Showing posts with label small town. Show all posts
Showing posts with label small town. Show all posts

15 February, 2019

from Record of a Pair of Well-Worn Traveling Boots: Be Safe Out There [a brief ethnography]

The middle-aged black man was wearing a blue suit coat that was too big for him, worn around the cuffs, and missing a couple of buttons. It was October, and after dark, which meant it was a little chilly. His clothes under the blue coat were rattier than the coat. Tired flipflops left his feet exposed. In his hands, he held an empty baby bottle. He approached me after I finished pumping gas. Debit cards weren't a thing in those days, and neither were card readers on gas pumps. But in that part of the city, near the university and Short Vine -- another area I ended up spending a lot of time -- you walked in and paid before you pumped. And I've always preferred cash transactions, anyway --chalk that up to my small towniness. 

The town where I'm from isn't remote or isolated in a geographic sense, but I learned early there are other kinds of distance, other types of geography that are difficult to cross -- especially when it's crossed under duress. And truthfully, crossing the distance between where I'm from and where I have ended up wasn't so much a problem for me. But it took me a long time to figure out that there's no going back. Not really.

Cincinnati was the first place I escaped to when I got my driver's license. It was the closest city, and the nearest place of any size. And though I didn't mean to end up there, necessarily, I ended up in a part of town that I would, and do, return to: Over the Rhine. In those days, Vine Street was still an open market for pretty much any illicit thing you could want. Not that I tried any of it; I still had a healthy dose of small town naivete that, for good or bad, managed to save me. But I did witness my first drug deal and accidentally walk up on a sex trade transaction. All the parties involved were amused by my small town whiteness -- amused and too busy to punish me for it. Because while Cincinnati was a dangerous place, and while OTR was probably the place furthest from where I lived -- for a whole host of reasons -- it never once occurred to me that I might have been in danger. I explored it with an anthropologist's curiosity -- and detachment -- that has served me well over the years, no matter how deep I dived or how close to the bottom I got.

He started in by telling me he wasn't just panhandling. He was passing through, he said, pointing directionlessly towards the interstate. His car broke down and his wife and baby daughter stayed with the car because it was chilly out. He waved the baby bottle at me as proof that his story was true. In the moment it didn't occur to me that he might just be hustling for drug money; it did occur to me that he sounded too practiced to be in moment. Growing up as I did around a few truly ineffective liars, I had started to pick up an ear for that sort of thing.  But also, in that moment, I didn't care. I don't know if it was the dedication to his story, or the flip flops. But I gave him a few dollars, wished him luck.

- Be safe out there, I said. And then I got in my car and left, traversing the various geographies back to my hometown, where panhandlers were prime time television extras, where the poverty was just as palpable, but somehow different. A place I would not be able to look at in the same way, or ever really be able to stay -- though at the time I wasn't aware that anything in me had shifted.

I think about him often and wonder whatever happened to him. I see him in every face I've met doing outreach. I've revisited that moment hundreds, maybe thousands of times over the years. And while I don't know if that was when it all changed or when it first occured to me that something had, I'm forever grateful that he crossed my path.

Please check out my work for sale on Amazon.

You can also throw a little in the tip jar:

04 June, 2018

It's all casual along the dirty, sacred river

Mick Parsons, writing, Louisville, violence
I spied the end of a sex transaction while walking to the coffee shop. As I rounded the corner from my street to the main artery, I saw a young man trying to simultaneously pull up and snap his jeans while walking nonchalantly. He did neither of them very well. The girl he was with was short, blond, and far less concerned about being seen than he was. Then again, her clothes were in place and walking seemed far less of an issue.
The young man noticed me and tried even harder to look like nothing was happening... at one point, even trying to put his arm around the girl, who, to her credit, could have cared less about the appearance of things. They continued to walk together, but it was hard to imagine them being a couple. He was very tall and dressed like an extra from a late-90's gang movie. She was very short by comparison.
And except for his failed attempt to look like she hadn't just serviced him near a busy street corner in between acts of the torrential downpour, I probably wouldn't have noticed were it not for the fact that, at a distance, she looked underage and it was a little early for the street walkers in my part of town to be out and about. 
I'm being unfair, I know. They COULD be in a relationship. But the fact is she was far more interested in her sucker than she was in him -- and in my experience, even a quick oral cop in the late morning between consenting adults will most likely include just a little post-glottal tenderness. 
This wasn't the blog I intended to write today. I had something else in mind, something having to do with this dog issue on my street. One of the houses on my street had a husky tied out without shelter all day yesterday -- a day with weather ranging from hot and sunny to torrential downpour. After trying unsuccessfully to find anyone home --or, at any rate, anyone who was willing to answer the door -- I called the city, which, with its usual bureaucratic ineffectiveness, did not come.  At points the husky was pulling on the VERY short tie out she was on and making that high pitched whine that only Huskies and German Shepards seem to make. 
Casual cruelty and abuse offend me more deeply maybe than intentional cruelty and abuse. At least when someone is intentionally evil, deliberately cruel and abusive, the direct action to correct it seems just. There is an intelligence -- albeit a disturbed one -- at work when cruelty is committed in a deliberate manner. I could even make the case that cruelty in the name of passion -- maybe not deliberate, but focused and full of evil purpose all the same -- is at least understandable, even though it is abhorrent. 
But casual cruelty is not deliberate. It's rooted in ignorance, and the educator in me still likes to think that ignorance can be educated and eradicated. And I know enough about this neighbor in particular to know that there is nothing deliberate in the aforementioned cruel behavior. Some people just don't see dogs -- big dogs especially -- as anything other than a soulless animal, something maybe pretty to look at, but in the end, not human and therefore not entitled to being treated with love and dignity.
At some point in the afternoon, some of the neighborhood kids checked on the Husky. Not long after, she disappeared -- and so I thought maybe either the city came and picked her up -- she would have found a home in no time -- or maybe the owner thought better of his or her cruelty.
The husky was back out early this morning. At an appropriate time I once again walked over to try and talk to someone at the house. Once again, no one was home - or no one answered.  I once again called the city. Sometime later the husky was gone again. And I hope to God that someone came and retrieved her.
There's no accounting for the humanity or lack thereof here along the dirty, sacred river -- or anywhere, really. One of the things I love about living in Louisville is that when you strip it to the bare bones and look at how it functions -- and in some cases, doesn't function -- this town is just that. It's a small town with some tall buildings and the growing pains of a mid-sized Midwestern City in the process of redefining itself. 
But when you look at the bare bones of a place like this, it's hard not to notice that while many of the things that make it a small town still exist, there's a malignancy growing there, too.  Live here long enough and you start to find odd connections between the seemingly disparate people you know because they either went to the same high school or grew up in the same part of town but never knew one another because they were bussed to different schools. Locals give directions based on non-existent landmarks.
But that casual cruelty -- which isn't absent from small towns, either -- grows on the bones and spreads with startling innocuousness. 

Please check out my work for sale  in the STORE or on Amazon. 
 You can also throw a little in the tip jar:

26 July, 2017

Near where that barn burned, where all those people died, Part 1

You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile.. - Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again

I mostly refused to talk myself out of going out of pure, bull-headed stubbornness.

Anyone who knows me moderately well, and a few who don't, are not at all surprised by this statement.

There aren't a lot of things that draw me back to Bethel, Ohio. Other than living there again very briefly in the late 1990's I haven't lived there since I left for college at age 18.  Nostalgia isn't something that creeps in about my old hometown. My childhood wasn't a bad one. My parents loved me. I had a few close friends. I wasn't a wildly popular kid. Quiet. Not a jock. Not an academic star. I excelled at band, but I stayed well below the radar of the guidance counselor, the principal, the majority of girls my age, and any non-familial adult who wanted shape and facilitate my future.

It would be easy to say I feel antagonistic towards my old hometown. But the truth is, I don't. However, it would also be disingenuous to say I have some lingering nostalgia, or some desire to go back.

That's not to say I wasn't nervous. I was. I wasn't worried about former classmates I might see or might not see. I was worried about running into an older self.

This happens from time to time when you embrace change and live your life based on the idea that once you brush a coat of shellac on your life, it's done. I've seen this time and time again. People find the place in their life where they feel the most powerful, the most beautiful, the most THEMSELVES, and they stop. They stop growing. They stop changing. They stop learning. They stop adapting.

When you embrace stagnation as a point of pride, you are in terrible trouble. And so is everyone around you.

I've tried not to stagnate. I've embraced change. When you're a writer, you don't really have a choice. Sharks swim or die. Art adapts or dies. It's as simple as that.

But it's hard to face who you used to be -- or who you perceived yourself to be.

18 year-old me was broken. Broken by a youth spent hiding behind rampant insecurity and social awkwardness. I learned how to hide because hiding was easier. 18 year-old me was devastated by my father's death. It shook my whole world. Before my dad died, it never occurred to me that I would live anywhere else but near where I grew up. After he died, I didn't feel like I could ever live there again. The short time that I did live there again -- renting a bed in someone's laundry room for $80 a month -- reconfirmed it.

That was the first time I ever ran into an older version of myself. Aside from a couple of close friends, people who knew me in high school could not reconcile who I was with who I had become. Still broken -- this time from a blood-letting divorce from my daughter's mother. I dropped out of college and retreated to a laundry room on a back street in a town I knew I didn't belong in anymore.

Me and my shadow. DC, circa 1986ish

If you like what you're reading here, check out my work for sale on Amazon: You can also throw a little in the tip jar:

01 October, 2012

Southern Jaunt: Budget 10 Ghost Town

Live, Travel, Adventure, Bless, and don't be sorry. -- Jack Kerouac 

Live to tell the story; but make it interesting. - Me

I miss the days when Super 8 didn't think they were a respectable motel chain; somewhere just above Motel 6 -- who left the light on to scare the cockroaches back into the walls -- and a notch or two below the HoJo attached to  the mildly sleazy bar with the giant pickled egg jar no one dare open.

My intent was to stay in Mount Olive at the only motel listed on any website anywhere... a Budget 10 motel. My standards, you understand, are on the low side. Even after the onslaught of bed bugs at the Lewis and Clark Inn (Billings, Montana) I try and stay away from nationally recognized chains or anyplace that might think highly enough of itself to include more than one functioning light source, a shower curtain, and a television with a busted volume button that conveniently only shows programming on one, regionally based religious programming station.

Alas, upon finding Mt. Olive -- my almost arbitrarily picked starting point for this jaunt -- I found a small town that Google Maps was, not surprisingly, trying to overlook. Historic Route 66... in these parts, IL 138 ... goes straight through town. My ride -- Carroll County artist and all around cool chick Heather Houzenga was kind enough to give me ride on her way to St. Louis.  She drove through the center of town ... which I plan on writing more about in another entry, since I'm going to be spending a large chunk of my day there tomorrow... and, finding no other motel except for what could have only been the Budget 10, which was located right off the exit from IL-55 south to IL 138 (Route 66)... she drove me back and waited to make sure I had a room.

Good thing she waited. The motel was deserted. The cobwebs had cobwebs on them, and those cobwebs were deserted.

You know there's something wrong with a place when even the spiders vacate.

I walked up to the restaurant  which was open, to inquire as to whether the place was, in fact, open and merely disgustingly dirty (Again... not a deal breaker) or the scene of some grizzly serial murders resulting in the most popular chili in any restaurant in down state Illinois. I walked in to see an old man on the right, seated alone at a table for four, sniffing at something at the end of his fork I hoped was steak. There was a girl behind the counter who eyed me with a small amount of suspicion. To my left, there was a couple at a another table, drinking coffee and talking to the other waitress, who paid me no attention at all.

After disrupting the nothing at all that was going on, I was told the nearest hotel was in Staunton, one exit up on IL-55. It was a Super 8.

The problem with Super 8 is that they've decided to be... well... hoity toity.

I appreciated an in room coffee pot like the next caffeinated guy. I suppose it's useful to have a microwave... for the processed food I avoid buying out on the road... and a refrigerator ... for the left overs I never have. Now, don't get me wrong. I don't MIND these things. I merely object that I have to pay more than I'd like just because there isn't one no-tell motel, or available shelter.

Add to that the fact that, upon checking in, my identity was questioned because apparently the zip code listed on my replacement driver's license is for some town in Mexico.

Yes. Really. A short motel manager of Indian descent named Patel -- insisted that the zip code he punched in was for a town in Mexico.

Never mind that when I transpose "61053" to "60153" I still get another town in Illinois. Never mind that when I looked up Mexican zip codes, there aren't any that resemble "61053" at all.  And never mind that this is the THIRD time that my pale, German/Irish mug has somehow been confused with one of Mexican descent.

I'm not particularly offended. But Mexicans might be.

Ah, hell. Viva la revolucion! Viva Mexico!

[Thanks for reading. Being back out on the road, the travel fund could use some shekels. If you like the blog, like me, or would rather me not come crash at your house, please donate.  Take care.]

17 September, 2012

Southern Jaunt: Synchronicity Extract

Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Yesterday I thought about Odysseus -- specifically, Odysseus Among the Lotus Eaters.  It's a story I return to often in my thoughts. Certainly the epic poem, it's variations and permutations will cross my mind simply because it's one of the greatest poems ever written, translated, and rewritten. The classic epic poems (that includes Gilgamesh, Beowulf,  and The Illiad,)  mirror something I see repeated in poetry, in stories, in songs, in movies -- though to varying degrees of success.

The image of the Lotus-Eaters has, for many years now, served as a personal metaphor for the hypnotic way with which daily life finds a way of interfering with the living of it.

I've been back here in Paint City for nearly a month and half, trying to get my divorce finalized, writing for the Prairie Advocate -- finding the same epic stupidity among some disgraced and not-so-prominent-as-they'd-like-to-think folk and losing contact with a relative thanks to one noxious political troll   -- and enjoying the company of friends, the sound of music and poetry, the creation of art... reflections all of beautiful things, of necessary things.

Paint City is becoming a place for people to come and hear good music -- not only the myriad of local, talented musicians, some of whom have been playing as long as I've been on the earth, but musicians from elsewhere. This past weekend, a brother/sister duo from Nashville came into town -- their dad Forrest is a local musician and pretty cool guy -- and played two different venues as well as gracing the 5 Minutes of Fame Open Mic that, in spite of the Bears/Packers game, still pulled a respectable crowd. It's nice to be here and see the natural outgrowth of people's passions become positive energy.

There are some growing pains and the usual naysayers and spoilers -- but that's not the focus here. I will say this, though. If I've learned anything, it's that synchronicity can be a powerful force. When it's turning positive, it's best to work with it, so that when it turns negative (and it will, at some point) you're in a better spiritual and mental place to deal with it. There are some folks here who, in spite of how good things are going, still try to strangle it... some with good intentions, I suppose. But stupidity and short-sighted aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

There is a sort of lotus-eater effect of being in a place like Mount Carroll. You have to make your own fun, create your own life, in a place like this -- because if you don't, you're stuck living someone else's life, having someone else's idea of fun, based on rules dictated by choices that are not your own.  There's a sense of independence that goes along with the interdependence, the sense of community. And when it works, it works well. It's a kind of narcotic for weary souls, for people who want to believe that utopias exist and that it is never where they are. It's invigorating, really. Sort of refreshing.

But only for a while.

Then there's the rest of it.  It's been said over and over again by a bunch of people, none of whom have probably lived in a small town in recent memory, that small towns are a microcosm of the larger world; the idea being that everything that happens in a city, in a nation, in the world, happens in a small town, to a much smaller degree. That assumes, however, that your point of view is global. For the most part, people paint their views of the rest of the world the same colors they see off their front porch. And everything that happens, from the latest teen pregnancy to whoever's name is listed in the Court House News, becomes as important as -- say, an attack on an American Embassy in which four people were killed. The only difference is, of course, that Tripoli is a place most of them have only heard of in The Marine's Hymn, while an unwed mother is a social dilemma that, Once Upon a Time When All Was (Never) Perfect, was handled more discretely.

You know. Shame. Social isolation. Judgement. Exile. Real high American Ideals.

A small town is an extract -- the whole universe boiled down and put in a particular environment. Sometimes the combination works. Sometimes it doesn't. Small towns are fading from the map because the commerce and traffic that created them are changing routes. Mount Carroll is surrounded by towns that are dying off -- both literally and metaphorically -- and like the lotus eaters, there are folks around here who, while they may not be content, are content in the knowledge that there's nothing to be done.

That's why the synchronicity here is important; there are good things happening, but the idiots are never far behind, being critical and saying that it can't/shouldn't be done. Or worse, they're holding onto an idealized version of the place that may have never existed. Because utopias don't simply exist, and they are rarely made. None of it's perfect.

Paint City still holds a lot of mixed memories for me; and the longer I'm here, the more I'm steeped in them. That's part of the reason why, when people ask me why I just don't stick around -- and they do -- I can never give them a concrete answer. The rest of the reason is that in spite of a few assertions lately that I'm not doing anything worthwhile, that I am accomplishing nothing, that I am not impacting anything for the better -- I happen to agree with them. Somewhat.

What I do is worthwhile -- at least to me. And I accomplish quite a bit -- though not by any standard that my critics will understand.

But the world is a big place and worth living in. And sometimes you have to wander around a bit to see how it is you fit into it.

Oh, and if you haven't yet, stop by and "like" my new Facebook page. You can also follow me on twitter @amrevisionary.

30 August, 2012

Southern Jaunt : Paint City Politics / Muckraker Goulash

Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apple. - Sherwood Anderson

Journalism without a moral position is impossible. -Marguerite Duras

Every journalist is a muckraker. - Note From Travel Journal

Life long resident and year 'round haunted house proprietor Jim Warfield recently told me that there was a time when people referred to Mount Carroll as Paint City. "Because," he went on, "people would paint the buildings downtown." Jim is an endless repository of stories about this place, and his knowledge at times seems preternatural because a good number of his stories pre-date his existence.

This, of course, is how it ought to be. But The Long Memory is suffering from serious ill repair, and there's few people left with any interest... and even fewer with any interest in listening.

In a place like Mount Carroll, true prominence tends to be counted by the number of generations deep your family can be found in the cemetery on the hill overlooking town from the western horizon. It also helps to marry into the right family. (As opposed to the wrong one, which depends on which way the gossip is blowing.)

Since I have to cool my heels here in Paint City whilst waiting for the divorce to be finalized, I had to find something to occupy my time besides keeping regular hours at both the coffee shop and the bars. As I mentioned previously, I wandered back into freelance muckraking for the area paper that I used to rake muck for when I lived here before.

A note on muckraking. The term is one that tends to be used in a negative context; it's one that is used to describe bad journalism.... i.e., "biased" or "sensational" or "whatever doesn't match my worldview." There is this notion, often spouted by journalism professors, newbies to the job, and a public that hasn't bothered to to look into the actual history of journalism, that "true" journalism is "objective."

Dear Readers, let me assure you... there is no such thing as "objective" journalism. Our whole existence is subjective. We relate to the world from behind our own eyes, from the "I" position. The most we can hope for is distance... to be able to look at a situation with as few preconceived notions as possible. This is difficult, and requires effort. It also requires an honest appraisal of your ego -- which is challenging. Especially when you have one.

I'd also like to point out that any journalist who's really doing the job -- especially in the arena of politics -- is a muckraker. And any journalist worth his or her salt KNOWS this. You can't deal in the muck that is politics ... small town or otherwise... and expect to keep your hands and shoes clean. It doesn't work. The best you can hope for, if you care at all about the job, is find the narrative that needs to be told. That autobot Tom Brokaw said once -- and it might be one of the few things I agree with him on -- that journalism is all about finding the narrative. When people quibble over journalists covering "the facts" what they're really pissed off about it that the muckraker isn't telling the narrative THEY WANT TOLD.

A good journalist, like any good writer, will let the story unfold for itself. And just because all journalists are muckrakers, that doesn't mean they're devoid of a moral or ethical stance. To the contrary, a moral and ethical compass becomes that much more necessary to the larger purpose: not only to let people know what's happening, but also to keep (at least) an eye and an ear on The Long Memory.

Paint City Politics

Since walking back into small town journalism, my return as been heralded and maligned, applauded and booed. This, as far as I can tell, means I'm doing something right.

Most recently... last night... I was called out during an open meeting of the Town Council by a former alderman -- now a disgraced, maligned, and ostracized ex-alderman -- Nina Cooper, economic astrologist to anonymous fortune 500 companies everywhere that clearly don't pay her that often. I can only gather she's no Edgar Cayce, since she recently had to pick a job at a local embroidery shop that was able to secure her job through the purchase of a machine, part of that money coming from a local fund called The Revolving Loan Fund -- a fund whose existence she questioned as an alderman.

The father of the guy who covered my old Paint City beat after I quit in January of this year showed up to the meeting. Everyone knows him because he used to teach in the high school; he actually had a few of the current alderman and the mayor as students. His son was fired, it seems, because a particularly angry, bitter, and bitchy alderman, Doris Bork -- who is staying alive simply to see the mayor ruined -- called the publisher, a guy who I generally count as pretty smart, and cried. The general consensus as been that he did nothing wrong, this other reporter. And while I need the gig... the travel fund is hungry... I do feel like he got a raw deal. (I should point out that she had tried to get me fired too, when I was writing for the paper before. The hubris of small town autocrats never ceases to amaze me.)

The meeting was smooth until the General Audience section, at which point the retired teacher stood up and asked Doris if she had actual proof of the mayor's misconduct -- misconduct that she has been spreading like gossip while working the check out line at the grocery store -- or if it was merely "another figment of [her] imagination."

She was, understandably, defensive. She insisted that she had never accused the mayor of anything and demanded a retraction.

And, after some hemming and hawing, some attempt at recriminations, slander, and criminalization, Nina stood up and asked me directly what the "source" of my article was.

The source. I was floored, really. That was the one I didn't see coming.

You see, the article was actually a commentary after the regular article and was formatted as such.  So, by definition, it wasn't presented as straight news. I've been accused of editorializing in the past; I do, I admit, write with a certain flair and an eye towards the underlying narrative of events. But I do my homework, and I'm a pretty decent writer.

I can also only assume that Nina never watched All The President's Men.  And while I don't know for sure, I'm sure she voted for Nixon. Twice. It wouldn't surprise me to hear she had a little groupie crush on the paranoid oligarch, either.

Come to think of it, that was a movie, too, wasn't it?

Naturally, there is nothing going on in Paint City that rivals the impeachment of Nixon. That there are folks here who are determined to make it that important -- even at the cost of taking the town down with them -- borders on absurd.

That's the problem with Scorched Earth strategies. Not only is your target annihilated, but so is everything else.

And I'm beginning to think that might be the ultimate point. If they can't have Paint City the way they want it, then no one will get it at all. It will fall into the dirt with them, rot in a shallow grave and become one more small town in America that disappears into the cracks of an abandoned state highway.

Come to think of it, I've seen that movie before, too.

Or maybe it's more like this:

15 August, 2012

The Least Poetic Ending I Have Ever Known: A Poem

Flocking blackbirds foretell nothing except an early and colorless fall.
Apples are rotting off the tree. This is not a year for walnuts.
Small town biddies congregate to complain and offer solutions
that end in their deaths. They compare themselves to us
and find us failing – but forget to leave a gratuity for the waitress
feeding young children on her tips.

I walked by our old house yesterday. The new tenants
have trampled the bright orange poppies
I preferred to let grow wild among the weeds
in front of the porch. I missed the blooming of the magnolia tree
(I always associated it with good luck) and the roses
will make no appearance this year. The curtains were the wrong color
and they are not making proper use of the summer room.
I felt foolish walking up Pumpkin Hill,a stranger
on a street that were familiar, once upon a time.

But to be fair, I have always been a stranger.
Geography where I am known no longer exists
and memories of me are slowly wearing away
like an old quilt exposed to the elements.
Only the neighborhood dogs remember me and do not bark.
We lock eyes and nod the way creatures of the Earth do –
they are jealous of my roaming, and I of their perpetually full water bowls.
The self-appointed town exemplars know not what to make of me.
They speak of politics and invisible conspiracies.
They go to church on Sunday, berate the poor and bully the meek,
then collect the weekly tithe for soulless electoral campaigns.

(It's true, I suppose that some things will never change.)

I no longer have to fear your reaction when I come home
smelling of bourbon and misplaced rancor. Yet
I still paused at the top of the hill before I turned the corner
to check my breathe, make sure I was walking straight.

Nothing is in it's place. Everything is where it belongs.

My feet tell me I ought to keep walking. Only 10 or so miles
to the river, the Great Baptismal Western Boundary,
past which  there is Iowa to contend with:
fields of corn burned before the harvest,
farmers who can't remember a season
that wasn't plagued with either fire or floods.
But at least, I will be redeemed when I meet them.

05 January, 2011

The Copper's Report

I was drinking in a town I'd never heard of in a bar that I wasn't familiar with when I overheard a group of men talking down bar from where I was seated mulling over my scotch and trying to catch some warmth. My purpose for being in an unfamiliar place? Story hunting. I was writing an article for a travel magazine of miniscule circulation about antique shopping in down state Illinois – down state meaning every place that isn't Chicago, for those not familiar with the gravitational truths of living in the Land of Lincoln. If you're not in Chicago, you're not anywhere, and never did that truth present itself more than when I sat in that bar, in town whose name I didn't bother to read on the sign, in a bar whose name I didn't bother to notice. The town was one of the more significantly sized towns I'd been through, a little southeast of my final destination, North Eustacia – known for it's antique shops, pleasant small town folk, and as the once world capital of hickory smoked lard. (That particular title still stands, though I understand that the town no longer uses it as a bragging point or in any of it's tourist literature.)

“Tell us about it again, Jasper.” So said one of the men, an older, grizzly humpty-dumpty shaped individual wearing engineer's bib overalls (and matching cap) that were near worn out in the ass over top a bright red flannel shirt that was crusted with the remainders of several long forgotten meals. “Tommy here hasn't heard the story.”

Tommy was apparently the much younger man in the group. Given his looks and general disposition, he was clearly related to Humpty; I would venture to call Tommy the man's son, but I couldn't help but wonder what happened to the poor woman who was undoubtedly too drunk to know better than to spread her legs or blind, deaf and dumb as to her lover's true nature. The resemblance was undeniable, though. From the size of his gut, though, Humpty could have birthed a slightly smaller version of Tommy and still made it to the bar on time.

Jasper was also a younger man, though clearly no direct relation to Humpty or Tommy. Jasper Cullen, as I later found out was his full name, was a part-time Police Deputy. His head was square the way most cops' heads are square … probably just the choice of hair cut … but his shoulders were narrow and he had a slight hump in his back. At first I thought maybe Jasper had had too much to drink; I soon realized, however, that the slight slur and the way he sometimes ran his words together had nothing to do with booze. It would be unfair – or at least, politically incorrect – to call Jasper Cullen the town idiot. It would be fair to say that his mother held the record for the most drinks consumed in a single evening, a distinction she achieved during the fourth month of her pregnancy. And if that didn't explain the pointed head and wide sloping forehead attached to entirely too small a face and nonexistent chin, the fact that he was birthed in womens' underwear section at JC Penny's 30 miles away might. At the time of her son's birth, the woman claimed to not only be unaware of her pregnancy, she also claimed emphatically that she was virgin; she had also “forgotten” about several panty and bra sets she had stuffed into her purse to purchase.

Either because of his parentage, or in spite of it, the men in town had always taken care of him; as I was to discover later, the women all took this personally, since any one of their husbands or fathers could have been the divine instigator. As such, when he wanted to become a cop after watching a three day television marathon of TJ Hooker reruns, it was generally agreed upon to let him hang around the police station; and maybe because the mayor at the time was high on the list of people who might actually be the other half of Jasper's genetic soup, it was agreed upon that Jasper could be a part-time deputy. It was a more or less harmless position: one that garnered more respect than dog catcher and put him in far less danger of being hurt.

Jasper smiled and laughed a slurry laugh. He seemed almost embarrassed. But after some more encouragement, he took a drink of his Shirley Temple and started in.

A call had come in while he was sweeping up the gun room and preparing to empty the trash cans. A teenage girl – someone everyone knew, but did not to mention specifically by name – called the station, crying. Her mother – someone all the men in town were well acquainted with – had locked herself in her bedroom and would not come out. Jasper told her he needed to call someone else... though why the girl didn't think to dial 911 was beyond Jasper... and that he would send them as soon as possible. But the girl was hysterical. Something was wrong; it wasn't unusual for her mother to be nodding out on the couch half drunk and wacked out on her prescribed pain killers in the mid-afternoon when her daughter came home from school. But it was very odd that she locked herself in her bedroom and refused to answer the repeated yelling and banging on the door. The daughter told Jasper that she had pushed something in front of the door and she couldn't open it at all.

Jasper tried telling her again that he would call someone; the chief was out of town on at policeman's conference and the other deputy was on vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Jasper, as a general rule, didn't go out on calls; he had a driver's license, and was cleared to drive a squad car, and to even carry a gun – though it generally didn't have bullets in it and the chief let him wear the holster to make him feel more like part of the department. But it was generally understood that Jasper himself didn't answer calls; and if any came in... mostly they didn't because anymore people dialed 911... he would call someone more appropriate. But the girl, who at that point was so hysterical that Jasper could hardly understand what she was saying, begged him. Please, she cried. Please come save my Mommy.

At this point in the story, while he was imitating the girl's voice, the men at the bar all guffawed.

Well, whether the young girl's crying pulled on his heart or whether he imaged what TJ Hooker would do in that situation was unclear; but it was at that point that Jasper … who himself had a mother he loved dearly … dropped his broom and told the girl he was on his way. He took the keys for the squad car – it was actually the K9 vehicle, but the dog had recently died from Parvo and had not been replaced – got in, started it up, turned on the siren (something he said he had always wanted to do) and went at high speed to the girl's house. He arrived in less than 2 ½ minutes and found the girl standing in the yard, crying and pacing. She had been crying so much that her eyes were near swelled shut.

Jasper said he didn't know a girl could cry that much.

She led him to the bedroom in the back of the small house. Jasper found that the door was, indeed blocked as the girl had told him. He drew his unloaded fire arm and announced himself as he had heard it so many times on television. “THIS IS TH' PO-LICE! OPEN UP!” Of course, there was no answer. Jasper tried pushing on the door. It was a little open, enough that Jasper could see the bed. There was no one on the bed. He pushed on the door a little harder, but it was blocked by something. He pushed a little harder, but the door seemed to push back. Then he put his shoulder into it and it seemed to give a little more. But not enough to get into the room.

Either out of desperation or frustration, the girl – who had just turned 16 – helped him on the next attempt. At this point in his story, Jasper got a little dreamy eyed and started to stutter a little. The girl, apparently, was very pretty and had a nice shape and was pushed right up against him – which was probably as close to someone of the opposite sex as he had ever gotten. Humpty asked him how it felt to have a pair of nice young tits pushed up against him and what she smelled like.

Jasper smiled, shifted uncomfortably on his stool, turned a little red in the face, and took another drink from his Shirley Temple to finish his story.

The door finally gave way enough for Jasper to get inside; before he did, though, he turned to the girl, making sure to look her in the face and not in her heaving jail bait breasts, and told her to go call the fire department. He told her to dial 911. And then, after taking a deep breath, Jasper, fire arm pulled, announced himself again, and pushed his way into the room. The bed was indeed empty,but it had been laid on recently. There were two empty fifths of rum, and a pile of little blue pills on the night stand. There was a funny smell and a muffled buzzing sound; but upon first glance, the room appeared empty. Jasper heard the fire truck sirens coming, and he was unsure of what to tell them when they arrived; he didn't want to look like fool for calling them out for an locked and empty room. And then he thought of the door, and how it was blocked and how there was no furniture in the middle of the room. Then he turned around.

The woman herself had been blocking the door; not a small woman, she had fallen and blocked the door, presumably after drinking too much and taking too many of her prescription pain killers. And there she was, jammed between the door and the wall. She was naked with a self-massager, the kind you can buy in most drug stores, stuck up in her. Her head was bleeding – probably from being banged when Jasper and the woman's daughter pushed the door open.

When the emergency crew arrived, they walked into find Jasper staring at the woman's naked body, his fire arm drawn. After they finally turned off the massager and removed it – the EMTs drew straws and the short straw lost – they attempted CPR. But it was no use.

At first, it was supposed that the head trauma had killed her; it was later discovered that she had been dead before she hit the floor. Apparently, the woman suffered from depression and chronic pain, and had decided to end her own life; but sometime between downing the pills with rum – her drink of choice – and dying, she decided that she wanted to go out smiling, which explained the clearly unorthodox use of the massager. At that point, the coroner could only theorize, and he supposed that maybe after achieving a mechanical climax, the poor woman decided she had something to live for after all, and she left the bed in an attempt to call for help; but, sadly, it had been too late.

“So what did you think, Jasper?” Humpty asked with a smile that showed all five of his teeth. “You ever see a woman like that before? Huh?” The men laughed and guffawed and shook their heads. They all knew the woman, each in their turn. And while she would not be missed, her death was considered a tragic inconvenience.

“So what DID you think, Jasper?” Tommy spoke up. Everyone had supposed – correctly – that the closest he had ever come to a naked woman was in a late night movie or one of those magazines they sell behind the counter at the corner gas station. Jasper took a drink of his Shirley Temple and smiled, his eyes wide and empty.

His pronouncement was met with laughter and fresh drinks all around. “Big titties,” he said.  

03 January, 2011

A Sketch of North Eustacia, Illinois

The report was a staggering one; three counties over, in a little town no one had thought about since nobody remembered when, the entire town simply dropped dead one day. Of course, no one noticed until the January thaw, and then it was only a lost tourist trying to get to Galena who took a wrong turn and ended up in North Eustacia, Iowa. And the tourist wouldn't have thought anything of it, except that milk cows were roaming the streets, along with the left behind chickens, pigs, dogs, and other semi-domesticated and domesticated critters that hadn't starved to death or had learned how to survive just fine on the eyeballs, belly fat, and fingers and toes of their deceased caretakers. Just walking around, like nothing was wrong. After the tourists – two little old ladies from Cicero, Illinois – noticed the milk cow standing at the corner of Main and Market Street, they noticed the broken windows in all the store fronts. The foul stench of 557 dead bodies – based on the most recent census numbers available – didn't reach them until one rolled a window down, mostly out of amazement. Neither of them had ever seen a real milk cow or a live chicken up close; neither woman expressed a desire to look at one, alive or on her dinner plate, ever again.

After the shock wore off and they rolled up the window and immediately drove themselves to the next town over – Bluffington, population 1978 souls according to the most recent census numbers – which was only about twenty miles north west of North Eustacia, they went straight to the police station and reported what they saw. The jabbering old women were not taken seriously at first, though they might have been if the Police Chief had been on duty; the Chief Delmer Cole was worldly man, a decorated veteran of both Gulf Wars, and had seen enough to know that a town full of dead people, while odd, was not outside the realm of probability. Instead, these two panicked septuagenarians had to explain themselves to one Jasper Cullen, a part-time police deputy and with a high school equivalency and plus ten academy hours. Jasper wasn't even allowed to carry a loaded gun yet, so they let him answer phones and go for coffee. Jasper had never gone any father than five miles in any direction from the town of his birth, and had only heard of North Eustacia when the high school football team played them each year at Homecoming; and even at that, he only knew the name from the cheerleaders rallying cry “There's no pretty faces from North Eustacia!” He remembered this because he liked to watch them jump up and down in their short shirts and tight sweaters.

The two old women – who have still refused to give their named for fear that the strange death they witnessed would somehow follow them back to Cicero and look them up in the phone book – were in near hysterics When Chief Cole happened to come back from lunch with the mayor and heard their story. The first thing he did was call the North Eustacia Police Chief, Watson Gunderson. Not getting an answer, he called City Hall. Still not getting an answer, he called the one or two other numbers dialed at random using the same prefix. Getting neither an answer nor a wrong number recording, Cole got into his car and drove to North Eustacia himself – leaving the babbling women in care of a much humbled Deputy Cole, who offered to go get them a cup of coffee from the new coffee house that had just opened up the street, free of charge.

It took several days to herd all of the animals. Cleaning up the bodies took more than a week, because it meant going door to door. Some people were sitting in their chairs. Some were in bathtubs. Some had collapsed in the middle of the grocery store, or sitting in their cars. It looked like all 556 of them had simply died wherever they were, whatever they were doing. A few people were found dead while having sex. Two teenagers were dead in the backseat of a Chevy Impala at the park; the minister of the North Eustacia Church of God was found dead in the ladies' restroom at the park, his pants down to his knees, his hands still clutching what remained of himself after a wandering animal, to avoid starvation, bit the head of his penis off.

The investigation into the event took longer than it should have because out of 557 residents – according to the most recent census – a total of only 556 bodies of men, women, and children were found. At first, the detectives from the State Bureau of Investigation thought there might be someone alive to notify about the deaths. Then they supposed that maybe the one missing person was somehow responsible; but when the coroner's opus report came back, indicating no cause of death this theory was discarded and the 557th person was considered a statistical error.

The water was tested, as was all the food at the grocery, and in the restaurants. There were no other reports from any surrounding town. Many of the policemen, fire fighters, and others who came to help or to gawk needed therapy for years afterward. Delmer Cole never talked about what he saw, either with the people who helped in the clean up or with anyone else. He simply wrote a report and filed it with the proper authorities. Jasper Cullen eventually passed all of his deputy training and was allowed to carry a gun … though no one ever gave him real bullets and he still only answered the phone and got coffee. The two old women, it was supposed, returned to the safe suburban haven of Cicero and never wandered that far from home again.

27 December, 2010

The Only Laws In A Small Town That Really Mean Anything


Above all, make no waves
and make no enemies
unless you share the same ones
as everyone else.


Go to church, even if
you don't believe in it.
Otherwise people will
remember this and will
assume everything else.


Don't drink too early
or stay out too late.
And if you drink at home
buy your booze one town over
where no one knows
what you look like.


If you live in a trailer
people will assume
you're lazy, on drugs,
or a whore.


There are two kinds
of dirty: work dirty
and lazy dirty. Know
which one you are
and act accordingly.


If you vote,
only tell everyone
who you vote for
if you vote with the
majority. Otherwise,
you'll be taken for a fool.
Or worse, a Democrat.


Be sure to look the part
people have decided you
play, regardless of
how bad the casting may be.


Learn how to talk about NASCAR
and how to grow a garden.


Avoid sarcasm, since
no one will know
that's what it is anyway.


What people say about you
after you're dead
is far more important
than the fact
that you were a bastard
while you were alive.

You know you're redeemed
when they put your name
on a cement bench
in front of the courthouse.

26 December, 2010

Excerpt from THE MUCKRAKER'S CHRONICLE: The Flying Man From Pin Hook

The Flying Man From Pin Hook

By JJ Rafferty for The Arliss Star Advocate

Pin Hook – Wallace Gimley has carried the same dream with him since the age of five: he wants to fly. He says he was inspired by comic books and old film clips of inventors trying to test flying contraptions.

“Hawk Man was always my favorite,” Gimley told me as we sat together in his barn that he turned into a make shift study, design, and building space. “I read the comics first. Superman could fly, of course, but that was different. He flew because he was Superman. But Hawk Man, he had wings. Actual wings.”

It's not difficult to see that Gimley takes his passion seriously. The proof hangs from the rafters and are set around on tables; drawings and scraps of paper with scribbles and calculations and sketches cover nearly ever inch of the barn that once held animals back when he was growing up on the farm set far back on Pemblebrook Road. The only thing left of the tractor and the cows, horses, and pigs is that lingering odor of straw, old manure, and rust. Since inheriting the farm after the death of his mother after a long battle with cancer five year ago, Wallace Gimley has turned it from a working farm with 50 acres of good crop land to a design and manufacturing facility focused on the production of a single product – a contraption that will enable him to fly. Not an airplane, which he says puts too much between him and the air, and not even a glider, which he calls “cheating.” No. Wallace Gimley intends to build something that, in conjunction with his own body, will enable him to fly on his own power.

“I call it my own private Menlo Park,” he joked, showing me around. The allusion is intentional. Gimley says that Thomas Edition is one of his heroes and his primary inspiration. “Everyone thought he was nuts, too,” says the self-proclaimed inventor. “He went around talking about this thing called electricity and how people didn't need to light candles all the time just to see. He envisioned entire towns lit up in the night with these strange filaments. And look what happened! And just think,” he paused to light a home-made corn-cob pipe. “Just think about what the world would be like if Edison had listened to all those yahoos and forgot about electric lights.”

He points out several designs to me – all of them, failures. But he says with each failure he learned something new, something that he was able to fix in the next design. His early designs took him less than 6 months to design and build, starting from the age of 10. Now however, he says he takes more time to plan things out. He may spend as much as a year on design, and that much time on small scale testing. He throws out terms like lift, aerodynamic, wing span, center of gravity. That's the secret of his next design, he says. Center of gravity. He wouldn't go into details but said, “That's the mistake they all made. Even the Wright Brothers. “They all understood what Newton said about gravity. But they didn't move beyond the apple falling from the tree.”

And if you're thinking that Wallace Gimley went to school and studied aerodynamics, wing design, or physics, you're wrong. In fact, Wallace Gimley dropped out when he was 14 years old. “I wasn't learning anything.” But he points out that there's a difference between schooled and educated. His parents, hoping to encourage him to put himself back in school, made him work everyday on the farm; and he says that even though they were trying to manipulate him into giving up on his dreams, he's thankful for every day of hard work. Without it, his body might've gone soft... which would have ultimately made his dream impossible. “It's as much about the man as it is the contraption,” he said, smiling.

Gimley educated himself by reading. He read everything he could get his hands on, even when he was exhausted from work. He read history and science and math. He inhaled books about inventors and about flying. When his grandparents died, he inherited their collection of National Geographic Magazine, going back nearly 40 years, a complete collection fo Encyclopedia Britannia, and a four volume American Heritage Dictionary, including a Thesaurus. He claims to have read them all several times over, except for the Thesaurus, which he says is only useful “when a person wants to sound smart instead of be smart.”

So how does a man with an 8th grade education support himself enough to be able to focus on his dream of flying? He sold all the animals except for a milk cow, and he leases out the crop land to one of his neighbors. He grows a garden and hunts when it's in-season. He also sometimes builds things or repairs things for his neighbors; he's as handy at fixing a tractor as he is sewing a stitch. Most of the money he makes goes into building his contraptions, and what's left is enough for him to get by on.

“I don't need all kinds of nice stuff,” he says. “But I do need to fly.”

He's made six attempts over the years; the contraptions – or the remains of them – hang high from the rafters of his barn. Gimley says he's broken his collar bone twice, his left arm once, sprained both knees and gotten five concussions. But he has no intention of quitting, even if his neighbors, who have tolerated his … eccentricities … for years would prefer that he live quietly and farm his land much in the way his father and mother did. Gimley says it's not the contraptions that bother them so much, but the occasional explosions and “evidence of experimentation.” But he insists he's a good neighbor in spite of his oddities. He also insists that each and every one of them will change their tune after he tests his seventh contraption. That one, he claims, is the one that will fly. And when it does, they'll all brag about being his neighbor rather than commiserate about it.

Gimley leads me to a the back corner stall in the barn; there's a large object there, covered with a sheet. He won't show me what's under the sheet. “That's the contraption,” he says with a smile. “That's the one that'll fly.” He plans to test it as soon as the weather is warmer, maybe as around early summer. Until then, he tinkers and tests and makes his calculation and prepares to fly.


02 April, 2010

The Inner Workings of Nostalgia

The best part of my day
is walking out to the mail box
because the neighbor lady
watches me and wonders
what a man my age
is doing at home
at that time of day. Then

I walk to the bar
and catch up on the local news
not covered in the paper
between Rotary Club check presentations
and JV and Varsity Sports
and the ever growing obituaries
that corresponds creepily

to the growing number
of houses for sale
and the emptying store fronts.
Once in a while
the old men include me
in their conversations
but that’s only because

there’s no one else there
to talk to. Mostly I nod
and laugh and when
I get home I wonder
how long these small towns
have left
before all the old timers die

and all the grandkids move
to where the jobs are
and the farm fields are sold
and spliced into house lots
and the bricks that cover Market Street
are recycled and built into a monument
for a town whose name
no one knows how to spell.

29 March, 2010

Other Uses For Duct Tape

As she promenaded down the narrow Main Street sidewalk in her best outfit, Walter felt glamorous for the first time in her life.

She was sure they would stop ignoring her, now. Even though it was mid-day on a Tuesday and the center of town was deserted, Walter – who was now going by the name Wilomena (after her favorite grandmother) – knew she would make quite the impression. She was ready for anything. Stares. Glares. Insults. Screams. Threats. Bible quotes. When she put together her ensemble, perfect down to the size 10 stiletto heels, silk hose, and a bright but conservative handbag, she knew the effect she was going for. Her make-up was flawless and straight out of a fashion magazine. She tried to calm herself. Her nerves had almost gotten the better of her that morning; she almost talked herself out of it. But she’d been fantasizing about this day from the moment she started dressing in her mother’s clothes when her parents weren’t home. And if her father’s wrathful beating couldn’t stop her, there wasn’t anybody in town who could scare her either. It was her home as much as theirs, she figured. They would just have to deal with it.

Her first stop was in the Pharmacy Center, where that dried out Stacy Hauptmeyer was working the register. Wilomena had known her since elementary school; they had both been born and been matriculated through Arliss County Consolidated Schools. They both attended Briggs Straton High, where Stacy had been Prom Queen, and Wilomena – then Walter, the fat pimply kid everybody thought was a little retarded – wasn’t even allowed to dance without the entire Prom Court laughing and making fun the frilly pink shirt and baby blue bow tie and cumberbund she’d had to go all the way to Chicago to find.

Wilomena was held herself together and made sure to glide through the door: elegant and above the fracas of small town Mount Arliss. She was still a large woman. There was nothing to be done about that; she knew she was limited by her genetic heritage, so she did the best with what she had. There wasn’t a glamour queen alive who didn’t look like shit without her make-up, she knew that much. In this, she felt a kinship to beautiful women everywhere and it made her feel more beautiful.

Stacy the fallen prom queen (She’d fallen that very night, as a matter of fact, when she forgot all the lectures her daddy the Lutheran minister gave her and spread her legs for Billy Borgenstein, the butcher’s son and Prom King. By the time Stacy had given birth to Billy’s big-headed bastard, the only thing royal on her was the hugeness of her ass.) didn’t speak to her as she walked through the door; but Wilomena couldn’t contain her smile when she noticed Stacy’s eyes popping out of her head. Was it the heels, Wilomena wondered, or the brand name semi-couture dress that she could never have on her small salary as a check out clerk that went to Billy’s beer and his fat baby’s diapers? It didn’t matter. Wilomena walked up and down the aisles, trying to decide what to buy for herself. The item itself was irrelevant; the goal of her visit had been achieved. She stopped was in the small and pathetically stocked home repair section when she saw a roll of gray duct tape and remembered she’d ran out that morning trying to get into her ensemble. She picked the roll off the shelf and made her way back up to the counter. Stacy was talking quickly on her cell phone, and hung up before Wilomena approached the counter.

She rang up the Wilomena’s purchase in silence, intentionally NOT looking at her and scowling at the keys on the register. Wilomena could tell that Stacy wanted to say something; but it wasn’t high school anymore and Stacy wasn’t the Prom Queen. All she said was “11.75,” the price of the tape.

Wilomena paid for the tape in cash; she didn’t like to use her debit card when she dressed up because it still had her old name on it. She opened her purse and handed Stacy a 20; even when she made change, Stacy refused to look Wilomena in the eye. But Wilomena smiled anyway, graciously accepted the change, picked up her the white plastic shopping bag with her tape in it, thanked Stacy, and walked back out onto the sidewalk.

After that, she went down to Siegerson’s bar and ordered a mixed drink. At first, Mitch (the owner) didn’t want to serve her, but there wasn’t anybody else and business had been slow all winter. He didn’t say anything to Wilomena, either, though the hatred burning in his weasel-like eyes said everything that needed to be said. She finished her drink, left a small tip, and left – floating from her triumph.

Wilomena got as far as the courthouse.


She ignored it; her feet were starting to hurt from the heels, but a little pain was nothing compared to the victory she felt at that moment.

“Hey you! Faggot! Retard!” The comment was accompanied by laughter.

Wilomena walked around the corner and away from the noise. She picked up the pace, but she felt her feet started to swell up. That’s what I get, she thought, for tying out a new pair of shoes today.

She was almost to the corner a group of five men stopped her.

“Hey faggot,” one of them said. It was the same voice.

“Gentlemen,” she answered in her best husky voice. She smiled to try and hide her fear.

“We don’t like faggots here,” another one said.

“Yeah,” another said.

“Faggot!” hissed another.

“I think you have me confused with someone else,” Wilomena said, trying to walk through them.

“Walter?” the leader asked, pushing her backwards. “I always knowed you was a retard; but now yer a FAG, too?”

When they circled around her, Wilomena’s stomach jumped into her throat. She was about to reply when the first blow came from behind her and took her to her knees.

“You wanna suck our dicks, Walter? You faggot?” the leader taunted him and the others laughed. One of them kicker her in the back and other punched her on the side of her head. The leader bent down and picked up the shopping bag and looked inside. “Duct tape?” he laughed. “What does a little faggot like YOU need with duct tape?

“Maybe he tapes his dick back with it,” one of them said.

The leader smacked her in the head. “That’s fucking SICK, Walter. Is that what you do? Huh? You wanna be a girl Walter?”

“My name…” she said. “My name…”

The leader hit her again. “Let’s get him outta here,” he said. “Pick his fat ass up and get him over to my truck.” He tore the plastic wrapping off the duct tape. One of them held her hands behind her back and the leader wrapped tape around her wrists. They picked her up and dragged her behind the courthouse, where the truck was. The entire time they made fun of her weight, they tore her dress, and continued to punch and kick her. Before they tossed her into the back of the truck the leader took the roll of duct tape and wrapped her eyes and cross ways around her head. They punched her and kicked her, even as they drove out of town. They were screaming and howling like wild animals when Wilomena lost consciousness.

05 January, 2010

The Old Desk

I keep beer out on the covered front porch.
It’s winter in Northwest Illinois
and the relentless cold makes for great
refrigeration. My wife hides my beer
behind an old school desk she bought
at an auction; she says
she doesn’t want it to be
the first thing people see
when they visit. I laugh and tell her
her worries are cute and that somebody,
(not me) ought to be concerned. It’s possible
to derive some comfort from knowing
all your paranoia is justified. Our neighbor
notices when I take walks, asks me
when I see him at the post office
if I’m looking for work, and he pays attention
to whether we use our car, or when we leave
the garage door open. I can tell in people’s faces
when I see them on the street, or at the (only) bar
they’re trying to decide if I’m “ok” enough;
I want to tell them
the beer on my porch is probably
their best indicator, though most of them
will never come close enough to notice.

When she brought the desk home,
she (proudly) informed me
she only paid 50 cents. (She said)
It was too good a deal to pass on
and besides (she insisted) she was thinking
of me. It would be cute upstairs, where I write;
It could sit in the corner and I could use it
to put books on. But the desk
has done its duty; the seat
is smooth and splinter free –
worn by countless student asses,
made sore by the wood
and by the hours spent
learning cursive and reading
from old primers and struggling
with long division. The wrought iron legs
are rusted from years of exposure
through creaky floor boards and clapboard windows,
wet boots, and the dry heat
of a coal or wood burning stove. The desk top is
splinter and graffiti free, and has a hole
in the right hand corner for a bottle
of fountain pen ink. When I carried the desk in
from the car, I left it on the porch
where the orange rocking chair was
that she left to sit in when she goes
out on the porch to smoke. The desk will hide
a couple of cases of beer and some liquor,
too. Every night when I lock the front door
I think about locking the screen door too; but then
(I remind myself) this is not a town
where people steal your beer;
it’s much more intoxicating
to take note of visitors and
driving habits and the frequency
with which I (do or don’t) leave the house

11 November, 2009

Blue-Eyed Dog

When I saw the corpse, it looked like it had been out all in the cold. It was – or it had been, at any rate – a retriever mutt. Short hair. Brownish coat. His pecker was hard and his mouth was locked in a permanent snarl. It looked like it looked up to meet the car head on and lost.

“Shouldn’ta been in the street,” Sammy said, and spat on the sidewalk, just to see if the goober would freeze. He was always so cool. Detached. We’d been friends since elementary school, and he was even cool back then. The only thing that ever seemed to affect him was the tightness of Marissa Hency’s shirt on any given day. Her freshman year she was a gangly little girl with mousy hair and big eyes that nobody noticed. But when she walked to the school building at the beginning of her sophomore year –our senior year – her tits crossed the entrance well ahead of her. Since then, the sight of her put Sammy into a dreamy-eyed frenzy and robbed him of the ability to speak coherently.

“Somebody should have tied him up,” Fremont added. He had the car, so he drove. Sammy parent’s wouldn’t let him drive one of theirs, and I totaled mine; Fremont was also a sophomore – a fact that Sammy often resented, since he was in the same homeroom as Marissa Hency – but he was a good kid. Super smart. He was in all the advanced classes and all the teachers loved him. The only thing that saved him from being bullied was the fact that his old man had been biker and taught him how to fight. He was also the school artist; people always wanted him to draw them pictures because they just knew he was going to be a famous artist someday.

“We can’t just leave him there,” I said. The dog was in the gutter across the street from Sammy’s house. The legs were stiff. The frost that had settled the night before was still covering his coat. It was still cold enough that I could see my breath when I talked.

“We gotta get to school,” Sammy said.

“Like you give a shit about school,” Fremont said, smiling. “You’re just going to pass out behind the wrestling mats until lunch, anyway.”

Sammy gave him the finger. “Shut the fuck up.”

“We can’t leave him here.” I didn’t really care about school. Besides the fact that it was my senior year and I didn’t give a shit anyway, first bell was Introduction to Business, Ms. Stockdale’s class. She was a horrible teacher and it was a horrible class. She talked on and on and on about things like how to keep a balanced checkbook and about the nature of supply and demand. I took the class because I needed an elective and there weren’t any art classes; my only other option was a typing class that would have been worse torture than listening to Ms. Stockdale. I would have taken a shop class, if only to have an excuse to hang out with Sammy – but the guidance counselor made sure that none of the college-track kids, which I was, never got into any of the shop classes.

The dog wasn’t the first dead animal I’d ever seen; you grow up in a small town like New Leeds and you see a lot of dead animals. Mostly cats. Nobody really cared about cats. In the spring, squirrels and raccoons were regular road kills. More skunks in the summer. Far enough out of town, sometimes you’d see a deer get tagged by a speeding truck. There were plenty of stray dogs – but they were either adopted or shot or, sometimes, even poisoned. But they weren’t road kill very often.

“It’s DEAD,” Sammy rolled his eyes. “Who gives a shit? The road crew’ll come and pick him up in a couple of hours, anyway.”

Sammy was right; eventually somebody would call it in and the Road Department would send out a truck. They’d scrape him out of the gutter and take him to be incinerated. Animals that were owned or loved were generally buried. One of my cousins told me about a friend of theirs who had his dog stuffed; he had it made to look like it was curled up sleeping and then put in what had been the dog’s favorite corner. I thought that was disgusting; nobody would ever do that to a person. Why do it to a dog?

“How would YOU like it?” I asked Sammy, “if you were dead in the gutter and nobody gave a shit about you?”

Sammy spat on the sidewalk again and lit a cigarette; he wasn’t worried about getting caught because his parents had already left for work. “I wouldn’t care,” he said. “I wouldn’t care at all. “ So cool.

I bent down to take a closer look, and I patted the dog’s head. He’d had a hungry life and probably didn’t get petted that much; I could count a couple of his ribs. I looked at the dog’s snarling face again. One of the eyes was shut, like it had squinted – looking straight into oncoming headlights, probably. But the other eye was wide open. It was a lifeless grayish-blue color. It made me think of what I’d heard once about wolves having blue eyes; for some reason, it made me feel sadder than I already did.

“Don’t do that,” Sammy coughed. “Dead bodies carry disease. You’ll get one of those worms that crawls up your dick.”

“It’s too cold for that,” I said.

“Yeah,” Fremont agreed.

Sammy shot him another dirty look. Then he looked over at me. “Come on, Nick,” he said. “Let’s go. What’re you gonna do? Have a funeral for it?”

I looked up at Sammy. He looked like he was making a joke. I looked over at Fremont. He was looking at me. He nodded, and I nodded back.

“Jesus fucking CHRIST!” Sammy Scoffed. “Are you SHITTIN’ me? It’s not even your dog, man! What if the owner comes looking for it? Don’t you think THEY’D want to bury it?”

“No tags,” I said as I stood up. “No collar at all.” I looked around the head again. No blood, except right around the mouth. When I moved to stand between Sammy and Fremont, I felt the eye following me and I shuddered. Just a little.

“Not everyone buys tags,” Sammy said.

Fremont and I decided to take Sammy to school and come back for the dog. At first, he didn’t believe that we were really just dropping him off. He told us we’d end up getting in trouble. We ignored him.

“Whatever,” he muttered when he got out, slamming the door behind him. Fremont reached over and opened the door so I could get out of the back and sit in front. After I moved and closed the door we pulled out of the parking lot. Fremont said he had to stop at his house; he said his dad had some shovels we could use.

I didn’t like the idea; but if anybody would understand, it would be Fremont’s mom. She was an artist and had a couple of poems published in this anthology made of leather with gold trim. I showed her some of my poems once; she gave me my first honest critique and encouraged me to keep writing. That meant a lot, so I was hoping she would understand why Fremont wasn’t at school.

I waited in the car while Fremont went inside. The frost was starting to thaw. What few leaves were left on the trees had fallen off during the night. It had been the first real frost of the year; that meant winter was coming. We’d probably end up living though another ugly, brown, snowless winter. The last time it had really snowed, I was eight or nine years old. They had to call off school – which hardly ever happened, before or since. (The Superintendent was one of those grumpy old fucks who told stories about walking to school uphill both ways in a blizzard. The parents all loved him and were just waiting for him to retire or die so they could name one of the school buildings after him.) Everybody had to stay home that day; it was so cold that it was even cold in the house with the heat one and Dad made me a cup of coffee to help stay warm. He loaded it down with cream and sugar. It had an awful taste. I didn’t try a cup of coffee again until after he died. I drank it black, like he did.

Fremont walked out of the front door carrying a ratty old blanket and two pairs of work gloves. “For the dog,” he said. “She doesn’t want us to touch him.”

“Right.” We went to the small unattached garage and found the shovels. Then we tossed them and the blanket in the backseat and drove back to where the dog was.

He was still there. Fremont pulled the car in the driveway nearest the corpse. It didn’t look like anybody was home.

“We should probably hurry,” he said.


When we got out, I grabbed the blanket, gloves, and shovels, and Fremont opened the trunk. We both put on a pair of gloves. Then we decided that the best thing to do was to put the blanket over the dog and try to roll it over so that the dog would be on top; that way we could carry it by holding on to the blanket. But the body was heavier than we thought; Fremont and I struggled to flip the dog out of the gutter without accidently breaking off one of its legs. The body was still stiff and felt frozen; the frost had started to melt, which left the fur a little wet and made it even harder to get a handle on the dog. Fremont was working the tale end, and I working the head. That eye stared at me the entire time. The whole operation took on determined air of desperation. There wasn’t any traffic, since everybody else was where they were supposed to be; but it was taking too long. A few cars passed by, but none of them even bothered to slow down. All those stories about the how close knit small towns are and how everybody is in everybody’s business must have been started by people who never lived in one. Unless you set something on fire, nobody notices anything.

After a few grunts and shoves we got the dog turned over. Then we each picked up our corners of the blanket and carried it over and set it down as carefully as we could in the trunk. When Fremont closed the lid, that eye was somehow still face up and looking straight at me.

The car heat felt good. “Where you want to go?” he asked.

“I don’t really know,” I confessed. “It should be someplace, you know… private. The woods or something. But we shouldn’t go too far. It’ll take too much time.”

He nodded in agreement. “I think I know a place.”

Suddenly I wanted a cigarette. I usually bummed one off Sammy in morning, but the dog distracted me and I forgot to ask. He didn’t offer, either. Damn him, I thought. Like he really cares about school. He won’t even see Marissa Hency in hallway until lunch.

Fremont drove towards the edge of town. I thought I knew where he was going, and when we got there, I was saw I was right. On the edge of town, next to the cemetery, there was a small patch of woods; you had to drive through the Baptist Church parking lot and down this one lane gravel road to get to it. The woods were next to this small field where the Baptists held outdoor summer revivals and Vacation Bible school functions. When we got to the clearing, Fremont drove right onto the grass clearing and parked next to the trees on the side closest to the cemetery.

“How are we gonna do this?” I asked, getting out.

“We carry the dog back,” he said, “then I come back for the shovels.”

After Fremont opened the trunk, he immediately grabbed the tale end, leaving me the eye. Again. I tried not to think about it watching me as our little procession made its way past the line of tree line, with its leafless limbs sticking up in the air. We walked ten or twelve yards until we came on a small clearing that had probably been a bum’s campsite at one time. There was a small circle of rocks somebody had used for a makeshift fire pit. We put the dog down and Fremont went and grabbed the shovels. It was starting to warm up, but the air was still chilly. If we were lucky, the ground wouldn’t be too frozen or full of rocks.

It wasn’t too frozen; that would take a few more weeks. But we once we got past the thin layer of dead grass, the ground seemed to be more rock than dirt. Originally, we had intended to dig a six foot hole, like a real grave; but after about hour of digging, we realized it would take us longer than we had. I looked my watch; it was almost the middle of third period. We had to get to school by lunch or Sammy would never let us hear the end of it.

We dug the plot deep enough that he wouldn’t be bothered, and we left him wrapped in the blanket when we lowered him down. Somehow we’d managed to put him in there so that that damn eye was still staring up at me.

“Your mom won’t get upset about the blanket?” I asked.

Fremont shook his head. “She won’t want it back.”

Filling in the grave didn’t take nearly as much time as digging did, and when we were finished, we lined all the rocks, including those used for the fire pit, along the edges. Then we stood there for a couple of minutes.

“You want to say something?” Fremont asked.

“No,” I answered. I didn't want to say anything. There wasn’t anything to say; nothing anybody said over a grave was worth hearing, anyway. We stood there for another couple of minutes. Then we walked back across the tree line, got into Fremont’s car, and left. We returned the shovels and work gloves before we went to school, and Fremont’s mom made us scrub our hands raw before she let us go.

We reported to the office when we got to school. When I filled out my tardy slip, I wrote “buried a dog” as my reason. The secretary eyed me carefully, her gray eyes peering at me over the top of rhinestone speckled bifocals.

When we saw Sammy at lunch, he gave us shit. We ignored him. He talked and laughed and cracked jokes until Marissa Hency walked into the cafeteria. She was wearing a tight blue sweater.