One of my early Uni short stories. Published in some sort of Local Literary Journal. Rough and Wild. Enjoy.
I said she was gone, and by all accounts of loving me she is, but she was also the only person that I knew of in this town that had seen me naked. Damn if that makes any sense, but like every woman I’ve ever known she gets her way, so she must have the right way about something. She says that a person, while not necessarily incapable of the act itself as evident in her leaving of me, is incapable of murdering someone that has seen their most secret of selves, as reflected in their flabby ass. She says it is a mind game, that a man can’t kill a woman who could possibly be judging what he looks like underneath his clothes. That he would choke on his perceived nakedness and she could gain the upper hand with the proper application of any number of quality household pain inducing objects. That is why I was going to Tammy.
But Tammy wasn’t going to see me. I found that out before I even opened the little door to the church as she busted through it before I had even laid my gnarled hand on it, the cursing and saliva making a nice speckled chorus for the sad fluid already playing down my nose. I didn’t understand everything that she said to me, mostly something about being seen in public with me could possibly be enough to condemn her to the hell that I myself already had reserved ring side tickets for.
So after her little spat and a slammed door that shook the sepulcher I decided that before I continued I needed to rest. There was a little stone bench under a big Oak tree with long spindly branches that had viewed a hundred years of progress and wordlessly promised to view a hundred more. That’s where I parked it to do some reviewing of my own. I leaned back and let out an involuntary groan as my joints didn’t seem to want to unwind and thought about things that had happened.
There are certain aspects of a pogo stick that any attempting fisherman can respect, even a fisherman who keeps seeing someone who by all rights is supposed to be dead. I know the connective relevance between two poles has nothing to do with those individuals who aren’t set upon staying deceased but its keeping my mind grounded in something I can comprehend until I can think of the proper thing to do.
It takes persistence and determination to pogo in a way quite similar to capturing a fish. When, in the likelihood that the event ever occurs, I hop on a ruddy stick made for the sole purpose of bouncing in place, it looks like I better get prepared for a whole mess of monotony. Fishing in that respect is just as blooming monotonous. You cast and reel, in and out; you jump and go, up then down. They are both stupid poles designed for stupid purposes. One can help sustain your life and the other is engineered for good old fashioned fun. The sad sack who figured that made the first more important has long since probably shot himself. Where he shot himself I couldn’t be sure but if I were to shoot myself due to an existential revelation concerning the validity of either pogo sticks or fishing poles when faced with the more pressing matter of spirit messages from the beyond I would blow off one of my hands so I wouldn’t have the good grace to do either.
The only way to break the monotony of these two objects is by introducing an unforeseeable event at each respective rod wielder. Kick a piece of particle board at a kid on a pogo and see how long he’s going to last. In a similar fashion seeing her pretty but unmistakably dead face in the water while I’m fishing whether it is by the lord’s design or massive cerebral hemorrhage, and my old ass is gone before the pole hits the sandy pebbles of Calamity Cove. Today isn’t even close to the first time it has happened either. But I was finally looking for some help, looking for someone who would trust me enough to listen.
I couldn’t keep all these thoughts from bubbling up as I watched the boy, Kleodis I thought his name was, bounce up and down with a precision wrought of either a historically unheard of infantile prowess, or a shit-load of preemptive skip to my loo’s.
It’s always funny how when you see someone hard at something your unfamiliar with you just assume that the only progress they have ever made is what you have been there to see, as if they only exist when you are there to see them breathing. That could hardly be the case given how much I have never seen but I know has happened. Someone built all the bridges in the world, someone teaches a child to tie their little shoes, and in some off kilter place like Connecticut or Arizona someone had to seal all the strawberry yogurt lids for all the progressively fat mothers hoping to spoon their way to fitness. The proof that people existed outside of what I bore witness to was overwhelming, but when has analytical evidence of any nature ever swayed over a personal opinion? I still had my fingers crossed anyways.
I poked a shiny finger into a rotted pit on my elbow, souvenir of a young spider with a limited target populace, and let the errant thought swim away until it would pop by again for another visit.
“When is he goin’ to be home?” I grumbled, never quite used to oral communication. It was obvious that he hadn’t heard a single word over the tut..tut of his bouncing rod, not that he would have understood me in the first place. I have been starting conversations without realizing whoever I’m talking to can’t hear what I’m thinkin. Shifting my weight to my stiff knee I turn to leave, chalking up Meier’s as a lost cause. Before I could avoid it, the boy noticed me and came b-bouncing in my direction with a big goofy forced smile shaking on his face. He resembled an autistic near-sighted kangaroo whose too large and outdated glasses, a woman’s pair strangely enough, kept flapping to the whims of gravity with every hop he made.
“H-howdy Mr. Vernie, you l-looking for Pop-uh?” He spoke all this through the smile, something I found quite impressive.
I nodded slowly at him, “I am, is he in the house? I have to talk to him about something.”
“Nope, nope. He’s at work. He’s helping Mrs. Nollemakre, that lady who keeps setting her cats on fire.” He giggled. “Nana is in the house though.” He said all this in a matter of fact tone as he begun to spin in a swift circle, his underdeveloped neck muscles unable to keep his head lolling harshly from side to side.
I had no business with his grandma, I avoided grown-ups more than kids. The kids at least didn’t understand why they were supposed to hate me and I needed to talk to someone who I could at least force into listening with a proper amount of valid U.S. currency.
“Thanks Kleodis.” I always felt so weird addressing a child directly since it happened, but I continued anyway. “Why you bouncing like a damn loon on that thing boy?” Oh damn. Damn what? He’s a kid so I shouldn’t have said damn. I’ll remember that.
“I’m going for the Guinness Book of World, record.” He replied with a strange pause after world, smiling up at me either for his attempt at history making or his grammatical cleverness. I couldn’t be sure which I was supposed to be impressed with.
“And what’s the record right now?” I implored, wishing I hadn’t even come up the hill to this house.
“One hundred seventy seven thousand, seven hundred and thirty seven.” He spoke without hesitation, having the number most likely committed to memory long before this day.
“That’s a lot of sevens.” I tugged at my collar trying not to be funny. “What’s the most you have been able to do?”
“Forty-three.” He said sheepishly.
“You’re getting there.” I couldn’t keep a smile of my own from creeping up my cheeks. “I’m gonna get that record soon and mommas gonna be so proud that she’s gonna come back and Pop-uh will be happy again.” He said this quickly, looking down in concentration, oversized glasses sliding down to the end of his nose.
Sometimes I forget how wonderfully brutal the honesty of a child can be. As you grow older you start saying more of what you think people want to hear and less and less of what you really mean. Not when you’re a child. Children say exactly what’s on their mind no matter how painful it could be to someone’s ears. They don’t waste time with propriety and avoiding offense. What they say is clean and pure, free of selective alteration. His mother had left a few years past for God knows where and his psychologist daddy never saw the signs that pointed to his failing marriage. One day she was just gone, no letter or pantry post-it but a firm “fuck you” written in the absence of everything in the house worth selling.
I wasn’t exactly sure how to reply, I mean how do you reply to something like that? “Here’s to hoping.” I mumbled and crossed my fingers out in front of my chest where he could see.
I thanked him for his help and sauntered down the lane back toward Oasis, Missouri. This is the town that I have spent the past few miserable years of my life being, on muggy summer days where the buzzing locusts announce that fresh gossip is scarce, a grisly story standby for townsfolk who have nothing better to do with their personal realities but turn old men into outcasts. It was a nice hot day, and for Table Rock Lake that’s saying something. Anyone with something that could respectively float was out on the lake today enjoying the sunshine. I could hear scattered laughter through the thick line of pines and smelled burning wood, the kind that’s meant to be burned.
Slick sweat was making every fourth hair on my chest stick through the loosely knitted holes of the plain white v-neck I was wearing. That hair is course and is far thicker that the few wisps I have praying for continued existence at the base of my scalp. ‘The coarsest goddamn hair this side of the Mississippi.’ That’s what Tammy used to say anyways. She was never one for intelligence much less geography and I’m not sure she knew where the Mississippi was, but she loved to bitch about my chest hair. She would stare at my balding head and think that God screwed up and put my hair quota in the wrong locale and was too prideful to fix his mistake. I wasn’t allowed on top of her when we had sex, she said it was ‘like sandpaper to her nips and any respectable American woman just shouldn’t stand for that kind of behavior.’ I don’t hear her complaining anymore though, she’s been gone from my bed for a while now. Same broken ideas in her head as everyone else. God do I miss her bitching though.
I made it past the few scattered dying trailer houses all filled with rusty tricycles and the kind of plaintive ambition that makes me glad I don’t have any kids of my own when Oasis sort of happened. It’s one of those little off the beaten trail towns that you don’t realize you’ve stumbled into until your ass deep in “y’ont too’s,” calloused handshakes, and chewing tobacco. I found myself in the old cobbled streets of town before I was quite ready to and made my way up what the townsfolk called Mane Street, whose proper name on a map was Welhersche Boulevard and has nothing to do with horses, but what everyone calls Mane anyway. I heard that someone a few years back tried to point the spelling mistake out to the city officials but they just figured it gave the town character and decided to leave it as is. I thought it made the town’s civil engineer, whoever and wherever he may be, look stupid and undeserving of his post, but I’ve never told anyone this in any case.
There was David Meier’s little quaint glass shop “Clinical Office of Psychological Wellness” right next to a dilapidated and rundown “Bill’s Taxidermy for All Occasions.” The stark contrast was amusing and almost inappropriate. One group was trying to repair malaise or alleviate a chronic desire to set household pets aflame, and the other wanted to stuff those pets and make pretend that they were still alive. I thought one of the groups were choosing the wrong door but regardless, I couldn’t figure out which I felt sorrier for. Those who realize they have a problem and are willing to take the necessary steps to correct it, or the ones who try to block reality out, at least for a little while. I suppose that crazy people and aspiring taxidermists had to have a sense of humor in any case. Not that I was crazy, but I hadn’t ruled the possibility off the porch just yet.
Upon entering the little glass office with the tinkle of baby bells the most noticeable characteristic was the stark smell of raspberries. The smell, almost indecent in its assault, was nonetheless soothing. I spoke to the secretary and sat down in the little waiting room, plastic nondescript chairs for plastic nondescript lives, and the smell if anything grew stronger. Perhaps it was a psychological thing and raspberries were supposed to calm crazies, perhaps I was having a stroke and my brains appropriated memory synapse was the imagining of handpicked fruit and I would be dead in a matter of minutes. Either way I was gonna have to sit it out.
The girl behind the counter kept tossing furtive glances my way as if I had forgotten to put on pants that day, or I was wearing a big flashy pirate hat complete with blinking neon parrot pal. I was used to everyone looking at me this way though. In the beginning I would be self conscious, often ducking into any place with an accessible mirror to justify my appropriate dress. Then I figured out that even though twelve hands rose in favor it still wasn’t enough to keep me from being seen as a danger in the town’s eyes. An irrefutable amount of truth was not enough to prove innocence but I guess it was certainly enough to condemn. The only way people would be more polite to me is if I had actually been the one who killed her. At least then they could be sure of themselves.
Her name was Grace. She was a cute little thing, big freckles and a bigger smile. So small even for a girl half her age. She took a liking to me and would come down and watch me fish damn near every day. We had our little spot, Calamity Cove she called it, where she would tell me a child’s worries and I would teach her how to cast. I never knew why she came down there so much just to talk to an old geezer like me. It was queer but I thought nothing of it being a lonely and not so talented fishing retiree. She was sweet. So very sweet. I nicknamed her Miss Marmalade because she reminded me of my momma, same quirky and sharp wit, and that was what momma was good at, being a smartass and stocking preserves. As for her being called Grace, well I never knew her real name until the day she was found off the highway without a face to smile with.
It was a Tuesday. I got up and I went fishing and at three when the little school let out she didn’t ever show up. I didn’t think nothing of it, figured little girls changes their interests just like all children do and she had moved on to bug someone else. But it wasn’t just the cove where she wasn’t showing up to.
It was the same every day when we would meet. Same lines, same recited phrases, over and over again until they became a part of what we were when we were together.
“Howsit young Miss Marmalade?” I would greet her first without looking to see that she was even there. Then I would hear a small foot stomp followed by a frustrated sigh.
“Gah! How do you always know I’m coming?” She had from the very first meeting attempted to startle me from sneaking in from all directions, all of which failed.
“Acute auditory senses gained from wisdom and old age.” I would reply every time casting again with either spinner or, if I was lucky, live bait and look down to see pouting cherry lips.
“There ain’t no one you would rather spend the day with ‘cept me right?” She would sometimes ask, after a long day of telling me how little Gary Simpkins kept pulling her pigtails, or her momma busted her butt for catching an alley cat and trying to keep it under her bed. She was so worried that I would answer wrongly, that I would let her down like she thought everyone else did.
I would always answer the same way, telling her what she wanted to hear. “No one ‘cept you kid, ‘cept you.”
They blamed me. They figured that a man spending time alone with a kid who’s not his own was up to no good. I spent days in the only little jail cell that Oasis had, charged with what could be the only motivations of a man wanting to spend time with a child alone, that I had raped and killed her for my own sick God-hating pleasures. They never truly figured out who did it, one of history’s little mysteries. After I was acquitted, that only confirmed my crime. That’s why I spend my days alone. Why Tammy left me. Why people look at me like my peckers waggin’. They don’t care to hate the sin, only who they presume to be the sinner.
“Dr. Meier’s will see you now.” The receptionist had to shout to get my attention. She seemed as startled as I was, like she was scared that I was plotting another victim.
I stood up and walked down a foam green hall to a dark red wooden door which had his name on it and knocked. I was told to enter and did so.
The doctor was there behind what looked like an old principal’s desk looking wary about who had just walked in. His office was simple with dark blue carpet and plenty of wood in random places. David Meier was an average man with hair the middle aged color of ash, who wore glasses like his son and had a brow so furrowed it was in danger of dripping down off his face. I took the obvious seat across from him and waited for him to break the silence. He cleared his throat and did.
“So Vernie, what can I do for you today?” He had his fingers pressed together, looking the professional shrink.
I didn’t know how to begin really, so I just said it, “Well David, I went down to fish this morning and I saw Grace in the water. I’ve been seeing her a lot down there and I need to talk to someone about it.”
He closed his eyes and nodded like he knew that this was coming.
“Well Vern, you know how they found her, and you know as well as I do that she can’t be down at Table Rock.”
Here was the part that I didn’t want to get to. I figured being a man of the mind that he was my best chance for what I needed. “Well the thing is Doc, could you come down there with me just to see?” He was shaking his head before the words had finished leaving my mouth.
“I can’t do that Vernie, you know I can’t. What I can do is write you a prescription for…”
“You think I’m crazy. Well hell’s bells I may be but good God David, I need someone to do this for me. Someone who will give me a chance and not treat me like the goddamn town leper.” I stood up fists clenched with suppressed sadness.
I was angry. I had been all day, pain boiling under the surface at having a stupid problem and no one to help me deal with it. It wasn’t even about the girl, ghost or padded cells she was dead but I realized the thing was that I needed someone to believe me. At least for long enough to throw away the key. I had been seeing her for months and before I had myself committed I wanted someone to witness with me. It took the most open minded man in town a little more than ten seconds to shut me down, so finding someone who would trust an almost guilty child killer/rapist long enough to follow him into the woods for some ghost hunting should be dandy.
I walked out of the little glass box before David could get another word out and I decided I was going to church. I wanted to see if a God fearing southern American woman would help me, my wife. Or ex rather. I went back up Mane Street, tears and sweat singing salty love ballads down my bald head and pink tinged cheeks. There was a little wooden church at the end of the lane, simple and humble by church standards where she was a chronic attendee.
Which brings me back to the little bench. I don’t hate Tammy for leaving me and acting a fool to protect how she is viewed, I don’t think you can ever truly hate someone who has been a fair chunk of your life. That’s why you can’t hate your brother or sister or your parents no matter how hard you try. They’re what you know and at the end of the day what we know is all we got to live with.
I don’t think she really believes that I could have done it. But that isn’t the point. For a woman reputation, how the world may perceive you and not what you actually are, is what matters and she just can’t be associating with someone with a soiled reputation like mine. Like I said, I can’t hate her for it. God didn’t make me to hate horses for having hooves when I gotta pay for shoes.
“Mr. Vernie? Are you okay?” A little voice and the sound of a pogo stick.
“Howsit young Kleodis.” I reply not lifting my head from my hands. Not remembering letting it fall there in the first place.
“Whats wrong with you Mr. Vernie? You look like it’s the saddest Sunday of the year.” I looked up in time to see him shrug noncommittally. “Not sure what that means, but Nana says it and it sure does make her sad.”
A sound that I hadn’t made for a long time. It sounded strange and unfamiliar at first, like an old friend you hadn’t seen for ages you just wander by one day at a train station. You’re unsure if it’s really them, a new haircut and new life experiences making them almost unrecognizable for a moment, but then with a play of the light or a familiar gesture you’re convinced. Nothing has changed, your still friends and will always be, it’s just the way time spent together works. But you will each go your separate ways at the end of your little pint sized reunion but not without feeling a light breeze of flavors long since forgotten and now, because of fate or sheer happenstance, renewed. That is how I laughed. Soon Kleodis was laughing with me, not having a clue what he was supposed to be laughing about, which just made me laugh all the harder.
Then I knew. I knew that this boy, this strange and awkward little pogo-phile would believe me. Because if nothing else than the simple genetic encoding that all children fall failure too, that they trust adults. The biggest naïve mistake they could ever possibly choose but an instinctual misappropriation that humans will repeat until we both are spending our days with little Miss Marmalade.
“Could you come with me Kleodis? I need you to believe something for me.” I asked with the slightest tremble in my voice.
If he was at all perturbed by my awkward phrasing than he didn’t show it. He just gave one last feeble bounce on his toy and laid it lightly on the grass underneath the Oak. He stood up, pushed his girly spectacles back up his sweaty nose, and extending a tiny hand for me to take as if this had all been a predetermined circumstance. The easiest thing I have ever done in my life was taking those little fingers in mine. I’m not sure when we left the town, or the little bench with the Oak who had seen a hundred years and if man allowed would see a hundred more but we were suddenly at the entrance to the cove.
Before I was aware my feet were moving we had set off down the rugged trail, bits of sage brush and squirrel song propelling us forward. I knew where we were going; I had relived this walk damn near every moment, moving pictures playing on dull canvas every time I closed my eyes.
“I know it’s real boy. You’ll see soon as we get down to the cove. It is real.” He wasn’t the one I was trying to convince and even I knew it. He didn’t even know what the hell I was going on about. For a few moments the only sound was the crunch of dry needles underfoot.
“Not to be a negative Nancy but is it gonna even really matter if I believe you?”
I stopped abruptly, tugging his arm and making him jerk like an ambitious dog at the end of its leash.
“What the hell ya mean does it matter? Of course it matters it’s the only damn thing that matters now.” He needed to understand that.
He massaged his shoulder and I realized that I had been too rough on him. I had the impression that he was choosing his next words very carefully.
“What I mean is that even if we go out here and we see whatever I’m supposed to be seeing nothings gonna change. Not daddy and not even Mrs. Nollemakre, that lady who keeps burning her kitties, is gonna believe you. No one at all ‘cept me, and I’m nine.”
I smiled again, if only for the stark observational skills of children, and knelt in front of him looking into his eyes beneath his momma’s glasses, because they were hers, they had to be. This little boy who so wanted his momma back he would try making history for her.
“Your right, no ones gonna believe me, no matter what happens down there, not a souls going take my word at it, ‘cept you. And kid that’s all I think I’m gonna need.”
He broke into the first true smile I had ever seen him bear. I’m not gonna lie, it needed some polishing, but at least he was still capable of doing a true child’s smile. We lose that as we grow older, how to smile with the light of our youngest.
We kept going, his little steps quicker to match my longer strides. Muggy light was filtering through the trees overhead blinking past all the leaves with an almost strobe-like propensity. Kleodis’ little fingers still clenched in my left, I reached my right hand up and plucked a young leaf from a less ambitious branch. I brought the little blade to my face and inhaled that smell we can’t explain but all recognize, the almost instinctual fragrance of growth. I let it remain at my face for a few moments then slipped it into my breast pocket, where its unfamiliar weight lingered tickling my chest hair long after it should have become ordinary.
Soon the break in the trees came and there was Table Rock, beautiful brown water still shining in the afternoon glow. I felt surprised, as if I believed the lake, fed up by boats, ducks and used condoms was just gonna pack its shit and leave for destinations unknown. Possibly get together with some fellow respectable bodies of water and do whatever it is large groups of water do, perhaps form a decent ocean. In any case I was glad this lake stuck around, at least for today. I led Kleodis right up to the edge and we sat down together next to the fishing pole I had abandoned that morning and waited.
“You’re going to get into trouble for this aren’t you Mr. Vernie, for being out here alone with me.”
I could think of nothing to say. Of course he was right. I was probably going to get in deep shit for this. The crazy old child killer doing some fresh research. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was someone being a part of this, something seeing that everything I have ever done hasn’t been in vain.
The water churned and shimmered, perhaps getting ready to reveal a soft secret in the dying embers of caressing sunlight. Next to me tiny, wonderfully alive little lungs inhaled with concealed expectation. I just smiled and put my arm around his frail shoulders.
“‘Cept you kid, ‘cept you.”
__In 1972 the Table Rock Dam was opened and the modest town of Oasis, Missouri was submerged below an overwhelming tide. It has remained hidden below the waves of the lake for nearly forty years, a modern freshwater Atlantis. Its inhabitants all but forgotten. Skilled divers have traveled up the town’s main street where a decaying wooden church still sits. There is also a long dead Oak tree that sits in the constant shadow of the murky water. It remains there still, silently keeping its promise.