the writing disorder


max sheridan

New Fiction


by Max Sheridan

      Meeks Farms had made a fleeting name for itself in 1861 when Colonel Carnot Posey had almost marched through it on his way East to deal with General Jackson. When two years later Posey fell at Bristoe Station, Thurmont’s great-grandfather, Amis Meeks, seized on the near legacy and rediscovered the dead man’s footsteps out among his snow peas and okra and became a war profiteer of sorts. Posey’s Snow Peas sold big in the decimated South, in burlap bags left over from courthouse amputations, and this Amis, a maternal appendage, soon had a plaque put up and Posey’s decisive footprints lacquered in a brassy, mud-colored hue on their way to a clean little cabin built on the sly out of sacked Confederate timber, where Posey was to have slept for a night en route to his fateful bullet. Every time Thurmont looked out at that log cabin from his own place across his dusty eight residual acres, he couldn’t help thinking of Thurmont III, of how the little fellow had, already at ten, taken after the worst rascals in the family line.
      Thurmont was riding a mule these days. He thought he would be going back to something pre-Amis by doing so. He didn’t feel much of it though and was surrounded by Negroes anyway. To be among his own people he’d have to drive out to Calhoun City or Coffeeville, and there to undergo undue pestering into his basic condition. How was he holding up out there among the Zulus? Had he spotted any angry pitchforks lately? Were the do-rags on the rise? In fact, Thurmont’s snow peas were in decline, his okra not much to look at. He grew musk squash without pesticides. He could cover his entire family history from before Lincoln’s War, his whole legacy in dirt, in a brisk twenty-minute jog if he wanted.
      He stared out from a non-specific distance at Route 12 in a way he imagined might be picturesque for a cruising Yankee to see. It was too late in the summer for a proper summer storm, Thurmont felt, and yet as he sat there under the wide, oppressive blue of day, he could feel one coming. He rode back to the barn to check again.
      Let them take his land, let them plough up his measly eight acres and turn the whole concern into a modern cinema complex of gray pavements and pyramidal glass structures, but they would not take away his barn. In that barn, where Thurmont slept most summer nights on a Coleman folding bed, was his own private legacy, what he would one day pass on to Thurmont III, if the little cardsharp was even interested in such things. And what a legacy it was.
      Thurmont had what he was willing to bet was the finest collection of consumer testimonials for household abrasives in the whole Deep South. He had functioning and non-functioning kaleidoscopes. He had flotsam from a hundred perished typesetters, doorknobs of all kinds and degrees of dereliction. He had his collection of little porcelain fighting men. The Meeks were not historically athletic people, but Thurmont had made sure to get his hands on the boxing gloves “The Old Weasel” Archie Moore had used in London in 1957 to defeat Yolande Pompey with, this through a kindly request to Moore’s aged wife made surreptitiously on behalf of the nearby Marzella Church of Tchula. Thurmont, otherwise a great hound of moral lapses, felt he was doing posterity a fine turn by claiming those gloves for the state of Mississippi, for Tchula.
      Under Thurmont’s cot was the Persian carpet great-grandfather Amis had handed down to his only grandson, Amis, Jr., Thurmont’s sickly father. This sleek, particolored beauty had almost made its way into the coffers of a traveling flea market when Thurmont was eight, and surely would have, for a lousy twelve bucks, if not for the high-pitched, ear-wracking yowls Thurmont had put up during negotiations. From that point forward Thurmont had been known as an appraiser of things. It was why he alone had staked out the family acres upon the death of Amis, Jr., why his brother Skinny had gone up North to study law and died of something up there, some degenerative Yankee disease, and why brother Lucius had lit out for Yazoo City to move pet food. They didn’t understand the value of things.
      But lately things had begun to go missing from the barn. Thurmont’s brilliantine tins, one by one. His library of defunct baiting gear and his bumper sticker collection. For years Thurmont had been holding on to those stickers for offer at motels and restaurant waiting rooms, the kind that seemed to be purposely designed to leave you and your loved ones stumped for ages. Jesus Punched Out For You; Snyder Bluff IS Dynamite Fishing; Cheese Demon, etc.
      His Miss Belzoni Calendar, 1952, was gone. This theft was particularly punishing for the fact that all the runners-up were featured in it and that whoever had stolen it knew that Thurmont had fallen for one of them long ago, that he’d kept the calendar for years thumbtacked to the wall above his boyhood dresser, which now shared the Persian carpet with the cot and supported a fine filigreed mirror dating back to Jefferson Davis’s presidency, kept it permanently flipped to Miss June, Rose Bascomb, who was to bloom forever just for him and who was now gone. No question he was being looted and unfortunately he knew just who the thief was.
      Like Thurmont, Bueler had taken his land from his daddy, Bueler, who had gotten it from his daddy thanks to Abe Lincoln. Four generations of Buelers working Meeks land, five, six, seven. Who was to keep track? But where Amis Jr. had taken to selling off parcels of the Posey legacy to men driving by in bad-fitting suits, the Buelers of Tchula had quietly amassed, so that now theirs was the finer dominion by far. Forty acres of richly manured and sodden fields that grew produce chain stores far afield of Tchula paid handsomely for. Mung beans, Greek butter beans, daikon radishes, burdock root, this was the difference. Early on Bueler had set his sights on something called the ethnic market. He had grown a belly from his prescience. He was expanding in places that drove Thurmont nuts. On the Internet, for one. And now he was coveting what he could not possibly have, or have mastery of, what he could only obtain by thievery, Thurmont’s things.
      Thurmont left the mule there in the barn to rest and changed clothes in the cabin. Out his right window was Meeks land, the Posey cabin and the highway. Out his left, all that was Bueler’s. He scrubbed under his nails with a wire brush and changed into a leisure outfit he’d succumbed to recently at a charity shop in Coffeyville, a rust-colored ensemble with a wider lapel than he was partial to and trousers that would show he’d been eating. He wanted to look comfortable, not accusatory, when he confronted Bueler downtown at Ike’s Poolroom, where he knew Bueler would now be reading the paper, or if finished with the paper, then haranguing those who couldn’t keep up with his views on world issues, asking Ike for things Ike never had on the menu or things Ike couldn’t possibly prepare in his greasy little kitchen.
      But Bueler wasn’t at Ike’s and this puzzled Thurmont, who stood outside for a while looking about in the sunlight with his hands on his wide hips moving his lips over some ideas. Petie Peterose had said Bueler’d been by and gone — in the middle of something. When Thurmont asked what kind of something Bueler had been in the middle of when he’d left, Peterose hadn’t been able to specify. Something, in other words, that had just come to Bueler. Thurmont knew these Negroes well so he knew they would help him if they could. He was one of them more or less.
      Thurmont felt his scalp getting redder, toasting. He sniffed for rain and got back in his truck and felt his scalp again and it was still hot. He cruised around in the dust for a while.
      There was a tourist couple hobbling about in the heat on Mercer Street with their necks craned forward, maybe Europeans. They were pale but not as cumbersome as Americans. They both had maps. Thurmont conjectured that one of them dealt with topographical information and river names and such and the other with restaurants, points of interest, etc. He guessed that they were now in the final stage of some doomed restaurant search, that soon they’d be getting desperate and critical of their decision to decamp in Tchula, wishing they’d taken a bus to Disney World instead. He ignored them as he rolled by.
      On his way home he saw a jack rabbit chasing a black snake across Route 12. In pursuit of these two was a naked Negro shaking a key. Still yards off, Thurmont slammed on the brakes as the queer three-creature circus shot over the baking asphalt and into the fields, disappearing quickly from view.

      When he awoke at four it hadn’t yet rained and Thurmont felt momentarily disoriented. In the wash of amber light falling into the shadows at the barn mouth stood two skinny petitioners. They were speaking at him.
      Thurmont got to his feet and secured his spectacles and only then recognized the couple from Mercer Street. They looked like they’d been picnicking in hell. The man entered tentatively with his map.
      “Carnot Posey?”
      How many times had he told the tourist bureau people to take Posey’s Cabin off their brochures? That it was a fake, that no battalion had ever marched through Meeks Farms and left their footprints? He would not go through with it again.
      “Sorry,” Thurmont said. “There’s the Cottonlandia Museum in Greenwood. They’ve got a model of the Battle of Pemberton. You all got a car?”
      The man visibly deflated. He’d been hunting this landmark for hours, he’d convinced his lady to hunt with him, and now it didn’t exist. He looked miserably unfed too. All of a sudden Thurmont got the idea that this marriage was hanging by a thread and that their great Posey letdown might just snap it.
      He said, “Carnot Posey got shot in Virginia. He died of an aggravated thigh wound and he was buried there. That cabin in your guidebooks was built by my great-grandfather, who had this very day in mind over a hundred years ago in 1861 when he built it. He sold snow peas. We’ve still got those. I can show you the snow peas if you’d like.”
      When they slunk back off into the dust in their Ford rental car Thurmont still didn’t know if they’d come from Europe or not. It was nearly six and still no rain. Thurmont noticed then with a prick of alarm the shape of the sweat rings he’d grown under his arms just talking to the couple. How the humidity and dust coexisted in Tchula was a mystery to him, why they just didn’t conspire finally and take the form of mud and have done with the inhabitants. He went to the cabin and breaded a plate of pork chops. He mashed a bowl of potatoes. He waited for as long as he could and then he lit a burner. He ate alone.
      He was still waiting at half past seven when Thurmont III appeared at the table and began to feed himself. Thurmont had long lectured the boy on tardiness and keeping one’s promises but this was a foolproof Amis legacy he was dealing with and he knew he would not win. He cheered himself with the thought that the boy was not even his blood, fully. Technically he belonged to Lucius. Thurmont had never tired of pursuing this New York tale for some logical backbone.
      Think, Lucius’s daughter June had gotten porked by a private in the US Army who’d done a single tour in the deserts of Iraq and then gotten this bug for Las Vegas he needed to take care of, and she’d packed her things. They tried their best at a household but June eventually came to see that there were the wiles of Las Vegas and the growing up of a child and that you could not have the two side by side. The boy showed up on Thurmont’s front porch a week later, three weeks shy of his eighth birthday. It wasn’t clear who had dumped who.
      Lucius, of course, wouldn’t have the boy in his life, it would just pollute his self-image having him around. He had no place in the back of his shiny red Jaguar besides. And could you blame him? For all the deviousness of the child, he was recognizably a Meeks. The long, wobbly head and jug ears, the black pouches under the eyes, the dourness, the suspiciousness. Thurmont loosened his bib as the boy knotted his around his stringy, old man’s neck.
      “Boy, where you been?”
      “No it ain’t.”
      Too often conversation disintegrated like this. Thurmont wondered if this is what it would be like trying to talk to a senile old relative living in your attic who would, when he’d had enough of you, fling a spoonful of cottage cheese at you. He said, “I mean I don’t see any tackle. Where’s your tackle? You need tackle to fish.”
      “Bhupinder’s got it.”
      “That’s the Super 8 boy, isn’t it? The Hindu’s son? He took your bait? I told you not to be lending out your things.”
      “Bhupinder caught a foot.”
      “A foot?”
      “At the Copper Road bend.”
      “Lost his footing, you mean.”
      “He reeled one in is what I mean.”
      Thurmont felt the blood pooling in his cheeks, prickling his scalp. He felt a pleasant subdued hum inside which meant a good rain was coming. But a foot? Had he raised the boy to fish for human parts in secrecy?
      “Listen to me, boy. You fished a foot out of the river and you gave it away to a Hindu, is that what you’re telling me? It didn’t occur to neither of you smartheads to call Sheriff Clymer who was, what, five minutes away? I’ve got to call the boy’s father now. That the Super 8 in Durant or the other one, the Lexington?”
      But Thurmont III’s beeper had gone off, and then he was gone, leaving in his wake the pungent odor of Dixie Peach hair pomade, Thurmont’s own pomade of choice. Thurmont couldn’t possibly have foreseen this, that his influence would have been so pernicious. If June ever came back to collect her seed, say in a year or two, would she find that he shopped for leisure suits in Coffeeville too, that he’d grown a belly and rode a mule?
       But Thurmont had had enough for today. He would call the motel in the morning, by which time he hoped the Hindu would have alerted the authorities and returned his tackle box. Now he had a thing or two to discuss with Bueler.

      The lights were off in Bueler’s cabin and it was night. Bueler, who couldn’t stand to be alone in the dark, was obviously not in. That is, Bueler had not come back.
      Thurmont stood there on Bueler’s porch with his fifth of sour mash contemplating the puzzling gulf between Bueler’s net worth and the shabby state of his personal habitat. He could not explain why, for instance, Bueler, when he found his old wooden beams to be infested with poria fungus, had insisted on leveling the antebellum timber and putting in gypsy tin. Thurmont had urged Tuff-Rib, a durable PVC alternative with a reliable distributer in Vicksburg, but Bueler, who could afford such luxuries, insisted that the pinging of rain on a roof soothed him. Had his people put up with pinging, historically? Thurmont wondered. Or perhaps Bueler was thinking of some glorious Brazzaville of the mind where the Buelers had once been suckled under such tin roofs. Surely this was an asinine memory to champion even so. But Bueler was rife with such self-deceptions and total misformulations. His recurrent dream of a floating warship piloted by Marcus Garvey and destined for a sunken continent of sparkling ebony, for instance. His claim to understand the Egyptian mindset. The shackles he kept on the wall that he claimed were the very ones his daddy’s daddy’s daddy had been wearing when he’d received manumission but which Thurmont recognized clearly as half a bear trap.
      Thurmont took his liquor back across the fields, admiring the health of Bueler’s beans and the quiet he had out there with the Meeks’ land as a cushion between what was his and Route 12. He retired the bottle without taking a sip and fell asleep moving in his sweat.
      The next morning he rose mechanically at seven and checked his things. Nothing seemed to be amiss. He locked the barn and went to the cabin and whipped eggs for himself and the boy and they ate without disturbance. Thurmont III had his head buried in the Clarion-Ledger, in the obituaries.
      “I see you’re a Dixie Peach man,” Thurmont said, so as not to have to say something about the other thing, the death notices.
      The boy grazed his head with a palm as if Thurmont’s comment implied that he hadn’t greased up enough or that something was out of place, a single stray piece of hair like an obdurate tine of speaker wire. Thurmont did the same, however.
      “A man got stabbed in Marcella,” Thurmont III said.
      “That so? Well, there isn’t much of Marcella to get stabbed in. Mustn’t have been from around here.”
      “A nigger.”
      “Negro,” Thurmont said. “We don’t use that other word.”
      “Bhupinder uses it.”
      “Your Hindu friend?”
      Well, well, Thurmont chuckled to himself, the pot and the kettle. The boy was carrying on with a caramel-colored bigot. He would not like this to be repeated around Bueler however. For when he finally chased Bueler down, there would be no talk of skin pigment, it had to be as man against thief.
      “Well, don’t use it,” Thurmont said. “At school you might even say black person.”
      Thurmont III put down the paper and sipped his coffee.
      “Ms. Cloggs said the Mississippi flows North, to Duluth.”
      “I find that hard to believe. Where’s Ms. Cloggs from?”
      “Arkansas,” Thurmont grimaced. “Third worst educational system in the Union, outside of here and Louisiana. Tune her out. The Mississippi flows down to the Gulf of Mexico and that’s just eye physics. Maybe you’re thinking of some of those bends it takes.”
      They both unbibbed. Thurmont III finished his coffee while Thurmont scrubbed the dishes.
      “I’m going to call the Hindu to discuss that foot,” Thurmont said over his shoulder.
      He never did. Instead he raced back to the barn to take a more thorough inventory of his things. When he reached his Shriner kazoos, his jaw dropped at what should have been the most obvious of thefts. The Old Weasel’s boxing gloves were gone! Pilfered from his dresser top in his sleep along with a decorative tin of Fiebing’s mink oil. Thurmont realized with not a little stab of anguish that with Bueler prowling about like a wolf in the moonlight he could no longer sleep with the barn doors open to the stars.
      He drove the truck straight out to Bueler’s in a black funk but took no satisfaction from his second visit. Again the man was not in. At Ike’s he spread the word that he was now looking for Bueler.
      In Tchula Thurmont loaded the flatbed up with mule feed and bean poles and a ten-yard spool of chicken wire. He drove out to Lexington for a piece of sweet potato pie. There, behind the counter at Di’s, was the girl from yesterday, she of the shot intercontinental romance, the Carnot Posey seeker. She took his order without indicating anything of her great disappointment.
      “Carnot Posey,” Thurmont said to jog her memory.
      “You came by yesterday to check out the cabin. You’ve stayed.”
      “Malcolm’s out looking for the grave of Elmore James.”
      It still wasn’t clear to Thurmont if she remembered him. He supposed she must have. He said, “I meant you’re still here. You’ve got a job? They gave you one?”
      “While Malcolm writes his book.”
      “I see.”
      “We’ve decided to plant our roots in Tchula,” she said.
      She was pretty, Thurmont decided, even with her nest of unwashed auburn hair and her patent foolishness. Plant roots in Tchula? Might as well talk of a weed setting up house, because that’s all there was in Tchula, weeds. And humidity. But this Malcolm, he sure was a lucky fellow to have kindled such devotion in his lady that she would work for him while he scouted out the graves of dead Negroes.
      “You all from France or something?” Thurmont said while he waited.
      “Fairlawn, New Jersey.”
      “Gosh, you don’t sound like them. Look, if you ever need snow peas—” Now this sounded monumentally foolish. “If I can help you all with anything,” Thurmont said, “just let me know. You know where to find me.”
      She smiled, and what a graceful act of charity that was. Thurmont felt everything sagging on his old body rise up at once and he flushed to his scalp. “Should of rained yesterday,” he said. “It just keeps getting stickier and stickier, don’t it?”
      He took his plate to a booth under the gaze of a big black woman line cook he had always assumed was Di but who could have knocked out the prison warden and jumped the fence just as easily. He ate with this woman watching him.
      It wasn’t until midnight, when he was in bed with the barn doors locked drowning in his sweat, that the thought crept up upon him. What if Thurmont III had been telling the truth and there really was a foot and the foot belonged to Bueler? What if Bueler had been that fool stabbed in Marcella and this whole time while he, Thurmont, was pining for his things, Bueler had been DOA at the bottom of the Mississippi on his way to New Orleans?
      Once this ugly seed had taken root, Thurmont couldn’t sleep. They had played mumblety-peg together as boys, slung dirt clods at unleashed mutts. They had drunk water from the same tap. What would happen when the high river came? Would Bueler wash up, unrecognizable then, on the banks of some redneck town far from his people and be tossed into a compost heap, mistaken for a lump of bad cow meat?
      The hammer of remorse had fallen upon Thurmont and he tossed and turned on the cot, which now seemed to him to offer a ridiculous substitute for sleep. In the shadows, in the darkness, he could hear his things settling in, creaking and pinging, expanding in the slightly cooled night air. He pulled his sheet up over his head. He was surrounded by worthless junk.
      He was up at six and had nothing to do. He walked around the cabin, making laps. He straightened his bean poles and tossed some feed to the mule. Mid-morning he drove out to Ike’s to get the word out that something, he didn’t know what, may have happened to Bueler. Then he drove back out to Durant, to the Super 8, to see about that foot.
       Of all the fool decisions that were in this fallen world to make, why, Thurmont wondered, would a Hindu decide to relocate to Tchula? The motel vestibule was a stifling pall of spice. Thurmont imagined a source for this odor, a nearby room where great cauldrons of the stuff were left permanently fired up and puffing. There was a plate of cinnamon donuts from the morning check-outs temptingly placed on top of a little rumbling brown refrigerator that Thurmont periodically envisaged helping himself to. They had brochures for Cottonlandia and a number of local churches, but nothing else, certainly the most pitiful selection of collectible literature Thurmont had ever come across in his limited travels.
      The little, smartly dressed man at the register he was now talking to must have been the Hindu’s father. He appeared to be listening to Thurmont, to grasp the severity of what had befallen the boys, and the owner of the foot. And then, just when Thurmont thought the man was going to pick up the phone and dial Sheriff Clymer, he let out a gut-buster of a laugh that sounded to Thurmont like the solitary cackling of a mental patient. Thurmont was literally blown back a foot or two by the ferocity of the little man’s pleasure.
      “A dead foot!”
      “Actually,” Thurmont said, “a dead body. The foot is what they found. Your son didn’t say anything?”
      “My nephew. Please wait.”
      Thurmont was joined moments later by a fat lady in a purple scarf she’d managed to make a whole dress out of. He saw a dark red spot on her forehead and decided it couldn’t have been a shaving cut. She was pretty, maybe even beautiful, but she was fat and her features bloated. Thurmont felt uncomfortable when this lady led him by the hand to an awfully neglected couch next to the refrigerator and sat down next to him so that her breast was rubbing against the side of his arm. He explained again.
      The lady took a deep breath and flared her meaty nostrils, where Thurmont saw a little diamond-like stud was impacted.
      She said, “Are you a jackass, Mr.—?”
      “Mr. Thurmont?”
      “I think that maybe you’ve got me wrong,” Thurmont said. “I’m not making up the story, I’m just telling you what my boy said.”
      She helped herself to a cinnamon donut and she and the little man had a good laugh, and didn’t stop, so Thurmont tipped his hat and left.

      In Lexington Thurmont stopped off at Delta Burial and spoke to a fat Negro with shiny skin whose name was Rivers. Rivers laid out the basic casket rates and delivery and burial costs while he ate pulled barbecue out of a takeaway container using no fork or knife just his lips, leaving Thurmont to wonder what they would do in terms of presentation. Could they have an open service for just a foot? It would certainly reduce casket fees.
      He then spoke with Reverend Carlton at the New Jerusalem Church where Bueler was known to periodically renounce his earthly vices.
      “I see. Of what may I ask?”
      “Well, it’s tricky,” Thurmont said, and he told Reverend Carlton what he knew.
      Reverend Carlton shook his head gravely and compressed his thick pink lips and said, “It’s always devastating for the family.”
      “There’s none that I know of,” Thurmont said.
      “I’d like to prepare a little something. When are you planning on having the service?”
      This was something Thurmont wasn’t sure about. He supposed Bueler would have to be officially deceased first, and that would mean seeing Sheriff Clymer to match up the foot and the body, provided the Hindus hadn’t already done something with the foot. He drove to the police station feeling flustered, his head full of loose ends and the vaguest of regrets.
      Sheriff Clymer wasn’t in so Thurmont spoke with his deputy, Guthridge. Guthridge was young and clean and he seemed to respect his job and people in general. Thurmont warmed to him immediately and noticed with a little local pride that when he and Guthridge sat to discuss Thurmont’s business Guthridge offered him a donut.
      “So you think this foot is related to the stabbing in Marcella, do you?” Guthridge said. “Did you see what color the foot was? Was it a black foot?”
      “I didn’t, no.”
      “But you feel you may see it?”
      “Well, I don’t know. I’m guessing probably not. I mean, now that it’s in your hands.”
      Guthridge was writing in a pad. Thurmont looked around the station while the deputy sheriff labored on. Handcuffed to a vinyl chair in the waiting room was the man from New Jersey, Malcolm. Malcolm’s lower lip was split wide open and his shirt was torn at the armpit, but despite this he wore an idiotically defiant expression.
      When Guthridge was finished, he said, “Well, Thurmont, you thought right to come here. I can tell you right now that Sheriff Clymer will be very interested to hear this, especially since we don’t have a body yet.”
      “That’s right. Only a witness report.”
      “Poor Bueler. I told him — Well, I think I told him to work at not being so aggravating. He had that about him. He was an honest man, in most respects, a good friend. I mean, he was a good man to have a farm next to when he wasn’t taking things from you. I’ll miss him.”
      Guthridge’s eyes too were moist.
      “What about we get down on our knees and say a little prayer for Bueler?” Guthridge said.
      On his way out of the station, Thurmont stopped to talk to Malcolm. As soon as he sat down, Malcolm, recognizing a fellow seeker in Thurmont, began a lunatic tale of pursuit involving a group of bloodthirsty assailants from up North.
      “They got me,” Malcolm tittered maliciously to himself at the end of his story.
      “Who got you?” Thurmont asked.
      “Durant and Tango.”
      “They’re the ones that beat you up?”
      “Let me tell you something,” Malcolm said. “Musical ethnography, it’s a battleground. You think this is nonsense, I can tell, but a man can make a name for himself out here.”
      Hatless, Thurmont listened to the story of Country Boy Simms.
      Malcolm had not come to Mississippi to see the gravestone of Elmore James, of course not, that was just a smokescreen, he had come to get an interview with Country Boy Simms, the last of the living pre-war blues legends. Columbia musicologists Durant and Tango were on the same hunt and the two parties had crossed paths in the cemetery in Canton. Tango had pulled a knife that turned out to be a cheap hair grooming instrument. Malcolm had acquired a piece of funerary statuary in self-defense and this is how the police had found the Yankees when they’d answered the pastor’s phone call. Now it was just their word against his, Malcolm said.
      “Durant and Tango’s word?” Thurmont said.
      “You can bet that whatever kind of groomer that was there was a knife option.”
      “You defaced a gravestone. That won’t wash around here.”
      “It’s a battleground,” Malcolm shrugged.
      “I’ll put in a good word with Sheriff Clymer,” Thurmont said, knowing he wouldn’t see Clymer today.
      On his way home Thurmont prepared himself for the solemn talk he now knew he would have to have with Thurmont III. He would speak of the fragility of life. He would try to instill in Thurmont III, against his gut instincts and his many years of pleasurable solitary hoarding, that life was not about the acquisition of things, but about creating enduring friendships, something he wished he’d spent a little more time on with Bueler. He would wrap the whole talk up with a mild rebuke about the misplaced foot and give the boy a dollar or two to spend on some sucking candies.
      He found Thurmont III shucking snow peas at the kitchen sink in a suit difficult to assess. He was mostly at a loss as to how and where the boy had acquired the miniature outfit, and for what purpose, but he was pleased when the boy followed him into the living room without argument. They sat down thigh to thigh on the living room sofa and watched the weeping willow chase its shadow across the dirt yard. The heat was a color all its own but it was cool here. The sofa was cool.
      “Our friend Bueler is dead,” Thurmont said.
      Thurmont III didn’t register any great misery at this announcement. If anything, he became momentarily more animated.
      Thurmont said, “I said Bueler, a man who treated you like a son, sometimes, was the man you read about in the paper. You are a material witness.”
      This was not the tone he wanted at all, Thurmont realized, to come across like some hectoring TV prosecutor. He said, “Son, Bueler might have had his faults, but the Buelers and the Meekses, we have more in common than — Let’s just say we’ve grown more alike over the years than us and those Hindus who are hiding Bueler’s foot will ever be. Friendship is important in life, you see. Not worrying about things so much.” Here Thurmont paused because he realized his eyes were welling up. He would not want for the boy to associate grieving with sissiness, per se, or to in any way connect this important growing up message he was giving him with anything but fortitude of the soul. “Do you mind if I ask you where you do your shopping?” he asked.
      Later that evening, at Ike’s, Thurmont bought the boy his first beer. He introduced Thurmont III to all the characters there, the old Negroes who were regulars at Ike’s. They called the boy Little T. They said he was the spitting image of Thurmont and compared both, favorably, to a set of father-son undertakers that had had that job in Tchula once. When it began to get dark, Thurmont told the fellows that he would let them know when Reverend Carlton would be holding the service and he bought a round for everyone in Bueler’s honor.
      Out on the street minutes later, he said to Thurmont III, “Remember this. This is the day you became a man.” He realized that this was somewhat premature, the boy wasn’t even eleven, but there was no use taking it back.
      Thurmont III, though, was his ornery, secretive self. He didn’t appear at all interested in their social successes at Ike’s. Rather, he stood there moodily in the heat inspecting the length of his jacket cuffs, measuring them against Thurmont’s. Thurmont himself was naturally a little wobbly on his pins; he’d been drinking in Bueler’s honor since five. Still, he was floored when Thurmont III offered to drive.
      “Who taught you that?”
      “Bueler did.”
      “Oh, I see. Well, I suppose that wasn’t bad. You want to try?”
      Thurmont III drove with one arm out the window, like a Greyhound bus driver. Thurmont could only shake his head at the boy’s unconcern for all things extraordinary. He began to think of the bottle of sour mash he’d been saving. He wondered what Reverend Carlton might chose for the title of his little talk, what psalm of mourning.
      Just then, he realized that they were no longer moving, that they’d skidded to a stop in the middle of the road in a cloud of risen dust. He peered anxiously over his shoulder.
      “Jesus, boy, what is it? You can’t just stop wherever you please.”
      “Over there.”
      Thurmont followed the boy’s finger to a naked human form darting antelope-like through the twilit fields. It was the Negro from the day before, retracing his route.
      “My good sweet Jesus,” Thurmont said.
      “He’s alive.”
      Thurmont sat on his porch stewing with his sour mash until long past dark. Now that Bueler was alive, if that were truly Bueler, and it clearly was, then Bueler was no longer dead. If Bueler was no longer dead, his diplomatic immunity, so to speak, he was a thief again and Thurmont’s whole speech about friendship and not having things had been wasted breath, moral fornication. Worse, the boy would grow up trusting his fellow man when in fact they were all Buelers at heart. He caught himself before he went past the bottleneck and corked the liquor back up. He wouldn’t want to be fall-down drunk when he cornered the man in his lair.
      He made a clumsy effort at getting up and off the porch rocker.
      “Let’s go, boy.”

      When they were safely hidden in the dark of Bueler’s porch, Thurmont said, “What do you see?”
      “Two people,” Thurmont III said.
      “Good people or bad people?”
      “White people.”
      “White people? Naked or clothed white people?”
      “Well, what are they doing?”
      “They’ve got Bueler talking into a box.”
      “My God.”
      “He’s getting up.”
      “What now?”
      “He’s pointing at the wall.”
      “The bear trap?”
      “He’s pointing at the bear trap.”
      “That’s enough,” Thurmont said. “We’re going in.”
      Inside it was as if Bueler had never left. There was the telltale stink of Bueler’s Happy Star sardines and sprouted mung beans. The Italian leather sofa where Bueler slept, illogically, through the roughest nights of summer was a study in sloppiness, piled high with overdue library books and old newspapers and the marbled composition books Bueler kept his fiscal and social observations in. Far into his manumission tale, Bueler was showing Malcolm and the girl his trident and net. He would tell you, if he judged you capable of believing such nonsense, that Amis Meeks used to put the Buelers in a specially dug rooster pit and have them pick themselves off with such ancient Roman instruments.
      “I think this has gone far enough,” Thurmont said.
      At this Malcolm jumped with crazed rat eyes. He plucked the trident out of Bueler’s hands and threw his body in between the two farmers. Ignoring the girl entirely, Thurmont was amazed to see. Malcolm had been doing some drinking of his own. He couldn’t hold it.
      “I’m on to you,” Malcolm leered at Thurmont. “Oh, yes, I’ve checked you out, Tippu Tip. Too bad but your slave trading days are over and Country Boy’s got nothing to say to you.”
      “Country Boy?”
      “He’s had enough of your harassment.”
      “Listen to me, you fool, that is not Country Boy Simms. If Country Boy Simms is even alive, or was alive. I’ve sure never heard of him.”
      “Keep talking, ofay.”
      “I sure don’t like your tone, boy.”
      “Whip me then. Come on, what are you waiting for? Whip my black ass.”
      Thurmont had no response for this.
      “I’ve already called the Tourist Bureau in Jackson,” Malcolm went on. “I’ve registered a complaint. You don’t want anybody to see Posey’s Cabin because of what they might find in there. Slave traps, tridents, S&M equipment. Oh, yes, I’m on to you.” Here Malcolm sort of waltzed across the room to help himself to another cup of Bueler’s homemade sour mash.
      “Wait right there,” Thurmont said. “You say this is Country Boy Simms. How old would Country Boy be? Ninety? One hundred? Does this man look one hundred to you? He’s fat and he can’t play the guitar. Have you asked him to? And another thing, you’re not black.”
      “I’m not black?”
      “Jesus, no.”
      “Says who?”
      Thurmont knew he wouldn’t win this one, so he appealed farmer to farmer to Bueler. When Malcolm and the girl were safely out of sight on the porch, he said, “Where you been, Bueler?”
      “What you being doing?”
      “Not a thing.”
      “No it ain’t.”
      “I seen you running naked twice across Route 12, me and my boy. That’s not funny?”
      “That’s my business. Good enough?”
      Two minutes into Bueler’s second life on this earth and Thurmont was already sick of dealing with him. He said, “Why’d you tell that stupid Yankee you were Country Boy Simms?”
      “I didn’t.”
      “No, sir, he told me.”
      “And you just went along with it?”
      “Didn’t he just tell you he was a nigger?”
      Thurmont cast a troubled glance at Thurmont III, who was no longer inspecting his jacket cuffs. “We don’t use that word around here,” he said.
      “Did he or did he not tell you that he was black?”
      Thurmont nodded.
      “And did you win that argument?”
      “I think I’d like a little sip myself, if you don’t mind,” Thurmont said.
      Bueler brought the sour mash and two jars over and the two men sat on the leather sofa facing some very fancy entertainment apparatus and the machinery to run it.
      Thurmont said, “You’ve been stealing my things, Bueler.”
      “What now?”
      “You took Archie Moore’s boxing gloves. You took other things. You took my Miss Belzoni calendar, 1952, with the picture of Rose Bascomb you know I can’t live without. You’ve been prowling about under the moon while I’ve been sleeping.”
      Bueler cast a glance of his own at Thurmont III, who couldn’t return it.
      “And you brought your boy by to teach him a lesson?” Bueler said.
      “That’s about the short of it.”
      “Thurmont, do you see any things in here? I got my couch and my color TV. I got my subscription to National Geographic and that’s it. Look for yourself. And tell me something. What business could I possibly have with your Miss Belzoni calendar?”
      “No things?” Thurmont spluttered. “And what do you call that?”
      The bear trap.
      “Historical evidence,” Bueler said.
      Thurmont took a deep breath. “Well, I don’t believe you. You might as well fess up and tomorrow we can take care of the particulars.”
      “I ain’t got your things, Mr. T,” Bueler said.
      “Sure you don’t. Who’s got them then?”
      “Why don’t you ask the boy?”
      “Ask him what?”
      “Where’d he get that beeper from maybe. All those little old man suits.”
      There had been the suits, true, the hair jelly, all the little entitlements Thurmont III had been helping himself to on what meager allowance? Five dollars a week? His two-tone gentlemen’s shoes with arch supports. Casually, Thurmont turned to look at his blood, who sat quietly next to him on the sofa. He could not bring himself to do it, however, and the boy knew it. Thurmont stood and they walked in silence back through the moonlit fields hand-in-hand.
      At some point Thurmont felt his hand being squeezed. It could have been the darkness that had unnerved the boy, the darkness and the baying of dogs. Those Mississippi mutts were bad enough in daylight; at night you were sure you were the only piece of meat on the wind for miles around. Why had he never shown the boy how to protect himself with a slingshot and a dirt-impacted rock? he wondered. Their Mississippi snowballs? It was too bad that he would never have that opportunity because first thing in the morning he intended to call Lucius to collect his thieving seed.
      At the cabin Thurmont III slunk off to his room without waiting for bedtime words, his head held exaggeratedly low to the ground. Like a trained hyena, thought Thurmont. The light didn’t come on, which meant that the boy must have gone to sleep in his clothes. So be it. Thurmont went to the barn and switched on the lights and let them run, pulling in many queer bugs. He left the barn doors open. Across the fields, as usual, Bueler’s cabin was lit to excess.

      Thurmont didn’t call Lucius the next day. Instead, he spent the morning boxing his things. He’d woken late and hadn’t bothered shaving. Exhaustion overtook him early on. Not any tiredness attributable to the goings-on of the past few days, but a general life exhaustion. He was tired of his things and depressed that he would feel this way. He took a nap. He passed the afternoon staring up at the barn ceiling, watching the cobwebs in the rafters whisper like clouds. In the evening he couldn’t bring himself to spend another minute picking through his junk and went to the cabin to make dinner.
      The boy was in bed with the lights out, dressed in the suit of the night before. He looked to Thurmont, squinting through the keyhole, like an embalmed dignitary from a country with very small people. It was barely eight o’clock, not yet dark. The temperature had dropped. Could the boy actually be sleeping? Thurmont wondered. When he should have been out enjoying the twilight? Chasing dogs, throwing knives, shooting things? Where were the boy’s friends?
      Thurmont didn’t knock. He went back to the barn and fell into a deep slumber.

      The sky was a wide pale blue but there were clouds in it that looked like they might stick and grow into something. Thurmont waited on the porch for Thurmont III, pondering rain. It was still very early and the boy had asked to change out of his old clothes. He came out in overalls and an undershirt, his fishing suit.
       They were in the truck with packed lunches by six and at the Copper Road bend minutes later. They sat down on the red dirt bank with their backs to the road.
      Thurmont brought out two antique red and white bobs and set them both up and then attached the dough balls. He cast first and then Thurmont III cast. The boy’s wasn’t much of a cast.
      “There was no foot,” Thurmont said, keeping his eyes on the very placid water.
      “No, sir.”
      “You took my things here and you sold them.”
      “To buy your suits.”
      “And your hair jelly and beeper. Do you feel neglected, boy?”
      “No, sir.”
      “Do you miss your grandpa Lucius in Jackson?”
      “No, sir.”
      “You feel comfortable here in Tchula, you mean to say? Here on the farm?”
      “With me, you feel comfortable?”
      “Well, I’ve made some decisions,” Thurmont said.
      Thurmont III looked up from his line. His eyes had started to well up, a peculiar thing to see on a Meeks.
      Thurmont said, “First, I’ve decided not to live in the barn anymore, if that’s ok with you. That old bed is killing me. The second one is that I would like you to help me box my things. I’d like you and me to sell them together. You see, I’ve accumulated quite a bit of collectibles and such over the years, like my straight razors and shaving gear.”
      It was going to be the whole works, Thurmont could see. Tears, webs of mouth mucus, hyperventilation maybe. The boy wanted to atone for his crimes.
      “You sold those too, did you?” Thurmont said. “That’s ok. I don’t need them anyway. How many razors does a man need to shave? The point is I’d like to show you how to make a sling shot. You’ve got to know how to protect yourself against those mutts and if I understand right, living in Las Vegas, you probably never learned how.”
      Just then the boy’s bob came undone and started to drift away on the current. He jumped up but Thurmont put a hand on his shoulder and kept him there and he eventually settled down.
      Thurmont rifled in the antique tackle box and found another older, prettier bob and gave it to the boy to tie on himself. He did and recast and it was better this time. They watched the lost red and white bob slowly make its way south on the sluggish current to the Gulf of Mexico as the first raindrops fell and the sky began to rinse itself clean.

Max Sheridan lives and writes in Nicosia, Cyprus. Some of his recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM Magazine and Atticus Review. His latest novel Hubble is looking for a home. You can find him at:

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