn’t really her first. The rumors said that she “fell down the stairs” when she found out she was pregnant a couple years back, probably with her cousin’s seed, and when that didn’t work, she fell down the stairs again. Even that didn’t work. Her cousin’s seed was pretty potent. Everyone knew, because he was the one most likely to be fingered by the tight-sweatered cheerleaders, usually around baseball season. Nine months earlier would have been the start of football season, when Tina’s cousin was particularly randy. He was the type who actually joked about doing it with goats.

 

The pastor of our church didn’t like Tina’s whole family.

 

But Willy was a quiet baby. We all had quite an argument because Linda, who ended up playing the Virgin Mary, wanted an extra quiet baby since she was going to have to shove him up under her robe for the birth scene. But then she found out baby boys can pee in any direction, so she said she wanted baby Lacy. But then baby Lacy bit her, and there was a rumor going around that Lacy had mono and mumps and distemper because she had been bit by a dog and that’s why her head was misshapen and ugly like that… The truth of it was, Lacy really did have fleas.

 

So we ended up with this kid called Burt. Who names a baby Burt? It’s not something a kid can grow into. And it was me and Linda and Burt, and then five kids who were stuck playing the ass, the calf, and the lamb (only one kid needed to be in the lamb, so the shyest kid was usually picked for that part—well, the lamb was usually shyest until the shy kid realized that no one knew who they were inside, and so then they were free to f**k around all they wanted—you know what they say about shy kids…). So three animals, a trio fake family, and three wise men. It’s the “trinity”, ya know, all Biblical, we were really hammering it in.

 

I was going on twenty and Linda was ripe. I don’t mean it in a non-Biblical sense. I was real appreciative of what she’d got. Like, that shapeless robe looked real good on her. She was… as I already said, she was ripe. Melons. Big ones.

 

Of course, Linda was fourteen. Everyone was going for authenticity that year, and of course the real Virgin had been just a kid, too.

 

Me and Linda, we got on swell. She had all these ideas. She really wanted to be a flower child, all naturalness, and she actually got some hay from her granddad to thatch the roof of the fake manger on the dais at the front of the sanctuary. She climbed up there without a ladder, using the choir loft to lower herself down with a big pot of glue. Barefoot, covered in glue, all giggly, and from below, she didn’t know it, but everyone could see up her dress. Her mother was negligent. Her mother didn’t tell her to always wear clean underwear when she left the house. Linda’s mother didn’t check to make sure Linda was wearing underwear at all.

 

And her breasts ran free and clear.

 

How the Virgin Mary ever made it to fourteen without getting impregnated by a randy shepherd out f**king his sheep all day long and then taking one look at her, well, hell, I don’t know. If I were Joseph—

 

And I am. Joseph. So, then, as Joseph, I wasn’t too surprised when Linda—I mean, Mary—got knocked up. Linda didn’t, Mary did, the whole Holy Ghost thing. (Yeah, right.) Mary’s folks shouldn’t have been too surprised either.

 

The only people who were surprised by Mary’s actions—I mean, Linda’s—were the inn keepers. I mean, the pastor and his wife.

 

They kept telling her, “Linda, you gotta come down off that manger before any of these boys get any ideas about you. Linda, Linda, you come down now!” Then they took her in back and Pastor Williams stood outside his office like a sentry while his wife inside did something to Linda. Like showed her the stretch marks left over from the five kids the Williamses had.

 

Linda came out crying, and she vowed to remain a virgin forever.

 

Well, damn.

 

There went my plans for winter vacation.

 

***

 

Some kid named Elroy shaved his dog and glued it to my face. He only told me what he’d done after he’d glued it on tight. And it wasn’t a nice rubber cement, either, but a proper epoxy. That stuff didn’t come off until halfway through 1971, but it was okay, in the end, because when the draft board saw it, they let me off. It had given me quite a rash along the jaw line by then, and fallen off in tufts. I looked like I had the mange. But yet, when I met my future wife, Susan, the year of the mange, she still married me, but of course the marriage itself wasn’t for years and years to come. I guess to be honest, when Susan met me, she hated me. Hell, I looked like I had mange. How romantic is that?

 

Now, if you want romantic, take a ripe fourteen-year-old brat barefoot in a blue tunic with great hair, shove a baby into a little holster around her belly, and then make us walk hand in hand with two kids in an ass bumping us the whole way down to the front of the church.

 

I still swear Linda and I are married. We’re closer than God could’ve ever made us.

 

Well, of course you know the first thing that happened was that Burt was premature. He could only be stuck loosely in this sling thing, like a hammock, on account of we were supposed to birth him without Linda mooning the congregation. I don’t know why they’re such prudes about it. I mean, she’s only fourteen, and most of them have kids her age, so they shouldn’t be tempted by dirty thoughts. They should just, you know, reminisce. Like, oh, those were the days, when my kid was little and we used to scrub her rear end in the bath. You know, nostalgia that then makes you think about the Virgin Mary and how tough it must have been for her, being just past puberty, and her mom probably still scrubbed her rear in the tub, and there she was, mother to this precocious little bastard who was all: Hey, I’m gonna save the world, Ma!

 

Yeah, so Burt falling out onto his head was no big deal. He was a pretty big baby, and it wasn’t the first time he’d gone crashing down onto his head. His whole family are a bunch of numbskulls. Literally, they don’t feel it, and when their kid goes kablooey, they think it’s funny.

 

So you had like thirty people in the congregation laughing their asses off. Not literally. Though that would’ve been pretty funny.

 

And then you had like all the old biddies and these grumpy people in cardigans who freaked. A couple women screamed. One ran up and totally stole the baby Jesus right before I could scoop him up. Burt was laughing hysterically, that baby giggle that’s kinda creepy, but then, he’d just been shoved up into the sacred realm of this ripe hottie. He was going to grow up all sorts of warped just for the fact that he got to play Jesus at such a “tender and impressionable age”. As the biddies called it. I didn’t think he’d remember it at all, which was a shame.

 

Linda turned to me and said, “Hey, Frank, I mean, Joseph, she’s got our kid, you know?”

 

“Yup.” I watched the woman run off toward the first aid kit they’d installed at the front of the sanctuary for all the kids who ate the poinsettias. You know, bandages and ipecac and stuff. I don’t know what she was thinking, but in just a few moments, Burt was vomiting all over.

 

A friend of mine who’d come up from college to stay with my family, and he’s Jewish, mind you, stood up and yelled, “Hallelujah! The holy vomit of the Christ!”

 

Which didn’t go over well. We were already in two factions. Burt’s family, who thought we should just shove him back into the sling and continue, and maybe drop him a couple more times just to get a good laugh, and then the people who thought Burt was actually representing something here.

 

Like hell. Representation. Burt was the only thing keeping me from ravaging this precious virgin next to me. Because he seriously represented the only reason I knew of to not do it.

 

And our ass had got ahead of us and gotten tangled in the evergreen garland that we’d used to rope off the stage from curious kids. We were supposed to be there to keep our ass out of the garland. Instead, Linda had pushed me into one of the pews where a woman was sitting with a quietly sleeping babe. I guess Linda was looking to expedite the birth, and she didn’t want to shove Burt back up her skirt, in case he vomited again.

 

“Can I have your kid, ma’am?” I asked. I mean, I was polite.

 

But she said no anyway.

 

So I took her Bugs Bunny doll and, real careful, I shoved it down the front of Linda’s robe, because until I was seated behind the little feeding trough, you’d have had a good view of my hard-on if I wasn’t careful with that Bugs Bunny. This wasn’t a good time. My grandma was in the audience.

 

“Hey!” the lady with the baby said.

 

“It’s the blessed baby Jesus,” I said. “The angels told us. That’s why I’m still marrying this hot chick here, even though it’s obvious something’s up.” I tried to be Biblical and remain true to the story, you know.

 

But all that bunny made me think of was how often bunnies… procreate. And how soft those melons had been, one on each side of my wrist.

 

I scratched my beard and pushed Linda ahead of me. She moved easier now that she didn’t have a real kid in her craw. She clutched her stomach to hold Bugs Bunny in.

 

Burt’s family all thought this was real cool, I guess. They were high-fiving each other and stuff. I turned and high-fived them back. “Yeah! I’m Joseph!” I cawed. Joseph gets overlooked, sure, but think of how important he really is. He’s the world’s first schmuck.

 

Burt was still vomiting. You know. Ipecac. That’s what it’s for.

 

The lady who’d taken Burt came up to us and she had some more Ipecac and she held it up to my face and she said, “Begone, demons!” I jerked my head back.

 

Linda grabbed her and said, “Hey, lady!”

 

Obviously this was a visiting lady who didn’t go to our church. Most of the congregation wasn’t too worried yet. They’d seen the play last year. And the year before. They knew we’d get to the end.

 

“I know drug abuse when I see it!” the woman insisted.

 

“Huh?”

 

Linda stole the ipecac and the lady ran back to the first aid kit to see what other trouble she could do. “Shoving a real baby up the Virgin Mary’s robe? That’s the sign of an unhinged mind.”

 

And we all, you know, turned to look at Pastor Williams, ‘cause it had been his idea, ever since he first joined the congregation to Lead us little sheep, to be all authentic and give us all a taste of what The Miracle must have been like.

 

I decided just to get on with it. I stopped at a pew and said, “Hey, yall got any room here? We’re tired and gotta rest and my wife’s about to pop.”

 

The people who sat at the ends of the pews had all been given prompt cards that said things like, “Get out of here, we’re full.” And “Can’t you see we don’t have any room here?” And my favorite was one that one of the guys on the set building crew had promised to slip in: “She’s one fat hussy, huh?” Even though it didn’t apply so much anymore. Bugs Bunny was pretty svelte compared to Burt.

 

The guy who ended up with that card was about eighty years old, with real white hair and a couple hearing aids, but he was a sport and he raised his shaking finger and said it loud and tremulous as could be. “She’s one fat hussy, huh?” Then he stared at Linda and whispered, “Sorry, baby.” I guess it was her granddad.

 

Linda said, “That’s okay, Pop, we’ll go somewhere else, where we’ll be appreciated.”

 

Tina Schafer was scratching herself real hard at the next pew. Fleas, you know. She tried to hand us her baby. “For authenticity.”

 

“No thanks,” Linda said. She backed away. Can’t say I blame her.

 

Baby Burt, who had been taken away to be cleaned up, was brought back in, but then he started screaming. He’s one of those kids. Loud. Got a good laugh out of his family again. Sort of stole the show. I mean, you just can’t compete with the drama he was putting up.

 

Linda helped me untangle our ass and get the two kids seated next to the feeding trough in the least creepy way (if they did it wrong, the stomach would bulge out like it had gotten into some sort of poison). Then Linda screamed and fell to the stage and writhed around a little and said every swear word in the book. She had said she didn’t need to practice this, on account of her aunt giving birth last year, and Linda had been there to help the midwife. She told Pastor Williams she’d be all sorts of Authentic.

 

I gaped down at her.

 

Yeah, Jesus was sure a deterrent. I didn’t even want to touch her anymore, I don’t care how ripe she was.

 

Which is how come, I think, I ended up marrying Susan and never laying a hand on Linda.

 

Far as I know, no one has ever laid a hand on Linda. Well, except for her creepy uncle, who was in the audience, as he used to molest her and rub her melons and stuff, but after this performance, I heard he never dared do it again.

 

Linda kicked, and see, she’s always been a gymnast, real flexible, and she threw her legs wide open like they were in some stirrups, and then she did a little sleight of hand and threw Bugs Bunny at me.

 

I barely caught the toy. Good thing we hadn’t done this with a real baby, since we hadn’t practiced the actual birth.

 

Linda sat up and said, “Frew! I don’t see how I’m going to ever do that again, Joseph, since this kid was nothing but faith and spirit!”

 

I set the toy in the feeding trough in all the hay.

 

Three kids started screaming out in the congregation. It was good sound effects. I stood with my hands on my hips over the trough and said, “This kid is going to save everyone, huh?” I was supposed to adlib a few things about the baby. Scrawny and furry were the first ones out.

 

And then three wise men popped their heads in through the three glassless windows and started to sing, like a barbershop quartet, only there were only three of them. Authenticity. They really wanted a fourth wise man, but we weren’t allowed. Esteban again. So the barbershop quartet had to draw straws. Mickey didn’t get to participate. He had to run the lights instead.

 

And he turned them off then, in the middle of the wise men’s song, and said, “F**k you all, I hope your heads get stuck!”

 

Turns out he’d used some pretty strong glue in the windows, too.

 

We learned a lot that year. Most of it about the strength of glue. And quite a lot about never laying a hand on a virgin.

 

Pastor Williams stood up front in the dark while we stayed in our tableau around him (we couldn’t move, that’s how dark it was), and he said a bunch of stuff that was supposed to get us thinking, from then until Easter, about the journey Jesus had taken.

 

Burt threw up again. But a little knock on the head didn’t do much damage, I don’t think, because he played Jesus for Christmas and Easter for the next twenty years. He only vomited the first five years. Our psychiatrist who taught Sunday school said it was probably a conditioned reflex. Baby Jesus, aged twenty, that’s another story altogether.

 

After that year, Mary wasn’t allowed to give birth in the open. They do it behind a white sheet now, so it looks sterile, and they shine a light, so it’s all light and shadow. They think that’s meaningful. That it’ll get people to think.

 

But I’ll tell you what, I caught my own folks one night doing a striptease with a white sheet between them. They alternated turning on and off lamps on their sides of the bedroom. It was creepy to watch, even from the elm outside their window, clutching a pair of binoculars and trying to watch a sweet little gal named Patricia. She lived across the street and she’d just had her cotillion.

 

You know Joseph did stuff like that in Bethlehem. His wife was pregnant by a “spirit”. Turnabout’s fair, especially when you’re just watching. I’ve emulated Joseph ever since. I really got in touch with his spirit that year. Poor bastard.

Suzannah Gilman: Three Poems

Only Words

In my house I glance down
at the coffee table and see the latest
issue of National Geographic with the white
bold font spelling out “Libya” on its cover
and in my head I hear “Libby-uh,”
but then “Lib-yuh,” the second
in my grandfather’s voice.
I hear him say “War War One,”
in which he was a sailor,
and “War War Too,”
in which his eldest son served
and was wounded, earning
a purple heart, the last thing
he would earn in his life before
he became permanently
drunk in his easy chair.

There was never a copy
of National Geographic (nekkid people!)
in my grandparents’ house, nor mine,
nor in any of the houses of my numerous
uncles and aunts and cousins. We had only
the religion of my grandmother and
her family, Assemblies of God. Though
my grandmother loved my grandfather’s
sister Bertha as well as she would have
loved her own, my grandmother would
whisper (because she never meant
to be rude or hateful), “Bertha
is Church of God, and they don’t b’leeve
right.”

So in my grandparents’ house, we had only
the Bible, the Pentecostal Evangel, the biography
of Corrie Ten Boom, and the Reader’s Digest
to read and digest, mixed with Lawrence Welk
and Hee Haw on my grandfather’s seven inch
TV screen. He won the little pop-up set
in California when he worked
at the Navy Shipyard, his last job
before he retired and we all moved
to Florida, where I am still, and where, after
age 40, I ordered the Time Life
DVDs of Hee Haw. I watched with
thick, ketchup-y anticipation and
nostalgia for my childhood, and
because I was out of my child’s
daisy-dreaming head and in
an adult frame of mind, I saw
for the first time what it really was—
titties and innuendo, ass-slapping and sexism,
a slow yawning of cock-sure male
libido and a little
needling behind the haystack—
and I wondered what in the hell
anyone in my family
ever stood for,
ever.

###

Gladys

In the hospital, she was nameless—a body, nothing. More
like a machine. Sloshing a mop across a hard floor tires
her mind, which has become numb, beeps and codes and
thoughtless repetitions filling the minutes of her days spent

like a machine, sloshing a mop across. A hard floor tires
her veined and aching legs until quitting time,
thoughtless repetitions. Filling the minutes of her days, spent,
she labors the streets of Memphis-Chicago-Houston, wearing

her veined and aching legs. Until quitting time,
she looks forward to the rented room with a shared bath,
she labors. The streets of Memphis-Chicago-Houston wearing
their cracked, uneven sidewalks upon her memory forever.

She looks forward, to the rented room: with a shared bath,
she can’t linger long enough to soak away the cities’ pain,
their cracked, uneven sidewalks. Upon her memory forever,
the move to L.A., where Earl found a good job at the shipyard.

She can’t linger. Long enough to soak away the cities’ pain:
the distance between the new life and the old. She celebrates
the move to L.A., where Earl found a good job. At the shipyard
her husband, full of work, retires his body to their bed only.

The distance between the new life and the old! She celebrates
her own things, happy and waxing her linoleum squares.
Her husband, full of work, retires his body. To their bed only,
she brings clean, smooth sheets and loosens the corners,

her own things. Happy and waxing her linoleum. Squares
finally, a couple with a carport and their own front door.
She brings clean, smooth sheets and loosens the corners.
In the hospital she was nameless, a body, nothing more.

###

Energy Bill

The energy bill I can’t pay is due on my dad’s birthday.
There’s nothing I can do on either count, powerless.
Dad is dead and has been, so what does this mean?
His ashes sit on a shelf at my brother’s house.

There’s nothing I can do on either count. Powerless,
my sons live in my house with the heat blasting.
His ashes sit on a shelf. At my brother’s house,
lights left on everywhere. And for what purpose? Will it end?

My sons live. In my house with the heat blasting,
sooner or later all of this will burn me up,
lights left on everywhere. And for what purpose will it end?
I will be ash, too, if only metaphorically. Due dates march on.

Sooner or later all of this will burn me. Up
until now, I’ve taken the heat, but if this continues
I will be ash, too. If only metaphorically, due dates march on.
The energy bill I can’t pay is due on my dad’s birthday.

Online and On Time

I don’t know what that means but it sounds good — doesn’t it?

On time. For a literary journal, “on time” could be anyone’s schedule. If the journal is affiliated with an academic funding source, on time probably correlates with the academic year or semester.

On time for the Dead Mule? We’ll address that soon.

meanwhile, have a great Labor Day Weekend.

Michael Diebert: Three Poems

postcard DM26

 

In Your Off-White Dream

“I let you close once and what happens?

The floor’s all cut up in this one corner

and something in the ceiling is redolent of Death!

You forgot to put out more cans of air!

The curlicue-and-shrink-wrap shipment

continues to be unopened! And funny—

we sold no folderol last night

but now somehow we’re out?

What is this, your personal treehouse?

When I get back with my large triple

chocolate chunk caramel skim latte,

I’d better see some evidence

I’m not dreaming!” But he is. He’s been

assistant manager too long

or humble not long enough

or the trees have shriveled in the record heat

or a million other possible tropes.

You, you’re no trope. You open the doors.

In marches a skeleton holding a handbag,

demanding a refund. You handle it.

The skeleton blows you a kiss

and comes close to skipping.

In a minute which feels like an hour

you take back a beaten guitar,

scuffed sneakers, driftwood, Christmas trees,

someone’s great-grandmother’s butter knives.

Dust rag in one hand, Sharpie in the other,

you mark everything down

to two-seventy-nine. A phone keeps ringing

that idiotic song about redemption,

you know the one, you’ve heard it,

bubbly undercurrent of a bazillion TV ads.

You poke your head outside

expecting the curb. You get the inside

of another store: off-white walls,

empty shelves practically begging

to be populated. One foot follows

the other across the threshold.

Windows without flyers—endcaps

without mice, batteries, or candy bars—

register swaddled in plastic—

 

counter pristine as the dash of a Cadillac.

A store with nothing to sell—

your breath the only air.

Two orderlies muscle in, strap you into

a gurney, push you through a portal

to a clearing, an urgent meeting

of guidance counselors. Campfire flames

threaten to lick the branches.

In the dancing shadows they sign rapidly

and with much agitation. In their shoulders

hunches an indeterminate fear,

which is what you hear

when you wake to the sports talk station rant

and slam the snooze button.

Your forehead glistens.

Once you were pretty good at stopping

your dreams on a dime.

 

***

 

Two Sicknesses

 

1

My brother in a hospital bed

with the chicken pox,

three years old, barely

 

old enough to know real illness

but enough to know

we have deviated from the plan

 

and don’t have much call

to be in Crawfordsville, Indiana

tonight or any night,

 

yet at the moment a sort of peace

creeps: soft yellow light

from a goose-necked lamp,

 

a sheaf of papers in its beam,

somewhere a clock

announcing 9:30, the night inside

 

slowly drawing the sheets over itself,

drifting off. The cord

running from me to this memory

 

is crimped, not up to code.

Where are my parents? I hear

strained whispers, questions asked

 

of whom I presume is the man

in charge, words like when

and penicillin. At this remove

 

I can’t tell anymore

if tomorrow calls for cold or rain

or more of the same,

 

can’t help anyone here

get to where they’re going

even though some part of me

 

knows we’re driving to Fresno.

Road trip without a moral,

tableau in amber—

 

save my brother

on his back, hooked up to fluids,

probably still awake and dying

 

to scratch holy hell out of his body,

he who has speech

and no say in the matter.

 

2

State park campsite.

Rain, noninsistent, omnipresent,

tapping since yesterday the wings

 

of our pop-up camper,

a haze to complement

the greater haze surrounding us,

 

preventing my supine

flu-ridden self from seeing

the other family we’re camping with:

 

the dad who works with my dad,

the mysterious mom,

the snooty daughter

 

I sort of know from school.

The afternoon is a lukewarm bath.

All weekend this indecisive light,

 

my stomach suspended

between full and ravenous,

little TV illuminating

 

the hollows of Dad’s cheeks

with tires, power tools, light beer,

knives so sharp they could cut

 

silence. My head is hot. Mom slides

the cold thermometer under my tongue.

Ninety-nine and holding.

 

It’s sick how no one is talking.

Pop tab hiss, cola cracking ice.

I sit up and look through

 

the half-unzipped window

at the canopy. A dove coos,

seems to be feeling me out.

 

I know I will probably get better,

go on to falter

and recover a million times over

 

from more life-threatening things.

Household chores, girls, mean old world.

In the thin wet mesh

 

between me and the elements,

I trace my name:

first and last, all caps.

 

***

 

Harbor Island

 

Farther down the beach,

kids are chasing each other, screaming with delight.

A kite puffed up by the wind. Twilight,

high tide, hyperactive sea.

We ease Mom into the unfolded folding chair,

help her button her sweater. She grins

through the pain. No walker,

no cane, no wheelchair, not yet.

She’s from a line who says it does no good to complain,

and tonight, I must agree.

I’m tired, resolve-free.

In the surf, a heron is sneaking up on dinner.

My wife and I wade in ankle-deep.

I wish I had handy a shovel

to dig a bed and dream

the even-keeled dreams of the dead.

There is much to be said about this beach

that can never be said,

or if so, by someone with a mind like sand,

someone here year-round.

Farther down, the kids are fighting

to keep a fire going. They fan, they blow.

Mom looks on from a body which has betrayed her

and in a low, flat voice—

what she really wants, we’ll never know—

says she could sure go for some lobster,

claws and all, the real stuff, the kind you have to want

to work for.

 

Michael Parker “message in a bottle”

valerie macewan art part

 

message in a bottle

a poem
though child of the poet
is never truly known by her
so much as rent from her loins
and cast into the sea

 

then washed
up onto a distant shore
and by its discovery transformed–
yet

 

no less the poet’s child
for all that

Deb Jellett “Southerness”

merry day from me

Another essay from Ms. Jellett. Read on, this one’s important. 

It’s a 50’s scene, me, my father and a new tricycle in front of a Christmas tree heavy laden with tinsel, ornaments and lights. Strings of Christmas cards are draped across the wall behind and a nativity scene sits on the clunky coffee table. My father is down on one knee and smiling a lopsided grin that reminds me of Elvis. He is wearing a natty bow tie and his thick, dark curly hair is swept back. It amazes me how handsome he is. I am sitting on the trike in a pink lace dress and patent leather shoes. There is a pink bow in my blonde hair. The dress was my mother’s idea. The trike was a present from my father.

I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. I left, rather fled, the South, as a young adult, vowing never to return. And now, in retirement, I have done what I said I would never do and have returned to the South. My feelings about being back are mixed, confused. Both the South and I have changed, for the better, I think. I used to say I was from the South, not of the South. Now I am not so sure. I just have to find the right kind of South, the right kind of Southerness. The angry red line Word (word processing software) puts under that word tells me it doesn’t exist. But I know better.

I have always been a little (sometimes a lot) ashamed of being from the South. I grew up with segregation. As a child, I saw hooded KKK men openly standing in the streets with collection boxes. In the pre-mall days, my grandmother and I took the bus downtown to shop. We sat in the front and the blacks in the back and there were separate lunch counters and water fountains.

When blacks moved into a neighborhood, whites moved out. The KKK launched random, often vicious and sometimes fatal attacks against blacks, Jews, liberals. There is much that is reactionary, negative about the true South, Dixie – rampant xenophobia, fear of the unknown outside world, institutionalized racism, cultural sexism and religious intolerance.

As a young adult, I did purposefully run away from the racist South. But I also put distance between me and the mythical South, the “Gone with the Wind South”, the white middle class, mint juleps on the veranda South. The South of Tea Party, country club Republicans and stately red brick Baptist Churches where most people could not, can not, distinguish between opinion and truth. A South where women are put on pedestals, sidetracked and encouraged to be cute and sweet.

Most middle class whites embraced, still embrace, a lost cause mentality and the myth of the Old South, its gentility and civility. A masquerade of Mardi Gras, cotillions, lavish entertaining, gentile ladies and gallant gentlemen and reenactments of Civil War battles. And they pretend that it is the delusion, those myths, that are what is important, special about the South.

The heart and soul of the South can be found, not in a white middle class myth, but rather closer to the land and the people who worked it. The rural, farming culture of the South, the attendant isolation, poverty and ignorance, combined with a tendency towards religious fundamentalism and, paradoxically, superstition, defined the Old South. Enslaved blacks outnumbered whites in many places. And there was an inherent fear amongst whites of revolution, retribution. In the wake of the Civil War, poor blacks and whites were dumped into a vast melting pot. The so called Reconstruction was a non event. The South was defeated and alarmingly poor. Competing for scarce resources, poor whites and blacks became combatants and the KKK slithered its way into existence. Violence against blacks was the byproduct. But the perpetrators of racist violence were in the minority. The creators of nastiness usually are. They are just a lot noisier.

Alongside the racial violence, there existed a quiet, rural world of blacks and whites, poor honest, churchgoing, salt of the earth people who lived in separate compartments, but existed in the same realm. People who worked hard to coax a living from the land. Blacks and whites who read their Bibles every day, if they could read, and who knew the importance of community. Poor, decent people who took care of their own. It is that South that produced my father. The Bible was the only book I ever saw him read.

When I was growing up, ‘Separate but equal’ was the mantra. There were black schools, black churches, and black neighborhoods. The only blacks I encountered as a child were maids and cooks and chauffeurs who were dressed in starched uniforms, had separate bathrooms in their employers’ garages and who disappeared back into their own world at night. On a trip to California in the 1950’s, I was amazed to see blacks and whites eating in the same restaurant. My father approved. My mother did not. It was 1967, thirteen years after Brown vs. The Board of Education, when my public high school was integrated. Two black students. Two. Segregation insured minimal contact and perpetuated itself by the lack of understanding and the fear it brought.

The Southern waters have been muddied by the rise of the black middle class and the influx of Hispanics who compete with poor blacks and whites for low paying jobs. But it is still true to say that the kind of Southerner you become is determined largely by where you find yourself on the social and economic scale at the beginning of life.

When the Depression hit, my father’s father had ten children, was dirt poor and living one up from a sharecropper in Mississippi. On that other plain, my mother’s family was prosperous and middle class, ensconced in a massive custom built brick house, guarded by ornamental lions, on a two acre corner lot in Mobile.

My father respected anyone who worked hard. My mother formed the privileged view that blacks and, ironically, women should know their place. My father had a hard won understanding of how complicated being poor was and how hard it could be to gain traction if you lacked the resources or support. And how important your family, your church and community were in the struggle. My mother was of the “pull your socks up and get a job” school of economic theory. My father had feet of clay. My mother had a primly perfect air. My father barely got out of high school, but built a successful timber contracting business. My mother graduated from a private girls’ college and worked for less than a year outside the home. My father respected the value of education. My mother took it for granted. My father’s family remained largely blue collar. My mother’s sisters married professional men and produced children. My father was always uncomfortable around them. I am the “rogue” cousin. The Liberal. The sometimes Catholic.

My father had a foot in both plains of Southerness. He played golf at the country club on Saturday and swapped dirty stories with toothless Cajun woodcutters on Monday morning. Men who worked hard and drank harder. Sometimes he had to bail them out of jail when the liquor ran riot. When I was about ten, we received a fundraising flyer from the NAACP. My mother threw it away. Daddy retrieved it and, making me promise not to tell, sent them some money, giving them his business address.

As he said to me many times, “A good man is a good man. Doesn’t matter what color he is or where he comes from.” What a man did told the tale.

My mother was invested in the white, middle class version of the South, in the myth of its gentility and order. And she, with love I am certain, imposed that world on me. It didn’t stick. My mother’s South always seemed to be more about what you couldn’t do than what you could do. My South is my daddy’s South.

And I don’t know if that is because I am a perverse, rebellious creature or if the tenets of my father’s creed seemed more positive, just and equitable. I like to think the latter is true, but I am not certain.

I do know that minutes after that Christmas picture was taken, the pink dress lay in a heap on my bedroom floor and dressed in my cowgirl’s outfit I went out the door with daddy and rode that trike until mama made me stop. And he smoked cigarettes that mama had banned from the house. We were in it together.

Deb Jellett “Daddy Elvis”

**Photo coming … hang on …

It was 1963, an era when each and every summer all self-respecting American families were obliged to climb into the battleship Caddy, mom and dad in the front, kids in the back, and to spend two miserable, interminable weeks together on vacation. My dad always drove. My mom sat with some map or another on her lap. Why she did this was a mystery. She couldn’t read maps. My brother and I sat in the back, drawing an imaginary lines across the mid-point of the seat and daring one another to cross over. Squabbling usually ensued.

“Hush,” mama would say, “or daddy’ll take a belt to you.”

We did Texas one summer, Washington D.C. another year. At every stop, I shopped for state charms for my charm bracelet and mama bought cooks books that usually called for Campbells soup to be poured over canned vegetables. That summer we were touring our native South. My brother and I yawned our way through a tour of the Alabama State Legislature and some equally boring caverns. Our next stop was Tennessee. Mama was singing “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and my brother and I, temporarily united by embarrassment at our parents’ behavior, declared peace and rolled our eyes at one another.

At the time, Elvis Presley was somewhere in between playing state fairs and being an international mega-star. I was already hopelessly in love with him. So, we just had to go to Memphis and I had to, had to, had to see Elvis’s Memphis home, Graceland.

It is hard to believe, but dad drove the Cadillac through the open gates of Graceland and we got out and walked around. I took pictures of Elvis’s burgeoning car collection. The place appeared to be deserted. We walked around to the back of the house. And there was Elvis’s daddy, Vernon. He was cleaning the biggest swimming pool I had ever seen.

He waved and shouted “hi.” And came over and shook my father’s hand. He was only around forty years old, but he seemed ancient to me. He had enormous ears and brown hair that was poofed up and swept back in Jerry Lee Lewis style. He was not a handsome man, but you could see something of Elvis’s face in his.

No, Elvis wasn’t around. But Vernon was happy to give us the cook’s tour of the grounds. And later I got a picture of me and him standing by the pool and another one of me standing on the steps of Graceland.

He took my name and address and for years I got Graceland Christmas cards. The first year, Vernon signed it himself and penned a note.

“Come over anytime and help me clean the pool. Ha, ha.”

Tour completed, we said our good byes to Vernon and piled back into the hot car.

“A fine man,” my father opined. My mother agreed and picked up a map.

Indeed. But he wasn’t Elvis.

Zacc Dukowitz “Ernesto and the Mule”

From Val's postcard collection.

A mule can be a very dangerous animal. You might not think so if you saw one munching hay in a barn, staring stupidly at the wall, its tail swishing lazily back and forth. You might not think a mule dangerous, or worth thinking about at all.

But you would be wrong, because a mule can kick the shit out of you.

This is what happened to Rinaldo. He’s ten years old, out taxiing people in a mule-drawn cart with his older brother Ernesto. Ernesto is thirteen, and he won’t stop picking at Rinaldo. “Why are you such a girl?” Ernesto asks his little brother. “Why don’t you stop wearing dress-es?”

It’s hot all afternoon. They sweat in the old cart, wiping it away with their T-shirts. “Did you know you were adopted?” Ernesto asks Rinaldo. “Did you know mom and dad bought you at the fish market?”

Rinaldo is a quiet boy but after a morning of this he’s had enough. Something comes over him and he lets loose, punches his brother across the mouth. Hard. Ernesto can’t believe it. It’s the first time his brother’s ever done something like that. Blood drips out of his nose, down his neck, onto his blue T-shirt. He wipes at it, wincing at the pain, trying to figure out what to do. After bleeding for a few more blocks he guides the mule to the side of the alameda, under a banyan tree, and sits glaring at Rinaldo.

“Puta!” he says.

Rinaldo glares back, but he is not so certain as he looks.

Ernesto gets out of the cart.

“Rinaldo,” he calls. “I want to show you something.”

Rinaldo’s feet are unsteady as he steps down onto the pavement. The sun is an anvil on his shoulders. He walks to his brother, who is taking the mule off its harness.

“Over here,” Ernesto says. “Right here.”

As if in a dream Rinaldo moves to where Ernesto is pointing. He stands there.

Crack! comes something—a clap of Ernesto’s hands, Rinaldo will know later, when he has lain in bed for days with the pain of broken ribs, with the tortured breathing of bloody lungs. A clap that scares the mule.

Crack! again, this second one not out in the world, but inside himself. It is the mule kick-ing him with its powerful legs, kicking Rinaldo’s small body up into the air so that he is flying for a moment, and then falling down, down and hitting hard on the street like a soggy bag of grain.

Ernesto stands over Rinaldo, eyes wide. He looks around. What to do? Blood is coming out of his brother’s mouth, he’s hardly moving. It was just an idea a moment before, something that could never actually happen.

But now—

Ernesto picks Rinaldo up in his skinny arms and begins to carry him to their family’s apartment, only a few blocks away. Rinaldo moans steadily, his breath sharp and quick, HU-hu, HU-hu. Every time Ernesto stumbles his brother shakes with pain.

It’s not far, but it’s like a nightmare walking uphill in the heat with the weight of his brother in his arms, his heart pounding out accusations. You killed, Your brother, You killed, Your brother.

The mule, meanwhile, is still unharnessed on the alameda. Having done the one thing that makes him dangerous, and feeling perhaps a little tough, he begins to saunter down the street. Out of the shadows of the banyan tree steps an old man. He takes the mule’s harness in hand, mounts him, and kicks him into a canter. The mule does not seem upset about losing his new freedom. He is a stoic, apparently—he expects such twists of fortune.

As he rides the mule the old man wonders whether the boy will live. It is not easy to be alive, he thinks. Life is very long, and there are so many choices. So many things that can go wrong. Over time the old man has renamed many things so that he can better address the differ-ences of the world. Life he calls a game. The island where he lives, a sad place. The name he calls himself is the philosopher, if he is feeling wry, or, if not, just Señor Cespedes.

Today, perhaps because of the mule, he is the philosopher.

As he rides the mule the phi-losopher inserts a large hand-rolled cigarette into the stringy black hair that hangs around his face, holds up a lit match and sucks on the cigarette, making the red tip smolder. The mule set-tles into a walk.

There was a time when he owned the cigar factory he now approaches on top of a stolen mule. He might have missed that, a long time ago, but that time is gone. Life is like this, he tells himself. Things come and go. That is why I am a philosopher. It was such another life, the life of the business he once owned, that he can smile now at the loss. Look at me, he thinks, look at me smiling as I ride past my lost grandeur.

And there it is: the cigar factory. It is still an attraction to the tourists who visit the is-land. In there they make many hundreds of cigars every day, and sell them to the tourists. Bah! When I owned the place we made a quality product. Now they are just whores. He takes the cigarette out of his mouth and waves at the factory of whores.

The mule seems hot, or old. It is slowing down.

“What’s wrong?” he asks the mule. He climbs down and takes a bottle of rum from his pocket, stands in the middle of the wide street with the blue ocean just beyond a swale of grass, and sips slowly, petting the mule’s flanks. After a moment he tugs on the reins and they begin to walk.

“Is it guilt?” he asks the mule. “Is that why you stopped? Do you feel bad about kicking the boy?”

The mule does not answer, but instead picks up his pace, as if to say, Not really.

 

The philosopher and the mule walk along the alameda for a time, and then turn off onto a narrow road that leads them steeply uphill. “I will show you to my daughter,” he tells the mule. “She’ll like you.”

They walk in the shade of the buildings, avoiding the heat, the philosopher drinking rum when he thinks of it. He stops and rolls a cigarette.

“Hey,” a shirtless, big-bellied man calls from a street-level window. There is no glass in the window, only a wooden door to open and close it, and vertical steel bars to keep people from climbing inside.

The philosopher looks up.

“Whose mule?”

“Whose do you think?” the philosopher replies.

The fat man shrugs, fanning himself with a bit of old cardboard. “Hot, no?” he says.

“If it weren’t hot, wouldn’t it just be something else?”

The man waves at him in annoyance, and closes the wooden door of his window.

The philosopher winks at the mule. “Questions are the thing to do,” he instructs the mule.

He sits down on the curb with the reins loosely in his hands, and takes a small doll out of his pocket. It is a girl’s doll, with yellow strings for hair, small button eyes, and a pink splotch of fabric for a mouth. “Hey, Jefe,” he says to the doll. “Do you dance?”

He dances the doll around on the sidewalk, making it spread its legs, looking around to see if anyone is watching. “I bet you could pick up a banana,” he tells the doll. “Do you know that trick, Fidel? What you do to pick up the banana is, you put it between your legs, when they’re spread like that, you put the banana right in your—” An old woman appears behind the bars of her street level window, watching him.

The philosopher looks at her. “This is my Jefe doll,” he says. “Do you have a doll of Fidel, like I do? Don’t you think it might help, to have a doll like that?”

He takes the doll and shakes it hopefully behind the mule’s rear, but the mule does not take the bait.

The philosopher holds the tiny doll in both his arms, like a lover. He croons to it.

“Oh, my Jefe, my leetle commandante. Oh my leetle man.” He pokes its coarse cheek, where a dimple would be, and sings more loudly. “You leetle revolucionario. My Jefe, oh my leetle comman-dante.”

“Ssst!” the old woman says from her window. “Shut up. You’ll get yourself killed!”

“No one cares any more. Don’t you know—the Jefe has been replaced. This mule, he is in charge now!”

“You’re crazy,” the old woman says, and slams the window closed. The philosopher drinks more rum, careens toward the old woman’s window, hanging on its bars and sticking the doll between them. “Don’t you want a little Fidel doll?” he asks, his voice quieter. “Don’t you want a little Jefe for your home?”

“Go away!” he hears from inside. He hangs his head against the bars, then stuffs the doll into his pocket.

“Shall we go?” he asks the mule.

 

His daughter is in bed when he arrives home. He smoothes the hair from her feverish, sticky forehead and kisses her. “Hello, my angel,” he says. “How are you?”

“Papa! Where were you?”

“Working.”

She frowns at him playfully. “You don’t work today.”

“Not usually. But today I didn’t go to work. Work came to me.”

She looks confused. This is because she does not know her father is the philosopher. To her, he is only Señor Cespedes, her father, who sometimes says things that don’t make sense. He is getting old, she thinks.

“Come, I have something to show you,” he tells her, and picks her up in his arms. She is very thin these days, and weak. Walking is difficult.

She sniffs him. “You’ve been drinking.”

“Only as much as needed.”

“You promised.”

The smile falls from his face. “Let me just show you something,” he says, carrying her to the window. She begins coughing as they get close to it, shaking in his arms.

“Look!” he says. Beneath them on the street the mule is tethered to a lamppost.

“What—the mule?” she asks.

“Yes! I found him on the alameda. He—I thought he might make you smile. He is a very silly creature. Do you know what he did?” He begins to tell her about the boys, then stops, realizing she will not like the story. And something opens inside him, a window of doubt. Has he acted correctly?

He shakes off the question, listening to his daughter say, “But he must belong to some-one, Papa. Don’t you think they’re worried?”

“Of course, of course. I’ll make sure they get him back. I just wanted to show you.”

“I’m tired, Papa. Thank you for the mule. Can you put me back in bed now?”

“Of course, my dear.”

He hides his face as he sets her carefully in bed. Sometimes, in the mornings, he gasps when he sees her—she looks so much like her mother. The girl has been sick so long that mem-ories of when she was well belong to another life. He cannot believe he was ever that happy.

As he sets her down—so light in his arms, as light as when she had only three years and would dance around the living room as if it was the whole world—he thinks to himself that soon she will die. He stands over her, trying to smile.

“Papa, what’s wrong?”

“I—I’m just feeling bad about taking the mule,” he says, his voice, usually so steady, breaking as he looks at her. “You’re right—I should return him.”

She smiles sleepily, her black hair fanned out on the pillow like a halo. “I knew you would, Papa. You are so good.”

She closes her eyes and falls asleep.

 

The philosopher walks down the alameda, leading the mule along the side of the street. Like the mule, he has studied indifference, and he has been a good student. But as he walks he begins to feel bad for the boys. Maybe he should have helped, instead of taking the mule? But no, as soon as he allows that thought to enter, many other concerns begin knocking around in his brain. No—he must push them all back.

Look at this street, he tells himself. It is a fine street. And the ocean over there, it is very fine. This mule, it is a silly creature, as am I. And this is all I can hope for—to walk along and smell the salt sea smell, to hear children laughing from down the road at the carnival for the Fiesta del Fuego. To feel a breeze upon my face. To not think too much.

 

*

Rinaldo lies in his parents’ bedroom, struggling to breath. Three ribs are broken, more are bruised, and he is coughing blood from his lungs. His grandmother has cut fruit, oranges and apples, into pieces and laid them among the huge, above-ground roots of the banyan tree below his window. It is an offering for him, so that he may live. Dogs and birds pick at the fruit, then leave it, and it sits there rotting like carrion.

Ernesto is in the bedroom they usually share, one room over, pacing back and forth, wondering if his brother will live. He told his parents that it was an accident, and his lie weighs heavily on him as does his brother’s suffering, his loud and painful breathing from the room next door. Ernesto feels something he can’t quite grasp—a new feeling, something about permanence. He clinches his fists open and closed, open and closed as he paces.

In the living room his father shouts about the mule. “We can hardly eat as it is!” he shouts. “Without the mule and cart we’re done.” His wife stands before him, nodding, quiet tears in her eyes, then goes to look in on Rinaldo.

Alone in the living room Ernesto’s father thinks of Ernest Hemingway, his son’s name-sake, the great man who laid his Nobel prize on the stairs of El Cobre, not far from this city of Santiago. That man had all the luck, he thinks. Why can’t Ernesto be more like him?

He walks to the window, shaking his head. Below on the street, beneath the long branches of the banyan tree, the mule stands munching an old bit of apple. A great feeling comes over him, washes down his body. The mule has returned! It has come back on its own!

I must behave in a way to deserve such happenings, he thinks.

And he rushes out the door, shouting at the top of his lungs.

Rena McClure Taylor “Onions Can Make You Cry”

There was something important that she was supposed to remember. Something maybe James had told her to do. He’d just been illustrating ways to remember things. Mnemonics, it was called. Or something like that. He’d told her before, so he’d said, that there were people who could meet a whole roomful of strangers and hours later call each person by name. They’d use some tool—a mnemonic—like making up a ditty about each person’s most distinctive characteristic. The one for the guy who had a mole on his chin with a half-inch hair coming out of it might be “Holy mole-y. Look at Joe Blow-y.” Or they’d picture Joe Blow with guacamole all over his face. (And maybe think his name was “Joe Avocado.”) Oh, well. Something like that.

 

She thought she remembered trying the method once when she’d joined a new church. She’d matched up the name of the leader of her class, “Mrs. Burchfield,” with trees and fields and came up with names like “Meadows” and “Fruit Tree.” Her calling the teacher “Mrs. Bitchfield” was probably what caused her to get the reputation of being special. Like some kids in school who get sent to “special ed.” She wondered if these kids all knew they were “rejects,” just like she did when Mrs. Bitchfield suggested she might go to another class.

 

At one time James called her special. Really special. She had the valentines somewhere to prove it. She’d put them away and one day she’d pull them out and show everyone. “Special” wasn’t what James called her that morning at the grocery store when the manager threatened to call the police. It happened in the fresh produce aisle. She wanted white onions and he wanted yellow or it was the other way—maybe it was yellow squash or zucchini.

 

In the kitchen when they got home, James was just showing her how to remember five random words. “Make a mental picture,” he said. “Put each word in context with something you know, maybe in some room of your house.” Then he was going to illustrate with the words: knife. onions. potato salad, mince, and dice.

 

But these weren’t random words, she knew that. They meant that James didn’t like big hunks of onion in the potato salad. He said that dice and mince didn’t mean the same thing and she thought that they did but he was right like he was always right and mince was finer than dice. He hardly ever minced words when it came to something that she was doing wrong. She didn’t iron his clothes right. He didn’t like creases in his sleeves, so that meant she had to use a sleeve board to iron his shirts. It doubled the ironing time. She knew because she had used his stop watch to verify it. And then her explanation for getting in his dresser drawer—the top one where he kept his private things—wasn’t good enough. He even accused her of taking some of his money. He had this way of squirreling away coins like pecans—well, there were three pecans in the drawer and he said she must have put them there to make him look ridiculous—and he said the four quarters he had there expressly to buy a Sunday newspaper were gone—and he didn’t even remember that Sunday papers were eight quarters now—so how could he even be sure if there were any quarters in the drawer—actually there had only been three—just enough money for one dryer load of clothes at the laundry mat—and he wouldn’t even carry the bag of clothes into the place—he wasn’t going to be seen toting in laundry. Doing laundry was women’s work. In fact, James was just like that lazy father of his.

 

But what now? Standing in the kitchen. She couldn’t remember what she was supposed to do. That James. Where was he? Just when she needed his help. Think. Knife, red, onions, floor, James. That was it. She had to get James up off the floor. Such a slippery mess. Onions everywhere. Red ones. She thought they’d bought white. And what else? Oh, yes, the knife. Why was she holding the knife? And why was her face wet? Of course it was the onions. Now she remembered. James said that she damn well better mince, not dice, the onions.

Brigette Steel:

summer 2012

Brian Davis was coming over for dinner. The new quarterback at Georgia was promptly forgotten. Daddy stopped talking about the monster trout he caught three years ago. Had I told them I was crowned Miss America the family would be less impressed. My folks seemed to have this strange notion that Brian Davis chose to voluntarily surrender his evening to the antics of their quiet domesticity instead of necking with me. In their way of thinking, I was somehow responsible for this.

It was my birthday. I favored a dinner for just the two of us, steaks at Clancy’s, a couple of drinks, a turn on the floor and a moonlit drive, with me just tipsy enough to have a good time. But Mother had other ideas. She said Mr. Davis was a real gentleman to respect my family and eat with us on my special day. No steaks, no dancing, and no moonlit drives. Aspic was reserved for Mother’s most honored and revered persons and she was relishing the opportunity to make one. Aspic didn’t seem like the kind of food to feed a man, and it vaguely reminded me of Aunt Dory. I think we served it at Auntie’s funeral last year. I guess people don’t die often enough, because no amount of argument could move Mother to surrender her salad molds.

Daddy sat in his armchair dispensing manly counsel regarding my sense of style. “Shorter shorts,” he said. “Wear some jewelry,” and “Do you have anything pink?” With half a dozen blouses now on the floor, four pairs of shorts flung over the chair, and a terse argument regarding two different sets of earrings, I was declared fit and marriage material.

“He isn’t coming over to propose,” I said.

“Every man is a walking proposal,” Granny said. “You’re the one who decides if he’s done looking or not.”

I sulked in the hammock for the remainder of the afternoon, my mind alternating between the approaching family dinner and the dreamless consciousness of a summertime doze. The murmuring hum of Brian’s truck began its climb up the gravel drive. Reflecting upon a fragment of Granny’s advice, I restrained the roaring impulse to rise up and greet him. Instead I focused on the aspic and managed, I think, to look on with passive interest as he approached.

He helped me to my feet. Never once did his eyes stray to the dangling earrings borrowed from Mother’s jewelry box, nor did they take in my lean tanned legs. Indeed, his eyes never strayed from my face. And for the first time I knew with quiet assurance what my folks knew instinctively. “He’s a keeper,” I thought.

His manners were exquisite; I’d never noticed. Cold jellied celery balanced on his fork with ease. Utensils were no quarry tools for him, a means to shovel food from one location to another; instead his fork lay in his hands like a pencil, loosely gripped. Daddy couldn’t help but notice that Brian changed his knife from right to left with graceful comfort, unlike Europeans who were plain unnatural. Brian seemed unaware of Daddy’s keen eyes. He thoughtfully chewed his food and laughed at Mother’s small jokes. And when dessert was served, he retrained from taking even the smallest bite until Mother retuned to the table, unlike Abner Schnell at last summer’s Memorial Day picnic, who put away his pie and mine before I even finished applying lipstick in the ladies’ room.

I looked to Granny with new admiration. There might be something in this marriage business after all. Imagining a lifetime of evening meals like these was no affront to my girlish illusions of matrimonial charm. Brian surpassed any other young man I ever brought home; and somehow, the whole family had known it before they even met him. Mother worried that I was past my prime and that the good ones were getting away. Well, tonight she could see the best one was waiting right here for me all along. Brian, a man I originally considered only good for a couple of months of dinners and dates, rose ever higher in my estimation.

But as the evening wore on, Brian’s eyes rose in estimation of something quite different. He played checkers with Granny, a generally benign ritual she required of every guest who passed our summer porch, and although he played well enough, his eyes were absent from the board. I watched as his eyes darted here and there, and I could see he was looking with great difficulty and skill everywhere, while at the same time managing to look only at my Granny’s bosom, directly across from him, in plain sight.

At first he took a slight peek askance, as if to question what he saw. Mother didn’t notice, she was busy brewing coffee. Again he looked, this time a little longer, still curious, but confident that what he saw was really there. Father didn’t notice, he was busy playing cards. Brian’s gaze remained firm and fixed, going only from the checkerboard to Granny’s bust. Granny didn’t notice, she was besting him in checkers. Again and again she won the game, the board would clear, and they would begin all over again.

It wasn’t odd that she was winning; Granny always won at checkers. I’d never seen her lose. Most guests stopped at one game. Judge Parker usually played twice, and so did Reverend Calvert. But Brian wouldn’t stop playing, and Granny never stopped winning, and Brian’s eyes never left Granny’s cottony pullover.

Later in the evening, Daddy passed drinks all around. I tilted my head and gave a charming smile. I fingered the pearls at my throat. I slanted my long legs like an old time movie star, but to no avail. Nothing demure could bring to his eyes the look of allure I had detected earlier in the evening. The folks said goodbye and left Brian and me to say our good nights in the damp heat of night. I walked Brian to his truck, no longer thinking of evenings spent parked in his truck at Devil’s Point.

He kissed me gently. “I think I love you,” he said.

“I know,” I replied. A moment passed, and he waited. I knew what he wanted me to say. And I almost said it, but I’ve never been any good at reading the middle of the book before the end. I like to know what’s coming. “You want to ask me a question, don’t you?”

“It’s a little soon for questions like that,” he replied.

“I don’t think so. After all, I’ve been asked several times before.”

He looked up at me, wondering at my casual apathy. “I thought you had class,” he said.

“But I do have class,” I responded. “And I think you do too. That’s why I’m going to give you an answer, even though you haven’t asked the question yet, because I don’t think you ever will.

“I watched you all night, and I know what you’re thinking. I know that you’re longing to ask, ‘Are those real?’” Brian’s head jerked in surprise. “The answer is this. Granny was feeling a little low after her spell with cancer and being a personal friend of Doctor Pruitt, he gave her a little tummy tuck and shifted her proportions some. None of us were prepared for how they’d look. Everyone notices them. Good night, Brian. Now that your curiosity is satiated, perchance those roving eyes can find a more fitting recipient. If so, we may get along real fine.”

Margo Roby Poems

rosewellruins2

Then, Get Yourself a Julep

On sultry days,

say the word aloud:

 

magnowlyas
Stretch the vowels.

Round your lips.

Feel the sexy.
Curl your tongue around the sounds:

 

nowel-yah


slow, warm, luxurious,

like saying

un-du-late

in a dark room,

 

like swans come to rest

– creamy and voluptuous –

magnowlya blossoms.

 

 

All That’s Left

 

My grandparents’ T-bird is pulled over
on the dirt shoulder. A metal guardrail
and wooden posts distinguish the lay-by
from the hill sloping down on the right.
The road barely breaks the slope, shifting

and winding with the hillside’s curves.
Long shadows lie across the bottom
third of the car and darken the hill
ahead, reflecting the sun’s early
descent on a wintry afternoon. Snow

lingers but most has melted, gone,
as transitory as the car pulled
over for a moment to record the scene
and hold onto it, when everything
in the picture has long disappeared.

Thom Brucie: Three Poems

wheelerstation

 

Wounded Woods, Healing Trees

 

What do you get if white pine

and redwood hang on the same wall?

They both smell of rutting deer

and spring thaw, splashing aroma

against cathedral ceilings

blended into hypnotic nostalgia by

ceiling fans decorated with rattan and painted ducks,

their blades slicing smells like

mill knives de-heart the pine

and the monstrous, silent, ancient

redwoods, thick as twenty horses,

tall as a galloping herd.

 

Some of the old mountain men

with dull gray beards and liquid memories

like early floods say you can’t mix white and red,

instead you must

give each its place, like seasons.

I’ve met two of these old men, and I’ll

tell you this, they fear to watch

the cutting of the trees.  To them,

the ax and wood are like thunder and darkness –

when they join in a capriccio echoes and dense

silence, no man can hide from the injured spirits which

inflate the leaves and stretch new branches from nothing.

The old ones don’t make fire on such nights

because the equilibrium of plant and

planet in rare instances balance breathing with

moments of insight some people laugh at.

 

Once I wanted to remodel an abandoned prospector’s cabin

with a dirt floor and a history.  General Ulysses S. Grant

shot a rifle bullet into a thick round log

which forms part of the east wall.  He

was a fool, the old ones say.  He had no ear

for the quiet life which licks the air at

temperature changes.

 

You didn’t know that, did you?

At 47 degrees fahrenheit

the manzanita bush fills the

air with fragrance enough to tempt small

red foxes into their secret mating dance.

This happens only at elevations above

thirty-one hundred feet and below forty-seven hundred feet

and only during the months of April and May.

When the old ones saw this, they celebrated

because below the fertilized legs of the foxes

gold spilled from the red earth.

 

Once I dated a geologist who threw scrambled

eggs into my face at breakfast the morning

I told her this secret.

She didn’t believe.

She is one of those women who will put

redwood and white pine on the same wall,

miracle and science into the same back pack

for observation.

But the old ones knew better.  They didn’t let me remodel the cabin.

I replaced the shingles with slabs of beveled cedar

I split myself, and I patched the walls

with mud from the mound of a beaver family

so that spirit mixed with my hands and

the cabin prayed for me.

 

I asked the geologist to marry me and

the old ones stopped talking to me, but

they burned small chips of aspen branches so that

the smoke might open my eyes; it’s full

of fingers, you know, aspen wood, but you must

burn it on nights of darkness and thunder

in order for its science to operate.

 

The geologist went to work for a lumber company,

and I bought a tent.  I hiked

against the rapids flowing from the mountain’s stomach,

searching for the old ones who left a map,

drawn on white birch, using the burnt

tip of maple sticks to stain mystery into bark,

and beyond the solitude of forest

and the quiet of sunset at equinox

I seek the magic of love and thunder.

 

 

 

Night Train Serenade

 

 

I don’t mind the sound of the train at night,

its lonely whistle drifting through the walls

passing through my ears

like slender memory.

 

I don’t mind the steady rumble, either,

of the creosoted ties

reverberating within the crush of sharp granite stones

calling forth the throaty echo

of iron rails.

 

I don’t mind the bouncing springs

which flex like box-car suspenders

balancing rolling loads of lumber

and piles of captured wheat,

even though their images appear to me like ghosts.

 

In childhood I arranged

rusty nails on the track

and after my paper route, after the coal cars passed,

I spliced the flattened nails to oak branches with string

from an unwound baseball I hit so often

that the stitching of the cover tore.

 

The little rubber ball inside bounced higher than trees

if I threw it hard

against the new asphalt parking lot behind the bank.

Mary Louise grabbed it once

and threw it hard into the night,

but it crashed Mr. Stover’s kitchen window,

and we ran all the way to the dike

where we hid somewhere between

the silver September moonlight resting on the tracks

and the watery gray darkness of the August river.

 

Somewhere in the weeds of the river bank

frogs made those short little croaks with long silences between,

the ones they make in late summer

so that when you lay in the grass on the city side of the dike

you can’t hear the frogs when a train goes by,

but if you lay on the river side you can.

I guess because we were scared

Mary Louise let me kiss her

one of those eyes-closed kisses

that makes the outside and the inside of your skin tickle.

 

We never kissed again, and I’ve tried to forget it,

but sometimes, at night, when the sounds of the train

slide through the walls like ghosts

and jiggle wispy images lose in my head,

I discover that

I don’t mind the memory,

and the warm blankets holding my skin

soften the rumble of the train.

 

 

 

A Carpenter’s Legacy

 

Virgil always signed his work.

Somewhere hidden in a wall

or the back of a cabinet

we signed our names and left the date

so one day another carpenter

would find us,

and we would pass our legacy

to another generation.

 

He wanted everything we built

to last one hundred years.

Some of my work has not lasted.

Some of my early work

was built on sand, some constructed in weeds;

only after many indignities of carelessness

did I learn to seek foundations of granite

and attention to time.

 

I look back upon the number of my days,

the walls I stood,

the roofs I framed:

I have spent the expanse of my body

in making things,

calling forth structure from wood and steel,

amassing a fortune of memories making

cabinets, doors,

windows, floors,

walls and ceilings.

Do these monuments justify my energy?

 

I wonder who, for instance,

sleeps under the roofs I built?

Are they dry?  And safe?

Are the foundations of my family steady and robust?

Are the walls of my friendships plumb?

What is my life made from

if not the corridors I have built

between my burdens

and my loves?

 

 

Always Clap for the Band by Clint Tyra

 

Atlantic Beach, NC

I was at a bar, one night in college, with some friends and we were having drinks and listening to a local band. It was me, my roommate Patrick and his friend Warren. Warren played in a number of bands around Oxford. He wrote and played mostly his own songs.

We sat drinking on stools with our backs leaned against the bar and listened to the band play. The place was packed with people. Every seat was taken and people stood around in pockets talking, smoking and drinking as the band played.

Warren was sitting between me and Patrick shaking his head with the music. The band was good. Damn good. The three of us kept nodding to each other about that fact. And when the band finished their set the place was dead quiet except for Warren. He clapped and whistled and then suddenly, he quit.

He looked over at me and said, “I thought you liked these guys?” I said I did. “Then why don’t you clap for em? They just played their hearts out. Man, don’t be like these other assholes that are too cool or too scared to acknowledge that they like something. I’m tellin you, that little appreciation is all those guys are playing for and even when they get it right, they don’t always get it.

“I’ve always had this fear of some young kid getting up there on stage and just nailing it. I mean, he plays better than anyone’s ever played and sings a song like no one’s ever heard but it’s for the wrong crowd on the wrong night. And nobody listens and nobody claps and nobody in the place even looks up from their drinks. So, the kid packs up his guitar and amp with the belief that he just doesn’t have it. Otherwise, they would’ve clapped for me, he thinks.

“And the kid goes back out in the street and never plays again. Just becomes an accountant or something. But he doesn’t just lose out. We all do because his music would’ve changed everything. Inspired people to change or to just go on or hold on or whatever. But because of that crowd, he bows out.

“I think about that all the time. Especially on nights like this. How many Dylans and Claptons or whoevers got missed and quit, figuring that they were just deluding themselves? All I’m saying is always clap for the band.”

About five years later, I went to a Georgia Writer’s Association (GWA) meeting here in Columbus. I wanted to be a writer and had been reading everything I could get my hands on. From books about writing to the classics. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more of the writing world and found out about the GWA meetings at the public library and went.

The meeting was on a Saturday morning and I didn’t expect more than five people total to be there because I didn’t know anyone else who wrote. So, I figured there would be one or two people from the GWA and maybe some students, somebody from the library and me.

There were fifteen people in the room when I got there. I’d brought in a few copies of one of the stories that I was working on with the hope that we would read and talk about each others work. Most of the people looked to be in there late forties to early fifties. And were filthy. All of them looked like they just rolled through a greased dumpster. There were only two older guys that looked to be in their seventies, from the GWA, and me that didn’t have the Pig Pen look going.

The man sitting directly across the table from me had his gray hair plastered to his head in strips, like shark teeth. And between each tooth I could see his wrinkled skin. He had wild bushy eyebrows and smelled like cigarettes and gasoline. He kept talking to a lady in a moth-eaten sweatsuit about who was more overrated, Hemingway or Tolkien.

The GWA guys passed around a sign-in sheet and said that three published authors were coming speak shortly and pointed out the coffee in the back of the room. A few minutes later, a lady with the library came in and introduced the authors.

The first was a black lawyer from Atlanta whose father was assassinated for his work in the Civil Rights Movement. The second was an attractive woman who had written a mystery novel involving archeology. The third was a professor that had written a non-fiction book about the Civil War.

They all gave pretty much the same short speech that promoted their work, encouraged us in our pursuits as writers and noted the fact that part of their daily writing routine was to get up every morning and take shower and shave.

They left and the GWA guys asked if anybody wanted to read some of their work. The guy across from me said he did and explained that what he really wanted to happen this year was to get published in Harper’s or the Atlantic or any of the other heavyweights. He wanted to be taken seriously in literature and get paid to be there. And then he started reading the only copy of his story called The Shifters. It started with a man in a bar telling a story to a stranger sitting next to him.

Now, when you’re in a room full of people that’s facing each other instead of the reader, it can be difficult to focus on what’s being read because you keep making eye contact with other people. So you miss things and have to piece things back together. And that’s what happened to me.

After about ten minutes, I’d put the story back together. The narrator was a bounty hunter that was after who killed his wife and family. But the problem was he didn’t know who they were, only what they were. And they were shape-shifting vampire vixens from outer space.

This was the story he wanted to send to the most elite literary magazines out there and would be taken seriously for.

The narrator been killing them for years, the vampires, and selling the platinum deposits found in their dead skulls to keep his work going. It was all he had since they’d killed everybody he cared about. It was revenge. Pure and simple. Just keep killing until they were dead. All of them. All over the world. And after years and years of fighting he’d done it along with thousands of others just like him. They’d eradicated those big tittied bloodsucking bitches that stole his reasons for living.

But he was still alone and felt no joy from stopping them. Nothing. He still ached for his wife and children. The world was in ruins and most of the human population was dead. Bounty hunters were no longer needed and he’d grown old.

He has no one, no job and no options. All he has is his gun, a bullet and one choice to make.

The GWA guys asked if anybody had anything to say and the mob started firing away. Where’s the plot? Ok, no one would listen to a story for that long in a bar and everybody knows that frame stories suck. Don’t you know that when metamorphs die that they return to their original gelatinous form and leave no skulls behind?

They went on and on like that as the bushy eyebrowed author slumped down in his chair. And for the first time in a long time, I thought about Warren. So, I said, “There is a plot and it’s a good one. The guy is faced with the oldest question we have, whether to live or die. And frame stories do work. Look at Heart of Darkness and Catcher in the Rye. They started the exact same way.”

Here I was comparing The Shifters to two of the best novellas in the English language. No one in the room disagreed with what I said. They just kept repeating their original statements over and over again. The thing that shocked me is that not one of them said anything negative about the premise of the story. It was all directed at the details.

So, finally I looked at the man across from me. The guy who considered Hemingway and Tolkien overrated. The guy who hadn’t had a shower since the last time he got caught in a rainstorm. The guy who wrote a story about shape-shifting vampire vixens from outer space and said, “I really liked your story.”

Seven Prodigious Poems by R. Flowers Rivera

valerie macewan dead mule

THE KATRINA EFFECT

 

As I lectured about Okies and dust bowls and

the Great Depression, my students and I watched

CNN on a mute, wall-mounted behemoth.

I scoured images for recognizable landmarks

—dilapidated bridges, towering casinos, stretches of

man-made beach, just one wind-whipped sign

capable of geographically confirming

my homeplace. Stored cell phones numbers

cast up toward heaven like backsliders’ testimony

(with exactly the same effect). Then one-by-one,

we received proof of life,

confirmed, safety of both life and limb.

 

So we began

washing linens, laying out

giant bath bars, our thickest towels,

collecting clothes and toiletries, buying

whatever we lacked, while preparing

red beans and rice and impromptu crab boils.

We opened our doors and our humanity—this once,

genuinely grateful—temporarily and honestly

having forgotten why a four-hour drive

had ever been a necessary ingredient of flight.

 

Domesticity and close quarters took hold.

Grown folk arguing in oh-so-childish ways,

teenagers using washcloths doused with 409 to clean

white leather kicks, continually being told

what various non-mortgage-paying parties won’t eat

as they laid in supine anticipation of

my arrival from work to cook and serve

their supper. I should definitely mention children,

attitude-ridden children, surly and passive-aggressive

children with no bedtimes, and their throwback daddies

holding the den, the couch, the remote hostage.

I made a pallet in the walk-in closet and hid.

No one made any pretense about housework. But

the phone rang and rang and rang us

awake way past midnight. Our rough hellos

met by an inexorable silence, and click.

(My mother abandoned her refugees,

cashed in a forgotten voucher to Sedona.) I, too,

must admit: I just wanted those people gone.

***

REQUIEM FOR SONNY BOY

 

In the days before, when you were you, alive, and I had not become me,

you were the refined uncle of books, delicately sculpted, razor-tongued.

Many years escaped before I knew what no one ever said. Of course,

there were clues. Brief visits. Decorous tables. San Francisco. A photograph taken

at Fire Island. Decanters and goblets. A satin robe. Opera. Your hands

said more than your words. You are dead three years now, and I have yet to write your book.

Questions plague my house. Didn’t you witness enough of yourself in my being?  I mean,

I don’t know what I mean. Genealogy, genetics. Theories fall apart. The world is flat,

it has an edge. I saw you today. Not you, but one that could have been you. A Hindu man,

beautiful. Coal skin. Impeccably dressed. Impatient with the sun. He was carrying

an umbrella. Intimations of the body: horse, crystal, rock, powder. A bitch’s brew to medicate

joy against pain. The pen will not behave, the paper is in revolt. For you,

drugs, religion, home became. Ritual, symbol, myth. Your death, a heart

attack, surprised no one. Anachronisms rarely walk the earth unscathed. AIDS

is the word my family does not say. Your car in the driveway. The driver’s door

open. One foot upon the pavement. Hands upon the wheel. Still life. This is how

you were posed. The last time I saw you, you asked for a book of poems, Rita Dove’s

Mother Love, I did not send it in time. I hope this will do.

***

BLUES MAMA

 

for Bessie Smith

 

Nip and tuck

that woebegone lip

as the pink flesh falls

slack

fueling the machine

of song.

 

Powerful lady

trace the sadness

tote it across the stage

called your life.

Loose yourself,

take ahold

this integrity called craft.

 

Lexicon of soul

lay it all down

make them know

what it feels like

to be

sprung.

Once they’re rapt

In your stirrin’

be still

don’t say

a mumbling word.

 

Gut-wrenching

rage

has no place

in such an earnest smile

but amidst your own

kind

there’s always a market for

a mean woman.

***

EQUANIMITY

 

Half-sleep, half-waked

my shutter eye clicks.

A room crowded with fringed lamps,

an antimacassared chair.  A six-paneled door

grounded against thin vertical stripes.

Heavy oak dresser, a sepia-toned

lithograph of an actress.  Delicate

white neck.  Wicker chair

burdened with a mound of clothing.

African violets give birth

to a veritable jungle on the window ledge

as they drink polite sips of morning

light.  The numbers turn slowly.  Time

almost still.  A rattan chest turned nightstand

holds a mason jar, filled with water, less

three small swallows.  Damask and lace pillows.

Dust slanted blinds.  Rows and rows

of books, most nursing cracked spines.

My breathing long as the mattress

is wide.  The house settles and sighs.

The furnace’s white noise has worried

the mauve candle away to hard pink tears.

The swag of the valence forms an eye-

brow above a shaitan waterstain.  We stare

at each other.  Who will blink first?

I’m scared to shut my eyes.  Blink

closed.  Darkness transmogrifies into stone

ladies with pubic hair manicured

more neatly than the lawn.  Blink open.

My hips are cradled like a motherless child

where the sagging double bed dips.

You must.  I will

remember.  I will remember.

I won’t forget.  My breath.

This room, this calm.

***

STAY

 

I want to feel your daffodils.

A phrase escaped from a dream,

 

one eye shuts. Focus. I fumble the buttons

if the tape recorder on the floor

 

beside my bed. There are no other words.

But there is urgency. I must clasp

 

my mind around the stroke of each letter

before the emotion drifts

 

away. I want to feel your daffodils. I trip

free of the tub,  mumbling like a lunatic.

 

My legs, my back.

A conniption of rivers

 

racing toward the floor. I find pen

but no paper. Then paper, but no ink.

 

Shake the pen. Curse whatever god

is handy. I want to feel

 

your daffodils. Each time, the words seem

like a present I don’t deserve.

 

More reason to believe

that this time is the last. I want

 

to feel your daffodils. This is what it means

to be a servant of breath.

***

TRANSFIGURATION

 

The berth of the distant road calls

slow your roll, but bald tires speed,

racing alongside outcroppings of wisteria,

one length behind a waxing, alabaster moon.

Pull aside, woman, pull aside.

 

Stopped. Body rigid, belly flat.

First she opens the car door, then

soaked linen, button by pearl button,

laying bare dew-drenched skin.

Visions of an icon, the Black Madonna.

 

Heat slathers over her extremities

like wax, a hot steam descends

stripping the irritating

vestiges of a dog-day drive.

Pull aside, woman, pull aside

 

the moist cotton between

your thighs. Sponge clean

your sacrifice to the night.

Rivulets of love roux run dry.

“I am the Black Madonna.”

 

She murmurs as mania leaps,

twirls between her shoulder blades.

Exhausted, she squats beneath a live oak.

With nature’s ink, she draws shadows

in the dust—a future that will never dry.

***

PUDDLEJUMPER:  A.E. LINK FIELD

 

Beyond the oval blue

                window—a bleak November.

 

Denuded ash trees

                             whisper a horizon.

 

Burnt matchsticks, a char of soldiers

tramping toward the vanishing point.

Surrender! they warn—shouting at the sky.

 

East

       a defiant leap of green

between the airstrip and a concrete mind.

 

West

        the quarter moon is talking

back to the sun.

 

Straight ahead is dappled

                                        red, a harsh orange, yellow.

 

The air above is mottled

                  green, blue, a thin purple.

 

Everywhere

                   smudges pretend to be clouds.

***

I aver that I am Southern woman from Mississippi even though I am now an expat living in Singapore. When I go home for visits, I stock up on Camellia red beans, Tony Cachere seasoning, and grits. I’ve known I was a Southern every since I heard my Grand say, “That girl married for light-skin and “good” hair, now she’s trying to be surprised that her baby is stupid.”

 A native of Mississippi, I completed a PhD at Binghamton University and an MA at Hollins University. My short story, “The Iron Bars,” won the 1999 Peregrine Prize. I have been a finalist for the May Swenson Award, the Journal Intro Award, the Naomi Long Madgett, the Gary Snyder Memorial Award, the Paumanok Award, as well as garnering nominations for Pushcarts. Currently, I am a Lecturer of Literature and Composition at the Center for American Education in Singapore.

-R. Flowers Rivera

Molly Felder “Custody” flash fiction

IMG_20110706_143639

Your ex would have your ass if she knew you had Carmen in the same room as a dead body: your motheresque Lydia in bed, covers not even disturbed. There but gone.

You grew up in this house, fed and clothed and loved in the way baby monkeys in experiments have extracted love from a carpet-covered wire frame.

When Lydia’s son called, you, somehow still the farmed-out neighbor boy, fought the impulse to leave your daughter with someone, anyone, so you could howl and spit at the empty heavens. In the end you brought her. Even though your hand wasn’t over Carmen’s heart, you could feel it beating, young and strong, and you didn’t want to be alone.

You don’t weep at the sight of the body, but at the way Carmen dives for the box of naked Barbies Lydia kept for her under the bed—always kinder to her than to you—roots out a couple, and starts a conversation between them. This undoes the knot of your grief. Carmen is startled.

“Daddy,” she says, holding out a doll. You take it, sob into its synthetic hair.

“Is her dead?” she asks.

You nod. She’s seen dead goldfish and frogs, but not people.

“Where did her go, Daddy?”

Yes—the thing that made Lydia Lydia. Where’s that?

Your daughter listens as you explain heaven like a beginning learner of a foreign language, halting, then confident, embellishing a picture that now seems right in front of your face. The naked Barbies become visual aids, beloved family members reunited and clothed.

Carmen is rapt.

The lie makes you tired; you finally stop, and she looks so happy, so comforted, that you know you’ve done the right thing. You want to call your ex and say, “I almost believe.”

Jessica Wimmer “Sweet Baby Lamb”

 IMG_1586

Today I told my wife I hate her body. I was sitting at the table finishing off the cornbread, my back to her, and I just threw the words out there to her. “It’s old and ugly,” I said to her, “like you went and dried up.” I pushed my plate away and turned around to her, expecting her to be looking at me like a sad deer. I expected to have killed her. I expected she’d be lying there on the floor, dying. Instead, she stood at the sink and kept drying off her dishes. “Didn’t you hear me, woman?” I said. “Your body, it ain’t like it used to be when we were young. It’s old and ugly now,” I told her again, “wrinkled and worn out.” I watched her eyes and mouth for a reaction. I watched a long time, but she didn’t say anything, didn’t even look at me. What she did was put the clean plate in its cabinet and walk just as calm as ever into the bedroom. I didn’t follow her.

I didn’t follow her because that bedroom is probably where I hate her body the most. I ain’t even talking about you-know-what ‘cause that’s been so long I can’t remember. The bedroom is where I hate it the worst because that’s where I started hating it. Thirty-seven years ago she was in that bed when she had our first son. That bed is where she had all our kids, all six of them, each one stretching and sagging her body more than the one before it. I watched them rip her body there in that bed, and then I watched them pull and poke at it ever since. I watched the fat add on and her smile wear off. Watched her hair turn gray and her skin harden up. I know her veins and wrinkles better than she does because I have to look at them all day, every day. Forty-one years we’ve been married, and for forty-one years I’ve been watching that body get uglier and uglier, and today I just had to tell her that I hate it.

I knew I’d have to tell her why, so I spent all morning thinking about it. I hate that body because it’s always so warm and soft, even though it looks cold and hard. I hate it because it don’t even flinch anymore when the sausage grease pops out of the pan and lands right on it. I hate it because of those scars on the hands from falling in the gravel the nights she carried all my weight into the house after I got too drunk. I hate it because the knees pop when she gets up from scrubbing the floor. I hate it because of the times it let me into it when it didn’t want me. I hate it because I used to call it my sweet baby lamb, but now that name doesn’t fit. I hate it because of that mark she don’t even remember anymore over her right eye from when I hit her too hard back in the days when I was no good. I hate it because when she was lying there in that bed having those babies her body was so alive, and it screamed a kind of scream that told me she saw God, and that she knew things I could never know, and that made me feel small. I hate the way it brushes snow off my shoulders and bends down to untie my boots without me asking. I hate it because it’s stronger than mine. I hate it because it will never die, because it’s too beautiful. I hate that it does not melt into me anymore.

I figured she’d be in there crying so I got up from the table and poked my head in the door. I didn’t hear any crying; she was just lying on her side looking out the window. I couldn’t see her face, but I could tell she was tired. You could just feel it. I wanted to say things to her, love things; I just didn’t know what to say exactly.

I walked over to the bed and took the spot next to her. I pressed my body up close to my wife and put my arm around her, my hand on her round stomach. I smelled her. I saw a freckle behind her ear I’d never seen. She rolled over and looked at me. She took my face in her hand and said, “I love my body. And I love your body. And I will kiss it and hold it in the next life as I have done in this one.” She didn’t blink. Her face did not weaken. She just hung there on my cross, and I cried.

“I didn’t mean it,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

 

Susan Miller “Last Job” flash fiction

Valerie MacEwan Dead

The fox freezes and stares straight at me. Snapped twigs are a dead give-away. Arthritis gleans my strength.

‘Get goin’ little fella.’ Mentally, I try forcing him to move on. He vanishes into damp weeds. Not one blade bent at his passing.

I search the area through the fourth generation binoculars. My partner is invisible. I hope. The plants are over eight feet high. Almost ready to harvest. The garden’s guarded with nets that almost hide it from view. Almost.

I feel the familiar badge poke my gut. Time waits for no man. I wonder who’ll show for my retirement party. Thoughts of Belize, and Anna, invade the job at hand.

Another twig snaps. It’s no fox.

I rise slow — easy. The cold end of the AK-47 steals my soul.

April Winters “Radio Waves”

Valerie MacEwan RadioWaves

The rain came down hard, and me and my brother, Joey, were having fun stomping on the sidewalk to see who could splash the highest. Then the stupid thunder rolled in, so Mama said we had to come inside. After we changed into dry clothes, Joey and I were sprawled on the living room rug playing Pick-Up Sticks, but he had to go and cheat again. I hollered at Mama to get him to stop. About that time, someone knocked at the door. She went to answer, telling us, “If you can’t play nice, put the game away.”

“You’re a bratty little tattletale,” Joey said and gave me a fierce glare.

I stuck my tongue out then said, “Better than a rotten cheater!”

About that time, Mama let out a squeal. Daddy came out of the kitchen, and me and Joey jumped up to see who was at the door. It was Uncle Ed, Mama’s brother. He was on leave from his second tour of Vietnam. He had a scar on his face from the Korean War, but he said it didn’t hurt anymore. Mama called him a ‘Lifer’ and said that’s why we didn’t get to see him much. He told us he’d come to see his favorite niece and nephew. I didn’t know why he said that since he didn’t have any other nieces or nephews, but Uncle Ed said a lot of stuff I didn’t get. I could swear I heard Mama call him a dim wit, but Joey said I was stupid. He told me what Mama said was Uncle Ed had a dry wit, whatever that meant. I didn’t ask cause I didn’t want to be called stupid again.

Uncle Ed, dripping wet, came inside and dropped his duffle bag. He turned to us kids, all smiles. He took one look at me and said, “Hey, Pudgy. Look how much you’ve grown!” Mama and Daddy smiled, too, so I thought pudgy meant Uncle Ed liked how I looked in my pretty new pink pedal pushers. Later that night when I was supposed to be asleep, Daddy, Mama, and Uncle Ed sat out on the porch talking. I snuck into the living room and pulled the dictionary from the bookcase. It turned out pudgy didn’t mean pretty at all.

After Uncle Ed called me pudgy, he rubbed Joey’s head and said, “So Rusty, how’ve you been?” Joey stood there blinking. I knew he wondered why Uncle Ed didn’t call us Joey and Debbie like everybody else did. Later I heard Mama and Daddy talking in the kitchen while Uncle Ed took a nap. Neither one of them knew where ‘Rusty’ came from, especially since my brother’s hair was almost white-blonde, not red. Daddy said maybe Uncle Ed spent one too many years at sea. Mama shushed him and said that wasn’t nice.

When Uncle Ed woke up, he said he had a surprise for me and Joey. He reached into his duffle bag and pulled out two wrapped packages. He handed the biggest one to me. It turned out to be the Shirley Temple doll I always wanted; she wore a white dress with red polka dots, and she even had red shoes. I loved her.

Joey got a transistor radio. I asked Mama and Daddy if I could get a transistor, too, but they said I was too young. Daddy said he wasn’t thrilled Joey had one since he wasn’t even a teenager yet, but Mama said it was a gift from Uncle Ed so what could she do?

Uncle Ed felt really bad a few days later when Joey snuck the transistor to school. We weren’t allowed to have radios, so that was the first rule Joey broke. The last song he listened to on the way to school was “The Name Game”, a new one by Shirley Ellis, and I guess it got stuck in his head. When his teacher asked him to give his report on Abraham Lincoln, Joey said, “You mean Lincoln, Lincoln bo bincoln bonana fanna fo fincoln fee fy mo mincoln, Lincoln?” Joey told me later the kids in his class thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever heard, but Mama said Mr. Adams called and gave her an ear full. He said Joey’s singing disrupted the class and was disrespectful. She said Joey’s teacher was especially put out when he saw the radio in Joey’s shirt pocket.

Joey got into a lot of trouble at school and then again when Daddy came home. He took Joey’s transistor away and said he wouldn’t get it again until Joey learned to be responsible.

It was all Uncle Ed’s fault. At least that’s what Joey said; he told me if he’d never been given the radio, he’d never have gotten into trouble in the first place. He said he wished Uncle Ed would get lost at sea. That made me mad cause I loved Uncle Ed. I shushed Joey and said that wasn’t nice. He shushed me back and told me I should shut my big fat trap. That made me wish I’d been an only child.

Ted Harrison “Brotherly Love”

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Jeff took everything in stride. Take the day he got the letter from the doctor telling him he did not have bladder cancer; that was the same day his Mother called to tell him brother Rodney was getting out of prison. The letter was good news. The phone call was not. Jeff took both notifications the same way: without emotion.

Jeff’s wife Teresa had different emotions, more normal you might say. “Good deal!” she said. That was when Jeff called to tell her about the letter. “That sonofabitch!” That’s what she said when he told her about the phone call. Jeff had never been able to explain Rodney to his wife. The brothers’ Mother always said, “He had a hard time after his Daddy died.” To her that was the reason for everything. (Jeff might be the younger of the two, but he was able to handle death, disappointment, distress.)

“Look, honey. Rodney is just Rodney.” That was all Jeff said.

 

` “Now, I want you to take me to that place to pick up your brother.” That was all the Mother said. There was never a question in her mind that Jeff would take off work and drive her to the prison. Just like she had expected Jeff to visit his brother and report back to her. The Mother wouldn’t go to “that place”. As far as she was concerned Rodney hadn’t done anything wrong, not then not ever. Jeff had tried to explain to her that Rodney had stashed marijuana in an old car abandoned by a ramshackle building on the back of the property. She said that was okay with her. It was not okay with the sheriff’s deputies who arrested Rodney for possession with the intent to sell. It was not okay with the judge who had a dim view of Rodney and his previous convictions. It was okay with the system that sent Rodney away for eight years.

 

“But this time, Jeff, I have seen the light,” Rodney said at the last visit. “I am getting out of here a lot smarter than when I came in.”

“So you’ve learned your lesson, huh?”

“I know all the mistakes I have made and I am not going down the same road again. Besides, I’ll be living at home with Momma!”

Jeff didn’t believe for a moment that Rodney’s words meant he’s sworn off drugs. As far as he was concerned, Rodney had learned enough while inside to avoid some of the mistakes that had tripped him up before. The Mother had said Rodney was a young man “finding his way” or “learning about life”. Even though she had been the disciplinarian in the family as soon as their Father died, Rodney became a golden boy.

 

“Know what I’m gonna do, Jeff?” Rodney said at that last visit. “I’m gonna fix up that old car down by the shed. Find the parts. Make a classic out of it.” The whole idea might not have made sense to many people. After all, Rodney had never had a driver’s license. “I don’t see why I need one,” was his standard line. Thus driving without a permit had usually been an adjunct to the other charges Rodney acquired over the years.

Jeff pictured the old car. The Father had bought it the year before he died. He had plans to restore it, too. Now the car sat next to a two story building that had stored tobacco, old furniture, building supplies and even served as living quarters for a hired man who worked with the family on the farm a couple of years. Jeff most remembered the oddly built structure as the place he and Rodney had experimented in flying.

That day they had climbed up into the top floor and knocked out a window. They had formed capes from tobacco cloth and tied them around their necks. Jeff was first to jump. He landed in a strange way, but looked up to see when his older brother would follow. Rodney ran back down the steps instead. “No. No. That was all wrong! “You’re supposed to grab on to the corners and hold on. The cape will be like a parachute.” Rodney untied his cape and started to the house. Jeff knew there was no need to ask if his brother was going to jump, too. If that had been in the cards, Rodney would have jumped right after Jeff. Jeff knew too there was no need to ask Rodney to help him up. Jeff had a sharp pain in his left ankle. Three days later when he finally spoke about it, Jeff was taken to the doctor. In time, he was able to get along without paying much attention to the limp he got from “flying”.

 

Teresa was thrilled that Rodney would be living with her mother-in-law. When Jeff had made a suggestion that Rodney might live with them for a time, Teresa had made a quiet statement that if Rodney came, she would not be there.

 

The day came that Jeff took off work and drove to the prison. His Mother got into the car and for once did not choose to tell him how to drive. She hummed to herself with her Sunday church patent-leather purse clasped in her lap. She was content to gaze out the window at the passing scenery.

Finally, “I think this will get your big brother on the right track.” Jeff could only grunt and take a sip of his very cold coffee. “He’s paid the price for his mistakes. Been in there a long time. Long enough for God to see the good in him.” Jeff neither hated nor loved his brother. A long time ago, he had utilized his “water off a duck’s back” attitude. He didn’t even dislike Rodney. It was like a preacher had quoted, “neither hot nor cold and I will spit thee from my mouth”. When it came to Rodney, Jeff didn’t know what else Revelation might have to say.

 

At the prison gate another biblical image came to Jeff’s mind.

“Oh my boy!” The mother sobbed. “My Rodney. You are now with me.” The prodigal son had returned.

“Hey! Mom!” Rodney tossed a small canvas bag to Jeff and grabbed the Mother. He hugged her, lifting her off her feet and swinging her around. When he set her down, Rodney gave Jeff and little wink, grabbed the woman around the shoulders and started walking across the parking lot. “Your car, bro?” Rodney didn’t seem impressed by Jeff’s five-year old sedan. “Old folks car, huh, Momma?” A smile was splashed across Rodney’s face.

 

For the next three months, Jeff worked, kept up with his chores and home and planted a little garden. Teresa was a good cook and the two of them liked fresh vegetables. Visits to the Mother were a weekly event. While Rodney had been locked up, Jeff checked on the Mother more often and Teresa went along. Now when Jeff visited he did so alone, even though Rodney was seldom there. “He’s got him a job selling cars over in Ellenville,” the Mother proclaimed. “He’s not doing it yet, but he’s going to making good money. You mark my words. He’s had a hard time since his Daddy died, but he’s going to be all right.”

Jeff didn’t miss his brother. After all, Rodney had not been a part of Jeff’s life for quite a while. He did notice that the Mother was fading. Having Rodney out of prison hadn’t had as much a positive effect on her lately. Jeff suggested she visit her doctor, but she tossed aside the idea. “I’m just an old woman, Jeff.” When he offered to take her, she still sloughed off the thought. “If I need to go to the doctor, Rodney can take me. If you took me, you’d have to get time off from work and all like that. He can work his schedule easier than you can.” If just seemed that Rodney wasn’t ever around to take her.

Months passed and finally Jeff insisted.

“She should have been here sooner,” the doctor said. “But I think when we start the treatments; we’ll see a major improvement.”

“Not going to be any treatments,” the Mother said. AS was often the case, she clasped her purse in her lap as if all things had been settled.

“But, if the treatments can help you…..”

“Not going to be any. You hear me?” Her small dark eyes danced when she looked to Jeff. “I’d probably be some sort of whattayoucallit? Guinea pig.” She pursed her lips and looked at the doctor. “I’m gonna die sometime. He knows it. I know it. He ain’t God. I ain’t either. Rodney’ll look after me till my time comes.”

The only true evidence that Rodney had even been around was the car that he had worked on. The machine had received major work. When Jeff visited the Mother, he had looked at the progress that seemed to be made almost weekly. On the drive to take the Mother home, Jeff wondered when Rodney had been working on the car, but that wasn’t his mindset on the drive.

“What if Rodney can’t look after you. Teresa and I can do it.”

“She don’t like me. Never comes with you when you come visit.”

“No. She does like you. She loves you.” He looked at the Mother. “She does not like Rodney.”

“She don’t understand him. She don’t know that he’s had a hard time….”

“Please don’t tell me he’s had a hard time since Daddy died.” He could only whisper.

“Well, it’s true!” she snapped. “You got along fine. Didn’t seem to bother you, but him…well it’s been different with him.”

“Well if it comes to it you can move in with us.”

“Not on your life. Nosir! I’m gonna sleep in my own bed.”

Going through town, she asked him to please stop at the drug store. She handed him a prescription. “It’s just in case.”

Without a word, Jeff took the prescription for pain medication and got it filled. When he got back into the car, she handed him two bills. “If this ain’t enough, Rodney will pay the rest.” He put the bills in his shirt pocket without looking at them.

When they arrived at the old home place, Jeff started to get out and help her. “No thanks. I’m fine,” she insisted. “You go on home, Teresa expects your.” Jeff didn’t argue. He just watched her walk slowly across the yard and up the three wooden steps. Just like it had been for years, the front door was unlocked. The Mother walked inside the house. The screen door and the inner door slammed at almost the same time.

He didn’t see any sign of Rodney. He wanted her to explain her condition to his brother sooner rather than later. As he drove away, he noticed that the old car was facing in a different direction than earlier. Maybe Rodney was around he thought.

 

That thought didn’t hold. The car stayed where it was, Rodney didn’t seem to be around. After a time, Jeff got the Mother to admit that Rodney had not been around except for a few days after the last trip to the doctor. Jeff called the car dealer where Rodney was supposed to be working. Rodney hadn’t worked there in a couple of months. The sales manager said that shop people were highly pissed at Rodney because he had borrowed tools and hadn’t returned them. Jeff got the idea that the man wanted Jeff to pay for the tools. He hung up before the man could get that point across.

Just after that, Jeff and Teresa moved into the old home place. The Mother was getting worse. To mention Rodney’s name even in passing was to promote a near death rattle to escape the Mother’s lungs. With adjustments in work hours, Jeff and Teresa were able to keep watch over the old woman. Visits to the doctor served to check the progress of the disease or as the Mother said, “How little time I got left.”

When the doctor told them it was time for her to go to a hospital, the Mother still refused. “Maybe at the very last, but not yet. ‘Sides when Rodney comes I want to be at home. He’s coming soon, you’ll see.” Jeff didn’t ask any questions in front of the doctor.

In the car however, he learned that the Mother had been sending money to various post office boxes all over the southwester U. S. That had gone on until she couldn’t get up from her bed to get to the mail box. She wouldn’t say how she got the idea that Rodney was coming home. This upset Jeff, but as usual he didn’t show it.

The days spun into weeks, then months. Teresa and the Mother bonded something that surprised Jeff. The Mother was still cool toward her younger son and Jeff didn’t mention Rodney at all.

 

One afternoon, both women were napping. The Mother in her bed and Teresa in a recliner close by. As Teresa told Jeff, she woke up just as the Mother did. There was no apparent reason. Working night shifts, Teresa’s sleep patterns were haphazard.

“I went to the bed,” Teresa told Jeff. “She looked at me and said, ‘Look after him’.”

“I asked her if she meant Rodney, and she shook her head and then just closed her eyes.”

Teresa had told him all this on the phone at first, and repeated it when Jeff got to the house. Jeff went to the kitchen and took a tall can of beer out of the refrigerator. He popped the can open and went to call the ambulance people. After he did that, he went outside to the front porch. He stood and looked for a long time at the ramshackle building and the shiny car sitting near it. He took a long pull on the beer, then stepped down off the porch.

He walked across the yard and into the weeds near the building. Peering in through an open door, Jeff found some tobacco cloth and tore off a long strip. He stuffed the cloth down into the gas tank using a stick to make sure it got to the fuel inside. When he could see that the gasoline was soaking back up on the cloth. He lit the cloth with his cigarette lighter.

Jeff walked back through the weeds, across the yard and just as he got to the porch steps there was a loud THUMP. He sat down, tipped up the beer again and watched the flames engulf the car and the nearby building.

Teresa came to porch and looked at him. “Bastard couldn’t fly either,” Jeff drawled. “Sure as hell didn’t need a damn car.” He drained the last of the beer while watching the flames.

 

The End

Herbert Martin “Our Dearest Abandoned Sister” and 2 more poems

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Our Dearest Abandoned Sister:
For: Andrew and Caleb Lee

We know it is late in the day to say we are sorry, in the extreme, that we left you with a stereotypical stepmother. Father would not have listened to us, we were only recently minted adults. What could we have afforded to tell him? He was filled with his own personal grief after mother died. We were up against a wall of staying or saving ourselves. We were of age so we took off like an early freight train going North. It was our chance for a better life, so, together we took it. We went to Chicago, all wind and jazz, all egg yellow and suddenly depressed blue. Such changes were not miracles but punishments like the time someone wrote to us that you had suffered a terrible beating with blood on your face and your hands eaten alive by the lye you were scrubbing with. So much for stepmothers. No one ever spoke to father. How could they? Defenseless manners and politeness was what concerned the neighbors. We heard all of this by word of mouth because neighbors will talk, still we were powerless to come and rescue you. What did we know about the consequence of blood? When father died, you looker safe in your clean mourning clothes. Looks, as the old people used to say, “can be deceiving.”
It certainly was true that second time when we came home to bury father and not so much as a “we’ll-come-back-and-get-you-now-that-father-is-gone.” When the new mother sank into a darkness that her soul could ] discover no exit road, we heard she called for you over and over for forgiveness, but those same silent neighbors took final revenge on her by not telling you until she was dead. She approached death seeking forgiveness and left empty-handed. Now it is our time to seek human forgiveness, for we are now at death’s doorstep, and we hope to hear from you in due time. Please attend to us in our old and feeble Chicago bones. Sadly, for the sister, their epistle went from carrier to home to carrier until their return address had been smudged away, and she had no way, no way at all to find them.

###
Customary Manners

The old customary manners are still intact.

She knows how to greet an entering guest.

That portion of her engaging personality has

Not been erased, in fact it is still in bloom.

She is not as determined as many of the

Blacks of her generation were with: Miss,

and Mr. and “yes mam” and “no mam”.

Nothing of this sort has been inculcated

in her. She is content with the graces she

Still possess, although I hasten to say I am

not so sure she is cognizant of any such things.

Slowly, someone is placing an erasure as

Close to her brain as possible. Every subtly

is being quietly deleted. Soon nothing will,

effectively, remain. It will all be gone,

Never to show its ugly presence again.

###

 

Self Awareness

 An old man has inherited a riddle staff.

He does not know its capacity for questioning,

That it can eat other snakes,

That it can divide seas,

That it can do more than sustain him walking,

Or remember more than he does of his tattered history.

He is not a descendant of Moses;

He has no sense of prophecy;

He has not observed a fiery bush;

Nor its duality to destroy or comfort.

He has been given no commandments

He is ordinary; he knows nothing of the old days

Of leading a lost people wandering in wildernesses.

 

Niles Riddick “Dog War”

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“No one should have to bury a child,” is what my grandmother had said time and again after losing her own daughter at twelve to a mysterious infection that could have been cured today with antibiotics, and forty years later, after attending the funeral of my neighbor’s son Isaac, I can still her saying it and couldn’t agree more. Isaac wasn’t even a relative, but my wife and I, now retired, enjoyed watching him through the bay window of our house across the cul-de-sac. He’d ride his bike up and down the street, his white-blonde hair blowing in the wind. We enjoyed watching him and his father play catch in the front yard. We enjoyed their annual collage photo Christmas card and note about what Isaac had done throughout the year in school, what belt he’d attained in taekwondo, what educational trips they’d taken during the summer, and we enjoyed talking to him when he’d come to sell items as part of the school, church, and Boy Scouts’ fundraisers.

I knew the neighbors who lived diagonally from our house in the Chicago style bungalow were going to be trouble when they built the dog kennels out back of their house. Well, we’d even heard speculation at the Senior Center before they moved in he smoked marijuana and that she was a bully and gossip. Probably compensating for her own inadequacy, the typical uneducated, never been anywhere, small town type who hated outsiders, like me and my wife who retired here because of low taxes and a good climate. We’d even delivered a loaf of banana nut bread when they moved in. Never even got a thank-you note. Trash.

The husband who owned a plumbing company was an avid hog hunter and had multiple pit bulls, some of which I heard cost hundreds of dollars. Almost every other weekend, he would load some of those dogs into the kennels on the back of his plumbing truck and be gone until late in the afternoon. Even went on Sunday. I heard he killed the hogs and gave them away to poor country folks, mostly Mexican migrant workers, who lived in make-shift camps on vegetable farms, and blacks who would roast them in a fire pit.

They had a chain link fence installed around the back yard, and once in a while I’d see the wife, a bubble-butt looking woman with dyed red-auburn hair who worked as a hairdresser, and their toddler, out back in the yard. Even those dogs would bark at them, and I knew if one of them dogs ever got lose, it would tear that poor toddler, and maybe her mama, to shreds. I’d heard enough stories through the years about those dogs. They’ve been bred for generations to hunt, to go for blood, and when they stay caged up and don’t get to hunt, that tension builds in their system. They go crazy, like an addict needing another fix.

We were watching Good Morning America when I noticed Isaac riding his bike, and I didn’t hear the screaming because of the crowd yelling and holding up their signs about where they were from, saying hello to friends and loved ones, on TV. When the show went to commercial, there was enough of an interlude that I heard the last of Isaac’s screams. I didn’t think about my knees and the pain. I just ran out the front door, grabbed a rock rake, and hurried as fast as I could to the street where Isaac was being yanked around on the asphalt by one of those pit bills like a rag doll. He was covered in blood and the jaws had a grip around his neck. I took the rake and plunged it into that dog. You son-of-a-bitch! Let him go, you son-of-a-bitch! The pit bull was whimpering and laying on its side as I continued to plunge the rake’s steel teeth into his body, like he’d done to poor Isaac. You fucking damned dog! That fat-ass hairdresser and her shit head husband. Fucking white trash. Somebody ought to tie them up and let their god-damned blood thirsty dogs have a go at them.

My wife had come to the door and called the ambulance. Isaac’s father was at work, and his mother had never heard a thing. She had been listening to Christmas music and baking cookies. Who the hell felt like Christmas now, I wondered. My wife cried and cried. She’d never seen anything like it. Poor Isaac mauled to death by a pit bull and the trash neighbors had the gall to come to the funeral and the wife telling people they couldn’t believe that one dog went mad, but the others were okay. Isaac’s parents should have sued them, made them have all the damned dogs put to sleep, but they listed their house and said they were going to move and try to start a new life. Maybe have another child.

I don’t believe they’ll ever get over it. Just like my grandmother said. No amount of “It was his time,” “Thank God for the time you had with him,” and “God will take care of you” will get them through such an event. Neither will I. I believe in God, but I don’t understand how a God would allow such. I keep thinking about those damned neighbors and their hunting dogs. I might go over there when they are both at work and poison them one at a time, over time, so not to get caught. It’d be a misdemeanor if I did get caught, but I don’t need the trouble. Killing them off won’t bring Isaac back, and it probably won’t make me feel any better either, but at least no one else will have to fear an attack. I keep the rake in the bushes by the front door and now have a loaded pistol in the bombe chest in the foyer. I take it with me when I get the mail.

Paul Smith: Bye & Bye

Library of Congress: Frances Benjamin Johnston photography

Bye & Bye

We sang a gospel song called ‘In the Sweet Bye and Bye’
It was beautiful
Beautiful as the where the Baptist church was
Alongside Roaring Fork Creek
The church itself, not so much
Not like the Catholic Church I was used to
This one was rustic, wood floor, cranky wood kneelers
Combustible enough in July
To make one think seriously about repentance
And the song I liked had to be waited for
By singing other hymns to me less lofty
But just as important
To the folks of Sevier County
Who sang more fervently than I remember
Us singing
Back where I called home
So much to love here
Kates and Mamie Ogle
Junior Ogle
Their house is where we learned that song
The mountains instead of a boring prairie
Their horses, the barn, the hounds,
The house we were going to build
And so much of something else
Polite refusals for dad
Wanting to buy a building to start a business
Kids who talked funny and said I did
Foods with strange names I wouldn’t eat
Okra, grits, yams
That was the thing, wasn’t it?
To have one thing, you had to have the other
So here, at Roaring Fork
I played alone outside the church
Because it was so hot inside
I stayed by the creek, watching the water striders
Until I heard the piano play the tune I loved
And then went inside to sing it
With mom and dad and Kates and Mamie and Junior
With every bit of bewildered strength
My lungs had
Along with the rest of the Baptist hill-dwellers in Sevier County
And the next day piled into the Ford Fairlane
And followed Route 441
Out to where we belonged
And would have things of one kind only

Valerie MacEwan: Matthew Rose and “The Letters”

Casey Cleghorn at Converge Gallery located at 140 West Fourth St., Williamsport, PA, serves up some mighty tasty art this month. One of the exhibitions is also close to my heart because it comes from the originator of the most beloved Mail Artists’ projects: The A Book About Death series.

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My friend Matthew Rose, if I may be so bold since we are online acquaintances and not in the flesh glad-handed people, has created an extraordinary exhibition “The Letters”. I may be a writer and everyone knows I have no problem with words, but I am not trained in writing about, or developing critiques of, art or gallery exhibitions. Then again, I don’t believe Matthew is a guy who needs the official art language of catalogs and kings to give his work legitimacy although it’s got to be pretty sweet to be an artist and hear the eloquent-official-taught-in-MFA-programs type of speech the pro’s apply to art. If you want to write a critique, btw, click here for the Pixmaven Art Critique Phrase Generator (it’s real fun, try it. It’s exactly the way I wrote essay answers in grad school. For the Pixmaven,  I typed in “11305″ and got this With regard to the issue of content, the sublime beauty of the spatial relationships verges on codifying the distinctive formal juxtapositions. )

Hopefully he knows many of us appreciate his work in the simplest of terms: It pleases us to view his art. It also greatly pleases us to participate in his art. *see the aforementioned A Book About Death.

Getting back to the Gallery installation at hand. In real-time gallery speak, it’s obvious Rose’s The Letters transcends dialog and jargon and moves into the emotional surreality of viewer attention and approval.

The exhibition online dialog:

Recasting the throw-aways and detritus, the overheard and misspelled, the artist has fashioned a large expository drama that serves as fragmented window into our collective Zeitgeist. Sex, love, death, politics, aesthetics and the muddled semiotics of our age all find a place in this body of work and beckon the viewer to read, decipher and unravel. The pieces in The Letters resonate with an enigmatic poetic presence. The result is a significant body of work by an important American artist…

Casey Cleghorn, in a recent Facebook discussion, revealed this to me about The Letters (featuring Matthew Rose)

“[the exhibition] was by far the most challenging show that we here at Converge Gallery have hung to date. The show takes you on a nostalgic journey from the moment you enter the front door of that gallery. We would encourage anyone who is a fan of DADA or Collage to have a peak at our interactive PDF book or take a 360 tour of the gallery exhibition.”

I urge you to check out The Letters online. I’ve provided you with enough links to send you merrily on your cyber-way. Hell, I encourage you to take a road trip and go see the exhibition in person, for real, non-virtual reality. And buy some of Matthew’s work (of course one would urge that.)

To see The Letters, click here for Converge Gallery.

The see the work online, click here for Converge Gallery Tumblr series.
To participate in the exhibition, click here to send the artist a love letter (go ahead, click it, it’s not an email link.)

and now I’m laughing my mule off with this video of Viv Maudlin going to A Book About Death at the Emily Harvey Foundation in NYC. Oh Jesus, Mary and Saint Joseph, you got to watch this:

Tim Bullard: Saving the Depot

“Going to work for a large company is like getting on a train. Are you going sixty miles an hour or is the train going sixty miles an hour and you’re just sitting still?”
-J. Paul Getty

Millie Green, my seventh grade Latin teacher, who claimed to have met a robed Ernest Hemingway in a foreign elevator, always taught us in Latin class to look for Latin derivatives, so with the word “depot,” it became clear what the term really means.
It is French, “dépôt” from the Old French “depost” from the Latin “depositum,” something deposited.
As midnight black soot rains from huge clouds of black smoke, one can almost hear that lonesome engine’s roar as leather shoe heels crunch gravel near the old Myrtle Beach depot on an excursion trip to the Atlantic shore.
There is a root word in the word “railroad,” which reminds one of what a railroad really is – a road – two ribbons of steel, bending, stretching out over God’s infrastructure, rained upon by the sweat of some of the hardest-working Americans and foreign workers since the slaves who built the pyramids of Gaza. Spawning legendary mythology like John Henry, railroads have nursed some of this country’s most prolific songwriters, like Woody Guthrie.
It’s hard to forget one meaning of the word – To rush or push (something) through quickly in order to prevent careful consideration and possible criticism or obstruction; and to convict (an accused person) without a fair trial or on trumped-up charges.
According to the Association of American Railroads, trains have been used more and more through this century with the following car loadings listed below:

1940– 36,358,000
1945– 41,918,000
1950–38,903,000
1955– 32,761,707
1960– 27,886,950
1965– 28,344,381
1970– 27,015,020
1975– 22,929,843
1980– 22,223,000
1982– 18,584,760
1983– 19,013,250
1984– 20,945,536
1985– 19,501,242
1986– 19,588,666
1987– 20,602,204
1988– 22,599,993
1989– 21,226,015
1990– 21,884,649
1991– 20,868,297
1992– 21,205,530

Remember Richard Trevithick? He was English and pioneered steam locomotives in the early 1800s. On June 17,1831 the first person in the United States died in an accident on a railroad when a boiler blew up on America’s very first passenger locomotive, The Best Friend of Charleston. The fireman was killed.
The first train wreck took place near Hightstown, N.J. Nov. 8, 1833 with the Camden & Amboy train derailed from a broken axle, and the first two passenger fatalities were reported with several other injuries. John Quincy Adams, formerly the President, and railroad businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt were also on board.
A group of Myrtle Beach citizens are trying to save a precious local landmark, the Myrtle Beach Railroad Depot, which came so close to being demolished, the historical structure’s future looked bleak.
The City of Myrtle Beach had been in negotiations with its owner, Chris Yahnis Corp., a beer distributor, to save the structure, but local citizens have taken a stand on the depot – they want to save it.
Photographer Jack Thompson of Myrtle Beach and some other residents are trying to get some citizens to pitch in to make sure the depot remains where it is. At one point Coastal Rapid Public Transit Authority had an interest in buying the land for a depot of mass transit. In August the city entered into negotiations with the depot’s owner, and it took a while for the two sides to agree on a price. It looked as though the building would be razed at one point after the owner had picked up a permit to demolish it.

Brenda O. Moore of Myrtle Beach remembers the depot with fond memories since her father was an agent there.
“The depot should be left where it is and preserved for future generations,” said Moore. “With so many historical buildings and locations being displaced or destroyed. This is one of the last remaining links to the past of Myrtle Beach. The railway was instrumental in the beginning of Myrtle Beach as everything from lumber to store supplies arrived here by train. This could be a beautifully restored building, and I would like to see it used, possibly as a museum-visitor’s center.
“There is currently a model train exhibit above Ed’s Hobby Shop which could be placed in the depot, and Jack Thompson has so many photos of Myrtle Beach’s past that he could do a rotating photo exhibit. At the same time, the depot could serve as a visitor-welcome center, while giving tourist and locals alike an insight to our past and beginning. This could be accomplished by the help of many sources, one of which is the Myrtle Beach Downtown Redevelopment Corporation, who wants a new visitor’s center and a new transportation center. I believe the depot could be an integral part of both.”
The downtown group’s advisory board, appointed from 1995-98, suggested to the Myrtle Beach City Council that it earmark an estimated $2 million for redeveloping, which included the purchase of the depot property.
“City’s train depot bit of area history,” read a Sun News editorial page column headline Aug. 27. “There is nothing ‘pretty about the old Myrtle Beach train depot, hidden from the eyes of most residents by a former beer warehouse and dotted with out-of-control shrubbery,” the editorial reported.
One alternative has been to move the building, which has been a landmark during this century.
“My grandfather worked on the railroad for 32 years,” said Buddy Whittington, 38, of Myrtle Beach. His grandfather was E.K. “Gene” Whittington. “He was a brakeman. He lived on 31st Avenue. Everybody knew him as Gene. We went down there and put pennies on the track. My brother got to go and ride the train. When I was a kid, we walked through there and picked up spikes.” The kids would paint the spikes gold, and he still has some of the spikes.
“I’ve got a log book. He worked for ACL, later the Seaboard. It has routes and times. I think it was in the 30s. He had a retirement watch they gave him. I’ve got old railroad lanterns, the oil ones he used. There’s all kinds of stories I could tell you. My father was telling me the story of them coming from Chadbourn, and a train had hit a car. The train was burning. My grandfather had to pull a kid from it.”
Whittington was pleased to hear that the depot was being saved.”I’m glad. It would be neat to see them do a scale of the track. I think it’s great that they’re keeping it. I figured it would be torn down. There used to be an ice house. It was in the hub.”
“I’m obviously ecstatic about it,” said Magistrate Derrick Blanton, a railroad enthusiast. “We’ve got little history as it is. I hope it remains on the tracks. It’s a piece of Myrtle Beach history. We lost the Ocean Forest. I think that was one of the saddest days in Myrtle Beach.”
Blanton said the railroad was responsible for much of the initial growth. “Everything that came to Myrtle Beach, it came here by train,” he said.
Blanton remembers when Whittington’s grandfather used to tell him stories.
Whittington told him about when rock was transported to build the airport. “It was brought in all by train,” Blanton said. “It was a wooden structure first. The tracks used to go all the way to the Pavilion by 9th Avenue.”

Blanton remains entranced by trains and was excited about a hobbyist group’s open house at Ed’s Hobby Shop every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Christmas. The second floor contains one of the most extensive railroad sets in the county.
In December 1887 the first train came to Conway from Chadbourn, according to The Independent Republic of Horry. The first train to Myrtle Beach ran in 1900, according to the publication.
A survey was done between Conway and the coast by F.G. Burroughs and F.A. Burroughs, his son, in 1896, and the railroad’s name was the Conway Coast & Western Railroad, which was bought out by Atlantic Coast Line in 1912. According to the Chapin Library Archives and Myrtle Beach Scrapbooks I-II, lots were sold by Burroughs & Collins around railroad tracks in Aynor in 1910, and the Burroughs Railroad Company built the first tracks to the coast, changing its name from Conway and Seacoast Railroad to Conway, Coast and Western Railroad in July 1904. The Conway Seashore Railroad was chartered in State Act 147 Feb. 28, 1899. Ed Baldwin of Georgetown was the engineer on the Black Maria, a logging engine from Tabor City, N.C. with wide tread wheels which ran from Conway to New Town.
James H. Chadbourn bought CC&W a year later, and a construction crew member was killed by gunfire one evening in the autumn of 1905, so construction stopped.
“The railroad used to come down by where the Pavilion parking lot is now, and there were only two hotels – the Seaside Inn and the Lafayette Manor,” Walter Geathers told Sun News Women’s Editor Jennifer Amor in the April 14, 1975 issue. The Seaside Inn, a three-story wood frame structure with a cupola and boardwalk, opened in June 1901 after Burroughs & Collins Co. had developed New Town, which changed its name to Myrtle Beach Nov. 1, 1900. The boardwalk led to the Atlantic in the front and to the railroad depot about a block away.
“Up until 1912, people had to depend on the railroad to reach Myrtle Beach,” one archival article reported. “The tramroad was taken over by the Atlantic Coastline Railroad and developed into a standard railroad track. Soon after 1912, roads were improved so that the area became more accessible to visitors. Quite a few people from Florence became interested in the beach and bought most of the lots north to the present site of the Ocean Plaza Hotel.”
Chadbourn came to visit W.H. Privett, grandfather of Ruby Sasser Jones, who wrote, “My Father, The Captain.”
“His train would be a museum piece today! The engine was an old wood burner that had to stop about every ten miles and get wood and water. Great stacks of wood were placed by the railroad, and a great water tank stood nearby.
“There were two coaches and a baggage car besides the freight cars. There were no window screens, so it was wise to wear dark clothes. The smoke and soot poured in through the windows. The coal-burning engines increased this necessity. I remember the first coal burner that came to Conway. Crowds of people came to the station to see it. Mr. Henry Baldwin was the engineer on my father’s train. He was loved by every member of our family.
“Sometimes the railroad company would run excursions to Myrtle Beach – usually on Sunday or the Fourth of July. Then they would fix up coaches and some box cars with passengers standing up. It was a great disappointment to me that my father would never let me take that trip in one of those box cars. Neither would he ever give in to my great desire to ride to the beach with Mr. Baldwin in the engine!
“The Captain knew every person that rode his train. He made sure of that before they got off. He loved people! He had a great personality, a marvelous sense of humor and never failed to play a trick on somebody, if it were at all possible.
“His train was put to so many uses! For instance, it was a ‘potato train’ during the potato season. Late in the afternoon, he, Mr. Baldwin, and the crew went to Burcol about four miles from Myrtle Beach and picked up the day’s harvest of potatoes grown by Myrtle Beach Farms Company. Next morning at 5 a.m. these were transferred to a train going to Chadbourn and on their way to northern markets. Sometimes it was a special train to haul logs!”
A 1965 Strand Historical Progress Edition in the archives reports on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Company and its winter service for Myrtle Beach “that are being received in anticipation of the opening of the new Ocean Forest Hotel and for the convenience of the large number of golfers and visitors expected at the new country club.”
According to this issue of The Myrtle Leaf in January 1930, a weekend Pullman from New York was in operation, leaving New York every Saturday morning at 2:10 and arriving in Myrtle Beach about 7:30 Sunday morning. The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad took over the tramroad and turned it into a standard train track with George C. Cox as the first railroad agent.
“In his office was an Oliver typewriter, the first typewriter in Myrtle Beach,” according to one article from The Myrtle Beach Sun dated Sept. 12, 1952.
Will the Myrtle Beach depot turn into a museum, like the Mullins Tobacco Museum?
As you rocked back and forth on your first train ride as a child, the sleepy effect forced your eyelids shut as your ears concentrated on the two distinct thumps as the heavy shiny wheels clacked at the end of each rail.
And, if you’re lucky, when you reach the end of the line, hopefully there will be a Myrtle Beach depot where shadows of past passengers await to greet you at your destination.

John Riley: How It Went Bad With Horsepen

roanoke_river1

You hate that damn Horsepen Jones. Out walking the hills with his shotgun. You know he’ll soon be back with a fresh coon or rabbit or maybe a couple of squirrels and will stand outside the door picking the shot out of the meat, jabbering about how good it’s going to taste, while you eat the gruel he made before he left.

How much longer can you bear up under his abuse? You’re just a tiny girl. How much longer will it be before your stomach grabs your heart and squeezes it shut?

You didn’t used to hate him. Truth is, the happiest time of your life were the few weeks you had alone with Horsepen, before things went bad. You felt like a whole other person when he hoisted you on his hip and totted you around with him pretty near everywhere he went. You never should have said it! That’s what made things go bad. But he’d been so nice and gentle and had never once acted like he cared that your legs hadn’t grown an inch since you were born. That even with someone holding your hands to keep you steady you can’t raise yourself much over three feet.

You should never have believed your daddy when he said a man with half a dog was better off than a man with no dog at all. Your daddy loved dogs almost as much as he loved you and you knew he was trying to make you feel better about being half a girl. You’d go along with him and say, “But I’m a girl. I ain’t no damn dog,” and you’d both laugh. Sometimes after he had a few slugs out of his mason jar your daddy would get out the rope and tie you up into a ball and carry you down to the creek and see how fast you’d roll down the steep bank. How you loved bouncing into that cold water! And it made him so happy to see you bobbin around between the old rocks. Your daddy loved you, yes he did, and you never worried he’d forget to come pull you out of the creek before you sank to the bottom and drowned.

When your daddy got sick Horsepen promised to take care of you. Sooner or later her insides gonna get knotted up, your daddy told him, and she’ll pass on. There ain’t room enough for all her female parts as it is. Then you won’t have to bother with her no more and this place will be all yours. Free and clear. But while she’s alive you gotta promise me she’ll get some sun everyday and that you’ll keep her fed and treat her nice. She’s a sweet little thing and happy as God’s favorite child and ain’t ever once complained about her affliction.

Horsepen was already your best friend before your daddy died. When your daddy would go out drinking with Horsepen’s mama the Widow Jones, you and Horsepen would stay home and play card games or he’d tell you stories about the things he’d seen over in the town called Star. One night he said that the town called Star was a shiftless place that didn’t deserve its name and he took you outside where the night was clear enough for him to show you the pictures the real stars in the sky made. He’d learned about the pictures from Mr. Clack, the only teacher he’d ever had worth his salt Horsepen said. You rested your head against his and you two walked in a circle, your eyes peeled to the sky while his finger traced the star pictures for you to see. Yes, things were good between you and Horsepen, so when your daddy met his maker and it was just the two of you life were near about perfect for a while.

Then came the day he picked you up and set you in your daddy’s old truck and said that you and him were going to take a ride. We’ll just ride around, not going to no particular place, he said. It was near ’bout twilight before he pulled over to the side of the road and pointed out your window and said over there in that clearing under that thick stand of trees is where I got my first kiss from ol’Lucinda Hill. Then his eyes got sparkly and he said I ain’t going to tell you what happened after that.

But you wanted to know what happened after that! You wanted him to carry you over to the same spot where he’d kissed Lucinda Hill and lift you up so your face was in front of his face and kiss you even harder than he’d kissed her. That’s what you wanted but you should never have said it. Never should have said you could be his plaything in so many ways. That you were tiny but your heart was bigger than the whole night sky.

The look on his face when you told him you loved him near about broke your heart. You’d never seen a person look so disgusted. You should of known he’d never think of you that way. That when it comes to some things a half a dog ain’t good enough. You should of known he’d never look at you the same after you said it’d be like flying to heaven if he lifted you up and pressed his face to yours. You should have known to keep your heart to yourself, to stay quiet about what could happen over under the limbs of them trees.

Sylvia Dodgen: Encounter

1prom

Standing in the underground station at Earl’s Court in London with my tour group, I spot a familiar profile. Pearl Lee? I lean forward to get a better look. She looks in my direction then looks away. “Pew-ee,” we called her through school. She is dressed in a tea length ivory gown, carrying a rose. “Umph,” I wonder what Pew-ee is doing in London. I wave, but she either does not recognize me or chooses to ignore me. Certain that the woman is Pearl Lee even though I have not seen her for at least ten years, I cross the platform. We were never really friends, but we went through twelve years of school in the same class. Pew-ee walked the halls like she was a princess, wearing her aunt’s hand-me-down pencil skirts from the early sixties and white heelworn flats. I remember seeing her mama working the presses at the dry cleaners, when I picked up my daddy’s suits on Saturday mornings and her daddy, sitting on the court square curb drunk as Cooter Brown.

Slipping sideways through the waiting throng, I speak to her from behind. Pearl Lee turns and smiles, “What are you doing here?” she says, as though she had not spotted me. The first thing I notice is her hair, highlighted and burnished, no longer stringy, dishwater blond. Then I notice her teeth; they are rice white and have been straightened.

“Just seeing the sights with a group from home. What about you? I didn’t know you left Sawyerville,” I say.

“Actually, I left before graduation.”

“Really and came here?”

“No. You probably don’t remember but I married and moved to Louisiana. Ed, remember? He took a job on one of those offshore oil rigs in the Gulf.”

“Oh, that’s right I heard you and Ed McLeod got married. So is he here in London too? Just can’t imagine Ed McLeod in London,” I snigger, remembering Ed’s kinky red hair, big ears and gosh awful guffaws.

Pearl Lee’s eyes narrow. “No, he’s still in Louisiana. We divorced years ago but still talk occasionally. You’re still doing it, you know.” Pearl Lee lifts her chin and smiles.

“What? What do you mean?”

“Still poking fun at people.”

“No, I didn’t mean…. I didn’t realize you’d take it that way. He was just so corn pone, you know?”

“No, I don’t,” she turns and looks down the tracks.

“So what are you doing here? All dressed up. Where’re you going?” I ask.

Pearl Lee looks calmly at me. “I’ve just been to a recital, a friend plays the cello.”

“And what do you do?” I ask.

“I am a violinist with the LSO.”

“The what?”

“The London Symphony Orchestra. You know, they made the music for the Star Wars films back in the seventies.”

“So you live in London?”

“Yes, but we tour frequently – Japan, India, France ….”

“You’ve really changed from the old Pearl Lee in high school, huh? I remember your granddaddy could fiddle. I seen him play at the tavern down by the river a few times. They said as long as the drinks kept coming, he’d keep fiddling.”

“You frequent the tavern?” Pearl Lee nods.

“We drop in from time to time, hubby and me. Hey, remember how Sarah and Julie teased you about hiding behind your hair? And when you went out for cheerleading, they had their boyfriends roll basketballs at you from the bleachers. You were all over that gym, dodging balls.

You have to admit that was a hoot, low but a hoot.”

“I guess I’d forgotten; I don’t think much about them.”

“Really?”

“Have a good life, Caroline.” Pearl Lee moves away down the track toward the approaching train.

Stepping back to my group, I feel thwarted. Pearl Lee had not given me a chance to tell her that I married Wild Boar quarterback, Larry Sawyer. She didn’t even give me a chance to show her pictures of my sweeties, the twins. I hope she heard that I pledged the round house at Bama even though I never made it to initiation, seeing as how I got knocked up homecoming weekend. Larry never could control hisself. And I forgot to tell her about our chicken farm and Larry’s favorite line: “Chicken shit smells like money to me.” I blow my cheeks out and think, I can’t wait to tell Sarah and Julie I saw old Pearl Lee; they’ll just spew.

*******

When the doors open, Pearl Lee steps over the gap and sits just inside the door. Pushing silky hair behind an ear, she pulls out her smart phone and searches Facebook. Seconds later she finds a dumpy Caroline Sawyer seated on a sofa between a chubby boy and girl with a man slouched on the sofa arm, holding a football. He has a noticeable beer belly. Looking closely, Pearl Lee spots two slender boards, running the height of the wall on either side of the sofa. I recognize those strips; they connect pre-fabricated wall panels, Pearl Lee thinks and chuckles to herself. They live in a trailer. Caroline lives in a trailer in the sticks with Wild Boar Larry. She lifts her head and inhales the sweet fragrance of the rose.

Erin Cochran: Ferris Wheel’s End

Voices, conversations, a cacophony of noise
Old, young, somewhere between
Children scream wildly
Laughing uncontrollably
Electric cables wind like boa constrictors through feet and strollers and the mud of last night’s rain
Glossy brown caramel shines in the window of a trailer
Dough crisp and greasy burns quickly
Sugar clings to fingernails waiting to be licked off, littering shirt fronts as a testament to a moment of gluttony
Cigarette smoke assaults, too much at once
Jars of jam, photos of the dog, a tin man made from bits and pieces scavenged from the garage next door
Blue ribbons announce victory
Tractors roar, deafening spectators and passersby
A fog of dirt coats hair, clothes, teeth
Fingers point, cameras flash
A rooster crows in confinement
Quilts and pies lined up, neat rows wait to be admired, judged
Spinning slowly upward for a view never seen down Main Street
Empty cars wait endlessly
Their occupants engaged in eternal celebration
One last warm night
To spin endlessly
Eat with greasy sticky fingers
Engage every sense without reason
The speaker spews the band’s name
Cheers rise
Blankets spread on cool green grass
People from the grocery store, the school, the Co-op by the railroad tracks
Lay back listening, humming along, tapping feet
Drifting mindlessly into the sea of tiny explosions
Red, blue, green, gold, purple tendrils paint an invisible ceiling
With a memory,
An end
To summer.

 

A. J. Tierney: Stuck Like This Forever

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I tiptoe through the kitchen and hop over the holes in the hardwood floor making sure not to wake anyone. The refrigerator hums until I unplug it from the extension cord and plug in a small lamp so I can see. I dress quickly for work as my little brother, little sister and a house full of dogs slumber away. I jiggle the handle on the backdoor and give it a shove with my hip. Baby, Bubba and three of their puppies bound toward me. They jump up leaving dusty paw prints on my pants. I shoo them away as I make my way to the chain-link fence. I crouch down and hold them back as I scoot out of the gate making sure they all stay in. Baby and Bubba circle before curling up on a tattered Superman blanket near the back steps. The puppies stand along the fence, tongues wagging. I glance back at the front porch and see a cat curled up on the old, faded couch. For a moment I think, we should really clean off that front porch; it looks terrible. But I’m not strong enough to move a couch and even if I were, where would I put it? I can’t change the front porch situation, so I continue my walk to work. The street is quiet at this hour. No booming bass from low riders. No hollering up and down the street from people wanting to pick a fight.

As I unlock and push open the front door of the law office, cool air rushes across my face. While I wait for the computer to warm up, I write down messages from the answering machine. Since it’s not quite 8 o’clock and I’m not expecting anyone at the office, I lock the front door, grab my purse, and head to the bathroom at the back of the office to brush my teeth. I turn the water on as hot as I can and run it over my toothbrush to kill any germs. Even without toothpaste my teeth feel cleaner.

As I sort client files back at my desk, I calculate in my head how much money I’ll make for the day- $4.25 an hour, times 8 hours gives me about $34. This will at least keep the electricity on to power the oscillating fan at night. But this still doesn’t solve the problem of where the money will come from to cover my mom’s bankruptcy payment and all the other bills.

I doodle on the edge of the calendar pad thinking about how my mother’s latest get-rich-quick scheme of buying run-down houses to fix-up and rent, has backfired. She knew nothing about fixing up houses but was convinced that this was the way our family could be rich. Most damning of all, she believed all the sob stories of potential renters and their empty promises to help fix up the houses in exchange for rent. Whether my mom collected rent or not, the bank people came knocking for their money.

The sound of the phone startles me. I clear my throat and answer, “Law office.”

“I need to make an appointment with Mr. Cabot.”

“He’s on vacation this week, but I could set a time for the end of next week.”

I scribble the person’s name in the tiny green box on the appointment calendar.

Keeping my mind focused is a challenge this morning. I’m happy that I have the comfort of the office with running water and electricity under the same roof, but my mind keeps going back to our house on 12th Street that we abandoned a year ago. When the electricity was turned off, we used flashlights and candles at night. Even without electricity we were still able to heat up cans of food on the gas stove. After the water meter was pulled, we carried buckets of water from the above ground pool to flush the toilets. But there was only so much water to carry in, and the toilets began to fill up. We finally left after a portion of the roof caved in. But my mom refused to let the house go, so she continues to make partial payments on the mortgage.

After leaving the house on 12th Street, we spent a few months in my mom’s other rent houses until the utility bills went unpaid and the meters were pulled. Now we’re living in her last two rent houses. All I can think is that we’re going to go through all of it again. But this time, there will be nowhere to go. My mom can’t get water turned on in either house. My little brother, little sister and I live in one of the houses with the dogs. My mom and older brother live in the other house. My mom’s strung an extension cord between the two houses warning us that we can only plug in one thing at a time so we don’t burn the house down.

Five o’clock approaches and I dread going home. I play my version of hopscotch on the way home to avoid cracks and weeds in the sidewalk. The cat is still perched on the couch on the front porch. The puppies run to the fence when they see me. I push them back and eke my way through the gate. Once I finish my feeding ritual, I plop down on the couch. My older brother’s police scanner sits on a shelf in the living room gathering dust. We don’t listen to it much anymore since we got in trouble for unplugging the refrigerator to plug in the scanner and food went bad. The police and fire channels were exciting at first. It was comforting to know that bad things were happening to other people, not just us. We were also able to pick up the conversations of truckers along their routes on Highway 69. Busted Penny was my favorite. She had a dirty mouth and a gravely voice that made me think of a tough old broad barreling down the highway, cigarette dangling from her lips as she cackled about another truck driver’s little pecker.

The heat in the house smothers me, so I decide to head to the library. The swoosh of the automatic doors releases a burst of cold air, and the fluorescent lighting casts a green glow over everything. I ascend the grand staircase and roam around the stacks of books. Reading for fun isn’t something my mom allows because we need to be working on her rent houses. But I find a Sweet Valley High book that I haven’t read and sit at a table to get lost in another world.

The librarian interrupts my reading with an announcement that the library will be closing in 15 minutes. This is my chance to wash up a little before I head back home. I leave my book on the table and hurry down to the bathroom. No one appears to be in here, so I wad up a few paper towels, dampen them, add soap and find a stall.

By the time I get home it’s already dark and not much to do but go to bed. I nestle into the couch and pray for sleep to come quickly. The rats come out once the house has settled down for the night. I wrap myself in a sheet like a mummy to keep them from crawling on me. I feel a slight thump and little feet scurry across my sheet. I try my best to pretend I don’t feel anything, but a little glint of moonlight shines in the rat’s eye and he walks around on me as if I’m in his space. I tilt my body back and forth like a log to try and shake him off. He pays me no mind and jumps down to look for crumbs we might have left behind. I hear the scratching in the kitchen and know the rat and several of his relatives have found a bag of dog food and are clawing their way into it.

When I wake the next morning, I unplug the refrigerator, plug in the little lamp, and see dog food strewn across the kitchen floor. I push it all in a pile with my foot. The floor creaks as I walk across and it starts the dogs in the bedrooms to barking. I put on a pair of wadded up jeans from a pile of clothes in the living room and smooth out the t-shirt I slept in.

Any hope of relief from the heat in the house will have to wait until I get to work. It’s steamy on my walk to work and not even 8 o’clock yet. When I settle in at my desk, there’s even less to do than yesterday. I try to pace myself filing and transcribing. At 11 o’clock I answer the phone and try to say “Law Office” but nothing comes out. The person on the other end says “Hello? Hello?” But nothing leaves my throat. I hang up and shake my head. The phone rings again, and we have the same exchange. After I hang up a second time, I massage my throat and don’t seem to have any pain. I try to say hello, and it comes out a little slurry; I feel a twitching in my left cheek. I rub it and think maybe I’ve been leaning on it with the heel of my hand and it’s fallen asleep.

Since it’s close to lunchtime, I decide to walk a couple of doors down and grab a pop and bag of chips. When I get back, I crack the can of pop open, and as I take my first sip only some of it goes in my mouth. The rest dribbles down my lip and chin. I find some napkins to clean up my mess. I rip open the bag of chips and begin to chew. A coppery taste fills my mouth, and I realize I’ve bitten my cheek. I try to spit into a napkin but my lips won’t come together. Spit, mixed with partly chewed chip and blood, slides down my chin and onto my shirt.

When I flick on the light in the bathroom, the dark circles under my eyes are more pronounced, and my brown eyes bug out a little. I step closer to the sink and peer inside my mouth. A shock flashes up from behind my left ear and into my left eye but my mouth won’t open all the way. When I try to smile, the right side of my face moves but the left side doesn’t budge. My right eye blinks, but my left eye stays open. When I try to speak, only a guttural sound comes out. I stand there uncertain what to do.

I stay at work, but my mind races around. What if I can’t ever talk again? What if I talk funny like my grandma after her stroke? Will I ever be in another play? Will people be afraid to talk to me when they see spit dribbling down my chin and one eye that won’t close? Tears spill from my right eye but the left remains dry.

At 5 o’clock I run home as fast as I can to show my mom what has happened to my face. I hunch over in front of her, still panting, grab her hands, and put them on my face. She helps me stand upright.

“Broken.” I barely get out.

She tilts my head back and forth, “Does it hurt?”

I shake my head. “Shocks.”

She continues to inspect my face. “ Looks like Bell’s palsy. Your Uncle Johnny had it too.”

“Fix?” My lower lip catches on my teeth.

“There’s no insurance for that. You’ll just have to rest.”

“Can’t blink. Hospital.”

“What makes your face more important than Greggie’s asthma? Or Tiffy and Ty’s teeth? We’re all going without. Not just you.”

No amount of begging is going to change her mind. My immediate escape is to the community theater rehearsal that starts at 6 o’clock. I avoid everyone on my way in and head back stage to arrange props. My friend Pruitt approaches me after rehearsal, “Everything alright, kiddo? You been awfully quiet.”

I had been in several shows with Pruitt. He was old enough to be my dad and in many ways he had looked out for me. I smile and point to the left side of my mouth. It doesn’t move. He leads me into the empty theater and sits me down. I talk slowly. “Mom says Bell’s palsy.”

“Well, I think she’s right about that.”

“No insurance. Stuck like this.”

“We’ll figure it out, kiddo. I’ve gotta friend I want you to meet. I’ll pick you up for rehearsal tomorrow and go see him.”

***

The next day we pull up to the front of Sound Warehouse. We wind through bins of vinyl records to the man’s office that is filled with stacks of cassette tapes. I stand a little behind Pruitt trying to hide my face. The man wears glasses with a slight tint to them. His left eyelid droops. He smiles, but the left side remains slack. “You want something to drink?” My breath hitches in my chest listening to his slurry words and watching his lips pull to the side. I crave one of the orange bottled sodas in his old timey vending machine but don’t want him to see me try to drink it and spill it on myself, so I shake my head no.

The man motions for us to take a seat. He takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes. “I was 19 when I got Bell’s palsy. Nothin’ they could do for it back then. They can probably do more now. I know I doc here in town that can help folks out.”

He hands me a slightly crumpled card that has “$35- Most meds free” scribbled across the back, but looking at Pruitt’s friend, I worry I’ll be stuck like this forever.

When I get home from rehearsal I am relieved to find my mom is gone. The note she left says she’s gone to Tulsa and will be back tomorrow. I lay on the couch massaging my cheek and drift off to sleep.

When my mom comes home the next day, I am anxious to tell her about Pruitt’s friend and the doctor that can help us. Before I get a chance she starts in with her plan.

She paces back and forth and starts in excitedly. “We need to do everything in the right order.”

“What?”

“First, you have to quit your job.”

“Need money.”

“We need to start building a case for the disability people.”

“Not disabled.”

“Can’t you see the disability checks will continue for a long time? We start by showing you’re too upset about your face to keep your job.”

I try to interrupt her, but she shushes me and charges ahead.

“Then you must show them how bad your face is and that you’re too scared to go to school.”

“College?”

“And where do you think that money’s gonna come from?”

“Scholarships?” I shrug my shoulders.

“You’re willing to gamble this family’s future on a maybe? This disability money is a sure thing. All you have to do is put on your best acting skills, and we will have a guaranteed $385 a month.”

All hope of fixing my face slowly dims with each step of her plan.

“My friend Trish is dancing at a real nice place in Tulsa.”

“Strip club!?!” I cross my arms and let out a little huff.

“Well, you may turn up your nose now, but she only works three days a week and brings home one thousand dollars. I’ve got you an audition this Friday.”

I try to shout at her, but I spray spit as my slurred words tumble from my lips, “I don’t want to strip!”

“Really, Adrianne, don’t be so dramatic. It’s better than giving it away to your boyfriends for free.” Her glare drills through me.

“But my face?” The words come out high-pitched and whiney.

“Trust me. No one will be looking at your face.”

A silence falls between us. But I am so tired, so very tired of the fighting.

“I’ll do it.”

***

The next day I make a detour on my way to work and go see Pruitt at his auto repair shop. “Mom says no doctor.”

He leans back in his chair, sucks on his pipe, and lets out a puff of sweet-smelling smoke. Then he picks up the phone and calls the doctor. The drive to the doctor’s office takes less than 10 minutes. As soon as I sign in the nurse takes me to the exam room. The doctor steps in, washes his hands and wastes no time in touching every inch of my face.

“It’s great Mr. Pruitt got you in here. Much more time and the facial muscles begin to atrophy and don’t regenerate.”

I stare at my fingernails, nibbled to the quick, “Don’t understand, sir.”

He runs his hands down along both sides of my neck and across my collarbones and shoulders. “Basically, the muscles in the face die and they can’t grow back. But we have great medicines to help you get better.” He gives my shoulders a light squeeze then loads several boxes of medicine in bags.

“You’ll take the acyclovir once a day until it’s gone. The prednisone you’ll take five for five days. Then four for four days and so on until you’re done.”

I nod my head.

“You’ll also need to protect your left eye until you’re able to blink again. Corneas scratch easily.” He pulls eye ointment and self-adhesive, flesh-colored eye patches from a cabinet.

“Wear to school?” Thoughts of pirates dance through my head.

He scoots over to the exam table on his stool. “It’s only for a bit. And I think there are little stickers in the box if you want to decorate the eye patch.”

My nose burns and I want to cry. I feel like a six-year-old talking about stickers, but then he pulls out a little sunflower with a happy face on it. That’s the sticker I’m going to wear on my eye patch the first day of school.

Pruitt meets me at the receptionist’s desk. She scrawls $35 on the checkout slip. He pulls out a wad of bills and pays it in full. He pushes the front door open and as we approach his car, I shake my head, “Can’t pay back now, but…”

He interrupts me by a wave of his hand. “You’re job is to take those pills and get better. You hear me?”

A near silent, thank you, is all I can manage.

That night my little brother, little sister and I curl up on the couches in the living room and turn the oscillating fan on, eager to get what little air rushes by. Sweat rolls down my temples as I try to drift off to sleep, but visions of a smoky, dark room invade my mind. Loud, thumping music and even louder voices of men hollering and whistling fill my ears. I imagine I’m on stage wearing little red sequined panties, my long, wavy hair covering my breasts. A mask decorated with black and red feathers covers my face. I turn over and bury my face as deep as I can into the couch. I beg God to give me a sign if this is really what he wants me to do. I pray for forgiveness for every time I’ve been a disobedient daughter. Every time I’ve fought with my mom. Every time I’ve been unkind or mean to someone. I finally drift off making a bargain with God that if he will spare me from having to be a stripper, I will be his devoted servant forever.

***

I’m up earlier than normal. It’s the day of my audition at the strip club, but I have to go to work first. I creep around the house and put a few things in a backpack only taking what I absolutely need: a pair of jeans, two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, three shirts and my journals. I read the note my mom left for me.

Adrianne,

Pick you up at 5. Bring your red, shiny leotard and flesh shimmer tights.

Love,

Mom

 

The phones are quiet all day and there’s not much work left, so I spend the day doing word searches. Just before my mom is supposed to pick me up, I cash my paycheck and put all of the money in an envelope with a note.

Dear Mom,

I am so sorry but I can’t do this. Here’s some money to help. I love you but there are some things a child cannot do for her parent. I am so, so sorry.

I love you,

Adrianne

 

I fold the note neatly in thirds wrapping the money in the paper, seal it, and tape it to the front door of the law office. I hide under my desk and wait for her to arrive. I hear her rip the envelope off. There’s a short pause and she bangs on the door, “Open up right now!” My heart thrashes in my chest, and I curl my body tighter into itself knowing that door is the only thing between me and getting my ass beat. She continues to scream and pound. Then, the car door slams. Tires screech. Silence. At 5:15 I peek my head out and see the car is gone. And so is the envelope.

In the bathroom, I fill a little cup with water and slug back my pills. I study my face in the mirror. The doctor said it would be days before I might show any improvement. I take a long, deep breath. Now that I have left my family, I realize I haven’t given much thought to where I might go. At least for tonight, I know I’ll be alone in the office. God has taken care of me this day, and I trust he will take care of me tomorrow. I unpack my clothes from my backpack, make a little pillow out of them and rest for awhile.

Art Heifetz: Three Poems

IMG_20121018_164027

Aunt Belle’s Chinese Vase
Years after Ben’s accident at the mill,
Belle’s memories of him were like
pieces of the Chinese vase
he’d bought her in Atlanta,
the one the cats knocked over in the hall.
No matter how artfully
she tried to glue them back together,
there were always gaps,
places she couldn’t recall,
words she had forgotten,
small chunks of history
shaved off by the blade

Still, memories however pieced together,
were better than no memories at all.
Likewise for the mended vase
whch she placed back on its pedastal
(some said the cracks added to
its Asian character)
and every time she looked at it
she thought of Ben,
whole and handsome,
young and strong as the river.

The cats, confined to the back porch now,
dozed fitfully in the sun,
dreaming of birds.
Belle planted petunias in the garden.
All in all, an ordinary day
like the one that sliced her heart in two
while everyone was looking the other way.

 

lovebites

doing the dirty
on a mountaintop in Maine
we didn’t expect no-see-ums
attracted by the scent
to bite us where we ain’t
never been bit before
for days we walked around
stiff-limbed from the climb
resisting with all our earthly powers
the temptation to scratch

another time,
right here in Buena Vista
I had her up against a rock
with my pants around my feet
when a rattler approached
I reached in slo-mo for my gun
and he became  a gourmet breakfast
of snake and eggs
crackling in a rusty skillet
on an open fire

now there’s just the two of us
no kids black flies or snakes
and we only do it in the bedroom
on the rare occasions
when the old urge bites

Falls Trail, Early Spring

The river welcomes us
with soothing songs
it sings the whole night long.
We balance like high-wire artists
on a mossy log
and reach the other side.

We’ve got here just in time
before the forest closes up
with growth run wild,
before the rivers slow to a crawl
and the mosquitos settle in.
When only a few precocious
dogwoods are in bloom.
They say the first green is the finest.

That’s me nodding by the fire
from too much Yukon Jack,
boots toasted by the flames,
and that’s big, brawny Bo
roasting squirrels on the coals.
Here’s full-bearded Bryce
firing up his antique lantern
and incinerating several trees,
wide-eyed Horace finding the rubber snake
we planted in his sleeping bag,
bare-chested Bill singing in an icy waterfall,
the children catching  crawfish in the creek.

There’s Junior shining a flashlight
in the eyes of the stoned college boys
who have stumbled into camp.
When they see three giant black men
decked out in camouflage,
they drop their beer and make a run for it.
Holy shit, they cry, it’s the Marines.
And the through-hiker, skinny bastard,
living for weeks on fungus,
sleeping under a plastic sheet,
but not too proud to eat our stew.
Yes, I’ve been down this trail before,
but never in the rollicking company
of so many ghosts.

 

Davis Slater: Helping Daddy Win

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By the time I was five years old, I knew somebody in every bar in four counties. Daddy would bring me along when we couldn’t afford a babysitter, which was most of the time. Bars were really boring for me, so I’d make puppy-dog eyes at a waitress or somebody, and they’d give me a couple times at the pinball machine or whatever. Open up the pool table for free, and I’d set up crazy trick shots that didn’t ever work.

Sometimes that’s what started the fight. Some fella would tell me, “Goddammit, put up them balls, sit down, and be quiet!” Daddy would ask the fella if he had anything to say to somebody his own size. The fella would say, “Yeah, Buddy, I think I do.” And off they’d go.

One time, I was seven or eight, and I decided to help Daddy in a fight. Planned it all out. See, she liked to bite, my mother did, and it hurt like anything. Hell, even getting bit by something a lot smaller, like a cat, hurt like anything. So I figured whenever some fella fought with Daddy, which always happened, I could sneak up behind the fella and bite him to help Daddy win and make him proud. Even bit my own hand to see whether my bite was strong enough to hurt, and it was.

So I was standing there, holding Daddy’s watch, and the fella he was tangling with ended up with his back pocket about six inches from my nose. He wasn’t paying any attention to me, so I figured this was a pretty good opportunity. I said, “You’d better be scared, Buddy, ‘cause I ain’t,” just like Daddy did every time, and I clamped my teeth down around a chunk of his butt as hard as I could. The denim made my teeth slip a little, but I ended up with a pretty good grip of something.

Man, you probably could have heard him screaming and cussing across the river, and the Miss is a mile wide down there. What else you could hear for miles was people laughing. Everybody in the bar laughed like crazy. I even heard Daddy laugh. He told the fella, “That’s my boy. You touch him and you goin’ home in ten different cars.” And a couple other fellas said, “‘At’s right.”

So the fella I was biting begged him to get me off of him, and Daddy Po asked me real nice — and real slow — if I’d be willing to consider maybe, at my convenience, stopping biting this poor bastard.

I didn’t know what he meant by all that, so I said, “Hmm?” with the guy’s butt still in my teeth. That made everybody laugh again.

Then Daddy told me to get off of him, so I did. The fella ended up buying me a Doctor Pepper and he got Daddy so many beers he had to pull over on the way home to throw up.

***

Note: This is an excerpt from Slater’s forthcoming Southern transgressive novel “Selling Sin at the Hoot-Possum Auction.”

Jeanne Lupton: Candy

Rennert NC

I get invited to visit Candy for a weekend. She used to live next door. Daddy drives me there. I get carsick but only once. We have a paper bag for it.

Candy’s house has a big yard, flowers. Candy runs out the front door, hugs me. She shows me her lacey blue room upstairs. A crystal castle, a Japanese tea set for the fairies, a china cocker spaniel.

Candy! Guess who’s here! Candy’s mother calls her.

Candy runs downstairs. I come too. Candy squealing. It’s her aunt. Her favorite aunt. From college. For the weekend. A surprise. Candy jumps up and down.

In a little while, up in Candy’s room, the aunt takes off her shirt. She lies down on her stomach on Candy’s bed. She undoes her bra with her bare back says Candy Candy rub my back. Hands her a bottle of lotion. Candy is so happy to rub her aunt’s back. I see this is what Candy and her aunt do. It’s like Mother and my baby sister. They are so happy together. Mother doesn’t like touching. Mother doesn’t take off her top in front of me except only one side when my new sister sucks her bosom. I saw that. Mother was my mother. Now she loves my sister. Candy sits on her aunt’s bottom and rubs and rubs her aunt’s back. It’s boring. Now the aunt asks me to rub her back. I had colic. I cried instead.

I go into the hall, I find the bathroom, I go in and stand behind the door. Between the open door and the wall. Not crying. Not hiding. I wait.

I hear Candy and her aunt go downstairs. Then Candy’s mother calls me. I do not answer. I hear her come up the stairs, down the hall, into the bathroom. Looking behind the door. Here I am. She finds me.

What are you doing here?

Nothing.

Is something wrong?

No

Well come on downstairs.

I’ll go home now.

We’ll see. Come on downstairs. I have a nice surprise for you.

Then in the kitchen Candy’s mother fixes Candy and me – just us – just Candy and me — floats. I never had a float before. With ginger ale. Like when I had the mumps. And with coffee ice cream. Which I never even heard of before. The best, creamy and dark-tasting. Better than chocolate. I can’t wait to tell Mother. Mother and Daddy drink coffee. The coffee ice cream float is foamy on top. It tickles my nose. It is just delicious. We eat our floats from tall glasses with long spoons.

Then Candy and me go out in the back yard and play on her swings. We swing high up almost into the big summer trees. The aunt goes out with her friends. Candy’s father takes me home on Sunday. I am only carsick once, and I have the paper bag for it.

 

Tobi Cogswell: Two Poems

The Corner of Desolation and Waste
 
Rundown like the toothless gums
of an apple doll left under a tree
last Christmas and missed until
Easter, the Veteran’s Hall stands,
a gray bunker of square brick, some
of the windows blocked off, no sign
of life and no cars outside…the men
who come here to ruminate and
reminisce are the old ones; only
their baseball caps or the odd patch
on a jacket gives you an idea of
what they would talk about –

if the words that populated their
nightmares would come forth to
the living in daylight and heal them.

The only time I saw my grandfather
without his walker was when he
hobbled his way to the counter
to get coffee, probably made during
the very same war he was in, with
powdered creamer that stayed stuck
to the stick like unbrushed teeth.
He’d smile and chat on the way,
methodically turn the black to
skin-colored beige with the focus
of a neurosurgeon, then chat
on the way back, to fall into
his favorite chair, sip and think,
until I helped him home for supper.

I came most days for a while to visit.  My
grandfather was always in the same
chair.  I never had to scan the sadness
or smell that peculiar smell of old
for very long.  And when we’d go home
until tomorrow, we’d think without words
that we both hoped the same men
would be there, because to think
any other way would be so horrible,
you might as well be back in the war.

Hitching a Ride on the Bunsen Burner Train

Fat girls here have taken the best chairs.
She’s left to look up the baggy shorts of a guy
who has nothing to say for himself
or his habits.  Welcome to second period
Science, where pray God something
gets blown up and gives them smoke
and flames to cheer about.  To talk
about seated ‘round family tables for years.

Her mother burned up some girl’s
dress when she was in school.  Begging
to get in this class, she will probably get
a fail notice at the quarter end.  She’s
heading the wrong way to Reno
and science has nothing to do with it,
unless you calculate the probability
that blonde hair and blue eyeshadow

equals chaps and a bikini top at the Lazy
Eight bar, where any cowboy who isn’t
too drunk to look up can look right down
those tops in the mirrored ceiling, decide
who has hidden jewelry he’d like to explore
further, with fingers of the hand not juggling
keys to make a fast getaway when the kid
in the other room starts hollering for morning.

It’s just six degrees of separation between
then and now, between Bunsen burners
and Flaming Green Lizards, between baggy
shorts on the creep with acne and drunken
outlaws with wandering eyes.   Maybe
those fat girls had the right formula after all,
sit and stay, fetch the longnecks from
the washtub and don’t pierce nothing!

Phillip Thompson: Kenny’s Saturday Night Cake Walk

dumpster boy

Bobby flipped him an ice-cold Bud out of the refrigerator, over his shoulder, before heading out through the kitchen door and into the back yard – mostly ankle-high crabgrass and dandelion. Couple of lawn chairs. Bobby took one, Kenny the other. They sat and drank down the top half of their beers.

Bobby rested his can between his legs and grinned across about four feet of grass at Kenny. “So, all the way from Corinth. What brings you back home after, what six months?”

“’Bout eight, actually,” Kenny said, wondering how long he’d have to wait before Bobby went to get more beer. “Job.”

“Job?” Bobby grinned again, then looked skeptical. “Thought you was out of work.”

“Was.”

“But now you’re not.”

“Nope.”

“Doing what? And don’t tell me you working in a convenience store.” Bobby burst out laughing, so hard he almost fell over backward in his chair.

Kenny’s face darkened. He drained his beer, dropped the can, folded his arms across his chest. “That shit is not funny and you know it.”

Bobby shook his head and tried to stifle himself. He bent over double, still trying to catch his breath. “I’m sorry, man, but you the only man I know did time for armed robbery sticking up a store with a fucking hairbrush.” He could hardly get the last two words out without cracking up.

“Shut the fuck up, Bobby.” Kenny glanced around the yard, hoping nobody just happened to be walking by hearing this shit. “I done told you, I didn’t do time for armed robbery. Just robbery.”

“Oh yeah,” Bobby said, finally said. “That shit-hot lawyer of yours got it bumped down. What was his name? Public defender? Simon something?”

“Gideon Hayes. Goofy bastard. But, yeah, he got it knocked down to a year in county. With probation. So knock it the hell off.”

“Ok, Ok,” Bobby said, holding up a hand in surrender. “So what’s this job you got?”

Kenny relaxed, leaned back a little, ready to lay it out for him. “I’m working for a group of businessmen up in McNairy County.”

Bobby’s face went serious. “Tennessee?”

Kenny nodded. “Yeah, pay’s decent.”

“Doing what?”

Kenny dug this part. Always got people’s attention, especially the women. Got him laid a couple of times. “I’m like what you call a regulator. I’m the guy makes sure the business runs the way it’s supposed to. You know, by the rules.”

Bobby wasn’t buying it, and it was ruining Kenny’s buzz. “The fuck does that mean?”

Kenny frowned. “Means you fuck up and break the rules, I deal with your ass.”

Bobby finished his own beer, set the can down on the grass beside his chair. He wiped his mouth with his shirttail.

“Kenny, I don’t like the sound of this one bit. McNairy County. There’s stories about that place, man. You ever see Walking Tall?”

“Hell yeah, I seen that shit, but that was a movie, man. This is real. These guys have a real business going.”

Bobby shook his head. “And what business is that?”

Kenny smiled. “Food stamps.”

Bobby sat up straight. “Food stamps? Are you fucking nuts? You’re running a food stamp racket?”

“I ain’t running shit. I’m the regulator. Hell, I’m a working man, same as you.”

Bobby slumped back in his chair. Shook his head. Then he stood up. Kenny followed him up with his eyes.

“Stay right there,” Bobby said, “I’m gone get us another beer.”

He came back a few minutes later, still shaking his head. He cracked open the beers and handed one to Kenny, then sat with a sigh.

“Kenny, this is the dumbest thing I ever heard. The fucking law is all over this shit, and especially the law here in Columbus. And these guys up in McNairy are going to get you killed.”

Kenny slurped his beer. “Killed? Man, that’s just crazy talk. We ain’t talking murdering somebody over food stamps. It’s just making some free money off the government, which took the money in the first place.”

“Mmm hmmm,” Bobby said around the top of his beer. He looked skeptical.

“Here’s how it works. Guy gets legit food stamps with a legit application. Then he takes, like, two hundred dollars worth of food stamps, sells them for, say, a hundred, one twenty, in cash. Buyer gets the food stamps, seller gets cash for dope or booze or whatever. Either way, man, it’s free money. Dude got the stamps without going through the system – and now he can sell them again if he wants or use them, whatever.

Bobby was listening now. Still not smiling but listening. “I was wondering why anybody would pay a hundred dollars for food stamps if he don’t need ‘em.”

“Don’t have to need ‘em, man,” Kenny said. “Like I said he can run his own scam if he wants, like at the grocery store or a convenience store – and don’t you start up again.”

Bobby grinned, shook his head. “Grocery stores in on this, too.”

Kenny nodded, sipped his beer. “Oh hell yeah. Grocery stores do this shit all the time. Dude comes and ‘buys’ something, say a hundred dollars. The store logs that hundred as a purchase, gives the customer seventy-five in cash and pockets the rest. McNairy cut in on that action by being the ones give the stores the kickbacks. Grocery stores is where the easier – and safer – money is.”

Now Bobby looked skeptical again. “Kickbacks?”

Kenny sighed. “Yeah, man. McNairy owns a bunch of mom and pop grocery stores. They set ‘em up just to handle this racket. The ‘customer’ gets about seventy percent, store gets about thirty. McNairy gets about half of the store take.”

“But what does the store get in return?” Bobby asked as he drained his beer. “Let me guess. Protection.”

“Well, yeah.” Kenny was getting more than a little annoyed at Bobby’s insinuations. “McNairy keeps the law off their asses and makes sure they get a steady stream of customers, some of who actually buy stuff. The stores themselves are really just a front for the food stamps. They got about a half a dozen dudes running the stores. But this one motherfucker, Jim Burton, runs a place down here, over in town by the river, tried to get into business for himself. Giving the customers say, fifty on a hundred instead of eighty, but giving McNairy its cut as if it was eighty – half of twenty – but keeping forty for himself. The guys in charge got wind of this, sent me here to straighten Burton out. And here I am.”

Bobby stared back at him. “And how much you getting paid for straightening Burton out?”

Kenny leaned back in his chair. “Five hundred.”

“That’s all?”

“Hey man, it’s a couple hours’ work – and that’s in addition to the other shit I do for them.”

“Like?”

“Like, you know, other folks that need straightening out, making the rounds and picking up the takes from the whorehouses, that kind of thing.”

Bobby pushed himself out of his chair, put his hands in his pockets and threw a tired smile at him. “Kenny, that kind of thing is going to get you sent to Parchman if you’re not careful. Or worse.”

Kenny could not believe this shit. “Aw man, this is cake.” He stood. “I swear. Like this one tonight. This Burton guy, he’s nothing. Some guy grew up in town, never even been around serious crime before this. Hell, that’s his problem. He thinks he’s slick and smarter than the guys up in Tennessee. And after I get done slapping him around a little tonight, he’ll fall into line, and I’ll get five hundred dollars in my pocket and life will go on.”

Bobby sighed, turned toward the trailer. “You say so, man. Just be careful. Like I said, the law down here is all over that shit. Hell, it’s probably safer running oxy. Plus, the sheriff we got now does not fuck around. Trust me. Hell, he went to New Hope. You probably know him.”

Kenny cocked an eyebrow. “Yeah, who’s that?”

“Colt Harper. He was a few years ahead of us. Played football. Was in the Marines.”

“I sort of remember him, from spring training one year. What’s he, some kind of badass now?”

“He’s a sheriff, Kenny. And not one to fuck with.” Bobby started walking. “Come on, let’s go see if Judy’s got anything for us to eat.”

 

Jim Burton paced behind the counter of his convenience store just off Highway 45 north, on the access road to the lock and dam. He had any sense at all, he’d gas up his car and drive to Memphis right now. Or Birmingham. Or any place big enough for him to hide in. Because this shit with McNairy was way out of hand.

It was near ten, close enough to closing time that he’d already locked the front door, counted up the cash – and taken out his keepings – then put the money in the safe. He had already walked the aisles once, making sure the inventory of candy, paper plates, sodas, magazines and all the other junk people came in to buy was in order and no kids had ripped open a bag of chips and left half sitting on a shelf.

But it was still a little early to be meeting this Kenny guy out at the lock and dam. He walked out from behind the counter and checked out the coolers stocked with beer. They looked the same as they had ten minutes ago. He caught his reflection in the glass.

Do I look scared?

He peered at himself. He knew people said he looked like an old hippie: long brown hair shot with gray, John Lennon glasses, skinny arms sticking out from a yellow T-shirt, loose jeans, dirty tennis shoes.

Naw, man, you don’t look scared. But you sure as hell look nervous.

He felt nervous. Bad enough this Kenny idiot – and the guy sounded dumber than that on the phone – was down here. The McNairy boys were onto him, sure as shit, and that couldn’t be good. They’d want their money – which was really his money fair and square, but they wouldn’t see it that way. But they’d probably want to “teach him a lesson.” He sighed and made little quote marks with his fingers. Or worse. That’s what this Kenny guy was down here for.

But McNairy weren’t the only ones who’d want a chunk of his ass over this. And that could land his ass back in the joint. And he most definitely didn’t want to go back to jail. This time it wouldn’t be county jail for felony possession. This time it would be a parole violation and he’d be off to Parchman.

Jimmy boy, you got to make some choices, he told himself as he walked to the back room, the one with the “Employees Only” sign on the door. He stepped in, still keeping his eye on the front door, and cut off the lights, except for the one over the register.

Either way, you’re in a bad spot. You might be able to talk your way out of this McNairy problem or you might be able to talk your way out of getting run up on a violation, but you sure as hell ain’t gone talk your way out of both.

He sighed and pulled his car keys and his cell phone out of his pocket. He punched one of his speed-dial buttons and walked out to his Honda. He put the phone to his ear.

“Hey, it’s Burton. We need to talk.”

 

Kenny sat hunched over his steering wheel in a darkened parking lot near the lock and dam. He’d been there twenty minutes. Pulled in and turned his car around so that it was pointed toward the road, so he could see all approaching traffic from Highway 45 to his left. The park at the lock and dam closed at sundown, so no traffic would be coming from the right.

He felt pretty good about this one. But this Burton asshole was late, and it was beginning to piss him off.

Lack of respect, that’s what it is. Well, he’ll learn a little about respect tonight.

He glanced again at the glove compartment, where his .45 sat, and again decided he wouldn’t need it for this. Burton was a pothead, old one at that, probably a queer, so he figured slapping him around wouldn’t be too hard. Besides, he had a Buck knife in his hip pocket. Just in case.

Headlights off to the left caught his attention.

Well, about damn time.

He sat up straight, psyching himself up, as the Honda rolled into the parking lot and stopped, nose in and outside of the halo of the parking light at the entrance. He couldn’t tell if it was Burton in the dark. The engine cut off, then the lights.

He watched the driver through his passenger window. The door clicked open and the interior light shined on the driver.

Fucking hippie. Jesus.

He opened his own door and swung his legs out. He slammed the door for effect, and saw Burton flinch and turn in his direction.

“Are you Kenny Jenkins?” Burton called across about twenty feet of asphalt.

Jeez, what an amateur. “I’m the man you’re supposed to see. Walk this way.”

Burton walked, and met him halfway between the two cars. Kenny eyed him. About the same height, skinny, like him, but older.

“Hidy,” Burton said.

Kenny figured gruff would be best, so he put his hands on his hips. “Look, Burton, I ain’t got all night and you’re already late, so let’s just get down to it, ahite?”

Burton nodded.

Kenny kept his hands on his hips, but lowered his voice. “You know, you’re not real smart. And some folks up in Tennessee have figured that out, that and your little skimming deal you’re running down here. The men I work for don’t think too much of that. Shows a lack of respect. Just like showing up late for our meeting tonight shows a lack of respect.”

“Look, Kenny, I know it wasn’t part of the arrangement, but I’ll be glad to give them the money.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Kenny snapped. “I’m doing the talking. You’ll give them their money all right. You’re going to give it to me. Within twenty-four hours. But tonight you’re going to get a lesson in respect.”

Burton raised his head just as Kenny closed the distance and slapped him, hard, across the face. He staggered back a step and put his hands up. Kenny grinned, stepped in and slapped him again, harder.

“See, Burton, you can’t just decide to go into business for yourself. It don’t work that way. Never has, never will.”

Burton was turned away, bent over at the waist. He straightened up.

Kenny didn’t even see the punch coming. Burton slammed the left side of his head with a fist that spun him halfway around.

“Don’t ever slap me again,” Burton hissed as he moved in, right hand raised again. He swung, but this time Kenny saw it coming and dodged the blow.

Kenny straightened up just in time to catch a left under his eye. The jab knocked him backward, and he almost fell.

What the fuck? He thought. This skinny fucker throwing punches like a damn welterweight.

Infuriated, he balled his fists and regained his balance. He was so focused on Burton that he didn’t notice the headlights quietly rolling into the parking lot. Burton took two steps back just as the big maroon Crown Victoria stopped. The driver got out, his profile and uniform illuminated by the dome light. Kenny froze.

Well, shit, Kenny thought as Sheriff Colt Harper walked around the hood of the car toward them. Burton relaxed immediately, stood up straight.

Harper walked over to Burton. “This him?”

Burton nodded.

Kenny stared at Harper. Brown sheriff’s uniform, fitted. Looked like a football player gone a little soft. Still big in the arms and across the chest, but a little gut on him, too. Dark hair, no hat. Gun belt holding some kind of auto. Kenny guessed a Glock. Cops carried Glocks nowadays. Even in the uniform he looked mighty damn casual.

Kenny then realized his .45 was still safely secured in the glove compartment.

Harper stared back at him, almost smiling. “Kenny Jenkins? That you?”

“The hell you want, Sheriff?”

The almost-smile disappeared. Hands at his side. Still casual.

“Looks like you two were disturbing the peace when I drove by. Figured I might ought to have a look.”

“Naw, this was just an argument I was having with Mr. Burton here over, uh, a gambling debt he owes me.”

Harper grinned. “That right? Well, Mr. Burton tells me different. He called me a few minutes ago, worried about his own personal safety because he was being called down here to meet with a fella he’s never met. Has to do with a misunderstanding, is how he put it.”

Burton, for his part, stood silently, about three feet behind Harper, not moving a muscle.

“Like I said, he owes me money,” Kenny said, hands back on his hips.

Harper noticed the movement. “Kenny, keep your hands where I can see them. You don’t remember me at all, do you? We went to New Hope together. ‘Course you were a couple years behind me. I remember you got hit so hard one time in spring training that you dove on your helmet, thinking you were recovering a fumble. What did you do after high school?”

Kenny shrugged. “Worked mostly.”

Harper nodded. “Did some time, too, didn’t you? Robbery – started out as armed, but ol’ Gideon pled you down. Gideon’s about a sorry excuse for a lawyer, but he does know how to deal.”

Kenny cringed on the inside. This was not going the way he had planned it.

“After you did your time, then what? Corinth?”

Kenny nodded.

“Mmmhmmm. Then you hooked up with them crooks up in McNairy, got you a nice job busting folks’ jaws as part of their food-stamp racket.”

Kenny’s anger flashed. “How the hell you know all this, Harper? Him? He a fucking rat for you?” He jerked his head at Burton.

“Me and Mr. Burton have you would call a business arrangement. That ain’t important. What is important is you committing assault and battery, intent to extort, probably robbery and a whole bunch of other shit I’ll think about on the way back to the office – with you in the back seat. Put your arms out to your side, straight out, Kenny.”

Kenny sighed. Bobby’s words came back to his mind, mocking him now. This Harper asshole had him dead to rights. He’d be fucked, literally, if he ended up in Parchman. If he got that far without somebody driving a shank into his ribs, courtesy of McNairy. He stared at Harper. Still all casual, like he had this whole situation under control. Hands nowhere near his pistol, still in the holster.

He eased his fingers back to his pocket, felt the knife. He could flick the blade and cut Harper before he got his hand on his gun.

“Kenny, straight out. Right now.” Harper still hadn’t moved.

Kenny grabbed the knife and swung both arms to his side, flicking the big blade of the Buck knife out as he did. He leapt forward.

Harper pulled and shot him on his second step. One shot, center of the chest. Dime-sized hole shooting blood in arc toward Harper’s gun. Kenny arched backward, then stumbled forward. His knees buckled, and the knife fell from his hand, clattering across the asphalt. Kenny collapsed in a heap, his face smacking the pavement like a basketball.

Harper kept the gun trained on him, blue smoke curling out of the barrel.

Burton stood, immobilized by fear. “Shit, Harper.”

“Shut up, Jimmy.” Harper holstered his pistol and turned toward his car. “I gotta call this in.”

“Now what?” Burton said to his back.

Harper stopped, turned back to him. “Now you’re going to tell me why you think I’m not going to run your ass in on a parole violation.”

Phillip Thompson: A Novel “Deep Blood”

Deep Blood by Phillip ThompsonReview copies arrive on a semi-daily basis here on Brown St. This month brought quite a few volumes of teen fiction and those were passed on to willing recipients. Then there were the two novels that were especially readable and noteworthy. One from a dear friend, Mule writer Jim Booth, titled “Completeness of the Soul”   (which will be discussed separately) and the other by a new Mule writer — Phillip Thompson. His fiction “Kenny’s Saturday Night Cake Walk” is available in this issue.

Thompson’s new novel, released this month, is titled Deep Blood. (It’s available through Amazon –of course — click on the cover for a link to Amazon). Allow me to share an email conversation I recently had with Phillip.

I asked a question that probably most of the Mule writers have pondered at one time or another. If you haven’t thought about it — ask yourself and send me the answer and maybe I’ll publish it in a future issue.

Why do you write?

Phillip’s answer:

I’ve never really sat down and pondered the answer to the question I get asked a lot – “Why do you write?” If I did, I probably couldn’t come up with a good answer other than I write mostly because I have to, or rather, I’m compelled to write. And I don’t think being Southern causes that, but it’s certainly central to how I express myself.

True, our culture is one of storytellers – prose, poetry, song, stage, screen – and I’ve benefited from that. But the South, especially my Deep South, is enmeshed, not only in the omnipresent, metaphorical kudzu, but in all the dramatic elements of the human existence: passion, violence, love, hate, tragedy and triumph. That’s a hell of a palette to choose from, especially when all of those elements are present in one story.

It’s a culture – two, actually – that has remained more or less intact for nearly a thousand years. My ancestors are Scots-Irish (on both sides), that incredibly hardy and lusty bunch that left Scotland first, then Ireland, then came to America and settled – or didn’t settle, depending on your perspective – from Virginia, down the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky and Tennessee and into the Deep South. And, all the while, they kept the tribal traditions alive – the honor, courage, passion and fierceness of the people. They passed along their history orally, through storytelling or in songs and dancing (embellished, of course, by strong drink).

That culture is fused to the other dominant culture in the Deep South, the African culture, which isn’t unlike the Scots-Irish – proud, fierce, expressive. It’s always been a point of fascination to me that these two cultures have just as much in common as they have at odds with each other. I used to hear the grown-ups say things like, “Poor don’t know color.” (The older I got, the more I saw that to be true.) And like their white counterparts, black Southerners understand a rich tradition of folklore and storytelling. It’s no surprise we can spend hours on the porch just talking. My own family is no different. I have 12 first cousins on the Thompson side and just about every one of us can spin a yarn, tell a joke, dance a two-step or play some musical instrument. In our own way, we’re passing that centuries-old tradition along when we tell stories a

bout Granny or Mississippi or growing up to each other while our own kids sit and listen. And learn. And, we hope, learn to appreciate.

So, why do I write? I heard someone quote a writer (I don’t remember which one) as saying that writers do what they do to find order in the chaos they find around them. That’s about as close to an explanation as I can give. It’s a busy, confusing and contradictory world out there. And I come from parable-crafting, moral-of-the-story people who get their point across by telling you a story, partly to entertain, partly to warn, and partly because it only makes sense if you tell it that way.

booth

More of the Thompson – Dead Mule conversation to be revealed soon. Meanwhile, as you wait for the pearls of wisdom to drip from the mouth of this Mule issue, order up a copy of Thompson’s Deep Blood with a side of Jim Booth’s Completeness of the Soul. You won’t hunger for words any longer. Your appetite will be sated as you consume your daily quote of fictional goodness. Just be sure to pour yourself a nice big ol’ glass of sweet tea, you’re going to be sitting a spell (once you crack the cover of either of these books)

–Valerie MacEwan

Editor/publisher

the Dead Mule

Celebrate the Fourth of July, 1933 with a Story from Pete Peterson

*this story is apropos of nothing but another South and how it may have been a while back and how sometimes we forget just how far we’ve all come. — Valerie 

Valerie MacEwan

Old Fashioned Fourth of July by Pete Peterson

The flames that ate baby sister Mandy alive and turned Pap to a black cinder, blistered me some and burned away my talk box. Nobody knows how the fire started, nor where my Momma’s at. I lived cause of Miss Ethel’s nursin’ and Pap said to always pay yer debts, so tears be hanged, I’ll play the freak.

Last night she said, “We’ll have a dinger of a good time in Yellowbird, watch a parade and see soldiers shoot and eat fried chicken and apple pie and peach cobbler and ice cream.” This ain’t cause of me, but today’s when we celebrate the birthday of our country, the good ole U.S. of A. I ain’t up on what that means nor how to do it. Pap taken me and Mandy and Mom to a shindig down river in St. Charles like this, where boys throwed fire crackers that skeered the dogs and made horses go wild-eyed and made Mandy wet her pants. She crawled up on my lap and hid her face, her stubby fingers holdin’ on to my overalls like a baby possum to its momma’s tail.

When the fireworks ended, Pap went to feed the mules. Mom saw her chance and skipped off to a speakeasy. Three days later she come back, smellin’ like piss and whiskey. Pap laid her in the wagon and fed her biscuits and warm milk. Mom swore she’d and her last drink. Come daylight, we hit the road hopin’ she’d honor her pledge so we could rent a house, plant a garden, and me and Mandy go to school like regular folks.

Now Miss Ethel says, “Take off that hat so they’ll get a good gander.” The lace doily she sewed to Ryman’s old cap to shield my scars from the sun and hide my ugliness goes into my pocket. Without it, I feel nekkid. I wish Pap were here so we could go fishin’ and not be sport for ladies.

“Ryman found him in a hollow tree bad burned and near froze,” Miss Ethel says. “The fire snuffed out his daddy and baby sister, may they rest in peace. His momma too, though she mighta wondered off and the coyotes got her. We ain’t rightly sure.”

These stiff necks don’t give a handful of mulberries if Mom’s dead or alive since she weren’t they’s type. These gals would no more drink beer if they’s well was dry than they’d loan a neighbor a spoon of brown sugar. But beer were Momma’s favorite, next to rye whiskey.

Miss Ethel turns me this way and that. My eyes sting. A lady touches my face. “Feels kinda like a lizard don’t it?” Another says, “It’s a miracle of the Lord Jesus you’re alive today.”

She could be right. Still and all, I’m glad Miss Ethel were around to bandage my burns and spoon warm soup down my gullet and do nursin’ things that made me live. I ain’t sayin’ Jesus wouldn’t a done the same, only that he didn’t, and Miss Ethel did.

When the ladies ooh’s and ah’s slow, Miss Ethel leads me to a bench under a big elm. “Wait here till I fetch you for eats.” She goes back to the church group.

Ryman found me in January. I ain’t been alone since, ‘cept nights, so I breathe deep. The show I jist put on tuckered me out. I’m ready to nap. If Mandy were here, she’d cup her stubby hands around my face, her head on my chest and look at me in the kindest way with her Chinaman’s eyes. I’m most sorry I couldn’t pull her outta the fire, like I tried.

It seems at first to be a good place to nap, with only women voices comin’ from the tent behind me where they rustle up grub for the noon feast. Then, a youngun squalls from a nearby wagon and a bob white quail whistles. A fire cracker goes off.

“Look at this can,” a boy calls. “It’s bent all to shit.”

A man yells, “Yer gonna blow off a hand tyin’ them M-80’s together. Take your mischief elsewheres afore I call the constable.”

It goes quiet agin. A breeze stirs the leaves, causin’ ghost and goblin shadows to chase across the dirt under the elm. On the road, me and Mandy slept under the wagon. Sometimes a hoot owl would call from a tree next to our camp sending a chill up my back. The fire snaps like a broke bone. Sparks shoot up and die in the black air. I wish my blanket weren’t so doggone thin.

Now, footsteps open my eyes. Two boys, run up, eager as pups to explore the woods. “Whatja sittin’ here for?”

I can’t answer.

They eye me. The biggest one wrinkles his forehead. “What happened to you? Your face is red as blood.”
He leans close, like a horse reachin’ for grass through a wire fence. His nose most touches mine. I give him a loud hiss. He jumps like a yellow jacket stung him and runs off, screechin’. The other boy, bellers and lights out after him, dust flyin’ from bare heels.

I settle hat and doily over my eyes and wiggle down. The boys are back afore I can nod off, bringin’ bigger fellers with ‘em. They sneak up on all fours, like Injun braves after a buffalo. I’m used to bein’ the freak. I sit up straight.

“What happened to you? Was you scalded or somethin’?”

I nod.

“Yer the ugliest somabitch I ever saw.” He smells like hay and sweat. “I bet you’re a asshole, too.”

Quick, like a water moccasin strikes a mouse, he snatches my hat and doily.

This riles me, I tell you. I’d fight ‘em, but it’s six to one, with them six.

“Hey, Scarecrow, want your hat?” He shakes it in my face. I grab for it. He tosses it to another boy.

“Look at this girly lace.” He grabs a handful of dust and throws it in my face. “That’ll fix ya. Now ya can’t see, nor talk.”

The dirt stings. Tears fill my eyes. If I had a club I’d whack ‘em.

“Cry baby, cry baby. See the baby cry.”

I’m yanked to my feet, my arms pinned and spun around. I go dizzy and fall into the dust. The boys laugh and yell. I ain’t laughin’.

A boy jerks me up and pulls a egg from his overalls. “Hey, everybody. Watch me. I’ll crown him king.”

He pretends he’s a radio announcer. “And now, dear listeners, come along as I christen ‘Scarecrow, King of the Uglies.’” His egg cracks agin my head like a blacksnake whip. The egg innards, warm as snot, slide under my shirt, ooze down my belly and plop on the ground between my bare feet. All I do is squirm.

The boys shout. “Give him a parade. Give him a parade.” Another egg splats agin my head.

“What’s goin’ on here?” a grown-up voice says. It’s Ryman, Miss Ethel’s husband. “I wondered what the ruckus was.” He grabs the boy who just broke his egg on my head. “What’s yer name?”

“Ed Standis.”

“Yer daddy, Hiram Standis?”

“Yes, sir.” He’s tunin’ up to cry.

“Get him. I want a word with him.”

A passel of men have come up. Like Ryman, they musta heard the whoops.

“That’s him.” The boy points to a stubble-faced feller.

“Hiram, get over here.”

Hiram Standis sidles up. He wears clean overalls and a new-lookin’ straw hat.

“Hiram, I seen somethin’ that makes my blood boil. Yer boy broke a egg on this feller’s skull. He’s the one Ethel’s been nursin’. This rubs me wrong.”

“Now, Ryman, they was just funnin’. Boys bein’ boys.”

“Fun? When’s bein’ pelted with hen eggs fun? How’d ya like it if I broke one on you?”

Hiram Standis shrugs. “Boys playin’. No harm done.”

“Don’t be a bird brain. Your boy apologizes or I’ll bang you with somethin’ harder’n eggs.”

“Now Ryman, hold on. Ain’t no reason to get fired up.”

“Hiram, this a one-sided game. When’s the little feller’s turn to plop ‘em back? You and yer boy both are getting’ a ass whuppin’ unless he says sorry.”

Ryman’s hand is on my shoulder. “This boy’s had a run of bad luck that would kill most of us, but he’s got more guts than a turkey buzzard. Last week he weren’t strong enough to go to the privy. Today, he’s here.”

Hiram eyes Ryman like a auctioneer sizes up a prize bull, his face white as peeled cucumber. Ryman stands solid as a corner fence post, his fists fryin’ pan big.

Hiram turns to his boy. “Yo’all shouldn’t a done what you did. Make apology.” Hiram slips into the crowd. “Ain’t kids sumthin’? Never know what they’ll do.”

The men drift off. Ryman makes all us shake hands and say sorry. “The parade’s startin’ soon. Let’s go.”

*** ***
The men line up with guns. The town constable and a top dog from the Yellowbird Bank and his wife stand up front. The constable says, “The pretty lady’ll drop her handkerchief. I’ll call ready, aim, fire. Yo’ all raise your gun and shoot three times. Squeeze ‘em off together, okay?”

Grover Cleveland, Ryman’s 14-year old son, laughs like a guinea hen when he shoots his gun. He represented the Call family. He’s smiles at the fiercesome noise the guns make, then stands with gun stock on the ground. Some of the men go over to a cotton wood tree, pull on blue jackets with brass buttons, select they’s musical instruments and line up with the band.

A boy, no bigger than me, beats a drum. The men march up, then stop in front of the shooters. A feller waves a stick and the band tootles “Dixie”, that song folks around here like. Two old men wearin’ gray outfits trimmed in yeller with two rows of shiny buttons, come forward. The crowd claps and yells, ”Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah.”

Miss Ethel says, “These gentlemen fought in the Silver War. Ain’t many heroes like ‘em left nowadays.”

That war musta been some time ago, cause these fellers are wrinkled and stove up. Pap told me oncet the Silver War were a bad go all around. It sure ain’t my idee of fun. Pap said sons fought daddies and brother went agin brother. That sounds plum silly to me.

The taller old gentleman yells, “Attention. At Katy’s count, forward, march.” When the men move, he goes, “Hip, two, three, four. Hip, two, three, four.”

They lift they’s feet in a funny way, go down to the wagons and back, twicet, then stop. A band member blows his horn. Four men in witch hats wearin’ white bed sheets from head to toe, come up. They wave a red, white and blue flag with a big blue X on it and white stars in the X.

Ida Mae, Miss Ethel’s oldest daughter, says, “The Ku Klux Klan and Confederate flag. Don’t they know its July 4th, 1933, not 1863?”

A white sheet man waves a Bible. ”Let us pray.” From how he does this, you’d think he had God on wages. He says Jesus hates them who mingle with the coloreds and the white race better watch out or else negroes will soon vote and go to school with our precious little ones and sainted white ladies will be locked away to protect their sweet womanhood. I ain’t up on why he prays this way, only that he did.

These fellers strut off to claps and whistles. Mr. Lucas yells, “Attention.” The men stick out they’s chest and tuck in they’s chin. A boy with a bad case of sweats blows what Ida Mae says is “Taps.” The parade ends and the feast begins.

The fried chicken and biscuits and cream corn keep comin’, and I load up. Grover Cleveland leans over and whispers, “Dummy, think yo’ momma’s found her a black man now yo’ Daddy’s dead?”

Ryman says, “Hush, Grover. Don’t talk like that to him, hear?”

Grover rolls his eyes, “Can I go show folks my turtle?”

Yestriddy he caught a big snapping turtle on his trot-line. He brung it along in Miss Ethel’s wash tub. I know trot-lines, since Pap were a everday fisherman. It’s just heavy string with hooks danglin’ down ever three or four feet. You bait the hooks with worms or minnows, then knot the line to a stake or tree limb and stretch it across a creek or river and tie it at the other end.

Grover Cleveland’s fishin’ spot’s too wide for his line to reach across, so he knots it to a saplin’ fifty feet or so out. He poles out in his skiff twice a day to pull in fish and rebait his hooks. Mostly, he catches catfish or perch or drum or buffalo. He sells most of them to neighbors or town folks. Sometimes, he hooks a big turtle like yestriddy.

Ryman says, “Go on. No egg fights and keep outta Dark Town.”

That were good advice, but I’m afraid it didn’t take with Grover. Nor me.

* * * * * *
The music hits when I’m a the clearin’, its sweetness gold as honey. My feet heel and toe like a puppet on a string. Folks gather under what Pap would call a brush arbor, tree limbs laid over forked poles set in the ground. Two colored men make music. They laugh and cut up so you can tell they’s havin’ a grand time. The swig from a Mason jar and hop around like grass hoppers on a leaf. Everone’s colored.

Kiss my wrist. I’m in Dark Town, where Ryman said don’t go. I plop next to a sycamore tree with a straight look at the music makers, but can’t sit long. On most songs the guitar player strums, then sings, afore he blows the hand organ. Angels ride the fiddler’s bow, his music’s so fine. They play a mournful song, followed by a happy one, with hardly no stoppin’ between tunes.

A cigar box sets on a hay bale. Folks drop pennies or nickels in it from time-to-time. The musician’s nod at this. That’s they’s wages, I figure. I’d yell and holler, if I could, so I jig like I wear new shoes. The musicians smile and point at me.

I figure if I ain’t welcome, a darkie’d tell me to move on. Not one darkie comes to gander at my scars. On the road, me ‘n Pap would come on colored folk’s right often. The only difference between them and us worth I could see were they ate better. Sometimes they’d give me a hunk of corn bread or slice of bacon, which I appreciate. Mandy too, since I’d share.

Two girls, dresses hiked up so they can wiggle, make the dust rise with they’s fast feet and gyratin’ bodies. I reckon if Ryman finds out I come here, he’ll whup my ass, mebbe make me leave his bed and board, though I figure Miss Ethel won’t stand for that. I know I should head for the wagon, but my feet won’t go.
Howsomeever, before you can say Merry Christmas, the sun’s low. The fiddle player says, “Milkin’ time. Last song comin’ up. Thank yo’all for havin’us.”

The dancers wipe off sweat, give hugs and head for they’s mules. Some of ‘em put a jar of jelly, loaf of bread or chicken leg beside the cigar box. It hurts my heart when the music stops. I could gorge on it ‘til next Tuesday. I wish I could stay here, safe and music fed forever.

The guitar player comes up. I’m flummoxed and forget I can’t talk. I squeal and point at him. He laughs.

“I’m Harry. That’s Hob.” He bows low and points to the lean to.

“We ‘preciate you comin’. Now be off to whoever brung you.”

I reach in my pocket and take out the nickel Miss Ethel given me earlier to spend anyhow I see fit and hand it to him.

“They ain’t no need for that.”
I bow like he did earlier, hands under my chin. Hamus Zanderhook pays his way. Harry Gaither’s brown eyes search mine. “Much obliged, friend. Now go.”