22 July 2011

Advice and Sweet Tea from Aunt Elizabeth

(Excerpted from The Pultenham County Sketchbook, by Tom Andrews)

Remember, Peasy Lou, when you were a little girl how you used to say that standing and staring at that brackish pond water down by Old Man Switchback's used to make you feel all puny?  Do you remember?  I do believe it was nothing more than a mindset, my precious Peasy.  For you were just a young lady and there was probably only one reason that the waters could have made you feel puny, but I was not one to share that with folks - least of all with the folks down at that greasy old ten-seat diner in Haverland.  I knew that some would, though.

When you would stare and stare and stare and your eye would get caught up in a leaf or in a rock or in a bird sitting on a tree limb, it was then that you started feeling puny, wasn't it?  I reckon it was also that very same time that you started feeling better and it was that very same time that you started feeling nothing at all.  Peasy, your pretty gingham dress had such a stain on it, and I think that the few people who watched you walk back to Haverland had no idea what had happened, but they tried to create some stories in their minds.  You know how those people in Haverland like to create stories in their minds, don't you, Peasy Lou darling?

I don't think that you ever said a word, but only got silent, and that is still the way you are today.  Some will say to you "cat got your tongue?" but they don't know the whole story, of course.  I would ask you if that bastard Cecil got your tongue, but I know he got something else and I wouldn't bring up his name to you, anyway.  That name burns like an ember - a painful ember sitting deep in a lot of folks' flesh, because it was not only what he might have done to you and what, in a sense, he is still doing, but it is what he did to a lot of people and what he will never do for others.  If ever there was a man who deserved a good swift kick in the man-apples or an ice water enema or a rough pine stake driven through his godless, soulless, unfeeling bastard heart, I would have to say it would be that Cecil.  And again, it would not be only for what he might have done to you, but for all that he has done and for all of that ancestral sin that the whole damned Morgan family has been soaking in for so many generations.  From a bastard turncoat who went and fought with the invading army through the man who lost it all and tasted for blood that he might have revenge...and right up to Cecil himself - the ancestral sin of that family is like a black thread woven into an already filthy garment.

So I think that when you used to look at that brackish pond water and feel all puny, Peasy Lou, I think that there is just darkness in your heart that was planted there by a heart much darker.  You ain't never been a bad girl, Peasy, and you know I love you like a daughter.  You felt that way then, and I reckon you would feel that way now, no matter what people might say.  I know what it is, and you know what it is, and lots of people think that they know what it is, but they have not the faintest clue as to the loom that wove that blackest, blackest thread - a thread that joined two garments and with time might be excised from the cleaner of the two, so as to make it that you don't feel so puny when you look at that brackish pond water down by Old Man Switchback's.

You're gonna' be just fine, girl.

21 July 2011

How to Train a Boyfriend (as told by Sally) or, "Self Improvement in Rural America"

(Excerpted from The Pultenham County Sketchbook, by Tom Andrews)

"Waitin' on that pea picker again, Sally?"  That was all my momma could say when she walked inna' the house and seen me jes' sittin' there on the front porch.  She didn't think t' tell me nothin' else and I guess I kin hardly blame 'er...I guess.

We done had so many good times, but Momma couldn't stand him, on account of his family, I s'pose, but probably more 'cause he'd messed around with meth and ever'one knew it.  He'd be hangin' out in Cotton City by that quick-mart and he'd be drinkin' pop one after 'nother, and ever'one mostly knew it.  And shit, all the money he ever and never made (tho' he said he did sometimes), well, hell...he jes' mostly spent it so fast he never really ever done seen it no how.  He loved me tho', I know it.  We was gonna' have a baby and then he'd get his life sorted out.  I jes' know it.

But hell, when Momma walked inna' the house and jes' said "waitin' on that pea picker again," she already know'd what had happened and she didn't let on.  She waited for me to hear it myself.  'Course, I heard it from some others right away.  About how he was all tripped out and musta' thought he was home or somethin'.  But he laid right down on the tracks 'tween the rails.  Our neighbor who works for the railroad told me that it's somethin' like a standard ten and a half inches o' height, and that plow of the train sits like another four inches...but he said that the wind from those boxcars jes' gets to blowin' and pretty soon yer' body would jes' get sucked up in there and rolled around in the wheels and stuff.

That's prolly' why they found parts o' him for about a hunnerd' yards down the track.  It was bad.  Real bad.  And I miss him in the worst way.  But I think I'm still gonna' have a baby.  That'll help me get my life sorted out.  I jes' know it.

15 July 2011

Ovisi, Ovisi, that Toddlin' Town

When Uncle Tristan returned from his last safari, we all marveled at the wonderful gifts he had brought us.  My oldest brother received a floral-print beret, my older sister was the recipient of a roll of the finest Cuban cigars and Baby Lily was given a bottle of the finest Kenyan aftershave - an aftershave concocted of possum musk and plantain oil.  I was entirely baffled, however, at my own gift from Uncle Tristan.  He handed me a brittle, yellowed envelope, and I held my breath as I took it from his shaking, leprous hand.

Looking down at the brittle envelope that I held gingerly between my fingers, I wondered what could be inside.  Uncle Tristan had owned a spice company on the west side of Milwaukee when we were children, and I relished the many similar envelopes that he had given me over the years - envelopes containing stamps from far-off countries, still affixed to portions and corners of other envelopes or boxes that still held the scent of exotic spices he had received as samples.  I could tell this particular envelope was different, however.

I looked up into Uncle Tristan's eyes and I saw that familiar glimmer of mischief and I could make out the faint aroma of Bombay Sapphire gently cresting over his leprous lips that even now broke into one of his sly and sarcastic smiles.  He smiled a little too enthusiastically and the lower lip dropped off his face and onto the kitchen table.  He coughed nervously and replaced the lip with the small tube of caulk that he carried in his back pocket.  "Go ahead Tommy," he urged me, "open it."

I carefully slid my little finger under the flap and tore the seal.  Little bits of paper and dust broke free and drifted into the air.  It smelled ancient.

"Wisdom of forgotten ages..." Uncle Tristan whispered quietly.

I removed a tiny slip of paper that still smelled of the Orient.  My imagination ran wild, trying to think where this ancient and yellowed chit had been, where it had been inscribed and what emperors, sultans, sages and mystics had likewise held it in their hands.

"Turn it over...reeeeeeeeead it..." begged Uncle Tristan.

I carefully turned the ancient paper in my fingers, almost scared to read the wisdom inscribed thereon.  My eyes could make out the words, but my lips were almost unable to form them.  Finally I was able to read aloud:

"Look for new outlets for your own creative abilities.  Lucky numbers 2, 5, 18, 47"

The room was silent as I put the slip of paper on the kitchen table.  We all looked at Uncle Tristan.  His eyes were closed and he was not breathing, but there was a smile on his lip.  The upper lip, that is.

We buried Uncle Tristan the next day under the old ginkgo tree out back.  My brother and I poured toasts of cheap gin on his grave and Baby Lily sang a dirge.  Afterwards we all went out for a bite to eat at a new Latvian restaurant that had just opened down the block, but I could not eat a bite. While the others enjoyed their caraway cheese and tepid kvass, I sat and silently pondered the wisdom of the ancients.

That evening I wrote my first novel - a 380-page epic set in a Latvian fishing village.  As the sun came up the next morning I put the finishing touches on the tale, and made a pot of coffee.  I looked out the window into the backyard and watched a squirrel try to dig up Uncle Tristan.  Or a nut.

We all have our outlets, I guess.

14 July 2011

Shame and Loathing (as told by Jeb)

Tragedy serves me just fine, as it's only th' other side of comedy. Or is it victory? Whatever it's th' other side of, it serves me just fine, and if you wanna' jes' sit right where you're at ('cause I know you're sittin' and you prolly' don't wanna' get up) then I can tell you a thing or two about the tragedy that made Putnam' County the place it is. Only I ain't gonna' tell you the whole story, as you prolly' ain't got the time nor the stomach for the whole shootin' match.

Strange enough, it warn't no shootin' match that done it. It was more of a hog match. Well, a hog contest, really. And it ended up not bein' too much of a contest, neither. It was Jefferson Morgan, the grandfather of Sheriff Mitchell Morgan and yes, great-grandfather to Sheriff Cecil Morgan (or Sid as we like to call him but he don't like to be called hisself'). That old dirt farmer Jefferson Morgan owned the grain mill outside of Pole Creek at the crossroads known as Blancher's. Well, sir, if you ever do go down to Blancher's, you're gonna' see for yo'self a number of empty old buildings from God-knows-when, as well as a couple of foundations that used to have something on 'em. You also gonna' see a single, solitary tombstone sittin' out there for God and the world to see.

It seems that a long time ago, just about the time of the War of Northern Aggression, Jefferson Morgan's Father had jes' put the finishin' touches on his grain mill, and it was th' only one for miles around – th' only one in Putnam' County, in fact. Well, after their army went through here, there warn't much left ceptin' old man Morgan's mill – the soldiers just marched on by without really much noticin' it, strange 'nuff. That left the Morgan family in pretty good stead, and 'bout th' only ones in the whole county with any hope of steady income.

Well, long after Jefferson was born and got to his bidness' of growin' up and learnin' how the world works and how it don't work, well he took over ownership of that mill upon his pappy's death. Seemed only right and made sense, too. And as it worked out, just after the war the county got itself carved out of some o' this territory, and the little village that sprang up 'round the mill got to somehow bein' known as “Blancher's” and it got itself appointed as the county seat of “Pultenham County,” which no one actually pronounces that way 'ceptin' for travelers and salesmen. Jefferson Morgan was shittin' in high cotton and proud like a 'coon suckin' on a catfish that got itself tossed up on the bank and forgot.

Th' only fly in the ointment was Jefferson Morgan havin' a likin' to gamblin'.

'Seems old Jefferson got hisself' in a bit of a wager with a man over in Cotton City over a hog-judgin' contest they was havin' over in Haverland. Jefferson put a load of money on a prize hog owned by Cyrus Hunsucker (yes, a grandfather or great-grandfather or something to Peasy Lou), and as it turned out, it was a lot more than money, in fact. In th' end, that Hog ended up losin' the contest and Jefferson Morgan ended up losin' the mill. Morgan moved into a shack outside a' Pole Creek, and kept mostly to himself. Blancher's just started dyin' off 'cause the man from Cotton City just kinda' closed the mill in time as he had enough money and bidness' of his own. Blancher's turned into the ghost town (or the ghost crossroads) that is is t'day, and Putnam County became the county without a seat.

Saddest part was that damned losin' hog. It wound up getting' itself done in, apparently. One mornin' Cyrus Hunsucker walked out to the pen and seen it layin' there in the mud with it's throat slit. Saddest thing. Cyrus done buried that hog just near the crossroads, and in time his son put that stone up over the grave, seein' how that boy loved the hog like a family pet and he was heartbroken over what happened.

No one ever pointed fingers or made any charges, but ever' one knew what happened. 'Seems ever'thing that Morgan family touches just turns to blood.

11 July 2011

Lunchtime with Respite Welk in Cotton City

Hand to french fry.  French fry to lips.  Chew. Swallow.  Hand to french fry. French fry to lips.  You get the drill.  Lather.  Rinse. Repeat.

Dirty face on that one over there.  Smear of some kind of dirt, anyway.  Could be grease and dust mixed together.  Maybe pencil lead.  Lock graphite.  Fecal matter.  Doesn't matter.  Dirty face on that one.

Fat man in a scooter.  Way too fat of a man on that scooter. Fat before scooter or after scooter, not sure.  Have another triple cheeseburger and get the suspension checked on your scooter, fat man.  TWO triple cheeseburgers.  And french fries.  And some ice cream. Thank God for the diet cola.  That will help.

Hand to french fry.  French fry to lips.  Chew. Swallow.  Hand to french fry. French fry to lips. 

Nice leathery skin on her.  Get some sun, eat some french fries.  Drink your cola.  Get some more sun. Cola. Cola. Cola.  Nice leathery skin.  Good thing you're so young but look so old.  At least you'll get your money's worth out of that leathery skin of yours before it shrivels up and falls right off your body, leaving you walking around like one of those "visible man" plastic science models - showing off your sinewy muscles, bald head  and eyeball sockets.  Nice leathery skin.  Did I mention your leathery, sun-tanned, weather-beaten skin is nice?  Yes. Nice like a worn saddle or a dried up old shoe.  Nice.

Now THAT is an abdomen on that fellow.  In some parts they call them "bellies," and people fill them with beer and cheese and fried foods and high-fructose corn syrup.  Maybe that is what is in that one.  It hardly moves, though, as he moves, so maybe it is all muscle.  That or he strapped a sheep onto his torso this morning before he left the house.  Hmmm.  Not sure.  Slap it and see if it makes a sound like a sheep.  No...scratch that.  ASPCA people might cry bloody murder if it IS a sheep.  Man with belly might cry bloody murder if it is NOT a sheep.

Hand to french fry.  French fry to lips.  Chew. Swallow. 

Back to work.

07 July 2011

Critique (according to Ashley at the filling station)

Work that smile of yours, Augustus Grayling. Work it as you work the crowd. Smile like a movie star and make your momma proud. She's never seen what you really do, so you can get away with it. Smile, you wastrel.

Pultenham County was never big enough for you, and her people were never good enough for you. The sons and daughters of Pultenham County always had stringy bits of fried chicken in their teeth and patchy grease stains on the fronts of their shirts – grease stains where the little bits of biscuit landed and rested undetected until well after lunch and then were brushed away absent-mindedly while sipping our sweet tea and looking out over the corn and pea fields. This place was never big enough for you and they never did sell arugula down at Brompton's Market in Haverland. What the hell is arugula, anyway? Sounds like a foreign-ass country somewhere.

We all know who you really are, Augustus Grayling, and we all know where you came from. And a lot of us know about the barn you nearly burnt down and tried to blame on the kids from Pole Creek. And I know all about the girl and the baby in Cotton City and one or two of us know about the boy and those filthy things in Cotton City and it just makes us all sick. So don't think we don't know, Augustus Grayling. And don't you think that just because you use a fancy city name now that we don't know that your name is Augustus Grayling and it is always gonna' be so. You are always gonna' be that mean little kid from rural Pultenham County who liked to say mean things to people just to watch 'em flinch. You ain't changed and neither has your life, really. You're famous now, but you were famous then.

People just couldn't stomach you, you mean little bastard. And we know that's true, as well.

01 July 2011

Piled High with Bile (as stated by Cyril)

"Never was a single one, no way.  If'n I chose to go on up there to Cotton City that day I woulda' thought to take along some cash with me, you know that.  I ain't no sucker - 'cause I didn't just fall off that melon truck, no matter what my daddy told you.  He was drunk half th' time and he only took time to look at me if I was blockin' th' path to th' outhouse.  'Bastard would haul off and cold cock me one - hell, I'd just drop to th' ground like a sack'a bricks, even if he didn't really catch me a good one.  I just dropped so th' hittin' would stop.

So, no, I didn't go up there that day, and I never did see no one runnin' back to Haverland.  Didn't see a single person on that whole road, 'cause I was just workin' on my Deere just outside the edge'a town - damn thing started shootin' oil just while I was sprayin' that pea field - and I never did see no one.  Not a single one.

If that bastard Cottreau says that I was up there then he's lyin' through his ass as well as through his teeth, 'cause he don't know what he's talkin' about.  Dumb pea-picker.  I ain't been up to Cotton City in a whole long time.  Last time I went was for that sale at the Co-op, when I got me some of that new stuff that s'posed to kill th' bugs but not dry your brain out except for maybe kids and little babies.  But that's OK 'cause kids mostly don't like peas, no how.  And if you wash 'em good, you're OK.

So no, I didn't go up there that day, and I ain't seen no one runnin' on th' road back into Haverland, and I ain't seen no Sheriff Morgan, and I didn't hear no shootin'.  I was just workin' on my Deere and sprayin' that field and I just wanna' go home now.  Kin' I just get goin' now?  'You guys done with me?