“The Unsuccessful Biographer” by Dan Townsend

Part I, Chapter 1

Courageous Luke enters the arena of the Wild West Show for his final trick of the night. The dirt is loose¸ chopped in small clumps. He can feel the crowd’s staggered breath. He has been riding Philip the Horse three years, two of those years in this exact show, performing these same audacious feats of horsemanship.

Tonight in Philadelphia, Courageous Luke feels something awry in Philip the Horse’s gallop, an unusual tightness in his gait, the tendons of his shoulders rising conspicuously in his skin like the fingers of an heiress beneath her velvet cloak. Philip the Horse is an unbalanced carriage. Courageous Luke suspects his horse has gas, that someone poured beer in his trough, fed him a sausage or a nasty head of cabbage. These things had been known to occur behind the scenes at the Wild West Show.

Despite the awkwardness of Philip the Horse’s movement, their set goes well, and per their routine, Courageous Luke kicks Philip the Horse into a bouncing gallop as they circle the arena before their last trick of the evening. Courageous Luke will stand atop Philip the Horse’s saddle as he continues around the arena at an impressive speed. Courageous Luke will shoulder his Remington and shoot the door off a birdcage positioned on a three-legged stool in the center of the arena, sending three mourning doves flapping into the rafters, spraying their desultory feathers over the clapping throngs.

Bouncing through their second lap Luke uses his best Russian accent to whisper encouraging sentiments in the ear of Philip the Horse. He strokes his mane and wishes the horse a good performance by repeating what he’s picked up from the Georgian Riders who are from Georgia, Siberia, and Ukraine, nowhere near South Carolina. Courageous Luke knows very little Russian: hello, goodbye, bastard, penis that is big, penis that is small, vodka, potato, lavatory, vagina that is good, vagina that is bad.

Don’t worry, he wants to say, we’ll do great like always, but the only Russian he knows that could possibly house this thought is an old insult about a person’s mother. It has a comfortable sing-song quality that Courageous Luke imagines Philip the Horse enjoys, if for no other reason than he, himself, enjoys saying it. Courageous Luke’s bandying of this insult is permissible for two reasons. The first is that Courageous Luke has no idea what this piece of Russian means. The second reason is obvious: Philip the Horse speaks neither Russian nor English. He is a horse.


1.

Hezekiah dreamt of entering into treaties with blanket-wrapped Indians. He wanted to shoot buffalo from the mount of a charging steed. He pictured himself with a long coat flapping behind him when he robbed dining cars with Jesse James. He had heard about Indians from a traveling Methodist preacher who referred to them as the “lascivious savages of lands yonder.” The preacher gesticulated widely with his hands and eyebrows when he said “yonder,” the swinging motion of his features inculcating in young Hezekiah a spirit of curiosity, of wonder, for lands yonder.

The preacher was the most educated man Hezekiah had met, and though Hezekiah understood little of his philosophy and erudite speech, he acquired from the preacher a certain knack for mimicking facial expressions and exaggerating bodily movements to encode for his bumpkin audience a unique, wordless language.

Still, Hezekiah had asked his pa what “lascivious savages” were, and his pa had run his tongue between his top lip and his gums that were always throbbing with abscess.

His pa’s scarred fingers reached to Hezekiah’s chin and plucked a meandering hair that grew long above his Adam’s apple. (Hezekiah often toyed with these hairs during conversations in the field. It was a nervous habit. He would wrap the hair around his finger and straighten it again, staring off into what he now thought of as The Yonder, there being at this time in his life but only one yonder.) His pa made words out of a low hum like ripples are made out of still water,

He said, “I reckon them are savages that got what was coming to them.”

He twisted Hezekiah’s hair in his fingers before releasing it in the breeze. A wall of trundling purple clouds threatened to shorten their day.

Hezekiah was a tall boy, broad of chest, with a Roman nose and the well-placed cowlick of a London strongman. Philip Hezekiah Haley, dirty as he was with sweaty smears on the back of his trousers from working long days in the fields without proper undergarments, would go West one day.


14.

Courageous Luke won Philip the Horse off Ivan Who Lies Too Much. The exchange was the result of a card game that took place one night somewhere outside Boston. Ivan Who Lies Too Much had been upset and inebriated, as was his custom for that time of day.

He had stood, wobbling the small table in the middle of the dusty tent, and said, “Courageous Luke you have swindled me, and I shall vanquish you some time in the future.”

Everyone said, “Pshaw. Ivan Who Lies Too Much is exaggerating.”

Courageous Luke said, “You are drunk, and that has made you a bad card player. It is well known that I do not cheat at cards. Womenfolk love me. This includes your mother.”

Ivan Who Lies Too Much opened his mouth to say something, but everyone was laughing and no one would hear if he spoke, so he remained silent.

Before he could speak, a couple of riders sitting on the ground at the back of the tent, too drunk to attempt card games, argued briefly as to whether Ivan Who Lies Too Much should be renamed Ivan the Exaggerator, before deciding exaggeration was a form of deception falling under the definition of “Lying Too Much.” They decided the name change wasn’t necessary, but if they were going to change Ivan’s name, the most accurate name would be Ivan Who Lies Too Much, Especially By Means Of Exaggeration.

This conversation distracted the men in the tent, and Ivan Who Lies Too Much did not find a release for his anger. They all took him for a fool, his mother for a lusty trollop. That night he whispered into the darkness that he would avenge this humiliation, even though Courageous Luke had said he could ride Philip the Horse whenever he wanted. This kindness of Courageous Luke, a nicety not required of him as a stipulation of their wager, made him seem that much nobler. Ivan Who Lies Too Much seethed with anger, this rage compounding with the bitterness and negative attitude that were the hallmarks of his otherwise unremarkable personality.


Part I, Chapter 1 (second half)

When the horse stumbles, pitching forward in a cloud of hooves and dust, the crowd gasps. They have heard much of these brave Russians. They wear kerchiefs and long mustaches. Their chests are wide, their arms and shoulders bulging, unlike those of the men of Philadelphia who remain buttoned-up into the evening. At their smartly pinched gullets satin ascots dimple fashionably, billowing as if inflated by their bodies’ own systems of respiration.

Their voices choked, they tell one another that this is part of the Wild West Show, the Georgian Riders being the last act before the yowling Indians circle the arena beating their war drums. This is the last trick of that penultimate act. It is a spectacular feat of survival, like a man shot from a cannon, like an Oriental sword swallower, like anyone who entreats death to come during the cessation of applause.

It is another of their tricks, they think.

Then someone says it: It is part of the show!

Through the smoke of the bleachers and the mist of kicked-up dung and sawdust, they watch the rider climb to his feet and stumble to the wall. He holds his cheeks as if to keep his head – his vision – from undulating. His eyes are wide, his mouth quivering with the beginning of a thought. Men dispersed throughout the bleachers make innocuous comments about bells ringing and stars being seen.

He took a good wallop! These men say. He will continue to feel that when the sun crests upon the horizon marking the start of a new day!

Their comments fade when the rider attempts a few steps and falls face down into the muck of the arena floor. It is the Show’s last night in Philadelphia and a noteworthy odor rises from the dirt.

Among the commenting men in the crowd are boys who will circumvent horseback riding from this moment onward.


Prologue

Courageous Luke is being interviewed about his life in the early Westerns. His Alabama drawl is impressive, though he hasn’t seen Pickens County since his mother, who was demure and descended from wide-hipped West Alabama sharecropper stock, died back in twenty-seven. He was already a star of the Westerns by then, discovered by chance on a train bound for St. Louis. The producer who spotted him in the dining car remarked often that he had never seen a young man of such statuesque build adorn himself with a silken neckerchief. Truly, it enlivened the sober tones of reality while endowing its wearer with an ageless heroic mystique.

He would also become famous for his lacinated shirtsleeves, his lopsided smile and broad chest that drew comparisons to the swelling hull of Noah’s ark.

Now on his deathbed, after months of sickness and countless balls of blood-soaked handkerchief, the interviewer positions his microphone close to the dying man’s pillow. The interviewer’s intentions are noble, and his subject has only agreed to allow his biographer a few minutes at his bedside to reconcile misunderstandings that have, his entire life, plagued his conscience. The interviewer promises his dying subject that his story will be told fully and truly. Then he asks Courageous Luke, (as he prefers to be known) “Why is it you left the Wild West Show?”

With his mind distracted, perhaps by thoughts of his own mortality or maybe the simple crankiness of discomfort brought on by the headache pain he experienced since the day of his accident, Courageous Luke tells the interviewer, “Listen to me you ugly bastard. It’s Ivan that done in my beautiful gelding Philip the Horse, and I swear to Moses, I never meant to be disrespectful of his dear mother!”

This sends Courageous Luke into a coughing fit that signals the terminus of the interview, this denial unfortunately marking the last recorded utterance of silent film star Luke Knox, a man often seen and rarely heard.


3.

Luke Knox was born Philip Hezekiah Haley, originally from Pickens County, West Alabama, in a country wracked by poverty and red clay. The economic turmoil caused by freed men competing with poor white sharecroppers for a pitiable lot of arable land sent many young men away from their ancestral homes in search of gainful opportunity.

Hezekiah’s mother and pa farmed a corner of land that would grow cotton they picked by hand. Hezekiah slept on a mattress made from yellowed grass and did not often notice the bugs nipping the skin of his ankles or crawling in the hair on his neck. Hezekiah’s pa was a lecherous man, who sucked his gums as he pleasured himself underneath shade trees, leaving his sons to toil under the burdensome Alabama sun. Their bags of cotton were gray and of inferior quality compared to the ginned product coming off the farms upriver.

“I will leave this place, Pa.” Hezekiah said, unslinging his bag of pickings, but his father did not look up from his masturbating. “I will leave you to encumber yourself with sin.”

Hezekiah, always curious about his namesake, would go see the traveling preachers and ask them about Hezekiah from the Old Testament. In the process he’d learned much about religion and his father, whom the preachers called a “vile fornicator.”

Hezekiah never spoke to his father again. He took his cotton bag and filled it with cheese and bread made from beer his pa had let sour after losing consciousness one Sunday afternoon. He took his extra pair of coveralls and his felt hat, and he departed. He cried openly when he reached the lock and dam where a Scotch-Irish ferryman asked him if he were “Momma’s fancy lad.” If Hezekiah were not now a Methodist come through the Pentecostal fires, he would’ve snatched that coot by the throat and thrown him headlong into the wretched mud, for Hezekiah was strapping and cast a formidable silhouette.


Part I, Chapter 1, Section 3

Courageous Luke walks with a limp from this moment on. He finds it impossible to locate the balance and confidence required for many of his tricks.

As for Philip the Horse, a rusty old nail is discovered driven through his hoof. He has contracted tetanus. Courageous Luke must shoot him, but when the time comes, when they are scheduled to depart for their next performance, Courageous Luke is not courageous enough. Ivan Who Lies Too Much steps forward, setting the muzzle of his revolver under the beast’s awesome mandible and sending a cloud of cranial detritus into the bright yellow rays of early morning.

“Maybe now we can be continuing onward with our travel,” he says as Philip the Horse withers in a roadside heap.

By the time all hangovers clear that afternoon, they near the train station at the center of the city. No one knows Courageous Luke has packed his things into an old potato sack and bought a ticket to St. Louis where he will join the church of a preacher he admires. The preacher will guide him like the storied pillar of flame. Methodists prosper in Missouri.

He shoulders his potato sack and turns to the Riders who are pungent from their alcoholism. He says, “It has been a pleasure knowing all of you. I have long considered you my true family. I thank you warmly for all you have taught me. I arrived here an ignorant boy. And I am now a skilled rider and full-grown man. As you all know…” He clears the hardness from his throat and allows a few quick tears to run over his cheeks. In his best Russian he says, “Women folk love me. This includes your mother.”

He turns and leaves their caravan before he loses control of his emotions. Their laughter will haunt him until the day he dies.


Part I, Chapter 1, Section 2 (first sentence)

Before Philip the Horse stumbled, throwing him into the arena wall, Courageous Luke Haley had stood tall even among the heroes of the Wild West Show, and though his great American adventure would not end this day, he would never regain the surety of conscience – the inner calm – that once defined his character.


4.

Hezekiah met a traveling revue on the road in Crittenden County, Mississippi. This was a despicable land, inhospitable and full of the devil. The line of wagons had stopped in the rutted dust to chase down an African orangutan that had escaped its cage and made up its mind to hide in the brambles, hurling feces at the men attempting to obtain his capture.

Hezekiah, crestfallen, travel weary and homesick, exhausted of body and spirit, knew these men were his blessing from God, his saving grace.

“I will work for food and what travel accommodations you are able to provide,” he said.

The man trying to capture the orangutan kept his beard tied up with string, like sausage links made of dry brown fuzz. He laughed and said, “Help me catch this monkey, you jackass!”

Hezekiah ran heedless into the Mississippi weeds, unschooled in the guile and awesome strength of monkeys.

This was Hezekiah’s first job in the entertainment industry. It was an Amazing Act of Courage.


11.

“No,” Ivan Who Lies Too Much said, drunk yet again. “Like this. Womenfolk love me. Try that.”

Courageous Luke tried it, the syllables hard and ill-fitted to the geography of his mouth, “Women. Folk. Love. Me.”

“Good. Yes. This is better,” Ivan Who Lies Too Much Said.

“Now. This includes your mother.”

“This. Includes. Your. Mother.”

“Say it again.” Courageous Luke said it again. Ivan Who Lies Too Much laughed so that a worm of snot unfurled over his top lip.

“It is a humorous language,” Courageous Luke said as if conceding an opposing point in a casual argument.

“You have to say it when you take tickets before the show. I will teach you more riding tricks. To each person, what do you say?”

“Womenfolk love me. This includes your mother.” Ivan Who Lies Too Much laughed with the sound of flapping horse lips. He untied his kerchief and slung it around Courageous Luke’s neck.

“Every person whose ticket you take. You have to do it. You have to wear this too. You have to.”

When Ivan Who Lies Too Much rose from his stool, he stumbled into the side of the tent causing a tie-down to snap and the canvas to sag in that spot. He lay on his back and he laughed and laughed.


Part I, Chapter 1, Section Three (Last Paragraph)

Luke would often think of the camera as an admirer, a penitent sinner before the absolving hand of the Lord, the eye of God peering down Abraham’s threatening blade into the pale of Isaac’s round, boyish tummy. He would scowl upon the lascivious savages as if they were the men who drove his mother to an early grave. His story has many parts, and it is difficult to say whether it is even the story of a movie star or a congeries of disparate and often contradictory yearnings confounded in one humble body. Sitting on the train that afternoon, regaling the film producer with tales of his travels and confusions to that point, Luke sensed in himself a pull – a call – toward the films the producer described. Mimicking the frame the producer made with his thumbs and forefingers, Luke imagined a reckonable yonder through which he could see a version of his true self.


19.

At the beginning of his movie career, Luke Knox attended countless soirees, openings of nightclubs and dinner parties with famous politicians and artists. One night, slightly drunk and in need of a reason to approach a lovely young baroness from Kiev, Luke decided to ask a question he should have asked long ago. He sidled up to the baroness when she broke away to use the lavatory. She was having an affair with an old man who owned a once great newspaper now in decline. The rumor was that the newspaper man was trying to sell his company, but no one was buying. He had worked himself up from unloading dead chickens from boxcars, and he would be destitute by the end of the year. He attended parties with the baroness, an exquisite female half his age, a clothes horse in the first degree who enjoyed being seen in all the latest Paris fashions. He went to the party for her, though she would never remarry and thus abdicate her tsarist titles. Their affair was an open secret.

“Baroness,” Luke said, his Alabama accent surprising her. Luke did not speak much, and the severity of his drawl stunned the blue-blooded partygoers. “Will you tell me the meaning of a certain something? It is in your native tongue.” Luke’s cowlick had come loose and a coil of hair spun down his forehead. He licked his palm and smoothed the hair back into place as he said, “Womenfolk love me. This includes your mother.”

His pronunciation was near perfect though he had only thought those words for the last three years.

The baroness slapped him and ran to her paramour. Already roiled from bitterness and the strain of playing the garrulous optimist for the pleasure of the evening’s braggarts and pedants, the newspaper magnate charged Luke. Sharp breaths were drawn and a circle formed around the combatants. Candles fell from elaborate holders.

Although the newspaper owner didn’t have enough force to bring the cowboy to the ground, he sent Luke stumbling backward, toppling an end table, and drawing the attention and ire of all in attendance. Once Luke gained his balance, he was able to pull the newspaper man off him and punch him solidly in the face, breaking his nose with an eggshell crunch. There were smears of blood. Luke Knox – aware of his celebrity status and the moribund witnesses shrinking around their champagne flutes – slipped into his showman role, rolling his shoulders back and smirking to showcase his trademark dimples. If he didn’t say something, the newspaper man would recover, and in his desperation, connive to make Luke the villain of the scene. In that moment, he thought over all of the events and memories of his life.

He said, “There’s a man that got what was coming to him.”

In the morning, when the newspaper man’s competition broke the story of the silver screen cowboy punching out a crazy old drunk at a party, Luke became a legend. His story was told in Alabama and Siberia and Philadelphia. The story was repeated as if all who’d heard the tale had been present to witness the events unfold, as if all parties had made the personal acquaintance of the hero. It was the kind of story that was too good to resist claiming for oneself.


Dan Townsend has work forthcoming in Drunken Boat. The word he mispronounced as a child was ‘cupcake’. He called it ‘pupcake’. It was adorable.

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“Treasure” by Murray Dunlap

The box was hot and rusted. I turned it over in my hands, the iron hinges squealing, the fragile flakes of rust chipping off and spiraling to the soil. I looked inside, and, nesting cozy with folds of preserved silk and linen, lay the most hideous thing I had ever seen. I shut the box violently, snapping the lid down on escaping fabric and caustic malodor, red silk pinched tight while I refastened the clasp. I tucked the box under my arm like a football and sprinted down the trail through haunting pines and cedar trees, rain falling hard through gaps in the canopy and streaming down my shoulders and back. The trail was littered with roots, vines, and dead fall, but I hurdled and side-stepped, spun and twisted, and fast as a spooked deer, made the road into town.

*

During the school year I lived in Mobile, Alabama, a bustling coastal town, but in the summers I took a bus two hours north to stay at Grandpa’s farm in Big Bend. One of the main reasons I looked forward to those summer months was March Florentine. March was just a year older than me, the daughter of Mario and Celia Florentine, who ran the farm down the road from Grandpa’s place. She knew all the best swimming holes, the fastest shortcuts, and could easily knock a coke can off a log with a slingshot at fifty feet. I always looked for March through the tinted Plexiglas of the bus when I finally arrived, scooting up to the edge of my seat, my breath fogging up the glass, my hands nervous and squirming like caterpillars on newly exposed, white thighs. Inevitably she would appear, blonde hair whitening and green eyes squinting in the Alabama sun, cut off jeans, and a striped tank top exposing thin freckled shoulders. On afternoons after chores, March and I would jump and run from burly pirates, our secret mission to retrieve the treasure chest, ripe with gold and silver bullion, and return it safely to our invisible hideout. We would dive headfirst into Stripling Lake and throw water balloons at cars from red clay bluffs. And eventually, as the drowsy sun lay down at the edge of corn and cotton fields and the mosquitoes began to bite at our sunburned and dirty skin, we would migrate home, parting ways at rusting mailboxes, fingers untangling as our feet patted barefoot to separate paths.

The summer before, when I was twelve and March thirteen, our relationship had taken a slightly awkward turn. It wasn’t that our friendship was flagging; it was just that March was acting different, brushing her hair different. She wasn’t wearing makeup yet, thank God, but wearing her clothes different, sitting different, and worst of all, wearing a bra.

“Over the shoulder boulder holder,” I rhymed. “Only you don’t have any boulders.”

“You wait until next year,” March said. “then you’ll see.”

“See what?” I picked up a rock and skipped it across the surface of the lake, ripples colliding between hops.

“Go to hell,” March said, crossing her arms and walking away.

*

When the bus pulled into A&P this year, I searched the parking lot feverishly for March. Usually I could spot her even before the bus made the wide turn off the main road, but this year I only saw my grandfather, hands locked behind his back, standing as erect as in his Navy years–chest out, stomach in.

“Where’s March?” I shouted at Grandpa as I jumped around through assorted suitcases and trunks looking for my bag.

“Throw your bag in the back and get in Tripper,” my grandfather and March were the only two in town who still called me that. “Hurry up now, I’ll tell you on the way.”

March Florentine ran away five days ago, I found out. My grandfather chewed out the story slowly, carefully. He was smoking a cigarette with his window cracked open, air conditioning blowing hard on my knees, and I wanted to ask a lot of questions, but I felt nauseous and kept staring vacantly out the window of the Ford pickup. We passed over the Tombigbee River on an old metal spanning bridge, the cool water making its lazy curve, and I spotted an alligator climbing out onto the bank and disappearing into the high grass and weeds. The ashtray, garbled with butts, jumped and shifted as we made the transition from bridge to pavement.

Grandpa told me about Celia crying in his kitchen, desperate for answers, and I imagined her trembling, holding vigil for her lost daughter in a blue nightgown, tears furrowing through cakey makeup, hands wrapped around a short glass with nothing but ice rattling inside. He also told me about her father Mario grinding up the roads day and night with Sheriff Glanson, searching for anything, and I could see them in my mind, spotlighting through sweet gum and drive of Grandpa’s farm. I blinked, caught a smoke-filled breath, and all I could see was my pale refection hanging there in the dirty glass.

First thing in the morning, I remembered something. I leapt from the top bunk, threw on shorts, and bolted past Grandpa at the stove where bacon snapped and popped in the black iron skillet. I ran outside barefoot and shirtless across the lawn, hurdled Skinner’s creek, and veered down the trail. Sharp rocks cut into my tender, wintered feet, but the thing I remembered urged me on. At the bottom of the hill, I turned off into thick underbrush at a hollow, moss covered stump. Now, new spring vines snaked between ferns and newborn sapling shoots and cut at my ankles and shins as I ran. The distinctly thick smell of virile soil, rich with decay, was overwhelming in the humid, morning air. Just before the land dropped again and became swamp, I scrambled up on a fallen swamp cedar, out of habit mostly, having grown tall enough to reach the lowest branch from the ground, and quickly climbed up to unbolt the bottom hatch of our invisible hideout.

Every year, the hideout looked a little smaller, a little closer to the ground. Inside, the plywood floor was covered with blankets and sheets, and a hand-sewn crimson quilt my grandmother had made–given to March the year she was born– wound in a spiral at the center, as if by a visitant dog turning circles before bedding down. Radiating out from the quilt, the fort was littered with trash: coke cans, snack wrappers, magazines, empty cans of Raid, paper plates, plastic utensils, and dirty clothes. Our pirates’ gold, a handful of leftover Mardi Gras coins, shined dully in loose constellations. A dark knot of towels sopped in the corner. Above the mess on the floor, a square hole had been cut into the sturdiest wall, and a cros-shaped frame of cotton gum branches was glued to the center. White linen napkins draped from thumbtacks completed the picture window, pink ribbons pulling them aside in soft, fluttering curves. The window gave view to the swamp, water elms, and cypress trees wading quietly in murk and rot.

On top of a rotten milk crate, a yellow envelope sat pressed between the blade and handle of our folding trowel. My name was etched neatly across it in black ink, my full name: George M. Bedford III. I snatched up the envelope, ran my finger through the gummy seal, and unfolded the single sheet of thin yellow paper.

Dear Tripper,

Sorry I missed you this year, but lots of stuff happened since you been gone. I have gone to hide out at the beach. You can’t tell NO ONE!!!! I ain’t coming back for a long time. If I see your house down there, I will put a letter in the mailbox. I have only seen it in pictures, so I might not know which one it is.

March

Ps. I borrowed the treasure chest. Don’t be mad.

I shoved the letter into my pocket and squeezed out of our hideout, ferreted down to the swamp cedar and leapt off, my legs twisting in the air even before touching the ground. I sprinted the trail and pounded numb feet back to the farm.

When I returned, Grandpa was sitting with Sheriff Glanson sipping coffee and smoking. Glanson was an old friend of Grandpa’s from their Navy days. His graying hair and moustache bristled like a grooming brushand his heavy frame spilled out from the white pine kitchen chair. “Grandpa, I think I know where March is,” I announced, breaking up their conversation.

“So do we,” Glanson said.

“Huh?”

“You missed breakfast, Tripper.” Grandpa said.

“We picked her up last night,” Glanson continued, grinding out a cigarette. “She was clear down to Minnow Bay, trying to hitch a ride further south.”

“She’s alright now, Tripper.” Grandpa reached out a twitching hand to my shoulder. “She’s home safe with her mamma and pop.” I could smell moonshine through the coffee on Grandpa’s breath. I put my hand in my pocket with the letter, rubbing the thin, smooth paper with my fingers.

“Now wash up and get your breakfast.”

“I’m not hungry,” I said.

“I made breakfast and you’re gonna eat it! Now you wash yer hands and eat that goddamned breakfast you little…”

I didn’t hear the rest. When the swinging door shut behind me, the words became muffled and distorted. I went out the front door and skirted that edge of the yard, darting out of sight onto the path to the Florentine farm.

*

After Glanson found her, March wouldn’t come out of her house for days. I went over and knocked on the door every afternoon after chores, but Celia would only say that she was resting and that I should give her time. So I began going back out to our hideout. I went back and began cleaning. I collected all of the trash, scooped it into a bag, and hiked it out to the dumpster behind our A&P grocery. I slung all the blankets over my shoulder and took them home while Grandpa was out, washing them in the claw-footed bathtub, returning the crimson quilt Grandma had made to Celia. I swept out the floor with clumps of olive pine needles, and I stole a combination lock from our trunk in the attic for the bottom hatch. The only thing left, the thing I had been avoiding everyday, was to get rid of the dark stained towels. I knew it was blood, I had known right away, but something inside me was unwilling to think about what that meant. I buried the towels at the edge of the swamp, scattering leaves and branches over the disturbed earth, and then clicked the lock shut, one hand clutching the lock itself, the other spinning the memory of the combination away.

The weeks of summer crawled on, and March remained holed up in her room. A drought was steadily burning up the crops, zero precipitation for the month and two inches behind, but worse, six inches behind for the year. No rain was forecast. Grandpa and Mario never had the money to put in the elaborate watering system that some of the other farms relied on, and they watched helplessly as their investment began to wither and brown. In early mornings they had begun channeling water from Skinner’s creek into the fields, but it wasn’t enough. The temperature rising with the sun was incapacitating, a hundred and ten degrees, and by midday we all huddled in the kitchen with box fans, glasses of coke, and damp rags. In late afternoon, when the air would become heavy and thunder would throw teasing rumbles across the fields, I started heading back to the woods.

Smoking cigarettes I had slipped from Grandpa’s carton, I retraced all of the paths March and I had worn through the trees. I went to Skinner’s Creek, Stripling Lake, and the red clay bluffs and rotting swamp. I walked the dusty gravel roads and the dirt paths, sputtering my breaths when trying to inhale. I even caught myself playing one of our old childhood games, running and jumping from pirates, searching for our lost gold. But this time I decided to become a pirate myself, squinting to look tough, lighting a stolen cigarette, and mapping out possible burial sites for the bullion. I threw rocks and dirt clods at the invisible hideout, yelling threats and obscenities through the shroud of leaves, proclaiming my evil plans.

There were several places that March and I had buried the treasure chest. Some of them we had used frequently, but most were just random clearings in the woods, magical patches of soft earth and sunlight. I went through the common ones right off, digging a few inches down and deciding by the feel of the soil that no one had been there recently. Then I fanned out to more obscure spots, but found only worms and roots, rusty cans and roly polys, centipedes and slugs. For a few days I abandoned the search to go swimming, the lake water so warm from the heat.

But one afternoon, with a darkening sky overhead, I left Grandpa sitting expectantly on the porch, eyes turned up to the pregnant clouds, and I went back to the trails. The air hung rippled with electricity. As I walked, I thought about March. I had been thinking about her every day, wondering if she would ever, ever come out, but today I thought about years past, about the times we’d played together, and about the times we’d held hands. And of course, I thought about the end of last summer, when we’d started to watch each other change after swimming, and for the first time I wanted to kiss her, her white blonde hair pulled back behind her ears and her tan freckled shoulders and her breasts beginning to show. And then that night just before I went home, the first and only time March and I spent an entire night together in the hideout, when we tried out all sorts of things. I wondered if my freewheeling sense of exploration that night had something to do with this nightmare we were now in.

I ended up at the hideout as the thunder began in earnest, rolling out in the distance like a train. I knew I couldn’t open the lock I had attached to the hatch, so I climbed out limb over limb, making my way above the hideout walls. From there I shimmied out over the skylight, a gap between boards we used as a roof, and from there, I lowered myself in. Everything inside was as I had left it, and I sat down next to March’s makeshift window, staring out. The edge of the swamp had receded fifty yards in the drought and a skeletal root system was left exposed. Raindrops began to patter on the roots and dry ground, sucked up and swallowed as they hit. And then I saw it. Pushing my face into a corner of the window, I could see the top half of our treasure chest, wedged into a clutch of cypress roots.

Knowing how much harder it was to climb out of the skylight than to climb in, I started kicking at the bottom hatch with my heels. The wood was bruising and needling splinters into my bare feet. Thunder rumbled closer now and rain began to come through the skylight on my back, head, and shoulders. One heavy kick with my weight behind it and the hatch popped open, the lock and hinge dangling useless from the also dangling hatch, blood smeared across the pine, and me, born helpless through the hole and crying out as I crashed from cedar to dirt. And the dirt stuck to my body, wet with sweat, blood, and rain, while I gasped and wheezed, trying to regain my breath. Pulling myself up, I stood dazed, wiped off my eyes with the back of my hand, and walked through the strengthening rain to the box, our treasure chest.

I was halfway to town when I stopped running, my heart and lungs shuddering and heaving, the rain steady and lighting crackling across the sky. I walked a few minutes, catching my breath and passing the silver guardrail, until I came to the middle of the bridge and stopped. Pulling the box from under my arm, I placed it on the wet, metal railing and looked out at the water elm and cypress trees, the possum oak and pine, with limbs gently reaching out over the river like outstretched hands. Looking down at my own hands, I realized they had grown. They were as large and strong as any man’s. The quiet clay banks guided the amber water, beginning to swell and quicken with rain, along the curving course of the Tombigbee. I watched a lone alligator, seeming to guard the river itself, and took the chest back into my hands. It seemed that the chest suddenly weighed a hundred pounds for all it contained. Rain hung heavy in my bangs. And as I threw the chest over the rail and into the river, I could hear my grandfather’s songs, deftly picked melodies in my head. I stood erect, chest out, stomach in, on a metal spanning bridge with rippled water pulsing beneath, and allowed those songs to radiate across my body. The notes were pure and true.


MurrayDunlapMurray Dunlap’s work has appeared in about fifty magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, as well as to Best New American Voices once, and his first book, -an early draft of “Bastard Blue” (then called “Alabama”) was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction. His first collection of short stories, “Bastard Blue,” was published on June 7th, 2011 (the three year anniversary of a car wreck that very nearly killed him…). The extraordinary individuals Pam Houston, Laura Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writing. His web site is www.murraydunlap.com.

Issue #3, February 2011

Table of Contents, Issue #3

Editor’s Note

Fiction

“Waiting for an Amputation” by Matthew Dexter

“Sex of Food” by Jessie Carty

“Albert Triantis” by Louis Bourgeois

Poetry

“Ways to Remember Birmingham”by Len Kunz

“The Rain in Birmingham” by Len Kunz

“Molted” by Len Kunz

“A Sprint Ritual” by Catfish McDaris

“My Magnum Opus” by Catfish McDaris

“angel untied” by bl pawelek

“metal and snap” by bl pawelek

“Auburn Memory” by Katie Berger

“Snow Collection” by Katie Berger

“The Young Ghosts Still Good Friends” by Geoff Munsterman

“Road Trip” by Geoff Munsterman

Essays

“Soul Trail” by Craig Legg

Two Poems by Katie Berger

Editor’s note: “Auburn Memory” was nominated for the 2010/11 Best of the Net Awards.


Auburn Memory

Late and clear, not long enough ago.
The night on the college town
lit by so many timid sources,
so I thought I’d remember you
better. Memory thrives
when darkness hogs the light.

Two burgers set between us.
A blossom of laughter
between clerk and you,
gentle implosion, harsh ripple,
and you called me confused –

called it all a Southern thing – I am here
but not from here, much the way

I held a cup of soda or coke
never ever pop and sipped,
absorbed into my own
hollow question mark of a throat,
when it came to me
that this was not drinking but hoping
for more, many more nights
of streetlamps and puzzles.

Then looking away from you, staring
at the ice learning how to be water,
first trickle into the other,
blind to the cardboard bottom, the end.


Snow Collection

You’ve kept snow in a filing cabinet
but say these times call for archives
less likely to melt. I’d tend to your snow depository
but I am now alive in territory
free of weather stripping framing doorframes.
Here, blizzards thrive only in eyes
and nip their way to lips. I try to believe
you were born here, you who seem born
to fight pecans and pralines and other
things we never pronounce
the same.

Snow molds people. Understand
how my snow angels told me how to be.
I dreamed it never stopped snowing.
See: nuclear winter. See
also: impact winter. Refer to:
snow machines.

You’ve kept it.
Is it really packed
in some file box, fire-proof but rusting
from the inside out? That would be you,
cataloging my hunger
and offering it to the sun.


Originally from Nebraska, Katie Berger currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama.