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More from the past: Aug 2011 Hurricane Irene & letter from the editor

*Note: we had 17 inches of water under/through house, lost everything in our garage, and most of the roof.

Hurricane Irene

This is a letter from the editor I wrote while formatting a new issue … you can read it, stop your explaining, Valerie, let them figure it out …

Dear Mule Readers:

It’s Aug. 18 and as I wait for Irene and ponder Floyd and Dennis, I realize there’s just not much I can do to hide from geography. We’re drying out from the deluge and facing a new one. I’ll continue to post new articles, but one at a time… so you’ve got to be diligent in your Mule watching.

We have a mascot, a rescued traveler left homeless from the flood of the century.

375px-Hurricane_Irene_Aug_24_2011_1810Z

A baby mule, a little spotted ass, literally treaded water for 3 days. Floyd now resides with a loving family just east of town.

I’ll get you some photos as soon as Irene and her minions pass by.

Publishing the Dead Mule has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had. I consider it a privilege to be the recipient of such fine ficiton, poetry, essays and the like. You folks never seem to let us down.

Prepare to spend some quality time with the Mule. We’re here to provide a glimpse into the Southern mind, whether the writer lives down here in body or in spirit. Some of our favorites are here and the new voices we offer will enhance and decorate any southern literary tree.

As always, Tim Bullard’s writing is excellent. We’re hoping to get down to the IMAX in his neck of the woods… and perchance catch a glimpse of Father Ward someday. Tim sent some ghoulish fiction (or was it truth?) this time.

We’ve got a couple more old friends online this issue. Mark Kreuzwieser ponders Science and Technology Museums, and Donald Underwood Thompson once again graces us with some most intriguing fiction. Our new poets: Frank S. Palmisano III, Clay Burt, Marie Griffin, John Bush and Randall Armstrong deliver wonderful imagery with fresh talented voices. A Special Section: Electrochromic Window is guaranteed to cause little thought bubbles to blip up out of your head–take a gander at the essay from Jeff Seager about how lives intertwine with water’s flow. Matthew Cooper serves up this issue’s mule story. He’s down in Texas and can rustle up some fine Mule grub for our readers. Melanie Faith comes online with some real downhome, slap your grandma fiction with her short story –Taters.

 

Brain Fertilizer©

Me, well, I had a great time driving all over North Carolina taking photos of abandoned homes. Back in Arkansas, we didn’t have as long a history of the Anglo-Saxon variety as they do out here in North Carolina. In the Ozarks, if a house had walls still standing upright and a half-way decent roof, it practically guaranteed someone occupied the structure.

The way I figure it, houses have

been here in eastern NC for so long, families either dried up or they moved into something bigger and left the old house

behind. The Foresaken Homes of the South.

And out of the experience, I’ve become an Automobile Anthropologist. Those photos will be on the Dead Mule soon. More of my photos will soon be available at

SouthernYardArt.com. and on www.washington-nc.com (if you want hurricane photos and photos of a decaying southern town–how morbid!)

Enjoy the Mule. Come back for more. We’ll be adding to the Mule every chance we get (Lord willing and the Pamlico River don’t rise) And no, we can’t move to a place that has calmer weather and a more stable tectonic plate…where would we go–LA? Oklahoma? We pay for our flood insurance one leg at a time, just like everybody else. Weather, can’t live with it…Can’t put a bag over its head.

Val MacEwan

Editor/Publisher The Dead Mule

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Working On Restoration Part 1

Spent a lot of time on the couch with the Four Horsedogs of the Apocalypse going through 3 terabtyes of backup folders. Random text file from 2001:

The Class of 2001 Dead Mule Alumni and Faculty
Ed Lynskey-fiction
Katie Kerstein
Jason Cosco-fiction
Jeff Kersh
Bobby Lee Hickman
Andrew McKenna
Russell Johnson
Diane Payne
Jason Cosco-poetry
ME Young
Suzette Bradshaw
Danny Barbare
Rhonda Benson
Steven Lohse

Edward Lynskey
Rose Williams
Diane Dees Tobiason
Allison Paul
Linda Whaley
Robert Arthur Barton
Sam Silva
J. F. Moore III
Elizabeth Routen
Wayne WolfsonJeff Foster-Photography
Marie Griffin
Tim Peeler
Braxton Younts
Gavin Lambert
Dale Wisely
Susan Rowse
Lad Moore-Photography
Cliff Hightower
Ramey Hall
Lanny Gilbert
Christopher Mulrooney
Carter Monroe
Lad Moore-Fiction
Ed Skoog
Jerry Vilhotti
Charles Langley
JN Foster
Tammy Wilson
Don Cooper
Robert Canipe
Averil Bones
Duane Locke
Janet Buck
Larry Griffin
Michael Graber
Tripp Howell
Jo Nease Krause
Chris Sumberg
Michael Suib
Lynn Veach Sadler
Thomas Scott McKenzie
Russell Hallberg
Jim Collins
Randall Armstrong
Anirban Basu
Robert James Berry
Paul Blake
Jimmy Brown
Vicki Bryan
Tim Bullard
Clay Burt
John Bush
Harry Calhoun
Travis Ray Cole
Barbara Conrad
Annette Cooper
Don Cooper
F. Brett Cox
Charlotte Crane
Hester DeCasper
Stephen Lohse
Jason Cosco
M. E. Young
Wayne Wolfson
Michael David West
Katie Kerstein
Suzanne Ruth Thurman
Rhonda Benson
Randall Ivey
Suzette Bradshaw
Danny Barbare
Victor Gischler
Philip Hofmeister
Nicholas Wolven
Anthony Neil Smith
Ward R. Jones
Carver Adams
Lainie Hodges
Richard Patrick
Buster Fandango
Callum Macgregor
Laurie O’Hare
Charles R. Davis
Sam Silva

Allison Paul
Jon Paul

William Deckle
Melanie Faith
Horace Flemming
JN Foster
Rachel Ann Garrett
Lanny Gilbert
Larry Griffin
Marie Griffin
Greg Gulledge
Russell Hallberg
Clayton Hansen
Clifford Hightower
Bradley Earl Hoge
Mark Kreuzwieser
Charles Langley
Duane Locke
Kate Ludlow
Valerie MacEwan
Faith McCammon
Lise McCleery
Thomas Scott McKenzie
Lawrence Miles
Alice Mullen
Jennifer Murphy
John Nettles
Marsha Nicholson
Frank S. Palmisano III
Tim Peeler
Christopher Rowe
Jude Roy
Lynn Veach Sadler
Jeff Seager
Sam Silva
Lazar Stills
Diana Dees Tobiason
Deidra McAfee
Jeffrey Bacon
Kevin Anderson
William Painter
Scottie Freeman
Doug Tanoury
Bob Thomas
Donald Underwood Thompson
Lisa Zaran
Tony Doyle
Rusty Barnes
Phillip B. Young
E. V. Noechel
Mark Boss
Thomas Scott McKenzie
Phoebe Kate Foster
Jonathan Farlow
Ramey Hall
Jim Booth
Celia S. McClinton
John Musci
Kaye Strickland
Vernon Welman
Gideon C. Kennedy
Marcia Young
Rose Williams
Margaret C. Rigsby
Bill Copulsky
Walt McDonald
Murry Handler
Shelly Reed
Pris Campbell
Russell Graves
Ron Gibson, Jr.
Braxton Younts
Alice Mullen
Kevin Cutrer
Jolie Braun
Jim Don Heskin
Scottie Freeman
Bill Riales
Billie Hartman
Bob Thomas
Teresa Jane Cayton
Byron Crownover
Bob Burdick
Fran Moreland Johns
Randy Antwine
Behlor Santi
Michael Suib
Susan K. Rowse
Sid Gustafson
Margaret O’Neal
Jeff Kersh
Russell Johnson
Diane Payne
Bobby Lee Hickman
Rose Williams

 

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Poetry on the Mule: Years of Verse and Occasionally Verisimilitude

Poets Laureate

Kathryn Stripling Byer  North Carolina Poet Laureate in 2007 *Helen Losse began to build the Poetry Section of the Mule by seeking out only the best …

Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda Virginia Poet Laureate in 2008 *This voice never rests.

Marjory Wentworth South Carolina Poet Laureate in 2009 *Ahhhhh, Ms. Wentworth, you never fail to create a scene, a moment… a feeling.

Claudia Emerson Virginia Poet Laureate in 2010 *And then there’s Claudia Emerson. Brilliant poet. Such depth…

Sue Brannon Walker Alabama Poet Laureate in 2011 *Alabama reveres its treasures, like Ms. Walker.

Cathy Smith Bowers North Carolina Poet Laureate in April 2012 *Absolutely stunning imagery …

Joseph Bathanti North Carolina Poet Laureate in April 2013 *Pittsburgh, being close to Editor MacEwan’s heart, made this poem written just for the Mule, sing such a wonderful song.

Shelby Dean Stephenson Present North Carolina Poet Laureate, April 2016  *The Mule published Mr. Stephenson in Feb. 2013. We know how to pick a winner!

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Kathryn Stripling Byer, Three Poems

Kid MacEwan

Spade

Making earth part its red sea
was how I spent April,
as if I could walk down those furrows
clear out of the sweep of my Mama’s words
that I would never no matter how
deep I could dig, be the son she had wanted:
“What’s worse, you’ll find no man
who’ll have you, so loud
you sing when you come home
with your dirty hands, sassing your Ma
like a boy. “ “I’ll be no sickly woman,”
I swore at the sight of her crouched
by the fire, pleading rheumatiz.

Into a gravehole so deep
I thought I’d dug the tunnel to China,
I shoveled my bonnet,
my black leather shoes
and my store-boughten dress that
crawled over my skin something worse
than the sweat that seeps through
while the preacher talks circles
around and around sin. I muttered
my meanest words over that burial ground,
as if I had forgotten next Sunday

when she chased me out with her broom,
shouting God down to judge me.
She stood in the rain while I dug
up my dress and poured mud from my bonnet.
I’d wear it that morning, she said,
holding close her tin mirror
so I could see what I was. Woman,
she made me say, knotting
the muddy strings under my chin.

Crone’s Quilt

Slow as molasses
she said I was,
needle poised
over the quilt top
that covered my knees.
What?
No thread?

So, I found it.
Now Lick it.
I did,
aimed it straight
through the eye
of the needle
and stitched
till her voice
hummed to nothing
at last.
Slept.
I stitched through
those scraps
till my fingers bled.
Not saying
what I was thinking.
Old woman,
don’t open
your blunt
blinking eyes.
Keep your mouth shut.
My head hurts.

Exit to C.E.R.E.S.
(Before crossing the Mississippi)

Looking up from Interstate traffic, I’m tempted
to veer off the exit ramp, looking for Her
whose old story of earth’s bounty lost
to a mother’s grief still haunts me so much
that I can imagine her wading the ocean,
her skirt dripping starfish,
then crossing Big Muddy
as though it were nothing but witchwater,
still searching, even as I’m driving
west to my own daughter, longing to find her
again as I love to remember her,
running fast into the dark on her bare feet,
enchanted by such early leavetaking down
to the deep South of Grandmother’s house
that no fear tripped her voice,
singing out her three words,
Mama,
Look, Mama,
Bye-bye.

(p.s., my daughter’s name is Cory, Corinna–from the Green Korinna, Kore)

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Becky Lee Meadows: Boo Boo Kitty

southern yard art val macewan

Boo Boo Kitty is dead. There is no doubt whatever about that. His little black-and-white tuxedo cat body sticks to the concrete as I put the pointed end of the shovel under it. His legs stick straight out. His little white kitty feet and toes are still perfect.

“What are you going to do with him?” Susie asks.

“We’ll bury him in the pasture, on the other side of the creek,” I reply. Susie is three years younger than my eleven, but Boo Boo Kitty is my cat, so the tears shed are my own.

Susie shoves at the skin at the top of her dark, straight hair. Our grandmother, affectionately deemed “Boodoo,” had put our dog-ears in so tight that morning that the skin around our eyes pulled, too.

The shovel-hearse for Boo Boo Kitty is pretty light as we walk up the little gravel road toward the pasture. Between us and the pasture is our arch-nemesis, the electric fence. We know its poignant shock from experience. Susie pulls forward and then back on the red handle of the fence, and I step through. She pulls again at the handle to close it. We know better than to leave the fence open, although the inquisitive cows are always glad when we do.

We continue down the gravel lane, tufts of green on each side of us, the creek on our right. We cross the creek, me a bit gingerly to be sure the much-loved passed-on one does not slip from his shovel-hearse into the water. The white rocks are as slippery as the phantom snakes beneath them.

Boo Boo Kitty slides from the shovel when I lower it to the ground at his eternal resting place. He will be beside the enormous rotting tree trunk lying across the creek. It is mine and Susie’s hangout. The parched dirt reflects the long, hot summer. The hole isn’t deep, but it will suffice.

“Should we say something?” Susie asks.

“Yeah, probably,” I reply. “He was so sweet. Did I tell you how I dropped that balloon over him when he was sleeping behind the stove in the living room? He about died. He ran so fast on the slick floor that he wasn’t moving at all.”

Susie grins.

“And he used to sit up in a chair at the table,” I continue. “He used to look like he was waiting for supper. Boodoo always made me get him away from the table. When it was cold, I would get him off his bed on the back porch and bring him in to snuggle with me on the couch. Boodoo didn’t like that, either. She said he had fleas, but I don’t think he did.” I pause. “What does a flea look like?”

“I don’t know,” Susie says. “I think they’re little and black.”

I gently push Boo Boo Kitty into the small hole and cover him. We’re quiet as I pat the dirt. Susie spies a large rock and puts it on top of his grave.

I see Boodoo, a figure with short black hair and a pink gown wafting around her, standing in the back yard. Her voice carries across the wet summer air. “You girls get out of that pasture right now! You don’t belong over there. You get back in this yard!”

We wave to her and leave Boo Boo Kitty. This time, we opt out of opening the gate of the fence. Susie holds her dress up as she steps over and I get mud on one leg of my jeans scrambling beneath it. It’s easier than opening it this time.

“Where have you been?” Boodoo asks as we cross the fence.

“Boo Boo Kitty was hit on the road,” I say.

I envision all of our animals who had met their ends on the crooked country road in front of the farmhouse. There’s Barney, the black-and-white Beagle mix, who drags himself through the front yard to the back porch, his back legs white appendages on the ground behind him, and Blondie, Barney’s mother, a little black terrier we could barely recognize after the road got her. There’s Gypsy, my golden- white Collie I found behind the house. I knew the road got her, too, somehow.

I see that road slink up into our yard and snatch them away, one by one, and then creep right back into its regular place. Nobody knows but me.

“Oh honey, I’m so sorry,” Boodoo says. “You know how that road is. That’s why you girls need to stay off it. You need to stay out of that pasture, too. Girls don’t belong there.”

I walk Susie to the gate beside the barn between our houses. Twilight gray infiltrates, along with a few patchy wet spots of mist.

“Clubhouse tomorrow?” I call as she makes her way through the wispy grayness toward the outline of her house, and she nods.

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Tom Sheehan: Now, from a Carolina Peak, a Small red Star

This Carolina appointment with memory came when light tired, this arrangement, this syzygy of him and me and the still threat of a small red star standing some time away at my back, deeper than a grain of memory. It seems I am a quarter mile from him, hard upward on a rugged rock he could have looked up to if only his eyes had agreed once more, and it’s a trillion years behind my head or a parsec I can’t begin to imagine, they tell me even dead perhaps, that red star.

Can this be a true syzygy if one part is dead, or if one is leaning to leave this line of sight regardless of age or love or density or how the last piece of light might be reflected by a moon’s growth, or refused, if one leaves this imposition? The windows of his room never deferred light to night, for it was always night there, blood and chemicals at warfare, nerve gone, the main one granting mirror and lethal lens, back of the eyeball no different than the part out front, but I climb this rock to line up with another rock and him in the deep seizure of that forgotten room, bare sepulcher, his grotto of mind.

Odd days I bathed him, chest like an old model car, boned but collapsible, forgotten in a lowlands back room, waiting to be crushed at the final blow, skin of the organ only a veneer of fatigue, his arms pried as from a child’s drawing, the one less formidable leg, the small testes hanging their forgotten-glove residuum which had begun this syzygy, the face closing down on bone as if a promise had been made toward an immaculately thin retrieval, and, at the other imaginable end of him, the one foot bloody from his curse, soured yet holier in mimicry of the near-Christ (brought down from Golgotha and put to bed, after god and my father there are no divinities), toenails coming on a darkness no sky owned, foot bottom at its own blood bath, at war, at the final and resolute war with no winner.

Oh, Christ, he had such wars, outer wars and inner wars, that even my hand must overcome, and he gums his gums and shakes his head and says, mouth screwed into his outlandish grin, as much a lie as any look, but cold-fact true, “I used to do this for you,” the dark eyes hungry to remember, to bring back one moment of those times to this time; and I cannot feel his hand linger on me, not its calluses gone the way of flesh or its nails thicker now than they ever were meant to be, or skin flaking in the silence of its dust-borne battle, though we were both younger than the star that’s stood behind us and dead perhaps, as said; then, in a moment, and only for a moment, as if all is ciphered for me and cut away, I know the failure of that small red star, its distillation and spend still undone, its yawn red as yet and here with us on the endless line only bent by imagination, the dead and dying taking up both ends of us, neither one a shadow yet but all shadows in one, perhaps a sort of harmless violence sighting here across an endless known.

I look down once more and see him fading again and, through other odd manipulations, I am at this moment closer to an old friend not heard from in years, poet John Bush on the Amicalola, his rod high and his son higher … as mine sons are, the two I am with at this arc of memory beating at my head, between my shoulders, above the sense of waters caught in a flood, like memories demanding attention, handshakes, a forgotten face, even one unrhymed couplet coming back from his vocal pen and that caught too in the shaping of his time, our time.

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Mickey Hunt: Just Cold

When the doorbell rang, Mr. Reynolds went to answer. The young man on the front steps popped open a beer can he had pulled from his ragged, oversized coat. “Are you on the wagon?” he asked, and offered Mr. Reynolds the first slug.

“Lee,” Mrs. Reynolds called from behind her husband. “It’s freezing outside. The chowder? The children are hungry.”

“We’re sitting down for supper,” Mr. Reynolds said to the boy. “What, what’s your name?”

“Jeffrey. I’ve got some peanuts. Give them to your kids.” He set the beer down and fumbled at his coat. “That’s a nice manger scene in your yard. It’s like real.”

Mr. Reynolds gently closed the door, which made a soft click. He looked at his wife and said, “That was awkward.”

“Maybe we should invite him in.”

“You didn’t smell him.”

“I guess there’s always the homeless shelter.”

The Reynolds family resumed their happy Christmas Eve meal, and afterwards, Mrs. Reynolds passed around a tray of fancy dried pears.

Then the doorbell rang again.

“It’s probably our malodorous friend.” This time Mr. Reynolds peeked through the curtains first. “Oh!” he said, stepping backwards. “The police.” He jerked the door open.

The officer was watching the darkening sky. “Sorry to disturb you, but we’ve had a call from one of your neighbors about a guy bothering people.”

“He left here twenty minutes ago.”

“You won’t arrest him, will you?” Mrs. Reynolds asked.

“We’ll just drop him at the shelter. It’ll be a bitter cold one tonight. By the way, this was on your stoop.”

Mr. Reynolds took the unopened bag of unshelled peanuts.

“What’s malodorous mean?” the oldest child, Lacy, asked.

#

The next morning while it was still dark, the Reynolds children jumped out of bed to empty their stockings. They found candy canes, flashlight batteries, walnuts, and new pocketknives. Mrs. Reynolds had prepared cinnamon rolls, eggs and sausage, and a fresh fruit salad for breakfast.

Mr. Reynolds built a fire in the fireplace. “Before we eat, let’s read about the wise men bringing presents, because they’re why we give gifts at Christmas. And let’s bundle up and read at our nativity display.”

“You realize it’s ten degrees,” Mrs. Reynolds said.

“We won’t be long.”

The children donned warm coats, hats, and gloves. The frigid air outside stung their noses, and heavy, lowering clouds oppressed them. Lacy ran to the stable, stopped, and screamed. “A dead person! A body!” She screamed again, stumbled backward, and fell.

Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds sped from the house.

“Where?” Mr. Reynolds said somberly. He moved closer and with forced calm said, “Take the children indoors, dear.” He dialed 911, and knelt by the body. It was Jeffrey curled up in the straw right next to the manger with baby Jesus inside. Jeffrey had borrowed a shepherd’s cloak for a pillow. He lay rigid and unmoving…

When the glittering ambulance rolled in, neighbors gathered at the edge of the yard. A cloud of steam ascended from their midst, their combined breath. A few snowflakes drifted down.

Wearing a Santa hat and carrying a red duffle bag, a paramedic approached the victim. As a second paramedic arrived, his stretcher jingling with bells, the first paramedic rubbed Jeffrey hard on the chest. No response. He felt for a pulse and said, “We’ll need a body bag.” He bent down to check for respiration. While he listened, his stern expression melted into puzzlement; he straightened up and said, “What the…?”

Jeffrey opened his eyes, sat up, and looked around, amazed.

“How? How are you feeling?” the paramedic asked.

Jeffrey only shivered.

“Get a blanket,” the paramedic said to his partner. “Sir, I’ll need to ask you some questions to ascertain your alertness. What day is it?”

Jeffrey thought for a moment, then slurred, “Christmas.”

“Where are you?”

“Bethlehem.”

“Who is the presi— Never mind. We need to transport you to the hospital. You’ve spent a night outdoors and you’re probably hypothermic.”

“Don’t want the hospital. I’m just cold.”

“He can come in our house,” Mr. Reynolds said eagerly. “Bring him inside.”

“You should go to the hospital, but we can’t force you.”
“The house, if it’s okay.”

The paramedic turned to Mr. Reynolds. “Are you sure?”

Mr. Reynolds glanced around at his nativity scene. He drew one deep breath and another. A tremble seized him and he covered his eyes with the back of his forearm, as if he could hide.

Jeffrey struggled to stand, but couldn’t and quit. “I know, I’m a nuisance and probably dangerous. The hospital, then.”

“No, no. Jeffrey, I’m sorry I shut the door on you last night. It was wrong. Please, please come inside.”

Jeffrey smiled a slow, stiff smile.

The paramedics helped him to his feet, and the neighbors cheered and hurried toward their comfortable homes. The Reynolds children dashed out, tucked themselves under Jeffrey’s arms, and boosted him along.

The second paramedic smirked and whispered to the first, “A body bag? You’re losing your edge.”

“I’d swear the patient was dead,” the first said quietly. “He was a refrigerated corpse.”

“A miracle?”

“A mystery.”

“You didn’t notice the glowing plastic angel? All right, let’s go. Busy morning.”

“Thanks!” Mr. Reynolds called to them.

“Nothing else we’d rather be doing,” one called back.

Mrs. Reynolds ushered Jeffrey and the children into the den, with its colorful decorated tree, the bright blazing fire, and treasures spread across the floor. They seated Jeffrey in the largest, coziest chair and pulled off his stinky boots. Mrs. Reynolds brought a mug of hot chocolate.

A quiet minute passed. Jeffrey hummed a sound of contentment and slurped at his steaming chocolate. The fire crackled cheerfully in the fireplace.

“Umm… Will, umm,” Mr. Reynolds stammered. “Will you join us for breakfast? And afterwards when we open presents? We ah… have something for you. A present, or two.”

“That’d be nice,” Jeffrey said in a sigh. “How about a hot bath first? Any peanuts? Boiled peanuts?”

Mr. Reynolds scowled. Now this was awkward.

END

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Austin Eichelberger : Fluency

Nakia was working the afternoon shift on register 17 in the Wal-Mart Supercenter one bright-hot day when they came up, all three together. The older man and the lady he walked beside—half his age but not his daughter—were both speaking in a language other than English, gesturing as she translated labels for him while Nakia tried hard to listen, to block out the groaning floor buffer and the child screaming in Electronics. The younger man—late twenties, dark hair, dressed casually and cleanly—passed the other two with a grocery basket in his hand, carefully placed the milk, bacon, bread, butter, and block of cheese on the conveyor belt and stood smiling at Nakia from behind the do-it-yourself credit card console. Nakia nodded at him and pushed the braids falling onto her forehead behind her ear. The woman was now pointing out different candies to the older man, laughing as she read the flavors of the Wild Berry Skittles.

Nakia reached out for the loaf of bread, still concentrating on their voices as the younger man looked at his two companions and asked a question, eliciting nods and an affirmative-sounding response from the woman. There was something familiar about the words that they spoke, the specific sounds that Nakia could discern. The man in front of her turned back to Nakia, and her pulse sounded in her ears as she looked into his dark blue eyes. He smiled again, politely, with only the slightest hint of confusion.

Clearing her throat, Nakia smiled back and said, “What language is that?” Her voice sounded distant and drowned out through the sound of her heart.

“Excuse me?” The man leaned in, turning his head slightly to the left. His accent was familiar, something she heard imitated on sitcoms, something her co-workers would mock as she told them the story later. Nakia paused, the package of bacon in her hand hovering above the bar code scanner.

She said it a little louder. “What language is it y’all’re,” she searched for a word, nodded toward the other two, “conversing?” Nakia tried to look loose and confident as she asked so he’d know she already knew and simply wanted to confirm an assumption.

“We are speaking French.” The other two looked over for a moment, grinned blankly, and then looked back to the models on that month’s magazines.

She nodded to herself. “I thought so.” Nakia slid the bacon to her left, over the scanner, and placed it delicately in a plastic bag. “You know,” she said, glancing back up at the younger man, “I used to know a little French.”

He smiled again. “Yes?”

“In elementary school they taught us some—you know, the colors, words for food, stuff like that. I think it was the fourth grade.” It had been the fourth grade—Nakia was sure—because she’d been in Miss Johnson’s class that year, and Miss Johnson was the one who went on about the importance of learning other languages, of traveling, of walking in someone else’s world. Nakia would sit in class and read along silently from the flimsy French textbook as Miss Johnson’s voice filled the room with graceful dips and rises, sounds that Nakia would have thought impossible for any human to produce. When, a week after first hearing French spoken, it came time for each student to read vocabulary words out loud, Nakia’s stomach had turned to lead as she tugged on one of the three large, tapered braids that her mother had put in her hair that day. She had waited quietly as the other kids read the words Miss Johnson pointed out in the book, mouthing each one carefully as they were said aloud, trying her best to fold her mouth around the new sounds connected to familiar letters. When Nakia’s turn had come, she sat up straight and imitated Miss Johnson as best she could.

“Bleu.”

“That was nice, Nakia. What about this one?”

“Œuf.”

“Okay, but make sure you push the ‘uh’ sound. This one?”

The word Miss Johnson had pointed to looked mysteriously familiar, and when Nakia said it, she pronounced it like the word she already knew: “Mercy.”

“No, Nakia, it sounds like this: merci.”

Nakia had tried again, rolling the sounds in her mouth like candies, but it came out the same: “Mercy.”

“Concentrate on the r. It’s tricky in French, but you’ll get it.” Miss Johnson had patted Nakia’s shoulder and moved to the next student as Nakia hunched over her book, wrapping her arms around its open pages like a loose hug, as if intimacy might bring its secrets to the surface. She had held her thumbs in the middle of her fists as she whispered the word again and again, her lips slipping on the graceful syllables, “Mercy, mercy, mercy.”

Nakia felt the stick of butter’s soft weight in her paused hand. The younger man was looking at her expectantly, his eyes the color of the ocean during a Carolina storm.

Nakia blinked and glanced down as heat escaped up her throat and along her cheeks, then reached out for the block of cheese still on the conveyor belt. “I forgot it all now.” She slid the cheese in front of her as a weight began building in her stomach. “I wish I still knew some, though. It’s a real pretty language.” The plastic the cheese was wrapped in had the thinnest layer of water on it, and Nakia could feel it wet her palm as she lowered it into a bag with the butter and bacon.
The man swiped his credit card and signed across the little screen. He glanced over at the other two and said, “Corrine.” The r’s sounded just like they were supposed to in French, folded back over themselves, like little halves of r’s rather than the full letter.

Nakia’s lips seemed to move on their own as she turned to the man collecting his bags, his receipt in her outstretched hand, her mouth a wide smile. “I’m real glad I got to talk to you guys. I hope you have a good day, and come back by if there’s anything else you need. There’s everything here, really.” Nakia heard the sound of her own r’s, like she was dragging them across asphalt when compared to “Corrine.”

The younger man took the receipt as the other two walked past him toward the exit, still pointing and talking. “Thank you.” He smiled again, warmly, as he lifted the bags and turned away. For a second Nakia pictured herself tossing off her store apron and rounding the end of the counter, grasping his hand and running right past the others with him in tow, taking him through the cool whoosh of the automatic glass doors and into the blazing heat and light of the vast world outside.
Nakia’s chest felt fluttery and full and her legs nearly started to tremble as she watched him catch up to the other two. She reached up, tugging on one of her thin braids, and whispered as he disappeared into the sunlight haloed around the doors, “Mercy, mercy, mercy.”

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Terry Barr: The Day I Grew Up

My younger daughter asked me today how I felt about her new boyfriend. These are the moments you both wish for and dread, the ones the baby guides never mention; the ones my parents were no doubt thinking of when they said, “Wait to you get children of your own. You’ll see.” There must be a best answer, not a good or better one, and I need to give it. At least it was my daughter who was driving us this day, running errands as she prepared to return to college for her senior year, so I could absorb this moment, maybe the culmination of my fatherhood, without worrying about the vehicle in front of me, the one with the Trump 2016 sticker.
“Well,” I started, “I think it’s time I had one of those talks with Billy, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” she said. “This will be the first time you’ve had a good talk with one of my boyfriends.”
“I know.” I thought back then to JB, who had slandered her on MySpace, Zander, whose politeness masked a hot temper, Aaron of the troubled home-life, and Zack, poor old Zack, her first, who called her so incessantly, that one afternoon I had to confront him over the phone:
“She’s only fourteen, buddy, and you’re what, 17? She’s too young, and she’s just not ready to be pursued like this. Take it from me, girls run like hell from guys who come on this strong.”
There was silence on the other end, and I wondered if I had enraged this boy, or broken him.
“Thanks Mr. Barr. I needed to hear that,” was all he said.
And then there was Adam. Heading to his fraternity’s spring formal. Adam got so drunk that while they were in a city cab, he kept referring to the driver as “My Nigga.” So after that weekend and our father-to-shaky-but-still boyfriend talk, things got better for a few months, until they didn’t. Until they went sour again. Sour mashed again that is.
My daughter is gorgeous. She’s also a Psychology major and wants to follow her mother into the world of private counseling: psychotherapy. She’s already followed my raven-haired, olive-skinned Persian wife in beauty. My daughter, though, more fair, looks just enough like her—those large eyes with that faraway gaze—to seem exotic enough, different enough from the standard southern beauty norm. Different enough to be recognized by strange kindred. Once, on a middle school bus trip, a girl her age sitting across the aisle looked at my Layla and asked,
“Where are you from?”
Layla knew the heart of the question immediately:
“I’m half-Iranian.”
“I knew it, “ the other girl smiled.
The girl was Lebanese. It’s all in the eyes.
Layla also knows her own social history, her dating history, well.
“Yeah, I told Billy at the beginning that he didn’t want to date me, that I was just going to hurt him. And I did, but he kept trying. He really loves me.”
“I know he does. And do you love him?”
“Yeah, I really do.”
This moment is like no other.
“The main thing, I think, is that you’re good to each other, good friends with each other. Best friends. And that you trust each other like your Mom and I always have.”
She nodded, and then:
“Do you think we’ll get married?”
Again, this was supposed to have been just a simple trip to Target. She and Billy have been officially dating only for a few months. Still, Layla’s Mom and I dated only three months before we got married, and my wife was the same age then as Layla is now: 21.
“I don’t know, sweetie. It’s still early isn’t it?”
“I think our children would be beautiful, though, don’t you?”
“OK, maybe we should stop and get some coffee now,” I said as the oasis of Starbucks came into view.
I’ve long said about both my daughters that I never have or could envision the guy they should marry. In part that’s just a father not wanting to imagine the intimacies of daughters and lovers. But a larger part of me knows that in the most practical sense, maybe the most loving sense, who they marry is not my business or choice. So my strategy is to try to like and accept the various boys they’ve brought home over these years.
For at least they have brought them home.
And there have been clunkers, like James, the guy my older daughter wanted me to meet. How do I nicely describe him? He lived in a trailer in the sticks. He was twenty-six and worked clean-up in the same deli where my daughter ran the counter. He had a steady drug supply. He had a daughter. And eyes for mine that were red and soiled. Of course I learned much of these details only after she got rid of him. While she thought he was so cool, it was my wife who wanted to kill either him or herself.
“Just wait,” I calmed her. “She’s about to go off to college and he isn’t. She’ll meet other kinds of people there, and it’s pretty elite and preppy. She’ll leave him behind.”
Though I was reasonably sure of my own assurances, still, I never explained to my wife why my insomnia kicked in so badly then. Given her nature and the nature of her work, though, I’m sure she saw through me and decided to let my words and tone comfort her.
Wisdom and insomnia aside, I turned out to be right, and today that daughter, Pari, now a MSW working at an elementary school in rural Virginia, looks at me as I recount her James experience, and says,
“You played that one really well. That was smart!”
It was her one rebellious episode. She deserved it, too, as long as life turned out, to this point, happily ever after. She earned a full ride at Wofford, saving us roughly $160,000. Today, she’s practically engaged to Taylor, a country lawyer in their Virginia community. We couldn’t be happier for both of them.
But before me now sits Layla and two steaming lattes.
“Do I think you and Billy will get married?”
In the few seconds before my pause became awkward, I parsed through my own dating history. To the flashy beauties I pursued to my own heartache and embarrassment. To the former Iggy Pop groupie who kept breaking my heart after I had done the same to my steady girlfriend of three years. To another girl in grad school who once told me I was “the best thing that had happened to her.” We slept together twice, and she got pregnant only once. I was visiting my parents when she called to tell me that she needed $300 for our abortion. I withdrew the last bit of savings I had from First Federal in Bessemer, and wired it to her. I asked if she wanted me to go with her, but she said No.
The reality is that I had too many misguided, abruptly-ended relationships before I turned 27, the year I married. I got a woman pregnant, and I hurt a few others, like I, in turn, was hurt by others still, in my search for physical and emotional fulfillment.
“I’m not sure how I knew your Mom was the right woman for me,” I say to my trusting daughter. For that’s what this is: a moment of trust. A moment to trust. “It was like all the others before her were wrong, wrong, wrong. And then the wheel spun one more time, and…Right! We used to take rides in my hand-me-down Firebird, and hold hands and talk. Even though we were so different and had so little background in common (she was from Tehran and I from small-town Alabama), we could always talk to each other. I never felt nervous around her, and I knew I could always be myself. It was like we had been family all our lives.”
From our different worlds we arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, for school on the same day in the same month of the same year: July 31, 1979.
Over her caramel latte I see Layla’s eyes, the ones I’ve known forever, smiling.
“Does Billy make you happy,” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “He does.”
So we’ll see. Is he the one? Will he still be in her life next year, or next month? That’s for her to decide of course. My job is to sit still today and for as long as she takes. “Yes,” I think. The two of you will make beautiful children. Just as beautiful as the two your Mom and I made all those years ago starting on that day at the end of July when I finally put away my childish life.

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Jo Williams: Do It Yourself Medical Testing

In-home medical testing… that’s my latest obsession..
In my master bedroom turned walk-in clinic, I can determine if there are “substances” in my body that are not supposed to be there. Arsenic, perhaps?
My (optional) hormonal level test is necessary to determine if I am prone to mood swings. Coincidentally, the test results can be used as evidence in court should my “mood swings” drive me over the edge.
There are tests for everything in this “official clinical laboratory testing kit.” I can learn the nationality of my ancestors with one cheek swab. One finger prick will let me know if I have parasites in my body. Do I have tape worms?
I can learn things about myself that I was “afraid to ask” my personal doctor.
I read the directions. I dip sticks in pee, swab cheeks, and bleed on litmus paper. Then I check off the appropriate boxes of the test results I want to view “in the privacy of my home.” I add up the charges and write a check. Seems kind of expensive, but why not? One cannot put a price on health.
So I’m all set. All my tests have been properly executed and mailed to the lab for a “prompt and accurate analysis.”
This “medical lab” will snail mail my test results because no employee has mastered the art of texting or email. Test results will be safely secured in a “plain manila envelope with no return address or other indicators of origin.” This is a relief. I cannot be too careful. My mail carrier cannot be trusted with this potentially damaging personal information.
She is such a gossip. I can hear her now. “You know that old grouchy woman in 12-B? Her ancestors are Ethiopian! Oh, and you didn’t hear it from me – but, she also tested positive for codeine, caffeine, cannabis, opioids, aspirin, airplane glue, peyote, transmission fluid, tapeworms, fungicide, herbicide and poison oak. Her testosterone level qualifies her to join the male pole vaulting team, and that rash she has is a fungus. Ebola is not mentioned, but with everything she has floating around in her body fluids, it would not be a shocking discovery. What with her various “levels” of questionable substances, it’s a good thing that pregnancy test was negative! What is wrong with this woman? Does she even care that she is bringing shame to the entire nation of Ethiopia with her careless behavior? She is an embarrassment on two continents.”
Personally, I am not overly concerned with “my” test results. Turns out, those laboratories will test any “sample” you mail in. I decided to get the most bang for my buck. I submitted urine sticks, swabs, and blood samples from everyone I know who agreed to participate in the testing process. Everyone loves a freebie.
My dogs were not actual willing participants. It’s not as if they can sign a release. However, if they are opposed to random drug testing, they should stop peeing in my house, thus allowing me immediate access to said pee.
This medical lab did a good job, really. The results seem complete. There sure are a lot of boxes checked “positive” on this final analysis. As a matter of fact, the laboratory technician had to create a couple of new categories just to report my results. I can tell by the way some of the less than ordinary findings are hand written in red ink followed by question marks.
After a lengthy interrogation of my test subjects, I pretty much determine how most substances ended up in testable bodily fluids. I won’t name names. I will respect the confidentiality agreement I made with the clinic participants prior to procuring samples.
However, there is one issue that remains unexplained. No one will admit to having this substance in their system. Without retesting, I cannot determine to the life of me which one of my dogs is smoking weed?
I suppose some things are best left to mystery.
The End

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For and About the Mule’s Helen Losse

The Dead Mule salutes the indomitable spirit of the Poet Helen Losse.


Original Southern Legitimacy Statement,
(sent to the Dead Mule for the September 2002 issue)

“I’m southern ’cause I wanna be.”

Old photos of old cars

Helen’s first poem published in the Mule:

Voices

I want to eat ambrosia,
dine with the gods.  Dance.

Seraphim at the gate, velvet-winged.
“A plea is not a call,” says the tallest angel.
“One should not taste of success too soon.”

“Yes.  Wait’s a word to ride the wind,”
says another.  “And who will know the
mind of God?”

A celestial chorus in a quick response.
And I, reaching upward, raise uplifted palms.
A spurt of boldness:  Each—in its own way.

The voices fade, and things I reach for seem too far.
Then just as silence slices through morning,
heaven’s jagged edge cuts my finger to the bone.

**

Current Bio:

Helen Losse is the former Poetry Editor for The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and now its Poetry Editor Emeritus. She is the author of several  collections of poetry, Every Tender Reed (Main Street Rag, May 2016), Facing a Lonely West (MSR, 2014), Mansion of Memory (Rank Stranger Press, 2013), Seriously Dangerous (MSR, 2011), Better With Friends (RSP, 2009 ), Paper Snowflakes (Southern Hum Publishing, 2006), “Gathering the Broken Pieces (FootHills Publishing, 2004 ), and Kaleidoscope World, an online collaboration with French artist Miki de Goodaboom.

http://www.mikidegoodaboom.com/art-books/kaleidoscope-world

Her poems have been anthologized in Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VII: North Carolina, and Kakalak 2014, nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, and three times for a Best of the Net award, one of which was a finalist.

A former English teacher, Losse was educated at Missouri Southern State University (BSE, 1969) in Joplin, MO,  where she majored in secondary education and English and Wake Forest University (MALS, 2000), where she studied African American history and religion and creative writing.  Her thesis, Making All things New: The Redemptive Value of Unmerited Suffering In the Life and Works of Martin Luther King Jr., is available in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University.  Helen is a member of Winston-Salem Writers, Women Writers of the Triad, the North Carolina Poetry Society, the North Carolina Writers conference. She is a Roman Catholic Christian, a NASCAR fan, a rail fan, and an Associate Editor for Kentucky Review. The mother of two grown sons, she lives in Winston-Salem, NC with her husband Bill.

**

Every Tender Reed (Main Street Rag, May 2016)

To advance order a copy   http://mainstreetragbookstore.com/?product=every-tender-reed 

Synopsis:

Every Tender Reed is a transitional book in which Helen Losse writes poems about her difficult but long-awaited conversion from life as a protestant Christian to that of a Roman Catholic with its unfamiliar sacraments and customs.  Mental understanding came quickly, but emotional surety caused troubles that might have been harder still, if not for the loving kindness of two special priests.

Endorsements:

If books of poetry were considered fitting contributions, Helen Losse’s Every Tender Reed, would be among the most heartfelt gifts in a church offering plate. With a keen eye for craft, Losse takes readers on a personal pilgrimage—pondering everything from the beauty of God’s creations to what it might feel like to “be consumed” in pursuit of spiritual purity. Written with fierce tenderness and the courage it takes to write poems both honest and true, this fine collection is a must read. —Terri Kirby Erickson, author of A Lake of Light and Clouds

Helen Losse’s Every Tender Reed resonates with a tone of loving memory and forgiveness—a promise for the good life, the verses raising blinds on the dark to brighten songs born to all the world’s beauty. Grace becomes a natural outgrowth of Imagination’s repose. Red clover soft-lights the people; all of us are the ever-present tender reeds. —Shelby Stephenson, North Carolina Poet Laureate

Losse’s Every Tender Reed is penance in poetry—honoring the reader as much as the Creator. This volume, for the most part, is a serene journey with the author as she walks the Path toward the enlightenment of self-knowledge. —Patricia Gomes, Poet Laureate, City of New Bedford, MA

Poems:

Discovery

Why I should long for
ancient scripts and artifacts?
Search libraries, Internet,
explore dusty catacombs
of religion and  history?

I meet century-old saints
whose lives are snippets
of holiness, buried in vaults
beneath forgotten churches
and glorious cathedrals.

I read tidbits of news
from multi-year wars,
unearth a bloody shroud,
imagine other evidence
like one ancient sandal
rotting in dry sand.

Why I should long for
artifacts old and scholarly?
Truth of God persists
throughout the ages,
living today in the humble
yellow dandelion.

**

Bearing Pearls

Sin is in our fingerprints,
lies dark around us,
smears our image into
a poorly-designed tattoo,

an ambiguous inkblot.
God desires faith
as human obedience,
not as visions of rapture.

Time with Jesus
reflects truth (no stanza break)
like a hand mirror,
His grace more purposeful

than a woman’s woolen gloves
on a cold December evening.
The Holy Spirit blows
on the wind,

makes maple trees
clap silent leaves. I come
bearing gifts of pearls,
my hands overflowing.

**

Entering the Virgin’s Heart* 

A mother came to mould … limbs like ours. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins

She was born without hands;
her feet made music on harp strings,
each toe-pluck sounding with
the confidence of a dancer’s pose.

How quickly it was
she saw surety and beauty,
as she gazed upon the statue of Mary
and entered into the Virgin’s heart.

Afterward she insisted
that standing en pointe
on moss on the cliff’s craggy edge—
like the picture that hung in Grace’s kitchen,

but with rounded nubs
instead of the usual long, slender fingers—

is perfect worship.

*First published in Catholic365.com

http://www.catholic365.com/article/2992/entering-the-virgins-heart.html

**

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call any vegetable

and the chances are good

 

 

the vegetable will respond to you.

 

Rutabaga Rutabaga

Thumbs up to the Government for allowing SNAP card users to buy Food Plants.

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April and May 2016

not Joseph BarthantiWe are creating the Poets for Spring this weekend. Helen and Valerie created a wonderful cornucopia of poetry — available soon, so very soon. Like before tax day, depending on thunderstorm activity (and yes, we have a battery backup, but …).

 

Brand spanking new fiction and essays coming your way …

 

 

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Kate MacQueen : Poems about Place

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

like blue sky and green
branches out of reach
porch boards underfoot
cooler than the air

an old dirt road
where cars pass by
leaving red clay to filter
sunbeams through the trees

on a day you could paint
with a brush like a mop
sweeps of color that drip
slow toward the edge

a red-shouldered hawk
sings out in a voice
like a rusty cellar door
like beauty in the ear
of the beholder.

HOME FIRES

deep freeze
in the pre-dawn kitchen
red lights blink

To heat a house with wood means planning and hard labor so there is a cord or more of the right length and width that has been drying for some months, and a stack of kindling at hand. It’s a good axe kept sharp and clean, a wedge and a maul, and a level stump the right height, not too badly eaten by termites, where you can stand a log for splitting.

A person who has been gone can be encouraged by the light in the window, the scent of wood smoke, and the sight of split logs stacked under a shed roof. When the door opens someone will be there to cry out, praising the angels, caressing red cheeks where cold rain and hot tears mingle, clasping numb fingers to pull the almost-stranger inside next to the fire where the kettle is simmering, saying tell me, tell me everything or don’t say a word, either way you’re home now.

fumbling for the house key
as the taxi pulls away
wolf moon

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Larry D. Thacker: Poems about Place

A Dead Dog is Better

We smelled the faint rot first, stood
still like spooked horses, eyes scanning
the greens and browns of the swamp
we were stomping a trail through.

We flexed our noses in the wind,
eyed around off the overgrown footpath,
finally found the pile of dog’s bones,
still persisting with skin and sinew.

I was fascinated, for the first time
piecing together the leathery stench
of rot and the remains where such
a smell is birthed, leaning closer,
making out the distinctions of raw bone
and a jaw of teeth, canines yellowing
to bleachy gray, the empty eye socket.

He pulled me back when I got too close.

This is what I see now when I glance
off the road there. Not the long rows
of orange storage units, security fencing,
and missing tress. Not the fishless canal.
Visiting

We always sat cross-legged on the floor,
“behaving ourselves” and down near
the scents we couldn’t yet identify
as decades of living, stove coal dust,

a lifetime of breakfasts, cigarettes
and dirt, the cat clock’s swinging tail
ticking off little reminders, all absorbed
down in the half-worn carpet. That time

of evening you could feel the sun dropping
out of the sky, shadows infiltrating the house,
the scent of late dinner lacing through
to the living room, the creak of rockers

on the front porch as town vanished below,
laughter mumbled in almost every room,
fine porcelain cat statues on the mantle
watching with glazed stares, heater kicking on

startling us every time, us crawling over
to spy down into the floor grate, fascinated
by the blue-pink shudder of the pilot light,
down into a “devil’s hell” we were warned

we might “bust wide open” if we ever
dared step on the searing hot grate in winter.
A Visit

The inviting springy steps
on slow aging sawdust

a scent forever hanging
in the light bolts of sun

creeping the floor through
chinks filled with nothing

but cool air, smoky dust,
and a morning’s sunlight

the thump of horse hoof
and a rough swish of tails

on worn railing smooth
as the barn door’s handle

ghostly huffs of impatience
an unmistakable wanting out

into the fog fields where
damp coated grasses wait

Today’s Job

My only real job today is to open the window
and listen for the approaching rains.

And pat, pat, pat goes the ever-leaking gutter.
Snow melt and the ever-pumping heart muscle,
both forgotten
by spring’s promised warmth.

What keeps time of the long erosion, the soil harmony,
the splat on exposed pebble, sand , and clay.

The river grows and moves, sending invasive feelers
through grass roots, over packed stubbornness,
low ground craving and determined to join
the larger thought of water.

Rain sparkling a silvered 2D star field on the night road
outside the coffee shop, struck through with motorcycles
and cars, sliced galaxies, new big bangs.

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An Editor’s Lament

Truth be told, I’m probably thought of as the editor who loves publishing Southern Legitimacy Statements, new writers, old writers and all that comes with a literary journal. Another truth would be: this old mule frequently mis-publishes stories and poems, promises to change a word or a mistake that the writer truly needs fixin’ and then forgets her promise, and it takes me more than a few weeks to get back to yall on your submissions (despite my claiming a superhuman ability to do so on the submission’s pages).

mule 2013Take February 2016, for instance. The calendar on Submittable schedules writing one way and now, on February 11, 2016 after publishing some work on the Mule, it seems my Google calendar schedules another way. Oh no no … you can never convince me it is operator error. It must be the ghosts in my machine. That begs a question: Does anyone ever say “operator error” any more or does everyone just scream at the app developers and blame the software? OR do we stupid-proof our apps and software so as to eliminate operator error? Have we dumbed down our technology to a level where every user believes they are capable of whatever it is they seek to accomplish?

Guess what, yall … this sh*t is still hard. Confusing. Sometimes the Apple won’t play nice with the Android and the sandbox gets real nasty what with all the yelling and grabbing. And for hell’s sake, .docx is the absolute bane of my existence. Words cannot describe how much I loathe submissions sent as .docx attachments. Microsoft love of self means line after line of unwanted and unneeded code in the background of your writing that needs to be deleted in order for a simple line of text to format correctly within the Dead Mule template.

Didn’t know that, did you? That’s why it could, theoretically, take five minutes to copy/paste your short story into the Mule template but since every one has a finger in your creative pie, it’s almost impossible to strip the code out of your simple little six line poem in five minutes. More like 25 minutes and poems need even more special line by line attention.

Since I am a megalomaniac (moo ha ha) who must control every aspect of Mule Life, this code jockeying isn’t shuffled off to a graduate student or a volunteer or well-meaning newbie. It’s always been my chore. If someone volunteers to help with the Mule, I want them reading the submissions and helping with the editing, not deleting unwanted lines of code. I want to tap into their creative energy.

Want to see what I see? Here’s an example:

<span class=”tx”>PLACE:</span><span class=”tx f29″>
</span><span class=”tx”>A dictionary might reveal a place as a particular portion of space, finite or</span><span class=”tx”>infinite.  Since my place for this writing has disappeared, you may consider it infinitely</span><span class=”tx”>finite. Dukeville did exist. It exists for me now as a state of mind; no matter that the</span><span class=”tx”>village’s 86 houses have long disappeared from their original sites.</span><span class=”tx f29″>
</span><span class=”tx”>It was a place of</span><span class=”tx”>my friends such as E. C, Don and Jerry.  One summer night, under the street light, we</span><span class=”tx”>struggled to understand how children in Europe found food during World War II. “They</span><span class=”tx”>eat a whole lot, then they can last until they find something else to eat,” was one theory.</span><span class=”tx”>“But what if they can’t eat a whole lot? Maybe they hunt for food all the time.”  It was a</span><span class=”tx”>mystery we never solved.</span><span class=”tx f29″>
</span><span class=”tx”>It was a place for neighbors such as Mrs. Broughton; she of</span><span class=”tx”>the slow South Carolina drawl.  The Broughtons lived behind us.  She tended to me</span><span class=”tx”>one Sunday afternoon in a most special way.  My parents were taking a walk around</span><span class=”tx”>the block, while I played with the kids around our house.  Stepping on a rusty nail was</span><span class=”tx”>the last thing I expected, but it happened.  Mrs. Broughton took care of me, while her</span><span class=”tx”>sons, Talmadge and Kirby set out to tell my parents. I was in the </span>

***

How fun is that! And yes, I’m working on making it easier for the seven gabillionth time in 20 years.

So, I get the months mixed up. I get behind in answering/reading submissions and let me tell you, my intentions are good. But we all know what road is paved with those good intentions, right?

Every few years, the Software Gods leave code alone and the publishing is easy. Then someone else jumps in, sticks their greedy finger in the code pie and Rob has to rebuild the Mule template for me so I don’t see the kind of sh*t you see above. Right now, he’s in the middle of cleaning up the Code Gremlins in JSMOnline.com website. He’ll get through with that and get back to the Mule eventually. Until then, yall bear with me and know how much I adore publishing your work.

Have a skippy keen day.
Remember: The Mule loves you.

— Valerie

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Dead Mule Shop

Oh the wonders!

Squill and Mouthwash
We’re starting the next phase in Operation Pare Down. While we’re not considering moving from This Old House to a tiny house, the necessary scaling down of one’s possessions required of such a move must take place for us. This Old House needs new wiring, plumbing, and erg, windows and some flooring (down to sub-floor) as well as new doors.

With this in mind — we considered calling Michael Cable in Farmville, NC at Woodside Antiques and asking him to auction our household possessions. Nah, this seemed to be a rather drastic step. Next came the idea of a huge yard sale. Oops, we did that. A year ago. There simply aren’t enough people living in eastern NC that would buy all of our strange and wonderful objets d’Macewan. We did find a buyer for the stuffed great blue heron, creepy as it was.

We don’t have a front yard, per se, and hauling all of our stuff out to Slatestone Studio  meant borrowing a trailer and a whole lot of packing and unpacking to a not-certain outcome. And the yard sale / barn sale is greatly affected by weather. What to do, what to do? Rent a space at the State Fairgrounds Flea Market? While a lovely fun option, yet another uncertain result after much effort.

We came up with a Shopify store — the creation of a virtual yard sale. The goal is to photograph our vast collection of wares and offer them to you, our Dead Mule friends, at low prices. Gradually sorting postcard DM26and removing whatever needs to be shared with others and then storing the few items we have left until our This Old House project is complete. Sell It or Store It. That’s our motto. Along with “It’s Personal.”

I will try to showcase some of the collection here on the Mule — the goal, obviously, will be to drive traffic to the Dead Mule Shop. It’s slow going. Our photography studio (an old table at the end of the upstairs hallway, a space about 4’x4′ with a large window) is now primed and ready. Rob drilled a hole through the wainscoting to enable us to run an extension cord from the bedroom outlet. This Old House has maybe 2 outlets per room, if we’re lucky. See? There’s no end to the fun here at the Dead Mule Shop.

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Ted Harrison :: Place

Place val macewan

PLACE:
A dictionary might reveal a place as a particular portion of space, finite or infinite.  Since my place for this writing has disappeared, you may consider it infinitely finite. Dukeville did exist. It exists for me now as a state of mind; no matter that the village’s 86 houses have long disappeared from their original sites.

It was a place of my friends such as E. C, Don and Jerry.  One summer night, under the street light, we struggled to understand how children in Europe found food during World War II. “They eat a whole lot, then they can last until they find something else to eat,” was one theory. “But what if they can’t eat a whole lot? Maybe they hunt for food all the time.”  It was a mystery we never solved.

It was a place for neighbors such as Mrs. Broughton; she of the slow South Carolina drawl.  The Broughtons lived behind us.  She tended to me one Sunday afternoon in a most special way.  My parents were taking a walk around the block, while I played with the kids around our house.  Stepping on a rusty nail was the last thing I expected, but it happened.  Mrs. Broughton took care of me, while her sons, Talmadge and Kirby set out to tell my parents. I was in the good hands of a neighbor.

One winter, flu laid low the three of us in our family.  It was all we could do to tend to each other.  Cree, who lived next door, loaded coal from the pile behind our house and placed the scuttles on our back porch.  Thus, we could have a fire in both the Heatrola in the living room and the water heater in the kitchen.

It was a place for hide and seek games with more than a dozen players.  Tag on bicycles ranging all over the village. Hallowe’en carnivals put on by the Boy Scouts.  Industrial league baseball games.  A pre-school that Mrs. Moser started.

Remembering a place means you must remember the bad with the good.  For a long while I had a fear of elevators.  This traces back my father’s broken leg.  It had something to do with an elevator at the plant construction site. Mostly I remember the large cast on his leg.

Cal and Jerry, brothers who were my friends, lost their mother to cancer a few years before we moved from Dukeville.  The four parents were good friends, just as Cal and Jerry and I played football together.  Burned in my memory is the scene of my father walking side by side with his friend.  Daddy tried to comfort the sobbing man who had been both husband and father, but who now was a widower and father; left to raise two sons not yet in their teens.

My life in Dukeville began as an infant, living with my mother and father in a four room house they rented from The Company.  (That was how my father referred to it.)  In that house we lived just across the street from the gigantic coal pile that was used to store fuel to be used when needed.  The steam to drive the generators was fueled by coal.

Time in that house exists only in some dim memories: nearby playmates, a pet turtle and pictures my father took.  One picture shows a very intense child of about 4 years of age gripping a shaving mug in one hand.  The other hand held the brush that had produced the scant suds on my cheek. They studied dedication to the work at hand indicates that this was a candid shot—no way it could be staged.

Additional permanent houses were built when more generating units were added.  The construction workers lived in more temporary structures, but they were part of the village, too. The Watkins, the Settles the Goodmans were just as much a part of the village as the Haithcocks, the Staffords and the Craigs.  Industrial philosophy at the time was to provide homes for employees close to the work site.  This meant homes for those building additions to the plants, too. While some of the construction workers might “get on” and work at the plant once the additions were complete, most of those families moved on to another building site on the system.  The need for electricity increased.

In the last year or so, Dukeville was become infamous as the site of a coal ash basin to be cleaned up by Duke Energy.  Buck Steam Station on the Yadkin River exists, but Dukeville is gone. I will not try to make a case for or again, “The Company” as my father called Duke Power. Buck did its work using coal for fuel before much thought came of wind power or solar panels, or co-generation.

We moved to another place before Duke Power got out of the landlord business. Residents of Dukeville were given the opportunity to buy the house where they lived.  To do so, they had to move the structure to another lot.  Some of those houses still exist in a cluster near the old elementary school.

Nowadays, September some of the former residents of Dukeville hold a reunion.   Before my parents passed away I attended several of these events with them.  More recently, my youngest daughter and I joined the group.  It was good see Dan, and Buddy and Kirby.  Kirby told me his brother, Talmadge wasn’t doing well. There was good food, great stories and the exchange of news.

Shall I attend another such reunion?  I doubt it. Dukeville is still a place for me, but the portion of space if occupies is more in my mind than anywhere else.  For me it’s better that way.

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T. Alfier :: The First Three of Six Poems

val macewan photo

Mississippi Kitchen, 1950

Wood stacked in the mud room
and just outside, the artifacts
of teaching boys to be men,
earning an allowance
for malt shops and girls—
the meaning of Friday nights
in this small town.

Wallpaper tells the story
of hard work and young love.
Like rings of felled magnolia,
from the pride of courtship
to newlywed, not much
cash but an eye for yellow,
with tiny flowers, bouquets
of beginning families, to
grandparents to the elders—
their stories peeling away
in corners, layer upon layer

just as scribbles on the backs
of old photos tell who is who,
how they swore, fought and loved
in this very kitchen. Many a wake
and many a casserole served
to kin and stranger alike
in the stories of these walls,
with marks up the jambs to measure
boys to men, and girls to the young
ladies who now rule their own kitchens
with radiant grace.

All beginning with wallpaper
to match aprons, a wood table
for homework and whiskey
thereafter, an eye for the allure
of cathead biscuits eaten in rooms
the color of butter—
never much money
but generations of satisfaction,
idling over countertops and tables,
over hands still within reach.

***

Springtime in Cantigny

Soft vibrations in a field of grass,
bladed and poppied. The rhythmic

chug of a cargo train crosses
left to right, a distance away.

His shoes come off.
He recalls a sundown journey

in a life too far-off to regather.
Three white horses, patient

and pale as childhood unicorns,
share their field as he lies down.

Popcorn clouds are white, parceled
through the clear and quiet sky.

He closes his eyes, his mind clear
as the breeze washing above him.

A lifetime of mercy summoned
in a few brief minutes.

Spikes of green caress his palms—
laid flat, warming, released.

grimesland nc val macewan

His Turn

In his hotel, a tired woman with his same view
looks out before a short lie-down.
Listening to pipes being played below,
they both watch a ship slowly angle toward a breach
between two hills across the bay.

Sky, mist, water and ship are a lovely mind-photo,
the song of pipes wishing safe travels
adds an aural effect.

A smaller ferry and two rotting work-ships stay fast
against the dock. Street-level conversation and traffic
remind him this is not a dream.

Flags fly. Radar antennas whirl like whisks
in a bowl of creamy cloud. Now he understands
what it is to watch, to listen, to hear in his heart
the sound of waiting.

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Art Heifetz :: Procession

Procession 

Sisters of Marie Laveau
chant for me dance for me
sprinkle me with incense
adorn me with gris-gris
the feathers of rare birds
strings of brightly colored beads.

Brothers of Jelly Roll
let me lose myself in the low sweet moan
of your muted trumpets
the surly growl of your trombones
the soaring solos of your clarinets.
Press your lips against a sunlit tuba
and blow joy into my yearning heart.

Let me do the two step
past Lafitte’s cutthroat bar
past the wisteria tumbling down
from the wrought iron railings
past drunks crying from the balconies
the ghosts of beaten slaves
watching from the mansardes.

Let me wind my way to the crumbling vault
at the end of the streetcar line
where I bury all my sorrows feet first
on a raised ,concrete slab
lest they be disinterred by the next big storm
and come floating back into my life.

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Rudy Ravindra :: GPS Lady

Roll the Dice, Val MacEwan assemblagist

He is annoyed when he misses his way, annoyed when he hears, ‘you are almost there’, ‘just round the corner’, or ‘you can’t miss it’. He is the world’s worst navigator, who, when he is behind the wheel suffers from a state of total mental paralysis. He has an aversion to explore new routes, unfamiliar towns, and in particular downtown roads. In his humble opinion, downtowns were planned and constructed to harass the naïve motorists. Some roads are only one way and others regular two way roads. Despite the prominently displayed signs, he has a tendency to drive into oncoming traffic, to be besieged by irate drivers, blaring horns, screeching breaks, and churlish cops.

*

When he began to drive, some thirty years back, there were road atlases and AAA triptiks. He loves driving on the great American highway. He enjoys the thrill of the speed, and enjoys leaving others in the dust. As long as the road is straight his driving is smooth, and he remains calm and cool. But quite often he loses his bearings, and his way. So, if a particular trip is expected to take four hours, he gives himself six hours. For most part he does reach his desired destination without too much pain and suffering.

With the advent of MapQuest and Google maps, driving got a little easier. However, his dear wife would insist that he memorize each and every step before they embark on a road trip. His feeble protest that one couldn’t possibly remember all the turns and twists falls on deaf ears. And when he gently points out that she, sitting in the passenger seat, is better equipped to navigate, she’d retort, “What’s the point, if I say turn left, you turn right, if I say take exit 4B, you promptly take exit 4A.”

Then came GPS. He purchased one of these gizmos and hooked it up to his 2001 German jalopy. Although GPS is helpful, it is not without its quirks. For one thing, he gets irritated when the GPS lady says, “Recalculating, go two miles and make a U-turn…”.

Recently the couple drove to Washington, D.C. and then to Philadelphia. They visited the Capitol, White House, memorials and museums, and enjoyed the delicious international cuisine.

And then to Philadelphia. Up to Delaware, a straight shot on I-95 north, the journey was uneventful. But around Delaware they ran into trouble. Neither the GPS lady nor Google map (a backup) were helpful. Due to construction, there was a diversion and even though a well-marked sign said that the exit was open to only local traffic, he made the mistake of taking the exit and ended up in the boonies, went round and round, somehow found his way to I-95 south and backtracked to I-95 north. There was nervous tension, blame game and bickering.

After attending a family gathering in Philly suburbs, they drove back home to North Carolina via Williamsburg, Virginia, the historical venue of pivotal proceedings preceding the nation’s Independence. Here in this town, Patrick Henry, George Washington, and others gave rousing speeches and mobilized the masses against the tyrannical British rule. The eager tourists saw the colonial architecture, and ate and drank at the very same tavern frequented by the rabble rousers of the American Revolution.

Too soon, it was time to drive back home, back to their humdrum lives.

Again the perpetual tussle between the couple began, and this time he gave his halfhearted approval to put their fate in the eternal wisdom of the GPS lady. To tell the truth, after the debacle at Delaware where they ended up at the port of Delaware, he had a sneaking suspicion that these gizmos couldn’t be trusted implicitly.

The GPS lady took them through the boonies, turning left, turning right, going straight ahead, a right curve and then a left turn. He diligently followed the directions until he heard, “Drive straight ahead, then take the ferry.”

He exploded, “Holy Cow! Ferry! What ferry? Where is she taking us? Into the James River? What are we gonna do now?”

His wife said, “Well, let’s go back to the hotel, we can ask for directions.”
“How in the hell we can go back to the hotel? We turned and twisted so many times, I lost count!”

“Sugarplum, I can punch in the hotel address, right?”

“Yes, yes, sweetiepie. But remember what happened when we came into Williamsburg. This GPS lady took us to the rear entrance of the hotel complex, couldn’t get in unless we had one of those cards.”

He felt like yanking the GPS out and toss it into the marsh on the roadside. The area looked desolate and foreboding. There was a big building with no sign of human activity. And right ahead was the historic James river. The scene was so eerie that it looked as though they might bump into the ghosts of Captain Smith and Pocahontas.

He said, “I told you right in the beginning, we should have followed the Google map, take 64 West and catch I-95 South.”

He was frazzled, fumed and fulminated. And she wrung her hands, and tried to placate him.
When he saw a man in orange reflective vest near the river, he drove up to ask for directions.

The man said, “You ain’t lost! People going to North Carolina take the ferry, this be a short cut!”

They made it to the opposite shore of the river, and found their way to I-95 south. He was contrite and felt bad for doubting the GPS lady. If only he could talk to her, he would have apologized profusely.

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Tim Mattimoe : Waiting For Rain

Beaufort County, NC

Waiting For Rain 

The rain stopped falling
weeks ago. The ground is dry
and clouds of dust rise up
off crackling gravel
every time a car comes by.
Bent roadside weeds
and dry vines hanging
off the trunks of trees
make up a dead, grey mask
of August heat.
Dull, yellow poplar leaves
flutter down, one by one,
through fading green
like background in a story
I read once long ago
in some other place
on the same dry
summer afternoon.

I stop to wonder
but can’t recall
the book, or time, or place,
and suddenly the silence breaks
in the bottom by the creek.
Someone’s dog is barking
after something rattling through
the brush, maybe a deer,
likely not our local fox
that disappears this time of year
to darker, cooler places
deeper in the woods.
The dog goes quiet, nothing stirs
but three crows in a dry swale
bobbing after food
or some obscure amusement.
The summer afternoon
comes down again while clouds
out of the South move up
suggesting rain, or maybe
just a different memory.

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Dexter Gore : A Rare Commodity

chicken toes

Beebop held the box that had been left in front of his door. Inside it was a human foot, groomed with little black hairs on the knuckles of each toe, trimmed, polished toenails that were turning a piss yellow, and stitching at the ankle where the cut was made. Beebop struggled to make sense of things: there was a box; a person’s foot was in it; he didn’t hear someone step on the porch, or hear a car pull into his driveway. Beebop examined the cul-de-sac and the houses surrounding his. Nothing was out of place. He thought about the police. They’d take the foot and start an investigation. He’d become the crazy foot-man. The folks in town would pester him about where the foot came from and ask how did it wind up on his porch. His children would coddle him, always be over until the crime was solved. After that, they’d leave him again.
Beebop dropped the box. His neighbor Howard stepped outside. They usually saw each other in the morning on their way to their mailboxes.
Howard got his mail, flipped through the envelopes on his way back inside. On his porch steps, Howard looked back at Beebop. “You doing all right, B?”
Beebop barely knew Howard. He wouldn’t call them friends, but he wouldn’t call them acquaintances either. When Beebop’s old lady died from eating a bad pecan, Howard sent a flower but didn’t attend the wake. Beebop never pressed him as to why he failed to attend, figuring Howard would say something naturally. But when he didn’t, Beebop let things go. He knew some people didn’t like dealing with bad news, and Howard made up for it by being the person who asked him how he was doing every day aside from on Sundays. The mail didn’t run on Sundays.
Beebop looked at the foot and pretended to laugh.
“Yes, sir. Howard, you wouldn’t believe what mess I found out here this morning. Somebody done left a dead cat in this here box with an apology. Whoever it was, I guess they done went and thought they killed a family friend.” Beebop hoped his neighbor would say more, maybe ask if he had read the paper, or if he was going to throw the dead animal in the woods.
“Some people,” said Howard as he shook his head. And that was it. Howard went back into his home and closed the door behind him. Beebop folded his arms across his chest. It looked like he was cold. But it wasn’t cold out. It was just another summer day.

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Ted Harrison : A Family Event

Lizzie Beacham

If your family event has a time table that begins:
6:00 A. M. Start the fire. (Or as early as Brother wants to start it.)
7:30 Meat and margarine into pot
Etc.If your family event has a time table that begins:
6:00 A. M. Start the fire. (Or as early as Brother wants to start it.)
7:30 Meat and margarine into pot
Etc.
Etc. until,
4:30 pm Sisters taste
5:00 pm Serve
If your family event has a food recipe that starts with;
18 Chickens
30 lbs. of cooked beef
60 lbs. of potatoes—cut up…
If your gathering event has chores assigned to all members of the family; then you need read no further. What I am about to put down is old hat to you and this issue will have other things you would like to read.
For the rest of you, I invite you to come along.
Within the family the event, happening or gathering was first called: THE FAMILY; a time when family members returned to the ol’ stomping grounds. As an in-law, I do not know how many years ago it all started. Suffice to say the large family of brothers, some scattered across the country, others living close by would return to the home place in rural North Carolina once a year for sure. Since the youngest brother and his wife lived in the home place, she became the hostess for the event. Despite raising four children, and later becoming a widow, she kept the tradition doing. Upon her passing there was never any question of continuing the event; much like show business, THE FAMILY event must go on. Today the remaining three children (the eldest daughter passed away several years ago) who maintain this heritage continue to wonder how “Mama” as they called her, managed those earlier times with only a minimum of help.
The tradition began as a Christmas lunch reunion. Weather dictated eating indoors, some at a large dining room table seating a dozen or more, and others in the kitchen, still others in the cozy den where trays and small tables were put to use. Imagine three dozen of your relatives coming for a meal. Fair weather would produce some tag football or badminton games. One year an arriving snow storm meant adjusting bed space to accommodate quests. This included a courting couple who were welcome to stay, but in separate rooms. They later married and even after his death, his widow and daughter attend.
Today, this annual Christmas affair has morphed into a biannual fall experience. And while the nucleus of attendees has a familial connection the event is called simply, THE STEW. While the home place family is in charge as hosts, guests are invited to bring along side dishes etc. to fill out the menu. These range from hors d’oeuvres to desserts, from cheese balls to doughnut holes.
There are many constants in managing such a deal as this. Where NFL teams have playbooks, THE STEW has a bible which continues the chore assignments, cooking time table and purchasing calendar. The main dish is that concoction known as Brunswick stew, hence the rest of the recipe list of chickens, beef, tomatoes, corn, lima beans and so on. Bertha or Bert is another constant. For years she worked as a maid for this family and others in the community. Now she cooks and debones the chickens, and cooks the beef. At this writing she has just passed her 90th birthday and knows a vast history the siblings who bring all this about. Borrowing the 60 gallon iron pot to hold the stew is a constant. The pot and supporting rack comes from the local volunteer fire department. The newest constant is four-sided arrangement of concrete blocks. Open at the top there is rebar inside to hold the pork roasts which are barbecued with the same delicate care and attention as the stew. The Brother in the host family maintains a proprietary hold on the stew pot. His Son is the barbecue chef and assists his father with the stew. Thus far Son maintains proprietary control over his creation. Mama’s seven grandchildren have been raised from the crib with dedication to tradition. More heritage being passed down.
There are home places existing throughout the South. Two family homeplaces burned over time. The current site is an ante bellum home formerly occupied by one of the forebears. Before her death, Mama acquired this house and saw it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The youngest daughter and one of her sons reside there now. How would you like to have seventy or so relatives and friends come for the day? So you may consider her home as the place we all invade and hope to restore to proper order at some point. Recovery time for her and her family is not calculated. (Don’t even think of the other holiday visits. Although these are smaller they are a whole other chapter.)
Just across the road sits the store built in 1853. The building once housed the local post office as well as being the general store for the area. It too is on the National Register. One of the “projects” undertaken by the family has been to clean and maintain the store building as a museum of sorts. Visiting the store is part of THE STEW experience. A vintage cheese cutter is more than just part of the décor: a round of “hoop” cheese was in place at the most recent event. And crackers were also provided.
With the cooking schedule, chore list/assignment sheets are posted prominently in various places around the home, there is never a lack of direction. This planning and organization has the stamp of the middle daughter on it. She, who claims to be a retired educator, is quite capable of putting her unretired abilities into play for THE STEW.
The children of the siblings are falling into place in the scheme of things. You may call them interns, or “probies”, they are moving into roles for future events. It is a continuing legacy, and a growing one. At a recent event, a cousin introduced his young son who had a double treat for the day: his first visit to the State Fair and his first STEW. This youngster was one of nearly a dozen children age five and under who enjoyed the event.
As for degrees of separation, one cousin spotted a familiar face among those invited. As THE STEW would have it, they work in the same office area in a nearby city.
As you might imagine much has changed beyond just the ages of the participants. Group pictures of previous events depict many who have passed away. But for the older ones to pass on, younger ones are filling in the places. It is a true testament to family that people occupying various branches of the family tree have been taught to cherish and enjoy something they wish to keep close.
Consider this just a quick brush over THE STEW. There is so much more and no doubt an in-law may not be the best person to write of it. However, I have threatened to do this so many times. This is my follow through.
Mama often spoke of times that were “making memories”. And Tom Wilson, who created the cartoon character Ziggy, wrote “Memories don’t spoil no matter how long you keep them.”
That is especially true of THE STEW.
Etc. until,
4:30 pm Sisters taste
5:00 pm Serve
If your family event has a food recipe that starts with;
18 Chickens
30 lbs. of cooked beef
60 lbs. of potatoes—cut up…
If your gathering event has chores assigned to all members of the family; then you need read no further. What I am about to put down is old hat to you and this issue will have other things you would like to read.
For the rest of you, I invite you to come along.
Within the family the event, happening or gathering was first called: THE FAMILY; a time when family members returned to the ol’ stomping grounds. As an in-law, I do not know how many years ago it all started. Suffice to say the large family of brothers, some scattered across the country, others living close by would return to the home place in rural North Carolina once a year for sure. Since the youngest brother and his wife lived in the home place, she became the hostess for the event. Despite raising four children, and later becoming a widow, she kept the tradition doing. Upon her passing there was never any question of continuing the event; much like show business, THE FAMILY event must go on. Today the remaining three children (the eldest daughter passed away several years ago) who maintain this heritage continue to wonder how “Mama” as they called her, managed those earlier times with only a minimum of help.
The tradition began as a Christmas lunch reunion. Weather dictated eating indoors, some at a large dining room table seating a dozen or more, and others in the kitchen, still others in the cozy den where trays and small tables were put to use. Imagine three dozen of your relatives coming for a meal. Fair weather would produce some tag football or badminton games. One year an arriving snow storm meant adjusting bed space to accommodate quests. This included a courting couple who were welcome to stay, but in separate rooms. They later married and even after his death, his widow and daughter attend.
Today, this annual Christmas affair has morphed into a biannual fall experience. And while the nucleus of attendees has a familial connection the event is called simply, THE STEW. While the home place family is in charge as hosts, guests are invited to bring along side dishes etc. to fill out the menu. These range from hors d’oeuvres to desserts, from cheese balls to doughnut holes.
There are many constants in managing such a deal as this. Where NFL teams have playbooks, THE STEW has a bible which continues the chore assignments, cooking time table and purchasing calendar. The main dish is that concoction known as Brunswick stew, hence the rest of the recipe list of chickens, beef, tomatoes, corn, lima beans and so on. Bertha or Bert is another constant. For years she worked as a maid for this family and others in the community. Now she cooks and debones the chickens, and cooks the beef. At this writing she has just passed her 90th birthday and knows a vast history the siblings who bring all this about. Borrowing the 60 gallon iron pot to hold the stew is a constant. The pot and supporting rack comes from the local volunteer fire department. The newest constant is four-sided arrangement of concrete blocks. Open at the top there is rebar inside to hold the pork roasts which are barbecued with the same delicate care and attention as the stew. The Brother in the host family maintains a proprietary hold on the stew pot. His Son is the barbecue chef and assists his father with the stew. Thus far Son maintains proprietary control over his creation. Mama’s seven grandchildren have been raised from the crib with dedication to tradition. More heritage being passed down.
There are home places existing throughout the South. Two family homeplaces burned over time. The current site is an ante bellum home formerly occupied by one of the forebears. Before her death, Mama acquired this house and saw it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The youngest daughter and one of her sons reside there now. How would you like to have seventy or so relatives and friends come for the day? So you may consider her home as the place we all invade and hope to restore to proper order at some point. Recovery time for her and her family is not calculated. (Don’t even think of the other holiday visits. Although these are smaller they are a whole other chapter.)
Just across the road sits the store built in 1853. The building once housed the local post office as well as being the general store for the area. It too is on the National Register. One of the “projects” undertaken by the family has been to clean and maintain the store building as a museum of sorts. Visiting the store is part of THE STEW experience. A vintage cheese cutter is more than just part of the décor: a round of “hoop” cheese was in place at the most recent event. And crackers were also provided.
With the cooking schedule, chore list/assignment sheets are posted prominently in various places around the home, there is never a lack of direction. This planning and organization has the stamp of the middle daughter on it. She, who claims to be a retired educator, is quite capable of putting her unretired abilities into play for THE STEW.
The children of the siblings are falling into place in the scheme of things. You may call them interns, or “probies”, they are moving into roles for future events. It is a continuing legacy, and a growing one. At a recent event, a cousin introduced his young son who had a double treat for the day: his first visit to the State Fair and his first STEW. This youngster was one of nearly a dozen children age five and under who enjoyed the event.
As for degrees of separation, one cousin spotted a familiar face among those invited. As THE STEW would have it, they work in the same office area in a nearby city.
As you might imagine much has changed beyond just the ages of the participants. Group pictures of previous events depict many who have passed away. But for the older ones to pass on, younger ones are filling in the places. It is a true testament to family that people occupying various branches of the family tree have been taught to cherish and enjoy something they wish to keep close.
Consider this just a quick brush over THE STEW. There is so much more and no doubt an in-law may not be the best person to write of it. However, I have threatened to do this so many times. This is my follow through.
Mama often spoke of times that were “making memories”. And Tom Wilson, who created the cartoon character Ziggy, wrote “Memories don’t spoil no matter how long you keep them.”
That is especially true of THE STEW.

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Annie Woodford : Nine Poems

Nine Poems from the Convergence of Mountain Chains

Dog Days

By July the mountains are adorned.
The chestnut oak’s supple leaves,
leather-green, flap before the rain.
The red-bud’s full bush, poison-ivy
wet with itch climbing half-way up
a sweet gum trunk, scrawny walnut
saplings scaffolding a hillside—
these are the layers that burgeon,
blessing us with sap and shadows,
cool chancels we can step into if
we wear boots: copperheads
and rattlesnakes, blinded by old skin,
blend right in with last year’s leaves.
You have to watch where you step.

Riparian Right

Back before they dredged it for its yellow sand,
the Little Otter River ran over rocks long
and thin as ribs. My daddy and his daddy
stepped on them and so did I in my turn, the sky
sliding around our ankles, heaven shredded
by busy water. At night, catfish pondered
in starry pools, the overhanging bank tangled
with tree roots where the river ate it away.
We would sit in the summer dark, the water
a whisper before us. Clumps of sand plopped
into the river drew fish, but only if done once.
Otherwise, we had to be still and wait
in blackness, the water talking all around us.

Scrap Aluminum Gets Thirty-Eight Cents a Pound

They have a can-crusher, Marion begged,
wanting to cross our busy street, go play
with the neighbor kids, brother and sister,
the intersection between us dusty

with the industry of this part of the city,
the blown-by trash of passersby who walk
or drive all too often with blasted eyes.

When I come over there, all three of them
are grinning, slapping cans in, pulling the handle
of the crusher mounted on a two-by-four.
One worn-out dogwood graces the yard.

The children have climbed its bark off,
but there it is, at its bride-white best,
scant branches, blossoms shot with sun.

The mother slurs her speech, her teeth
gone from poverty or something else,
though she has the brow and bone of beauty.
The children are so happy to crush

those cans, spring coming on no matter
what, the interstate one block away
breathing like a beast behind us.

Textiles

Dry this dying body with a towel Mama saved
From the last of the Southeastern textile mills.
My uncle was a fixer who kept the shuttles slapping,
Kept the family in Royal Velvet remainders—
Pattern Alhambra, Venetian Roses worn thin
By the years, edges frayed, soon to disappear—
A rag to wash the car, a scrap recognized only
By a few old women like I am becoming.
The looms were dismantled and sold to China,
The smokestack, spelling Fieldcrest, knocked
Down, the company garden plots once
Quilting the bottom with corn and half-runners
Now tangled with clover and crab grass.
I will never be able to afford such towels.

The Waning

Castle Hayne Aquifer

In the ardor of the marsh,
my heart hums with the frogs.
The house lifts with whirring wings.
I drift on all my old desires, my dead
and my dying holding me to earth,
delving soul diving deep in the mud,
strata of snap turtle and broken shells,
stink of wire grass disintegrating,
mother-crab packed with orange eggs
sucking bubbles and stray flesh
as the tide recedes, down
to where the aquifer slaps
under Pamlico Sound,
all that weight
of August water,
nearly hot, lapping on top,
water to water separated by spunk
and bedrock, the red drum nudging
the bottom from above.

In South Carolina

Gram Parsons

We vacation with our ghosts,
the hush of the vast Atlantic

filling in the gaps between
our hopes. Our children
burn bare feet on asphalt and sand
while, horizon-wise, planes pull

happy banners up and down the Grand Strand.
The ice cream man’s digital calliope
plays God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
Compressors kick on and off.

We cousins keeling past middle age,
my three widowed aunts, remember

when there were more men
to fill the temporary couches
and houses of this week at Myrtle Beach.
We once had uncles, brothers, and husbands.

We once had fathers
to eat the food,
drink the bourbon,
and light Roman Candles with lit cigarettes.

Hunting the Cedar

Faint light shakes
the tree line, suddenly
bare after fall’s long glory.
Christmas ghosts crowd the car.
To our left, the Peaks keep glacial pace.
At the old land, the sky unfurls over us,
clouds opening like hands. I follow
my child into thickets uncut since
Granddad’s days in the dying eighties.
The cedars hold hidden birds, wings
rustling like memories, shadows
throbbed by their call. Their needles
have sifted down, bronze and dry,
for twenty-seven years. The ground
under them will be soft.
It will quiet our steps.

Philpott Lake

Is 280 feet deep at the dam.
We used to sway on the surface
in Dad’s bass boat, glitter pressed
into its fiber glass, live well sloshing,
depth-finder pinging the ragged bottom.
Walleye and striper would sometimes pass
under our rocking hull—black shapes
made of sonic waves.
Diving down deep as I dared,
I’d shoot back up when the cold hit me,
floating in green-gold galaxies
of pollen and mica, swimming away
from the marbled sheen of gas
leaking from the rebuilt Mercury.
Toes curled, having been told
an old woman left when the lake
was filled would grab my foot,
I dangled in a watery sky.
Aunt Lorene says those hollows
were filled with stills and snakes.
The trolling motor buzzed like a rattler
when I listened underwater.
Bassett doesn’t flood anymore.

 

A Wardrobe is Like a Woman

Both are fitted together with movable parts.
A woman has hips that can shift
to accommodate a baby, a man,
bones rolling in their sockets,
tendons bowing to the oldest song.
Built to be deconstructed, wardrobes
were meant to be packed in wagons
and rolled through fields of blowing clover,
jolted down streets muddy with cow dung.
The dowels would grow loose
in their holes as the years passed.
The whole structure would sag
in its assigned corner, leaning tipsily,
shaking each time Grandma hung her dress.
With luck, a carpenter would come along
who knew how to tighten it anew,
bracing the back panels with fresh boards
and re-gluing all the wobbly joints.
Solid, it could still come apart in a trice,
its doors unhinged and wrapped in quilts,
the base eased from the bottom
and all the spider eggs swept from its crown—
to be put back together again and again
(as long as its parts weren’t scattered to the wind).

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Ray McManus: Four Poems on Place

I.
The Descent of Man 
Cavemen are loneliest in museums.
Cavemen leave when we turn
our backs on them. They go to Home
Depot and ignore power equipment.
They go straight towards paint
then lumber. They touch everything.

Cavemen can’t build on their own.
Cavemen need aisles, need shovels.
Their jaws jut, knuckles broken,
all that digging got them nowhere.
Now they grunt behind the cart.
Home Depot is kind to cavemen.

Cavemen are horrible at sweeping.
Cavemen walk past brooms and dust
bins. Their caves littered with broken
tools to scrape the bones of cavemen
who came before them, who, for a time,
lived the same way as we do.

II.
In the Absence of Protection 

In Home Depot, shelves are stacked
from floor to ceiling to trap the ghosts
of abandoned projects in our life.
Aisle 9, that stupid boyfriend.
Aisle 15, the Bible my mother gave us.
Still, we’re compelled to come here
to soothe our lonely impulses
to do something together.

Why should credit be limited
when Allegheny Flagstone is light?
I’m careful to carry a stone in each hand,
ape-like with the world dead around me,
and make a wager to carry more weight
the next time I think you’re looking.
I’ll keep the card in my back pocket
just in case. Let’s do this:

Let’s move all the stones from shelf
to cart to truck, to the new flowerbed
under the front oak. Let’s pretend
the voice in my head is yours.
Let’s build a wall for us to hide behind
so the kids can’t find us. Let’s carry
nothing on our backs. Like everything else
here, we can pay for it later.

III.
Origin of Species 

My neighbor was born 400,000 years ago
and crawled in the grass because food
was dangerous. He learned math and tables
because the cat takes the bird, the bird takes
the fish. Because there is safety in numbers.
Because he will always be hungry.

My neighbor evolved into a hand hidden
in a bathrobe, an arm that could swing
when raised, but at night he strips
in the open and lets what falls lie. How easy
it would be to call him savage in his ape-like
sway, the way he swings a stick around the yard,
the rocks in his pocket. How easy it would be
to think that a hand should mean something
if neighbors are going to eat each other.

But apes don’t look for rocks to keep.
Apes don’t need math. They don’t carry
a stick hoping for a chance to use it. Men are
the ones who think that way. Always have.

IV.
Ask Your Doctor 

I used credit up front, got the fountain,
the Allegheny Flagstone for $1.28 a block,
a ceramic rooster. The kids scream
in the backyard, a jet overhead descends
and there is little difference. Sometimes
I go outside and search for holes to hide in.
I dig in finger deep, make bold declarations
like danger and need. Sometimes I talk
to myself. Sometimes I wait for you.

Escape is best brightened by dark nights,
a sleepy house, staying in the garage.
And the truth is, I always wish you’d
tell the kids that you have something
important to do and come find me.
It’s frightening to think of the hours
between 12 and 7; it’s lonely.
I’m quick to use the credit card
at the Home Depot because I want
people to know that I’m not afraid
to pay a bill when it’s due. But that’s
a lie. I just want you to fuck me.

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Norvin Dickerson : Six Poems on Place

I.
MULE DAYS (Benson, N.C., September 2014)

Sign said No Equines on Main Street.
Everybody ignored it. Were they
not familiar with Latin,
unsure what a mule or donkey was?

Sixty-fifth year of this celebration.
Round and round horses (pointed
ears), mules (long ears), and donkeys
(small), miniature ponies marched.

Wagons, buggies and golf carts,
Rebel flags on pickup trucks,
Ain’t Afraid in one rear window.
A pinto with I Kick painted on

his hind quarters. Bareback riders,
African Americans, Latinos,
and whites, paraded together.
Gorgeous coffee cream girl on a paint

(her hair, its mane braided)
paired with a tobacco- spitting
white boyfriend. We’ll come back.

II.
HURRICANE (New Orleans, 2005)

They’re tryin’ to wash us away.
“Louisiana 1927”, Randy Newman

Queen of the Krews
in her Red Cross sash
sitting on Rex’s float

spared by the levee break.
Waters rushed in 200 miles
an hour, flooded this district.

Car with a mansard roof,
steeple cross toppled to heathen
gods of weather, presents of debris,

moldy blood of Christ. Waters
carried away the rich man, jailed
the poor in the city. Bus trudges
through trash, residents back
to see their homes. X
on the door, tilted cross of death,

tallying dead kin, drowned pets.
No house overlooked in the Passover.
Pull the cord so the bus stops at your house.

Touch the walls before bulldozers
push them in. New homes will rise.
New people to wave at floats. The waters
will rise again.

III.
CROP DUSTERS (Union County, N.C.)

We followed bi-winged planes
spraying DDT to kill mosquitoes,
like running after ice cream

trucks. I watched them hedge hop
over crops , lifting from a dirt
airfield, barely clearing the pond

at the end of the runway, frightening
watering cows. Never knew, until
Old Man Helms told me, they flew

under low county bridges
upside down for a thrill.
By a pot-bellied stove across

from the wind-sock their stories
stoked into exaggerations
and lies. Didn’t worry about

fuel prices or the Depression.
Just hoped the county
wouldn’t build new, taller bridges.

IV.
ITINERANT PREACHER (Monroe, N.C.)

After the pastures were rented
to big farmers, and we assured
mother farmer Howey’s cows
would make similar soothing sounds
to her cows which had been sold,
she rented out the farm manager’s
cottage, first to state troopers.

A knock came in response
to mother’s ad. The man, about 35,
rolled his sleeves up and tucked
his bible under arm. Three girls
hid behind their mother and wiped
noses on her skirt. She worked
in the Icemolee sock mill, and he
preached at a church called The Cross
in a strip mall with boarded windows.

The family came hoping the congregation
would take them in, buy a parsonage.
The wife fell prey to grab-ass
games at the mill. The collection
plate too light to pay rent. Whiskey
did the rest. The girls again watched
their father load a borrowed pickup
and pop the clutch headed
downhill.

V.
STONE MASON (Black Mountain, N.C.)

His mountain twang laid back
our ears, insinuated itself
all wrong. Under our vaulted
ceiling, he erected scaffolding,
piled rock of all shapes
and hues from Tennessee
fields, Carolina rivers.
Taupe, rust, tan.

Some rocks just right,
turning and turning
in his hands until he got their best
sides. Others he split along a line
only he could see. Dust
filled the air as his rock hammer
pinged fragments around a room
turned war zone. Michelangelo’s
cathedral stone fireplace emerged.

Next job would stab out
an eye, slit by a sliver,
causing him to hold each
candidate up too long
until it disqualified itself.

VI.
DRAGON STORM (Black Mountain, N.C.)

Bamboo blinds rattle, bird feeder
swings, tall sprigs sprouted
from summer rain whip.
We can feel a storm marching

eastward down the Swannanoa
Valley. Outriggers of lightning
flash outside the rim. We count
waiting for the crack.

Soon sheets of rain beat down
our basil, lavender and rosemary.
Sudden quiet. Dark shades of blue
frame mists. To signal storm’s end

we bang the dragon door knocker
pounded by our blacksmith son.

Footnote: In Chinese mythology, dragons
symbolize the natural world, bringing
rain and harmonizing weather.

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Wendy DeGroat : Two Poems about Place

Riverside Picnic

I am SO busy, swamped! she trumpets, lounging back against a stump, setting down
her wine—each deadline, task, an alligator she must wrestle, dodge. Another badge.

Behind her, an egret drifts by on a floating limb—like its Everglade kin that hitch rides
on gators’ backs, knowing their corrugated cousins must turn their entire bodies to turn

their jaws. Archosaurs, birds and gators both, necks the widest divergence in their evolution.
Picture an owl’s head turning.        I set out olives, bread. Try again. How are the kids? 

Their lists begin. Maples dispatch a flotilla of gold downriver — past us, past the egret.
Sapphire, a dragonfly blazes onto my friend’s hat. I need a getaway, she muses, somewhere

peaceful, pretty. She picks up an olive, gazes over my shoulder. Those boulders
are covered in goose shit, she frowns, lifts her phone, pushes her glasses down.

You’ve inspired me. I’m booking a trip right now. Along the bank, where sun surrenders
to shadow, where yellow leaf-boats have run aground, where creeks flow through tall grass,

the egret lunges in a splashing flash of white. In its beak, sapphire gleams in the fading light.

Congregation
Bryan Park, Richmond

After three days of grey damp, we emerge on a January Sunday, converging
on the park, with dogs and without, with children and without,

with — or by ourselves. Here.
Cyclists in matching jerseys pedal in sync. Grinning tall on her princess bike, a girl careens

toward her dad’s camera. Beneath the willow, two women whisper, hold hands. Henry,
who lives under the overpass, who warns folks,
slow down, take it easy
, he’s out too.

Frisbee-golfers stride uphill, duffles bulging with discs. A boy skates downhill, glances

back; little sister races after him, squealing. Fingers pressed to pulse, runners count
the seconds. An old man lounges beside the spillway, pole in hand. And sunset men,

in the lot where they’ve found and lost each other for decades, lean soft against dark-windowed cars.

As tree shadows flicker across our faces, my lungs lift like birds from a cage flung open, heart
blown Whitman-wide. Winter grasses, stubborn green, inhale haze, exhale oxygen,

conspiring — to give us all one more breath.

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Gayle Compton : Two Poems

A RECIPE FOR SLICK DUMPLINGS

Eva May, honey

I just had to call and let you know

they finally found my

ex-husband John B.

Been a-missing

ever since he started working for

the government somers around Houston.

Been two years this September

but they finally found him—

found all of him but his head.

You heard me right!

said he was chopped up and scattered

fours ways to Sunday.

Arm here, leg yonder—

but nary a head.

They said it didn’t take the coroner

mor’en thirty minutes

to pronounce him dead.

Eva May,

do you still have Mommy’s old recipe

for slick dumplings?

I’ve racked my brain

trying to remember

if it takes three pound of chicken

or four,

whether to let’em simmer   

or bring ’em to a bile.

THE MAN WHAT INVENTED POWER STEERING

Damn that Wendell Looney and his power steering, anyway!

Guess you heard about old Wendell, over in the Bottom.

Went off in the head again last night.

You know Wendell, John Pie’s oldest boy, married Ruby Jean Hicks

over on Toler.

Shot out of bed about three hours afore daylight and headed down

the railroad track nekked as a pick bird,

if I knowed the Lord would strike me dead!

Pert near nekked, anyway.

Varnell Tackett, down by the crossing, said he had on a hat,

if you can believe Varnell–

one of them bill caps got John Deere or Caterpillar one wrote on it–

pretty sure it was John Deere.

Hat or no hat, he still weren’t dressed what you’d call decent.

Ruby Jean, Betty Flo, John Pie and ever damn Looney in the Bottom

was dead after him. 

You never heard such a racket at three in the morning!

Woke up ever dog from Doc Bill to Monkey Town.

Seventy-five of ’em if they was a dog!

Coon hounds, fox hounds, bull dogs, German shepherds, collies, poodles–

you name it— tearing down the road, sailing over fences, scooting around corners,

splitting the creek–some of them dragging their chains and even the doors

to their dog houses.

My two, Old Ring and Old Blue, like to tore the door down

wanting in on the fun.

Course Wendell had a good head start on them and was moving pretty swift,

not having enough clothes on to hinder him much.

Made it to the railroad tunnel before they downed him.

Varnell Tackett, if you can believe Varnell, said Wendell told them he

was on his way to town on business, headed to Pikeville to see him a lawyer.

You see, Wendell claims he’s the man invented power steering 

and them crooks at Chrysler up and stole his patent.

Got him a power steering belt painted pink and hanging from the rear view

mirror of that old green Plymouth. Get that on your mind! 

Never in my born days have I seen such a ruckus over power steering.

Varnell weren’t lying about the hat, except it weren’t no John Deere hat.

Got it from a reliable source that Wendell had on a bill cap that said

Jack’s Radiator Shop:  Best Place in Town to Take a Leak.

Had it turned around backards in that “Go-to-hell” way young folks are

wearing them these days.

Headed down town on important business, guess old Wendell wanted to be in style.

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Dan Leach : Farmer’s Market

Farmer’s Market

An old man suspiciously thumps
the yellow belly of a watermelon.
His wife tests a tomato
between her wrinkled thumb and forefinger.
And the way that mother eyes her sweet potato,
I half expect her to lay her ear against it
and listen for whatever secret
she thinks resides within.
To each his own.
But, it’s only the girl who knows,
plunging into a strawberry,
red juice dripping down her smile,
and staining her t-shirt so beautifully,
her mother can’t help but stop,
put the potato down,
and laugh without restraint
at the wonder suspended here.

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Jeanne Ferran : Three Poems about Place

(1)
Morning Prayer
Stars that blinked on the raven’s wing
yield to clouds laced in watercolor hues.
The ridgeline blushes on the back
of the mourning dove.thoughts of you spread over my consciousness
soft and warm, like a blanket
drawn over the chin–
this is the hour of your peace.

My fingers long to trace
the curve of your jaw, the lines of your back,
the slope of your shoulders, the bones of your hips
A gossamer touch, my weapon in your fight

Before the surge of daylight
I long to suspend the pendulum-
I want to leave lavender over your scars
I want to fill your hurt with dandelion, valerian.
I want the world to hold you in cupped palms.

I measure the morning by the cadence of your pulse
The draw of your breath.
thoughts of battle are now with the stars-
And you are free to be my everything.

(2)

Black Balsam
believe it or not
the world still turns
the sun still rises on the other side
each arc across the vast blue dome is one more
turn of the wheel
that takes us further away from where we were.
when all else fails,
trust the hours
the lengthening shadows
where darkness grows
light will surely follow.(3)

Sunday Morning
Fall leaves funnel spring rain
into the fertile womb.
Buds swell on wizened fingers.
Ladyslipper, trillium, elderberry unfoldorange shingles and bearded moss
blanket the trees
laid down by the ice storms of winter

the creek swells with the remnants
of a cold, recurring rain

twigs snap with the melody of laughter-
my sons- their voices carry in the hallow.
if they knew how to ask me
to give them the world
I would pour out their boots,
smear the mud from their knees
onto their
perfect cheeks
capture the fireflies they carry
in their hummingbird eyes-

what if-
I already have?

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Ellen Perry : I Wonder

I wonder how many times I’ve washed my husband Dean’s sweaty, muddy shirts and socks. I wonder how many trips I’ve taken to the grocery store to buy stuff to fix supper with. I wonder how many times I’ve pressed the “chicken” button on the baby’s Noah’s Ark toy. Guess what: I hate cooking (especially meals from that cookbook Dean’s mother gave me – one recipe requires three pots and one skillet) and dealing with dirty clothes. Most of all, I’m sick of the sound a chicken makes, and I’ve got even more chickens to deal with – real ones – in the yard and in my life.

You talk about chicken-like behavior, Dean is the worst. He talks big and treats me like a maid but won’t even stand up to his mother, acts like a big baby when she’s around. One time he stuck out his hand and told me, “Hey, Anita, pick off my callouses.” I said, “Gross, no way,” and you know what his mother said? She said to him, in a baby voice, “Your mommy would do it for you.” When I brought that up later, Dean said he hadn’t heard her say it. Maybe he didn’t remember, or he blocked it out, but I will never forget.

When we first moved into our tiny two-bedroom house, I was so proud of it. I couldn’t wait to fix it up nice, give it my own touches. But all Dean’s mother did was invade my safe haven and frown a lot. “Well,” she said, sighing and shaking her head, “you’ve got a LOT of work to do on this yard.” She also proceeded to tell me how high to hang one of my pictures, which azalea was worthless (“This thing just needs to be gone, you should start all over”), what family heirloom (her side) needed to go on my corner table, what items I needed and didn’t need when I took her shopping with me at the home store.

Oh, wait, you haven’t heard all of it yet. Dean’s mother would make a huge mess in my kitchen and leave it for me to clean up. She didn’t like it when I invited our neighbors over for cookouts while she was there; I never told her this was Dean’s idea, and he was too afraid to own up to it. She showed me pictures she’d taken of helpless creatures that her cat had attacked. “See here? That’s the chipmunk that Midnight tortured and killed the other day. Right there’s the intestines.” She pointed to the grisly scene, so proud of Midnight. Nuts, right? When I asked her not to show me those pictures anymore, she said, “That’s just real life.” Talk about not getting it. And Dean was too intimidated by her, I guess, to take up for me! Or else he agreed with her that looking at pain and violence is no big deal, even enjoyable. Neither one of them has any heart to speak of so that was probably it.

The worst was when Dean’s mother told him, right in front of me like I wasn’t there, “Anita shouldn’t be working part-time over at that doctor’s office. She needs to stay home with the kids.” And Dean said, “Yeah, that sounds good. Anita won’t be as stressed out being at home. I’ll just take on more hours at the job site. Can I get some more potato salad, Mama?” His mother grinned like the Devil and plopped that chunky yellow potato salad onto his plate without asking if any of the rest of us wanted some.

The only part I liked about what Dean said that day was “I’ll just take on more hours at the job site” because he gets on my last nerve when he’s bumbling around our house. He’s always in my way or calling out for me to find something. One time he barged in on me while I was going to the bathroom. The last private space I had was gone! He was looking for the remote. Now why in hell would the remote be in the bathroom? I think the bastard did it on purpose just to let me know he was going to invade any little spot I could find and claim as my own.

I wonder how many times I’m going to have to listen to Dean say “No” or “I’m good on that” (which also means no) when I suggest something fun to do, like taking salsa dance lessons. I wonder how long I’ll have to fake-smile at church when the preacher says to me, “You are a good, virtuous Christian woman, Anita. Your price is far above rubies.” Price! I know that line comes from the Bible, but it makes me feel like I’m for sale and my worth only comes from how good a wife I am. I wonder when Dean will leave me alone so I won’t get pregnant any more. Three kids are enough.

I wonder when all this will finally kill me. My health is shot so it might not be long. I have these fantasies sometimes about just keeling over in the backyard, our neighbor Eulalie (who doesn’t have a family of her own and is always nosing around at our clothesline) calling 911, and then me having a nice long rest over there at the hospital on a clean bed with white sheets I don’t have to wash. Those young nurses would be kind and gentle to me, so sweet and caring. I’d run Dean and his mother off if they tried to come in and visit. You know what, he probably wouldn’t even darken the hospital door unless he needed his clothes washed.

I wonder if I could pull it off. I could fake a heart attack (wouldn’t be hard, it’s probably like my usual panic but with bad chest pains), writhe around in the ambulance, and then settle down once I got situated in my bed at County General. The doctor would say, “False alarm. But we’ll keep you here overnight for observation.” Then… then… I could break free after the night nurse made her last round, before the shift change, jump out the window or creep down the stairwell and run like hell toward the bus station. I’ve got enough money tucked back from my doctor’s office work to go somewhere and find a full-time job. Nobody would know or care where I’d gone.

Dean could marry Eulalie and she’d be pleased as punch to get bragged on: “Eulalie, you are a saint for taking on Dean and those three poor children, little lambs. Anita is a fallen woman! Oh, she’s like Jezebel, like Delilah, sneaky and mean, awful to leave her home.” Eulalie would just smile and lower her head and say, “The Lord called me to it. He called me and it’s my duty to answer that call.” I wonder if she’d put spot cleaner on Dean’s shirts. For sure she’d tolerate his mother’s craziness, do whatever she told her to do. She’d fix big meals for the family and feed the chickens.

I bet she wouldn’t even mind putting up with Dean, the biggest chickenshit of them all.

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Scott Rooker : Dentists Abroad

They were friends from before, colleagues ever since Freshmen Orientation.  That is where it really all began.

Now seventeen years later, under an African moon, the old friends drank brandy.  They laughed about a great many things that night.  The spirit of the night was high on the eve of their great safari.

The next morning their guide would watch as the two American dentists walked down to the dry river bed.  They pointed their guns in the direction of the grasses.  They waited several minutes.  Then they walked out view.

Only one dentist came out of the brush that day.

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Adreyo Sen : A Poem

Faery

When this house no longer is,
its garden will still persist,
freed from walls that sought
to imprison its mysteries.
In the shade of weeping trees,
wild roses and wine-red leaves
will charm the sky to pliancy,
serenaded by an admiring breeze.

And long after I’ve confided my thoughts
to its silent paths
and joined the fox stilled to prayer
by stone’s gentle artistry,
long after I am a little less
than the longing with which I leave this place,
you’ll wander the kingdom
that was yours
even before you conquered it and me,
and I abdicated with a kiss.

And perhaps those who pause
to look beyond the crumbling walls
shot through with the honeysuckle’s
reckless heraldry,
overcome by a sense of awe,
will wander in.

And perhaps, as on a restless, heartsick day, I have,
they’ll come across a little child,
unsmiling in her purpose
as she caresses the wandering tulips
that pay homage to her quiet wisdom,
or sits on a granite throne
in severe conversation with the ravens,
tempering her admonitions with soft pats
and the beginnings of a smile.
Perhaps they’ll come across you
as you give the setting sun
something of your strange beauty,
the sweet music of your melancholy.
Or they’ll discover you touring your empire,
the wild cat that was your first friend,
sharing in the fierceness of your isolation,
sauntering by your side.

Perhaps.
But I will no longer be.
I am readying to leave, to take up exile
in the company of my grief,
though the soft embrace of the rain
and the softer caresses of the sun
will remind me of you.

I cannot bear to stay so close
when I cannot claim
your warmth for my own,
or annex you with my kisses.
I knew you were not mine for long.
Did it have to be so soon?

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Travis Turner : Chimney Sweeps

It sits there, day after day waiting for the scraps it needs to survive. Tiny pieces of bread, torn and tossed from small fragile hands to the silky black bird. It hops swiftly toward each of them, trying to devour the morsels before the others take its sustenance. They are bigger. Stronger. More magnificently colored. It does not matter. Its blackish-gray feathers help hide the soot from nestling inside the chimney with its 3 small hatchlings. Purposeful, it will survive.

She sits there, in the house she has known for the past 43 years, day after day. A gallery of pictures line each and every available inch of space on the walls and shelves. Remnants from the past. Brothers and sisters, some who never made it to see the isolation of old age as she now does. Ghosts. She kisses them goodbye.

3 young boys peep back at her from one frame. Sons. One taken too early. To the right hangs her true love, her mate for life. Matrimony of 62 years deceased now, but she does not lose her faith. She clings to the hope that one day they will be reunited. All of them.

Chimney sweeps are her only company. She feeds them each morning with scraps of old bread. She stands there, blank, expressionless, lost on the land she has spent the past 83 years of her life. She looks desperately for something she cannot grasp. A roaring in the distance means that it’s time to return back to her hollow nest.

Purposeless, she will not survive much longer. Her tiny permanent ringlets, now all gray, cannot hide the defeat in her eyes. Others may be younger, stronger, more beautiful, but it does not matter. She savors the manna given to her now. She sits there, day after day waiting for the scraps she needs to survive.

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An ESSAY to celebrate the day: “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.

 

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being an editor ain’t easy

I’ve had a lot of liquid ridiculous farts spiral down the mule waterpike over the last 20 years.

Currently, I’m being ripped a new, larger than life, asshole by a woman I’ve never met in person but did talk to on the phone — years ago. Amy Wilson of The Red Truck Review (a website Ms. Wilson began a couple years ago. The site did not exist during our conversations) has attacked me in writing once again. I fear she will continue to drag my name through the mud. Back when she first received a “grant” to start an online journal, I offered to help her, asked nothing in return for my counsel, and ended up in her shit-sights — I suspect she has a very powerful Crap Loaded Injection Model Rifle. I did not know Amy Wilson, still do not know her personally on as of Nov. 20, 2015.

The conversations began when Ms. Wilson asked if I would attend a southern writing conference that she, Amy Wilson, was hosting. As a panel participant, my expenses would be paid by the “conference “. This has always been the case in every conference or seminar wherein I have been a discussion leader, panel participant, or when I’ve been asked to read a paper. I was flattered (of course) and agreed conditionally to attend, if the conference did pan out — it never did.

I am publishing, verbatim, a few of the emails I’ve received lately. I want an online, public record of just how angry a person you’ve never met can become when you do precisely what the unknown individual demands from you.  I am copying these emails here on my literary journal because I am physically afraid of Amy S. Wilson of Oklahoma and I wish this fear to be made public. So, thank you for indulging me — please go back to your Tar Heel Pie. We are all too aware of how anger can quickly turn outward, how the innocent suddenly become accountable for the perceived wrongdoings or slights of other… so publishing a public dialog concerning threats from this woman may well serve us all. Who knows?

And over what? See the blog post previous to this one.  With the current violent political world in which we now dwell, we are all loathe to wake any sleeping tigers for fear the tiger will extract retribution from the closest object, not the object of their wrath. Or they’ll grab a box of Depends and drive half way across the US to fulfill some sort of Violence Quest…

 

So, get a load of the kind of stuff editors receive and think about how this would affect you:

Hey–
Honey–one more time: You get that search engine to not associate w/ my writer name to that stupid blog of yours–or we go legal.
You think my last ceast desist letter to you was a bark bite?  Honey, I’m gonna legal rip into you if you make me.
But must thank you for Prayers after all, have a great agent for my novel. So must say thank you for the prayers.
But if you want to avoid legal action; you do what you say you are going to do: Remove my name from that blog post so it does not come up in a search.
What should come up in association w/ my author name is my story accepted and published by DM.
Funny too how in your blog, etc. you do not mention that you accepted a more than valued $600. airline ticket gift and how I w/o fee labor at your request,
fielded as an editorial asst. at DM Summer 2013 for 6 hours.
You want to go legal, as the saying goes “Let’s DO IT.”
You want to follow through and remove my story from DM that’s at your discretion; I have accept letter if anyone even cares why I would not not be  removed.
You do what you said you’d do, by 1:00 CSt or will file injunction.
I’m sorry you take it to this level. Again, I appreciate what you do for new writers. You encouraged me so much a few yea rs  ago as a new author and only had 2 pubs.
Then a pub from DM ! Pub 4!
You helped me reach where I am and a book!
But I won’t tolerate your unprofessional display of my self either and there  are legal ways to remedy your antics.
Play them out or follow through.
Your Choice.

While I was scratching my head at the $600 plane ticket and trying to figure out what was going on, I got this email:

This is the last personal email you will receive from me; I ask you one more time to remove my name from the ugly blog post labeled “smart ass”
I don’t care about whether you remove my story or not from DM; that threat of yours is a non-entity. I always prefer a publication remain but I can prove, via saved editor accept letters, publication ack via the book.
But I have spoken to several authors you have published in DM who have had issues w/ you; I will simply file an injunction and proceed from there with you.
You can follow through by tomorrowNov. 13 4 pm CST and have my name disassociated from the blog post where you XXXX out my name you still have the search engine drive my writing name to this post; hence; not anonymous. Either eradicate the blog post or my name.
Or I’m willing to go legal route with you.
Again, thanks for your prayers that you say you say each not por moi; I have a fabulous agent for my novel about Southern women.
You might want to pray more about where your fine Southern gal self will land if you don’t follow through. I’m all about action, you know.
Last personal notice you will get to follow through. I’m usually not so kind, but my heart goes out to you to follow through b/c you are after all so much like me, thought I dont’ BS and I don’t
shit on writers. But that in your blog, honey.

But, these emails came within minutes of each other … there’s even one where she says over 30 writers she contacted said nasty things about me when they read the blog post previous to this.

You know what? Since I’ve sent the link out of your blog post re. my journal/interview you participated in with us, which I asked readers to
give me their reaction to the post…and a few more have rolled in since I last contacted you and asked if you’d remove my name in search re. that blog post of yours.
The reaction is so largely overwhelming that your blog post is in such poor taste and clearly designed to bash my journal that I’m fine w/ you leaving it as is. It seems that
anyone who reads it will interpret it as I do: A below-the belt jab at my journal, my interview with you. And this reflects,  on you.
Not RTR or myself at all.
I wish you continued success with DM and your art work.
Best,
Amy
And there were more emails, one right after another and this email contains quotes from people who think I’m a total asshole and more…
Thank you for the changes; you know, though, my name still attached in a search to this blog post. Please correct this.
I sent out your blog post and here’s some of the comments that rolled in, of about 30:
I didn’t know Valerie at DM could be so hateful. She’s a total ass and I won’t contribute further works to DM. Ridiculous.
This is in very poor taste. I would not interact with her but to convey what poor taste this blog post is.
She’s a total asshole to take you up on an interview then bash interview she participates in by choice.
Again, I would appreciate the removal of my name in key word search to this blog of yours.
I don’t have time to list the 30 plus responses that have rolled in when I put out a call of “What do ya’ll think of this blog by DM editor about my interview I gave her?
In other news, we have some links that our web dude is repairing on our site and they should be repaired and good to go in next few days.
While I have no respect for your blog post of my journal, I do respect you as an editor and value your journal.
I will not interact with you any further at any capacity.
Note that last sentence. And then count the copied emails above it. I hope this is over soon but if it is not, I will continue to publish the emails here.
If you are interested in names of blog comments, I’m glad to ask them consent to tell you who they are.
A
So, if you allow the public to visit you via email, you’re going to have a couple rotten apples mixed in and that’s a chance you take. Be strong. But be discriminating. Friendly means taking risks. Be safe out there.

another email, messages were received every 2-5 minutes, I was not online at the time they were sent:
Nov 12
A. Wilson
Injunction

This is the last personal email you will receive from me; I ask you one more time to remove my name.
Just making sure you received this! Just a shout out which is dually notice
and:

InjunctionThis is the last personal email you will receive from me; I ask you one more time to remove my name from the ugly blog post labeled “smart ass”

I don’t care about whether you remove my story or not from DM; that threat of yours is a non-entity. I always prefer a publication remain but I can prove, via saved editor accept letters, publication ack via the book.

But I have spoken to several authors you have published in DM who have had issues w/ you; I will simply file an injunction and proceed from there with you.

You can follow through by tomorrow, Nov. 13 4 pm CST and have my name disassociated from the blog post where you XXXX out my name you still have the search engine drive my writing name to this post; hence; not anonymous. Either eradicate the blog post or my name.

Or I’m willing to go legal route with you.

Again, thanks for your prayers that you say you say each not por moi; I have a fabulous agent for my novel about Southern women.

You might want to pray more about where your fine Southern gal self will land if you don’t follow through. I’m all about action, you know.
Last personal notice you will get to follow through. I’m usually not so kind, but my heart goes out to you to follow through b/c you are after all so much like me, thought I dont’ BS and I don’t

End of the email transcript from Amy S Wilson copied here.
###
Be safe. Protect yourself by filling your world with love.
–V. MacEwan
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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.”

I said that, back in 1996.

And this journal is a dead mule. Publishing a literary journal for nearly 20 years has made me the target for many interview requests over the past two decades. It must be admitted heretofore that most of the responses found online are seemingly 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.

I’ve been interviewed so many times. In reverse, I have interviewed many a person, check this link to PopMatters.com for some of my articles and reviews on that fine magazine. And then there was the Rob Limo and Linux for Poets 2004 interview. Claire Zulkey (my fav contemporary writer!) interviewed Phoebe Kate and me. Then there were newspaper articles, other websites and all-in-all, a nice body of discussions  because I respect the process. Yup. I shore do. And fuck anyone who doesn’t like it. Simply don’t read what you don’t like to read. It’s easy. If you’re offended, read something else. And don’t email me about your petty squabbles with my Ass – ness.

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 a woman named Amy Wilson who publishes writing and photographs online with an email questionnaire/publisher interview. I thought about what makes the Mule become the Mule and it is the mix of contemporary with tradition — that combination — that makes our journal a staple.

Hi Valerie, thank you for taking the time to chat with The Red 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

Jan. 2013

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Ted Harrison — Southern Legitimacy Statement

Now this is how it’s done!!

My Southern Legitimacy Statement: 
In an earlier statement I told you a little about Paw Paw Owen’s mule. That mule is still dead—not because I had my picture made “tall in the bareback” as it were. My Uncle Richard was Paw Paw Owen’s only son. The two men farmed together—subsistence farming. They raised corn, wheat, cotton. They had apple trees and pear trees. Together they cut wood to be used for warmth in winter, for cook stoves year ‘round. There was always a vegetable garden. Sometimes in the winter, Uncle Richard worked at Baxter’s Clothing Store as a way to make ends meet. (Some people call that “public work.”)

In the spring and summer, Uncle Richard raised watermelons and cantaloupes. He peddled these door to door in Salisbury. When gas became more plentiful, he ranged out as far as the village where we lived. (More about the village later.) I was with him on one of the trips. Not yet 12, my job was to make sure he had melons and cantaloupes to show. He got about fifty yards away from me and yelled at me to drive his car to meet him. A 1937 Chevrolet with gears on the floor was a challenge. I remembered the best I could how to make it move. By jump and buck and stall, I made it to where Uncle Richard smiled on me. He smiled, but he drove the rest of the day.


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What it will be!

rosewellruins

The Dead Mule is about to sell something so insanely out of this world, we can hardly write about it. Gallery-wrapped prints, (on a frame, stretched canvas) of the American South from 1927-1944 by Frances Benjamin Johnston from the collections of the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South. Absolutely phenomenal prints from New Orleans, LA to Monroe County, West Virginia.

freemangoodmansion1

 

We tried to start an advertisement page with this: Pigment ink prints offer the finest reproductions available today. But how dry is that? I mean, seriously, unless you know your CMYK from your RGB, your pixels from your pixies, or how many ounces your printable vinyl needs to weigh, my giving you a discussion of pigment ink printing vs the four color press isn’t going to impress you much. We’ll wait until we can show you the actual products before giving you the specifics of our printing process. (Pigment ink prints are also known as giclée prints. There’s a bit more of an explanation.)

freemangood1  <— See that photo over there next to this text? Ain’t that something? I mean it, how incredible is that picture?

What if you could get a print of that, on canvas, gallery-wrapped and ready for hanging? (“wrapped” means it is mounted on a wood frame, around the sides of the frame, you know … wrapped, in case you weren’t aware of the meaning, I mean, geesh, I had to learn it.) Or you could get a canvas print or a glossy photograph of that ready for framing or we’d mat and frame it for you — in matching frames just like you’re somebody, ya know? We are combing the archival South, finding vintage photographs like that one and creating curated collections to sell here on the Dead Mule. I mean, heck, yall’d be all kinds of excited if you were in the middle of doing that, wouldn’t you?

These prints (photographs) will be available soon. The prices will astound you. The quality of the prints will send you out the back door hollering and yelling at the neighbors to get dressed and come outside to take a look see at what you found on the Internet!

4The prints will be available as large format glossy photographs, canvas (gallery mounted or ready to mount), or posters. Right now we are working on the selling particulars. The product is 99% ready, we’re figuring the shipping details, getting a grip on whether to sell through Etsy or right here on the Mule.

The Mule is all kind of excited. Too excited to put a couple of coherent sentences together. We are even going to offer these photos on canvas tote bags!

Some folks know this type of art as a giclée print. That’s geeclay if you want to say it outloud. See the *to understand why you don’t want to go around yelling that word when you’re visiting Paris.

What the heck is a giclée print, you ask? Read this bit taken from an article in Wikipedia:

The word giclée was adopted by Jack Duganne, a printmaker working at Nash Editions. He wanted a name for the new type of prints they were producing on the IRIS printer, a large-format, high-resolution industrial prepress proofing inkjet printer they had adapted for fine-art printing. He was specifically looking for a word that would not have the negative connotations of “inkjet” or “computer generated”. It is based on the French word gicleur, which means “nozzle” (the verb form gicler means “to squirt, spurt, or spray”).[3]  *An unintended consequence of Duganne’s choice of name was its problematic use in the French language since it is also modern French slang for male ejaculation.[4][5][6][7]

[*last sentence makes us giggle… like little kids saying the word “booger”]

…These printers use the CMYK color process but may have multiple cartridges for variations of each color based on the CcMmYK color model (such as light magenta and light cyan inks in addition to regular magenta and cyan); this increases the apparent resolution and color gamut and allows smoother gradient transitions.

 

More information:
cunninghamplantation

We have some absolutely incredible photographs of the south. Historic prints. We are printing these images using such a fantabulous printer as the ISIS type mentioned in the above article. Large format, CMYK, high-resolution, canvas prints. Photographic enlargements — digital printing. More details about the quality later. This is our introductory page. There’s much more to say and by golly, we’ll say it soon. The prints are part of the 20th anniversary Year of the Dead Mule.

We will offer the giclée prints of the historic photos in limited, signed editions, collections ordered in sets of 3 to 15 prints. If everything goes as planned —> You’ll be able to purchase the prints suitable for framing (mailed in a cardboard tube), or gallery wrapped and ready to hang, or matted and framed [ white mat with black, high quality, wood frame]. The prices will be so reasonable they’ll make you slap your grandma. [oh how we do revert to our Arkansas past when we get excited, right Grandpa Johnny?]

all righty then, you can see why we are at a loss for fancy words to describe what all this. We’ll get back to yall in a few days with all the ordering details.

DicksonHouse1

If everything turns out just right — The Dead Mule will offer more than the historic South. We’ve got the entire Lester Belt Canine Horoscope Chart collection. You’ll swoon when you see real photographs of Mr. Belt instructing dog owners in a step-by-step method of his horoscope-based training manual. Never before seen, never before published, and 100% aLester Belt VMacEwanuthentic. Our photographic training manual came straight from the Belt estate … and boy is it ever strange. That’s a magazine excerpt with Mr. Belt and his canine companion. We’ve got the drawing he’s working on as well as the rest of the photos. Yall are going to want to put Mr. Belt on your wall.

So rev up the curiosity engines and get your credit card ready.

In the words of my 5 year old nephew — just before he did a swan dive off the top bunk onto a pile of  dirty laundry:

“Prepare to be amazed.”

 

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Lemoncharles by southern writer John Calvin Hughes

Lemoncharles stirs beneath his blankets and listens to raindrops falling heavily on the roof. Last night there was a storm, and huge drops collected in the trees, trembling, ready to fall. Now and then winds shakes them loose, a flattened, unsyncopated music on the corrugated tin roof. It is still dark. He moves from his cot to the door and swings it open. Cool night air seeps into the one-room cabin like a ghost, and he turns to blow the fire aflame in the old stove he banked last night.

The kindling catches, and he steps into his crusted, unlaced boots and carries the coffee pot out to the pump. The black tongues of his boots flap against his shins. Lemoncharles’s cabin, so far back in the woods no road reaches it, has no electricity or running water.

The sky is marbled black and gray with storm clouds, but the eastern horizon is a solid band of gold light. Still, dark earth, dark swirling sky. He carries the water inside.

Coffee bubbles, more and more birds sing as the sky changes from black to gray and swallows the pale stars. Lemoncharles puts his three books on the table. A week ago he had only two books, a Bible and Life Goes to the Movies. Then yesterday, walking to Mr. Light’s grocery, he found another book by the side to the road. The cover was missing and the first three pages, so he did not know the name of the book or the author. But he read it all afternoon and long into the night. By morning he had decided to write a book.

From that book and from the Bible, Lemoncharles learned the only writing technique he would ever use, the rhetorical question. He decided to call his book What? and the first question would be What is TV? He is only waiting for full morning light to get started because he will first have to go to Mr. Light’s and buy something to write on.

He walks through the woods and comes out on Mr. Silas’s driveway which takes him down to the road where he found his third book and where he can walk the two miles to the grocery.

Lemoncharles buys a tablet of notebook paper from Mr. Light’s son Turl. The tablet has a blue cover, a spiral binding, and two hundred sheets of paper. On the way home, Jack Laird picks him up and carries him down to the end of the Silas driveway and lets him off.

Sitting at his table, Lemoncharles slowly scrapes the price tag off his new notebook with his thumbnail, restoring the field of uninterrupted blue. He opens it and looks at the first blank page. Then he writes the question that has been on his mind for weeks. What is TV?

**

One morning two weeks later Silas looks over his white coffee mug and sees Lemoncharles standing in the yard. Silas burns his tongue on the steaming coffee, then folds his newspaper, and, carrying his cup, goes out into the yard.

He stops a few feet away and looks Lemoncharles over, wondering how old he is. He does not know that two weeks ago Lemoncharles celebrated his seventy-seventh birthday by buying a blue notebook. Lemoncharles, as far as Silas knows, has always lived in the shack near the property line at the north end of the Silas land. Silas’s father’s will contained several clauses concerning Lemoncharles, detailing his cabin and his pay.

Every Friday Silas (or his wife) pays Lemoncharles fifty dollars. It is nothing to Silas. A trust at the bank puts the extra fifty into his checking account every week. It is matter only of having the fifty dollars on hand in cash every Friday at the back door when Lemoncharles, his hat in his hand, looking steadily at the ground, comes for his pay.

But some Fridays Lemoncharles does not come to the back door, and though they invariably hold his money until the following week, he never takes it. Didn’t work last week, he says. Silas and his wife, Muriel, always laugh over that and wonder what work it is that Lemoncharles is still doing for Silas’s late father.

When Muriel found out that Lemoncharles lived on canned soup, pork and beans, and bacon, she decided to put the money he would not take on her grocery bill and buy him some decent food. When he took him the food, she was so shaken seeing the conditions he lived in she could not speak. Embarrassed, she was afraid she was embarrassing him. She held the bags of groceries out to him, but he would not take them.

Back at her own house, she left the groceries on the back porch and went inside. She poured a generous dollop of vodka into a short glass full of oblong pieces of refrigerator-made ice.

Muriel waited. She was good at waiting. When the glass was frosted all way around, she picked it up and drank it off in three long swallows and shuddered. She turned toward the ornate hall mirror and looked at her face. She had done King Lear a year before she married, and now she tried to shape her features into the face she associated with Cordelia, the patience, the forbearance, the composure. She tried to imagine what it would be to live in a place like that. She would need all of Cordelia’s quiet strength. She watched herself unbutton the second button on her blouse, reach inside, and slide her hand along clean white skin beneath the sheer brassiere, cupping as much of her breast as she could. She closed her eyes and tried to recreate Lemoncharles’s shack. The one dark room, the sooty lamp, the low, narrow cot, the empty table. When she went to bring the groceries in, they were gone.

**

“What say, L.C.?” Silas says and sips his coffee slowly. “C’mon in, have a cup coffee.” Lemoncharles shakes his head, looking at the ground. Lemoncharles never looks up when they talk. This makes Silas uncomfortable, makes him bend over backward to put Lemoncharles more at ease.

Lemoncharles holds out a sheaf of notebook paper folded once. “Can you tune me up to a ride to the post office, Mr. Silas? I needs a stamp to mail this to New York City, New York.” An address is written on one side of the folded papers, Time-Life Books Inc. New York City, New York. Lemoncharles grins and cocks his head up at Silas.

Silas takes the papers and looks at the address. He does not open them, just holds them and looks at the address. “I’ll drive you to the post office,” he says, “and we’ll get some stamps on this.” He hands the papers back to Lemoncharles who puts them in the large pocket on the front of his overalls.

“I wait in the truck,” Lemoncharles says.

Silas picks up a manila envelope from his desk, puts his nearly empty cup in the sink, then tiptoes down the hall to the bedroom. Muriel is still asleep, on her stomach, face buried in pillows, one hand reaching for the floor, one tangled in her hair. City girl, he thinks.

As they drive out of the yard, Silas thinks, this is what she is missing, morning’s twilight, gray light, cool air. The morning after their wedding he had awakened Muriel very early and led her out into the front yard. He put her in his sleeping bag where they lay warm and naked, though she was not awake enough to make love. Later, she forbid him ever to wake her that early again. So every morning he sits at the kitchen table, cold in his T shirt and khakis, drinks coffee, and watches the light come up in his yard.

At the post office Lemoncharles watches Silas write the address on the manila envelope and slide the papers inside. John Bey, the postmaster, weights the envelope and puts seventy-five cents worth of stamps on it. John Bey hands Lemoncharles the envelope, and Lemoncharles looks at it. He hands it back to John Bey and says, “Send this to New York City, New York.” John Bey nods and puts the envelope under the counter, out of sight.

For lunch Silas makes biscuits, warms up some butter beans, slices tomatoes, and fries pork chops. “Faulkner food,” Muriel grumbles, lurching in from the bedroom and falling into the chair he has pulled out for her at the kitchen table. “Everything’s overcooked or raw. Look, Silas, these biscuits aren’t even brown on top!”

Eating, they discuss Lemoncharles’s mail. Lemoncharles has neither sent nor received mail in Silas’s memory.

“Time-Life?” Muriel says.

” ‘A Report from the Piney Woods’ maybe, for Time magazine,” Silas says.

“An essay for the back page, or a book review. A treatise on global warming,” Muriel giggles.

She drops a half-eaten biscuit into her beans and brushes her hands off over her plate. “I can’t stand it. Would he die if we asked him? Would asking mortify his sense of decorum?” Muriel is leaning over the table, her face very close to Silas’s. He shrugs, but she can tell he thinks it would be all right.

**

The late afternoon light slanting orange beneath the pine bows casts the woods–trees, bushes, vines, fallen leaves–in bas relief. Lemoncharles is not home, but Silas pushes the door open and they go in. They see the blue notebook on the table. Silently, separately, they wonder how far each other’s respect for Lemoncharles’s privacy will let them go. Finally Silas goes to the table, picks up the notebook, opens it, and reads what is there. Muriel reads over his shoulder.

Where?
Where do stars
go?

The rest of the pages are blank. He puts the notebook back on the table as near as possible to where it was. Muriel goes to the open door and leans against the frame. Silas sits in a chair near the cold stove.

“L.C.’s a poet,” Silas says and laughs quietly. Muriel does not turn around. “Seriously,” he says, “what’s he writing?”

“I don’t know,” she says. When she turns around, the look on her face is so unfamiliar to Silas he goes to her and takes her in his arms. He feels an emotion he can not name rushing through him, as if he has missed something, forgotten something, something important, nagging, worrying. He thinks she must also feel it, passing into her body from his.

She opens her blouse and pulls his hands up to her naked breasts, holding them there. His hands move beneath hers. She leads him to the narrow bunk against the wall. They undress and he is inside her. She cries out as he finishes and opens his eyes in the darkening cabin. He is worried Lemoncharles will come back. Of course, he will come back. It will be dark soon, but Muriel is lying wet beneath him, holding him tightly with her legs.

Losing all hope they will not be discovered, he pulls the blanket over them. They kiss, and he slips out of her.

“I’m going home, Silas,” she says.

“Me too, girl, soon as I get my pants on.”

“I’m going to L.A. I’ll stay with Violet. I can’t live here anymore.”

Too quick, he thinks. He swallows, trying to clear his constricting throat. She is crying, pressing her face into his shoulder. I need to think, he thinks. Time to think.

**

When Lemoncharles touches the door of his cabin, he hears Muriel’s cry. He turns and goes back into the woods. The only light is in the sky, the ground and every tree and leaf only black cutouts against the silver sky. It has been a long time, but he knows the sound of lovemaking. He will not have to ask Mr. Silas where he finds life. Where? Lemoncharles wonders where he will spend the night. Now it is almost dark and the ground is rising. Percy’s Hill, the summit of the county. Where is the top of the world? By the time the ground levels out again, Lemoncharles is breathing hard. He looks through the black limbs at the hard stars emerging. Welcome back. Stooping, he gathers twigs for his fire.

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Three Poems by Thomas Alan Holmes

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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.

 

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Christopher Rowe: High Water

  “That was a nice cast, boy, your daddy’s been teaching you something right down there in Florida.”
“Now, don’t start in again, Hiram. The child wasn’t the one decided to pick up and move off. We’re blessed to have him visit for the summer.”
“I ain’t saying anything different, Martha, I was just commenting on a nice cast. Say, though, that bobber’s riding awful low. You didn’t put more than one sinker on there did you, boy?”
“Hiram…”
“Because you don’t want to fish too deep out on this part of the lake, no sir.”
“We didn’t come out here to talk that kind of foolishness. Just reel it in, child, and we’ll pull off some of those weights.”
“Did I ever tell you why folks don’t fish out on this part of the lake much, boy?”
“Hiram, will you hush up?”
“It’s family history, Martha. Boy should be getting some education, shouldn’t he?”
“Your family history, Hiram Sapp. All those queer goings-on are on your side of the tree.”
“See, boy, this ain’t a natural lake like all them big ones up above where your mama lives in Ohio, or like that big Okeydokey lake down there in Florida.”
“He knows it’s Okeechobee, child, he’s carrying on.”
“Government came in here forty and fifty years ago and bought up land all around this country. They’d pick low places in the river bottoms and build their dams. They made Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley down in the flatlands way over west of here, and big old Cumberland where your mama and that man have their houseboat and a whole passel besides them. And they made our little lake here.”
“It was for the TVA, child. My daddy was one that worked on the big dam at Wolf Creek.”
“And he’d never let you hear the end of it, neither. Old cuss never did answer me how flooding folks’ land is supposed to control floods. Anyway, I was saying that those agents come in and bought up the land. All kinds of land. There’s whole towns under some of these lakes.”
“Not big towns like you think of, though.”
“But they was towns just the same. And churches and graveyards–Lord, what a frightful thing that was, they had to move all the graves–and schools and farms, boy, hundreds of farms.”
“And one of those farms belonged to your old uncle Ruel Sapp.”
“Who’s telling this, Martha?”
“I’m just keeping your feet on the path, dear.”
“Well, not all the people that lived around here wanted to sell their land. But government can do something called condemning your property, which meant they could give you five dollars an acre and force you out. That’s what happened to a lot of folks.”
“A lot of folks.”
“And there was some that fought it such as they could. Some hired lawyers from up at Danville and some shot the agents, but you look around and see what this boat’s floating on, boy, and you can see where it got them. But old Ruel, now–”
“Your Uncle Ruel was a crazy man, child.”
“Martha…”
“It’s a hard truth, but it’s the Lord’s truth.”
“Well, I don’t reckon it can be denied that Ruel was touched. But the greatest of these is charity, Martha, as well you know.”
“Hiram, I’d rare back and slap you cross-eyed if this child wasn’t sitting here. There was never any kin of yours that I didn’t take to my heart. Charity.”
“I’m sorry I spoke it so, Martha. Ruel was a hard man to get to know. See, boy, he didn’t like people coming around his place.”
“He was an old hermit.”
“I guess he was. But as to his place, it was left him by his daddy, and his daddy had it from his daddy, and on back like that I don’t know how far. And he took care of it all by himself practically his whole life. He never got married.”
“He was married to that piece of ground, Hiram. That was everything a body ever needed to know about Ruel Sapp, how he loved that place and that place particular. It was pretty, right down here by the river and with that fine stand of live oaks and all.”
“I don’t know about pretty, but your grandmother’s right about his loving his land. Ruel wasn’t about to give it up easy, but he had eyes and ears. He saw his neighbors being moved out no matter what kind of hell they raised. He knew he didn’t have nothing like a chance of stopping this lake, sure, but our Ruel, he was crafty.”
“He was that.”
“As soon as the agents came by to offer him his thirty pieces of silver, Ruel started in digging a trench. His place was in a bend in the river that wasn’t quite an oxbow but it was close enough. Now, it didn’t take him long–”
“It took him better than a year.”
“Who’s telling this, Martha?”
“There’s nobody at all telling it right.”
“They came around with the buy outs a long time before they started the work, so Ruel had better than a year to dig a big trench plumb across his place. It was a canal like y’all have got down there in Florida. He had it stretched clean across that oxbow, twenty foot wide if it was an inch, and fifteen foot deep.”
“It wasn’t quite that big.”
“He ran it right through the middle of his pole barn, too, so a body could have floated a boat down there and looked up at Ruel’s tobacco hanging down while it cured.”
“Except that he didn’t put any burley out that last year he was so busy with that canal.”
“Boy, you know the old catfish, don’t you? Your Uncle Ruel dug that trench to catch him some channel cats. That makes every kind of sense, don’t it?”
“You don’t have to nod when you don’t believe him, child.”
“What you need to understand about those big catfish is that they grow their whole lives. Sure, it slows down some as they get real big, but your channel cat can sit down there at the bottom of the river and let the food flow right to him for years and years and just grow and grow. You going to tell the boy any different on that one, Martha?”
“That’s what I’ve always heard, too. Daddy said he saw the skull of one once that was three feet broad.”
“All right, then. Ruel Sapp caught him some cats in his homemade canal and netted off sections of it with good hemp rope. The he started in feeding them.”
“Slopped them like you would hogs, folks said.”
“That’s right, that’s right. Not just scraps and such, though. He fed them corn and sweet alfalfa hay and smoke cured hams and cord wood. When one was proving out to get bigger than the others, he hitched his mules to the rest and hauled them out. He had to shoot them nine or ten times each with his old Remington 270, and they flopped around so much they knocked the front porch of his house down. Then he broke them up with his axes and saws and fed them to the big one he had left.”
“Is that what happened to that porch? I thought it blowed down in a storm that last fall before they rose the lake up.”
“Martha, will you stop trying to confuse the boy? That big catfish, now, he must have been near on the size of a steam locomotive, but since Ruel kept him out of sight in the barn a man’s hard up to say for sure.”
“Your granddaddy didn’t see any of this, child, it was told him by his granddaddy Suel Sapp, old Ruel’s brother.”
“I don’t need to have seen it, I heard it told enough to know the truth of what happened. The next thing our Ruel did was start storing up his worldly goods. All of his clothes and such, and his bedstead with the feather mattress still on it and his spare boots and his butter churn and the pot belly stove and his Bible, anything he might need went in.”
“Don’t forget the stock.”
“He gave away most of his cattle and his team of mules and so on. But a bull and two or three good milking Herefords went in, and all his chickens. By this time, it was late in that last fall.”
“It took them all winter to fill the lake.”
“That’s right. But Ruel’s place wasn’t all that far above the dam. Matter of fact, if we let her keep drifting, we’ll see the dam as soon as we get past Fiddler’s Point, yonder.”
“Tell the rest of it, Hiram.”
“Boy, one morning, our Uncle Ruel woke up early, as it was his habit. He walked his canal end to end and cast off his good hemp nets. Then do you know what he did?”
“He jumped in the channel with the catfish.”
“Hush up, Martha. He wrapped up a good plug of tobacco in some oilcloth and then he jumped right into that catfish channel.”
“‘And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth, and all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered.'”
“Amen to that, Martha. Because that is what happened, boy. The Lord prepared a great fish, as you might say, but our Ruel’s been in its belly for a sight longer than three days and three nights.”
“Now, Hiram, don’t scare the child.”
“Ain’t nothing to be scared of, boy. Just reel in, there, so you don’t hook into your Uncle Ruel’s roof, and we’re all fine. Matter of fact, to be extra sure, I’ll let you drop in the package. Hand it to him, Martha.”
“Here, child, just slip it over the side. It’s got some ham biscuits in there, and a twist of Mammoth Cave chew, and a shirt your granddaddy can’t wear any more on account he’s got so big and soft.”
“This is all muscle, boy, don’t you believe a word that woman says. I’ll need it, too, in case you catch any muskie and I have to wrestle them down. Now that’s a fish that gets big around here.”

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“Bushrod” by Andy Madden

My father, who died when I was eight, was intent on making sure that I was baptized in the lore and legend of The Great War of Northern Aggression and carried the undeniable pedigree of a true son of the Old South.

He was a published Mississippi historian by trade, researching and documenting the political, social, and economic development of Mississippi. However, his private moments among dusty archives and yellowed documents were devoted to the rabid scholarly pursuit of the leaders of the Confederate States Army and their stories. The chivalrous art of war in the 1860s fascinated him and he endeavored through hundreds of hours of painstaking research to reveal the intrinsically human facets of these men that chose to defy of the United States Government by taking up what they believed was a just and honorable cause.

As a result, he gazed upon my cherubic newborn face swaddled in soft cotton and deemed that I should receive a name equally fitting of Southern high society and hoi polloi alike. Summoning every ounce of patriarchal authority that he could lay hands on, he looked my mother dead in the eye and proposed that I leave Lee County General Hospital forever more known as Bushrod Beauregard. Family and friends, he quipped quite simply, would call me Beau.

Brigadier General Bushrod Rust Johnson, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican and Seminole Wars, commanded a brigade that included Lt. Colonel A.K. Blythe’s 44th Mississippi Infantry as well as other fighting elements raised in the Magnolia State. General Johnson may hold a smaller footnote in history than Beauregard, but he made up for it by providing an air of formal whimsy to my impending first name.

Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, in addition to being the source of my tentative middle name, was known as “The Little Napoleon,” “The Hero of Fort Sumter,” and “The Little Creole.” In charge of South Carolinian rebels in the Charleston area during the spring of 1861, he engineered victory and raised the Stars and Bars over Fort Sumter, thus beginning the conflict in earnest.

Both fought valiantly in the battles for Shiloh, Tennessee, and around my hometown of Corinth, Mississippi, some of the most intense and bloodiest action of the entire war. I assume this reason my father chose Johnson and Beauregard as my intended namesakes. However, if the oddities within naming conventions of high-ranking officers in the Confederate States Army were the only qualifier, I could have been named Burgwyn Heron just as easily.

Sadly, my father did not see his wishes fulfilled. When she came to the realization that his intentions were bona fide, my sainted mother balked like a sweaty mule at the idea of her first born being called by a name that invoked visions of cotton farms and blue tick hounds. She raised the roof in protest and refused to sign her name and validate the prepared record of birth. So, I emerged from the hospital known only as Baby Boy and remained so for the better part of two weeks. Once home, a battle raged night and day over my naming rights. Relatives were dispatched to the scene to mediate. In the end, cooler heads prevailed and a compromise was struck.

My Uncle Puz, a Methodist minister and bearer of another truly southern name that referenced his resemblance to Barney Google’s comic strip baby, Puzzems, christened me Thomas Andrew as a result of the deal fleshed out by my parents. Thomas, in memoriam of my bootlegging scalawag of a paternal grandfather, Thomas Doc, and, Andrew, after noted Indian exterminator, slave owner, land speculator, dueling murderer, and the seventh President of these United States, Andrew Jackson. I believe my mother, overly taxed by the drama of the naming scandal, finally capitulated and seized upon the mention of the relatively banal names, regardless of their thought provoking associations.

Given a voice at two weeks of age and the knowledge I possess now, I would have demanded my affirmative vote on behalf of Bushrod Beauregard be recorded. Perhaps it is not too late to resurrect the grand name for myself. After all, I have long passed the pain and aguish of grade school taunting. Living in California against my better judgment nowadays, I believe I would find great pleasure in the wide eyes and long faces such a name would generate at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Post Office.

It intrigues me how life might be for a Bushrod Beauregard in this day and age. If nothing else, the name would live on in the vestiges of my family history long after I am gone and forgotten. Perhaps it would offer a sensible explanation as to why, at an advanced age, I might have taken to the green benches lining Court Square, resplendently clad in mutton chop sideburns, gray felt Kepi, piped topcoat, and muddy cavalry boots, with the singular intent of spending my remaining days whittling cedar scraps down to piles aromatic shavings.

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Pyramid Schemes and Multi-Level Marketing

Testimony on “Oversight of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement” Read the entire testimony by clicking on the title.

Andrew Ceresney, Director Division of Enforcement

March 19, 2015

The staff also has recently seen what appears to be an increase in pyramid schemes[6] under the guise of “multi-level marketing” and “network marketing” opportunities.[7]  These schemes often target the most vulnerable investors, and social media has expanded their reach.  The Division is deploying resources to disrupt these schemes through a coordinated effort of timely, aggressive enforcement actions along with community outreach and investor education.  We are also using new analytic techniques to identify patterns and common threads, thereby permitting earlier detection of potential fraudulent schemes.

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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Becky Meadows “Three Seconds”

P1010249

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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

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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.

 

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?”

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“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.

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“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.”

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“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!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Subway Bride by Meg Stivison

Library of Congress

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.

Library of Congress

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.

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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.

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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….

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Let The Honey Soak Through by Connie Bull Stillinger