Saturday, March 25, 2017

Swamp (excerpt 1)

“How many people do you think I am?
Pretend I am somebody else.
You can pretend I'm an old millionaire,
a millionaire washing his hands.”
                                         - Talking Heads

No time for grieving, for reeling and tumbling in Powerball’s effects. Authorities needed to be notified, not the idiots that passed as Pogo Springs cops but real pros: state police, Swinger County sheriffs, search-and-rescue folks.


A British accent announces band members over a cheering crowd then, “They’re called the Grateful Dead, the Grateful Dead,” followed by exuberant guitar strumming, piano, drums, “I had a hard run… running from your window…

The mud-crusted, gray rear wall of the laundromat shrouded the truck like a filthy fog bank. His rage rattled his bones. Emma dead, gone from him, left a universe-sized hole in his life.

He looked around seeking escape from the dirt lot behind the Johnny Cash, scooped into a hillside of shale and requiring grading after every mud season to slice out winter ruts. In one corner, a rusted metal tool shed scrunched from a previous year’s snow load, doors gaping open on a bent track, various implement handles poking out a pained maw as though the ugly beast had snapped at a giant porcupine. Next to it, a brown dumpster overflowed from trash deposited by neighbors who hadn’t bothered paying collection fees. Several torn and filthy mattresses were leaned against the laundromat’s wall, occasionally dropped to the ground for use by vagabonds or horny high school kids. The depressing character of the place added to his malaise, his yearning for escape from the dope’s effects, the confining space of the truck’s cab, and the consuming need to tell someone about Emma. The dream that stuck out: a medical chart on the wall, a cold metal box holding her pieces, serious people in serious clothes asking serious questions. Whispers in the corner about whether she jumped or was pushed.

Waves of annoyance and pain pulsed through his spine, from his tailbone into his brain’s blank spaces, “Taught me good, Lord, taught me all I know… taught me so well, I grabbed that gold… and I left his dead ass there by the side of the road,” lyrics hammering dimpled divots into the naked metal of his emotion.


Confusion. Soft violence. Hands touching his throat, eyes rolled to become the white bellies of whales. Trembling with loss, with being lost, with having no relation to the world he was in and the world he was lost within. Emma’s absence tore him open and tossed his innards across the ground, strewn like offal left from a kill site, shit stink mingled with the ascendant stench of decay. Circling vultures, cackling hyenas, flies and beetles, scurrying ants sending out messages to feed, an environment where time plodded past a death felt freshly; too recent for him to give it up to scavengers.

When they come to take you down… when they bring that wagon 'round… when they come to call on you and drag your poor body down…”
He wanted to explode.


The music stopped, the dashboard went dark. Not knowing if he’d switched off the truck, he nonetheless felt the heft of keys in his balled fist. As he stepped down from the driver’s seat and onto the ground, the universe once again presented itself with infinite portals, lights dancing and twirling in ogee patterns, disappearing into ripples like diamonds dropped into an oil pool. Rising, turning, spinning, there was no power on which he could draw for determining which portal to enter: the decision was made for him.

Blinding light interrupted the darkness then dimmed to a light blue. He was standing over the town, looking down on it as though he had become a giant or the town had shrunk to a miniature size. The closer he looked, watching cars the size of Matchbox toys, people the size of box elder beetles, everything moved oblivious to his gaze. The town’s shambling character came into focus – plywood and corrugated tin slapped onto the sides of old clapboard shacks,  decent homes interspersed by great heaps of lumber and baling wire, everything sliding down mountainsides onto the downtown’s mix of Victorian grandeur and whatever functional crap was built after. “There’s only one way in and only one way out,” he heard in his head, watching Matchbox cars turning at the roundabout where the hotel announced the end of town. The more he saw, the more focused everything became until he was in it, normal-sized again, still standing in the parking lot behind the laundromat. He looked up to see if he towered over the town but saw nothing but the bristling fur of mountainsides and a clear, cloudless sky.

“Shit,” said to no one but himself, dizzy and disoriented. “They’re not going to hear me. I’m way too fucking high. But, we have to find Emma – I have to find Emma – her body, I mean. Fuck. She can’t be gone. She can’t be dead. Emma, little sister…”

Eyes watery and obscured, blurred with tears, he saw that the laundromat was moving past him like a slow-moving freight car, that the driveway crept beneath him without any movement on his part. Attempting to step back, he found that his legs were immobile, rooted to the ground, but that everything was moving to him and then passing on into his past. At the corner, he was pivoted towards the mountains and the end of Main Street where his hotel stood like an ancient guardian in a frilled, Edwardian gown. Johnny Cash’s plate glass windows moved left-to-right, his reflection with him: not tall, his mother’s stout frame, his father’s facial moles and a forehead stretching to the crest of prematurely bald pate, the back and sides of his head exploding into a frizzed bush of shoulder-length hair. A feathery beard draped from his chin like a long, black tongue pointing to the logo on his Slayer t-shirt.

In Johnny Cash he could see Phoebe Hepzibah folding laundry and talking to Tacky Pine (who simply stood slouched with his hands in his pockets); on another folding table, two of Peachy Keane’s daughters sat cross-legged, throwing Pogs. As the laundromat continued past, the small crowd inside looked up and greeted him sunnily, leading him to a meek smile and his own wan wave in return. Oblivious to the fact that they were in motion while Gooch stood still, they went back to folding, throwing and slouching as the world slipped by and dumped them into his past.

Johnny Cash moved on and the steady approach of the town brought on the steep incline of Duplo Street, a thin strip of cracked asphalt with room for only one car. To his right, a concrete wall crept to him, along with the mountainside it held from the street. He looked up to the place where a significant portion of his childhood had been spent. All brick with a Georgian fa├žade of Yule marble and Ionic columns, the library’s cornerstone was dedicated to the building’s benefactor – Snavely Cromwell Pogo (1839 – 1921).

The cornerstone letters glinted and danced, grew in size until the chiseled serifs shattered along glass-edged lines, geometric shapes crisscrossing and scissoring, pieces of landscape snipped into odds and ends like remainders of magazine pictures used in a schoolkid’s collage. Within the shapes, sepia-toned browns and blacks emerged to assemble and reveal the town as its former self – old buildings replacing newer ones, horses standing where cars were parked, people in old-timey clothes, limbs akimbo in comic relief. In a flash, he was transported back to the Pogo Springs he’d discovered in the rooms of his parent’s hotel and those beyond the library’s cornerstone. Smelling shit and whiskey, Eau de Toilette and reeking armpits, Gooch saw he was ankle deep in a river of mud and horse manure, looking up to the place that would lift him from perdition.

Homework being a certain bye for chores, Gooch learned the town library could be his sanctuary. There, he found real books, not the kiddie crap in the school library. After delving into everything he could find about World War II (fascinated by his father’s stories, photos and medals), he devoured every single book there was about skiing, his tastes and interests mirroring his development, his view of what the world was like at his time. By adolescence, and more the artful dodger of his parents’ chore list, he’d moved on to Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, The Atlantic, The Nation, Carl Sagan and Friedrich Nietzsche. He decided Hemmingway was a bore but Steinbeck was cool, that he’d like to know Emma Bovary but if he met Alexander Portnoy, he’d try not to shake his hand. What had been his exit from duties at home had become an entrance into the world of words and ideas.

After school, he’d make his way to the sound of Miz Purdy Byrd’s perseverating squawk, “You need to be out by five. I need my dinner. I lock the doors at five.”

Five was also five minutes before Purdy put a large splash of Kentucky bourbon into her tea, then added sugar. Gooch learned that a day he’d gone unnoticed when she did her quick check of the stacks, returning to his reading after her thin shadow passed. The book that engrossed him was an account of the Astor Expedition: explorers and Indians, Spanish traders, trappers, mountain men, and some portion of the book describing the country he knew. By the time he realized he was going to be in serious trouble with his parents, Purdy was potted.

When he showed up at her desk to be let out, she interrogated him on why he’d been such a sneak and what it was that had held his attention so intensely. When he showed her the book, she immediately knew where his head was at and began talking about the town’s history.

The granddaughter of Thomas L. Oldham, Pogo’s official biographer and publisher and editor of The Swinger Advertiser (the county’s oldest newspaper), Purdy had been the town librarian longer than nearly anyone could remember. For reasons known only to her, she opened up and shared only with Gooch, things she believed people probably wanted to hear but didn’t need to know. With the youngest Yamaguchi, and several fingers of bourbon under her belt, she felt comfortable enough sharing stories she’d held close all her life. Over the years, when he took the time to stay late, Gooch heard tales from notes she said were turned into ashes the day after her grandfather died.

“Snavely Pogo didn’t come from nothing, that’s for sure,” Purdy roared on a snowy night some weeks before Gooch’s grandfather died, one of her eyes closed so there’d be only one of him. “His people were wealthy merchants in England and he was giving them a bad name so they shipped him off to America with enough money to get him gone. He’d pretty much squandered everything by the time he got to Silver Chalice. He was a gambler and didn’t know when to quit. When he got here, he decided he’d make his fortune by cheating people. Found a game and figured how to rig it. Just an all-around jerk.”

Miz Purdy Byrd’s words were verified in scribbles found on ledgers and letters buried within the Crypt, things read months after his father signed the deed on the hotel and moved his family in.

“We moved the family in!” His mother announced in the hotel’s lobby. “The Family Inn, Ha! Isn’t that funny?” her cornball humor not lost on but buried by the rest of the family. After showing the resort’s four floors and introducing the family to some of the hotel’s permanent residents, she led her children through restaurant’s kitchen and down stone steps into what had been Pogo’s wine cellar, chatting up children the entire way.

April, the oldest child and everyone’s boss, stopped midway and affected her Valley Girl inflection. “Ohmygod! This place is gross! I’m going back upstairs! Ohmygod!”

Their mother stopped and gave April a glance suggesting that the princess could indeed return above ground. Then, she folded her meaty arms over breasts that had no more hold over time than she did. “No one’s to come downstairs unless it’s with me or your father. Got it? Artie, you and Christmas stay out until we say. Or unless you’re with one of us.” Leaning in, her large cow eyes bounded back and forth between the two she knew would not heed her words. “Haruki?” using her husband’s Japanese name, letting him know that his complete attention was expected.

Their father had been shining his flashlight into the bunghole of an old beer barrel. “I think we should do a short tour back there, show em it’s nothin but junk,” rising from a haunch, his commanding voice made his slight frame appear much larger.

That was the last thing their mother wanted to hear. “No! Those two… they’ll just want to keep coming back and getting into things, junk or not. They’re the cats Curiosity didn’t kill. Yet.”
“May, you know they’ll come down here no matter what we say. Might as well show em now that there’s nothin but a junkyard down there.”

Their mother retreated up the stairs in a snit, pissed her husband had twisted an admonishment into an excuse for adventure. “Have your fun. But don’t blame me if those two wind up lost or eaten by bats. I have things to do.” 

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