Manifestation of Male Hysterphilia in American Football

Now American football, the most purely masculine of team sports, strikes a responsive chord in the male psyche and has been described by psychoanalysts as an oedipal drama in which the sacred mother earth (end zone) is defended from the aggressive father (the offense). Players’ uniforms exaggerate male characteristics: oversized head, broad shoulders, narrow waists, and supportive codpiece. The line formation, the scrum, is comprised of linemen assuming a three point stance— classic anal posturing that signals submission among lower primates. This position displays trusting vulnerability to one’s own teammates while exhibiting snarling antagonism towards opponents, who are knocked down prone or supine while other players pile on in an orgy of violence suggestive of gang rape and pillage. The offense undertakes a ritual depicting the male role in procreativity, involving “deep penetration” to “drive” the football—a seminal symbol—into an “end zone” to “score,” while cheerleaders and fans in the bleachers hoot and chant their approval.
Freudians also point out that the players engage in intimate gestures such as fanny patting, embracing, and holding hands in the huddle, which would be regarded as suspect male behavior anywhere else but the gridiron. They make a big deal out of basketball and hockey too, in which balls or pucks are slam dunked or driven into recessed netted enclosures.
But as any fool can clearly see, football isn’t sexual drama. It’s a ritual expression of reproduction or womb envy made obvious by the manner in which the downed ball is brought back into play. The egg shaped football is delivered from the center’s crotch to the quarterback, whose upper hand is pressed into the perineum, where the womb opening would be if a center had one. Indeed the position of the quarterback’s hands is the same as the obstetrician’s during delivery, dominant palm down. Of course, the center’s stance is not the usual position female homo sapiens assume when giving birth, although it’s not unheard of in anthropological circles, but it approximates the birth position of all other animals, and it is the position a male would have to assume in order to deliver offspring to a sympathetic male midwife. A plan made in the huddle that is not successfully executed is said to be aborted. The center tucks a towel in his belt like a loincloth to obscure the secrets of birth. Football is clearly an expression of empty womb envy. Hysterphilia! Hut two!
The cathartic elements of football could be enhanced if the cheerleaders and the fans had bullroarers, although whirling them in bleachers could cause injuries and put out some eyes, but why shouldn’t fans risk injury in applause when players are crippled for life. Of course, females have traditionally been forbidden the use of bullroarers, but if I can convince Whamo Industries to manufacture some, I’ll bet the girls will insist upon owning them too, acceptable in a society where male and female roles are hopelessly confused anyway.
Men talk about sports with the same enthusiasm women show for childbirth. They memorize statistics the same way wives remember post partum details and substitute sports for baby showers because their bowels bear no fruit. Even male nurses can’t get the real jargon of reproduction right.
“Boy, can she ever deliver,” I overheard from two male nurses at Phoebe Putney. “She’s a two for two on the birth/conception scale after a three hour labor and a C sect delivery of a five pound six and three quarter oz. femme that rated a 9 on the Apgar and had a head full of hair….”

Spared Rods and Spoiled Children

By O. Victor Miller

In memory of Dan Fowler

“O ye! Who teach the ingenious youth of nations, Holland, France, England, Germany or Spain.  I pray ye flog them upon all occasions, It mends their morals, never mind the pain” – Byron, Don Juan

 The other day young Michael Brooks, publisher of Albany Magazine asked me if it was true, as his father swore, that our generation walked barefoot to school through the snow. Loyal to the parental credibility of my contemporaries, I assured him that this was so, though truth compelled me to add there was snow on the ground in South Georgia only from September through April.

 If Michael’s generation doesn’t have trouble filling our shoes it’s because their feet are bigger. Kids are taller now. In my day nobody on the basketball team was over five-ten.  Our growth was stunted because there was no free lunch, and we burned a lot of calories walking to school-calories we couldn’t replenish without lunch money.  Also, parents and teachers conspired to keep us small so they could whip us with impunity.  Size was power, and if the youth of today aren’t sinewed with cables of steel, it’s because their mettle is untempered by the exquisite hardships we endured.  Even the notion of healthy growth was treated contemptuously in my day.  Adults derogatorily labeled recalcitrant children big babies, or, bigshots, or too big for their britches. Existence itself, being, was even shameful. “You think you’re something, don’t you?” they’d chide.

 Another distinction between my generation and Michael’s is the commitment of our teachers, who were tough as the seasons. We had corporal punishment in our segregated schools and teachers fully capable of dishing it out. They ordered us to grab our ankles and flailed us with strops, paddles, rulers, fan belts and radiator hoses.  Licks, the punishment was called, and the rare girl got spanked too. Girls grabbed their ankles with their derriere to the blackboard to prevent baring the dumpling hinges of knees.  The humiliation of public whipping didn’t umbrage Victorian modesty.  The other guys delight in the struck penitents’ wobble of breast, but I always averted my eyes.

 To make sure you didn’t release your ankles and straighten up before the–therwack-lick landed, the coaches randomly fired high, swinging over our backs.  Anyone bolting upright at the penultimate moment would be stropped across the ear with a fan belt or clubbed with a modified 2X4 in the back of the head. The paddles were marked with clever nomenclature: Board of Education or Golden Ruler.  We were too stupid for reverse psychology.  One new math teacher down from New Jersey announced that misbehavers would no longer be allowed to work word problems.  “Oh Jeez,” we pleaded, “anything but that!”

 Sugar Ray’s punitive policy had a sporting twist.  When you misbehaved, cut-up they called it, you came back after school and chose one of the four drawers in his filing cabinet. One had a large paddle, one a smaller one, one a razor strop, and one drawer was empty. I made a point of cutting up every fifth period until ordered to report after school. During sixth period W.C. Anderson would find out which drawer was empty and whisper the secret number.  I’d show up to try my luck, choose the empty drawer, and leave Mr. Council scratching his head over the mathematical odds of my choosing the empty drawer every afternoon for 15 consecutive schooldays.

 Miss Plant would have us read Macbeth, leaving the room when the Bard’s text contained the words inappropriate to her Victorian sensibilities.  Mr. McNabb, the principal, wouldn’t let her expurgate Shakespeare.  We’d read loud enough for her to hear us in the hall.

 It was a special and festive day when a girl got licks, though this generally occurred in the sequestered inter-sanctum of Miss Plant’s office, where not even football players were allowed. It was generally conceded that girls who acted like boys were treated accordingly, but it was feared that a misplaced lick could “ruin a girl for life,” shocking the uterus into permanent dysfunction.  This eventuality wasn’t viewed as particularly tragic as long as the good girls’ uteruses survived in tact, though everybody knew only bad girls engaged in the kind of deportment that led to reproduction.

 Robert “Buffalo Bob” Faudree, the second largest teacher at AHS, married the Spanish teacher and became a banker, kowabonga. Lots of teachers in those days were farmers too. And auto mechanics. They brought in a diverse variety of educational aids–jumper cables, hydraulic and radiator hoses, fan belts. The female teachers brought in bed slats, having them drilled and whittled in wood shop to offset with balance and leverage whatever they lacked in upper body strength.

 “I don’t know,” Edward answered, carelessly pointed his digitus impudicus under Frenchy’s nose.  “I seen the other boys doing it, so I copied them. I don’t know what this means.”  Edward’s decomposed body was found a decade or so later in a snow bank in Ohio with a gangland bullet in his head. I don’t know if Coach Lowe has any connections up there or not. Tommy Ross married beautiful Robin Leeger and became a lawyer like Buster Vansant, who says Pat “Mudcat” Field paddle him so vigorously for cutting up in Mrs. Saunders’ English class he had to go home and unstick his bloody underwear from his ass by soaking in the tub.  Buster’s mother was horrified, but his father smiled over his newspaper, understanding what an insufferable little shit Buster could be.

 Times were tougher in those days, and winters were colder. During hard freezes we left home early, staggering our paths to step in lukewarm cow flop to keep our toes from freezing. We followed closely behind the cows because the pies cooled as they dropped and froze soon after splattering the frozen pastures.  Teachers in those days provided heated antifungal footbaths at entrance thresholds to keep us from tracking cow shit into the classrooms.  It was a long walk between cow pies for those who crossed the frozen Flint. Eventually, teenage entrepreneur Bucky Geer drove his father’s cattle to school and let us for the price of our lunch money follow the herd.  Our mothers, as had mothers since the first one, warned us not to make ugly faces in winter for fear a north wind would freeze our mugs into a hideous rictus we would carry to our graves.They sighted football hero Frank Orgel, who never obeyed his mother, as a living example. Orgel became a prodigious broken field runner rushing late to school and zig-zagging through as many cow pies as he could along the way.  His face froze into an agonized snarl that didn’t soften until middle age.

 I told Michael he could thank or blame my generation for the softness of his and for its general progress.  If sons’ vision is longer than their fathers’, it’s because sons stand upon the shoulders of our stony hardship.  It was difficult to improve ourselves fighting hard times and dodging the draft, and we developed a grim determinism of poverty and global aggression-a perpetuity of world wide economic and military instability which can be expressed, in the words of Steve Hinton’s mother: “They’ll always be POah and WAwah.”

 Coach Bob “Big-un” Fowler was educations best deterrent to bad deportment.  He’s only 6’8” inches now, but he was a lot taller when I was in junior high and high school. We figured if he paddled you, you’d end up in a body cast or an iron lung. But the coaches weren’t the only teachers compulsive about keeping order. “Sugar” Ray Council, my high school algebra teacher, paddled me so severely one afternoon he numbed my coccyx and backlashed my ducktail. Temporarily paralyzed in a jack-knifed posture, I had to walk home dragging my knuckles across frozen cow pies, my mind full of splintered light.  For this, saints flagellated themselves?

 I got another whipping when I got home, for getting a whipping at school.

 W.C. later died in jail awaiting trial as the prime suspect for killing “Jane Doe,” a decomposed woman discovered to be his wife, but in those days W.C. had replaced Bucky as recipient of my lunch money.  One day W.C. cut class to shoot illegal wood ducks, and I found myself trying to stare through a gunmetal filing cabinet, procrastinating as long as I could before stooping to eenie-meenie mental telepathy. Sugar Ray smiled diabolically when I picked the drawer containing the large paddle with nickel-sized holes for he’d been sorely provoked. With that instrument, powered by hostility pent up from weeks of unavenged insubordination, he embossed nickel-sized blood blisters in base relief across my fundament, teaching me that the slight Mr. Council could give licks nearly as hard as we imagined Coach Fowler could.

 Miss Thelma Plant, the Albany High School dean of girls, carried a tape to measure skirt lengths she suspected be less than 6 inches below the knee.  Miss Plant was no taller than my belt buckle.  She didn’t even have to stoop to gauge hems. Pregnant girls were sent home, married girls were sent home. Funny haircuts were sent home with the heads they decorated. The worst thing they could do to us was send us home, where our parents didn’t want us around any more than teachers did.

 “’I have given SUCK’,” we’d yell, “’and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that MILKS me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my NIPPLE from its boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this’.”

 Miss Plant was hard on girls but loved football players, in whom she found grand measures of bucolic grace.  She’d beam lovingly as Mike “Toilet” Doyal or Eddie Ogletree duhed and stuttered through Elizabethan drama. “That was wonderful, Michael, spoken like a true Southern gentleman. Now please be kind enough to recite the dagger soliloquy.”

 “Do what?”

 Strangely Miss Plant loved me too.  My daddy, she insisted, had saved her life with an O-negative transfusion when she’d had some unmentionable organ removed. She’d pull me aside and smile upward, focusing her teary eyes on some phenomenon a thousand yards beyond the back of my tangled ducktail. “We have the same blood in our veins, you and I,” she said.

 “Do what?”

 I don’t recall Coach Fowler ever whipping a girl.  Actually, I don’t remember him giving anybody licks at all, but it was rumored that he used his bare, oar-sized hand instead of a paddle.

 There were other coaches like O’Brian and Tilliski, who’d pop our buttocks with lanyards as we ran laps around the track.  Mr. Hershell, the mechanical drawing teacher, had forearms like Popeye, and we were deathly afraid of one-armed “Lefty” Sanders, to whom Ben Swilley gave a single cufflink for Christmas.  We correctly assumed Lefty to be twice as strong as any two-fisted teacher except Coach Fowler.

 Graham “Frenchy” Lowe threatened to run Edward Lewis through the expansion wire window of the gym and dice him like a carrot. Edward had flipped a bird at Tommy Ross and Frenchy saw him through the corner of his eye. Coach Lowe snatched Edward up by his upturned collar as Edward ran in place. “What does that mean, big shot?” he demanded.

 Coach “Moon” Mullis, famous for tantrums, accidentally flung his watch along with a pile of substandard geometry papers, shattering it against the wall, then paddled Johann Bleicher for laughing.  Johann later became a San Francisco hippie, a drug head, then a high school principal in North Carolina.

 “Sweet William” Bragg was there, svelte and dramatic, waving his arms and quoting Falstaff. Nobody misbehaved in his class either, and if any teacher ever deserved a monument cast in bronze it was Billy Bragg, whose professional footsteps I tried to follow, later becoming his colleague and friend.

 We liked them all well enough, our teachers.  They were decent men and women with sadistic streaks we could understand, but Coach Fowler was the one who stood us in awe. He never rushed, he never screamed, it looked like he never breathed deeply enough to blow his whistle.  Our respect derived in part from our knowledge that he was big enough to kill us but didn’t.

 Coach Bob taught me in junior high and in high school, as did Graham Lowe.  To this day I don’t know if they changed jobs, got promoted, or moonlighted just to follow me around.  At Darton College I taught Bob’s youngsters Julie, Nancy, and Dan less for vengeance that for a sweet sense of continuity.  Dan couldn’t get to my 8 a.m. English class on time because he deer hunted every morning.  To make him punctual, I hunted with him until I started coming in late myself.  An emu or a wildebeest could walk under your deer stand at Fowler Farms, which served as a holding facility for wild animals Dan’s naturalist uncle had promised to zoos.  There was no telling what Uncle Jim turned loose in that swamp.  Sometimes I was too scared to climb down at 8 o’clock.

 I tried to follow Billy Bragg’s footsteps but found my path as staggered and beshitted as our way to school.  Billy was an institution, the kind of teacher I’ll never be. All my old teachers were better educators than I am, and a high school diploma in those days was equivalent to at least a master’s degree today.  I still remember the Shakespeare Miss Plant made me memorize, and what little algebra I know came from Mr. Council.  I’ve never paddled a student, although I’ve had to call the cops on a few, and more pupils than I can estimate have come through or around me without mastering basic literacy skills.

 Georgia’s public schools in Albany during the ‘50s weren’t perfect and our teachers weren’t either, but I don’t remember ever seeing a kid beyond the third grade who couldn’t read, write or figure. Our teachers meant well, and I hold no grudge for the licks. If they didn’t teach us right from wrong, they left no doubt in our minds what they thought was right and wrong, and our parents sided with them to present a united front. I look back on my education with one haunting regret. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t anywhere near the role model for Bob’s kids that their father was for me.

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.

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.

(end)

 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.

(end)

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)

Chinaberries

By O. Victor Miller

When I’m away from home, musing about my childhood in Southwest Georgia, Chinaberry trees always occupy a spot in the peripheral vision of my mind’s eye. They grow along the fences that parallel fields beside red dirt roads. They stand in the corners of horse lots or shade the sides of barns, and they cast long, enigmatic shadows over the well‑swept dirt yards of tenant houses–tin‑roofed, paintless houses, weathered gray as the smoke from their calico brick chimneys.

A house squats on low pilings of native fossiliferous limestone and has an open porch that runs its length. Under the porch are dogs, an undetermined number of scourged mongrel dogs-‑razorbacked, threadbare dogs so randomly bred and inbred as to have a uniformity as distinct as any AKC purebred. I’m sure this vision must mean something, especially the dogs.

The wooden steps and the threshold of the door are worn smooth by generations of bare feet entering and leaving. There is sometimes a leaning outhouse and sometimes a field of dry cornstalks that rustle in the light afternoon breezes. There may be a washtub hanging by a nail on the side of the house, and there may be a blackened iron washpot. There may be a large live oak tree with a tire swing. These things may be there. But one feature of the picture is always present‑‑the inevitable Chinaberry tree, a tree that grows so fast you can almost hear the ground squeak under it.

For all I know the Tree of Knowledge may have been a Chinaberry tree. Adam may have squatted beneath it and scratched his head while Eve demurely nibbled at a cluster of the yellow semi‑sweet fruit and a white oak runner loafed in the umbrella branches. As far back as I can remember into my childhood there were Chinaberry trees.

We climbed Chinaberry trees and chunked the fruit. We stepped on Chinaberries and felt them squish beneath our bare feet. We calibered the muzzles of our popguns–hollow wooden pipes with elder plungers) to the diameter of Chinaberries, which, because they were not reputed to put out eyes, were the only permissible missiles we could employ in the presence of adults. We flipped them at each other, cradling them in our index fingers and ejecting them with our thumbnails. We launched them from popguns, slingshots, and flips.

We flicked them from desktops and shot them from bamboo blow guns that occasionally backfired into our windpipes and had to be dislodged by a comrade’s sharp slap between the shoulder blades. We spit them at each other and swallowed a few, and we tossed them at the girls to stain their dresses. We played war with them in the schoolyard during recess. School yards always had Chinaberry trees. In the classroom we sometimes tossed them at each other when the teacher’s back was turned.

One day Edsel Sizemore stuffed two Chinaberries up his nose, one in each nostril. Edsel was the classroom clown, who made grotesque faces and put on a straight one before the teacher, Miss Shipp, could turn around and storm, with an upraised yardstick and a sure promise of retribution, to the backside of whoever giggled.

Her yardstick was not, by the way, one of the puny modern lightweight imitations that are given away by hardware stores and funeral homes. It was a solid hickory prototype thick as a surveyor’s rod. A scepter of her sovereignty over the eighth grade, it doubled as a walking stick Miss Shipp carried to break the backs of luckless snakes that trespassed her way to the schoolhouse. It was the kind of staff that would bring comfort to Miss Shipp in the Valley of Death, where she would have been its most formidable creature.

Edsel pushed the Chinaberries up his nose and scrunched down behind Ben Swilley, the eighth grade intellectual, to make a monkey face, a creation affected by inserting his tongue between his upper lip and front teeth, crossing the eyes and pulling the ears perpendicular to his head. Edsel made the monkey face, but Miss Shipp was upon him like a thundercloud. Before he could uncross his eyes, she snatched him up by his Red Camel overall straps, dangled him at arms’ length to make full advantage of the yardstick’s leverage to strike him a‑‑THERRWHACK‑‑lick that shot a Chinaberry from Edsel’s left barrel clean to the blackboard. It was the first time we had ever seen Miss Shipp surprised.

It never could have happened, Swilley subsequently reckoned, if Edsel hadn’t had his tongue under his upper lip, diverting through the nose any air that would otherwise have been expelled orally when Miss Shipp dusted him. The same theory accounted for the nasal gasp that inhaled the other Chinaberry so far up into his nose that Mr. Finney, the principal, had to take Edsel uptown to Dr. Rhyne’s office to have the Chinaberry removed with an instrument we imagined to look like barbed wire chopsticks.

I swear that Chinaberry flew out of Edsel like a rifle ball, his nostrils being calibered, like our popguns, to the approximate diameter of Chinaberries. “Wow,” we said respectfully, “Wow!”

I can remember sitting beyond the shade of the Chinaberry tree in early December and watching the robins perch in the branches and eat the waxy yellow Chinaberries until they were too drunk to fly. We believed that the children who lived in the tenant houses ate Chinaberries regularly, though our mothers told us they were poisonous. They may well have been poisonous. Nobody is living in the tenant houses anymore, although the gray skeletal remains still haunt the agricultural landscapes of the South. They are now empty and dilapidated. The porches are broken in and the yards are overgrown with blackberry bushes, broomsage, kudzu and, yes, Chinaberry trees. Maybe Chinaberries are poisonous. Maybe they have a lingering and accumulative toxicity that has killed off all the people who used to live in tenant houses with Chinaberry trees in well swept hard dirt yards. Maybe the Chinaberry tree is an unrecognized historical cause of the downfall of the antebellum South.

I guess that I must now suppose that Chinaberries are poisonous, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s even appropriate, if the Chinaberry was the fruit of the prelapsarian or even the antebellum fall. What bothers me most, even saddens me, is my discovery that the Chinaberry tree‑‑the tree which I held to be the most Southern of Southern trees‑‑is an Persian import that must be added to the list of those other artificially introduced foreign species that have become so typical to the Southern landscape:  kudzu, water hyacinth, cattle egrets, investors, tourists, and modern carpetbaggers. It’s hard to imagine what the land of cotton (another import) looked like when it belonged to the American Indians.

(END)

Quail, Dogs & Grandmothers

 
By O. Victor Miller

It helps to know that grandmothers are still in charge in the Deep South, that hunting bobwhite quail is still a rite of passage, that future sons-in-law and trade associates still have their virtues weighed by dogs and guns before sober investments of cash or daughters. Our folk have been a matriarchal lot ever since Clovis nomads squatted down to grub a root. Muskogee princesses, absentee Spanish queens, frail belles, spoiled brats, and dusky mistresses—all conspired for power while males ranged out to drag home protein.

In Southern climes, egocentric Mother Nature bestows a seamless transformation on her daughters, who say their childish prayers and wake up as women and running things. Her sons, however, must re-smelt imperfections in cauldrons of puberty, swollen glands propelling meat into hormonal battles and idiotic wars. Girls simply have mothers and then become them, creating an omnipresent matrilineal network of grandmothers without whose temperament we Southern males would’ve exterminated ourselves 400 years ago.

Though generally disinclined to train the dogs or hunt the quail, these true rulers of the South rule roosting territories. Outliving mates, they hold title to hunting lands and impose etiquette. A careless hunter in some other venue may gain some “hubris of empire,” even to a Vice Presidency of the Union, but down here in Georgia, an ill-bred thug who fires his gun with greedy disregard for dogs or fellows can’t hope to reproduce himself. Without the blessing of grandmothers, these men must wander north or starve.

Patrick’s grandmother, Barbara, whose daddy was our grocer, impressed me indelibly in the 1950s by laying rubber in the family Cadillac. Now, her grandson has moved down here from Iowa to live with her and the boy’s father, her son, and she spends her days monitoring a police scanner. Chagrined that Patrick plays Mortal Kombat—a diversion she feels deemphasizes firearms safety—she told me to take the boy hunting, which was what was done with 14-year-old boys when she was, as they say, a girl. In keeping with time-honored caveats, I wasn’t to let him get him chilled, hungry, or shot. Plus, he couldn’t miss any school.
 
“School? Damn, Barbara, I’m a college professor!” I say. “Or was before I quit.”

“I know,” she trumped, “and I’m his grandmother.”

The law allows Patrick a choice of parents, and that’s it. He can’t drive, vote, work, 
or drink whiskey. He can’t stay out past curfew, and unless courtship has drastically changed since I was, as they say, a boy, his female contemporaries won’t pay him much mind until he gets his photo on a wanted poster or a driver’s license.

Down here among the gnats and Spanish moss, hunting behind dogs of finer pedigree than their owners’ remains, largely due to grandmothers, the most gentlemanly and least sanguinary form of venery and the best fun adolescents can legally engage in fully clothed, but for mortal consequences from a bungle, hunting ranks right up there with bullfights and juggled hand grenades. The etiquette of safe gun handling underlies Southern traditions against causing the death of somebody who don’t need killing, and endorphin-laced teens must be regimented like bred pointers to throttle instincts primordial. Patrick’s grandmother wants him to learn to manage his mettle before 21st-century media technology transforms him into a psychopath with a mail-order AK-47.
 
When Jimbo, Patrick’s father, brings him by, I’m astonished to see a normal teenager, tall and handsome with broad shoulders and basic manners. We take him out to Triple Creek Plantation to meet the Plumber, a pal of mine for almost 60 years. We find him at the trap range sitting on a plastic bucket on a grassy knoll between a new lodge and a sparkling lake, teaching grandkids home from college to shoot trap without encroaching on each other’s slice of firing line.

Poleaxed by déjà vus, I first mistook his granddaughter Augusta, cocked on one hip, a broken shotgun balanced backwards across a shoulder, for her mother, Beverly. It takes a long moment to get back to where and when I am. I’d taught these youngsters’ parents and coached (if loosely put) Augusta’s future dad in Spanish, but Gary “Plumber” Flanigan and Corinne Beverly go back even further, being the first of our high school class to get married without having to.

In those early days, Plumber and I weren’t much company for wives, snoring in our boot socks by the hearth while the ladies scraped plates and fed the dishwasher, but Corinne stayed the course. She made their home and brokered real estate. She kept the books and raised pretty daughters, with bright brown eyes and crow-black hair from Plumber’s line. Our camps were tents and campfires. Before turning in, Plumber would kick up a galaxy of sparks to Cassiopeia and Orion. “I moan have a place someday,” he’d say, “and the whole damn world can go to hell.”

“Sure,” we’d yawn. “Sure you will.”

“He’s never shot a quail,” I say by way of introducing Patrick.

“Them neither,” Plumber says. He gestures with the trap remote to Brett and Blake, Lila’s twins, and Beverly’s Augusta, who wears the Flanigan hair down past her shoulders as her mother did, the shimmer of a grackle’s iridescence, a trace of Plumber’s cowlick at the forehead.

“Put him yonder with them,” he says.

Plumber’s grandfather, a hard-drinking redheaded loco-motive engineer, settled in Albany, Georgia, the midpoint of his run. His flamboyant unpredictability at the junction earned him the nickname On-Again Off-Again 
Here-Again Gone-Again Flani-gan.

Plumber’s father, an affable plumbing contractor who rocked like a penguin when he walked, was called Old Man by the crew, including Plumber. Old Man brought blackened pots of turnip greens to camps, taking his teeth out to eat. Kids were drawn to him like he was made of candy.

Unlike Gone-Again, Old Man lived for hard work, and Plumber grew up doing a lot more of it than the rest of us. For one whole summer his legs were nicked and scarred by splintered flint that a maul sparked from river rock he broke for walls.

Cursed and blessed with continuity, I taught college English in my hometown for 30 of the 60 years I’ve known the Flanigans. I taught both daughters. Pace, a future son-in-law, I tried to coach in Spanish. Teaching Pace—too wired to sit—was worse than herding cats. I marched him through the pinewoods drilling verbs only because his saintly uncle, Bill Pace, had signed me out of school to take me quail hunting when nobody, especially not girls, would’ve noticed me if I’d set myself on fire. Like other unfinished products of Mother Nature, I was an unloved 
acromegalic abomination with oversized feet, a reedy voice, and a complexion like a pepperoni pizza. “Yucky,” they’d have said as I melted into a loathsome pile. “Cooties!”
 
Pace’s mother, when I refused more money, sighed: “All he wants to do is hunt.”

“Let him,” I said. “Maybe he’ll get rich enough to stay out of jail and sire some pretty children.” Which is pretty much what Pace did.

It helps to know: Down here we give our kids first names from maiden surnames, like Beverly, Pace, and Flannery for matrilineal continuity. In turn, our infant children’s premiere trials at speech nickname adults Pawpaw, Memaw, Bahbah, Bumpy, Doodle, and Dingdaddy, appellations that stick for life and then some.

You’re jerking off!” Plumber calls to Patrick as another ceramic disk plops into the sparkle of the lake. The boys grin sheepishly, like acolytes caught redhanded drinking altar wine.

“Do what, Pawpaw?”

“Flinching,” I translate. “You’re jerking off the target.”

“Oh.”

“Pawpaw?” I smile.

Plumber ignores me, thick forearms resting on his knees. My son still called me Doe Doe when I turned him over to Plumber. Too young to shoot, he stumbled after Plumber and a quadroon dog, establishing a debt in all these years I haven’t paid the interest on.

“I’ve spoiled them and know it,” Plumber says, lighting a cheroot Corinne won’t let near her new lodge, “but I enjoy my grandchildren.” Speaking around the cigar, he’s as articulate as any Southerner. “I enjoyed my children, too,” he reflects. “Hell, I even enjoyed your children.”

While we watch the youngsters shoot, Beau, the overseer and the Flanigans’ oldest grandson, pulls up reporting that a backhoe patching a dam has run over a company truck.

“Lean into it, Gussie,” Plumber calls out to his granddaughter. “And keep the shotgun swinging.”
Augusta tilts, hind leg in elegant tiptoe, returning the clay pigeon to charcoal dust, it seems, before it gets out past the muzzle. She’s a competitor like Aunt Lila, and her cousins love her for it. They’d rather see her beat them at a game than win one themselves.

Beau shrugs and smiles, returning to the work. It’s Plumber’s way to take things one on one and easy, skirting enterprises that require new clothes. I never know if he’s broke or flush, and if he doesn’t peek into Corinne’s books he may not either. His work and play and life are fused into one seamless kinetic—the relentless, easy gait of who he is—a single, measured, perpetual motion that will go on while Plumber does.

When construction flat-lined, instead of laying off he brought his crew and backhoes out to make this place. For three years now they’ve carved dirt roads, dug fishing lakes, and groomed habitat from scrub and thicket. Corinne made them mark and spare a thousand native dogwood trees.

“All these years he plods along, looking too laid-back to suck air,” says an employee since Old Man was 
running things. “Now he’s done got rich as four foot up a bull’s ass, and it couldn’t happen no better.” But it’s 
clear in large part his success derives from monomatriarchy, the uninterrupted rule of one good woman. His bulk has settled some upon his bucket, but essentially he’s the same young man who kicked the fire and said, “I will.” The thatch of hair he passed on to daughters, and they to the grandkids, has tarnished some with hoar and thinned through distribution, receding past the foremost cowlick of his youth, flaming hair of Gone Again having surfaced only once, in a great granddaughter.

“Well, Pawpaw, how’d you come to sire this pretty progeny?”

The mute answer: Corinne, strolling from the full-length porch of her lodge, checking on her grandchildren. Lila’s boys, the twins, are shooting trap with Patrick out of Barbara’s Jim and Beverly’s Augusta.

After a safety DVD in the great room of the lodge, Plumber says, “Patrick, you’re a big, fine boy, but if you shoot one of my dogs or grandchildren, I moan take my belt off and whip your ass. You understand me?”

“Yessir.” Patrick grins.

“Or the guide!” adds Keith, the guide.

“The guide is CYOA,” says Plumber.

We leave the young hunters at the lodge to fetch the dogs and a hunting truck, like something out of Africa, with high bench seats mounted above dog boxes. At the kennels, two dozen pointers bounce on hind legs, hurling themselves against the chain-link gates, howling like they’ve treed us. Beau threatens them with the high-pressure water hose that cleans the pens, producing an immediate and uncanny silence, but as he drops the hose, the nozzle cracks open. We hoot louder than the dogs, jumping lashing loops and ducking icy spray.

“What y’all doing wet?” Augusta wants to know when we return.

From the high sway of the hunting truck, Gussie and I watch Patrick hunt beside his father. More birds fly to Jim. He kills them almost apologetically with a humpback Browning knob-grip passed down from his father.

For birds that come his way, Patrick errs on caution’s side—the right stuff—taking shots too late, about the time the quail shift gears from afterburn to sail, watching them angle through the pines among dogwoods, fanning down into the paisley hardwood and cypress bottoms of Muckalee Creek, doing Grandma proud. Finally a single hooks to Patrick’s side. He shoots a little late, but the bird drops a leg and wobbles down into the sedge for Jack. The boy’s first quail, his daddy on the spot, the way things should go and almost never do.

“Well done!” Keith takes the bird, slaps Patrick’s shoulder.

On the wagon, Augusta’s knee is jerking up and down, her daddy’s Boykin blood. To tame it she stands up. “Good shot, Pat!” she calls, sitting down, the knee cranking off again with a life of its own.

“If you believe in the hereafter,” I whisper to Jim as he and Patrick climb up. “That there’s what we came here after.” With eyes glazed over, he stares out where a lot of birds escaped, beatific smile stamped in a face flushed red as his cap. A boy’s first bird has some great sway upon a father.

Now comes Augusta, down with Blake and Jack. How can I help but follow? These are my students’ kids: their daughter, sons, nephews, niece, and all. I’m kin enough. My own grandmother, like Corinne, was nicknamed Bud. She could find a blood connection to anyone in the South at will or scratch one out of the Bible. Down here, we’re kin to who we want to be, to better know each other and ourselves.

“I want the twenty gauge,” Augusta tells Keith as he hands her the .410.

“Pawpaw’s orders,” he says.

She loads red shells thinner than her granddaddy’s pinkies. We stalk the dogs, Jack squirming through a millet patch. A warm wind bullies off the chill. I carry coats back to the truck. Over pale hills stacked against each 
other, a dark cloud moves in from the south spilling rain. The light softens shadows, and the distance changes 
Gussie back into her mother. The bright orange cap against her hair recalls a blackbird’s epaulets, and I want this moment merging with forever—the smell of rain, dogwoods gone to berries bright as blood , the hickory’s antique gold and piebald bark of sycamore, the hectic shimmer of burnished leaves blanched by backing gusts.

“You want a gun, OV?” Plumber shouts to me.

“No thanks, I’m having too much fun.”

I catch back up to Gussie at the point—Jack, that beautiful bench-legged SOB, staunch as a bulldog doorstop at the edge of tall millet, the backing dog on shaky haunches, tail stiff as wire.

“Keep to the edge, Gussie.” With Blake and Keith across the patch, anything up is hers. I place my palm 
between her shoulder blades and urge her to the dogs. The touch revives her mother, behind me on a ladder stand. I sat the footrest at her feet, my back against her knees to keep the gun out front. Beverly went with us but wouldn’t shoot. Her younger sister, Lila, mother to the twins, would scramble a tree alone in predawn darkness carrying an iron sight .30-30 with the bluing worn silver, and stay there till you came.

“I can’t shoot this gun,” Augusta whines.

“You have before.”

“I know, but now I’ve got it in my head.”

“Don’t think about it, you’ll forget it’s there. Just get the stock against 
your cheek and do like Pawpaw said.” I push her close against the wall of golden millet. A cock breaks loose that must’ve grazed Jack’s nose, and Gussie, leaning into her shot, tumbles it, her back leg poised on tiptoe, suede boots trimmed in fur.

Suddenly a bat or a bobwhite quail behind her flushes in my face. I hit the dirt and roll and hold my ears.

She breaks her gun and helps me up. “You find a hole?” She smiles.

“Just giving you a shot,” I mutter.

“We don’t shoot the quail that break behind,” says the girl who’s never ever shot a quail but one.
Jack hasn’t moved and won’t until he’s tapped. She chambers two. Before she locks the breech, a third bird flushes up in front. She kills it clean before it levels off—it’s not a double, but close enough for kin. Down feathers ride the backing breeze.

I tap Jack’s head, reanimating him to snort around fetching her birds, grinning around them in his mouth, her cousins smiling wide as Jack.

“Can I please have the twenty now?” she begs.

“Ask Pawpaw.”

She does. He says Climb back up, give Brett a turn. Plumber wants her moment to sink in, and mine. She 
wants another moment, but her pout, if it is that, is brief as youth, fleeting as a quail-bird’s flutter. She knows that hunting’s not a game to win like shooting is, but learning what you know is twice as hard—the twins are on the ground, like, both of them at once. Jack’s slinking through the sedge and . . .


“Pawpaw!” she calls, her knee pumping faster than her heart, and he ignores her, lighting his cheroot. She takes her case to Keith and Beau, who shrug and smile. I climb back to the topmost seat and pat the restless knee her father gave her. On high seats, I am as aging monarchs are: the passing lords of all they know and see, a perfect moment in a perfect world, where everything in changing stays the same. Of fathers being heroes to their sons. Of all that is and all there’s ever been. Of quail and dogs and boys becoming men, and by God, pretty women being who they are: root, branch, and bud.

(Published in Gray’s Sporting Journal – August 2009)

Our Fathers Had Fly Rods

By O.Victor Miller

Inspired by idyllic covers of outdoor sports magazines, our fathers acquired fly rods thinking incorrectly they’d know how to cast them. How hard can it be? The covers depicted happily mature men, briar pipe clenched into sublime grins, hooked up to an equally blissful rainbow with bright wet flies in the corners of theirs. The rods they ordered from a catalogue were long, stiff poles with automatic reels the size of shuffleboard pucks advertised for better line management. They doubled as counter weights for casting, like banner stones on atlatls. The mainspring, wound manually or by stripping line off the spool, was triggered by a pinkie’s touch. In time, this tackle ascended to attics (there are no basements in South Georgia) with the Christmas decorations for kids to plunder, the term our mothers called what we did on rainy days we weren’t outside wallowing in mud. The reels, we discovered, were powerful enough to bring in a respectable fish. Catch and release were consolidated and accidental. The lightest touch would zip a butterbean bream—Jouoooop—into the rod tip, hair-lipping and releasing it in an automatic second. We jumped in to recover stunned fish of all sizes orbiting their tails, the butterbeans coveted by grandmothers, who fried them up in bacon grease, gumming them down bones and all. Leaving a cud on the side of plates decorated with sweetheart roses.

Our fathers boats were ours too when we could steal them. Homemade flat ended cypress river boats called Tison-builts known for their prodigious osmosis. We caulked with horsehair twine and pine pitch and left them submerged to keep the boards from shrinking. Still river water the color of Bock beer noodling inboard through cracks wide as the gaps in our incisors. We crammed these boats beyond capacity with towheaded boys cutting Junior High with our fathers’ purloined fly rods. Taking turns hadn’t been invented yet, so after the first collective cast, we spent huge portions of our stolen days untangling thick flylines and the black silk lines we robbed from baitcasters and used for leaders.

Pine tar caulking wasn’t soluble in water, so our bare feet had to be scrubbed with turpentine before entering our mothers’ kitchens. The soles tough enough to strike kitchen matches and further thickened by permeating resin. One day Bobby Franck tried to light a cigarette butt to pass around, igniting his foot. He stomped the hissing sole overboard, swamping us. When misty bubbles subsided, he raised his dripping foot to his chin with both hands, studying it as if charting his fortune while we looked on astounded. The tar bubbled but his skin was too tough to raise a blister. “Do it again, Bobby,” we begged.

It was commonly axiom among our fathers that heavy flies cast farther and we kept the faith, spanking the water fore and aft. To crappie jigs we added Hildebrandt spinners and barrel swivels for heft. For longer casts, we attached bacon droppers, cut bait and pork rinds. Those of us not depilated by natural baldness still sport spots of hairless scar tissue from tear-jerking haymakers that nailed us like .22 shorts where cowlicks grew. Pap! Holy Moley! Got dog! Bobby.  

We had one paddle cut from a gray board, sometimes just a gray board, for the helmsman– always gray–the rest of us went at it with stolen brooms. If unilateral vigor overpowered the helmsman,  us backward into a flume, we reversed in our seats, passing the paddle to the bow, our blunt-ended craft perfectly engineered for our method of propulsion, and I’m here to tell you a boatload of truant boys manning  filched brooms can flat haul at it down a fast river. We sometimes towed sash weights for directional stability and to chum up hellgrammites, but drag reduced speed and distance traveled before nightfall, negatively impacting another maxim among us that the best fishing was the longest haul from any starting point. We never fished upstream, so our travels were serial. We ran rapids, banging sideways into rocks, dislodging gator fleas to stir up shoalies. We leaned against minimal freeboard and maximum draft, too busy staying upright to cast, but incidental lures dangling overboard from collective ganglia were good producers. With no pressure except from wild-ass kids cutting junior high, the fish were dumber in those days. We sorely needed stupid fish and the Lord provided. We fished willows thick with mayflies, overshooting into the branches and knocking down duns, slough and new imagoes. Magic happed when somebody tried to yank loose, chumming bluegills into feeding frenzies of landlocked piranha.

At dusk we’d tie off the boat somewhere downriver and hitch home before supper.  The Tison-built boat stayed tethered with horsehair twine until we could cut school again and resume indefinite journey until eventually we’d worry a neutral adult to retrieve it before it was missed. That or find another swamped Tison tied with horsehair twine.

My popularity was principally invested in proximity to a river bank and my father’s contrived carelessness in keeping up with his equipment.  He must’ve considered our chance of ever reaching puberty an impossible transition under close parental supervision and he rarely went looking for us or his boat. “They can’t all drown,” he’d console my mother, who as darkness fell tugged the temples of her perm. “At least one of them will come back to tell the tale.”

“I wouldn’t fret half so much,” she’d fret, “if Bobby Franck weren’t along.”

When spinning reels got invented, we replaced the automatics and slung cheroot-sized wooden plugs a country mile. Snagging comrades became grave but infrequent, the additional heft on lighter line dominating the physics of propulsion, but we plundered pliers to remove barbs, keeping mothers perpetually in darkness.

Over the years the Sears rods gathered dust, the reels dirt daubers. They ascended back into the rafters for our own sons to plunder. Then A River Ran Through It emerged as a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt. Having become moderately affluent and ashamed of our fathers, we rushed to Atlanta for expensive clothes and new tackle, duding up in pastel shirts with military epaulets, our chests decorated with surgical stainless for removing hooks from fish or fishermen. Angling became a finer art, socially acceptable to trophy wives, a few of whom even suited up with us to shop for baskets in mountain crafts shops as we elbowed our way into the khaki front lines of coldwater streams. We went nuts with the rest of the nation, and our wives went along–until we discovered the physics of our childhood hadn’t changed much. Crappie jigs and pork rinds were even harder to cast from midflex graphite rods than from the unyielding spared rods of our fathers. Our own attics got stocked with Gortex, graphite and Neoprene for new plunder.

 

But a few of us, perhaps enough to swing a national election, persisted in the notion that angling with priceless equipment is somehow more spiritual and urbane, therefore more acceptable to liberal ministers and second wives who demand sensitive and submissive husbands tying flies before a hearth. Thus sustained, we faithfully practiced our art until our names were dropped from church bulletins and our wives left us, selling our tackle on E-Bay or donating it to Junior League attic sales to be plundered by other sons from other loins while our own true progeny rifle sparse leavings of maternal grandfathers in other attics. This is, I reckon, as it should be–a winnowing sanity, an evolutionary recycling of collective dreams, and I count my losses sagely with a single longing unfulfilled: I wish to hell I could get my hands on another Tison-built boat.

(Published in Southwest Georgia Living magazine 2008)