I Write, Too

Professionally, I make most of my living as a writer. Yet, you were probably drawn here most likely because of my photographs. I remember distinctly an afternoon when I was twelve, reading an issue of National Geographic. Underneath the author's byline were the words "Writer and Photographer." I knew at that moment exactly what I wanted to do -- write and photograph. 

And that's what I did through high school. Writer and editor for the school newspaper and photographer for the yearbook. As I applied for journalism programs, I thought I had to decide right then: write or shoot. I chose writing, using the logic that if I had to make a living making photographs, then the process wouldn't be "fun" anymore. I imagined countless weddings and parties being used as a visual whipping boy.  

For the next 30 years, I defined myself solely as a writer. Photography was not only not fun, I did not practice it much. I made some headway in the writing world. I published about a dozen short stories and one lone poem. Most of my serious literary writing is available only in printed form. "Coffin Fishing" below is one of the exceptions. It began as an 800-word scene from a failed novel, "The Jesus Transport System." I fleshed it out, submitted it around, and was pleased when Zoetrope All-Story accepted it for publication. I think it holds up pretty well, but not enough to make me take up the failed novel. I'm onto something else.

 

Qwerky Fiction: Coffin Fishing

Coffin Fishing

by CB Adams

Late Sunday night after attending a gun and collectibles show in St. Louis, Bill Burmeister - Burr to everyone who knew him - was trying to find his way home. Guiding his truck along one confusing detour after another: washed-out bridges, submerged highways, collapsed levees. There were patches of fog thick like anesthesia. Headlights - set on high beam - plowed through banks of insects, their sounds still audible over the whir of the air conditioning and the drone of the engine. Next to him, secured with a seat belt: a framed portrait of a Confederate soldier - a boy really - with the black stalk of his rifle resting against his right shoulder. His eyes defiant, clear, scared. On the radio two professors debated whether this was a 500-year or a 1,000-year flood. Burr shook his head. He had stood above the flood and stared at the water. He had felt - and could still feel - the river wasn't done rising. In the car he turned to a station playing Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight."

He finally reached the intersection of routes T and Y, just outside Boville. A crossroads Burr recognized. In fifteen minutes he'd be home. He passed through the town of Common, drove over the Missouri River at Turner's Bridge, and nosed his truck around the loping bend in the road at Scotsman's Bluff. Then onto the gravel road that led to his house. The road sloped gradually between a field of corn standing taller than a man. The land was Burr's, but the corn was raised by a local man who leased property and farmed it. Burr's house - a double-wide mobile home he had bought four years before - sat in a hollow, surrounded by trees. It was cool there in summer, and protected in winter. Tonight it was underwater. 

Burr ground the truck to a halt. The headlights caught the top few inches of his trailer that were still above the water. He got out. The water's voice was quiet, yet immense and strong. Burr watched as the double-wide squirmed in the current, pulling against the tie-downs like a great, white, restless whale. He imagined the river washing the photographs from the walls and darkening their sepia tones to the flat color of mud. When he couldn't stand to look any longer, Burr pounded his fist on the hood of the truck and turned to leave. He wasn't sure where he would go. He had friends - acquaintances really - but none he would impose upon. So he drove back to Turner's Bridge, parked, and walked slowly out over the river. He looked down and listened to the water splash against the pylons. 

Burr remembered being a boy and climbing along the supports under this bridge. He used to sit on a girder and watch the water going by. If he stared too long, it seemed like the bridge was moving and the water stood still. Burr thought about Libby Bittlemeyer, his eighth grade history teacher. She came from St. Louis to Boville when her husband got a job as a towboat operator. She was not the youngest or prettiest teacher Burr knew, but he fell in love with her anyway. He fell in love with her the first day of class. He fell in love with her the moment she chalked her name in sad cursive on the blackboard in a way that said she had lived her own history. He fell in love with Libby Bittlemeyer even before she introduced herself and said: "Class, if you remember nothing else this year, remember that history is not a place. It's not museums, monuments, or the Gettysburg Address. No, history is time. It's like the river. It flows around you. Stay in one spot and history will become you, just as the sunrise gives you a new day."

Now forty years later, thinking about his own history made Burr feel tired, like he was swimming against the current. Arms pulling, legs kicking, yet staying in the same place. He walked back to his truck then drove to the Bobber Truck Stop and Cafe. He stayed up the rest of the night drinking coffee. A Red Cross 
volunteer came by and asked Burr to help with the sandbagging efforts. Burr 
declined because he had back problems, a disc that easily slipped him into agony. So the volunteer gave him a flyer about the temporary shelter instead. 

At dawn, Burr watched the indigo of night rise like a window shade, revealing the pink light of day. Titty Tevis came into the Bobber for breakfast. When he saw Burr, he walked over and squeezed himself uninvited into the booth where Burr was sitting.

"Heard about the Corps' levee collapsing?" said Titty, vigorously scratching his chest through his white v-neck T-shirt. "How's your place?" 

"Gone, I guess. They say the whole area is under," Burr replied. 

"Helluva thing, this flood," said Titty. 

"Yeah, like you could just up and leave and never come back." 

The two men were the same age and had grown up in Boville. They were distant acquaintances at best, yet their lives shared many echoes. They each lived alone, and neither had children. Burr's wife, Cassie, had divorced him twelve years earlier. She said she blamed him for having sperm with the motility of concrete. She said she had to leave while there was still time for her to have children. Nora, Titty's wife, had died after a long fight with cervical cancer. They had been married only a few years. Before she died, she gave Titty permission to marry again, a privilege he neither asked for nor intended to use. 

"You could come stay with me," Titty said to Burr. "I've got a guest room that's just takin' up space." Titty lived in an old farmhouse on the edge of an abandoned quarry, the former Tevis Stone & Gravel Works, an enterprise begun by his grandfather and closed by Titty when he retired after the death of Nora. Titty smiled, waiting for Burr's answer. Burr noticed Titty had the biggest, whitest teeth he'd ever seen on a man. They looked strong and wide enough to grind feed corn. 

"Naw, it wouldn't feel right," Burr replied. 

"Bullshit," said Titty. "That tin can you were living in is three counties away by now and . . . it ain't coming back." Titty looked at the Red Cross flyer near Burr's coffee cup. "Where else you gonna sleep, some cot at that shelter?" 

"I don't know..." 

"Jesus, you'd think I was gonna bite you," Titty said. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled a key off the wad at the end of a chain that was hooked to his belt loop. He slapped the key down. "Come when you want. Go when you want. Just let somebody do something for you, would ya?"

When Burr pulled up to the house later that day, the bare-chested Titty was waiting for him on the front porch. Like most people who grew up in the area, Burr knew how Titty got his nickname. In high school, Theodore "Teddy " Tevis developed a severe case of eczema that made his chest and nipples painfully dry and itchy. He scratched and rubbed them constantly. Whenever he wore shirts, he pulled the pocket buttons to get the material off his skin, giving him a full-figured appearance, like Jane Russell in those "Cross Your Heart" commercials. So everyone called him Titty. After a dermatologist in St. Louis cured the condition, Titty continued playing with himself for no other reason than sheer habit. Now 53, he could have earned his nickname all over because of the near-prodigious size of his flabby pectorals. 

"See you found the place," Titty said, helping Burr carry in the four bags of new clothes and other essentials he had bought at Wal-Mart. 

"Yeah, I got the pea gravel for my road from you, back when I bought my place," Burr replied. 

"I remember that." 

"Lot quieter around here now." 

Titty was about to agree when he noticed the photograph of the Confederate soldier strapped in the seat. 

"Itn't he something?" Burr asked. "Bought him at the gun show in St. Louis." 

"Who is it?" 

"Believe it or not, he's my great-great-grandfather on my mother's side." 

"You don't say." Titty thought he could see a slight family resemblance around the jaw line, or maybe the curvature of the eyes. "And you bought it at a gun show." 

Titty led Burr into his house and showed him the guest room. The two-story house was almost 100 years old. It was clean and well-maintained. It smelled of lemon wax and Murphy's Oil Soap. The guest room was furnished with an antique rope bed, an oak bonnet chest, a rolltop desk, and a brown corduroy recliner that looked out of place.

"After Nora couldn't get up the stairs any more, I made up her bed in here," Titty explained. "Toward the end, every movement made her hurt more. I couldn't bear not to be upstairs, so I bought this recliner to sleep in." 

Burr nodded. 

"And don't worry," Titty added. "That's a brand-new mattress." 

After Burr was settled in, he found Titty waiting for him on the wooden wrap-around back porch. The steep face of the limestone quarry rose behind the house like an amphitheater. It captured the light of the setting sun and amplified the dark noise of crickets, cicadas, and locusts. Between the house and the rock face sat a quarry pit filled with blue-black water. A narrow wooden dock extended from the back porch into the water. Two white Adirondack chairs sat facing the quarry from off the porch. 

Titty poured Kentucky Gentleman into two shot glasses. He handed one glass to Burr, who wasn't much of a drinker. Titty leaned his head back and downed the bourbon. With a bang he set the glass on the arm of his chair.

Burr sipped the bourbon and let it warm him slowly while Titty poured himself another. The two men watched without speaking as purple martins swooped across the surface of the water in the fading sunlight and Titty asked, "Hungry?"

Inside, Burr sat at the kitchen table as Titty completed their meal. The men talked. Burr was surprised to learn how much Titty knew about his divorce from Cassie, his towing service, and his land. Burr knew relatively little about Titty, but he noticed their lives had reached a similar crossroads - young enough to start over, old enough to bear the loneliness. 

Dinner was: pork chops braised in sweet cider, pink catawba wine, thick stalks of asparagus baked in tin foil with butter, a salad of field greens and fiddlehead ferns dressed in hot bacon drippings, white vinegar, and a pinch of sugar, angel biscuits. No dessert, but black coffee. 

When they were done, Burr said, "God damn, Titty. You sure can cook." 

"I didn't know how to boil water until after Nora got sick," Titty said and tweaked his right nipple a tweak. "Doctor said she had to eat, to keep her strength up. I tried fixing anything. Tried to make her take a few bites. I bought cookbooks, subscribed to magazines. I'd read the descriptions and list of ingredients. If Nora said it sounded good, I made it." 

"You're a good man," Burr said, surprised at his own comment. 

Titty got up and started clearing the dishes. Burr tried to help but Titty shooed him away. He watched as Titty cleaned each dish and pot carefully before putting it in the dishwasher. They made small talk as Titty neated up the kitchen. They had to raise their voices over the whoosh of the dishwasher. Maybe it was the bourbon and the wine or the fine meal, or the fact that practically everything he owned was now floating down river. But here - more than twenty years since his parents' death left him without family; twelve years since his wife floated out of his life; and exactly six months since anyone had even offered him a home-cooked meal with the promise of certain company afterwards - it was here with Titty that Burr wanted to talk about happiness. 

"You think you could ever be happy again?" he asked. 

Titty looked at Burr and shrugged his shoulders. "Happiness is a fire. You 
gotta keep giving it something to burn or it goes out." He said this, staring out the window over the sink. Moths fluttered against the glass. 

Burr watched Titty for a moment and looked away. He tried to feel whether an ember still burned within. Titty said goodnight and headed upstairs with the remains of the Kentucky Gentleman. Burr went to the guest room and laid on top of the bed quilt. He didn't undress. Titty had good air conditioning - quiet and cool and dry. The flood seemed far away. During the night, Burr dreamed that Titty sat in the recliner, watching him sleep. 

During the flood, the land changed. The water sought out and claimed its low places. It turned the hard earth into soft, compliant pudding and resurrected the dead. It unmoored the sealed metal coffins from their final resting places in Calvary Cemetery and sent them bobbing down river like buoys from the underworld, thudding against trees and the drowned barns and houses. It spun the coffins aimlessly in the current's slow whorls and eddies that formed across fields. In which weeks before these same fields had held rows of corn, milo, sorghum, and alfalfa. And people responded with panic. The dead had to be saved, they said, caught like wayward children and returned home. Many tried without success to lasso the coffins from the riverbank. Someone fashioned a harpoon from a piece of re-bar and a rope. The coffins repelled the harpoon, spurned it like a toy arrow. Two out-of-town volunteers drowned when their boat hit a submerged tree. They capsized as they were guiding a coffin to shore. The sheriff said no more trying to save the dead.

Burr awoke to the sound of a large splash and Titty whooping "Oh shit!" He got out of bed and walked to the window. Titty was swimming naked in the quarry pit. Burr showered and dressed in a pair of new jeans and a stiff chambray work shirt with large checkerboard creases. The shirt was itchy and Burr rubbed his hands over the chest and sleeves to loosen up the fabric. 

When Burr stepped onto the porch, Titty waved and said, "Come on in. No better way to start your morning." Burr shook his head. Against the deep water, Titty looked like a very large, bald-headed cork. 

"Have it your way," Titty said. "There's coffee in that Thermos by the chairs." 

Burr was on his second cup when Titty climbed onto the dock and dried himself off. He slipped on white boxer shorts and a pair of flip flops. 

"That pit's more than fifty feet deep," Titty said. "Even in the summer the water stays cool." 

"You got it stocked?" Burr asked. 

"Oh sure. Catfish, bluegill, crappie - and no trash fish, either." 

At the sound of gravel crunching on the driveway, Titty and Burr followed the wrap-around porch to the front of the house. Franklin Hobbs, owner of Hobbs Construction over in Common, stepped down from his red, long-bed Dodge truck. The door closed with a solid, manly thunk. 

"Ain't you a sight, Titty. You never change," Franklin said. "Hey there, Burr, didn't know you was out here." 

"We're about to have breakfast, you son of bitch," Titty said. "You want some?" 

"Nope. I just had the Big Plate over at the Bobber." 

"Well, at least come in for coffee." 

Franklin walked up the porch steps and set his hand, as big as a catcher's mitt, on Burr's shoulder. "Hated to hear about your place, Burr. If you need -" 

"Thanks . . . I know," Burr said, stepping back. 

In the kitchen, Titty pulled from the oven a large casserole dish of baked cheese grits. Thick slices of bacon popped and sizzled in a black cast iron skillet on the stovetop. Mr. Coffee chugged on the counter. A wire whisk lay across the lip of a glass bowl like a skeletized chicken drumstick. Inside, several eggs lay beaten. 

"That bacon smells awful good," Franklin said. "Think I might just have to have a slice or two, after all." 

"Got that from Burgher's Smokehouse," Titty said. "They sure know how to smoke a hog." 

Titty dished up a plateful of grits, bacon, and scrambled eggs for all the men.

"So what brings you out here?" Titty asked. 

"Well, sir, I'll tell ya. I've got a proposition," Franklin said. "It was originally for you, Titty, but since you're here, Burr, I'll bring you in on it, too. I call it coffin fishing." 

Franklin said it worked this way: First, you send a spotter in a boat upriver. When a coffin surfaces, the spotter radios back to a foreman on Turner's Bridge, a half a mile down. As the coffin rounds Scotsman's Bluff, a crew in john boats helps guide it to the bridge, where one of Franklin's construction cranes is positioned. Dangling from the crane is a net of woven cables. The water is fast under the bridge, but even so, if you drop the net at just the right moment, you can snatch a coffin from the river. He was sure of it. Even the sheriff had given him the go-ahead. 

"Franklin Hobbs," Titty said when he was done explaining, "you're a goddamned hero." Titty slapped a damp kitchen towel on the counter for emphasis. 

Franklin agreed Burr should be the foreman due to his back and disc problems. Titty said he preferred not to have a job title, that he would find his own way to make himself useful. 

The next morning was hot and hazy, even in the early light. Franklin Hobbs was away, trying to save the Chrysler dealership in Common from drowning. Burr leaned over the upstream railing of Turner's Bridge and waited. The walkie-talkie dangled from his belt, its antenna black and knobby as a Doberman's cropped tail. The diesel-powered winch crane was running and periodically hacked up black smoke; its operator dozed on the seat. The steel cable and net swung slowly over the brown flood waters. Below the bridge, two john boats tugged at their bow lines like catfish on a stringer, and four men murmured nearby on the river bank. They smoked and scuffed their work boots in the softening black earth. Parked behind Burr on the bridge was Jake Sansone's pickup. Jake drank coffee from a Thermos and stared downstream. There was no wind and the river stank up the inescapable stagnant, humid air.

Then, Waymon Dakin's voice on the walkie-talkie: "Burr? You there?" 

This was the moment Burr had been waiting for. The crane operator sat up with a start, the volunteers looked toward him. Burr put the walkie-talkie to his mouth and said, "Yeah." 

"We got one."

"We'll be ready." Then Burr yelled to no one in particular, They got one. No hurry, though." 

Franklin Hobbs had estimated it would take at least twenty minutes for a coffin to float down to Turner's Bridge. The crane operator revved his engine anyway. Burr was glad to be here, to be busy. He had no recent past, no distant past. He believed he had nothing now. Starting from the time he had been adopted as a newborn from a Catholic home for wayward girls, he had been pulled along by a current he could not fight. He had lost the parents who raised him in a house fire not long after he and Cassie were married. He remembered walking through the smoking ashes, searching for photos and mementos from the family who had tried to make him part of their history. That is why he was glad for this work here on the bridge. He hoped his mobile home would pass below. It may have been manufactured in Boise and brought to his farm on a flatbed trailer, but it was still his first new home. It had been filled with old photos of strangers he had collected which he thought looked like him - photos he claimed were his relatives. He felt the need to wave good-bye to his now, truly, mobile home and 
his fabricated past, within. And maybe he would see it. Just the day before, Lyle Kurtner had claimed his `76 El Camino came cruising by with only the rubber of its four tires under water. 

"Damnedest thing," Lyle said. "Made me think, if Jesus were alive today, he wouldn't walk on water, he'd drive." 

Nobody believed Lyle Kurtner, least of all Burr, but it was true that the flood had brought down amazing things - distended pigs and cows traveled down river like balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (some made great use of them for target practice), a satellite dish shimmered beneath the water like a giant lotus flower, trees surfaced like alligators then disappeared in the chocolate water. 

The CB radio in Jake Sansone's truck sizzled. Jake leaned into the cab of his truck and grabbed the handset, held it to his ear then dropped it to his waist. 

"Hey Burr, it's your wife. She wants to know - for lunch - do you want an albacore tuna in a whole wheat pita pocket or a smoked turkey with a...wait a minute." Jake spoke into the CB then resumed, "With melted brie?" 

For a split second, Burr thought Cassie might really have returned to him, forgiving him for his seedlessness. He waved off Jake's question as the other men chuckled. Jake walked over, still grinning. "Titty's been taking pretty good care of you, huh, Burr?" He stood close to Burr and put his hand on his shoulder. 

"Shit, I feel like I put on ten pounds living with him," Burr said. 

"Ahh, Titty. He means well." 

Studying the water, Burr knew Cassie had left him for more than what she claimed. She had grown to hate the odd hours that owning a towing business demanded. She was bored going with him to antique shows and auctions. She had no interest in history or in things old. She wanted a house full of new things, including children. Burr could only imagine at which point in their marriage she had begun to see her life with him as unwanted, as the past, as something ripe for discarding. 

Burr heard Waymon say he was just about to reach Scotsman's Bluff, which overlooked a bend in the river. Burr yelled to the men to get the john boats going. They hopped in, started the motors, and set off. A few minutes later, Burr saw them positioning the coffin with two-by-fours. He motioned for the crane operator to begin lowering the net. The coffin was listing to one side. Its chrome handles, pitted and tarnished, barely rose above the surface. It neared the bridge and Burr yelled to drop the net. With a little help from the men in the boats, the coffin entered the net. The operator began lifting the coffin from the river slowly. It cleared the railing and was lowered onto the bed of Jake's truck. Jake radioed the good news to Franklin Hobbs. Burr and some onlookers stared at the coffin the same way they would have stared at the body of a deer in the back of a hunter's truck. Jake drove the coffin to Heaven's Gate Mortuary in Boville for identification and to await reburial. Coffin fishing had saved its first soul. 

By dusk the coffin fishers had rescued nine coffins and lost three. Soon it would be too dark to continue since the sandbaggers had all the emergency lights. Burr was about to radio for Waymon to head back when he heard Waymon on the walkie-talkie: "Good God, here's another one." Burr alerted the crew to get ready. As they waited, Titty drove up and parked on the bridge. He had appointed himself the grubmaster. He had made the men lunch earlier. Now he was back. 

"I was over at the Bobber," he said to Burr. "Everyone's talking about coming over to watch tomorrow. We ought to sell tickets." 

"We got another on the way," Burr said. 

"You're gonna be a local hero," Titty said, milking himself with the dexterity of a dairy farmer. 

Burr waved off his comment. Titty looked nervously from the river to Burr. 

"You got somethin' on your mind, Titty?" 

"Naw. No," he said. "It can wait." 

"Go on. We got time." 

"Well, I was thinking. I don't know about you, but I think things have been good with you stayin' over at my place."

Burr nodded. He didn't want to tell Titty he understood what he meant. He remembered the night before, lying in the guest room bed after another of Titty's big dinners. Burr had felt almost at home in the house by the quarry. 

"Aw, I don't know, Titty. I got my own land. And this morning, the insurance company said they were sending the pay-out check on my place." 

"I know. I know, But maybe, if you want, you could think about staying on, even after the flood?" 

Before Burr answered, he noticed Jake motion to the crane operator. He turned and spotted Waymon rounding Scotsman's Bluff. 

He said, "Titty, I gotta-" 

Titty said, "Yeah, I know." 

Burr turned and told the men to head upriver. As the coffin drew nearer, Burr noticed it was riding higher on the water than the others. In the falling light, he recognized it. The metal was new and shiny, a burnished copper color with bright chrome handles. It was Libby Bittlemeyer. There was a large fleur-de-lis on the lid. A bleeding heart pierced by puncturing thorns covered the lower part of the coffin. Burr knew it was Mrs. Bittlemeyer's because he'd been one of her pall bearers. The school's principal had called Burr and other former students because she had no family he knew of. The day of her funeral was the first of the many gully-washers that began the flood. Remembering the three coffins that had escaped, Burr climbed over the railing and onto the net. 

Titty grabbed his arm and said, "What the hell are you doing?" 

Burr pushed Titty's hand away and motioned for the operator to lower him.

"We can't lose this one," Burr said. 

Burr clung to the side of the net, his feet just above water, as the men tried to position the coffin toward the center. The men were having difficulty steering the coffin. Unlike the other, less buoyant coffin's Mrs. Bittlemeyer's required less manhandling. The coffin finally began to enter the net but as one of the john boats turned to move away, the bow tapped the coffin and it spun out. 

"Keep it straight," Burr yelled to the men. With his free hand he reached down and grabbed a handle as it floated by. "Come back here." 

The coffin and the current pulled Burr and the net under the bridge. Burr strained to hold on. He felt something pop in his lower back, and his legs went numb. 

"Help me!" he said in a hoarse whisper. "It's my bad back." 

The men turned the john boats to move toward him. The pull of the river was strong. Burr considered letting go of the net, of riding with Mrs. Bittlemeyer where the flood waters would take them. Instead, he released her. As the coffin pulled away, the men reached up and lowered Burr, bent like a grub worm, into the boat. 

"You okay, Burr?" one of them asked. "What were you doin'?" 

"Letting her go," he said, his eyes closed in pain. "You can't catch `em all." 

The men placed Burr in the net, and the crane slowly lifted him to the bridge.

 ~ 

The river began slinking back into its banks, returning to the air the bridges, highways, and levees. The land. The suffocated fields revealed finally that 123 citizens of Calvary Cemetery had been liberated by the flood. Most of the wayward dead were found. Almost half were fished from Turner's Bridge. A handful were located - surprisingly - within a few feet of where they were buried. One was found lodged high in a tree. Another was discovered in the next county, leaning against a headstone in another cemetery, as if to accuse "You buried me wrong." A man, 22 years old, was arrested for causing the breech in the levee that flooded several hundred acres of Common County. Said his only reason was to save his family's farm down river. Said by opening the levee he 
was relieving the pressure on the older, cruder levee farther south. Their loss was his gain. 

For days Burr had to lie still in bed. Even with the muscle relaxers and pain medication, the slightest movement - even breathing - hurt. The bed felt as hard and uneven as gravel. Dressing was torture. Getting up to pee took half an hour. But Titty was there. Fixing his meals, scheduling his medication, always asking if he needed anything like a manly nursemaid. Burr's doctor said recovery would take its own course. The drugs made Burr feel logy and unable to concentrate. Titty read to him The Jimplicute, the local paper, aloud, from front to back. Often, when Burr was alone, he was content to simply stare at the framed photo of the Confederate soldier boy, propped on top of the bonnet chest. 

Titty also answered the calls on Burr's pager. Burr had the only Jerr-Tram tow truck in Common County - the ramp type most people preferred over the old winch and pulley. The more the flood waters receded, the more calls Burr received to pull vehicles from their tombs of mud and silt. He became anxious to get back to work. 

On a Thursday, he awoke and the pain in his back was gone, like flipping a switch. He stood up, stretched, and took a few steps. He felt stiff and a little weak from all that lying down, but this was the way it always was with one of his attacks. A sudden recovery. When Titty came home from the store, Burr was dressed and in the kitchen making coffee. 

"Hey! It's great seeing you up again." 

"Felt like I was underwater a long time." 

"Want to go for a drive?" 

"Where?" 

"I got a tip about another coffin. The way it was described, it sounds like it's Libby Bittlemeyer's." 

Burr's heart pounded. He couldn't believe he had a second chance to save her. Burr drove them in his truck. He wanted to feel mobile again. The two men set off, following the black river of highway. Titty picked a talk show to listen to on the radio. The announcer was taking calls to see how people felt about the man who had burst the Common County levee to keep his fiancé stranded in the next county so he could spend more time drinking and getting stoned with his friends - activities his fiancé did not approve of. 

Burr let his mind wander back to Mrs. Bittlemeyer's funeral. She had been light as a corn husk doll as he and five other former students carried her to the grave site. That day he tried to keep his thoughts on the old, dried-up version of Mrs. Bittlemeyer, the one who seemed to lose a little mass each day. It was easier that way, to remember the last time he had seen her before she had died. The week before, she had been at Kroger's, leaning on a shopping cart, taking slow, tiny steps in her brown granny shoes, one foot barely in front of the other. 

But it was no use. Burr could not keep himself from thinking about Libby Bittlemeyer, the younger. The woman who wove herself back and forth between the aisles of the classroom like stirring a pot. The woman who had brought history alive, as though it was the two of you sitting there in Ford's Theatre instead of Abraham Lincoln. The woman who made you believe you knew how it felt to get a bullet to the brain, to leave life hearing the sounds of screams. Libby, the woman who had, you noticed, that day, a dark red spot on the back of her floral dress. The other boys had snickered, but not you. You could not stop thinking about that spot, shiny and slick. You knew where it came from. You, who had seen a more personal history which you were not meant to see. You, who reached out and touched that red spot, trying to hide it. You, who had caused her look at the place you touched, and sent her running from the classroom with the back of her dress bunched in her hand as the class laughed. You, who had, later that night, climbed the railing of Turner's Bridge, gripped a cross-brace with one hand and unzipped yourself with the other, and let loose into the river a sudden and uncontrollable spasm of feelings you didn't fully understand. You, who, the next week, contracted the mumps that fell to your testicles, swelling them as big as tennis balls, rendering them nearly sterile. You, who had believed ever since that you were being punished left alone for what you had seen and felt and done and wasted. 

"Whoa there, Trigger," Titty said, tapping Burr on the arm. "You're driving a little too fast for comfort." 

"Sorry. I let my mind wander for a minute," Burr said, easing off the pedal. 

Titty didn't know exactly where the coffin was. There were still many detours along the secondary roads. Burr followed Titty's directions but felt lost. Several miles before, they had left Common County. Burr wondered how they would be able to lift the coffin and put it into the truck. Then Titty pointed out the turn off, and Burr steered the truck onto a gravel road. They drove for a few minutes, then came upon the coffin lying near a washed out section. The two men got out and approached it. Water dripped from a tiny hole at the bottom. 

"It's not here," Burr said "It's not hers." 

"Wonder whose it is, then?" Titty said. 

The two men stood with their hands in their pockets and looked around. A few weeks before, this area had been under ten feet of water. Burr noticed lodged high in one tree was a photo album, it's pages brown and curled like fallen leaves. Burr was relieved the coffin was not his old schoolteacher's. As he stood there, looking down at the unknown coffin, he realized that the flood had washed his life clean. He cleared away the old memories of the beautiful Mrs. Bittlemeyer who had come to Boville to baptize them with history, the Libby Bittlemeyer who had aroused him to lust with her womanhood and blood flow. He understood his land was now covered with a layer of another man's dirt. He could start over, or he could do nothing. He could accept Titty's offer, or he could move on. He thought of the dirt that the flood had scoured from his land. He wondered where it would settle, but he knew it no longer mattered.

Note: "Coffin Fishing" originally was published in the October 1998 issue of Zoetrope All-Story Extra

Qwerky Words: "Poses," A Short Story

Poses

C.B. Adams

     They meet at a college art class called Anatomical Drawing. Lying on his side, his head on his curled arm, he is the model providing the anatomy. She is here because it is required of all art students, even though her major is photography.

      The skritch-skritch of charcoal on paper relaxed him and now he dozes naked on the platform, tired from studying all night and taking an early morning exam.

      She reaches out and lightly touches his hip bone. It has fascinated her, that part. Beautiful, the feel of the bone, pushing knob-like against the smooth white skin that flowed around it.

      He opens his eyes and pushes himself up to a sitting position. She backs away, embarrassed.

      "I'm sorry," she says. "I just...I don't know."

      He rubs his chest and stretches. "Forget it." Then he stands, and she watches as he steps into his fluorescent green shorts and pulls on his t-shirt.

      "Can I?" she hesitates. "Can I ask you something?"

      "Fifteen bucks an hour," he replies.

      "What?"

      "That's how much I get paid to do this. Everybody asks."

     "Oh, no, that wasn't it. My question, I mean," she says. "I wanted to know if you'd pose for me." When he doesn't respond, she adds: "I'm a photographer. A student, anyway."

      "I don't think so," he says, trying to smile. "No more pictures." 

      "But you're...don't take this the wrong way...I guess what I'm trying to say is that you're so…pretty.  That’s the only word.  And I could pay.”

      He shakes his head.

……….

 

      “Of course, I guess—no.  I knew that he was always something special, something beautiful.  He's such a pretty boy," his mother cackles. "But then, every old hen thinks her chick's the best." 

       The guest nods and looks at him. His mother continues. "I hoped we'd win, but you know those contests, you never know what they're looking for, but whatever it was, they found it in him."

      Then she adds: "Oh, don't get me wrong, it hasn't always been a blessing. Sometimes when I took him shopping, he'd get spooked walking through the cereal section and seeing those rows of his face staring back at him. He'd run back to the car, screaming. Lord, those days...."

      She reaches for a thick orange scrapbook with yellowed clippings sticking out at odd angles.  The visitor glances at her watch, then the door, then to the framed cereal box on the wall.  On the box the boy is smiling and lifting a spoonful of flakes toward his mouth. The visitor remembers buying her children that brand.

      The guest looks at him again. He looks away, and when his mother starts explaining how she started the scrapbook when he won the cereal contest, he leaves. He's ten now and has been on boxes of Fruit 'N Flakes since he was four. His mother sent a picture of him smiling to a promotional contest and his picture won. Since then, countless people have stumbled into early-morning kitchens and tipped his face into a bowl, Fruit 'N Flakes spilling from his head.

      Only now he's too old. The sponsors have held another contest. For publicity, they had him choose his successor. But not really. They told him who to say.

     And now his mother spends her time talking to people like the guest about those exciting years when he had his own section in the grocery store.  “More famous than the Gerber baby,” she says, talking to anyone who might be able to use him now. 

     He meets her again at a student art show.  Her photographs cover one corner of the gallery.  She does the standards of college art photos—kitchen utensils on a chopping block, birds on a power line, a cluttered desk, rust stains on the wall of a building, sheets blowing in the wind. She does them well, but he notices there are no people in her pictures.

     "You like them?" she asks, waving a trembling hand across the static images. This is her first show and she's nervous.

      He smiles and nods.  She smiles back, then turns to straighten a print on the wall.  He returns later and asks her for a date. He likes her because he thinks she is different. She says yes, remembering the day she touched him in art class.

      The photographer is nice and and the woman in charge of the children seems pleasant.  But he’s fourteen and thinks he’s too nice to be working with the smaller children.  He’s ready to start growing body hair, looking and dressing older.

      “It’s time to change,” the woman says to him.  "You're doing underwear next." He's bashful about being nearly naked. This isn't like cereal boxes. He checks the door twice before taking off the dungarees and sport shirt he modeled first. Then he unwraps the scratchy white briefs. He pulls thin strips of tape from the sides, then puts them on.

     The woman impatiently knocks on the door. "Are you ready yet?" she asks. "It's time to go."

      He opens the door a crack and says, "They're too big. They fit like bags. I need a smaller pair."  The woman pushes the door open. "Let me see," she says, sticking her hands inside the waistband and pulling a little.  He feels her long, cold burgundy nails against his first wisp of pubic hair and steps away.

      “This is the only pair the store sent over,” she says.  “They’re fine”. 

       Two weeks later, the supplement is printed in the Sunday newspaper. The pages are slick, splashed with full color. The background is white. He has one foot on a wooden box; his elbow rests on his knee. To the careful viewer, his penis is visible--just barely--through the gap in the leg band. The paper gets dozens of calls, mostly from men.

     He refuses to go to school for weeks. He spends his days listening to his mother talk to the agent, the agency, the lawyer, and representatives from the newspaper. His story is detailed on the local evening news, and covered by the newspaper itself. His mother wants to sue everyone so he can have a nest egg for college. There's a settlement of some sort, but after the lawyers and the agent, little comes from his embarrassment.

     He hears her talking to a friend on the phone. When she lowers her voice he knows she's talking about him.  He steps closer to the bedroom and listens while she describes the muscle pockets on the sides of his buttocks.  She calls them “butt dippies” and laughs with the friend on the phone. 

     Later, he takes a bath, sliding down so that only the tips of his mask-like face are above the water: forehead, nose, cheek bones, lips and chins.  Through the water he can hear faucets and toilets being used in other apartments. 

     She comes in, leans against the door and looks at him, then she looks down at her own softer, fuller body. She never asks him what he sees in her, because his piercing blue eyes and sharp, angular good looks scare her, as if they might one day cut her into long strips, like film. They've been living together for a couple of months now, but still, he fascinates her--his blondness, his beauty. She studies him whenever she can.

     She remembers watching him apply the lanolin-scented depilatory to his chest, abdomen, and legs after returning from New York.  She had enjoyed his smoothness when they made love, as he slipped over her body like a new sheet.  Now, the hair was coming back, sharp and dark, and she wants to ask why he wanted to be hairless then, but she won’t because he refuses to talk about that part of himself.

     Still submerged, he follows her with his eyes as she walks over to the tub and kneels down. Her finger is cool to his skin as she traces LOVE on his warm, slick abdomen. It's a game they play, like trying to figure out vanity license plates.

     When she asks, "Well, what is it?" the words and the movements of her mouth don't seem to match, like an over­dubbed foreign movie.

      He raises his head from the water and props himself up with his elbows.  “Don’t talk about me like that.”

     "Like what?" she asks.

     “Personal stuff, like butt dippies.”

     “Oh, come on.  That was just Carol.”

      “It was personal and telling it was like giving it away.” He lowers his head back into the water.

     “Talk to me, will you?" she says. 'What does that mean?"

      From underwater his words are loud and push hard against his ears. "It's like the Indians who believed that if you took their picture, you'd steal their soul. Something is taken. It always is."

      Until he boarded the plane he hadn't been that anxious, but now that he is seated and looking out the small, oval window that smells of old liquor and cologne, he wants to be in New York instantly. He left her sobbing on the concourse, her face wet, red and puffy. She said the night before that she was afraid he'd to go to New York and never come back. He told her it was only a photo shoot--money. He wouldn't have to do art classes for a while.

     He thinks he sees her now, standing with the others behind the large, nose-smudged window.  She looks like she is crying at her own reflection.

     His agent had sent his portfolio to the magazine and he was chosen to be New College Man of the Midwest.  Everyone said this was the plum assignment—to be only twenty and featured in the largest men’s fashion magazine.  Other assignments would inevitably come, his agent assured him.  Soon, he’d be national.

      The magazine arranged for him and all the other young men to stay on one floor of the hotel. When they all meet that night, he thinks they will feel like a team because they share the common bond of the good-looking. They are all beautiful people, pretty boys. They don't sit, they fashion¬ably slouch. They don't lean against a wall, they strike a pose. And, they don't even think about it.

But they look at him, searching for an indication--a moment perhaps. Some talk about Judy Garland and Helen Morgan as if they were alive. He remembers Garland from those old black and white films she made with Mickey Rooney. "Hey kids, let's have a show!"

      Things go well, but the last day of the shoot, everyone is ready for it to end. They are relieved when the art director gets the pictures he wants. They decide to celebrate. The evening quickly fades to black.

      The next morning, his head pounds and there is a strange taste in his mouth. He tries, but cannot, remember much from the night before. He looks down and sees his roommate's arm across his stomach, then catches a sliver of memory about being in a bar filled with men.

      He pushes himself out of bed. His head is dizzy as he weaves toward the shower. His flight home leaves in two hours.

      "How're you doing? You OK?" his roommate asks be¬fore he reaches the bathroom. He can't answer the question. He steps into the shower. As the water hits his porcelain body, he catches his breath.

      Later, as he steps back into the room, he sees another of the models talking with his roommate. 

"Some night, huh?" says the model. "We're leaving New York talking. The new Glam Boys."

     "Yeah," says his roommate.

     When he doesn't answer, the model asks, "How's things?" He shrugs and continues packing.

     "He isn't talking," his roommate says.

      As he walks down the hall, he hears one of them shout after him. "See you in the funny papers!"

     On the plane he sits alone. He is positive everyone is looking at him. They all know. When a man touches his arm to inquire whether the seat next to him is taken, he pulls away and says yes. The contact seems primal and lecherous. He is heavy with the attention he always receives, unable to escape from under his own attractiveness:

     Across the aisle, a mother sits with her two children: a boy and a girl. The little boy is cute, but he has a flesh-colored bandage catty-cornered across his forehead. Good, he thinks, always keep that bandage on. Keep away from perfection. The mother smiles at him. He looks away.

            "I want you for my final project," she says. It is the first time she's asked him to pose since that day in art class.

     He says no.

     She asks why not and he replies, "It will change things between us."

     "But I need you," she said. "A photograph is only as good as its subject."

     "A picture is only as good as the photgrapher."

     "Why won't you help me?"

     "Why me?"

      "Because people look at you. I've seen them."

     "So what. They cry at movies, too," he says.

     She begs, then hectors, him for weeks. Finally—on the day his agent called to say the New College Men feature didn't get him any new offers--he agrees to pose for her.

     They came to this far corner of the state looking for a place to shoot his picture. A portrait in natural light was the assignment. They made love even though he didn't want to and she did. Now he lies on his back, shrinking. Lately he has been distant, slipping away. She knows. That's why she wanted the lovemaking, to connect with him, touch him.

     It was over now, and she felt unashamed for tickling the bottom of his neatly defined pectorals, running her warm fingers across his rippled stomach and deep into his jeans until he acquiesced. It was something she wanted from their day together, from the light wind softly blowing through the trees, and most importantly, from him.

     She sits next to him on the blanket, fondling the webbed cotton strap of her camera bag, twirling it first one way then the other. He stares into the trees above.

     "You know," she says, "you could be in one of those coffee-table books. You're David. Adonis. A great fallen statue."

     He rolls his eyes. She opens her bag and takes out her camera. She peers through the viewfinder, and he cov¬ers himself with his hands.

     Later, she finds the place for his portrait. Here, the young man in her photograph will be slouching against a tree, his head slightly bowed, his eyes melancholy, but somehow evocative. His body will be lithe, taut, and supple. At rest, but capable of action.

     "Just stay where you are," she says, squinting through the camera. "I think I've just about got you the way I want you. Keep that look."

      The day's final rays of sun filter through the trees at a low angle, illuminating his tousled, golden hair.

      "This is it," she says. "Don't think about anything but this instant. Think only of this photograph."

      As she presses the shutter, he raises his head and sticks out his tongue.

     "You ruined it!" she screams.

     He smiles as clouds roll overhead. The sun slips down. The light changes. That image is gone. There is nothing left to take.

Author's Note:

I once saw an anthology of poems by Sylvia Plath. One section caught my eye because it was called Juvenalia. I like that term for one's early works. This story certainly fits into this category. It was my first published short story. It was also chosen as one of the winners in the Missouri Writing! competition sponsored by the Missouri Arts Council back in the mid 80s. They printed a promotional poster, which I have since lost. But I remember being embarrassed by the black and white photo of a mule in a muddy pasture. It was not enough that the competition name had an exclamation point, as if to tout the fact that Missouri had writers. They also made it appear that those of us who won the competition were something out of Deliverance. Still, I present this bit of juvenalia to demonstrate my potential and perhaps how little I have followed through on it.

  

 

QWERKY WORDS: Mumbly Peg, a story

Mumbly Peg

by C.B. Adams

Originally published in River Styx literary journal

cover.jpg

     My grandfather had beautiful hair. Everyone said so. Even other men. Still, when he turned fifty, my grandfather stopped going to the barber. He was like that. He could go along for years and then, for no apparent reason do something like stop going to the barber. My grandfather let his hair grow long, until it fell in lazy waves past the back pockets of his overalls. Sometimes he kept his hair in place with a sterling silver napkin ring. Usually, he braided it. When I was eight years old my grandfather's braid scared me because it reminded me of a second spine growing from his head.

     Because my grandfather's hair grew slowly — no more than a couple inches per year — the color of the braid told the story of the past twenty years of his life. At its end, where the braid hung by his wallet, the hair was thick, coarse, and dark brown as a buckeye. It sprouted from the end of the braid like a feather duster. These were the years when my grandfather still worked as an engineer for the Cotton Belt Railroad. At its midpoint, the color faded abruptly to gray. This marked the death of his wife, my Grandma Marvel. I dreamed once that the tears, which everyone said he withheld after her passing, had flowed instead through the thin straws of his hair, bleaching the color of each strand. The newest hair growing from his head was almost translucent — the color of Scorch tape still on the roll. These were his retirement years.

     My grandfather taught me the game of Mumbly Peg one evening when I was twelve. My parents and I had driven south from St. Louis, where we lived, to Illmo, Missouri, my parents' hometown. My grandfather had invited us to a small family reunion at his house, where he lived alone. My great-aunts, Josephine and Ruthann, had spent the afternoon cooking in his kitchen. We had fried chicken with skin the color of mahogany, scalloped potatoes smothered in Velveeta cheese sauce, fresh sliced tomatoes, green beans simmered with smoked hamhocks, and long green onions served from Mason jars filled with ice water.

     When dinner was over, my father, grandfather, and two great-uncles left the table to sir outside and talk. My mother called this unnecessary activity tuneweaving. 1 remained and fiddled with my food as my mother and great-aunts cleared the dishes and discussed family news. I didn't want to leave. I loved listening to the women talk. My mother pointed me toward the back of the house.

     Outside, I stood on the screen porch. My great-uncles, Lyle and Bertram, sat holding hands on the porch swing. They were my grandfather's younger identical twin brothers, though they looked older. It was difficult to understand my great-uncles when they were together because they communicated in a mishmash language which only they understood. They offered me something that sounded like "Ma-Hallow" as I looked around.

     Through the screen door 1 saw my father leaning against a black walnut tree with a cigarette in his hand. A bourbon glass was propped in the crook of the tree. My father neither smoked nor drank hard liquor at home.

     My grandfather sat on the stone steps leading to the porch. He was wearing the sterling silver napkin ring, part of a set he and my grandmother received as a wedding present. A fancy letter "B," for Benson, our family name, was engraved on its surface.

     The sun was setting. The cicada chorus had warmed up and was joined by a chirring section of crickets. I opened the screen door and let it slam behind me, hoping to startle my grandfather. 1 knew better. My grandfather had the disposition of a mountain. I should have remembered Thanksgiving the year before when I spiked his iced tea with salt instead of sugar. With the round blue container tipped over his glass, I became the Morton Salt girl on the label, pouring and pouring, until the bottom was thick with a saline sediment. Throughout the meal, I asked my grandfather how his tea tasted. Each time, he would pick up his glass, take a long drink, and then smack his lips.

     "Best iced tea 1 ever had," he said, showing not one whit of displeasure.

     I should have also remembered the time I grabbed his braid and tried to climb it like a rope. My grandfather stood stock still with his arms crossed. 1 lifted my feet off the ground and swung from the braid, imagining his face drawn taut as a drum, his eyes pulled back like a Chinaman’s.

     "Say uncle," I yelled. "Say uncle."

     My grandfather did nor make me stop. He did not say uncle. He waited until my arms gave out and I fell to the ground, then he walked away.

     The screen door banged twice before settling into its frame. My grandfather scared into the deepening woods behind his house. I reached out and turned the napkin ring as though it were a motorcycle throttle.

     "Vrooin 'room," I said, twisting the ring.

     "Hey, boy," my grandfather said.

      My grandfather never called me by my name, which was the same as his and my father's. We are all named George Washington Benson. My name is George Washington Benson V, an unavoidably pretentious name, so everyone has called me Wash. My father went by George, my grandfather by GW.

     I sat next to my grandfather and watched as he reached behind his head and adjusted the napkin ring. Then he repositioned his hair by twisting it around his wrist. I had seen girls at school do the same thing. He wore a blue chambray workshirt, buttoned to the top, with a bolo tie made from a perfectly fluted Clovis Point arrowhead. When 1 was younger, my grandfather would tell me how he had stolen the arrowhead from the skull of an Indian skeleton at a secret burial mound which only he knew about. He said the arrowhead had special powers that protected him from being scalped.

     My grandfather leaned away, reached into his pocket, and opened his hand just below my chin. "You ever see one of these' he asked.

     "Its a knife," I replied.

     "Not just any knife," he said. "A Case."

     He held out a three-Waded pocket knife. It's blackened bone sides were smooth and shiny from the years it had sloshed inside the pocket of his striped Pole Cat overalls, the brand favored by railroad men of the Cotton Belt. At one end of the knife was an oval nameplate with the word "Case" barely visible.

     "It's got four X's on the blade. It'll hold an edge forever," he said, opening the knife's blades and pointing out the X's at the base of the longest. "They don't make 'cm like this anymore."

     My great-uncles murmured and nodded in agreement from the darkening screen porch. To demonstrate the knife's sharpness, my grandfather rolled up the sleeve of his shirt. The skin on his forearm was covered with thick white hairs that curled like hoarfrost. He neatly shaved two hairs from his forearm. He blew them from his arm, and they floated down and landed on the dark stone pathway.

     "This was Poppy's favorite knife," my grandfather continued. "You look a little like him, boy. You think you look like Poppy?"

     I shrugged. Poppy had died when I was nine. He had always seemed like an old man to me, someone who called me Tallywhacker or Scallywag. He spent most of his time sitting in a brown leather chair with a seat cushion indented like the head of a scoop shovel.

     "I miss that old man," my grandfather said. He turned his attention to the knife in his hand. "Yessir, Poppy gave me this knife the night you were born. He told me, 'Take good care of this knife and pass it on when the time comes."'

     My father was still leaning against the tree. "I didn't know that," my father said, kicking one of the walnuts on the ground. It was green and black, like a moldy ping pong ball. "You never told me that story•."

            "Well, it wasn't your damned pocket knife, now was it?" my grandfather replied. What he really meant was, "That's what you get for marrying Sandra and moving to St. Louis."

     "You never change, do you, Dad?”

     My great-uncles let out a phlegmatic, manly cackle. Then my grandfather held out the knife to me and asked, "Want it?"

     I nodded and extended my hand. He placed the knife across my palm. It was warm from lying near his body and felt heavier than I had imagined.

"I'll play you for it," he said, taking the knife back. "You ever play Mumbly Peg?"

     I shook my head. In St. Louis we played games like Little League, Kick the Can, and GI Joe.

     "The game of Mumbly Peg is an ancient Indian game," my grandfather said, looking up at my father with disdain, as if he were a parenting failure for not showing me how to play it. "It's a game of concentration, skill, and knife throwing, in that order."

      My father began to protest, "Dad, I don't—"

     "Now, listen up," my grandfather continued. "The game of Mumbly Peg is played sitting down." He opened one blade on each end of the pocket knife. "You begin at the top of your body." He set the point of the knife just above his forehead and held it in place with his finger on the top blade. "Then you flip it." The knife spun from my grandfather's head and landed point first between his feet. "If it sticks in the dirt, it's a good throw. If it doesn't, it's the next fella's turn."

     "What's a Mumbly Pee I asked.

     "I'm getting to that," my grandfather replied. "Go over to that sycamore and cut me a piece of branch thick as a pencil and about so long." My grandfather indicated the length by showing me the distance between his extended thumb and forefinger. He pulled the Case knife from the dirt, closed the shortest blade, then handed it to me.

     When I came back with the stick, my grandfather took it from me and stripped off its bark with the knife. In the dusk it was white as an old chicken bone. Then he whittled a sharp point on one end and held it up.

     "This is the Mumbly Peg," he said. "Push it into the ground as far as you can."

      I put my palm over the end of the Mumbh., Peg and sec my weight on it.

     "That's good enough," my grandfather said. "Let's practice a few times before we start."

     We sat cross-legged, facing each other about three feet apart. The dust was soft and brown, like Hershey's cocoa powder.

     "You start," my grandfather said, handing me the knife.

     I balanced the knife on my head and felt the blades prick my scalp and forefinger. I flipped the knife. It cut my head and landed on its side.

     My grandfather leaned over and rubbed his thumb over my wound. "Put some spit on it and be careful next time," he said. "Try again."

     This time, I was aware of the knife, its points, and its heft. I was careful to hold it in place. Instead of flipping it, I gently guided it off myhead, the way good divers arch and fall from the high platform to the water below. The point stuck.

     "My turn," my grandfather said. The knife flew easily off his head and into the ground.

     "That's not so hard," I said.

     "We're just getting started. This time, you start with the head. If you make that, you move to your right shoulder, then your left, then the elbows, knees, and finally both feet. After that, you can pick any other part of your body."

     He said, too, that whenever I missed a throw, it was his turn. If he surpassed the throw I missed, I had to pull the stick out of the ground with my teeth while saying the words Mumbly Peg, and then we'd start over again. Each time one of us got the peg, it would be rapped deeper into the ground. The loser was the one who couldn't pull the peg out.

     Aunt Roo came outside and asked, "Who wants what for dessert?" She took our orders and went back inside.

     From far away, rising through the orchestra of cicadas, crickets, and locusts, came a diesel locomotive's blare, half trumpet, half French horn. My grandfather looked toward the west end of town, where the train station and roundhouse were located.

     "The Mo-Pac. Right on time," he said.

     "How can you tell the difference?" my father asked.

     "Just do," my grandfather replied.

      My great-uncles agreed with voices that moaned in the high voice of truck tires on hot, black pavement.

     "They all sound alike to me," my father said.

     "That'd be right," my grandfather replied after a long pause.

     My father reached down and picked up a walnut. Then he threw it at the tin roof of the shed in the back of the yard. We listened as it hanged on the roof, rolled down to the gutter, traveled the length of the shed, and exited at the downspout.

     "Good thing it rolled out," my grandfather said. "Otherwise you'd he up there cleaning my gutters."

     My mother and great-aunts arrived with our desserts. My mother brought gooseberry pie to me, my Father and grandfather. Up on the screen porch, Aunt Joe looked at my great-uncles and said, "Well, look at the love birds. Get up, Berrie, and let me sit next to my husband. You go on over there and sit with Roo."

     My great-uncle Bertram turned and kazooed a message to his brother. When they started laughing, Aunt Joe said, "For Pete's sake, get over there where you belong."

     Slowly, my great-uncle Bertram stood and walked over to sit next to his wife. Aunt Roo gave him his piece of pie, hut he and my great-uncle Lyle looked longingly at each other across the porch.

     "Lawzee, you two certainly pine for one another, don't you," Aunt Joe said to no one in particular. "How'd you ever put up with these Siamese Twins growing up, GW?"

     My grandfather, sitting on the concrete steps outside the screen porch, spat into the dust and waved off Aunt Joe's question.

     "You can't understand these two," Aunt Joe said, pointing to my great-uncles. "And you," she said, indicating my grandfather, "you don't hardly talk at all anymore."

      My grandfather reached into his back pocket and pulled out a Zane Grey novel.

     "Don't you ignore me, GW," she said as he thumbed to the page with a turned-down corner, "or I'll cut off that pony tail and heat you with it."

      My grandfather didn't care. He loved Zane Grey books. I remembered standing before the bookcase in his woodworking shop, staring at his dog-eared paperbacks. He had hundreds, maybe thousands of Zane Grey books. Many times he had shown me the covers with hard-faced cowboys. He would always say, "I've read 'em all. Many more than once." Sometimes, when he would show me one of his favorites, his eyes would get a faraway look and he stopped talking. On the cover would he a cowboy staring off into the barren desert. My grandfather would forget I was there as his finger traced the lines on a cowboy's face, as if the cover offered a secret Braille message to all those who were lonely cowboys at heart.

     My grandfather put down his book. He looked me in the eye and made a show of eating his slice of gooseberry pie. "Nothing better than a slice of eyeball pie," he said.

I looked down at my slice and saw it staring hack at me, unblinking.

     "Eat up, boy," my grandfather said. "It doesn't get any better than this."

     We finished dessert. The light in the darkening sky made everything look deep, old, and mellow. My mother walked over to my father beneath the black walnut tree. We all watched her, even my grandfather, who had returned the Zane Grey novel to his back pocket. My mother took the cigarette from my father's hand and put it to her lips. I had never seen my mother smoke before. She elegantly and deeply drew in the smoke. Then she exhaled, and the smoke hung in the air like laughter. My great-aunts crossed their arms and stared at her. My great-uncles winked at one another. Then my mother picked up my father's glass in the crook of the tree and drank the remaining whiskey. With this, even my great-uncles began ro pay closer attention. My mother leaned against my father on her tiptoes and kissed him long and fully. I held my breath until I became light-headed. That's how long the kiss lasted. The big band of cicadas, crickets, locusts, grasshoppers, mosquitos, June bugs, and all of the insects in the night rose around us as my parents began to dance. 

     I finally took a breath. They didn't really dance, but they could have. That's how powerful and potent their kiss was. They could have dipped and twirled to the dusky

song rising in the falling light. They could have mamboed, waltzed, tangoed, cha-chaed, and mash potatoed to the rhythmic syncopation of a million insects in a jitterbug jam session. Within that kiss was the life my parents had made for themselves away from their hometown. Unwinding from that kiss like a familiar movie came the essence of my parents played our in overlapping, quick-cut scenes: the first time my mother watched my father in his baggy basketball jersey glide into the air and make a lay-up, the moment she asked my father our on their first date, that first electric kiss, followed by high school homecoming dances, graduation, an athletic scholarship for my father, and admission at the state college for them both. Then more homecoming dances, late nights warmed by strong black coffee and long conversations about the meaning of life. And, too, lavalieres, roses, and basement fraternity parties with warm kegs of beer from the land of clear blue waters. Then "Pomp and Circumstance," the "Wedding March," a secret honeymoon, and singing "Moon River," long nights of making loud love, their defiant decision to move away, that first night's rest in St. Louis followed by first jobs and a first mortgage and a brand-new '59 Chevrolet Bel-Air. A little later, the birth of a son with the preposterous name of George Washington Benson V (at least I hoped I was in that kiss), homemaking, and making a home, love handles and Sara Lee Pound Cake, a miscarriage and a dozen and a half alumni weekends, Thanksgivings, Christmases, New Year's Eves, and Roman candles by the score on the Fourth of July.

      It was all there in that kiss.

     When it was over, my mother said, "I love you, George," then she turned to enter the house.

     "I love you, too," my father replied.

     My mother turned to me and asked, "Want to come inside and help me pack up?"

     My grandfather replied, "We're playing Mumbly Peg."

     "Yeah," I said, "I'm gonna get Poppy's knife."

     My grandfather slid the napkin ring from his hair and let it fall around his shoulders. Then he began to braid his hair with the dexterity of an old beautician.

     He said, "Boy's got to win it first."

     This caught me by surprise. My father always let me win at games. My mother and great-aunts went inside to pack a basket of left-overs for the night trip home.

     "We really do need to start back,” my father said.  “It’s a two-hour drive”.

     "I know how far St. Louis is," my grandfather replied.

     The mercury vapor lights on the shed droned to life. My grandfather motioned to his twin brothers. Lyle stood and turned on the light over the steps. It was a yellow hug light that made our faces look red. My father stared at his watch.  "Shouldn't take long," my grandfather said, sitting down in the dust and indicating for me to do the same.

     The game of Mumbly Peg, as my grandfather had said, was a game of concentration, skill, and knife-throwing, in that order. I was master of none of these, though my inexperience was offset by my grandfather's age, arthritis, and the several finger's worth of Kentucky Gentleman he had consumed. Feeling the knife push into my skin heightened my awareness and made me think of Indians playing this game by the flickering light of campfires. My father shifted from foot to foot and jangled the change in his pocket. My great-uncles, reunited on the porch swing, cooed like mourning doves.

     As the game progressed, my grandfather and 1 both missed an equal number of shots. Each time, the Mumbly Peg was driven deeper into the ground. The end of the sycamore stick, which naturally tasted bitter, began to exude the taste of each other's spit, gooseberry pie, tobacco, the sharp rang of bourbon, the soapy-mint taste of Sen-Sen, and something I assumed was simply the flavor of old age. Each time I had to bite the Mumbly Peg, I took longer to lower my head over the stick, and I pulled harder to shorten the time it was in my mouth.

     "C'mon, Dad," my father said. "This could go on all night."

     "In the old days, games were played for days, if the players were good," my grandfather replied. With his long hair roped down his back, my grandfather could have been Sitting Bull, Roaring Thunder, or even Sacagawea.

     "Not this game," my father said. "I've got to go to work tomorrow."

     "Let's make it interesting," my grandfather said. He pounded the Mumbly Peg until only a half an inch was visible.

     "Neither of you will be able to pull that up," my father said.

     "Depends on how much the boy wants the knife," my grandfather said.  From the porch, now dark, my great-uncles mooed like humpback whales.

     "Go ahead, Wash," my father said, throwing up his arms. "Play."

     1 rushed into my throw. The knife fell flat in the dust. My grandfather picked it up and prepared to throw. He made both knee shots. It was my turn. 1 looked down at the Mumbly Peg.

     "Tell you what," my grandfather said. "I can't pull up that stick, not with my dentures. So, if you pull it out, you win."

     He was going to let me win after all. I lowered myself on all fours and set my face over the peg. As 1 neared it, my lips touched the ground and dust went up my nose.

     My grandfather said to no one in particular, "I ever tell you about the time we bet Chigger Phelps a dollar he couldn't eat dog shit without throwing up?"

     My father said, "God, Dad!"

     My uncles switched from whale sounds to the chirps, squeaks, and clicks of porpoises at play.

      I set my teeth into the wood. All the strange tastes were now concentrated and growing on the end of that stick. There was a new one, too. I was sure I could now taste dog shit.

      My grandfather said, "Yessir, he took us up on that bet. So we went and found a hot pile of dog shit right on the curb." I hit the stick and pulled as hard as I could. My teeth snapped together as they slid from the end. I put my mouth back on the stick and tried again.

     My grandfather said, "Chigger did pretty good, too, until he got down to that last bite."

     My great-uncles apparently liked the sea life, so they began making the high-pitched calls of a thousand sea gulls gathered around a garbage scow.

I pulled and pulled on that stick. 1 knew someone in China had a hold of the sharp end of the Mumbly Peg and wasn't letting go. The dust turned into dog shit, all warm and mushy. I said "Mumbly Peg, Mumbly Peg" to keep from listening to my grandfather's story.

     "Dad, stop it," my father said. "Wash, let's go."

      I stayed and pulled harder on the Mumbly Peg.

            My grandfather said, "Course, Chigger puked that dog shit back up. Every bit of it."

     I jumped to my feet, cupped both hands over my mouth, and ran toward the screen porch. My grandfather laughed.

     My father said, "Cut it out, Dad."

     My great-uncles brayed in the dialect of hyenas.

     My grandfather said, "Chigger could've kept that dog shit down if it hadn't been for that last bite. Said he couldn't stand the thought of a hair in his mouth."

I ran inside the house to the bathroom, where I hung my head over the toilet, fighting, waiting, hoping, afraid to throw up. I gulped huge mouthfuls of air until 1 got my grandfather's story out of my head and could taste only mud in my mouth. My teeth hurt from pulling on the Mumbly Peg. I checked in the mirror to make sure I hadn't become buck-toothed. My eyes were bloodshot. I wetted a hand towel and dabbed my face and neck. My mother came in and wanted to know if I was all right. I nodded yes, slowly.

     "What was going on out there?" she asked.

     My father stood at the door. "You okay, Wash?"

     "I want to go home," I said.

      We said our good-byes together. Out on the screen porch, my

great-uncles waved and offered — in unison — something that sounded like "So long." In the kitchen, Aunt Roo and Aunt Joe patted me on the head and told me they had packed an angel food cake into our going-home basket.

     My parents and I got in the car and waited as my grandfather walked slowly from around the back yard. He told my father to drive safely, then motioned for me to roll down the window. He reached into his pocket and brought out Poppy's pocketknife. He opened the blade and held it up. I waited to receive the knife, but instead my grandfather reached behind his head and cut off his braid with one stroke. Then he laid it in my still outstretched hand. He closed the knife and returned it to his pocket, and we left.

     Later, as I slouched in the back scat of my parent's old '59 Chevrolet Bel Air, I watched as my mother sat close to my father. She tuned the radio to a crackling station that played songs from their dating days. My father unfolded his arm across the back of the seat as my mother kissed his neck and laid her head on his open shoulder. I stroked the braid, heavy and warm, lying across my lap. Outside, a train ran parallel to the highway. I wished for the Case pocketknife, wanting to feel its metal in my soft pocket. My father turned and looked at the train in the darkness. The hum of the engine raised an octave as he increased speed, and the train slowly fell behind.

 

Note: When Poet and River Styx Editor Richard Newman named me the "Best Unheralded Writer" in St. Louis in 1998 in The Riverfront Times, he wrote, "My only complaint, from a purely selfish perspective, is that I wish he wrote, published and promoted himself more: I would relish a collection of these squirrelly stories any insomnia-ridden night."

Mumbly Peg was my last published story. I wrote another I am equally proud of, but it has been rejected by many literary journals (including River Styx), and never for the same reason. This trail of rejection (comes with the territory), and my general ambivalence about whether I still have stories worth telling, converged in more than a decade-long fictional nuclear winter. I am fictionally flummoxed, which is far worse than having writer's block.

In preparing this and selected other stories for inclusion on my website, I have been re-reading my old work. It feels like someone else wrote those stories. I am reminded of something Fernando Pessoa wrote: "Recalling who I was, I see somebody else."

Maybe I will write fiction again. I always imagined that I could be like Norman Maclean of A River Runs Through It fame. He was writing a new book when he died, but really, he was a one-book author. But what a book. To write just one book that good would be enough for me.

I am haunted by his words: “One of life's quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful even if it is only a floating ash.”