The Cupboard is not where we store our politics (though you could probably infer where we stand after a relatively superficial skim), so I’m not referring to the U.S. presidential race when I say that it’s been a difficult summer. Some people are safer than ever, golden parachutes and all; others are living through violence that would not be out of place in the medieval era. If there’s a bright spot, it’s the collective human urge to catch the colorful, preposterous creatures planted in your immediate virtual environment. I’m talking, of course, about Pokémon Go and the way it’s injected the prosaic backdrop of our cities and suburbs (there’s room for improvement in rural areas, I hear) with life and whimsy. Yes, it’s artificial, but we’d never hoof five-kilometer laps around our neighborhoods to look at the same tired scenery, would we?
I won’t make the obvious analogy between a goofy monster hovering over your cracked sidewalk and the effect literature has of remaking the trusty old human experience. I’m taking a different angle with the fact that the monsters in your proximity have a shelf life of about 15 minutes before they’re rotated out for a new crop. It’s mortality (our pet obsession) at its finest: a quest—largely meaningless—to acquire all of the spoils we see. We will never succeed. But we might just spend enough time at it to run down the clock.
~T.M De Vos, Editor
Evidence by Catherine Arra
Threshold by Gary Beck
Unfinished Business at the Halfway House by Jean Berrett
How long before I… by SuzAnne C. Cole
Without by Alexis Fedorjaczenko
Suicide by Gayle Newby
Elegy by Sharon Scholl
Far from Heaven by Scarlett Gray
Resurrection by Howard Brown
The Visible Man by Beth Sherman
Each day, no rain
the lake recedes, sand emerges
littered with dirt sea stones
shell spirals a lost feather.
Once this whole area was covered in salt water
says my neighbor. His three grandchildren
troll the edge in excavating leaps and glee.
I smell an old sea
the rotted death of centuries
taste a salty fertility on skin.
A jute rope, buried in thirds
loops to land and out into
aquatic wreaths eel grass
sways in a world silent to me.
I imagine sounds turtles make
propelling titanic armor, the hum-glide to the top
ringing a shattered surface
inflections of fish gills
in unmetered staccato, sucking pumping
the triangle cinch
of the sand crane’s toes.
And then, the groaning bottom
belches up its dead.
On the walkway squealing kids
display mutilated mollusks
partial turtle shells pinchers bird bones
She was rolled back
with the Persian carpet
purchased in Turkey on honeymoon
62 years ago.
In the under layers
the collected dust of living:
jewels, cankers, choices made or not
outcomes expected or not
ghosts celebrating long past midnight.
When he passed
and was rolled out
she called a charity to take clothing
boxed his history in customized memoirs
for each kid—stories they wanted to hear.
She sold antiques, art collected
abroad, diamonds, gold.
And when they rolled up the carpet, trucked it away
she watched from glass framing the sea below
her footprints fresh in carpet dust
like sand before the wave.
The city is filled
with the frightened,
who see the homeless
grubbing through garbage cans
avert their eyes,
that loss of jobs
will put them on the street,
reduced to scrounging for food.
The fear of loss,
days and nights of comfort
sitting in the soft chair
unworried for the moment
their way of life
was being stolen
by minions of the wealthy.
Each day an overlay
as in Picasso: with each stroke
of the brush, the color of time
The way is outward
through plaster walls and crosstown traffic
to a place called I have lived:
the mirror will only lengthen the path of the light.
At the halfway house, in defense of us all,
Petunia would say:
“Somebody’s perpetrating a fraud!”
She knew, we knew the reports
must at all costs
Each day we urinated
into a bottle.
When Linda’s son, conceived by
a brother’s rape,
died of a hole in his heart,
no one could comfort her.
When Ginger’s urine showed speed,
we prayed, we prayed,
All of us dreamed of another place where we could be
find myself able to speak well of the dead?
Connie removed now
five years from a life blurred by
tantrums, schizophrenia, ailments—
some real, some fantastic. As Dad
once said, “Everything Mom or I have,
except much, much worse. Probably fatal.”
In the end, aspiration pneumonia,
an appetite, never failing
unlike her other senses.
She gorged while supine
and inhaled coughing.
Dad dead already a year to the day,
Mom on hospice care, unable to cope,
I selected and delivered the outfit—
black and white jacket, black top, pants,
socks, sneakers with yellow twirled laces.
Mom is pleased when she sees Con
coffined, her hair her best feature:
wavy, ash-blonde, no gray at sixty-four.
I find her cold, still heaviness cruel.
I clean out her rooms, select a few items
for Mom. Take nothing myself.
You’d think after so long, there’d be
something else to be said, a bravery
to mark, a kindness to remember, but
as always, I’m coming up dry.
—SuzAnne C. Cole
You must shed your cloak of certainty—
Those Western-educated clothes.
Lay your body on the floor
With the women
In white painted faces
Who are also silent about their fears.
Listen to their muffled cries at night.
Slough off that exaggerated innuendo.
Give yourself up
I do not care
about your bangles, your wit, your degrees.
He carved me in stone, so he could be
the last one to break me. Miscalculating hammer
thrusts left me disproportionate, too heavy
above the shoulders, too hollow in the chest.
Then he put me on a pedestal, high enough to breathe.
I forgot I was supposed to be his reflection,
took flight on wings I carved for myself. Too eager
to prove my independence, I melted
a few times,
but that didn’t stop me from trying to warm
my fingers on the sun.
from Anger This Motivation
A thousand voices a day tell me
what I can do, what I should do,
what I will never do.
I am surrounded by mouths that believe
I will amount to nothing.
Some have eyes that can see me, but don’t.
Some have echoes, ghostly mental shadows
that trickle from my past. The rest are screaming,
premature influences yet to be borne.
I carry them all on my skin. They smother
me like leather, make me sweat,
even in climates I control. I am their constant
whipping post, but I am numb
to their lashings. I wear my scars
like diamonds, drip with self-
satisfaction. Tomorrow I will be even harder
They pulled him out of the Tenn Tom, that strange, library-haunting boy.
Always had the look of one who was searching:
Eastern religions, Larry Brown novels, were his general fare.
Seemed he was a visitor to this planet,
lost for a while but waiting for his bus
to the land of the found, maybe the lost.
Unfailingly kind, he asked of my family, with great aplomb.
He could be violent, they said. I never saw it.
He parked his car in the middle of Waterway Bridge. And jumped.
Tired of being polite, he inconvenienced the crowd, if only for a while.
My frivolity, you called it—your mid-life
convertible Capri. Aquamarine
like the South Seas of your daydreams. Top
down, headwinds sailed past your ears. You hailed trucks,
threading cars, held onto a straw
Panama hat that pressed your bald spot. Tarmac
cowboy, kite surfer, when the driver
window wouldn’t close
that winter you parked
under a plastic tent where a neighbor’s
tabby found shelter. The top
wouldn’t open, the muffler
fell off; one morning the engine wouldn’t
turn. I wish
I could watch you take
off, younger and whole, disappearing into a sunset
cloud on your way to Borneo.
Little sleep the first night back.
But no matter:
the fire burned all night,
though the smoke hardly rose
against the heavy air.
All night I watched
as giant Orion hunted
blindly across the sky
until the sun restored his sight
At dawn, clouds gathered
and the rain began as the birds
had said it would. I moved camp
to the abandoned barracks
now windowless and gray.
(Birds had nested there.
Geckoes are quick to enter
but even quicker to leave).
I tried a watercolor of a snake
shedding its skin
But the light was indifferent,
until a redwinged blackbird came
and posed on a windowsill.
I sketched him on a wall
as he admired himself.
Soon I had the walls
filled with egrets and terns,
herons and pelicans in flight.
When the light grew dark I stopped.
The blackbird was nowhere to be seen.
Orion had returned to his watch overhead.
I fell asleep in the newborn light.
Stranded on Horn Island
I can’t say how far I was from the light
but I bore straight into the wind,
straight towards the island glowing
miles away. I pulled against the oars,
against the wind and the tide
that held me in twin circles.
When the wind relented and the tide
let go, I saw strange faces
lining the beach. I was captured
when I landed, my paints held hostage
while I told them everything I knew
about the birds that spy on us,
how the lowliest creature here spoke
perfect Japanese but could not be
trusted with rice; how the tide carried
messages left in the sand;
how even the purple gallinules
had designs on the world.
Of course they wouldn’t believe me.
I hastily drink three cups of coffee. I have an hour before work, but if I’m late, it doesn’t matter. My head is foggy, filled with too many racing thoughts, each desperately trying to justify me staying home, but I have to ignore them; it’s an ongoing battle. My hands and legs are shaking, but at least my appetite is suppressed. I just want to go to sleep, but instead, I take one last long sip of coffee and watch cars pass by outside until I can finally force myself to move. A substantial part of me wants to cry, but I remind myself that I feel this way every time I start a new job, no matter what it is.
I drive into the city with Ella Fitzgerald singing “Cry Me A River” on repeat while I attempt to hit every single note because, for some strange reason, this calms me. There’s something delicately balancing about it. My voice is trembling, but I can’t seem to keep it steady. The traffic is congested, and my fingers dance on the steering wheel as if I’m angry, but I’m not. I’m rarely ever angry, as if there isn’t enough room in me for another emotion. I’m always envisioning the very worst; I make a dreadful first impression when I’m panicked.
I’m at a new club, with a new made-up name and a new fabricated backstory. When I sign in, I accidentally write one of my old names, and the manager chuckles gently as he watches me cross it out and try again. It’s becoming more and more difficult to keep track of who I am at any given moment.
In the beginning, I was Rosie—the innocuous ingénue with the soft voice and understated flirtation. Rosie was the first and the lengthiest of my personas, lasting nearly a year at a club I liked the most, but ultimately abandoned when my anxiety got the better of me, and Rosie vanished without a word.
Next came Carmen, then Misty, both short-lived and underdeveloped characters that came into existence only when my bank account ran on empty, or wildly overdrawn. I started to name myself after captivating girls in sad songs, living it up onstage for a month (if even that) at a time, and making very little effort to enjoy even the better parts of it.
Leaving the manager’s office, I instantly notice the diversity of the girls—something that I didn’t encounter at the last club. I’m pleased to see that it isn’t all skinny, tan, white girls with blonde hair and boob jobs. Every girl looks astonishing, whether up on her stage or in the crowd mingling with men—laughing and whispering and seducing in each of their own curated ways. I lock eyes with a few of them on my way across the room, giving them an acknowledging nod or grin without thinking about it any more than to hope that they’ll like me.
“Poor baby,” I hear one girl say to a man four times her age. She touches the side of his face as an act of empathy while simultaneously using her arms to press her breasts together, making them appear larger. The man takes off his glasses to wipe a tear from his cheek before sniffling so loudly that it almost overpowers the pounding music. “You know what, just apologize to her, give it some time, and it’ll all be okay,” the girl assures him. I’m unsure of who they’re talking about—his wife, his daughter, his boss, another dancer—but no matter the subject, these conversations always go the same way. The men vent to us about their problems and we offer them sultry comfort, a shoulder to cry on, and vague solutions while they pay us like we’re their therapists.
“You’re right, Roxie,” he responds in a quietly hopeful tone.
“Have I ever been wrong?” she asks playfully, and both of them laugh until I’m too far away to hear them.
The building itself feels dirty, and not in the sexual manner; there are stains on the carpet that I can only describe as ‘questionable’ (why they would choose to have carpet here, I can’t imagine). I push through the saloon-style doors that lead to the dressing rooms, walking upstairs where I start to strip down, taking off the pale blue dress that I have on over my lingerie and fixing myself up in the mirror. There’s a song by Kelela playing softly through someone’s phone (I’m not sure whose), and as I smile and sway my head along to the music, a girl in a sexy-nurse outfit says to the girl beside her, “Oh yeah, she’ll fit in just fine here.” I let out a sigh of relief.
The lighting is dull and overly yellow, and the long counters connected to the vanity are covered in hair straighteners, blow dryers, bobby pins, perfumes, lotions, thigh-highs, and just about every brand and category of makeup you could ever imagine. This small room alone could put a beauty supply store to shame. The air upstairs feels stagnant and dry, despite two box fans on the floor at either end of the mirror. The back wall is lined with baby-blue lockers, but nowhere near enough for every girl to have her own, which is why all of our belongings are scattered all over. It’s hard not to trip over a purse or pair of high heels.
The girls here are nice, and I’m pleasantly shocked by it. It’s drastically different from the last place I worked, where everything was so competitive and hardly any of the girls ever spoke to me unless out of absolute necessity. These girls are sweet. Someone compliments my figure before another asks where I got my shoes. I learn their fake names and try to memorize their faces. We’re all sitting half-naked at the vanity, sharing makeup tips and exchanging flatteries. A girl called Layla with long braids and a lavender playsuit is recommending I invest in some smudge-proof lipstick. All this time, I’ve just been settling for touching up my cheap drugstore makeup every hour; no one ever taught me otherwise. I show Layla my lipstick—a bright red by Wet n’ Wild that smells strongly of wax. She laughs musically and says, “Girl, you’re too pretty to be wearing this shit!” before painting my lips with her own high-end red, sliding her finger across her handiwork and showing me that nothing smeared.
“Now, isn’t that better?” she asks, but it isn’t really a question.
I almost forget I’m here to make money until Layla stands up and offers to work the floor with me.
“How do you mean?” I ask her, hoping I don’t come off too unaware.
“We can make good money if we flirt a little in front of the guys,” she explains. “I’ll introduce you to some of my regulars. They always go crazy for the new girls.”
I agree without hesitation, and Layla walks me around the bar, leading me by hand to the men she knows carry plenty of cash. There’s something so inherently harmonious about this strategy of collaboration. One of the worst things to me about the clubs I’ve been in before was the sense of loneliness and isolation—the strong notion of “every woman for herself.” As I glance around the room again, I notice duos of girls scattered everywhere, working in teams and splitting the pay without any arguments or bad blood. It’s beautiful to see.
After working the floor for an hour, I come back upstairs. They allow smoking inside, here, which means I’ll always reek of stale smoke and gritty cigars. It seems like every inch of this club is covered in overflowing ashtrays and empty cocktails. There’s a new set of girls hiding out here taking breaks, and they welcome into their conversations as if I’ve been here for months. I’m in a nude lace bra-and-panty set, staring at my reflection in the enormous mirror and listening for my name in the stage rotation every time another is announced. I’m chain-smoking for no reason other than boredom—I might as well, since I’m going to smell like it anyway—when a girl whose name I can’t remember offers me a line of coke. Maybe I’m just excited that the girls here are even talking to me, but I take it, because why not? I’ve never tried cocaine, but there are a lot of things I’d never tried before I started stripping. Maybe I’m a cliché; I honestly don’t know. It’s not like I have a group of sex worker friends to swap stories with. It’s not like I have a support group.
When I first started stripping, I didn’t hide it from everyone. I kept my parents in the dark to spare them the discomfort of having to think about it, but I told my English professor, my boss at the art gallery I wrote press releases for, and almost anyone who asked. To me, it just felt like a job, and I blindly didn’t realize that sex work is as stigmatized as it is. I’ve watched girls at every club lose their families, their homes, and almost everything they have once word gets out. I’ve watched people react with violence and hatred. I’ve felt the shame that society tells sex workers they should feel.
A few minutes pass before I hear my name—I almost miss it, since it’s brand new—and I put out my cigarette, powder my nose, and make my way backstage. As the D.J. announces me and “Before He Cheats” starts to play, I wonder whether I should be feeling the coke yet. My heart is racing, but I’m certainly used to that.
The music here random is a mixture of country, classic rock, and current radio hits. It’s eerie listening to a song about a girl slashing her boyfriend’s tires after he cheats on her while looking out into a room filled with men wearing gold wedding bands watching women dance topless. All I can do is try to ignore the lyrics.
Up on stage, I feel genuinely incredible. Dolled up and beautiful, swaying up high in the bright white lights, I feel closer to heaven. I’m not the best dancer, but you don’t have to be remarkable to get the right attention. As long as your body is hot and you have some charisma, you’re golden. Stages don’t earn much money—they’re really just a preview to line up your lap dances for later. It’s the tease before the taste—the sultry amuse-bouche. Onstage, you earn scattered one-dollar bills amidst the occasional five that add up to less than you’d make in just two or three twenty-dollar lap dances; it’s all about showing yourself off and drawing up interest.
Twenty minutes and three new bruises on my knees later, I’m sitting at the bar with Lyle, a man old enough to be my grandfather. I twirl the little cocktail-stirrer in circles between dainty sips of my third vodka cranberry. I know I shouldn’t be drinking on coffee, coke, and an empty stomach, but I never learn. I have to do something to dull down the sound of Lyle rambling on incessantly about either my tits or gun control (those seem to be the only two topics on which has a strong opinion).
“You know, you got some great knockers on you, sweetheart,” he slurs out for the third time in five minutes.
“Thank you, baby,” I say once more.
“You know,” he continues, “I’m not into all this new boob-job, plastic surgery shit. In my day, women were all natural, like you. But this world is going downhill fast, don’t you think?”
I just nod and keep sipping my cocktail.
“Obama really is doing one hell of a job ruining this country,” he insists, and at this point, I’m biting my tongue. “I mean, letting in immigrants, and wrecking the economy, and trying to take away our guns. It’s just a real shame America isn’t what it used to be.”
I shift my position, drawing attention to my cleavage because I’d rather hear him talk about my body than get into politics.
“Man, you’re sexy,” he says, and I can’t help but smile at how easy it was to move the conversation back without a single word. “I’d love to take that body home with me.”
It’s hard not to roll my eyes. After one more drink, I walk Lyle over to a leather chair where he makes himself comfortable, placing his wallet, his glasses, and his cowboy hat down on the coffee table that’s never seen a single cup of coffee. He pays me for two dances, so I take his money and shake my ass for him. I’m not going to lie—it feels demeaning, but no more demeaning than when I was seventeen, sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms at a grocery store for $7.25 an hour. At least here, I’m making decent money. At least here, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. I could hide away in the dressing room all night long, and the only consequence would be that I wouldn’t make any money.
Back upstairs yet again, after giving four more dances to two men just like Lyle, I apply more blush to my cheeks. I can only ever handle two or three clients back to back before I have to escape to unwind—to stop smiling or staring seductively, and let my mind and body relax. I talk with the other girls who are upstairs shaving or smoking or soaking up the serenity. A girl named Brandy shows me pictures of her kid while another named Sasha tries to book a hotel room on her phone because her parents kicked her out. One girl is silent, reading from a biology textbook while sitting on the floor in the corner. Everyone here has their own story—their own specific place in life—and it makes me feel slightly aimless. I don’t like telling people that I dropped out of college, no matter how strongly I feel that it wasn’t the right path for me, so sometimes, I lie and say I’m still a creative writing student. I’m in a terrifying place, unsure of exactly what I want out of life, or how to get it. I try to tune Sasha’s voice out, because it’s only making me wonder about what would happen with me if my parents found out I was working here, and I don’t like to think about it (I’ve tried a few times to carefully gauge what my mother’s thoughts are on sex work, but I’ve never been able to get enough of a response, and prying any further would be too obvious).
A little after two a.m., everyone leaves. I stop at the ATM on my way home, slowly feeding stacks of crumpled ones, fives, and twenties into the machine while I listen to Kali Uchis. My porch light is on when I pull up to my house, happily caressing the doorknob with my drowsy hand before taking a long bath and collapsing into my bed. My thighs are sore, my knees are pink, and my bank account is beautiful.
But when I wake up, my shampooed hair still smells like old cigarettes, and forcing myself to go to work isn’t any easier than it was yesterday.
Though Ferrell Goodlow pretty much disappeared after he left school in the fifth grade, he was still in the cross-hairs of Uncle Sam when he turned eighteen.
Most of his old grammar-school classmates were either in college or married by then, which earned them a deferment. But running wild in the deep woods wasn’t the sort of thing that would ordinarily give you a pass with Selective Service. No, in a certain sense, that was just the sort of person they were looking for.
When he didn’t respond to the induction notice sent by mail, a second notice went out, this one hand-delivered by Hob Goodlow, the town marshal. Hob and Ferrell were distant cousins, although not on particularly good terms as the result of a fracas some years previous between Hob and Ferrell’s erstwhile dog, Curly.
When Hob arrived with the missive, Ferrell was nowhere to be found. So the marshal left it with Ferrell’s daddy, Clarence, along with the warning that if Ferrell didn’t show up for his physical, not only would Clarence’s illicit whiskey operation—which Hob had gratuitously ignored for years—be shut down, but their next visitor would be a U.S. Marshal.
Clarence had an abiding distrust of all things governmental, having lost a leg in Korea when a mortar round hit the latrine in which he’d been taking a dump. Yet he wasn’t about to let anything threaten his whiskey still. And if that meant offering up his only son to the Great Satan, so be it.
Military life suited Ferrell well enough, especially once he got to Vietnam. The jungle was only a slightly more exotic version of the big woods in which he’d spent most of his boyhood; in fact, he seemed more or less at home in what most draftees considered the ultimate living nightmare.
He became a tunnel rat, crawling down into the earth with a flashlight and a .45 to ferret out the enemy. It was a seriously scary job, but if Ferrell minded the assignment, he never said so. He just did what he was told to do and kept his thoughts to himself.
By the time he re-upped for his second tour, it came to light that he could speak Vietnamese. His superiors were at a loss as to how this drawling, country boy was suddenly so fluent in a language not his own. But he just shrugged, claiming it was a gift that had come to him in a dream.
“Kiss my ass, Goodlow,” his First Sergeant growled. “You didn’t learn that gook shit in no fucking dream.” What the First Sergeant didn’t know was that—like his mother before him—Ferrell had always had a spooky side and over the years many special gifts had been visited upon him, seemingly out of nowhere. It was said that as a boy he could talk with crows, had once even changed a dog into a bird. But all of that is only to say that in short order he became the company interpreter.
The primary responsibility of the interpreter was the interrogation of prisoners—generally synonymous with torturing the shit out of any hapless bastard unfortunate enough to be captured. But Ferrell had a different approach. He’d remove the prisoners’ blindfolds, untie their hands, offer them a cigarette, then make small talk, telling them incidental things about themselves, things he really had no way of knowing, so that by the time he got around to the serious questions, the captives were convinced he was a conjurer of some sort, already knew the answer to whatever he was asking, and thus, there was no use in lying.
When he re-upped for a third tour, he became part of a long-range reconnaissance patrol—a LRRP, in grunt vernacular. Now he was truly in his element, living in the bush for weeks on end, moving like a ghost among the enemy, gathering intelligence and generally fucking with Charlie’s mind. He went totally native—full beard, long hair and the ears of his victims strung around his neck on a leather thong—but no one said anything, not as long as he was getting the job done.
Then one day, somewhere along the Laotian border, he disappeared altogether. When he didn’t show up after a couple of months, he was listed as MIA. A year later, without explanation, that designation was changed to KIA.
Ferrell’s daddy, Clarence, was notified of his son’s death by a man in a black suit, who came to the house unannounced on a Tuesday morning. He didn’t have much to say, only that Ferrell was dead, a funeral would be held shortly, and as soon as Clarence signed the necessary paperwork, he’d be getting a check for $10,000, representing his son’s death benefits. Clarence signed, of course, paid off what he owed on the Buckeye Road property and used the balance to buy a new television and deep freeze and a slightly used GMC pickup.
Ferrell’s funeral was held in the west end of the county, at Macedonia Holiness Church. Neither Ferrell nor his daddy had ever been members there, or of any other church for that matter, but it was where Clarence’s parents had been laid to rest, so he figured it was where Ferrell should be buried too.
The military casket was sealed, with instructions that under no circumstances should it be opened. Thirteen people attended the service: an itinerant preacher named Turl Spoon, home from a factory job in Illinois for Labor Day weekend; Ferrell’s daddy, Clarence; the director of the local funeral home, Seymore Prather; his two helpers, Ab and Ned; and an honor guard consisting of seven enlisted men and their commanding officer from a Reserve unit in Clarksdale, which, to the chagrin of its constituency—mostly Ole Miss students trying to evade the draft—would be activated and sent to Vietnam the following year. Once the preacher finished his rambling eulogy, the honor guard carried the casket out to the little cemetery beside the church, took up their rifles and fired a 21-gun salute, which sent a flock of crows roosting in a nearby copse of trees screeching into the heavens. Then Ab and Ned lowered the casket into the grave, and except for shoveling in the dirt, the service was complete.
Clarence died two months later, underestimating the velocity of his newly acquired GMC pickup as he tried to negotiate a particularly sharp curve in Buckeye Road, leaving the pavement and landing upside down in a flooded creek. Clarence’s funeral entourage was even smaller than Ferrell’s. There was Turl Spoon who, by then, had lost his factory job in Illinois, moved back home, and taken up preaching full-time; Seymore Prather, the funeral director; and, of course, his helpers Ab and Ned. Though, like Ferrell, Clarence was a veteran, there was no honor guard.
Clarence’s place on Buckeye Road sat for the next couple of years, padlocked after the old man’s funeral by Marshal Goodlow, who nailed a “No Trespassing” sign to the front door and left the house, and the five acres on which it stood, to the slow but certain ravages of time. With Ferrell’s demise, Hob was Clarence’s only known kin, other than his wife, who’d left him years before and hadn’t been heard from since. But Hob never made any claim on the place and when he subsequently died, there was no longer an heir apparent. However, property taxes continued to accrue and eventually the Tax Assessor posted a notice indicating it would be sold at auction.
The auction was set for the second Saturday in July at 10:00 am on the Courthouse steps. But at 9:45 on the morning of the sale, a one-armed man with a badly scarred face walked into the Tax Assessor’s office and plunked down $328.50, saying he wanted to pay the taxes on the property in question. “Sorry,” the Deputy Clerk replied. “That property’s about to go on the block, you’ll just have to bid on it like everyone else.”
“No ma’am,” the stranger drawled politely, pushing his money across the counter. “It was my daddy’s home-place.”
“Hold on,” the Deputy said, turning. But before she could move away from the counter, the Tax Assessor himself stepped up beside her and asked: “What’s the problem?”
“No problem,” the stranger replied, his hand still resting on his money. “I just want to pay what’s owing on my daddy’s property.”
“And what property would that be?” the Tax Assessor asked.
“The Clarence Goodlow place; I’m his boy, Ferrell.”
“Now don’t try to shit me, son,” the Tax Assessor said. “Ferrell Goodlow was killed in Vietnam.”
The stranger didn’t say anything else but took a military identification card out of his wallet and slid it across the counter.
And knowing that things are not always what they appear to be, the Tax Assessor took the $328.50, sealed it in an envelope which he locked in the safe, then postponed the tax sale until the matter could be properly sorted out.
Owing to the proximity of the Goodlow property to a custom home subdivision being built nearby, suit was filed in Chancery Court by the developer, challenging the stranger’s identity and any peremptory right he might have to redeem the Goodlow place.
The picture on the identification card did resemble Ferrell when he was younger. Yet it was hard to tell now, as the stranger’s face was so badly disfigured. But he also had a Silver Star ensconced in a little velvet box, with a plaque on the lid indicating it had been awarded to Sergeant Ferrell Goodlow for gallantry in action.
Yet, if this was Ferrell, people were asking, who’d been buried out at Macedonia Holiness Church?
“Maybe they accidentally boxed up the wrong soldier,” the Chancellor mused, as he ordered exhumation of the body.
But when the backhoe had done its work and the casket pried open by Ab and Ned, there was nothing inside but the moldering corpse of a long dead crow.
Like blind men trying to describe an elephant, everyone had their own take on the matter. The developer claimed the stranger was an imposter. A telegram from the Department of Defense made no mention of what might have gone on with the casket but simply stated there was no basis for changing the KIA status of Sergeant Ferrell Goodlow—which led to speculation that perhaps the government was lying about Ferrell’s death and had been using him all along as part of some nefarious, undercover intrigue. Then there was the preacher, who proclaimed that Ferrell had indeed died, been buried and that he, The Reverend Turl Spoon, had personally raised him from the dead.
It was difficult to know where the real truth lay. Still, as far as the court case was concerned, the burden of proof was on the complainant, and the Chancellor—although deeply troubled by the matter—ultimately ruled the developer had failed to prove the stranger wasn’t who he said he was, and thus, he had no alternative but to dismiss the suit.
So Ferrell—or the person now presumed to be Ferrell by virtue of the Chancellor’s decree—redeemed the Buckeye Road property, even lived there for a time, refusing to make repairs to the dilapidated house and forbidding anyone to cut the weeds or move the stacks of lumber and bags of trash that began to accumulate. And once the price of the custom homes on the adjacent land started to suffer, he accepted an offer from the developer for twenty times what Clarence had originally paid for the house and five acres. Then he vanished.
In time, people’s recollection of Ferrell began to fade, and in many cases disappear altogether. But out in the west end of the county, in the little cemetery beside the Macedonia Holiness Church, a tombstone still stands which bears the inscription: Sergeant Ferrell Goodlow, U.S. Army, 2034812, August 13, 1944 – May 26, 1968.
The man broke apart easily. Ellen removed his heart, liver, spleen, and kidneys, tossing them on the table. Inside his plastic body, we could see colored wires signifying veins and blood. Her terrace was on the 19th floor of a high-rise, and I remember thinking that we were tiny objects, too. A giant hand could’ve swooped out of the sky and plucked us right off our deck chairs.
“There’s a woman,” said Ellen, taking a sip of Hawaiian Punch. “But this is better.”
We’d already played Mystery Date. I’d picked the Beach Bum twice, while Ellen got the Dreamboat. She lived across the street and our mothers had gone to college together, so it was a foregone conclusion that we’d become best friends, even though she was a mean, bossy girl who liked picking on kids weaker than herself, especially me.The box that the man came in was lying on the floor. From Skin to Skeleton . . . The Wonders of the Human Body Revealed! With his shaved bald head, he looked like Mr. Clean.
“This is his respiratory system,” Ellen said, tracing his lungs with her index finger. She had a cold and breathed through her mouth when she talked.
The man’s palms were turned towards us like the painting of Jesus in the church around the corner. His lips were pinched, his expression placid, as though he didn’t realize his organs were exposed.
We both wore Danskin playsuits, mine yellow, hers pale blue. Our mothers had picked them out together on a shopping trip. Ellen was removing the man’s pancreas when her hand brushed against mine. It had happened dozens of times before – on the playground, playing board games, making Fluffernutter sandwiches. We were partners at school, fingers entwined on the lunch line or on the way to recess. But now—with the man lying naked and exposed—I wondered what it would be like to touch her underneath her clothes, to peel back her Danskin top and examine what lay beneath. My face burned. My eyes began to water. I wished I could shove the thought back in my head. Grabbing the pancreas, I flung it across the terrace, where it landed in a potted palm.
“Hey, quit it.” She retrieved the organ, brushing dirt off its pink plastic surface. “You know what they left out, don’t you? His you-know-what.”
The instruction manual was still in the box. She picked it up and began reading. “This instructive anatomy lesson covers the skeletal, respiratory, nervous, digestive and endocrine systems. So what’d they forget, dummy?”
I felt embarrassed but didn’t know why—the first of many times attraction would take me by surprise.
She glared at me, snorting in disgust. “Do you even know where babies come from?”