Down in Mexico with Chief Vic, Big Blue, and Bernadette

by Clyde Edgerton

(Written in 2004)

www.clydeedgerton.com 

 We stop to get groceries at a little grocery store in the village of Zapata, southwestern Mexico, near the Pacific coast.  A big wooden barrel full of brooms sits just outside the wide front opening to the store, and just inside are bins of fruit almost chest high.  I’m tempted to stand at the fruit bins for a while—the smells are sweet and some are strange: cantaloupes, tiny bananas, mangos, and papayas. 

The grocery store reminds me of the one my father ran back in rural North Carolina in the 1950s.  A “reacher”–a long handled, two-fingered metal hand–retrieves goods from top shelves.  Anybody can use it. 

This little town has no paved streets other than route 200–a two-lane hard top, the main road down Mexico’s west coast.  The nearest town with paved streets is more than an hour away. 

We’re here to pick up Diet Coke and ice cream.  My buddy, Vic Miller, will be speaking the Spanish I wish I could speak.  We’ve just been fly fishing on Rio Caliente.  No luck, but the riverbanks were plush with dark green plants, weeping willows, and the water–as clear as air.  Before fishing, we managed to get our rental car stuck in sand and a friendly Mexican holding a machete walked across the shallow riverbed and helped us push the car onto firm ground.  Vic talked and joked a while with our rescuer, who, when we returned from fishing, was bathing in the river, a little board resting on the riverbank holding soap and shampoo.

Over a decade ago I was stuck in a river in Florida in Vic’s Jon boat with a tub of weeds wrapped around the engine propeller.  Vic stood, waist deep, with the engine tilted so that the propeller was out of water, unwrapping weeds while his seven-year-old daughter, Maisey, cried in frustration over a halted adventure.  My daughter, Catherine, also unhappy, was along. 

“Sing something,” Vic said to me.

I started in on John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream:”  “She was a level headed waitress on the road to alcohol.  I was just a soldier . . . Blow up your T.V., throw away your papers, move to the country, build you a home.”  Maisey stopped crying, and Vic is forever remembering that day.

One night about five years ago several friends and I were on a small houseboat that putted very slowly along the bank of the Apalachicola River.  Vic, just ahead of the boat, waist deep in the water, walked along holding a spot light in his left hand (the light bound to the boat by a long extendable cord plugged into an electrical outlet) and a .38 revolver in his right hand.  He was stalking a bullfrog for next morning’s breakfast.  We could hear the frog bellowing on the bank in the weeds not far ahead.  A big branch caught the top of the boat and stopped it.  Vic kept walking, the light cord comes unplugged, the light goes out, a few seconds pass, and only then, in black darkness, there’s a gunshot.  In a few minutes Vic appears at the bow, dead frog in hand, shot between the eyes.  Had I not been there, I wouldn’t believe it.  There’s still something implausible about that incident, but it gives me faith in some other Vic stories.

Vic has revived a dying dog with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; he fought a bull in a bullring–and lost.

He quotes Shakespeare, Keats, friends.

He’s had several open heart operations, he’s sixty-two, he’s been told there can be no more operations and he lives every day as his last.  He’s been married more than twice.  I’ve never asked him how many times.  He’s been bruised and stitched up after all sorts of encounters, at least one with a crocodile, and another with a wild boar.

 My wife’s Uncle Duke, a New York movie producer, owns a villa in the Careyes resort area.  It’s near the little grocery store where we’re shopping.  Duke is generous to friends and family.  My family is staying in his villa for ten days, and I’ve asked Vic to join us.  Knowing about the relative isolation of this part of the world, the dangerous and wild rocky coast, I figured way back when we were invited that if I could get Vic down here, just sort of turn him loose and follow him around for a few days, something would happen.  I knew Vic would bring his fly rods, snorkeling gear, maps, walking shoes, and his warped sense of living on the edges of normality.

A few days before, on the hour ride north from the airport in Manzanillo to the villa, Vic, my wife Kristina, my son Nathaniel, and I left no room for a car seat in our tiny taxi.  Nathaniel must be held in the back seat.  I sit up front holding the hand rest and dashboard because the driver tailgates, swerves around slow trucks, and takes the inside of sharp curves.  Vic talks about how his truck caught on fire last week.  He put the fire out with beer.  His truck is fine, though. 

It’s fun to ride along and listen to Vic tell stories, though I’m worried about Nathaniel not being in a car seat, yet not worried enough to rent another taxi.  There are no child seat laws here and for some irrational reason that makes me worry less.  I hold on, listen to Vic.

He shot a duck a few days back, just before dark, and left his hat on a branch in the woods to mark approximately where the duck went down so that he could return to find it.  He will kill nothing he doesn’t eat.  He came back next day, parked the truck, looked for but couldn’t find his hat, then couldn’t find the truck.  He finally found the truck, but then got stuck in the swamp. 

The taxi driver was crazy, I decided.  Kristina, behind the taxi driver, handed Nathaniel over Vic’s case of fly rods–propped lengthwise in the taxi—to Vic, who was behind me.  We were speeding along.  Vic was bouncing Nathaniel on his knee and talking to him.  Vic’s door came open; he yelled and slammed it shut.  Nathaniel had opened it.

Vic lives with the Kuna Indians in Panama.  Not exactly with them—he lives in a sailboat just off the coast from their village.  He enjoys their company, entertains them, eats their food and celebrates with them.  He’s now visiting his hometown, Albany, Georgia, for a while but will return to the Indians after taking in as much American life as he can handle.  He likes the way the Kuna live, the way they treat their children and each other.  He’s trying to develop a commercial market for their art. 

Vic recently sailed his forty-four foot sailboat back to the states.  He told us about the trip as our little taxi sped north on Route 200 from the airport.  On that trip back to the states he was blinded for a few days after being accidentally gouged by a thumb.  He tried to navigate by the “feel of the wind against my cheek,” and one night as his vision returned he barely made out Polaris, the North Star, and changed course.  His ragged blind navigation saved several days on a trip, which still took five weeks, rather than the normal two.  He was in trouble once during that trip and a harbor patrol boat sent from Grand Cayman came to his rescue but Vic refused to allow them to tow him in.

   When we arrive at the villa from the airport we are greeted by Kristina’s mother, Hannah, her father, P.M., sister Merritt, and family friend Maggie.  Hannah informs us that a guide will take us ocean fishing the next morning at nine-thirty.  I’ve been counting on Vic to do the guiding, to track down a boat, and to run the nature show, but this little fishing trip will be a good way to start.  Vic can talk to the guide; find out places of adventure, things to do.

The first night at dinner, Vic tells of how he came to live with the Kuna.  The chief, named Brown, was talking with Vic, and Vic noticed that he kept scratching his arm.  Vic offered Neosporin.  The chief used it and then took off his shirt and asked Vic to apply some to his back.  Vic did.  Soon a group of Indians lined for his “magical” medication.  He ran out of Neosporin, but to continue to please them, he reverted to dabs of toothpaste.  They came to trust and like him, and he set anchor.

    The fishing guide’s name is Sergio and he and Vic talk fishing, weather and ocean tides in Spanish.  Along for this initial fishing outing is my father-in-law, P. M.  I pick up Spanish pieces of a story Vic told us earlier and is now telling Sergio:  When Vic flew in to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in 1960 (he was eighteen), twenty years or so before Sergio was born, on a DC-3, the co-pilot sat on a milking stool, and the landing strip was dirt.  When the aircraft took off, it didn’t have the power to clear the mountains on a straight out departure so it just corkscrewed up into the air until it was high enough to make it out.

    We’re trolling with heavy-duty rods and reels.  The coast is mostly rocky bluff with occasional sandy beaches.  In the rocks are crevices and caves.  Swells move into the rocks and leave waterfalls, crash into crevices and caves.  Plumes of water, like geysers, spurt into the air. 

After about thirty minutes we have a strike.  P. M. brings in the fish, a species of tuna that Sergio says we should throw back because it’s no good to eat.  The meat is too dark.  There’s a discussion between Vic and Sergio.  We’ll keep the fish and cook it.

Headed south along the rocky seashore, we pass the Goldsmith estate high on a cliff (twenty-three thousand acres, thirteen thousand set aside as a preserve).  There’s a round tower on the estate that reminds Vic of an abandoned astronomy tower on the north Pacific border of Costa Rica.  It was once rented by the owner as a honeymoon suite.  A parrot lived in the tower and would occasionally come to the owner’s table for dinner, singing, “Ooooohh, ahhhh, yes, yes, yes.”  Occasionally, the parrot flew down into the village below, but was unable to fly back up out of the valley.  The owner would walk through the streets and listen for it.

    We pass sandy beaches with coconut groves, and Vic tells about an Indian he knew in San Blas, Panama.  The man was called Iguana.  His legs were withered and useless.  He climbed up palm trees after coconuts.  He would climb down from the top of the trees shoulders first, like an Iguana. 

    Vic talks about diving among feeding sharks at a reef in Walkers Caye, Bahamas. Distracted by the view, he found a shark tugging on the belt of his equipment.

    P.M asks him what’s the weirdest thing he’s ever caught, fishing.

Vic thinks for a few seconds. “A cadaver. I was with a group of folks in a boat looking for a drowned man in the Kinchafoonee Creek in Leesburg, GA.  We were using long poles with big treble hooks on the end and just as we got underway I thought I’d hooked a stump, and asked what to do.  ‘Bring it on up,’ somebody said.  I did, and as I pulled up I leaned over the side of the boat.  I was looking for the stump but instead suddenly there was a big swollen face staring me in the face.”

We’ll catch two more fish on our half-day outing:  a tuna and a jack.  Vic will fillet the two tuna, cut the fillets into chunks and fry them in a spicy flour and cornmeal mix.  Next day he’ll convert a large flowerpot into a smoker and smoke the jack.  The tuna was pretty damn dark.  I can understand why the locals don’t eat them.  The smoked jack was delicious. 

 On the third day we collect tiny gray fish, each not much larger than a fingernail, from a near-by beach.  It’s easy, in the seawater that collects among the rocks as the waves come in, to catch them in a shallow pan and then pour them in the plastic bottle for Nathaniel.  We’ll return them to the sea after a few hours.  But there is one beautiful tiny fish that seems impossible to catch—they are scarce and very skittish.  They look as if they’re squeezed from a tiny tube of dark blue paint and their bellies are orange.

The problem is how to catch one.

I realize I’ve stumbled into an adventure, perhaps the adventure of the trip. I will use clichés of big game fishing—the fish exploding on a power run, my fighting the big fish into submission, stopping the initial run, owning the fight, taking a 300-pound big eye on 80-pound tackle—use those clichés to write about catching our quarter-ounce “Big Blue.”

But how do we catch it?

Vic’s idea is to invent a “slurp gun” that will work something like a hypodermic needle in reverse and suck Big Blue safely in to a small chamber.

We look around Uncle Duke’s villa.  On a shelf is a clear plastic tennis ball container holding two balls.

“If we put a hole in one end of that,” says Vic, and then pull a tennis ball backwards somehow, with a clothes hanger or something, it’ll create suction, won’t it?”

“Should.  We’ll have to cut a hole in the tennis ball.”

We look at each other.  “I haven’t seen any tennis courts around here, have you?” says Vic.

“Nope.  So these balls and container are probably here for a slurp gun.  Uncle Duke won’t mind.”

I find my Leatherman and go to work, cutting holes and designing.

“Let’s try it out,” said Vic.

The living room to the villa is open on the ocean side and built into the low wall which keeps you from walking off into space is a small swimming pool, about the length and width of a taxi. 

We find a box of raisins in the kitchen and drop them into the pool. I moved the gun with-in a couple of inches and pull back on the straightened clothes hanger that passes through and curls up on the far side of the ball.  The raisin moves away from the end of the gun.

“What the hell?” says Vic.

I try again.  Same thing.  I examine our gun.  “The ball’s not in there tight enough.  Water is rushing around it and out the hole.”

For three hours we re-design and experiment.

Finally, after failure upon failure, we come up with a gun that sort of works.  The principle is like our original, yet we are working with a two-liter plastic water bottle, thin and tall.  The tennis ball container is discarded.  Two halves of a tennis ball–slightly smaller that the opening they’re in–will be pulled back (with straightened coat hanger) from near the small mouth opening of the plastic water bottle, and behind the tennis ball is our design discovery that allows suction:  a partially inflated plastic freezer bag that is up against all walls of the bottle interior.  The back of the gun, i.e. the entire bottom of the plastic bottle, is open; we’ve cut off the bottom, and the “pulling back” is done with a curved hand grip in the coat hanger.

This slurp gun looks somewhat like our first one but it will actually pull a raisin into the opening–about fifty percent of the time.

We head to the beach.

I crouch among the suitcase-sized and smaller rocks along one section of the otherwise clear beach.  Small waves wash in, leaving clear water in little pools.  I look for Big Blue.  Finally, after about ten minutes, I see one.  I stalk Big Blue.  What a beautiful fish.  It darts out of sight below a rock, back in sight, then into a tiny cave.  I wait.  It comes out.  I slowly but steadily move the slurp gun into range.  Big Blue darts away, disappears.  In the next twenty minutes I try and miss six times.  I move to other pools.  Plenty of little grey fish but no blues.  Ah, I see another.  I’ll use a new tactic.  I hold the gun still near the area I think he’ll swim by soon.  I wait.  I wait.  He swims toward the lip of my gun.  I pull the coat hanger.  He swims away.  I wait again.  In a few minutes he boldly swims to the lip again.  I pull.  I pull the entire innards of the slurp gun out of the water bottle and low and behold flapping on top of the plastic freezer bag that I’ve caught between my elbows is Big Blue.  I scream to Vic.  He’s nearby with a pan, catching greys.  He comes running, and I manage dump Big Blue and the freezer bag into the pan.

We take Nathaniel his batch of fish in another plastic water bottle.  He’s delighted.  We all admire our catch for a few hours and then return them en masse to their home.

 Two days later, Merritt suggests a group hike at Turtle Beach, several miles away.  She drives Vic, Maggie, and me to a narrow dirt road exiting Route 200, marked with a handwritten sign, “Polo.”  We drive along for a while and then through a gate near the yard of a private residence.  This seems to be a kind of checkpoint, but no one is on duty.  We drive through thick gnarled, scrub oaks and underbrush to a fork—“Polo” to the left.  We go right, and finally emerge on a wide grassy plain that leads to the ocean.  We find a magnificent, crescent shaped beach at least three miles long with rock outcroppings at each end.  No humans, no structure in sight.  We remark that its beauty has probably doomed it to be a future resort spot.  We decide to walk to the northern tip where there may be a river or creek for fly-fishing. 

The beach is high and wide.  A kind of plain leads from the level flat beach downward to where very tall, powerful waves are breaking. After each wave thunderclaps down, tons of water flow rapidly up the incline and, in places, onto the flat top. The water then rushes back down the incline creating a terrific undertow; the tall waves suck up sand and shells as they break–extremely close to shore.  But the middle and upper parts of the waves are light green and translucent.

Right away we see a lone, little sea turtle headed across the beach for the water, something we’ve seen in films but not live.  We scan for others but there are none.  We follow him along.  He makes the wet sand, is washed back ten feet or so by the surf, twice.  We refuse to help him—he will need the strength he’s building–and finally he disappears, sucked out to sea.  The surf is extremely foamy.

Merritt looks north.  She points.  “Something just ran into the ocean up there.”  

“Probably the way the water was breaking,” I say.  “That’s a powerful undertow.”

“No, it was something alive, like a log.”

We continue north.  In a minute I see the log.  “It was a log,” I say.  Not very big, washed back onto shore.  It suddenly rises on four short, stubby legs and runs into the ocean.

“Crocodile!” says Vic.  He’s been mainly looking for fossils, quietly and patiently scratching in the sand.  It’s as if he were struck by lightning.  He is new.  He scrambles into his flippers, grabs his mask and heads for the beach.  “They think you can’t see them underwater,” he says over his shoulder.  “In the water is the best place to catch him.  Boy oh boy, won’t this be something for Nathaniel.” 

Merritt points again.  “There he is.”  The croc is floating about forty feet out, nose and eyes above water, just beyond the breakers.  The water is so clear you can see the rest of her.  She appears to be a little over a yard long.  Vic calls out, “Hang on, Bernadette, I’m coming to get you, sweetheart.”

(Backstory:  Early in our vacation, my mother-in-law Hannah asked Vic.  “Could you please shave?”  Or “Don’t you have another shirt?”  Something like that.  All in fun.

Vic’s response was, “You sound like Bernadette.”  One of his ex-wives (name changed to protect the innocent).  All in fun. 

From then on, when anyone gave orders about anything, the response was, “Don’t you go Bernadetting me.”

A big wave knocks Vic on his ass and drags him underwater, out of sight, up toward us, until he appears—rolling in the surf.  I notice that he stays relaxed, doesn’t fight the water.  He charges in again, manages to stand, and dives beneath a great wave.  He surfaces beyond the breakers and swims toward where we last saw the croc.  But Bernadette is now out of sight. 

After fifteen minutes of searching, Vic gives up and is washed in to us.  We walk along looking for Bernadette in the water.  No luck. 

We give up for the time being, thinking we might see her on the way back up the beach.

“It’s pretty simple,” says Vic.  “You just catch them around the neck where they can’t get their teeth back to you.  And then grab that tail and get it under your arm, so they can’t get all that torque going.” 

As we walk north we notice a swampy area ahead and to the right. It’s about three hundred yards from the ocean, across the beach.  Bernadette’s home, probably.  As we approach we see a pond with brackish, brown water.  Vic unpacks the fly reels and we begin fishing.  Merritt and Maggie continue walking north along the beach.

When it’s finally clear we’re not likely to catch fish, we walk back toward the ocean, headed toward the north end of the beach.

From the sand, close to the breakers, I look behind us and there, a hundred yards or so back, resting on the beach near the top of the long incline down from the flat beach, is Bernadette—or a log.

“Vic.  There’s Bernadette. Or a log.”

Vic looks.  He crouches.  He’s new again.

At this spot on the beach, where we are—but not back where Bernadette is–the tide has washed a four or five foot vertical wall into the sand.  Vic slides down it, gets as close to the water as possible, and starts creeping toward Bernadette.  He moves slowly, like a cat.  But the surf, even knee deep is powerful enough to stagger him.  She turns and runs into the water.  Vic comes back and we move away from the water to the top of the flat beach, out of sight of where Bernadette will, we hope, come back to rest.  And there she will surely watch for innocent little sea turtles.  Or Vic.

We wait five minutes or so, and sneak back to where we can see.  Bernadette is back. 

“There’s that big washed up stump back up on the beach on a straight line from where she is,” I say.  “Why don’t we just go back up the stump—she can’t see us from there—and then charge.”  What am I saying, I think.  “I mean, then you can charge.”

“Because she’ll outrun us.  They’re fast as hell.  But only for short distances.  The only way to do it is cut her off from the ocean, come in from the ocean.  That’s what I need to do.  And you be ready on the beach in case she heads for the swamp.  They won’t attack you unless they’re cornered.  Just have a stick to hold her off, in case.”

“In case of what?”

“I don’t know.  Just in case.”

I’m thinking, he’s going to try to make it out through that impossible surf and then come back in on Bernadette through that impossible surf—maybe washing right on top of her. 

Bernadette rests on the beach at the far reach of the waves, but just below the crest of the beach, where the incline up from the water meets the flat beach top.  Occasionally, surf washes around her.

“I don’t think you can make it out through that surf.  It’s rougher that it was an hour ago.”

He’s donning snorkeling equipment.  Not listening to me. 

Maggie and Merritt are walking toward us from the north.  I point south.  They understand and move so Bernadette won’t see them.

Vic tries to make it into the ocean.  He’s rebuffed in an almost violent way.  He tries again—same thing.  He gives up.  He’s shaken.  We sit on the beach and talk.  I’m afraid he’s going to try again.  He stands.  Merritt and Maggie are near-by, watching.  This whole thing has gotten a bit more serious with those savage giant waves, waves like the ones you see on surfing movies, but they are breaking right onto the sand.  While Vic stood before one a few minutes ago, he had to look way up to see its top.  He looked very small in front of it. It brought him back in and now I know him well enough to know he’s going to try again no matter what I–or anyone–says.

“I wouldn’t do it Vic.  It’s too rough.”

No response.  He’s putting on the damn flippers.  I suddenly see how the original Bernadette was perhaps “Vicked”—more than once.

We’ve discussed what I’m supposed to do.  Cut off Bernadette if she heads for the swamp.  I visualize the film:  Bernadette heading for the swamp.  In front of her:  me heading for the swamp.

As Vic starts for the ocean I start up the beach toward Bernadette but out of sight of her.  I know she’s near that big log that I can see.  I’m thinking, I will not wait here until Vic is safely to sea, or drowning.  Because if he starts to drown, I may be crazy enough to go after him, and if Vic can’t handle the surf I know I can’t.  We’d both drown.  I don’t want to drown, so I walk south toward Bernadette.  I don’t even watch Vic enter the ocean.  Then it strikes me—if he gets in trouble, he’ll probably be washed in close enough to pull out.  I stop and turn.  He’s beyond the waves.  I walk slowly south as he swims in the same direction beyond the breakers.  The waves come in as great swells, and Vic is riding the swells as I walk. 

I get to the log and stop.  Vic is straight out from me.  I picture Bernadette resting between us.  Facing me.  The crest of sand prevents me from seeing anything but the tops of the waves close to shore.  I hear the thunderclaps of their breaking on the beach.  I wait.  Vic turns toward me and starts swimming in.  He’s wearing the goggles and the snorkel is in his mouth.  I see his head above water looking at me as he relaxes, letting the swells bring him in.  I give him a thumbs up.  He responds.  Now he’s close enough to bob up into sight at the top of a swell and then out of sight.  I’ve got to get my timing right.  I will be able to see when he’s on his last swell just before it breaks and then I’ll have to pause, then walk toward the ocean.  Because, if Bernadette sees me before seeing Vic, she’ll have that early jump toward the ocean that we don’t want her to have.  Vic’s job is to cut her off and pounce on her.  Somehow.  My job is to watch.

Vic is at the top of a swell, in sight.  Down, out of sight.  Up.  It’s the wave that will break.  He and the wave disappear; I hear the “boom,” and pause:  thousand one, thousand two, thousand three.  I walk toward the ocean.  Over the crest I see the vast ocean and surf and Vic, on his knees, embracing Bernadette.  He’s holding her neck and tail.  He stands, staggers.  And walks toward me with the prize. 

“My goggles,” he yells.  I look.  Flippers and goggles are being sucked into the ocean.  I go after them.  My knees are recovering from racquetball injuries.  I’m not in shape.  But I manage to retrieve the flippers.  They float.  The mask is gone and will remain gone.

Back up on the beach, I get a close look at Bernadette.  She looks like . . . well, like a crocodile.

I see how Vic is holding her.  “Get your rods and stuff,” I say.  “I’ll carry her to the car.”

“Be sure you hold the tail.”

I take her.  She’s heavier that she looks.  The eyes are magic. I turn her on her side.  She’s very relaxed.  The lid closes over the eye on top. 

I’ve got my adventure.

“I want you to be the one to take her in and show her to Nathaniel,” says Vic.  “We can put her in the swimming pool, get a leash.  Then we can bring her back, tonight.”

My arms are so tense they begin to go numb and I give Bernadette back to Vic.  We wrap her in t-shirts—she seems to be asleep–sneak her into the villa. 

“I think she’s asleep,” I say.

“Don’t count on it.”

I will refuse to take her into the villa.  Nathaniel will see the true catcher carrying the caught.

We reach the gate, the checkpoint.  A man sits in a white truck.  We throw up our hands.  He nods and waves us through.

Everybody at the villa is astounded.  Especially Nathaniel.  Vic promptly places Bernadette into the little swimming pool and gets in with her.  This is not quite the modeling behavior I want for Nathaniel, is it?

But on the other hand…in a few years I’ll tell Nathaniel this story and let him know that without Uncle Vic, our trip would have been far less memorable, and it Nathaniel is lucky he’ll get to spend more time with Uncle Vic and see what it’s like to live a day like it’s your last.

A shorter version of this story was published in “Southern Fried Farce”

The Outer Darkness

O.Victor Miller 

“Put out the light and then put out the light”–Othello

“On the eve of our dear savior’s birth
The bird of dawning singeth all night long”-Hamlet

 

Approaching the final Christmas of the millennium, I’m headed for north Georgia to pinch hit for Mary Hood’s creative writing class at Berry College, houseguest of the distinguished writer herself and Katherine, her mother. I’ve wrangled this invitation by declaring kinship on my mother’s side. Family is the key to hospitality in the South, where you can still find kissing cousins who’ll pucker up. I’ll use blood to coerce Mary into reading, maybe endorsing, a novel I’ve hacked away at since puberty.

For a hostess gift I present my granddaddy’s chrome plated .38 police special. An heirloom, especially a handgun, seals genealogical authenticity anywhere grits are groceries, and I already know that the Hood branch of the family tree is noted for near Biblical hospitality. I get the idea they’d wash my feet if I strolled up in sandals.

 I arrive noticing tiredness around Mary’s eyes. “It’s the chickens,” she confesses. “They keep us awake.”

“What?” demands Katherine, aiming her best ear. Mutual fatigue suggests household insomnia.

“The chickens!” Mary shouts.

“Tell him thank you, we don’t need any.”

“Mother is deaf as a turtle,” Mary explains, “But Queso Grande manages to shatter her sleep.” Queso is a blond Dorking cock of adulterated fighting stock. His main consort is Attila the Hen, a gray bitch with a genocidal proclivity for busting eggs and smearing yolks. Even with challenged ears sandwiched between pillows, Katherine isn’t immune to the raucous nocturnal trumpeting of the rooster and the squeaky mewing of horrible hens.

“Will this gun kill a chicken?” Mary asks. The inverted chrome pistol impaled on her index finger rocks on the fulcrum of the trigger guard, winking sunshine.

“If you can hit him,” I assure her, “it will take him down.”

“Well, there’s hope, Katherine,” she says, watching the rooster swagger across the yard. The gray consorts, Attila and a lesser slattern, seem to cower at Queso’s side while a small golden Sebright, Pliny the Elder, hangs back delicately pecking June bugs in driveway gravel. An owl plucked Pliny’s twin, Pliny the Younger, like a Cheeto from her perch among the scarlet berries of the dogwood tree. The little Sebright, in golden mail edged in ebony, is a jewel next to the rough and bestial fowl that roam the yard.

The chickens, I discover, were acquired to wake up Mary, who has an inborn and fatal adversity to chronometry. Something in her body chemistry or electromagnetic aura is deadly to timepieces. Alarm clocks freeze in final tock when Mary is around and wristwatches backlash mainsprings as crystals shatter. The pendulums of grandfather clocks hang plumb when she enters a room while cuckoos duck peepless into wooden niches. Mary reckons the hours by holding the side of her hand against sun or moon and horizon. She steps to a fierce cosmic cadency no earthly creature but that goddamn rooster can contradict.

“When did the rooster start this nocturnal trumpeting?” I ask with professional detachment.

“Since the security light was installed.”

“The fowl are confused by the light,” I surmise. Seeking protection from nocturnal predators, they began roosting in an illuminated dogwood next to the lamppost, where bloodthirsty chicken-eaters can see them tastily limelighted as well as hear their neurotic squawks, mews, and hisses, thus compounding predation phobia with paranoia amplified by sleep deprivation. The rooster, mostly feathers and open synapse, is wired like a shorted out switchboard. When he isn’t crowing, he growls, his contagious psychopathology infecting the hens and the Hoods, who haven’t slept since the chickens have—since the installation of the security light. It’s clear to me that the chickens have pecked the insulation off Mary and Katherine Hood’s last bare nerve.

My grandfather’s sidearm termed in coastal Georgia a Geechee special, serves as absolute protection against barrier island blue-gums in full lunar madness. Virtually every law enforcement official with island jurisdiction totes one. Granddaddy acquired his from the widow of a Darien police chief. He discharged it regularly into the night air to disperse tomcats and Mother’s suitors, thus fixing with relative surety the absence of Geechee blood in my immediate line.

After supper we sit around the table collectively perceiving the rooster like proverbial monkeys resistant to evil. I keep my mouth shut, Catherine turns a challenged ear, and Mary gazes dimly out the window where Queso Grande squats, flanked by his threadbare harem, in the illuminated branches of the dogwood tree where a security light denounces the gathering periphery of night. The little Sebright cuddles inconspicuously in a background of sodium luminosity, like the morning star against a fierce desert sun. I realize that the sooty hens do not cower, unless rattlesnakes cower when they whip their thick bodies into coils and cock their beanbag heads.

At bedtime Mary shows me to her study. It’s lined with great books, hers and others, a bust of Beethoven wearing a Braves baseball cap rests on a shelf with rocks, some bones. A boar skull squats on the haunches of its jaw. There are snake sloughs and bird eggs on tables. Calligraphy and posters and Audubon prints hang where books don’t cover the walls. “Sleep here,” she says, gesturing the daybed. “If you can.”

“I’ve written this novel…” I begin.

“Later,” she says, waving me off. “Try to rest.”

I lie on the daybed. The security light casts a sharp shadow of the rooster in silhouette against the wall. Queso Grande begins his nocturnal trumpeting robustly at dusk when the security light comes on. He crows most constantly throughout the night, flinging his dark spirit in raucous discord against the surrounding gloom of the dying millennium. The hens echoing him with mew and squall. By three in the morning they all sound like rough, strangling beasts, vexing my dreams in nightmare and fixing me with their wild, tired eyes. From their mandala of luminosity, the hens drop eggs that splat sunny-side up on the asphalt, hors d’oeuvres to chum up oviparous predators including snakes and skunks.

I rise from the daybed in Mary Hood’s study like a Canterbury pilgrim from a bed of nails. Mary and Katherine stalk around in somnambulant despondency. The chickens inspire hatred, and to Mary and her mother hatred of God’s creatures is unschooled sin, but the more I see and hear, the closer I come to realize that these chickens are more than just chickens. The world must be rid forever of their kith and kind by some essential exorcism to be performed mano a mano. Dark forces beyond mere powers of poultry animate these fowl. Some canker on the very fiber of animal husbandry, a disorder in the scheme of things, some fatal flaw in man’s dominion over the creatures of the air.

“I can shoot the rooster,” I tell Mary, “or the light.”

 “I’d rather remove them. Catch them off the roost and give them to some distant farmer, far, far away. Except for Pliny, the Sebright. Pliny stays.”

In my opinion, security lights are worthless in the first place. They cast shadows for the burglars and illuminate the loot. My sergeant the DMZ of Cold War Korea told me darkness was my best friend. “Lie still until your man shows himself. Then take him with your K-bar. A muzzle flash will give away your position,” he added.  The good sergeant used to blacken his teeth with shoe polish so his grin wouldn’t give away his position after he took his man.

  “Darkness is your friend,” I tell Mary. The light provides delusional safety for the chickens, illuminating them to predators local and transient, stoking their vigilance with self-fulfilling paranoia. They’re horrified by imagined creatures conjured by insomniac imagination. And as it is with its human counterpart, chicken fear is grounded in reality. Magnified and distorted by the side-show mirror of imagination. Every predator within a two mile radius, included us, is attracted in murderous pursuit of the hoarse and harried poultry in the pool of sodium light.

After sunset we try to catch them off the roost, but they can, of course, see us stalking them and, of course, we can’t blind their contracted pupils with mere flashlights. They blink warily, squawk, and flap away, returning to the limelight as soon as we repair to the house. We improvise a net from drapery on two bamboo poles, manning it together, but our unsynchronized swats eclipse our target penultimately, providing a blind opportunity for the blond son-of-a-bitch and his harpies to squawk off into the outer dark. We chase him until I have to take nitroglycerine and sit down. We lower our banner of defeat, torn by branch and briar, besmirched in chickenshit.

“That’s enough,” gasps Mary. “I’m ready for lethal measures.” Mary, not one to relegate duty, vows to dispatch the chickens herself. I attempt to instruct her basic marksmanship, but her eyesight is not exceptional. Macular degeneration has caused blind spots in her central vision—“I’m a peripheral visionary,” she quips. In her hands, the Geechee gun groups random, erratic patterns, one round drilling the bull’s-eye; subsequent others corkscrewing wildly through insubstantial air or, in one notable case, slamming through the door of my Izuzu pickup.

“You can kill the chickens first thing after sunup,” she offers, her voice frayed by fatigue. “All but Pliny. Just don’t hurt Pliny.”

The next morning I herd the erring chickens into the herb garden and blast away. Bam, bam. The bullets pass through the rooster, parting breast feathers, as my adversary glares outraged. His hunched shoulders rock beneath a steady head, but he stands his ground. I turn my pistol on his sooty consort, blasting her into a dust mop, flipping open the cylinder and reloading as I wait for the cock to fall. He wobbles, remaining upright, glaring defiantly, then rushing chauvinistically to mount that black bitch one last time. Finding her limp, he senses finality, his or hers, and faces me balefully with yellow, rattlesnake eyes. I, the killer of his main squeeze, stand even now between him and his sovereign life.

 The Mexican standoff is interrupted even before the gunshots fade. Pliny squawks and cocks her wings broody, squatting as if to lay. “Watch out for the Sebright,” Mary bellows through cupped palms. Blam! The outraged rooster charges, rocking from side to side. With my right foot forward, I angle my left elbow behind by back to steady my aim, standing my ground as the Geechee gun bucks two more bullets through Queso Grande. I hop sideways as he charges past my shins through the chain-link gate. “He’s hit!” I cry. “He’s hit! He’s hit!”

Under a tea olive Pliny tilts, yawing off into a ruptured waddle, dragging her keel pitifully through the calligraphy of chicken tracks etched in dust, where she squats akimbo and lays a bloody egg.

Oh Jesus! A bullet has crippled Pliny, the golden seed of yin in a leaden field of yang. Unprotected by her bright mail, she’s been mortally struck by a ricochet. She uses her last gasp to push for chromosomal continuity. Mary rushes forward to cradle Pliny’s egg in the nest of her palms, as if to incubate it. Her kind eyes melt into tears and I feel like a man carved out of a turd. Pliny the Elder is a casualty of friendly fire.

I direct my deadly ire and energy in pursuit of the winged rooster. “He’s mortally wounded,” Mary confirms. Recomposing herself, she quick-freezes loss into frosty vengeance, blaming Queso, I hope. “I saw him listing as he slouched toward the woods.” We march to the edge of the lawn, where Mary stands stork-like on one foot, her nose tilted into the breeze, her hands outstretched for balance. Her partial blindness has given rise to keen compensatory hearing and olfaction. “I smell blood, hot blood. He’s hit, hiding somewhere in the English ivy,” she says.

I reload the revolver, high stepping into the lake of tangled green that covers the woods like Kudzu, daunted slightly by the awareness that a wounded galliform may lie waiting in ambush. We trek deeper into woods. A creek, reduced to a faint trickle by the subdivision’s demands on a stressed water table, provides enough moisture, according to Mary, to support one newt. “A wounded rooster will run downhill toward water,” I assert. But we find no spore or talon track in the weeping mud. We give up, returning to dress the bagged hens.  

I flay the slaughtered fowl, vowing to save Pliny’s plumage for trout flies. I skin Queso’s sooty consorts unceremoniously, standing on their feet and ripping feathered hide from yellow gooseflesh.  I treat the sad carcass of Pliny more respectfully, removing pelt and pinion in one piece tacking it to the garage to season. Tears form in the corners of Mary’s eyes but don’t leak over. She takes a long deep breath, averting her gaze, her hands clasped and resting against her generous bosom.

I feel terrible, but I’m determined that Pliny not die in absolute vain. We’ll boil the chickens for supper and tie trout flies or fashion other memento mori from Pliny’s golden hide. I’m winded by the time I finish dressing the chickens. I feel my carotid pulsing, my lungs sucking like bellows. I’ve skinned easier beavers than Mary’s yard birds, easier gators. I tuck nitroglycerine under my tongue, swigging wine after it dissolves. I scrub my hands with soap, baking soda, lemon juice, and finally rosemary, but the perfumes of Arabia wouldn’t sweeten the odiferous guilt of hot blood and slaughtered innocence.

We decide to pressure cook the murdered fowl in white wine until tender. Into the concoction Mary sprinkles herbs and spices from the garden where Pliny scratched and dwelled. Late into the evening I check the cauldron. A porcelain splinter of bone protrudes from Pliny’s purple drumstick. “They’re ready,” I announce. “The meat is falling off the bone.”

We reflect for a moment on our herb-garnished fare before we assault impotently with knife, fork and incisor a flesh that is incomestible by even the lowest standards of discrimination. The bare ankle steaming in the pot resulted from contracting, not the tenderizing, of muscle that bunched high upon the fractured femur. The pressure cooker had served only to cramp our coq au vin into a rigor mortis the color of a bruise and toughness of a motor mount. In resolve, however, we are as sinewy as the poultry, deploring the needless slaughter of livestock, even in self defense. Our jaws work. Few words interrupt the hard won and relished quiet. Sad silence is better than none.   

“To sleep well, we need only eat the right thing,” Katherine observes brightly as she ruminates, her stressed mastoids rippling her jaw. Mary, masticating earnestly, raises a finger, her acute hearing detecting outside the human range the first faint buzz and desultory rasp, a stubborn tractor’s er, er, ah, ah, ah, that intensifies steadily to apocalyptic crescendo into an eschatological denunciation of all that was ever holy, clashing our shattered sensibilities like saw blade into railroad spikes, a howling condemnation of violated innocence, besmirched trust and unnatural murder that tears into our culpable hearts.  ER, ER, AH, AH, AH, AH, ERRRRRR.

The next morning I awaken to a distant cock, real or imagined, fading plaintively past Lake Allatoona, over near glades, up far meadows and into the distant hills. I shuffle out in my socks to find Mary, a plastic pan on her hip, scrubbing love bugs from the seal beams and windshield of the Isuzu, biblical hospitality mandating eminent departure. “Leave your manuscript,” she mumbles through tender jaws. “I’ll read it, but nobody prints much besides mystery.”

“There is mystery enough in everyday life,” I attempt.

She sighs. “I hope it isn’t overwritten.” She adds.

*

When I return to Woodstock to fetch my novel, the Hoods have replaced the offending poultry with three new silver Sebrights— two hens, Goodness and Mercy and a cock, Surely, as in Surely that sumbitch won’t roost under the security light—lunar silver replacing solar gold. Mary has cuckolded Pliny’s fatal egg into the nest of Goodness, so there’s every chance that Pliny’s pedigree will survive into the next millennium. The rub, however, is that Queso’s woodpile blood, disguised in golden plumage, will also resurrect into inevitable continuity. Who knows what roughneck slouches toward Bethlehem with one parent missing or dead and the other’s gilded hide nailed to the garage wall. Still, word has gotten into the intuitive rumor mill of fowl that the Hood home is an unfriendly zone, and Surely’s vespers are softened by discretion. Driven by the integrity of his galliform blood, he starts his mating call as heartily as any cock–ER— suddenly checking and restraining himself, stifling the initial blast into a muted whine, hum and cackle. Ah, hmm, he begins, clearing his throat politely, then nodding with sidelong self-conscious glance, he continues his perfunctory song if to say: ER, heh, heh, heh, exscuuuuse meeee.

Dream Catcher

By O. Victor Miller 

…the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity… wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world gilded to and fro before his passive eyes…Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad–Melville.

A gift from Fabio, the Kuna stowaway, the dream catcher favors an oversized crown of thorns with a hair net stretched across it. White feathers snatched from an unwary water bird and a tiny plastic skull dangle from the frame of twisted vines. I turn it over in my hands, poking a forefinger through the reinforced sphincter-like orifice for funneling dreams. I wiggle the finger, grinning as the Argentine work-aways cringe.

“Aren’t dream catchers unique to Plains Indians,” I ask of the gift horse, squinting into the sparkle of gilded incisors. “like Sioux or Apache?”

 “Kuna make this one,” Fabio mumbles.

My Argentine crew, two nomadic couples, speak a Buenos Aires dialect that substitutes vos for tu and changes double L and Y sounds to SH. Conspiring, they sound like a washing machine with a loose belt. Before I can discern content from the lisping palaver, they’ve moved on to the next mutinous paragraph. Guadalupe, the loose-jointed beauty that leads the pack, translates by dropping or adding hisses and hushes and shouting louder.

We’ve had high seas and rain, shoovia, since the dream catcher came aboard. Fungus invades dank armpits and crotches, and teeth acquire green patina. Morale is low, though we’ve been out of sight of land for only a day or two, three at the most. What the Argentines can’t blame on me they ascribe to the dream catcher.

Lupe interprets my orders even more subjectively since I candidly confessed this crossing is only the second time I’ve commanded my own yacht out of sight of land. Soon even my suggestions are categorically ignored unless Lupe already agrees or can linguistically customize them to her liking. This nebulous link in the chain of command makes her, for all practical purposes, captain of the vessel and me a parrot on her proverbial nape.

                                                              *

“I hope you got the hoodoo calibrated for shining sea as well as fruited plains,” I grin.

“Indians iss Indians,” Fabio informs me. “What good for Sioux, good for Kuna–big medicine for captain and sheep.”

Ship?”

“Iss good for them, too. I selling it Gringo tourists, who doan know nothing, give you this here one gratis.”

            “Well, I’m not your typical tourist,” I smile, “you know, being the captain of a sailing yacht and all.”

            Fabio cuts his eyes to Lupe for affirmation. She nods—a jerk by any other name is still a jerk.

“It find much luck too,” the Indian adds. Someone has told Fabio to talk like Tonto if he wants to sell trinkets or lie.

“Good luck or bad?”

“Heap plenty luck.”

Lupe’s faction, artisans and venders as well, view the dream catcher as a bad omen. A superstitious lot, they plan to give it the water test as soon as I look the other way, but for the time being it hangs on the butt of the mast that it passes through the galley table where I write. Maybe it’ll snag inspiration from a passing muse or capture a pretty dream from heaven’s stronghold should I dose off during the twilight of literary creation.

  We’re sailing for Portobello, named by Columbus when seeking shelter in a tropical gale.  Like his square-riggers, Kestyll navigates best downwind in following seas, though a beam reach is possible with real sailors aboard. The closest thing we have to one of those is Fabio, whose ex-squaw’s dugout is powered by a patched shower curtain on a bamboo pole.

 Beside being Italian descendents, Lupe and Juan, Carolina and Fernando, who call themselves Ches, share other basic characteristics with the lost navigator who discovered a hemisphere more civilized than his own and claimed it. The Ches are as scurvy-looking a hodgepodge as any Cristobal could assemble.

Huddled in mutinous conspiracy, the Ches touch foreheads to form a treasonous circle of crania. Lupe’s copper dreadlocks flame her leonine head like a solar storm. Her consort Juan, with wide dark eyes, shaved dome and a single earring, suggests a Latino genie released from a flotsam demijohn. His Spanish is too strange sometimes even for Lupe. Fernando’s noggin, except for a bushy ponytail, is also depilated. His significant other, the petite and doe-eyed Carolina, whose wispy curls coil tight in tropical humidity, projects an air of Gypsy virginity–a condition still possible, according to Fernando, Gypsies stone new brides suspected of prior carnal knowledge. Displaying a collective epidermis pierced, studded and profusely decorated with jewelry and tattoo, the crew wear multicolored Jockey briefs, the girls sometimes adding a bra.

 To distinguish himself from crew yet still conform to the dress code of lower latitudes, the captain wears sporty boxers with discrete one-button fly. A deadly grin of green-tinted crocodile teeth hangs beneath his Adam’s apple. His wind-tangled locks, stained with sun and silver, reveal no hint of baldness to anyone under six feet. The Leatherman he usually wears on his hip has strangely disappeared.

                                                          *

            Still unaware that syntactical subversion has scuttled my command, I swing below to  reckon position, the dream catcher dangling over my navigation instruments. Hmm, calculations indicate we track toward Morocco, not Panama. I could better reckon our exact whereabouts if I knew how many days we’ve been sailing, but I can’t consult Lupe without alarming the crew. The yacht’s previous owner left a sextant in the forward cutty, but I doubt Lupe knows how to use it since this is her first trip on a vessel of any kind.

 I return to the cockpit. “Prepare to come about!” I cry.

The crew moils indolently, loosening a line here, coiling a sheet, waiting for Lupe. Juan has found my rivet gun and is decorating a bare area of Fernando’s left ear.

 Taking the helm from Fabio, I cross the eye of the headwind on a starboard tack. The bow weathers back and we’re becalmed, mainsail and Genoa hanging like discarded condoms. Then with a pop the canvas blossoms, boom and jib sheet still to lee, shoving us backwards into stern-sloshing waves.

  Whoa!  I crank the diesel, resuming a forward motion and a vague bearing toward Central America. In the magic of coincidence, the trolling rig on the fantail rail shrieks like a mechanical alarm clock. “Fish on!” I cry. “Fish on!”

Juan, who has never caught anything but the clap, drops the rivet gun and rushes astern, where the stubby rod arks, pulsing mightily as monofilament rips drag from a Penn reel the circumference of a family size can of beans. Snatching rod from the holder, he mounts the handle, a full third of the rod’s bucking length, which starts clubbing his crotch relentlessly–Uh, UH, Aiee, uh, UH!—launching him into a ginger bunny hop over the afterdeck. These piteous interjections are the first communication from Juan I’ve fully understood.

“Tighten the drag!” I order. Poor Juan, astraddle a broomstick horsy with a tack in its ass, tries to dismount before wooden handle pulverizes options of paternity, but he can’t hike a leg without additional exposure. Lupe rushes to the rescue, the 250 lb test monofilament still singing off the stern.

“It’s sounding!” I yell. “Stop him! Don’t let him have more line!”

“He run for bottom,” Fabio assures me.

“The bottom is two miles down,” I inform the Indian, “maybe three.”

 Lupe mounts behind her man, reaching around his waist to tame the rod. They buck in tandem on a tireless rail, the recoil pumping Juan’s ululating yodel a full octave higher per whack.

  To move the boat off the sounding fish, I throttle up. Maybe I can drag and drown it if the Ches can tighten the drag, but increased RPMs drive the monster to wilder frenzy, doubling the speed of its descent. The couple vibrates, blurring tattoos and jangling trinkets. Fernando grabs the rod tip, snatching back when the line burns his palm.

 “What a fish!” I declare. “Hold him! Hold him! Wow!”

 I back off the throttle. The fish slows; rod bouncing into a slower, steadier tempo that sets the owl eyed couple warbling on a stick. “O bebe! No, no, Oh bebe! No! Whoa! The fish crawls steadily down, stripping more drag.

 Abruptly, the engine stops. Why? There’s plenty of fuel. No fish in the Caribbean can stall out a 65-hp Perkins diesel. Yet eerily soothed, as though its powerful heart were synchronized to the pulse of the throbbing auxiliary, the fish quits its run, lying beneath us in some deep layer of cold dark. The line, tight as a banjo string, slants obliquely into infinity, just forward of the rudder.

The dancing couple digs in heels, pumping the rod against dead weight. “That’s it!” I shout. “Keep the pressure on! He’s resting! Move him! Move him!”

            “He’s estop!” observes Lupe, her caramel thighs pressed against goatish knees. The strained rod is still wedged into the yin and yang of combined crotches, the trembling tip divining an immovable weight that drifts with the boat. The fish, or whatever it is, stubbornly rests up for a prodigious run or deeper sounding.

 Suddenly a new and totally unacceptable idea dawns on me—holy mackerel!—what if we’ve backed over the fish line and fouled the prop?

I restart the engine, which runs flawlessly in neutral. I ease into reverse, kicking Juan and Lupe into the air about a yard. Their legs bicycle over the slippery afterdeck until the engine stalls again, confirming my worst suspicions. A pall of irrefutable reality engulfs the ship’s company. With one-hundred-and-fifty yards of 250 lb nylon line wound around prop and propeller shaft, we are becalmed, bewitched and baffled, bobbing like a balsawood chip over a chasm nearly three miles deep. The Argentines glare down through the companionway where the dream catcher pendulums. The tiny plastic skull, a bleached knuckle, clinks against the mast.

“Who knows SCUBA?” I inquire.

Lupe, the rod still locked into the inverted Y of conjugal haunches, translates dubiously. For the first time since we left Cartagena, the crew appears not to understand our great captain’s captain.

“Iss three-and-a-half kilometers of deeps down there, man.” she begins, freeing one hand to point through the deck. “The bottled air and frog feets iss some thing us Ches doan know the touch of it.” The others shake their heads. “Or clearly I make it myself, pronto, this thing you must to do.” The others nod. Her dark eyes and eight more are fixed upon me.

 “Iss clear work for the sheep captain,” she concludes.

|           “The prop is only a few feet down,” I try. “It doesn’t make any difference how deep the water is after it’s over your head.”

            Fabio peers over the side. “It over my head,” he reports.

 “Well, we’ll wait for a calmer sea, anyway,” I decide. 

The eyes lift to a bruised heaven. “It maybe get badder.” Carolina has worked the math in her head. She bats bristling eyelashes. “Iss thirty-five hundred meters deeps in this ocean!”

 In a flash Juan and Fernando deftly assemble SCUBA gear, laying out mask, fins and weight belt. They lower the dive ladder, which plunges violently into each trough, thrusting up the next crest slinging lacy foam.

“I’ll need something to cut us loose with.”

Juan hands me my Leatherman, missing since Cartagena. “Hey, what the hell are you doing with that?” The gadget, a going away gift from novelist Clyde Edgerton and his expectant wife Kristina, is as crucial to my uniform as a yuppie stockbroker’s cellular phone. I wear it on a hip holster belted over boxer waistband. Besides being an indispensable tool, the Leatherman is the baton of passage at the fork of diverging roads where two autumnal writers entered their sixth decade, Clydes blessing for my metamorphosis—in the tradition of Melville –from schoolteacher to salt-seasoned mariner. I’ve been searching high and low for the goddamn Leatherman since the Ches came aboard.

 “Well?” My fists are on my hips.

Juan shrugs, deferring to Lupe. Fernando, the valet, holds shoulder straps open.

 “Pronto,” she snaps in Mexican Spanish now. “Andele pues.”

                                                     *

The keel rises and falls above me, an upper jaw toothed by barnacles I intended to scrape before we set sail. Caught between these conical fangs hang tentacles nettled with stinging cells and gelatinous clots raked from Portuguese men of war. I gaze through foggy facemask into foreboding blue horizons. Plunged and dunked like a Salem witch, I dangle from an umbilicus of spindly arm where propeller shaft, bearded with seaweed and poisonous fringe, enters the packing gland and the internal privates of Kestyll’s belly. Bubbles of compressed air mushroom against the crusty eco-system growing beneath my wandering bark. Beneath me and a sizzling keel is an infinite, soul shrinking depth of all-humbling sea.  I’m nothing but a single cell protozoan between unfathomable dark and limitless sky, a dinoflagellate whose anonymous life sparks and dies unnoticed back into lightless oblivion. Oh unspeakable void! How totally alone I am on and in a deep, wide sea, rising and falling beneath a dozen tons of barnacled encrusted hull, spewing bubbles, quixotically hacking away at a fouled propeller with blade, beak and can opener in one hand, the other raised in fencing posture above my head.

Overwhelmed by my unspeakable insignificance, I relax my grasp. The fanged hull’s ponderous descent grazes buttocks, shredding my boxers. Truncated jellyfish flagellate with fiery tentacles the bare cheeks of my deeply lacerated ass, the blow hammering me deep into eclipse of a dim and distant sun, engulfing me in a yawn of Leviathan darkness three miles long.

Now, with other excretions, there’s blood in the water, minute particles of plasma drifting down into the nose holes of God knows what predators. Hyperventilating at a rate to empty my bottled air long before I can free the propeller, I imagine starving sharks layered according to kin and kind, comatose in cold blooded hibernation until a few warm corpuscles waft down to awaken drowsy appetites to frenzy. Oh Jesus! And whales, incarnations of Moby Dick, must haunt these bottomless chasms. Killer whales too have been sighted in these waters, cone-toothed Orca, not to mention giant squid, swarming schools of blind pac-men bristling with teeth and the sea monsters advertised in uncharted margins of antique maps– Here be dragons. The slanted shadow plumbs an abyss deeper than human soul can fathom.

*

Clyde’s young wife carries their unborn son in the tranquil waters of her womb. He a best- selling novelist on the brink of possible literary immortality and sure genetic continuation– while I, at his same age, hang like a soulless ape from a plunging propeller shaft, courting embolism and anthropophagi over a yawning abyss, tempting the toothed and foamy maw of oblivion.

With renewed urgency I hack away at the nylon tumbleweed with blades and beak of the Leatherman. A peppermint Rapala on its wire leader still jiggles from a backlash of course angel hair. I clip the wire and watch the lure flutter out of sight, hoping it will be sucked in by some lurking predator that, writhing with indigestion, will incite cannibal hunger from peers, diverting appetites from lonely me.

The prop freed of its last stiff curlicue, I rise still hyperventilating to the lunging ladder. Distorted images of Fernando and Juan reach with clear, refracted hands through the thin skin between bilateral infinities of space and sea. The hands shuck my SCUBA gear and grasp me beneath tender arms, hauling me aboard.  I find myself staring into the black eyes of Juan, where to my horror I find no self reflection. I feel as little black Pip must have, lost to himself by a glance into the abysmal deep, grasped by the Satanic Ahab, who envisions in the distracted child a messenger of heaven. I sprawl on Kestyll’s heaving deck, slashed by barnacles, welted comprehensively by ox goads of chemical fire. Confounded by a peek into inky eternity, lungs saturated in oxygen and a fairly solid bonk on the cabeza.

Yet I’m comforted, like Ishmael in the protective embrace of savage Queequeg, by tattooed arms and legs surrounding and touching me. Reborn as from Jonah’s gastronomical oblivion, I rediscover my reflection, not in Juan’s dark eyes but in the blacker orbs of Gypsy Carolina, who kneels to sprinkle angry welts with vinegar and Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. She turns me over, my head in her tiny lap while the well-intentioned Juan stands ready to directly administer ureic acid, the folk antidote for coelenterate poisons. Lupe, reassuming her role of acting master, lifts her hand to stay the remedy, it being a breach of all maritime tradition to piss upon an honorary captain.

*

Landfall at last at Portobello’s ancient fortress, where corroded canons still threaten the bay. The crew is anxious to spread their trinkets outside Church of San Felipe, where other hawkers sell hot dogs, candles, and kewpie doll replicas of the Black Christ, the town’s most celebrated tourist attraction. Years ago the life-size wooden statue with wide wild eyes, the Cristo Negro floated face down into the village, saving it from bubonic plague or something. The Cristo wears the demented expression of still another abandoned sailor who, having glanced into the limitless abyss can’t focus on the world at his feet or shake the omnipotent loneliness from his soul.

We lower the dinghy. The dream catcher floats by, a small ballyhoo gilled in the central aperture. I’m caught between believing that the dream catcher actually causes misfortune and the notion that it escorts me living through the misfortunes in my path. I shake the dead fish loose, restoring the wreath to its place at the foot of the mast. The Argentines cross themselves as pagan Fabio puffs with pride.

            The village holds a single attraction for me. Zaraya lives here, the lovely dark-eyed Spanish naturalist I impressed in San Blas by killing, at the request of Kuna chiefs, a maverick crocodile with a sweet tooth for village dogs. The only obstacle to surmount besides the crocodile and a 30-year age gap is Zaraya’s nuptial engagement to a much younger man in Madrid. With the logic of his 16th Century forbears, I’ve laid siege on his novia’s affections, although Zaraya, a modern woman, has parried my attempts to plunge a banner into her sovereign sands, so to speak. She does, however, eventually consent to supper, having put me off as long as Spanish propriety for senor citizenry allows.

At our outdoor table I gaze into her uncomfortably wandering eyes, confirming my restored existential link to mortal humankind, when suddenly Zaraya’s lovely eyeballs light up like flashbulbs. A horrendous thunder clap follows a second later, the time required for sound to travel the 1100 some odd feet from Kestyll’s anchorage to our ears. The dream catcher, lacking a human conduit for its visions, has sucked a bolt from an otherwise starry sky into the mast top, setting Kestyll aglow with St. Elmo’s fire and frying the electronics from compass to vaginal vibrator. A wisp of moonlit smoke issues from the scorched birthmark where weather vane and VHF antenna have been blasted from the mast, as by a single shot from a corroded Spanish canon, to tumble slow somersaults into the tranquil bay. Kestyll floats in a luminous green circle of supercharged phosphorescence, a pond of boiling light.

Leaving Zaraya to her paella, I rush back to a glowing yacht fetid with traces of ozone and sulfur. My crew, scattered like fiddlesticks, are confounded as witnesses like me, Pip and the Cristo Negro, to a limitless and lonely void. Carolina’s gypsy locks have drawn into misshapen lump like an electrocuted poodle, her eyelashes kinked. Lupe’s dreadlocks radiate like the Statue of Liberty’s spiked crown. Fernando’s scalp lock is erect as a show pony’s bobbed tail, and Juan’s tattoos have darkened against a blanched pallor. Fabio has disappeared altogether.

 Dazed Lupe spanks the culpable dream catcher like a tambourine against her hip, shaking loose its power to harm, then sails it like a Frisbee off the stern. I wrap my arm around her quivering shoulders. The jettisoned wreath of bones, feathers and damnation, disheveled from tossings overboard and boathook retrievals, floats on the bosom of the ebb tide like a road-killed albatross. The sky darkens, extinguishing in a gentle and merciful rain the silver moon’s stippled reflection upon a bobbing circle of dreams.

                                                         (End)

The Soul’s Damp November

By O. Victor Miller

…having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world…Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…–Ishmael

A long sleeve khaki shirt plastered to my back, I drag an enormous duffel bag, a backpack, a couple of canvas carry-ons and a fly rod case down the gangplank, last in a slow line of passengers through BVI customs and immigration. Apathetic officials unzip the drab green bag, peek in, sniff, stamp my passport and yawn. I exit the back door near the dock to re-board the ferry and continue to Road Town, where I’ll take a cab to Tortola’s East End. A single van waits in the alley, manned by an Island Mama with shoulders like a linebacker and beaded braids of radiating hair. She wags her wide face out the side window. “You wanna taxi, baby.” This isn’t a question.

Unaccustomed at 60 to the appellation baby, I look around, finding myself alone on the boardwalk. “No thanks,” I answer. I’m on the Road Town ferry.”

“You wanna you taxi to Rowtown, den.”

“Don’t you understand me? I stopped off here to clear BVI customs. I’m getting back on the ferry.”

“Sho, I honnerstoon you, baby.” She grins, “Bot dare go you ferry-boot now.” Two blasts from the departed launch, a cattle boat with plywood seats, punctuate her announcement–Waaaaaannk, woooonnk! “See now de bootmon he waving hot you bye-bye, mon.” The letters painted across the transom of the ferryboat get smaller, the stern dragging a wide white wake from the dock. “You wanna you a taxi to Rowtown, you goin dare. De nex ferryboot doan be coming tah tomorrah eat O’clock.”

“Hey wait, you sons of bitches!” I’m paid through to Road Town!” I yell, shaking my fist at the ass end of the ferryboat. (I’ve since learned to call the rear end of a boat the aft, stern or fantail.) Early in my sailing career, like a week before I took actual possession of Kestyll, I mistook aft end for ass end., and nobody among succinctly bred British yachtspersons corrected me for the entire month I lived aboard her waiting for my childhood friend Cochise, who had gone to sea some time around to onset of puberty and more or less avoided terra firma until rather late in life. Cochise and his son Simon Coconut would fly in from the States to teach me everything I needed to know about sailing while helping me deliver my newly acquired yacht from Tortola BVI, where he found it, to a Kuna Indian village in the San Blas Archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Father and son would stay by my side until I became a flawlessly accomplished seaman or until Simon had to return back to school from Spring break, whichever came first. Then I would take off alone to circumnavigate the globe.

I bought the boat pretty much over the telephone, depending on Cochise to find me the right one, since I knew zilch about sailing or the kind of boats that do it. All I could tell him was since hometown divorce lawyers stole my home. I wanted a movable residence that could outdistance the long and greedy arm of lawyers, who for some reason find me irresistible, moving in every decade or so to pluck me naked of whatever sparse plumage I’ve been able to accumulate between since the last depilation. I was mad at my neighbors on the jury and tired of my job. I wanted a change of scenery and needed to get out of Dodge. “Find me the best yacht I can afford and the biggest one I can handle by myself,” I told Cochise, “one that will safely circumnavigate the planet Earth until I leave it.”

Vowing not to live the watered down life of retired colleagues, I’d venture out to sea, the watery two thirds of the planet I’d learned all about from reading–even teaching—literary giants like Conrad, London and Melville. At sea unforeseen new challenges would keep me on my toes, tone my muscles, burn the fat off my soul. Growing insightful with new wisdom, I’d turn lean and bronze, savvy and strong. Reborn to new life, I’d stay young this time around. And single.

 Cochise figured a retired junior college teacher recently shorn couldn’t afford much in the way of a luxurious yacht or even the upkeep on a vintage one long in tooth and seasoned by storm. He also knew I couldn’t handle a styrofoam Sunfish by myself. When I told him how much money I had, he scratched his head, spit out a couple of gnats and squinted into the Georgia sunshine. But, being an old friend, he called around for a year or so and eventually found, with help from old friends acquired from his previous life, a twenty-year-old cutter, a CSY 44’, built in Tampa for charter service, reputed to be virtually bulletproof. It had less living space than a doublewide but more than the Airstream I’d been living in, he said. A cutter! Until I actually saw a photograph of my new boat, I thought Cochise had found me something at a surplus sale at a Navy shipyard. “A cutter? No shit? Guns and all?”

“A cutter is a sloop with two jibs,” Cochise informed me.

“Uh, well, OK, but why’d the Coast Guard quit using them?”

Handing a certified check to the previous owner, I smiled tolerantly as he quoted the old saw about the two happiest days of a sailor’s life being the day he buys his first yacht and the day he sells it. Grinning widely, he was clearly in a happier mood than I was, even before the check cleared. The most superficial glance into the submerged body of empirical wisdom under the visible tip of that iceberg smile would have sent me smoking back to Georgia, but at the time of the transaction I figured living in the tranquil tropics on a yacht had just made him a happy, happy guy.

“You need you a taxi, baby,” says the Tortola mama in the van.

 “How much to East End?”

“You tella me you gonna Rowtown.”

“I gotta go to Penn’s Landing Marina in Road Town—I mean East End.”

“What for you wanna go East End? Rowtown much betta for you. I take you Rowtown. You lack hit betta ova dare. Dot’s where we goin.”

She looks like she’s fixing to argue until the last trumpet about where she’s taking me. “I’ve got a boat docked at Penn Landing. How much is cab fare?”

“A sell boot? You goin Fat Hog Bay, den.”

“Yes, how much?”

“Thirty-forty dollar. You doan look leeka bootmon, baby.”

“Thirty dollars? Listen, I ain’t going to Cuba. What’s a boatman look like around here?”

“He doan look nothing like you, dat’s sho. I charge you owney twenty-fie, baby, because wit dat I know you gonna tip me so good. Whatcha doin wit a sell-boat, you cain catch de Rowtown ferryboot, mon?”

 I hoist four bags into the van and drag the duffel bag to the sliding door.

“Help me load this goddamn duffel bag,” I wheeze. We wrestle one end to the entrance of the door. The bag narrows in the center like a gigantic OD peanut. We heave the ass end, doubling the bag at the waist and leaning the foreword half against the rocker panel. My new friend wraps her solid arms around the bag, driving it with powerful knees into the van like a tackle sled at football practice.

“Deem bag way too heavy. Whatcha got dem bag?” Her wide face shines like a chocolate mint.

“Everything I own, everything for the boat. Scuba tanks and tools, books. ”

“Dem bag sink you boot, mon. Dat why the ferryboot leave you behin’ him. De bootmon him no wanna carry dese bag back up de gang plank, mon.”

“The son-of-a-bitch didn’t take the bags down the gangplank. You’ll get your tip if you get me his name and badge number.”

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Mon, you killy me. He jus name De Bootmon. What De Bootmon want wit a badge fo. Ellybody know him de bootmon. Even when he dronk an drinkin, he know him de bootmon, yas. Me, I got me business cods you wanna ring me up sometime. I give you dat. Badge nummer! You know you a fonny, fonny mon. Ha, ha, ha, ha.”

             She hands her card over the back of her seat, weaving one-handed through stray goats and cattle, letting squawking chickens slough feathers and fend for themselves. She turns her back to the windshield, smiling widely with big white teeth reinforced by gold.

 The card reads:                           

Stoutt’s Taxi Service:

                 Lorilee Stoutt

                         Office, home and cell telephone numbers follow. No fax.

The threadbare asphalt road cuts into the edge of a cliff over the winking Caribbean.  Lorilee’s speeding van swipes sea grape branches that encroach the left hand shoulder, launching astonished sparrows from their perches in confetti bursts of shredded greenery.  Beneath us, gulls, buzzards, frigates and terns circle the dragging nets of fishing trawlers and even the distant ferryboat, one chalk colored gull sailing up from the bay to gawk at me through the window. Frigate birds, swept winged and scissor-tailed–dark and draconian—cruise like pterodactyls in updrafts from the wrinkled bay. Unable to dive for fish or land on the water, they soar and swoop with accomplished and larcenous dexterity, dive bombing gulls, terns and the occasional buzzard to intimidate them into fumbling their catch, which the frigates pluck shivering from the air.

 Speeding down the British two-thirds of the left lane, we risk collision with fallen rocks, stray cows, goats, chickens and other demonic taxi drivers. I decide that we are more likely to sideswipe the vertical cliff right-of-way than plunge to the tide-laced rocks far, far below. I slide to dead center of the van, bracing hands and feet against the back of Lorilee’s seat as we clang through potholes and squall around curves. It occurs to me that just because we are more likely to chisel the cliff or climb a cow before we sail off into oblivion, doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t manage both, given the right sequence.  

 If I wasn’t so angry and terrified, I’d enjoy the panoramic view of volcanic mountains rising from the turquoise sea, the bright flowers, the rainbow bending iridescent light from a cumulous cloud. We are neck and neck with the ferry captain a thousand yards beneath us. I want to ambush him at the Road Town dock, maybe murder him. At least get my money back and scream at him in public. I figure the husky Lorilee Stoutt will provide good backup in a confrontation with de bootmon. I want to keep her with me, or stay with her, until I settle with the ferry captain. Then I’ll get her to carry me to Fat Hog’s Bay at East End. “You want to join me for a Coke, Ms. Stoutt?”

 She yanks the van off the shoulder into the shallow niche cut out for somebody’s front yard and slams on brakes, scattering emaciated dogs and cats, narrowly missing the stick fence, raising a mushroom of limestone dust. “…when we get there?” I hasten to add. “To Road Town. They’ll be a bar at the ferry landing, won’t there?”

 Lorilee lurches back onto the highway, spinning rocks and more white dust. Soon we have descended again to sea level, rushing like a giraffe from a wildfire along the narrow coastal road, Lorilee’s monomaniacal joy framed in the side view mirror, our horn blasting noise at every living animal or human, at every vehicle we hiss by narrowly or overtake on stingy curves. Waaaaaak, waaaaaooow, mee-beep-maaooo!

Just outside the town limits, Lorilee slams on brakes when she sees three men by a seaside shanty weighing a dented pan of fish. White coral dust from the shoulder covers us in a cloud then drifts and disperses over the bright water as a road-flushed iguana scats up a cieba tree.

“Yalla-tail!” she shouts. “You gettus dee Coke in dis roadside stow dare, baby.”

“No, I want to get the Cokes in Road Town.”

She shakes her braids, her face rising over the back of her seat, emerging from eclips. “De ferryboot dock be close now, too late. I fine me son goot yallatail fish. Doan worry; beee hoppy.” She exits the van and bulls through maguey and mangroves, waving her arms until the fishermen recognize her and back away from their fish. I climb down, buy two faded red cans of Coke from a lean-to inches off the asphalt lip, returning to the van to wait in the muggy heat for Lorilee Stoutt, who shouts at the cowering fishermen, shaking her formidable fists with one hand pointing to the kettle of fish with the other.

She returns, handing me a cardboard box of fish, saluting me with her coke, grinning. She drains it and crumples the can into a tight ball with one hand as the ferryboat returning now to West End drags a cotton wake through the turquoise water, blowing the whistle. Lorilee Stoutt, hunkered over the steering wheel and hauling ass down the center of the pockmarked road, waves happily. I fume, suspecting cahoots and conspiracy, a soggy pasteboard box of fish in my lap.

 But no! I catch myself. I won’t start out like this. The whole idea is to slow down to the speed of favorable winds. I don’t have to be responsible anymore. I don’t have to kick ass, get even, swim upstream to spawn or teach grammar. No regret, no fear, no more wasted life, I decided when I sloughed my former existence. Regret and dread spoil the living now– the present, the cutting edge of what precious few years of living I have left. No fear, no sorrow. I notice the dayglow orange blossoms of flamboyante, the purple bougainvillea, and bright red tropical flowers infested by hummingbirds. I notice for the first time the silver scallop of chop on the turquoise and emerald Caribbean. I notice that my stiff neck and my arthritis have eased since the Atlanta traffic and commercial airline flights, that I’m bouncing around in Lorilee’s van like a karaoke ball with only a shadow of chronic nagging pain of joint and bone.

We pull into Penn’s Landing Marina. Lorilee swings out to help with the duffel bag. The heeled van rights itself. “I ain’t tipping you, Lorilee, but I’ll pay for half of your yellowtails. That way you can think about me when you and the ferryboat captain eat supper. How much were they, the yellowtails. “They twenty-two dollar, but dem my feesh, babymon. Aine nobody gonna ate dem feeshes but me, Lorilee Stoutt, mmmm, muh! De bootmon, he get his own dom feesh. You know you some crazy mon. What you boot?”

Kestyll.”

“I know dat boot,” she smiles–a little ominously, I think. “You call me some dey you wannah taxi, needah frien. I come to de boot and we hava drink. I teek you where you wanna go, yas baby.”

“Thanks Lorilee, enjoy your yellowtail.” I drag the duffel bag across the parking lot toward the dock. I can see my boat, my new home, rocking softly in her slip, her bright yellow beam stripe cheerful and proud among finer yachts. Far away from friends, students, family, today is the first day of new life. Bee hoppy! I tell myself, Doan worry, Bee Hoppy!

(end)

Graveyard Dead

By O.Victor Miller

The thunder of a magnum revolver reverberates through the cypress pond in sync with the rocking canoe.  John and Brent, marginal English students, stare into the fizzing swamp water where the eight-foot alligator disappeared. Their awed faces, illuminated by a spotlight held down in case a game warden should happen by, seem grotesquely innocent. Brent’s forefingers are twisted into his ears past the first joints. “I think you got him, Mr. Miller!” he shouts.

“Keep it down,” I tell my wards. “The gator is properly shot precisely through the medulla oblongata.” I holster the forty-four, reaching into the cooler for snorkel gear John iced down with the beer. “Let’s recover our quarry and vacate the premises post haste and ahead of the law. A good hunter never abandons wounded prey.” I hand the mask and snorkel to Brent.

Wounded?” he bleats, handing it back.

Dead, I mean, “Graveyard dead.” This metaphorical misrepresentation I hope will deploy Brent to the bottom of Cottonmouth Pond. Strictly speaking, neurons, or brain cells, distributed throughout a gator’s reptilian nervous system are only slightly more concentrated in a brain the size of a peanut, enabling this prehistoric anachronism to demonstrate prodigious physicality after being rendered, for all but a few practical purposes, kaput. I’ll bring the boys up to speed on all this during the debriefing. Right now we just need to raise the carcass and get out of here before the DNR shows up to toss two young asses and one old one in jail.

This isn’t my first nocturnal outing to this South Georgia wetland.  Before Brent and John loitered after English class wringing their ball caps and asking me to take them on the current expedition, I’d been to Cottonmouth Pond twice before. Dr. Charlie Hare brought me and his son Tal here in 1950 when we were under ten. No stranger to outings with his father, Tal nagged him to abandon the enterprise for ice cream. The gator Doc shot sank to the bottom. He probed around for it fecklessly with a gig until close to near closing time for the Arctic Bear. I’m still haunted by corpus delicti disappointment a half-century later, a memory intensified no doubt by the dubious closure soft serve provides. A timid touch to the cold mosaic belly of a recovered crocodilian might well have discharged the hoodoo. Perhaps I could’ve led a normal life without fixations for human and reptilian night life that have warped my passage through the world.

 I’m no gator hunter. Local legend has vested me in borrowed robes. Over the years I’d hand-caught plenty of small ones, taken them to class before releasing them back into their habitat or into private ponds to keep down snakes and turtles. I had not, after six decades on the planet, logged one confirmed gator kill. The gator I shot with Tripp Sylvester’s duck gun fell in with Dr. Charlie’s as a probable, though infected with a life-long herpetological fetish, up until the moment I try to pass the icy baton to Brent my reputation as a gator slayer was absolutely unsubstantiated. Nothing like Herbie Santos’s, a high school classmate of mine and John’s mother who financed his desultory tenure at UGA poaching gators and fencing hides.          

Still, inexperience isn’t the sort of thing a college professor confesses to students seeking expertise. “Alligator hunting is against the law,” I pointed out dutifully, “as indeed it should be.” They knew, but had permission from the owner’s son to kill all they want. One will do, I predicted. One gator is a full night’s work.  “The appellation derives from an anglicized corruption of el lagarto, Spanish for the lizard,” I pontificate. “If we go, the excursion will be treated as a field trip and you’ll be expected to write essays.

“The main consideration is a clean kill,” I continued on the way to my office. “A gator must be shot from behind–never in profile. A bullet of ample authority must strike precisely the point where backbone attaches skull, the medulla oblongata. This separates limbic ganglia and jaws from the rest of the luggage, shorting out the system. You don’t want to jump on a gator with a medulla oblongata in tact,” I assured my students.

*

Forty years after Doc Charlie infected me with obsession, Tripp Sylvester and I decided during cocktails at the Sylvester’s plantation home to take his son Bud gator hunting in this very pond, a finger of which bordered the property. Southern men get early starts encouraging their sons to break the law. Bud’s mother Bitsy didn’t want her eight-year-old gator hunting with tipsy fathers or at all, but the boy raised such a stink she could protect him from his father only by going along. Gynecological etiquette, the same practice that moves women to powder their noses together in public restrooms, dictated that whomever I was married to at the time go too. 

              Tripp stoically lashed together two aluminum canoes, tossed in a thermos of strawberry daiquiris and a 12 gage duck gun primed with buckshot.  We launched the makeshift pontoons– two couples dressed for cocktails and an eight-year-old kid, the wives strictly forbidden to make a peep. Right away our spotlight found dozens of paired eyes and some singles in profile, a boy’s fortune of alligators, fixed and winking taillights leaving a stadium after the game. Through Bud and a synchronistic intrusion of déjà vu, I revisited the past–the enchanting symphony of night I’d first heard with Dr. Charlie and Tal. The chorus of owls, woodwind cicadas and tremolo mosquitoes, bass harumps of bullfrogs harmonized into the tenor whonks of roosting birds. The same insects swarmed us, bewitched in artificial light. Jeweled eyes of crawfish set into tendrils of coontail moss. Quicksilver waterbeads on lily pads. It was exactly the same. An identical water snake, its head tugging a silver V across a glassy surface minnows etched at from below.

Tripp sculled up to an acceptable specimen, and I blasted it with a charge of double-ought. Pungent pond water rained upon us. The wives shuddered. The same gator Doc Charlie misplaced, or one like it, sank perfunctorily to the bottom. Not to be robbed twice, I took off shirt and shoes, donning the dive mask I’d borrowed from Bud.

“Don’t go swimming,” the boy warned. “He’s bound to be mad. He’ll eat you up and we can’t hunt arrowheads any more.”

Through the kiddy snorkel, I uttered distorted words that will haunt my dreams.  “Don’t worry, son. That alligator is graveyard dead.”

Indeed, it should have been dead. I’d dispatched it at close range, lifting off the top half of its cranium. Probability mandated that at least one pellet the size on an English pea had deactivated the medulla oblongata. Illuminated in spotlight periphery, the wives rolled their eyes. Bitsy pinched a moth from her slushy drink. I eased over the side into tepid water.

 “Goodbye,” Bud squeaked, chin trembling.

 “Hey buddy,” I honked, bobbing the ping pong valve, “I’ll be right back.”

 Lungs and cheeks full of night air, I plunged like Beowulf eight feet to a bottom covered in mulched leaves. The tannin-smirched water, dark as café solo at high noon, was absolute pitch after sundown. Bud’s goggles could’ve been full of tar. My third dive to the bottom found the gator motionless as a petrified log. Gingerly I fingered my way up rough scutes to a pair of chunky shoulders. I aimed the comatose gator toward the moon and I kicked us up like a surfboard. Nothing to it.

When we broke the surface, however, the reptile revived, lashing mightily and spinning away. It ploughed a wide, slow circle through moonlight, returning to where I hung dumfounded to the canoe. Wives screamed, spilling their daiquiris. “Hurry!” Bud cried. “It’s coming back to eat you up!”

With what specifics of dexterity I kipped into the canoe before the gator bashed it in remains a geriatric mystery, but a shotgun, I concluded, while effectively disrupting the reptile’s equilibrium and dispelling its natural fear of humans, lacked the surgical precision to disconnect the medulla oblongata.

So, for the current adventure Brent brought a .243 deer rifle. For backup I toted a magnum .44. John brought beer. The boys now suggest we find another gator to shoot, a small one in shallow water. Refusing the snorkel gear, Brent sits on his hands. “You said you was going to teach us how,” he says.

*

The fact that Cottonmouth Pond has been infested with alligators since the Jurassic was inconsequential to the DNR and to John’s mother, who’d gone to Albany High School with me, disapproving of John’s choice of English professor in the first place. She held some very unequivocal views of our field trip. Gator poaching was still against the law, just as it was when Doc Charlie brought me here in 1950 when game laws were  enforced less vigorously.

John’s dad, an accomplished business man and outdoorsman himself, was more philosophical. “Boys being boys,” he sighed. “Let him sew his wild oats and outgrow it. At least we finally got him in college.”

Maternal opposition to a boy’s passage into manhood is generally excluded from coming of age literature—the reluctant mother, broken birth cord and apron strings. I will learn of John’s mother’s sentiments from a subsequent essay. Brent told his mother he was going to the Dairy Queen for soft serve.

There’s something about hunting alligators that runs diametrically contrary to motherhood. My own mother raised the same holy hell Mrs. Hare, Bitsy, and John’s mother did–there’s something in a mother that doesn’t like a prehistoric reptile. Even mother alligators protect their offspring from fathers who left to his own appetite will gobble up the whole gene pool.

“Outgrow it? What if he doesn’t live long enough to outgrow it? What if he gets put in jail with hardened criminals? His teacher hasn’t outgrown it. He’s older than I am, scheduled to retire. When do you think, he’ll finish sewing his wild oats?”

 “Now, now,” soothed John’s father, “At least he isn’t adverse to spending time with students.”

“His students are the only humans left in Dixie naive enough to spend time with him!” John’s mother lashed back.

“Well, it’s hard to flunk somebody you’ve broken the law with,” his father reasoned, which for all practical purposes shut John’s mama up.

*

As we launched Brent’s canoe, repetition being key to learning, I re-briefed my protégés. The night is spangled with glowing red eyes, even more than when Tripp and I brought Bud, even more than when Doc Charlie brought me and Tal, hungry for soft serve, to Cottonmouth Pond. Alligators are less endangered now that Herbie Santos has been removed from the environmental equation.

I wiggled my light on a pair of ruby eyes. “Ease up to that one,” I told John, who paddled with one hand, sipping beer.

The gator floated parallel to us, only a gnarl of eyelid and knob of nose above the water, more than a foot between the two, indicating a seven to eight foot specimen. “OK Brent, he’s giving us his profile. Wait until he starts swimming away.”

When a gator floats, very little is up. To submerge, it sinks on its tail. When it swims, its back and neck rise, exposing the intersection of skull and spine where the well placed bullet disconnects jaws from running gear. The gator moved away, dragging a wake. “Good, good, a little closer, John. Crosshairs on the medulla oblongata, Brent. Easy now. Take a deep breath, let half out. Squeeeeze the trigger.  Let her glide now, John.”

“Mr. Miller,” Brent whispered. “Where’s the medulla oblongata?”

No time to scold, I touched the occipital bump at the base of Brent’s own skull, the switchboard center of his own limbic shenanigans. “Backpaddle, John!”

“We’re too close,” Brent hissed, “I can’t see nothing in the scope!”

Standing precariously in a squirming canoe, I drew my .44, steadying on Brent’s shoulder. The gator, three yards away paused. “Notice how we do this,” I whispered, blasting the reptile, ringing Brent’s ears for the semester, alerting game wardens over three counties.

The stricken gator drenched us in fetid water.  “I think you got him, Mr. Miller.” Brent tilted his head, pounding his temple with the heel of his hand.

“That, my boys, is how it’s done.”

 “What?” said Brent.

*

This eight-footer after lashing a wall of white water sounded straight to the bottom, as gators will, and because neither boy has actually pulled the trigger, both are reluctant to jump into a pond still fizzing swamp gas, and perhaps they have a valid point.  Tripp’s gator’s revival was a freak of nature, I tell myself, that won’t happen again in thousand years. Gators fed marshmallows in state parks or chronically disturbed by golfers at water hazards can’t always be counted on to retreat, but wild alligators almost never attack unless protecting their brood. Plus I’ve been haunted by a half century of failure in the alligator department. A thorough search won’t be required, anyway, just a perfunctory face-saving dip made brief by a possible run-in with an investigation official from the DNR.

“You said…” Brent begins.

“Hush,” I say.

             Trapped in my own rhetoric I strip to my underwear and flop into the chest-deep water. Weightless as an astronaut, I moonwalk through itchy moss, ginger footsteps launching farts of methane, and—Jesus!—I step barefoot slap on the son-of-a-bitch. It erupts through reflected constellations, reborn to boiling mayhem.  For the moment I’m lost in time. The gator– maybe the same one that bashed Tripp’s canoe or the octogenarian beast Dr. Charlie lost—circles, wagging its head. Disorientated and unable to stay submerged, it porpoises toward me yawning spastic jaws.

          “Help! Goddammit! Help!” A gator’s orientation must be seated in the medulla oblongata. Like Tripp’s gator, it wallows the surface, unable to swim straight or synchronize its jaws. But it can open them, and does, orbiting with wagging mouth agape, I dance back as it passes, reaching timidly for a trailing leg. It responds with a terrific slap of tail and a white explosion of déjà vu. If I can catch hold, I deduce, I’ll know which end’s which and where it’s at. “Shine the light!” I scream. “Shine the light!”

A gator shot precisely in the medulla oblongata can lose its natural fear of humans, I recall. It yanks away and boils the water. This is an enterprise for younger men. Faint angina nags my throat and jabs my jaw. More than death by coronary infarction, I fear a laughable end to a questionable career in academe—eaten alive while breaking the law in my underwear in the witness of freshmen assigned to write about it.

Hopping backwards in matador fashion, I avoid the beast once, twice. Urgency inspires colloquial diction: “If either of you little sons-a-bitches wants to pass English,” I wheeze, “you better jump in here and get you some alligator!”

Brent’s semester 78 puts him in fair stead, but John, on the precarious hump of a unwavering 69, is the better candidate for the task at hand. And John has crawled around a six-pack of beer. He splashes with graceless valor into the fray. Lusty screams follow: I got him, John! Oh, Jesus, he’s got me! Hold him, John! Hold him! Help, Brent! Hot Damn! Give us some light! This way! This way!

Crocodilians are capable of uncanny and energetic death throes, but cold-blooded critters shoot their wads, so to speak, quickly. A monster encumbered by a overweight professor and a borderline student primed on beer soon wears down, but not before I do. Brent oars over to administer a coup de grace with the pistol, enlisting me and John into a granfalloon of temporary deafness. I hang gasping on the canoe, demanding nitroglycerin from a small brown bottle iced down with beer. Brent places the tiny tablet under my tongue where it sits like a splinter of dry ice as I’m hauled with the defunct reptile into the canoe.

 Skinning the thing takes all night. It slaps and claws us butchering it. Forbidden flesh–white as crabmeat and pearly pink at haunches–twitches in guilty hands emphasizing life’s persistence and the shame of snuffing it. We’ll eat it, of course, but without celebration or sanction of law.

What else?  The stinking hide is kept a week and buried. The boys pass English with gentleman C’s provisional to discretion, but I’m not sure what I taught or learned  beyond the obvious—that alligators are too much work to break the law for?  Will one dead reptile free me from the void a lack of closure brings? Will Brent and John be spared the fetch of ponds and poetry late at night? From dragons rooted deep in human hearts, adventures dared to free ourselves from us.  

(end)

In Memory of Lt. Col. Frank F. Hutto, USAF Reserves

(For Linda Hutto)

 Your cousin

and I flew a Cessna to Eglin

to visit your brave wife and children

and found them surrounded

by women who gather late

together waiting

when a fighter pilot’s lost or down.

The night you ditched

somewhere off the Key Largo

in shallow ocean

and your sergeant found

your laughter in the fog,

you-crazy-son-of-a-bitch,

those women were around.

They came

when you ejected

over desert

and the choppers found your parachute,

and you in a yellow raft

floating on sand.

the same wives gathered.

Busy maternity wives,

infected with hope

while you screeched

through mountains that rise

from the South China Sea.

Hope out of habit

tempered in the ripped

thick darkness

of Viet Nam nights.

            II.

We leave the church at Shalimar,

the tan blond undertaker,

in despicable health, orchestrating,

arranging the sluggish formation

that follows to your grave:

Your wild-ass warrior friends

mellowed and sober, mute,

seasoned, debriefed, tamed

into civilian suits,

strapped into Chevrolets.

Those who learned to love you best,

the college friends

bound by middle age among the living,

your brother, your sister.

And your mother,

alone in grief that nature did not groom her for—

the death of sons.

Your wife, your son, your daughter

grappled to absent flesh,

and the crab scuttles back to the forth house.

            III.

We huddle in the August heat

around a flag-draped corpse

while adolescent corpsmen

stand in rank

to tap the drums

and raise the guns

to fire their muffled blanks.

After taps,

authenticated by the one bad note,

and after the pop-guns fired

and after the flyover

when the jets screamed,

teasing the barriers of sound,

howling…it seemed…

and after they buzzed again,

after the planes were gone,

after the minister mumbled

on and on…

…high above us, high above the cemetery lawn,

riding the updrafts and currents where

the airs of the land and sea collide,

an osprey sailed

higher than the ceremonial jets had flown,

a swept-wing, square-tailed silhouette alone

that frolicked through capricious, saline breezes

from the sea with aquiline felicity.

            And some said:

“There’s Frank, hot-shotting

now he’s got his wings.”

            When death’s around,

We say the damndest things.

            IV.

Returning home from burying you,

lone engine droning,

we feel like fledglings,

trespassing air space,

yours, if anyone has the claim of love on air,

here where the wrinkled gulf

gnaws the land’s edge – a wafer, thin and gray,

the color of your dying face.

We skirt weather that a jet would shatter,

the intermarried shroud

of wind and rain together

in the towering cumulus cloud.

            V.

We mourn

cheerfully where we are

and pray you will be borne

higher than ether,

mixing molecules with freckled stars.

Comic Shorts from an Albany Upbringing

Mr. Slappey

By O. Victor Miller

  One personality epitomized Slappey Drive and a tourist‑eye view of Albany, Georgia, more than any other who frequented the sidewalks of the Good Life City– a singular old codger who wore a gray wool overcoat winter and summer. Mr. Slappey, a tall, crane‑like apparition presumably named for Slappey drive, not genetically related to the prominent Albanians of that surname, was declared “harmless” and was therefore allowed absolute freedom to roam up and down Slappey Drive selling sewing needles, which he skewered into the lining of his ankle‑length coat.

      It was rumored Mr. Slappey had been as right as rain until one day while walking in it he got struck by a bolt of lightning. Indeed, we thought he still held an electrical charge. A waxy scar the color of crabmeat ran from the center of his high forehead down parchment cheeks to his pointed chin, just the kind of scar celestial pyrotechnics might inflict. When Mr. Slappey placed his needles on the bar of the Rialto Pool Hall for the benefit of a potential customer, they would spin to magnetic north. His frizzled gray hair bloomed like a bushel of steel wool and his gray eyes gleamed like ball bearings.

      Everyone paid Mr. Slappey the respect due someone who had died and returned from the grave. We were afraid of him because he could fix you with a hypnotic gaze and preach to you about the apocalypse. He could charm you like a snake charms a bird and “scrutinize” you, taking a wild, deep glimpse into your soul.   He also had the uncanny ability to pivot his head sideways, perpendicular to his neck, so that his sparkling eyes fixed you vertically. And he could shrink his head. He’d tighten his toothless jaws so his chin touched his nose, and his head would reduce by one half, further emphasizing those eyes. It was weird. Mr. Slappey could wad up his face like a brown paper bag.

     Typically, he lurked on the curb in front of the Rialto until a tourist stopped for directions. Everybody else knew better than to stop. Mr. Slappey would get into a tourist’s car, offer to show him the Dixie Highway, direct him to wherever Mr. Slappey wanted to go, then abandon the pilgrim in some obscure part of town to fend for himself.

     Long after Oglethorpe was paved, becoming the east leg of U.S. 19 through town, the Toddle House appeared and Mr. Slappey extended his territory. The Toddle House was a boon for tourism, providing travelers with greasy breakfasts during odd hours of the night or day. This was long before the national campaign against cholesterol, and Toddle House cuisine was so loaded with saturated fats there was a rainbow oil slick in the urinal of the men’s room.

      One winter evening I was sitting on one of the red leatherette stools at the counter, eating scrambled eggs and hash browns. A tourist from Michigan sat next to me, drinking coffee. Besides the tourist there were an obese man and two women laughing and talking at a table when Mr. Slappey lurched in like Dracula, his overcoat flaring from the gust of February wind that followed him in. I watched through the mirror, not daring to turn around as Mr. Slappey marched over to the happy diners, standing over them, glaring with his sphinx‑like gaze. “What you laughing ‘bout?” he demanded.

     “Nobody laughing at you, Mr. Slappey. We just laughing,” the fat man grinned. “You just go away from here now and leave us alone. We ain’t said nothing that concerns you.”

     “You laughin’ at me ‘cause you think I’m crazy, but I ain’t.” Mr. Slappey’s voice quavered, his eyes shining like the chrome on a ‘58 Buick. “I can prove I ain’t crazy and prove you are!” I could detect the crackle of static electricity and a scent of ozone.

     “Now Mr. Slappey get a holt of yourself. Ain’t nobody here said nothing about you or nobody else in this cafe, but if you can prove you ain’t crazy and I am, we’d sure love to bear witness.” The fat man winked at the waitress, who eased away.

     Mr. Slappey reached into the deep pockets of his disreputable overcoat, pulling out a frayed, dirty and dog-eared document which he trumped to the Formica tabletop like a one‑eyed jack. “Here!” We all flinched.

     “Here what?”

     “Here hit is, right here–release papers from Milledgeville State Asylum for the Insane. If I was crazy, they never would’ve give me them papers or let me out.” He put his papers up and stood his ground. The document was too dirty for anyone near food to examine. “Well?” the old man persisted.

     “Well what, Mr. Slappey?” The fat man was starting to sweat. Mr. Slappey had started scrutinizing him.

     “If you ain’t crazy, where’s yore papers at?” Mr. Slappey tightened his mouth. His face contracted and his head tilted slowly, lining up his eyes.

     The tourist next to me spewed coffee across the counter, spraying the cook. He dismounted the stool, threw some money on the bar, and rushed out before Mr. Slappey could turn around and scrutinize him, and I, fearing presumed guilt of proximity, eased off my stool and followed the tourist out into the cold.    

(end)

Mr. Finney’s Electric Paddle

By O. Victor Miller

    Buddy Pollock was summoned suddenly during a mild rash of misdemeanor.  He’d flicked an oval spitball whose oblong eccentricity caused a radical slice, missing Benny Cohen and disappearing into Miss Fuqua’s ruffled neckline. She looked up from her book and her mouth made a perfect O.  She touched her fingertips to her plump sternum in a gesture to indicate we’d impaled her loving heart with barbed ingratitude. I say we because, although I hadn’t yet fired a single shot, my spitballs were lined and prepared along the edge of my desk in circumstantial incrimination.

     The tense moment was shattered by the voice of Mr. Finney himself through the rosewood intercom.  LEON POLLOCK, REPORT TO THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE.  The entire fourth grade bolted in their desks.  Holy cow, the intercom could see as well as hear and speak!  AND HAVE HIM BRING HIS BOOKS.  This summons, made more frightening by the third person reference to Mr. Finney’s own office, marked the last glimpse of  Buddy’s hide or hair—a finality which the other children sensed, touching the hem of his overalls as he passed down the aisle between first and second row.

      When Miss Fuqua returned teary‑eyed from escorting him to oblivion, she lied in a broken voice that Buddy’s father, a master sergeant at Turner A.F.B., had been suddenly transferred to Formosa, but we knew better.  Buddy Pollock had screwed around and got himself fatally interrogated. His bones would be discovered someday at the bottom of Radium Springs or washed up a sandbar in the Flint River. 

     Mr. Finney resembled a desiccated Abraham Lincoln, whom Southern children viewed as a great man who fought on the wrong side of the War between the States, but our Mr. Finney looked like Honest Abe would have looked if Nathan Bedford Forrest had overrun Washington and pillaged the Capitol.  And our Mr. Finney had an electric paddle according to the Stubb brothers, who should know.

     One of the Stubbs—I think it was Nailer—testified at recess that he’d been strapped in a sinister apparatus that plugged into a 220 outlet.  It was a heavy duty chair with wide leather restraining belts and a rotating paddlewheel beneath a recess in the seat.  As Mr. Finley strapped him in, Nailer took a deep breath, puffing up.  This maneuver affected a looseness of the chest harness which saved him from unendurable agony.  When Mr. Finney left the room to answer the phone, Nailer was able to elevate his nether cheeks just enough for the whirling blades of the paddle to barely graze him.  To this day some fifty years later, I remember Nailer Stubb standing with knees bent at 45 degrees and his palms down as if pushing against an immovable surface.  His face is frozen in a snarling rictus, like a woman applying lipstick in a rear view mirror.  The lights dimmed when Mr. Finney switched on the E.P.     

     We were hungry for every detail of the electric paddle, especially the blades, which Nailer called fins.  “What about those fins, Nails,” we implored.  At which juncture Nailer would saunter over to the pencil sharpener and remove the cover, exposing the rotary blades.  “It works sorta like this,” he said, spinning the handle.  “They’s two sets of fins that goes in a different direction,” he said wincing. “They’re six inches wide and fast as a buzz saw.”  Our horror impelled us to euphemistically label the electric paddle the E.P., as though mere mention of its full appellation could invoke application from the omniscient clone of the 16th president of the Union.

     “Couldn’t your daddy do something,” I had to know.

     “Shoot, daddy wisht he had one his own self, all the whuppings he’s got to shell out.”

     “Wow,” said Ben Swilley, transfixed by the rotary blades of the pencil sharpener, “something like that could eat the ass clean off a man.”

     “Or a woman,” added Toby Ann Hotchner, equally awed.

(end)

Wild Bill

By O. Victor Miller

     Albany was not without its own tourist attractions and celebrities. Wild Bill Chancey, the mentally challenged 30-year-old paperboy for The Albany Herald, wore a cowboy hat and cap pistols to collect for subscriptions. When Billy charged into Geechee Mark’s Rialto pool hall on Slappey Drive with pistols drawn everybody cooperated and reached for the sky.” Don’t shoot, Wild Bill,” they’d cry with raised cue sticks or mugs of beer. Geechee Marks, with one hand high would open the cash register with the clack of a red no‑sale sign and ding like the end of a round at a prizefight. Billy would holster one pistol, take Geechee’s proffered money, and, holding the rest of us at bay, he would back out the door, perhaps tipping his cowboy hat, perhaps not. Billy wouldn’t fire his cap pistols indoors, provided everybody froze.

   Subscribers paid up, too. Billy didn’t understand deferred debts or uncollectible losses. He’d stand right there. Hours, days, forever, until he was paid. You couldn’t run him off. And nobody tried to. Everybody respected the idea that you paid for what you bought—that and the fact that Billy wouldn’t leave your front porch until you did.               

     Of course, the day came when somebody who didn’t know Wild Bill got scared when he slapped leather. A tourist stopped off at the Rialto to ask directions just before Billy came in to collect for the paper. The traveler, timid about stopping in The Rialto in the first place, tiptoed up to the bar next to the resident wino and was waiting his turn when he found himself suddenly surrounded by people with hands high pleading, “Don’t shoot, Wild Bill!” He didn’t dare turn around, but when he saw the image of a thirty‑year‑old hombre with drawn pistols reflected in the jar of pickled eggs, he dived under a snooker table, ripping open the back of his Bermuda shorts.

     When the stranger broke ranks, Billy nulled him with a—KAPOW—shot that froze the terrified pilgrim into prenatal paralysis and left a layer of acrid white smoke in the air. Billy holstered one revolver, took his money and backed out, leaving Geechee to coax the visitor from beneath the table, dust him off and assure him he wasn’t in the lawless West. ”It’s just collection day at the Herald,” Geechee explained.

(end)

Trick-or-Treating Miss Fuqua

By O. Victor Miller

  Chan lived in a three story house on Pine Ave. across the street and cattycorner from Miss Fuqua’s rented lodgings. Miss Fuqua was our 4th grade teacher at Flint Street School, a shrine to our young hearts. We’d sit all night on the floor of Chan’s attic bedroom playing Cootie, a game which involved rolling dice and assembling plastic insects. It was supposed to be educational, but all I remember about it now is that a six got you a jointed leg. That and one night Chan’s daddy came up and taught us to shoot craps.

     Chan and I took turns going to the window to see if Miss Fuqua’s light still burned behind her shade. When her light went out, we’d sigh. “Egg custard,” I said, and Chan would nod knowingly. Egg custard was our code for the delicious undulations the tops of Miss Fuqua’s ample bosom made when she spanked our palms with a ruler.

     Chan and I were buddies before Miss Fuqua came into our lives, and we are pals now, but in those days the sole basis for our friendship was his residential proximity to Miss Fuqua. Sometimes Len Chestnut played Cootie with us all hours of the night, but he couldn’t understand our infatuation with Miss Fuqua, a teacher after all. Chan and I decided Len Chestnut didn’t know squat, and we quit asking him over.

     One Halloween I spent the night at Chan’s house for the express purpose of trick‑or‑treating Miss Fuqua. We showed up at dusk, dressed as pirates and wearing rouge and lipstick that our mothers put on us whenever we dressed up for school plays, costume parties, or Halloween. I’m surprised the whole bunch of us didn’t turn into transvestites the way our mothers put lipstick on us every chance they got. Anyway, we showed up at Miss Fuqua’s in knee stockings and rakishly cocked feathered hats we’d plundered from Chan’s grandmother.

     “Oh! Dance hall girls!” squealed the myopic Miss Fuqua, serving us scorched popcorn balls and hurrying back into the door. We were mortified, but we still hid behind the hedge to make sure nobody but us got any scorched popcorn balls or sabotaged Miss Fuqua’s porch with poopie bombs, which were flaming paper bags of dog feces that would spatter Miss Fuqua’s ivory ankles when she stomped out the fire. We hung around until the Stubbs Clan showed up. Then we timorously abandoned our post. The Stubbs didn’t bother to dress up for Halloween. They showed up in mass in the same overalls they wore to school and were scary enough running around as Stubbs.

     Back at the window of Chan’s attic bedroom, deflated and demoralized, we watched as the squat, bowlegged Stubb siblings  stood in a semi-circle around Miss Fuqua’s stoop. Nailer Stubb raised one leg to scratch a kitchen match on the hip pocket of his overalls and lit the poopie bomb while his sister, Clittie Mae stepped over a ludely grinning pumpkin to ring the door bell.

     “At least she didn’t recognize us,” I consoled Chan.

(end)

Henrietta

By O. Victor Miller

“You don’t remember me?” the lithe redhead scolded. She’d approached me outside Bookland in the Albany Mall. In her spikes she was taller than me. She had to lean down to peck me on the lips.

“You look mighty familiar,” I stammered. She wasn’t the kind of girl you forgot. “Give me a hint.”

“AHS Class of ‘60.”

“I need more.” She sure looked younger than me. Of course, I could tell she’d undergone some customizing. Her face was smeared back like she’d been racing a motorcycle and somebody had tied off the slack at the back of her head, and her boobs were too perky to have endured a half century of gravity. Her skin had the waxy pinkish glow of the recently embalmed. Although a little long in tooth, she was a pretty good looking old gal.

“Hank Musselwhite,” she grinned, winking and showing me her profile.

“Why, hell yes,” I said snapping my fingers as gauzy memories glided in to roost, “the football hero! You were Hank’s steady. You wore the green letter sweater and his class ring. Yeah, I remember now. Weren’t you a cheerleader, too? Homecoming queen? Didn’t we double date some? Hey, whatever happened to the old stud hoss?”

I was grinning to beat the band, still snapping my fingers.

“He’s me,” she laughed. “Well, actually I’m Henrietta now, Henrietta Bookman.

“Do what?” I tried to wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, but Hank, uh, Henrietta held me by the elbows. She leaned back and laughed, flashing lots of bonded teeth. I found myself standing in the runway of the Albany Mall, in the arms of a man, gazing into the depilated nostrils of an artfully bobbed nose. Whoa! And she must be married since she’s changed her last name.

“You leave that kiss right where it is,” pouted Henrietta, “and quit twitching your mouth.”

“I was gonna rub it in. Hey, are you married?”

“Sure, my husband’s a Medieval Lit. professor at Emory. You may know him, Ralph Bookman?”

“Professor Bookman, maybe I met him at SMLA. Any kids?”

“Course not, silly.”

Henrietta insisted we go into Yesterday’s for drinks and reminiscence of less complicated times. She had three or four Beefeaters martinis while I sipped orange Metamucil. “Before I made the switch, I felt like I was living a lie. I think there has always been a girl inside me struggling to get out,” she confided, “but I think it was, in the final analysis, the guilt that made me cross over.”

“Guilt?” There hadn’t seemed to be a girl struggling to get out of Hank Musselwhite when he was busting ass at football practice.

“Yes. People blame white heterosexual Anglo Saxon males for everything. They’re responsible for all the evil in the modern world and all of it in history. WHAMs, we call them. You name it: slavery, war, AIDS, sexism, whatever’s bad, you look far enough you’ll find a WHAM behind it. I just couldn’t carry the burden of evil.”

“AIDS?”

“Well, maybe WHAMs didn’t invent AIDS, but they couldn’t wait to start spreading it around. Why don’t they find a cure, just answer me that.”

“I guess they’d be pretty foolish not to find a cure if they could.”

I watched Henrietta pinch the olive out of her martini with brightly lacquered nails. She punched it in her mouth and worked it around with her tongue. She crossed her legs at the knees, exposing shapely hairless legs and acceptable calves, acting more or less like a woman, but I know the difference between women and men is a lot more than physical. Even if you underwent a radical metamorphosis like Hank had, there’d be psychological differences plenty. I was waiting for Henrietta to apply makeup right there at the table, which is what real women do. Impersonators go to the Ladies Room to freshen up. Real women will whip out a compact at a table in the swankiest restaurant, turn profile and stare at themselves out of the corner of their eyes. They’ll make a god awful face that smears their lips all the way back to their earrings. As soon as Henrietta pulled out a mirror I’d know if she’d mastered womanhood or not.

Women think they become invisible as soon as they look into a mirror. If you’ve ever watched one at a stoplight primping up, you know what I’m talking about. A rearview mirror is like king’s X in the femininity game. They stretch their mouth, maybe wiggle their tongue, and tilt their head back checking nose hairs. Then they snarl to investigate anything that might’ve gotten caught between their teeth. They drop their jaw, purse their mouth, and scratch at a bump on the tip of their nose. They put their little fingers in their mouth like they’re fixing to whistle, then slick their eyebrows down with the spit.

   If engaged men had any sense, they’d take the time to step out of their pre‑nuptial bliss long enough to candidly observe their betrothed. I don’t mean spy on them. Just watch them when they are unaware that you are around. Borrow a buddy’s truck, maybe get some Groucho glasses and follow them around. Check them out at stoplights, where they think they are invisible. If Ralph Bookman hadn’t had his nose so deep in Arthurian Romance, he’d have known there’s more to a woman than a banjo pelvis and a pretty face. ry this. Next time you see a woman primping at a stoplight, just honk your horn, point your finger, and wave. Pucker up, touch your lips with your fingertips, and roll your eyeballs. At first she’ll glare at you like you just jerked open the bathroom door. Then she’ll smile. Women like to be reminded they’re not invisible.

But the mirror reflex is just one psychological difference between men and women. There’s more to swapping gender than hormone shots and a boarding pass on a 747 to Sweden. For one thing, men view cosmetic surgery in an altogether different light than women do. I was surprised that Hank would subject himself to an anatomical overhaul, unless he was in a really bad auto accident that emasculated and mutilated him first.

By last call Henrietta was slurring her words and drooling into the beer nuts, but not once during our entire visit did she apply makeup in public. Once she staggered bowlegged back from the Ladies Room with lipstick that looked slathered on by a blind man with a putty knife. I’d reached my limit of fiber, so I asked the waitress for the tab and got up to leave. “Oh no,” insisted Henrietta, “this one’s on me. I’m liberated.”

“We need to keep in touch,” I lied. “You and Ralph ought to swing by the creek for a drink.”

“What fun!” she cried. “You all will have so much in common,” she winked, slapping me hard across the shoulders, as though there might still be a AAA linebacker corseted in there struggling to get out. “But don’t breathe a word to him about my—uh—childhood.”

“You mean he doesn’t know?”

“He doesn’t have a clue. There are still a few things about a girl’s past that a husband doesn’t need to know.

(end)

On Spanish Moss

By O. Victor Miller

     One thing that I know impressed migrating Yankee tourists was Spanish moss. The city fathers knew this too and incorporated it into the Christmas decorations that stretched across Albany streets. Tourists driving down Broad during the Yuletide season passed under gothic decorations of colored lights draped with traipsing banners of Spanish moss. I don’t know what the tourists thought of those decorations, but we Albanians thought they were beautiful, and we were proud that the City took them down after New Years Day, unlike our smaller neighbors, who left their holiday decorations up all year.

     Spanish moss whiskered the live oak tree that grew on the right‑of‑way of U.S. 19 in front of my house out at Radium Springs. So far as I know, this oak marked the furthermost point north that Spanish moss grew in any abundance on the Dixie Highway, at least the first place a southbound tourist could pull off the road and get a back seat full for souvenirs. Spanish moss, by the way, isn’t Spanish, and it isn’t moss. It’s an epiphyte relative of the pineapple or something. I don’t know if the tourists who stopped in our front yard knew this or not, but one fact these tourists most certainly did not know was that God made Spanish moss to provide a perfect habitat for chiggers—redbugs—and He made chiggers…well, I don’t know why He made chiggers unless it was to punish folks for the first disobedience in the garden. Chiggers burrow under your skin and cause first degree torment. The only way you can make them stop itching is to paint the place they went in with fingernail polish and smother them with your own meat.

     Sister and I would stand barefoot in slack‑jawed amazement in our front yard watching Yankees wrap great mounds of chigger‑infested moss on their heads and around their necks, making beards for themselves and their children while their effervescent spouses peered downward into Brownie box cameras immortalizing the penultimate moment before the chiggers realized their windfall.

     Eventually, the tourists noticed Sister and me standing there astonished.     “Oh, look at the poor little Rebel children. What’s your name, little girl?” a wide‑hipped woman in pedal pushers and high heeled sandals asked Sister one day.

     “See‑iss‑tah,” she answered, spinning—twisting her body back and forth, swiveling her head in the opposite direction as fast as she could— the centrifugal force blurring her pigtails and spreading the hem of her dress. Sister twisted so furiously, it looked like she was trying to drill herself into the ground.

     “See‑iss‑tah,” they all said, mocking her drawl. “Look at them. Aren’t they cute. I bet they can’t even read and write. Hold still, little girl, so I can take your picture.”

     Tillie, the Black woman responsible for our care, was the only one who could stop Sister’s spinning. “BE‑have!” she’d say, and Sister would wind down, but Tillie was in the house. The tourists finally gave up on Sister, heaped some more Spanish moss into the trunk and drove away grinning, but I could tell the illiteracy issue hit a nerve. Tears were slinging out from under those whirling pigtails. She wasn’t even in kindergarten yet. Of course, she couldn’t read. I tried to hug her, but the pigtails kept popping me under my chin. “Don’t worry about it, Sister,” I said. “Reading and writing ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

     But she pushed away and ran to the kitchen to find Tillie, our only known remedy for a broken heart. She hit her in a dead run, scrambling up her like a squirrel, burying her face in Tillie’s pinafore while Tillie held her with sudsy hands, wrapping her up in all that wonderful, salving love. While Tillie hugged Sister back to health, I outlined the source of the injury.

     “Hush up now,” Tillie soothed, “Who care you cain read? Least you got moe sense than to put redbugs in your head and pack you up some more for down the road.”

(end)

Hambone

By O.Victor Miller

Beneath the dance pavilion at Radium Springs where collapsible banquet tables were stored among doodlebug mounds, black chefs and waiters gambled with high school hoods. Every once in a while, responding to strong requests, they’d do the Hambone. They’d half-squat in their starched whites, slapping their thighs in rhythmic flurry, popping the O of their lips, while hoods, shirtless beneath James Dean windbreakers, howled like hounds:  Awroooooo!

Hambone, Hambone, where you been?

Been ‘round de world and I’m goin’ again,

Plipity, plipity, plippity, plop, plop

Hambone, Hambone, where’s yo wife?

In the kitchen cookin’ rice.

Plipity, plipity, plippity, plop, plop, plop!

Awroooooo!

The Hambone harmonized with the hiss of dancing feet on the dance floor and whatever was playing on the jukebox.

Just take a wa-alk down Lo-hon-ly Street to

Heart-break Ho-tel.

Plipity, plipity, plippity, plop, plop, plop!

Awroooooo!

 When we tried it, our Hambone sounded like a chicken held by its legs with its head cut off.

We non-hoods lingered like an odor around girls sunbathing above the platform because sometimes those sweetly indolent girls would ask us to rub concoctions of baby oil and iodine on the small strip of backs and shoulders above their one-piece bathing suits, but never their legs. They’d ask each other first, but none of them could ever do it because their straps were already undone. I’d sit in breathless hope that one of those adolescent beauties would ask me.

“Oh, aw-right,” I’d say, if one finally did, pausing as long as I dared, but quick enough to keep another boy from getting the job. The next move in the tribal courtship ritual was a general invitation to swim. “Anybody want to go swimming?”

This first broadcast typically went unanswered.

“Well, who wants to take a dip?” Followed by a more particular, “Becky, d’jew wanna go swimming?”

“Not now, I’m still cold.” She’d turn her head on the blanket, proffering her profile and pretending sleep.

I’d sit on my hands, watching for an upper lip to perspire through the baby oil. “Anybody want to go swimming yet?”

“Oh all right,” Someone would finally say. She’d swing to a sitting position, do her straps, snugging budding breasts into padded foam cups (we called girls stacked if their breasts were larger than ours). Then she’d slip on her flip-flops and saunter toward the platform, rubber soles slapping the pavement as she popped her bubble gum.

            Hambone, Hambone, where you been?

And I’d follow the perfume of baby oil, iodine, sunshine and bubble gum down the steps to the platform and down the half-submerged stairway that led us through the surface of the chilly water.

 Foremost among the things a dip in Radium made girls want to do was to shiver and get back out, but it was worth it. When Becky swam, the bottom of her bathing suit would ride up, offering a forbidden glimpse of alabaster. Leaving the water, she’d emerge dripping on the platform steps, hooking her thumbs into the elastic leg holes to snap her suit back to restored modesty– SNAP, SNAP–hooded eyelids eclipsing crescents of moon-blanched cheeks one at a time, bringing a lump to my throat and…then she’d wiggle her feet back into her flip-flops and saunter back to her friends, slinging water beads from pretty toes, and my young heart would go plipity, plipity, plippity, plop, plop! as though she led me by a golden string tied to my soul. Or something.

 Awroooooo!

(end)

Cantey

By O. Victor Miller

     Cantey Davis was a jock back then. His hero was Coach Bob Fowler, who’d won 15 Varsity letters at Earlham, the Quaker university at Richmond, Indiana. Coach Bob was 6’8” in the days when nobody else was tall enough to dunk basketballs. He inspired exemplary deportment without having to raise his voice. As a matter of fact, whenever Coach Bob wasn’t grinning, things got quiet. He was trying to teach Cantey to control his temper.

     Coach Bob’s brother Jim caught hawks and hunted with them. At the time he was off somewhere in South America catching a harpy eagle. Before he made a name for himself on Wild Kingdom, our mothers warned us if we didn’t study hard, we’d end up like that worthless Jim Fowler, though we thought it took a lot of class to choose a profession by a pun on your last name.

     I was sure to make my own fortune very soon after getting out of Dougherty County. I might go down to South America myself, I thought. Carve an enormous pecan plantation out of the Brazilian jungle and oversee it by horseback. I bet by God Margaret Wilson would listen up when I set up a concert grand piano for her in the grand hall of my antebellum mansion. I’d saunter in, remove my Panama hat from disheveled ducktails, lean against the doorway in my muddy English knee boots listening to Mozart with one critical eyebrow raised. I pictured her in a flowing white dress playing the concert grand or nursing me back to health from some romantic disease that didn’t involve dysentery or urinary discharges. Something like malaria, with cold chills and hot fevers. I’d lie in a high canopy bed, hovering near death, as she applied cold compresses to my winged temples. The idea of dying didn’t bother me a bit, nor did the fact that nothing in my high school curriculum had prepared me for carving out colonial plantations. In retrospect, I’ve known only two people in my life who contracted malaria. Mr. Haslam, owner of the Greatest Used Bookstore in the World, caught a fatal dose in Africa, and Jimmy Gray, who picked his up in Viet Nam. Jimmy assured me that malaria (at least the Vietnamese strain) isn’t romantic.

     Cantey, bound for Dartmouth on a football and academic scholarship, was saving his cash from a temporary job delivering Easter flowers in a bunny costume for his Uncle Jim Pace, the florist. Cantey was supposed to hippity‑hop from the delivery truck to the front door with floral bouquets husbands ordered for their wives. The best hippity‑hop Cantey could manage was a lope interceded by a spastic lurch among the barking dogs and the gaggles of children who swarmed him barking and screaming, nipping and grabbing at his cotton tail.

       The public danger lay in the disguise. The floppy‑ears and demented buck‑tooth smile of the headpiece innocuously masked a simmering rage stoked and maintained by teenage and adult tormentors who couldn’t estimate Cantey’s disposition and who didn’t, therefore, know when to let up, and at evening twilight of Easter Sunday, some tedious husbands with too much Jim Beam under their belts harassed a rabid bunny rabbit beyond the restraint Coach Bob had taught him.

     “You ain’t going to believe this,” a neighborhood spectator called in to 911, “but they’s a big pink rabbit at a Easter Egg hunt in Hilsman Park steady kicking ass.”

Puzzled police arrived on a broken field of scattered egg basket and wounded fathers, an enormous bunny with a missing tail and one amputated ear hulking back to a white van full of lilies, slamming the door.

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 Celebrities

by O. Victor Miller

I used to wonder what tourists passing through on the way to Florida thought of Albany. Before Slappey was paved, it was a dirt road to Slappey Dairy, and the yankees headed for West Palm Beach or Delray came down the old Leesburg Road. Sometimes water filled the low areas of Jefferson where “Bubba” Champion would be waiting with a pony to tow stalled‑out tourists for a fee, but that was before my time.

Florida bound tourists thought they’d arrived when they got to Broad Street, which was bordered with palm trees. Nancy Cartmell in the Public Works department says the palms made her parents choose Albany when moving to a Southern city for Nancy’s asthma. Nancy’s doctor must have been experimenting with a kill‑or‑cure treatment involving pecan pollen. U.S. 19 (The Dixie Highway) ran down Jefferson to Broad, crossed the Broad Street Bridge and turned south on Radium Springs Road, right in front of my house. Tourists who stopped over for the night stayed at The New Albany Hotel, the Gordon, or Radium Inn.

   Celebrities sometimes came through Albany on their way to Florida. Sometimes they even stopped. Sister and I got an autographed 8Xll photograph of Sunset Carson, when that famous Hollywood cowboy’s 1942 Buick ran hot and he had to stop in Miller Motor Company for a thermostat.

Downtown Albany, called Automobile Row, was infested with new car dealerships. Besides the Buick place, there were Sloan Dodge, Bailes Oldsmobile, Phillips Studebaker, Stanley Brown’s Nash and Hudson, the Chevrolet place (owned by the Haleys), Aultman Cadillac/Pontiac, Haley Ford, Joel T. Haley Mercury, and Marks Desoto. Mixed in among the automobile dealerships were two mule barns, Holman and Farcus, on Broad and Pat Pelicano’s Bicycle Shop on Pine. Even broke, old Sunset could get a ride out of Automobile Row some kind of way, even if he had to swap out a hyperthermic Buick with bull horns on the hood for a brace of mules or a tandem Schwinn.

  Another celebrity, Chic Young, creator of comic strip “Dagwood and Blondie,” spent the night at Radium once, and I spilled his morning coffee in his lap when I bumped his elbow while touching the hem of the garment. Arthur Godfry came without his ukulele to the sports car races at Turner Field, and “Deacon” Andy Griffith spoke to the Lions Club once. My father made him autograph my white leather jacket with a ball‑point pen. When I was a teenager, Bo Diddley came and stayed long enough to marry Kay Reynolds, a white Radium Springs girl. That was about the same time that “ne’er do well boy” Ray Ragsdale changed his surname to Stevens and left town to make his fortune singing crazy songs. “There’s one who’ll come to no good,” our parents said.

The most important celebrity to visit Albany, however, was Brandon de Wilde, the child actor who co‑stared with Walter Brennan in “Goodby my Lady,” filmed on an Albany plantation. Brandon, who also played in “Shane,” actually STAYED with Jimmy, Geoffrey, and Connie Gray, who caused Brandon to fall from favor with us Radium Springs kids when they reported that Brandon couldn’t play because he was worth too much money to risk getting hurt. Brandon’s director didn’t worry so much about Albany kids, who they hired en mass to do anything that smacked of danger. Nearly every white male Albanian pushing sixty-five will tell you he was hired on as Brandon’s double for that movie, and he’ll be telling the truth. If everybody hired for the set of “Goodby my Lady” ended up in the film, the picture would rival “The Ten Commandments” and its cast of thousands. The only lasting result to the community was that none of my male contemporaries after Brandon’s visit aspired thereafter to become Hollywood actors. In fact, though lots of Albanians my age have become famous enough to change their names or wish they had, none of us became Hollywood actors. They weren’t allowed to play.

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Fast Food

By O.Victor Miller

   From 1948 on, vacationers headed for the Sunshine State could stop in Albany for fast food. The Dairy Queen (1948) inspired Norton Johnston to open the Arctic Bear June 15, l950, when that polar bear on the corner of Oglethorpe and Slappey started licking that ice cream cone he’d slurp for decades. The Pig ‘n Whistle came that September. In those days Slappey was paved two‑lane to Whitney, then dirt to Newton Road. Oglethorpe was gravel until the “New Bridge” was built in 1953 and the Dixie Highway moved over from Broad to Oglethorpe.

      By the time I was old enough to drive, tourists headed south down Slappey Drive would pass the Pig ‘n Whistle, where the girls sat parked in the family Oldsmobile, eating curb service barbecue and French fries while we guys drove through with our arms hanging out the window, pressed against the door to make biceps. We were looking for respect. In our primer painted Fords and Chevrolets with shaved hoods and heads, souped‑up block and V‑8 engines, we drove through “The Pig” ostensibly unaware of the girls we were trying to impress. We scratched off, peeled rubber, out on to Slappey, not paying the least attention to tourists, nonchalant in our ducktails and flattops. The City police would pull us over for “getting rubber,” but not usually ticket us for “pealing out” of the Pig ‘n Whistle, out of deference to our courtship rituals.

     After the girls went home at eleven, the boys gathered in the Arctic Bear parking lot to fight—”to rumble”—obliquely over the girls, who were by this time sitting around in shortie pajamas and hair curlers at gatherings called slumber parties. The fights were to juggle reputations, upward mobility in a pecking order of badass. A car with New Jersey plates was there the night pallid Billy Hall, who looked like he’d been rolled in flour, removed his McGreggor button‑down shirt with a gust of macho flourish in preparation for battle. “Watch out Hall!” Ben Swilley yelled over the cheering aficionados, “You’ll get moon burn.”

      On another Saturday evening in The Bear parking lot, an Ohio family watched in amazement when the Albany Police showed up to defuse an altercation of riot proportions caused when a teenage slick in a chopped and lowered Merc made an inappropriate proposition to another slick’s youthful mother. The police began rounding up teenagers and shoving them into police car backseats but neglected to lock the opposite door. Johann Bleicher got away three times before he was finally handcuffed to Marion Cartwright, who got bit by the Police dog and sued the city. It was the first time we’d ever seen honor defended by jurisprudence.

(end)