Earlene and the Witch, fiction by Misty Skaggs

Ivy swaddled the sapling oak in the tattered remains of a patchwork quilt that got washed one too many times. The stuffing seeped out and clung to the young branches in worn white puffs, like tired clouds. She was careful not to tuck it in too tight around the roots. Dank dirt clods and frayed, stray threads littered the kitchen table. She rubbed her grubby hands over the faded fabric and let her calluses catch and snag tight, resilient stitches finally worked loose. Her thoughts grazed across the needlework, too tiny and delicate for a scrap quilt. And then they wandered back to the patient woman who must’ve made those stitches. Ivy had given fifty cents for the thing at a yard sale, talked ‘em right down from three bucks. Somebody’s sweet little Mamaw had been so careful, made such nimble moves with arthritic fingers. That woman had to have been the kind of Mamaw who made drop doughnuts while you slept in late and filled the kitchen with the smells of sugar and lard and coffee brewing. The kind of Mamaw with a puff of white hair pulled back in a bun, a woman who preferred to be called Nana. Nana, who gave hugs freely and touched and loved on her grand-babies who grew up to be inappreciative assholes who sold her quilt at a goddamned yard sale.

Ivy’s Mamaw had raised her and she preferred to be called Earlene. By all. There were no concessions for the grand-babies, no cute nicknames or handmade quilts. No getting spoilt. They were expected to pull their weight and help make the ends meet and to pay extra for the mistakes of their father. The biggest one of all being running away and leaving Earlene and her tattered twenty acres behind him. Daddy disappeared from the homestead and slunk off into some big city and six months later they sent his body back to the holler, cold as a wedge and stiff as a board and riddled with needle marks and bruises. Mommy killed herself six months on after that. Sloppy, with a shotgun in the cellar of Earlene’s house. In the cellar right below Ivy’s feet. Ivy didn’t remember the double dose of death that had been her birth right, but people talked.

Earlene made damned good deer jerky. That was as close as she got to baking treats. If you won her approval, you were rewarded with a wayward tousling of the hair and a mumble. Something akin to “You done good, kid”. Earlene had a coarse, gray head of hair, stained with nicotine and nappy, slapped back in a permanent pony tail. She was tall and broad, even in her old age when her spine humped up and she slumped over ever so slightly. The boys, Ivy’s little brothers, they didn’t stick around to watch Earlene get old and die. They broke loose as soon as they were old enough and she never heard from either of them again. Ivy missed them. The way they had laughed often and easy and kept things around the house all riled up. Earlene blamed Ivy’s Papaw. Said he had bad blood, the kind that wandered. Said he passed it down. Papaw went to work in Detroit when Earlene was a young woman and never sent for her and never come back. Never sent her a nickel towards raising her son, neither. That’s what Earlene said. In this house, by herself, Ivy could almost hear that familiar gravel voice, gritty in her ear.

Ivy watched her grandmother age, the two of them alone in the middle of all those acres. They planted a garden by the stars and the almanac and ate what they grew and barely used the electric. Towards the end, Earlene took to the outhouse. Walking through the cold night air to squat over a plywood hole instead of using her own, warm, toilet down the hall. Together, they were clinging to the past, holding on so hard they might rip a hole in the right now. So tight they might tear through the fabric of time with their dirty fingernails and bring back the dead. Earlene got superstitious. She sprinkled salt water around her bed and tacked up horse shoes above all the doors. She refused to clip her toenails on Sunday and slept with a pocket Bible in her pillow case, even though Ivy never remembered her setting foot in a church.

Earlene was still stout and sturdy and she tromped around in boots that her granddaughter could still hear, haunting a huffy path over loose floorboards at night. One time, the only time Ivy ever saw Earlene scared, a bird got into the house. She cried. Ivy’s Mamaw, the woman who would kill a copperhead with one swift strike of her hoe and then hang it on the fence for all the other snakes to see, hunkered down on a stool in the corner of the kitchen and stared at the little wren and wept and trembled. A bird in the house is bad luck of the worst kind. A bird in the house brings death. Earlene said she learned to look for omens.

Ivy went to the grocery store and bought packs of pork chops and bacon and packs of ground hamburger meat, but Earlene still went hunting. Said she preferred the taste of something wild. Ivy stood at the kitchen window one foggy October morning and waited up into the bright afternoon and then until the dusky evening mist rose up again. Earlene never came back. Ivy expected to discover that well water and outdoor toilets and Virginia Slims were the secret to eternal life. She never expected her Mamaw to die at all. Ivy had expected to make squirrel dumplings or maybe rabbit stew for supper. She never expected to discover her Mamaw having a heart attack under an oak tree, clutching her chest with one hand and her shotgun with the other. Earlene had a horrified look on her face and her tough voice cracked into whispers and she blamed the witch for the way her hard heart burst. Said she saw her, standing there at the edge of the clearing. A pale woman, fuzzy around the edges, calling to her from somewhere else, somewhere far away. Earlene’s last breath was a curse against a curse. A damnation of some female power only she had witnessed, the vision of a beautiful beast who took away her boys, her men. Earlene’s last breath was a whirlwind – a hex and a damnation and an extrication of a promise from the only person who stuck around to hear it.

Ever since that bird got in the house, Earlene wanted to trek out to the cemetery after every thunderstorm, any time she thought she saw a stab of lightning cut through the air and land on the ridge. She was scared of the omens. Ivy followed her through the wet woods to the most haunted place. On many a morning when the raindrops were still caught in the trees, Ivy watched her tired Mamaw lean against the trunk of a tree, reassured to find it still standing. Ivy shook her head and shook off a shiver and took up her bundle. Determined to find the old graveyard on the furthest corner of the property, she headed out into the sunrise light of day. She remembered the way.

Today, there was no mist seeping down off the foothills, just pink and orange light chasing the night away. No, Ivy thought, Earlene wasn’t the kind of woman who made quilts. She was the kind of woman who knew when to slaughter a hog, according to how the planets aligned. The kind of woman who didn’t want to be called Mamaw, the kind of woman who’s final wishes involved planting a brand new tree on an old witch’s grave.

skaggsMisty Skaggs, full time writer and part time hermit, was born and raised in the backwoods of eastern Kentucky where she still lives. Her poetry and prose are rooted firmly in Appalachia and have been published in literary journals such as New Madrid, Inscape, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Kudzu and The Pikeville Review. Her interests include junk shopping, porch swinging, and cats. You can find more of her writing and photography at her blog – http://lipstickhick.tumblr.com

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Down by The River, poem by Charles Swanson

(A poetic comment on Breece D’J Pancake’s short story “A Room Forever”)

Between cold buildings, out to the slate gray river
a view as flat as old year’s end. A room,
a room forever, not because of heaven—
instead because of death. Rose blood blooms
at her small wrists. The man waits at the river,
his tug a means down further, down with dumped
waste to the Delta. But his frozen vision
sees the foggy river, the drizzle as the same.
These pages!—why do I feel this man’s heart?
Everything is cold, the town, the river,
the foggy rain, the woman, not much more
than a child, yet a prostitute. He takes her
nonetheless. An ache beats against the river.
She tries to end it, he just stares some more.

View More: http://andrealeephotos.pass.us/swansonsCharles A. Swanson teaches dual enrollment English in a new Academy for Engineering and Technology, serving the Southside region of Virginia. Frequently published in Appalachian magazines, he also pastors a small church, Melville Avenue Baptist in Danville. He has two books of poems: After the Garden, published by MotesBooks, and Farm Life and Legend, from Finishing Line Press.

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Tsunami, poem by Melissa Helton

My entire nation pitches forward, ocean water turned violent.
It was a slow rise that we couldn’t detect in the open sea.

But now we can see it, an airless wall at crest peak,
that moment of full lungs ceasing to breathe in any more,
that split second as the cup fills and bulges toward overflow,
that moment the electricity begins its charge down the synapses,
that pause when the guitar string is bending, before it thwacks to hum.
That big glowing wave poised and holding, and in one more millisecond,

it will snap into the next frame of time, it will begin to fall, to fold,
beginning to break and fray, the dark, glowing water separating into broken pieces,
white and gold in the light and the roar will begin,
louder and louder as more collapses and crashes,

pushed far under the surface by all that is falling on top of it,
like folks being carried away in a stampede of crowd.
And once it has fallen, broken, crashed, plunged, then the undertow begins,
the demands of the ocean pulling back, demanding all its water return,
and the empty lungs begin to expand and pull the air down the throat,
Right now, my nation is that big frozen, glowing wave.
It is holding high and ready to unleash all its force
in this inevitable direction it has been thrown.

heltonMelissa Helton is Assistant Professor of English at Southeast KY Comm &  Tech College and her work has appeared in Anthology of Appalachian Writers vol. VIII, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, STILL: The Journal, Motif v. 4, and more. Her first chapbook, Inertia: A Study, is available through Finishing Line Press. She lives and farms in the mountains of southeast Kentucky.

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Of My Great Uncle, poem by Amanda Kelley

Now that you are gone what I remember most
is the size of your hands—as big as oven mitts
I see them wrapped around a hoe handle,
then imagine them in boxing gloves when you were young:

The sound of the bell and
your frame towering over the other man.
You drove an hour to get there—
a ring in the center of a park
moths dotting the lights
faces shining in the summer night—
someone passes around a quart of moonshine
your brothers cheer you on, then
your opponent falls like a sack of feed
your hand is raised over your head.
You catch your breath
and it’s over.

kelleyAmanda Kelley has worked as a graduate assistant, advertising sales representative, substitute teacher, newspaper reporter, delivery driver, property manager, and retail salesperson at a hardware store and at a lingerie shop. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Kentucky. Her work has appeared in The Accolade, Inscape, JMWW, Kentucky Monthly’s Writers’ Showcase, and Eunoia Review. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky with the poet Sean L Corbin and their two sons.

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Trinity Ridge Zoological, poem by Todd Mercer

The Holy Roller Church of Serpents
is set in a notch of a steep knob. You cross
a rope-bridge to get there, remove
your thinking cap to roll with the irrational
spectacle when Reverend Righteous
taunts the snakes, tests his faith against venom.
He provokes and worries a pair of rattlers
held in each hand, stokes the backwoods
parishioners with his calls for supplication.
They fall into the aisles, shouting gibberish.
The hiss sharpens before one sinks fangs in,
poison doing what it’s known to do. Here’s hoping
a confederate milks these monsters
before the service, a measure of dilution.
Someone asked the Reverend if belief
was sufficient fix. Should they summon EMTs?
He let the Almighty save him,
but Darwinism culled him from the herd.
Amen. Self-selecting know-nothings
pick up those dropped snakes, they tempt fate
further, slain in the spirit, rolling.
Now and then one’s literally slain.

toddmercerTODD MERCER won the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts Flash Fiction Award for 2015. His digital chapbook, Life-wish Maintenance, appeared at Right Hand Pointing. His story, “Because Hipsters” was read at Liars’ League NYC. Mercer won the first Woodstock Writers Festival’s Flash Fiction contest. Mercer’s recent poetry and fiction appear in Apocrypha & Abstractions, Bartleby Snopes, Blast Furnace, Cheap Pop, Dunes Review, Eunoia Review, Gravel, Kentucky Review, The Lake, The Legendary, Literary Orphans, Main Street Rag Anthologies, Misty Mountain Review, SOFTBLOW Journal and Two Cities Review.

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Two Poems by Tim Peeler

Rougher Beast

I took my training from daddy,

Drunken waking me at three am

With a belt buckle across my legs.

First three or four licks left red welts;

Then I numbed and hardened,

Never giving in when he screamed

Cry you little bastard, cry,

So’s I can stop, but he didn’t

And I gritted my teeth

And dug my knuckles

Into the bed roll

Till he fell into a coughing fit

Then began to cry hisself.

 

Rougher Beast 14

That preacher said if you try

Hard enough you can feel it

And I watched my brother walk

Down to the altar call, fall

On his knees blubbering prayers

And I tried talking to God

I said please let me feel it

Let me know that this is real

The widow played the organ

And the congregation moaned

But I sat my head ringing

With the commotion till the

Building and people vibed

Together like a mess of

Hogs smelling the feed barrel

When I opened up the lid

And I felt nothing but a

Hard knot forming inside me.

peelerTim Peeler’s most recent books are Henry River: An American Ruin from Lummox Press and Knuckle Bear from Red Dirt Press.

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Cheaha, fiction by A.M. Garner

THE MAN WHO LOANS TOOLS IS OUT. The hand-lettered sign hung dead center of the rear wall of the cement block garage. Lendon Philpot—the man who didn’t loan out his tools—leaned over the motor of a red ’67 Ford Galaxie, trying his best to loosen the rusted bolts on the red Ford’s water pump. Yellow jacket wasps buzzed his face every time he squirted solvent on the stubborn parts before yanking his hands, arms, and torso in a gut-wrenching tug.

The group of men gathered near the red cold-drink machine either sat on mule ear chairs—homemade wooden chairs with two back posts that curved out like mule’s ears—or  propped on wooden Coca Cola crates set on end. They watched carefully and marveled, hardly able to believe Lendon wasn’t cursing.

“Lendon’s done got religion.”

“A Ford could cause a man to lose his salvation.”

“A red Ford is Satan’s hand work.”

Lendon gave the wrench one last red-faced monumental tug.  His hand filmed with engine grease slipped, crashing his right hand knuckles into a protruding piece of metal that cut a gash at the same time his body shifted in such a way that Lendon’s right cheek pressed on a yellow jacket.  It buried its stinger an inch from the corner of his right eye, the catalyst for the show about to occur.

“Son of a BITCH.”

This was more like it.  The mule ear chair gang settled in to watch. Lendon shot up out of his crouch over the motor and hit his head on the propped up hood. When he settled steady on his feet beside the car, he danced around like a man who had lost his mind and threw his wrench with such force it glanced the top edge of the Ford Galaxie’s windshield, spidering the glass.  Lendon removed the dead yellow jacket from his face with his right hand while rubbing the top of his head with his left, all the while roiling out epithets so fierce that some of the men gathered around the cold drink machine cringed, one whispering “oh no, you shouldn’t say things like that about somebody’s mama, Lendon.”

Clyde Colvin—the member of the gang always given the best mule ear chair not simply because of his advanced age and role as leader and spokesman but mainly because he was by far the best local bootlegger in a dry county—summed it up best. “The devil is present and accounted for this morning.”

A firestorm of commentary erupted from the mule ear chair gang who’d all had at least two cups of coffee from the percolater that sat on a small metal cart beside Lendon’s desk and who were waiting to combust.

“It’s sure hot as hell. August in Alabama might be hell.”

“Not exactly. The Bible describes hell as a lake of fire that will consume the flesh but not end existence or eternal suffering.”

“Pull them shoes off your feet and walk down that black top yonder and see if you don’t think you’re being consumed by fire. Burnt, but not kilt.”

“That don’t make no sense.  Only a fool would take his shoes off and walk down the hot pavement in August.”

“Up on top of a hill is where you need to be when it’s this hot.  My ol’ granddaddy said always build a house on a hill to catch the breeze.”

“We need to be up on Cheaha Mountain.”

“Yessir.  You can catch some breezes up on Cheaha.”

“Ain’t never been to Cheaha, have you, Clyde?”

Clyde paused before speaking.  Every man there followed the pause, waiting to see what Clyde would say. “Never seen no need.”

“Hell, man, it’s just over in the next county.  Not more’n thirty mile.”

“All you have to do is go out Hollins Road and cut through that road by the Baptist church with the red winders.”

“Naw you don’t. That ain’t the way.  Just go up town and turn right at the red light past the bank and go out that way to Clairmont Springs.”

“You boys couldn’t tell a blind man sitting on a toilet how to find his rear.  There’s more than one bank up town.  And what if the light ain’t red?  What if it’s yeller or green? When then?  And besides, roads have numbers.”

“Clyde, you still scared of heights?  That why you never been to Cheaha? I heard you won’t buy a new pickup ‘cause the new ones sit too high off the ground.”

Everyone had a laugh over that, but Clyde didn’t answer.

A nice-looking young woman wearing a starched and ironed dress and with neat bobbed hair walked up and looked around, wide-eyed.  “I’m looking for Mr. Philpot,” she said.

Clyde Colvin stood like a gentleman and nodded in the direction of Lendon. “That would be him.”

When the young woman walked up to Lendon, he who had been cursing like the damned changed gears and smiled like a Sunday school teacher, found a rag in his pocket and wound it around his bleeding knuckles.  “Yes ma’am. How can we help you?”

They could all tell just by looking at her she was a good country girl, quiet and the kind who spends hours at hard work tending her garden, her children, and her own business.

“My husband, Pete Boshell, he said for me to drop off his old truck.” She sounded like she was apologizing.

Lendon looked out in the shop yard and didn’t see anyone waiting with another vehicle as her ride, just Pete Boshell’s old blue cattle truck left where she had parked it.

“You got a way to get home?”

“No sir.  I’ll be walkin’. Ain’t but ‘bout a mile.”

Lendon turned to the men whose mouths were for the most part hanging open.  “How ‘bout one of y’all fetch the keys to my truck there”—he nodded in the direction—“and drive Miz Boshell home. Too hot to be out walking bareheaded, and I suspect Miz Boshell’s got plenty a work at home just waitin’ on her.”

Lendon saw his portly cousin Hubert, one of the mule ear chair regulars, wobble out of his chair so fast he turned it over backwards on his way to the peg board that held keys in the corner that Lendon called his office.

Lendon continued.  “Pete Boshell’s a hard-working man.”

Every man there knew Pete Boshell was one of the locals who arose before dawn every morning to tend whatever cattle he had that season on his few fenced ragged acres, eat breakfast, and be on the job up at the cotton mill in Sylacauga for the seven AM shift.

“Least we can do is keep his truck running for him.”

Of course every man there also knew that it was Pete Boshell working at Avondale Mills right over the county line that provided the money to pay Lendon Philpot, who was not in the business of handouts unless it was that time the school bus broke down right in front of his shop and he gave all the kids free cokes and snacks from his Lance cookie jar, which was a different story altogether. Lendon hated to see a preacher coming is what he told the mule ear gang. Especially Baptist preachers. They always thought you should do their work for free and expect nothing more than a prayer in return. Money was always hard to come by in Coosa County.  You had to bring money into the county, not the other way around.

Lendon believed in hard work, keeping moving, lining up the jobs and the day’s work.  That’s how a man got ahead in the world.  A few years back he’d had four bays in his shop, but it was too much to juggle, having three mechanics besides himself on payroll and the shop yard lined with so many cars needing repair that it looked like a used car lot. Plus, with all those cars parked around all the time, some rumored he was bootlegging. And when he had to drive the five miles up town to pick up parts in his pickup, upon his return he found no work at all had been done.  So he’d closed up the two back bays, parked his tow truck in one, and kept the one mechanic Billy Banks who worked slow but steady and could rebuild a transmission better than new.  And Lendon set to giving responsibilities to the changing brigade who sat around in the mule ear chairs, never doing anything but watching him work, swapping lies about cars and fishing, and waiting to see if Lendon would pitch a conniption fit or join them.  He did join them about four every afternoon when the men all bought short cokes in thick glass bottles from the machine that still just charged a dime. The cokes were just to chase the swigs of whiskey each man took from whatever bottle Lendon Philpot had stashed in the bottom right drawer of his desk. They would pour the neck out and fill it up with the flavor whiskey of the day. Thanks to Clyde Colvin. And no one knew exactly where Clyde got his stash, though many—including state law enforcement—had surmised. Local law enforcement didn’t have to surmise since Clyde was paying them off to let him know when state or federal law might show up.

But it was just midmorning, a long time until four p.m.  The day was already so hot the heat shimmered off the black top on the highway out front, and burning sweat rolled into Lendon’s eyes.

Lendon was in pain but attacked the Ford again, this time with more focus, as if sheer human will could tame it.  The Ford had been nothing but problems. When Billy Banks changed the oil in the red Ford and the oil plug was stuck, he’d stripped it as he forced it out.  Then there was an electrical short in the starter that had plagued the car for months.  Lendon had replaced the starter twice and had checked for other shorts in the wiring. Each time it appeared he’d fixed the car.  But when the owner’s wife drove the red Ford to the grocery store and bought ice cream, the starter had another spell, stranding her with melting ice cream in a hot parking lot.  Lendon began to think of the red Ford as an epileptic whose attacks were unpredictable.  And now this episode with the water pump.  Plus when Billy Banks had sat in the driver’s seat of the red Ford to drive the car into the bay, a screwdriver he forgot he put in his hip pocket punched a hole in the upholstery and ripped it a couple of inches.  Lendon was back under the hood, wrestling with the water pump, the mule ear chair gang watching and taking turns narrating.

“I wouldn’t have no ’67 Ford Galaxie if somebody give me one.”

“Cars gotta be sexy now.  It’s all about the Mustang, all right.”

“Especially a red Ford Galaxie.  They’s the worst kind. Wouldn’t have one.”

“Half them Fords these days turn into great big fireballs in a wreck.  Like them Pintos.  Death traps on wheels.  That Corley gal over near Clanton and her little sister burned up in one of them Pintos.  Wasn’t their fault.  Hit from behind.”

“I wouldn’t let my dog drive no Pinto”

“Since when did your dog start driving, Charlie?”

“Just give me a good Chivolet, anytime.”

“Yessir.  A good Chivolet.”

“General Motors.”

“Yessir.  GM.  All the way.”

The mule ear gang was better than a chorus, singing Lendon’s own sentiments back to him as sweat dropped from his brow onto the Ford’s dusty motor.  By the time Lendon had the old part off and the new part on, he was red-faced and his eye had swollen close to shut.

“Back it out, Billy,” Lendon called.

Billy Banks wiped his hands with a clean rag and crawled into the driver’s seat of the red Ford once again.

Lendon went over to the water cooler and drank his fill, the chorus calling to him.

“Hey, Lendon, come over here and let Charlie here look at that eye for you.”

“You know I was a medic in the army.”

“Wet tobacco’ll take that sting out.”

“I don’t believe nobody would want none of that chew out’n your mouth.”

“Take that Prince Albert can in your pocket and dribble some water on a wad —let it get good and wet—then put that wad up against the stung place and tie a handkerchief over it.”

“Well, now, hold on.  I heard you take kerosene and sprinkle that on some clean Prince Albert and tie that on the stung place with a clean handkerchief.”

“That don’t make no sense at all.  The yellow jacket stung him up side the eye.  You want me to blindfold him?”

“Course I ain’t sayin’ blindfold him. How can a man walk around—even in his own shop—if  he’s blindfolded?”

About that time Lendon heard a loud sickening sound of metal crashing into metal and turned, expecting to find that some poor unsuspecting soul had slowed down on the highway to turn into the gravel yard of Lendon’s place of business and been hit from behind by a speeding tractor/trailer, its driver hellbent on making his load to Montgomery on schedule. Instead, what he saw was Billy Banks at the wheel of the red Ford with his face moving in rapid sequence through five emotions—surprise/disbelief/outrage/anger/fear.  The rear end of the red Ford sat mashed into the side of Pete Boshell’s old blue cattle truck.  Even from this view, Lendon could tell the red Ford had more damage than just a broken taillight. The rise of the trunk lid was now at an angle more like that of a chopped off race car, only crooked.

Billy Banks stumbled out of the car.  “I swear I had my foot on the brake, Lendon.  I swear.  I took it off the gas and put it on the brake.  It was like the car was possessed or something.  I couldn’t stop it.  It was like it had a mind of its own.”

Clyde Colvin was standing right beside Lendon now, his hand on Lendon’s shoulder, helping Lendon survey the damage.  “Well one thing’s for sure,” Clyde said.

“What’s that?”

“Pete Boshell’s truck sure as hell stopped it.”

 

* * * * * *

 

“Paint’s going bad anyway.  Hood’s already turned pink.”  Clyde Colvin, trying to hold up his end of a one-sided conversation, sat behind the steering wheel of Lendon Philpot’s truck.  Lendon sat with his right arm perched in the open window, staring ahead and occasionally offering one word answers.  Between them on the seat, a brown paper bag held potted meat, sardines, Saltine crackers, and a bottle of hot sauce Clyde had stopped and picked up from the store down the road from Lendon’s shop.

“Not even a real air conditioner they’re running in that thing.  It’s a aftermarket.  And them kind don’t never work too well.  Or last too long.”

After Billy Banks had backed the red Ford into the side of Pete Boshell’s cattle truck, the mule ear chair gallery had waited for the fireworks show that was sure to follow.  Talk halted and all eyes and ears were on Lendon.

But Lendon had not chewed out Billy Banks or fired him on the spot or thrown wrenches or turned even redder in the face than he already was. He had not launched into his usual creative spontaneous recitation of curses invented on the spot to fit the circumstances, curses so rich in imagery and rhetoric as to awe those whose ears were already accustomed on Sundays to hearing the very best preachers describe sinners in the lake-of-fire hell in the hands of an angry God in such a histrionic manner as to bring even the most stubborn-willed sinners to their knees.  Lendon was more entertaining than a preacher and didn’t even pass the plate for an offering. The mule ear chair gang hung in suspended motion awaiting the show of shows.  But no. Lendon simply turned from where he and Clyde surveyed the crushed rear end of the red Ford Galaxie, went to the tiny sink in the bathroom at the back of the garage, poured kerosene onto his hands from a coke bottle sitting in the corner, and proceeded to lather up his hands thoroughly with Gojo and rinse them before taking out his pocket knife to clean under his finger nails.  Then he walked right past the mule ear chair gang as he dried his hands with a clean shop rag, walked to the oak office chair beside the desk in his office, sat down, and began shuffling papers.

The gang looked at each other and made themselves busy whittling, rolling cigarettes, cleaning out a pipe with a pocket knife, inspecting the freckles on the backs of their hands, one taking a comb out of a pocket and smoothing his hair.

Billy Banks shuffled over from the work bench where he’d returned after backing the red Ford into the truck to stand in the framed two by fours that passed for Lendon’s doorway, as if offering himself as a sacrifice.

Lendon had not even looked up at Billy Banks.

Lendon’s pattern was not to sit at his desk in the middle of the day.  Even at the close of the day when he went into his office to retrieve the whiskey bottle du jour from the desk drawer, he didn’t sit down for long.  Now he sat .  He looked at the big stack of billing tickets—money people owed him—he kept speared onto a tall steel spike anchored by a heavy iron plate bottom that sat on his desktop.  He had taken off the entire stack and studied each one individually, as if checking his math before stabbing it back onto the steel spike. This had gone on for a good twenty minutes.

At that point, Clyde Colvin had taken his cap off the back of the mule ear chair he sat in,  perched the cap on his head in the jaunty angle he wore it, and stood in Lendon’s door.  He opened up his pocket watch and looked at it.

“C’mon, Lendon.  Time to go up town to the parts houses.”

Lendon looked up at Clyde and then back down at the stack of tickets in his hands for a while before he took the entire stack and pushed them back onto the spike and retrieved his own cap from the peg board and followed Clyde out a front bay door to Lendon’s blue Chevrolet pick up.

Clyde spoke up.  “Key’s in it.  Guess I’ll drive if it’s alright with you.”

Lendon had not said a word, just opened the passenger door and sat down on the passenger side of the bench seat on which he had ridden maybe a total of twice in the history of the 142,000 unaltered miles on the odometer.

So Clyde had stopped at the store, bought the supplies, and headed north, driving right past the parts houses and right on by the bank and the city hall and turned right and headed out the other side of town where the city limits ended and the boundaries of the national forest began.  Since they now drove through copses of tall trees, the air blowing through the butterfly window vents of the pickup was not exactly growing cooler, but the shade offered relief from the August sun of a cloudless sky, and Clyde had started talking and kept right on doing so, though he was getting little response other than an occasional grunt from Lendon.

“I know for a fact that the driver’s side window in that Ford quit working about six months so that ever time it rains the seat gets wet. When the sun bakes it dry, it just rots the whole thing.  So Billy’s screwdriver might not even been what split that seat.  And have you heard them brakes?  They squeal like a stuck hog.”

Clyde continued.  “Now the front windshield being broke, that part is your fault all right.” Clyde looked over at Lendon. “Other than a few road chips, that glass was sound as a dollar until you took that wrench and slung it.  Nobody’s sayin’ you meant to break it, but you know what I mean.”

Clyde kept right on talking as he guided the truck through the turns and curves, driving by the old springs where the folks with money used to come stay at the old hotel and take the baths for whatever ailed them, then driving right on up the side of the mountain.  They passed fields abandoned so long with no one to bush hog that the saplings had taken over.  They passed fields planted in straight rows of pine for pulpwood.  But mostly they were in deep forest that in places offered a total canopy for the tunnel the road made.  Soon they had climbed enough to feel the first cool breeze.

Lendon seemed to come out of his trance. “Where the hell you going, Clyde?”

“I guess where I’m going with this is that Billy Banks don’t need to get fired over a red Ford.  That car’s been jinxed since it came off the line in Detroit, for one thing.  And for another, nobody’s ever done much to take care of it.”

Lendon seemed taken aback by the thought. “I’m not about to fire Billy Banks.  He’s got a family.  And besides, he makes me money. What I mean is right here and right now.  In this truck.  Where the hell you takin’ me?”

“We’re riding to the top of Cheaha.  To catch us a cool breeze.”

Lendon seemed to take this in.  “But you’re afraid of heights, Clyde.”

“I ain’t planning on lookin’.  And besides,” Clyde reached under the seat and pulled out a flat pint bottle and put it on the seat and then another, “I brought along a little somethin’ to ease the pain of the view.”

So they kept climbing in the old straight shift truck with their arms perched in the windows to catch the breeze, following the CCC road clear to the rock tower the CCCs built on the top and then found a squat oak tree with dense shade across the road from the tower where they parked and hitched the tail gate flat and fashioned a kind of picnic out of the sardines and crackers and potted meat which they ate with their pocket knives and made a big show of having two little Coca Cola bottles prominently displayed in case a ranger happened by.  Clyde had put one pint bottle back under the seat and kept the other stashed in the front of his overalls, one gallus left loose, and after they finished the food, they threw the debris in an old oil drum left there for that exact purpose, holes punched in the metal near the bottom so that the rainwater would drain and mosquitoes couldn’t breed.  And when Lendon said he might as well climb up to the top of that tower, since they were there, and have a look see, Clyde replied that he believed he’d just sit there in the truck and polish off what was left in the first pint, if it was all the same to Lendon.

When Lendon got back into the truck and Clyde had backed the truck out from under the tree and they sat at the edge of the pavement once again, Lendon pointed to a turnoff a hundred yards away.

“Let’s drive over there and check it out.”  As they drove out the gravel lane, it was plain to see that this was where the real view was, the sheer drop off that made the mountain seem like the tallest thing in the whole South, anyone would imagine, the valley below stretched out in a faint blue haze with little roads like strips of string and a shiny lake and moving cars looking something like red bugs look crawling up your arm.   Clyde drove slower and slower and had almost shut his eyes until Lendon had him pull over at a wide place in the road and had him get out and come around and stand with him with the hood of the truck between them and the drop off.  Lendon had Clyde place his hands on the hood to hold on to and started pointing things out to Clyde, the roads/lake/tiny cars.  A little band of clouds had appeared in all that blue sky, and in the far distance they could see a gray thunderhead like a child’s fist and Clyde asked him reckon where that was and Lendon said Indiana for all he knew.

Back out at the CCC road, they did not go back the way they had come and instead took the road that seemed to drop off the mountain, the rest of the world laid out before them like a green rug just waiting for them to roll off the mountain onto it. Clyde closed one eye and held the truck between the ditches while Lendon talked about Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins all dying in that plane crash and that he didn’t think it was on a mountain like Cheaha, where there had been more than one plane crash, but that still it was not too far away where the plane carrying Patsy had gone down, and one day he and Clyde might just drive up to Camden, Tennessee, and check it out, all the while Clyde holding firmly onto the steering wheel with both hands.  As they neared the bottom of the mountain, a man on a motorcycle swerved around the truck and leaned into the next curve before moving on beyond their sight, the only other soul they had seen.

“Now that’s one crazy feller.”

Lendon smiled just a bit. “I rode a motorcycle in ’42 before they sent me overseas. I thought I would get to do that all the rest of my life.  Wear a leather jacket and a shiny pair of boots.”

“We all used to be something or other.  Just none of us knowed what we’d end up being.”

At the bottom of the mountain, Clyde opened both eyes for the first time and reached under the seat for the second pint bottle.

*******

 

When Lendon and Clyde returned, everything was as before.  The rear of the red Ford Galaxie still sat crushed into the side of the sturdy metal frame of the bed of blue cattle truck, which seemed relatively unharmed. The two front bay doors of the shop stood open wide, and in front of the coke machine sat the same circle of men, two or three members of whom had left but others had appeared to take their places so that the tableaux remained unaltered.  When Lendon and Clyde walked inside, Billy Banks hovered over the transmission on his work bench. The gang seemed relieved to see them.  They had all entertained themselves speculating about wild women, whiskey, alcohol control agents, and fatal car crashes, none of which was reflected in their current comments.

“We’d about done give up on y’all.”

“Was it a flat tire, Lendon?  I said it was a flat tire.”

“Billy yonder said the parts truck with today’s shipment was prolly late.”

“Yeah, that’s what Billy said.”

A man smoking a hand-rolled cigarette got up out of the best mule ear chair in order to give Clyde somewhere to sit.

The gang was so busy telling Clyde what all had gone on while the two men were gone that no one seemed to notice Lendon take a gray metal gas can with him when he went out to drive the red Ford over to the edge of the shop yard and lift the hood or even saw him walk back in and replace the can on the shelf, much less watched him walk back out to the car, roll a cigarette and light it before flicking the match in the direction of the red Ford.  They did not even see the first flash of flame, but all turned at once when the gas tank exploded like a thing that had flirted flame with petroleum all its life finally to have gone too far.

Next day when the insurance claims man out of Birmingham showed up with his checkbook, the gang sat anxious to answer his questions.  First he had talked to Lendon.  And now he questioned the mule ear gang. And he had had many questions, maybe ten minutes worth of questions so far.

“So let me get this straight.  Was Mr. Philpot with the car when it exploded?  Was he sitting in it? Standing beside it? In front of it? Behind it?”

“He had been in it.”

“He had been beside it.”

And in front of it.”

“I’d say he’d also been behind it.  Wouldn’t you fellers agree that he had also been behind it?”

Everyone agreed.

The insurance man seemed amused.

“What did it appear Mr. Philpot was doing in all those places?”

They all looked at the insurance man for a while before somebody spoke slowly, like explaining something to a child.

“Well, this here is a garage, sir. People bring their cars here when something is broke on ‘em.  Lendon fixes cars for a living. He walks all around ‘em and crawls all over ‘em all day long.”

The insurance man was not fazed.

“So Mr. Philpot was sitting in the car when it first began to burn?”

The gang looked at each other, some over their glasses. This fool out of Birmingham apparently thought a man could be sitting in a red Ford while it exploded and live to tell about it.

“Nawsir.  He had been sitting in it.  But he weren’t sitting in it when it burnt up.”

“Could any of you tell me why that car suddenly exploded.  Other than the fact that it was a hot day in August.”

“Well that one’s easy to answer.  Didn’t have nothin’ to do with how hot it was. Them Fords is bad to burn when they wrecked from behind.  Them Corley sisters over near Clanton, they burnt to death in a Ford wrecked from behind.”

“Sure did.  Two little gals not doing one thang wrong.  Just driving down the road.  Then somebody just bumped ‘em from behind and that Ford turned into a fireball.”

“A death trap.”

“A fireball death trap.”

“Just lucky we were all sittin’ here next to this Coke machine or else no telling what would of happened to us.”

“I was a medic during the war, and I can tell you that it would not have been a pretty sight.”

“Had it been a Chivolet, damned thing would still be here today.”

“Pete Boshell’s truck there is a GMC and you don’t see much wrong with it, now do you?”

The insurance man went out to his car in the hot sunlight and sat for a minute before coming back in and handing Lendon a check. “You’re very fortunate, Mr. Philpot, to have had the presence of mind to drive that car to the edge of your property before it just happened to have burst into flames, as luck would have it.”

The gang listened to hear what Lendon’s reply would be.

“Damned straight,” Lendon said. “If it had been inside this shop, your company would be paying for a hell of a lot more than one red Ford.”  Lendon slowly looked around and let his gaze linger on his building, the cars inside, all his equipment, his tow truck and his welding truck.   He let that sink in real good before he looked the man dead in the eye, shook his hand, and took the check.

Of course, the gang told this tale for years, embellishing the size of the red Ford’s fireball on occasion.  In some versions, Lendon barely made it out of the car before it exploded, the hair on his head still smoking as he ran back inside the garage. In other versions, Lendon was back inside the garage and drinking a Coca Cola with them when they all saw the red Ford suddenly burst into flames.

Only some months later did Billy Banks remember to ask where Lendon and Clyde had been that day, before the red Ford Galaxie exploded into another world. It was almost 6 pm, almost closing time, and Clyde had brought his own bottle with him to supplement the usual swigs.

“Cheaha,” Clyde replied.

The gang had a good chuckle over that.

“Naw, we’re serious. Really, Lendon.  What kept y’all so long?”

“Like Clyde said. He drove me up to Cheaha.  Drove me up there, stood on the top, looked all around, and then closed one eye and drove me down the other side.”

The men laughed.

“Even had a picnic while we were there, didn’t we Clyde?”

They laughed out loud.

“No telling where Lendon and Clyde might take off for next.”

“New York.”

“California.”

“I’m betting Alaska.”

“Lendon’s truck would make it there and back, even with as many miles as it’s got on it, wouldn’t it Lendon?”

Lendon looked at them all and smiled.  “You take good care of a Chivolet truck, and it’ll take good care of you.”

It was a line he made up on the spur of the moment but one no doubt he would hear many times repeated to him in return.

garnerA. M. Garner grew up on the bottom edge of Alabama Appalachia—near Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama–and now lives and teaches on the bottom edge of the Upper South on the Tennessee River in North Alabama. She is fluent in redneck.  She has eaten squirrel fried in lard and served with a cup of steaming black coffee. For breakfast.

 

 

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Ghoul, fiction by Corey Mesler

It was a folk tale, an urban legend. That’s what we told ourselves though it was scant comfort. I think I heard it first from my older brother’s friends on a night I was supposed to be asleep but, instead, had crept outside the living room door to hear how my elders conversed. There were three girls. I knew their names and something about them. And my brother and his friends, Peck and Billy. Billy was our preacher’s son and he was mean as Medea. He used to hold me down and call me ‘little girl,’ and let his spit dangle over my face, forcing me to watch it as it fell onto my own mouth.

My brother, Damon, is seven years older than me. He let his wolfish friends treat me like a figure of ridicule. He stood by. I revered Damon, and he knew it. This was 1965. We lived in the suburbs like everyone else. I was ten.

This night one of the girls had a story to tell. I think her name was Shelly Eliot. She was pretty, in a Diana Durbin way, and I believe my brother loved her at this time but thought she was out of his league. She probably was.

Shelly, in a breathless voice, was telling a story that she had been told. The once removed aspect of it made it both believable and slightly less harmful. These things only happened to other people, to strangers, to friends of friends, or kin of kin.

“She told me she was at home alone,” Shelly was saying. “Her parents were out of town and she was at home alone because her younger brother had gone to spend the night at a friend’s house. Anna (this name meant nothing to me and it seemed to mean nothing to the other listeners) said she had just watched Fantastic Feature. ‘Foolish of me to watch a horror movie before going to bed alone at home,’ Anna admitted.

“Anna confessed she was already agitated so that when the neighbor’s dog set up a din it spooked her further. She got up in her nightgown and crept to the window, looking out upon her backyard, which was separated from the neighbor’s by a ten-foot wooden fence. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim night but as things came into focus the dog’s caterwauling ceased abruptly. And it was then that she saw it. Or its head and shoulder at any rate. She said she saw him receding, walking away from her in the nighttime, the back of his elongated, thin head, and his bony shoulders, just visible over the neighbor’s fence. The wooden fence was ten-feet high! Anna screamed and her scream died away with an echo. Needless to say, for the rest of the night, she did not sleep. She sat up with a baseball bat beside her in bed and the poems of Anne Sexton in her shaky hands.”

There was silence when Shelley finished her second-hand tale. Then one of the boys, it might have been the horrid Billy, said, “Bullshit. That’s a story you make up to scare small children. Ain’t no small children here, Shell.”

“I only tell what was told to me,” Shelley said. Her tone was emphatic.

“Let’s wake your little brother and tell him,” Billy continued. “Let’s watch the little girl squirm.”

Like Anna I spent the rest of my night awake, after I crept back to my bed. Instead of poetry I read Mad paperbacks until dawn.

This would have been the end of it, for morning came and my fear dissipated like the dew, sending those black night-thoughts back into their shadow corners. This would have been the end of it if three nights later, had not my friend Eddie Main, told a similar story, this time something his cousin had told him happened to him. The cousin lived near Bartlett High School, seven miles east of us.

“The thing was taller than a man on stilts,” Eddie said. “And he was thin like a scarecrow. His legs were awkward, stiff things, as if he really had stilts for legs, and his movements were jerky and clumsy.”

I stared at Eddie, my mouth half open. It was like I couldn’t focus on what he’d said.

“What’s with you, Poindexter? You don’t believe me?”

“Don’t call me Poindexter. As a matter of fact I do believe you. I believe you wholeheartedly because I heard a similar story this past week.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. Happened a few streets over (this part was embellishment for effect—I had to make him see that this was more than coincidence). Killed a dog, we think. And was seen over the top of a ten-foot fence, moving off like a demon.”

Eddie thought for a moment. His eyes were wide. “Like a ghoul,” he said.

“A ghoul,” I repeated for no good purpose.

“These things pop up like mushrooms,” Damon said later when I related Eddie’s story. “Stop taking this crap so seriously. I think Shelley made hers up on the spot.”

“But the details were just like the story Eddie heard.”

“It’s always second-hand, Jim. These are urban legends. It’s like jokes. You can hear a new joke in Memphis, fly to Boston and that same night hear the joke in Boston. No one knows quite why but these things happen.”

This was, naturally, long before the internet, so, if what Damon was saying was true, it was as much a mystery as an ambulatory creature out of nightmare.

“But—it’s a ghoul, Dame,” I said. “Perhaps,” I added softly.

“A ghoul. Jim, stop being such a sissy.”

This stung. It always did. I never got used to it and I never could just shake it off with a laugh. Little girl. Sissy. Pansy.

A fortnight went by and we all forgot the purported sightings. Even Eddie didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He had just discovered The Patty Duke Show and she was all he wanted to discuss.

“She plays both parts,” he told me as if he’d understood E=MC². “And she’s so good-looking both ways, nerd or princess.”

“Yeah, she’s cute. But Laura Petrie.”

“You always say Laura Petrie.”

“Laura Petrie.”

“Poindexter.”

So, it came out of left field, when at a campout, someone new related a similar story.

There were six of us and we had pitched 3 pup tents in the vacant lot at the end of Bluefield Street. The ground was hard and cold and we had built a fire, lighting it with charcoal starter that Eddie had brought. Gary Gunther started it all over again.

“I’ve got a wild story to tell,” he began.

“You kissed Rita Ferguson?”

“Shut up, Poindexter.” He was speaking to Bobby Sullivan.

“This happened to George Jennie, you know, the half-Asian kid goes to Scenic Hills.”

“Yeah, I now George,” I said.

“George was coming home late one night from his job at the Esso station. He usually walked if the weather was nice. On this night, as he turned the corner to his street, Scotland, he saw in the distance, scuttling between two lampposts on opposite sides of the street, a giant with the head of a fox and long limbs that made him seem unbalanced. George said he thought the thing was going to keel over as it tried to go from shadows to shadows. He said it was twelve feet high.”

None of us slept that night but we did not admit it was from fear.

I took this information back to Damon the next day.

“Stop it, Jim. I told you to drop this. I explained to you how urban legends spread.”

“But, Dame, this is three sightings.”

“Three means nothing. You guys are crazed. Puberty does that to you. And why are all the witnesses young people, huh? Why not a cop or someone in authority? This is fairy tale right out of The Blob.”

This did give me pause and, in thinking about it, I hit upon the obvious next step of inquiry. I gathered Eddie, Gary and Bobby together and told them my plan.

“We have to take this to Old Yates. He used to be the sheriff.”

“Old Yates! Jim, the guy’s 100 years old,” Eddie said. “And doesn’t he have it in for you?”

“I don’t think he has it in for me. He just took my slingshot away because I was shooting acorns at his sliding glass door.”

The guys laughed. “I think it’s a great idea, Jim,” Bobby said. And, because Bobby’s support usually meant we would follow, the four of us visited Mr. Yates the next afternoon after school.

“What’s up, boys?” the cranky old man said, in greeting. “Here to get your weapons back?” He was stooped and his gray hair was wild where it wasn’t missing, and the sweater he was wearing had seen better days.

“No, sir,” I said, stepping forward. “We have a mystery for you. No one will believe us.”

“And you think I will? What gave you that impression, that I was a gullible old gull?”

“May we come in, sir?” I persevered.

“Alright,” he said, stepping aside.

The house smelled like my grandmother’s. And it was decorated similarly. Every surface held a framed photograph or knickknack, an entire army of glass figurines, numerous beer steins.

“Oh, guests,” Mrs. Yates said. “Shall I get some lemonade?”

“They ain’t gonna be here that long,” Sheriff Yates said.

“Ed,” Mrs. Yates said, and returned to the kitchen from whence she had come. We could hear her rattling glasses and opening and closing the fridge.

“Spit it out,” Old Yates said. No offer to sit. He rested himself by leaning on a walking stick.

I looked at my friends, took a deep breath, and told him a succinct version of what I have iterated above. Sometime during my recitation Mrs. Yates delivered a tray of lemonade and, when I was finished, my throat was parched. I downed my glass.

Old Yates fixed us with watery eyes. Then he shook his leonine head.

“I ain’t got time for such malarkey,” he said. “Now, beat it. Go tell it to someone who will listen. Maybe someone at Bolivar.”

In Bolivar, Tennessee there was a sanatorium for the mentally unhinged. We had heard about it all our lives, usually as part of a half-hearted threat. “Shut up, or you’re going to Bolivar.”

We left Old Man Yates, our behinds dragging.

“Maybe Damon is right,” I said as we walked back up Kenneth Street. “No adult’s seen this thing.”

“Ghoul,” Eddie said.

“This ghoul. Maybe it is just hysteria.”

A week passed and talk of the ghoul faded out. There was other news. Bobby had found a shack in the woods south of Kenneth Street, a shack with a bed, a mucky plank floor, a couple candle stubs, and some dirty magazines. Bobby said it belonged to Peck Withers and he took his girlfriend Winnie there when they were supposed to be at the movies. We tried to imagine that. All alone with Winnie Parker, blond, busty Winnie Parker, in a room with a bed, hidden from all eyes. We tried to picture Winnie naked but our imaginations were weak. We vowed to go back and pilfer one of the magazines.

It was about this time, that Mr. McPherson, a fireman and drunkard, crashed his car into the fire hydrant in front of his home on Kenneth, at one a.m., leapt from the car and stumbled into his house, his shirt-tails flying, his eyes wide, his face contorted in terror.

“It wasn’t booze that sent him into that fireplug and sprawling across his lawn. He says he seen something,” Danny Watermeier said. “He said it was a monster.”

The story from Mr. McPherson, as clarified later, went like this:

He had pulled the late shift, along with Curt Branson, who lived in Frazier. Curt was sleeping and Mr. McPherson was biding his time, watching the Late Late Movie, Red River. The firehouse dog, a Dalmatian mix because they couldn’t afford a pure breed, was in another room and, at some point, McPherson thought he heard the dog grumbling in his sleep. A while later the grumbling turned to a whine and then a quick, loud, desperate yelp. At this point McPherson hurried into the adjacent room but the dog was nowhere to be seen. The door at the south end of the room was open and the night air, with a bit of a nip to it, had entered the firehouse. “Ducky,” McPherson called. “Ducky, come here boy.”

McPherson thought he heard some light scuffling sounds outside the door and made his way through it. There he saw, by a dumpster, a side-view of a horrific figure, a good thirteen feet high, with a body seemingly bent and misshapen, and a face like an elongated demon’s. Its colorless hair was lank and sparse, its sickly gray skin mottled. It turned when it sensed the fireman’s approach and McPherson saw, for the first time, that the beast was holding the dead body of the firehouse dog. The dog was half-eaten and the giant’s face was smeared with blood. Instead of fleeing the creature made a hissing sound, dropped the dog and turned to face the fireman. He didn’t approach but he didn’t flee. Instead he stood and stared, his gore-fouled mouth half-open, rasping, like the mouth of an asthmatic.

McPherson backed away through the doorway. It didn’t occur to him to wake Curt Branson. Instead he exited through another door and jumped into his car, driving like a madman until coming to a halt at the fireplug in front of his home. Later, we found out that Mr. Branson had slept through the whole affair. McPherson stayed up all night, frightening his wife, who, for the first time in their marriage, asked her husband to have a belt of whiskey.

“I tell you I was as sober as a judge,” Mr. McPherson told Mr. Yates. His instincts, like ours, took him to the ex-sheriff’s house the next morning. Mr. Yates had called my parents and asked if I could join them at his house. This is how I came to hear the fireman’s story.

From here the sightings increased in frequency, some born of attention-seeking, some seemingly genuine. Old Man Yates called the current sheriff, Jock Whitaker. Mr. Whitaker was a handsome man of thirty-five. His hair was prematurely gray, but his face was as smooth as a child’s, and his general appearance one of vitality and good humor.

“Jesus, Sheriff Yates,” he said, after listening to the tales the first time. “This seems, well, highly improbable. Perhaps—“

But he had no perhaps. And, as more stories started coming in, he was forced to form a task force to try to get a handle on what was happening. What was happening?

Among my peers I was now something of an authority and I forgive myself, at this remove, for my swollen head. I admit I talked big.

The Leathers lost their cat. Two dogs, pit bulls, on Scheibler. Ken Wister lost his entire brood of hens. Rabbits, squirrels, even bats, were found gnawed. The pet population was dwindling and there were more nocturnal sightings. Guns began to pop up in many hands. Eddie’s father thought he caught the ghoul in his shoulder with his 30-06, as it loped away, in the fields near Summer Avenue, to the south. Eddie’s father said that it moved awkwardly but faster than one would think it capable of.

Jerry Moll’s story changed the shape of the legend: he said he saw the thing one moonless night as it slipped into a sewer hole. Mr. Moll worked with my father at Harvester. He retrieved his pistol and a flashlight and went after it. He found it a few blocks over. It was attempting to slink its enormous length upward through a grate. Mr. Moll fumbled with his pistol and flashlight, changing hands and then getting off a wild shot that ricocheted around the concrete pipe. The thing dropped and turned toward him. This time, instead of its passive stance aforementioned, it ran, hunched over, straight at Moll with great, scampering speed. Jerry raised his pistol and shot it directly into the thing’s abdomen just as he was struck across the face with one skeletal, long-fingered hand. Then it turned and ran, holding a hand over its midsection. “It felt like being hit by a hot rake,” Moll said, and his scarred face frightened us all for some time afterward.

Then the unthinkable happened. Kathy Hollander, age 11, was found in Bluefield Woods. She was bloodied and naked, though the police said they were unsure about sexual penetration. Her body bore marks of rough handling but had not ‘been chewed at,’ according to Sheriff Whitaker. We were all sick. My group of friends stopped getting together for a while. Suddenly, Gunsmoke, Mannix, Wild Wild West, Man from UNCLE, and The Rat Patrol, all seemed more important than wandering about talking about girls. Or monsters.

And that was the last we heard of the ghoul. There were still some sightings coming in but Sheriff Whitaker said they were untrustworthy and, after a few months, talk about the thing died away. Kathy Hollander’s death was un-officially listed as the one human death from the ghoul’s unlikely appearance. One theory I heard, which makes sense to me, is that the poor girl’s death had nothing to do with the ghoul, but the intensified nighttime hunts, her death engendered, forced the creature to go underground, or to go elsewhere. If so, no one will ever be charged with her murder.

The ghoul had gone as abruptly as it had come.

I tell you this here, forty years later, so that you will understand what is happening now. Its reappearance surprised even me; my memory of the first visit was still ripe in my mind, though it often seemed like a bad dream I had had as a child and outgrown. Again the early reports were all from adolescents. Perhaps the young have more sensitive antennae, or perhaps they have not yet learned to tune out the improbable.

Most of the adults from that first time have passed away. Raleigh was incorporated into the city of Memphis in 1974. Sheriff Whitaker was killed on a routine traffic check by a gun-nut motorist. Kathy Hollander’s parents moved to North Carolina. McPherson, the fireman, was relieved of duty and died by his own hand in 1978, leaving behind a wife and wall-eyed daughter. I believe Jerry Moll is still alive but I can’t say for sure. Most of my peers have scattered to the four winds. My brother, whom I looked up to in my youth as if he were a Colossus, moved to Maine. We are estranged now, by his choice. I stayed in Raleigh and married my wife, Faith, in 1985. By coincidence, she is Shelly Elliot’s cousin. We have two children, Chet and Phil, ages 5 and 7. They are now as afraid as we were back then. They crawl into our bed at night and want me to reassure them that there is no such thing as a 12 or 13-foot tall ghoul.

This I tell them. There is no such thing.

meslerCOREY MESLER has been published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Five Points, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 8 novels, 4 short story collections, and 5 full-length poetry collections. His new novel, Memphis Movie, is from Counterpoint Press. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart many times, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife he runs a 145 year-old bookstore in Memphis. He can be found at https://coreymesler.wordpress.com.

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Making Ends Meet, poem by Teisha Dawn Twomey

A good rule of thumb, is to pull the fine thread
through a length twice the stretch. Wind the string

in a semi-circle to make a loop, pull the ends
through, tie the split twin tails taut together

knotted twice or triple to be sure it all stays
put as you hem the mend left to right.

It takes patience. When the sky is coming undone
and the constellations are somersaulting

the sheer drops reeling around you.
You must not let yourself slip through

this winding trap. Become noiseless,
hook and fasten yourself to the center

of the vacant, vastness. Breathe then heave
the wee fiber of your being forward

begin double stitching your own backbone
to the barren landscape of this reality

once you anchor yourself you may begin spinning
your own cobweb, the wrong way up, just for fun.

Catch the eye of the nearest dinner guest, a fly.
You always have been good at getting attention.

teishatwomeyTeisha Dawn Twomey is the poetry editor for Wilderness House Literary Press. She received her MFA in Poetry at Lesley University. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous print, as well as online poetry reviews and journals. She is the Resource Specialist at Springfield College’s Boston campus and her first poetry collection “How to Treat Pretty Things” will be released by Riverhaven Books later this year.

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The road starts 896, Newark, Delaware, fiction by Timothy Gager

The road starts 896, Newark, Delaware

It started with Black Beauties but also with Pink Footballs. You remember those, at least one of them? When you chopped them up and inhaled the burn was remarkable. Take hundreds of tips of thumbtacks and rip them through your nasal cavity.

You never snorted Pop Rocks. Mikey died from snorting Pop Rocks or Black Beauties or Pink Footballs—or something. Somehow, his entire nose exploded and left a hole in his face. He had to kill himself right then and there. How the hell would he explain that to the Life Cereal folks?

That’s not a gateway drug. You knew this kid named Larry Crank, who was so bad that the drug was his nickname. A few lines of crank and you put the cassette of Live Rust on the player and just let it play….ten, twenty times. It was an entire day, an entire night. Your roommate said, “I used to like Neil Young.” You had a difficult time following that conversation.

You burned your lips on a crack pipe, without the warning: The glass on this pipe reaches extreme temperatures. Handle with care. You didn’t care. The blisters popped and fused your lips together.

Then the curly haired girl wouldn’t kiss you. She said you had some sort of disease, a social disease, some STD beyond recognition. You’d not been that way for very long. You grew a beard and set it on fire. You will never do it again.

GagerTimothy Gager is the author of eleven books of short fiction and poetry. His latest, The Thursday Appointments of Bill Sloan, (Big Table Publishing) is his first novel. He hosts the successful Dire Literary Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts for over thirteen years and is the co-founder of Somerville News Writers Festival. His work appears in over 300 journals, of which nine have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work has been read on National Public Radio.

His work has appeared in over 300 journals since 2007 and of which nine have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work has been read on National Public Radio.

Timothy was formerly the Fiction Editor of The Wilderness House Literary Review, the founding co-editor of The Heat City Literary Review and has edited the book, Out of the Blue Writers Unite: A Book of Poetry and Prose from the Out of the Blue Art Gallery.

A graduate of the University of Delaware, Timothy lives in Dedham, Massachusetts and is employed as a social worker.

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