“Put it Right” by Murray Dunlap

[For Bob and Ellen Gentle, and everyone at Panini Pete’s who helped me put it right.]

The easy thing to do was to take the little bits of clarity from Rob’s slurry words and nod and move along. His slur was from medication, not alcohol –as some would assume, and Rob was very self conscience about the way he sounded. He desperately wanted to go back in time to a day when he had felt confident in his voice.

The hard part came when anyone tried to make sense of him, or worse, to ask him what he meant. And that is when the trouble started for a girl named Joy and when everything turned into a cloud of confused anger. That, of course, is where our story begins.

What Joy had done was ask Rob, “What do you mean when you say ‘balance’?”

And Rob said nothing. His personal balance had been ruined by a car wreck, never to be regained. He also could no longer drive. Painfully, Rob made his way through life. Not working, not standing with any certainty, not doing anything really, save for his carpentry. He used his workshop as a release and a valuable tool. He used it to pay his way.

Finally, he turned to Joy and gave an answer. “I mean like you standing there. You know. Certain everything is where it is and nothing will move suddenly,” Rob said. “It’s like that if you then were to carbonate your brain and shake it up.”

“But you seem to be standing fine,” Joy started reluctantly.

“Yes,” Rob replied. “But watch this.”

At which time Rob turned and used his head swing as if he was looking over his shoulder. At which time, he grabbed a hold of the table saw next to him and just barely prevented himself from falling.

“Really?” Joy asked incredulously. “That little movement and all balance is gone?”

“Afraid so,” Rob replied. “Or less.”

And it became clear to Joy just how fragile Rob had become. All due to a car wreck. One man’s failure to glance up and see a red light. It was unbelievable really. This proved to Joy the unjust nature of the world and left her questioning everything, even religion.

What was, in fact, open and honest for Joy was the precarious nature of Rob’s current existence.

Rob sanded the top of a desktop-in-progress. It gave him satisfaction to finish things neatly now that his life was such a mess. He carved out the corners of the desktop and left room for a screw to thread through. He found that creating a puzzle out of his crafts gave him an end to work for, and –for now- it was enough to steer him clear of suicide. And the money he made from selling the finished pieces gave him enough to live on. A magazine had run a story on Rob and sales had doubled.

That said, it was a daily challenge for Rob to keep going. His mind would wander to the ease of the big sleep. No more struggle, no more fighting. The thing that kept him going, of course, is to see what would happen next.

Joy turned to face Rob, who had turned himself around, but now straightened out and faced Joy once again. And Joy could see that look in Rob of utter frustration. Utter exhaustion.

Rob took the time to look Joy in the eye and say very slowly, and very clearly, “Just one more corner, one more element of design, and I will finish this for my client. For another month, my rent will be paid.”

But, all things considered, Joy was happy to see Rob turn and sand the corner of the desktop. Joy could see the great satisfaction Rob took in adjusting the desktop-in-progress just so. And put things right.


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 #9, November-December 2011

Table of Contents, Issue #9

Editor’s Note

Fiction

“The Helter Skelter War” by Leland Pitts-Gonzalez

“Blow, Satchmo, Blow Part I: The E Train” by Melissa Bobe

“Put it Right” by Murray Dunlap

“Edge” by Sheila Lamb

Plays

“Certain Unexplainable Events” by Cody Daigle

Poetry

Three Poems by Karla Linn Merrifield

“New Shoes: Outside a Refugee Camp in Somalia” by Len Kuntz

“Desegregation Days” by Tyler Malone

“Night Logic (with Pain)” by Corey Mesler

“Ouroboros” by Christopher Oie Keller

Multimedia

Wire Art by Molly Hand

“This Is Mardi Gras” by Murray Dunlap

We fly in first-class on Piggy Bank’s dime, arriving at eight o’clock on Friday morning. The limousine driver with chestnut skin holds up a sign with our names on it. We drink single malt scotch from crystal glasses as New Orleans jaunts past through one-way windows. Tourists in T-shirts and cargo-pants try to see who we are. They think we’re famous. The scotch is Johnnie Walker Blue. Bartenders charge thirty dollars for a glass, neat, and I spill some in my lap. The driver, Sweet Comfort, reminds us that champagne brunch on the patio at Bayona will begin in two hours. He calls us Mr. Husband and Miss Wife. He’s in full livery.

“Ya’ll best take it easy now.”

“We slept on the plane,” I say.

“All right. All right. Just don’t let it slide,” Sweet Comfort says. “Mr. Piggy Bank wants everybody on time. He goin’ all out.”

Wife says, “So are we.”

At the Wyndsor Court Hotel, we shower and change in deluxe accommodations. Our rooms have more square feet than our home. We have a foyer and mini-kitchen that bleeds into a den with three sofas. Beyond that, a dining table set for eight. Then a step through French doors reveals a king-sized bedroom with a king-sized bed that opens onto a balcony overlooking the Mississippi river. I press a button at bedside, and a television rises up from inside an antique chest. We use perfumed soaps and tiny bottles of lotion. We drink beers from the mini bar and charge it to the room.

“It’s too much,” I say.

“Piggy Bank’s got it,” Wife says.

“I shouldn’t have opened the scotch in the limo.”

“That’s what it’s there for.”

“Still. It was Blue.”

“We’re married. He’s your brother too.”

“I’m uncomfortable,” I say.

“So take off your coat.”

The limo arrives at ten o’clock sharp and shuttles us to Bayona’s where Piggy Bank opens the first bottle of Dom Perignon with a sword.  A smooth, white smile never leaves his thick ruddy face. Fifteen bottles are popped in all. The wait staff runs in and out and in and out and our flutes never go dry.

The rest of the party consists of Piggy Bank’s wife, her divorced parents, her siblings and cousins. Don’t forget Piggy Bank’s family, the half-brothers and half-sisters and a menagerie of friends. All flown in first-class. All expenses paid.

This is New Orleans. This is Mardi Gras.

As we are seated, Piggy Bank’s wife Silky clinks a silver spoon against her glass.

“It’s time for Dirty Beads. You should all pick a number from the bag Sugar is carrying to your tables. Once you have your number, start thinking about which set of beads you want. Other Girl, show them the beads.”
Other Girl begins lifting beads from a bright green bag, one by one. She makes hand motions like Vanna White. She has the same hair. On the first set of beads, tiny lights blink inside translucent pink gambler’s dice. Another has cartoonish boxes of Viagra and a life size penis dangles from the bottom. Bald Guy tries to grab them, but Other Girl slaps his hand. One after the other, she goes through two dozen beads. The last ones, plastic oysters with black and white pearls, she holds over her head and twirls on a finger.

The rules of the game make no sense. Everyone is drunk. Piggy Bank snatches the numbers out of our hands and throws them on the ground. He stands on his chair and tosses beads across the room. He throws some over his shoulder without looking. I catch the blinking dice. Wife catches the oysters. Other Girl already has the penis beads hung around her neck and no one tries to take them.

“Sir,” a waiter says. “Could you step down from the chair, please?”

“This is Mardi Gras,” Piggy Bank says.

“Sir, we’d hate for you to fall.”

Piggy Bank slips out a fifty and folds it into the waiter’s breast pocket. He’s still smiling. The waiter leaves the room.


The parade starts at noon. Piggy Bank owns a huge double-gallery style house in the garden district, directly on the parade route. White columns, black wrought-iron gate, and courtyard pool. He has an iron lion’s head in the wall that spits a continuous stream of water into a fountain. His bedroom ceiling is painted in gold leaf with an oval mirror above the bed. Bald Guy calls it the Hotel Frenchafornia, but we all know his ex-wife Sugar said it first. Piggy Bank bought the house so we could watch the parades without driving or walking. He bought it so we could use the bathrooms and not the port-o-lets. He bought it despite the fact that he lives in Connecticut, works in New York, and only makes it down two weeks a year. Two weeks for Mardi Gras.

This is it.

In the middle of the crowd on the sidewalk, we’ve put together a kitchen of crawfish and boiled potatoes. We’ve got fresh silver queen corn and a half dozen king cakes. We’ve got cases of beer and wine. We’ve got expensive scotch. Piggy Bank stands in the middle of us in coat and tie and sunglasses. He’s red-faced and smiling and waving to friends all over the street. Silky hands plates of food to anyone within reach. A Stranger stops and taps my shoulder.

“Who is he?” A Stranger asks. “Is he famous?”

“Have you seen the movie Wall Street?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s Gordon Gecko,” I say. Then I wink.

“So cool.”

A Stranger kneels down and lifts a beer from the cooler.

“Cool?” she asks.

“Cool,” I say. “This is Mardi Gras.”

The floats cruise past, then the high school bands, then the cops on horseback. Then the next float, the next band, the next batch of cops. It goes on like this for hours. Bald Guy throws his arms over Piggy Bank’s shoulder and drinks scotch from the bottle. He may be the father-in-law, but they’re exactly the same age. I eat a few crawfish, wipe the burn of spice from my fingers, and chase it with beer. But I’m not hungry. Wife catches a plastic headband with googley eyes on springs. She puts it on and does an eighties dance routine. I’ll admit to you that she is good looking, very good looking, and her neck is entirely hidden by beads. I snap a picture.

After the parade, Sweet Comfort drives us back to the hotel.

Port of Call at eight sharp,” he says. “I’ll be right here at a quarter of.”

“What do we wear?” I ask.

“It’s a burger bar, Mr. Husband. It don’t matter.”

We shower and change into casual clothes. I stretch out on the bed. Wife stands on the balcony and watches people milling in the street.

“Anyone naked?” I ask.

“Not anymore,” Wife says. “A girl on the corner did a quick flash.”

“How was it?”

“Very pale.”

“How much do you think this room is a night?”

“She was sort of droopy.”

“Six hundred?”

“What? She didn’t even get beads.”


In the lobby, we meet up with Sugar and Sage, Other Girl and Other Boy, and, of course, Bald Guy. He’s still drunk and puts a hand on my shoulder. He holds up a digital camera but his hands shake and I can’t see anything.

“Check this out dude,” he says. “Kiss.”

“Kiss what?”

“Gene Simmons, man.”

“I’m good.”

“No man, Gene Simmons.” Bald Guy squints his eyes and sings, “I, wanna rock and roll all night, party every day.”

“KISS,” I say.

“Right here in our hotel.”

I steady the camera and look at the tiny image. Bald Guy and Gene Simmons, arm in arm.

“Excellent,” I say.

“He’s riding tonight.”

“Gene Simmons?”

“I’m gonna get hammered.”

“Excellent.”

You and Bald Guy wouldn’t get along.

The limo picks us up and winds through back streets. We pull up from behind Port of Call and get out. Piggy Bank is already there, wearing a white linen suit. He’s taking drink orders on the front steps and yelling them over his shoulder to the bar.

“I’ll be right back,” I say.

“What?” Wife asks. “Where?”

“Across the street. They’ve got a cash machine.”

“What do you need cash for?”

“He’s not buying this too,” I say.

“Of course he is. But you can try.”

When I get back, everyone is seated and drinking hurricanes.

“I got your hurricane,” Piggy Bank says.

“That’s okay,” I say. “I’ll get a beer.”

“A beer?”

“Sure.”

“Pussy.”

No one pays any attention. The burgers and baskets of fries come, and I eat fast. I order a dozen boiled shrimp and eat that too. Crab cakes. Even the jalapeno poppers. I use extra horseradish in my sauce. When they take my drink order, I ask for Delirium Tremens. You know the one. It’s the beer with a pink elephant on the label. I tell them to bring me two at a time. Then I ask for a dessert menu, and I’m told that all they have is chocolate cake. It’s not what I want, but I ask for it anyway. By the time it comes out, it’s time to go. We stand on the sidewalk while Piggy Bank pays the bill.


We make our way to Bourbon Street and join the crowd. It’s like walking into a thicket. Six steps in and you disappear. I grab Wife’s hand, but everyone else is gone. Just freaks in costume, men in drag, whores on the job, and pickpockets. We move deeper into the street and I make a fist around Wife’s belt. Beads sail through the air. Men and boys, and sometimes girls, throw them at Wife. She smiles and says thank you. Sometimes she does a little curtsy. Then three women on a balcony above the souvenir shop lift up their shirts. Countless thick-necked meatheads gape. The crowd stops moving and we’re trapped, bodies pressed together hard.

“I can’t breath,” Wife says.

“And they’re ugly,” I say.

“This is miserable.”

“Let’s try for that bar.”

We push our way off the street and manage to cut inside a place called Fat Catz. It’s less than standing room only, but it’s better than outside. I pay cash for two Coronas and we sip them in the corner. Wife leans against the wall.

“This is better,” she says.

“For now,” I say. “We’ll have to get out somehow.”

“But this is better.”

“Yes. This is better. But I’ll want to get out soon.”

I get bumped by the guy next to me and it’s clear he’s been shoved. He pulls a fist back and sets his jaw.

I say, “It’s not worth it.”

The guy looks at me. He holds his fist in the air.

“Bullocks,” he says and throws the punch.

The cops arrive instantly. In less than four minutes, they break up the fight and haul three people to jail. That’s the rule on Bourbon Street. If you fight, you go to jail. Get it off the street. Sort it out later. We watch it like a TV show.

When it’s over, Wife and I take alleyways to Royal and make it back to the hotel by midnight. We’re not tired yet so we walk upstairs to the Polo Lounge for another drink. Bald Guy is there with a glass of pink champagne in his hand. He’s doing some sort of dance move and the girl he’s standing with giggles. Her sequin skirt stops an inch below her crotch. Sometimes less.

“My buddy Gene and I rode with Endymion tonight,” he says.

“Gene who?” she asks.

“I, wanna rock and roll all night.”

“Gene Simmons?”

“Don’t say it too loud,” he says. “He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s here.”

“In this hotel?”

Bald Guy winks and smiles. He orders another pink champagne. He charges it to Piggy Bank.

“Do we stay?” Wife asks.

“We’ve still got the ball tomorrow night. Commander’s Palace on Sunday. I think there might be a lunch at Galatoire’s.”

“I don’t have the endurance for this trip,” she says.

“I don’t have the clothes for this trip.”

“Stop it.”

“Let’s head up then. Get some sleep,” I say. “We could go for beignets in the morning?”

“Of course we’ll get beignets,” Wife says. “This is New Orleans.”

“And it’s Mardi Gras.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Either way, I’m buying.”

“You’re so cool.”

“You go ahead then,” I say. “I’m going to step outside for some air.”

“I forget, does air suck or blow?” Wife narrows her eyes. “Well. Take your time.”

Wife turns on her heel and makes for the door.


We push through the weekend, overeating, overdrinking, overspending. We have trout almandine at Galatoire’s. We have shrimp remoulade at Commander’s. We have the finest champagne everywhere we go. In between, in limousines, we drink Blue. Piggy Bank never stops smiling and Bald Guy never gets sober. You would have never stopped laughing. And not just everyday laughing, but the kind where your eyes pinch shut and your hands shake. I could watch you laugh like that for the rest of my life.

But before it’s all over and before we fly home, first-class on Piggy Bank’s dime, this one thing happened that I haven’t told you yet. I’m not sure if I should. We were in his double-gallery house. After the parade, but before Port of Call. No big deal. It’s just another story.


We carried leftover parade food and booze into the house and picked at lukewarm crawfish. Wife napped on the couch while Sugar and Sage watched TV. Bald Guy drank scotch and twisted unintelligible words on his tongue. He took wobbly steps to the kitchen island. He grabbed on with both hands. Then he lifted his head and focused his eyes. He spoke, maybe to Sweet Comfort.

“You know that girl,” he said.

“Which one?” Sweet Comfort asked.

“The one with google eyes.” Bald Guy put index fingers on top of his head and wiggled them like antennae. His drinking voice boomed through the house.

“You mean Miss Wife.”

He arched his back. “Came to see me last night. She’s as tight as drum. Mouth like a Hoover.”

Silence. No one moved. Not even me.

I was on the phone with you.

Piggy Bank stood near enough to grab Bald Guy’s collar and drag him out of the room. It was over in seconds. A door slammed, but we could still hear the shouting. Silky asked if anyone wanted a drink. Maybe I should tell you that Piggy Bank is having an affair with a woman named Florida. Maybe I should tell you that Silky wants a divorce and that everyone is waiting to see who gets the house. Or maybe I should just tell you what happened next.

Sweet Comfort took a few steps over and squeezed my arm. He wore the penis beads over black livery.

“It’s Mardi Gras,” he said. “Folks act a fool.”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“You should go back to the hotel,” Wife said.

“I would like to clean up,” I said.

“Come on then,” Sweet Comfort said. “I’ll take you home.”


Mardi Gras parades move through the streets in a cloud of beads and Frisbees, embroidered panties and silk roses, a hail of plastic cups and silver coins. Every few years, someone will fall from their float and die. Some are crushed by the wheels, others by the hooves of horses. There are isolated incidents of stabbings and gunfire. But for the most part, the parades move smoothly. The girls who lift their shirts get the most loot. Little boys with fishing nets scoop up the rest. Everyone else taps feet and sips beer and smiles at how much dirty chaos one city can get away with. They fly in from all over the world. They buy souvenirs and expensive dinners and Johnny Walker Blue. They keep hotels in business. It’s very carefully maintained. Men like Piggy Bank own this town. I pass through like a tossed stone, skipping across the surface of the Mississippi River for a brief moment, only to drop and sink beneath the muddy water. Just like Bald Guy. Wife is somewhere in between. Very soon, an epic convergence of hurricane swells and weak levees and leaking oil will change the city forever. But for these few seconds, the parade holds us together. As bright and blinking as an elaborate string of beads.

We all reach up with waving hands and lifted shirts and fishing nets and hopeful eyes. We reach up to catch them. This is Mardi Gras. I’ve got a piece of it right here in my hands.


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 #4, March 2011

Table of Contents, Issue #4

Editor’s Note

Fiction

“Treasure” by Murray Dunlap

“Serial Killers” by Melissa Studdard

Poetry

“Recycled” by Kenneth P. Gurney

“Mentality” by Kenneth P. Gurney

“Deeper Shade of Red” by Kenneth P. Gurney

“Writing Life” by Howie Good

“The Butterfly Garden of Absinthe” by Howie Good

“Eternal Recurrence of the Same” by Howie Good

“The Lullaby” by Karla Linn Merrifield

“Gulf Coast Sutra” by Karla Linn Merrifield

“The Last Crummy Poem?” by James Valvis

“Oblivion” by Peycho Kanev

“Purity” by Peycho Kanev

“Pine Trees and Alligators” by Richard Peake

“Hunting Piney Woods” by Richard Peake

“Feeding Gulls” by Richard Peake

“Hookers on Archer Avenue” by Michael Lee Johnson

“Pinocchio, Breaking” by Daniel Romo

“First Snow” by Daniel Romo

“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.