Saturday, December 25, 2010

Metazen's Christmas Charity E-book

Okay, good hearted people, here are instructions for reading some great literature and feeling good about yourself this holiday season.

1- Download Metazen's free Christmas Charity E-book. (I had to register with ISSUU, then choose the pdf option, but the process was mostly painless.)

2- Admire the sexy cover. Proceed to page 109 and read Midnight at the Cab Stand by My Own Bad Self. Browse around and read some other stories*, too.

3- If you can, make a small donation to a worthy cause, the Sunrise Children’s Village Orphanage in Siam Reap, Cambodia.

4- Return to googling "cheerleader's bikini car wash", "beefcake on the beach", or whatever you were doing previously. But feel smug about yourself as you do.

*-Metazen is a great journal edited by talented artists. I am proud to be associated with this project, and my story is fairly tame. HOWEVER, the language and content of some stories may be a bit, well, more risqué than some conservative readers might expect to find in a Christmas book. Hence this disclaimer: I accept no responsibility for words other than my own.

You were warned.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Post-Modern Country and Western Song: Patty Melted My Heart

Patty Melted My Heart

I was sitting in the Hardee’s in Harlan, Kentucky

when Patty said we were through.

I laid my sandwich down on the table

and said, "Darling, please say it ain’t true."

I looked in her eyes across an ocean of soda,

I said, "Sweetheart, please don’t make me cry."

She said, "My mind’s made up. There’s only one question left:

You gonna finish that fried apple pie?"


It was a fast food fiasco, a French fried disaster.

She sugar coated the truth, then left me soon after.

My courtesy card ran to two or three chapters.

Patty melted my heart.

I sat in the booth and tried to be stoic,

to accept my defeat with true grace.

I wiped away tears with the back of my sleeve,

left a big mustard stain on my face.

Patty paused at the door as she was walking away,

I’ll never forget what she said:

"Did you slit yore wrists when I went to whizz,

or is that just ketchup instead?"

(Repeat Chorus)

It was a fast food fiasco, a French fried disaster.

She sugar coated the truth, then left me soon after.

My courtesy card ran to two or three chapters.

Patty melted my heart.

(I published this as a Facebook note a couple of years ago. Since my circle of online friends has increased considerably since, I decided it would be fun to repeat in this space.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sign of the Times (and some stories, too)

To begin with, I am proud to have had a couple of stories accepted recently. The previously unpublished Breakfast in a Macon Diner appeared in A-Minor Magazine and The Hammer and Sickle Tattoo in Dew on the Kudzu. Big thanks to Sheldon and Idgie for liking them.

I've had a ton of fun taking pot shots at Kentucky signage, but lately I'm feeling somber. A locally owned, indie grocery store in Richmond, in business far longer than I've been a Kentuckian, recently shut its doors.

A few weeks later the restaurant next door, another Richmond landmark, took a break from their usual advertisement of soup-and-sandwich specials to post the following:

(For a larger image click here.)

The sign says, "Without your business we will have to close".

Things are tough all over. I hope you, dear reader, are faring better than this #%#$@&% economy. Until next time.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Backwoods Charm

For some time I've been poking fun at misspelled, poorly worded, and generally ill-considered signs around rural Kentucky. Today I take a break from criticism, and say a kind word or two.

It would be easy to belittle the homemade banner above. But I have to admit, I like passing through areas where folks aren't embarrassed to wear their community affections on their sleeves. Or on their barns.

And I especially like this homemade message nailed to a tree in Garrard County: "Luv Kentucky?" it asks. "Don't litter."

I an writing again, after a semi-hiatus of some six months. Rather than being posted here first, stories are upcoming in the online journals A-Minor and Dew on the Kudzu, and also in a good old-fashioned print publication titled Wrong Tree Review. (The print aspect is old-fashioned; I'm sure the content of the second issue, like the inaugural, will be cutting edge.)

Also, a friend pointed out that while this blog contained submission guidelines, it had no contact information. This omission has been corrected, and I look forward to introducing you to some local talent soon. See y'all next time.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fun with Signs Continued

Our latest post is another in the continuing Fun with Signs series. Yes, these are actual signs photographed on the rural byways of central and near eastern Kentucky.

Diane swears she didn't doctor the second line of this trailer sign parked outside a home improvement store near Berea. But I dunno...

In the weeks to come, we will continue to examine signs, but from a somewhat more somber perspective. We also look forward to some original Appalachian literature from a rising talent. So stay tuned, blog fans.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

More Fun with Signs!

Okay, all you curmudgeonly former classmates and other readers, I get your drift. The recent focus on Appalachian literature as high art is wearing thin. With that in mind, and with no further adieu, we return to the ever popular, oh-so-low-brow Fun with Signs! from the dusty byways of Appalachia.

I want to attend a service here, but I don't have a thing to wear.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Hammer and Sickle Tattoo

The Hammer and Sickle Tattoo
by Randy Lowens

When the iron door clanged shut behind me and I stepped into direct sunlight for the first time in six months, I knew the first place I was headed was Ace McCray's Hometown Tattoos and Video Parlor. But I wasn't going to get a tattoo. I was going to have one removed. The hammer and sickle on my left shoulder blade had to go.

Big city jails have changed over the years. We all griped when they banned smoking, of course, but other changes were made, too. Like the cameras that watch you day and night. The automatic lights that go on at eight AM and off at eleven. Except they never all go off, so a man lives in a state of perpetual soft glow that blends with the ceaseless chatter of the card players nearby and the hum of traffic in the distance. You rest a little, but you never really sleep.

But the Beauregard County clink wasn't like that. It was, and I assume still is, a pokey of the old school. You never saw such a backwoods stinkhole in all your life.

Beauregard County is the poorest in all south Alabama, so I reckon that says a lot. No tax base to pay for cameras and security lights. Instead, a guard still patrols the hallway—or doesn't, if the sheriff is gone—and turns the lights on and off whenever he deems it necessary or convenient.

I liked it at first, early in my sentence. I mean, at night a man could sleep in total darkness. And it was near abouts to quiet, too, cause the card sharks couldn't see to play after the sun went down. So you just lie in the cool of the evening, feeling the breeze from the fan ripple the sheets against the steel frame, listening to the birdsong and crickets outside. And the other sounds, too, of course, the ever present jailhouse sounds: the rhythmic creaking of a man alone on his bunk, or the moans that escape a pair of lovers. Stifled sobs. A sudden cry of terror in the morning hour. You always hope it was only a bad dream, and try to go back to sleep.

Anyway, I was pretty happy for the first month or two of my sentence. Or as happy as a man in lockdown ever gets. Then the midnight visits started.


You get to know your cellmates when you serve a sentence. You don't really want to, but you do. Each stretch starts with the same attitude: “Just gonna build my time. Stay out of trouble. Stick to myself, and be out before I know it.” But you get bored. You get lonely, so you join in an occasional conversation. Besides, there's nowhere to hide.

The one thing that no jailhouse, urban or rural, offers is privacy. You take a shower and step out into a room full of men. Some guys love it; you can tell. They take their time, taking long, slow swipes across their backs with the towel. Others get out, grab a rag and throw it around their waists before they're half dry.

A hard attitude, or a reputation for savagery, goes a long way towards protecting a man in jail. So does striking an imposing figure while dripping wet. I never minded being middling size, myself. Never wanted to be a small fellow who invites attack, nor so large as to draw a lot of admiring or envious stares. I'm happy to blend in the crowd, to do my time as anonymously as possible. That usually worked pretty good. At least, until someone recognized the symbol on my shoulder.

Why on earth did I get a hammer and sickle with the inscription Che Lives! painted on my back? Because I'm a second generation Communist. My mother was a Maoist in Atlanta during the sixties, a member of the so-called New Left. (We never knew who my father was, because I was conceived during an orgy. Or so I'm told. You know, free love, make love not war, and all that.) So anyway, in my early teens, when I was on fire for the workers revolt that all our family and friends were certain lay just around the corner, I got the tattoo.

Of course, said revolt never materialized. Instead came disco music, the war on drugs, and a long reign of Republican Presidents. There I was, through it all, stuck with a Stalinist tattoo. I took a lot of beatings on account of it during the Reagan era before the Soviet Union collapsed, and for a while afterward when memories of the specter of The Evil Empire were still fresh. But, over the years, as I became less political, more addicted, and brown-faced Muslims wearing turbans became the new enemy, I learned to deflect the attacks.

I would tell people the tattoo was ironic, a joke. Sometimes that worked. But some old boys didn't think it was funny at all. What finally worked best of all was the truth, when I admitted that I got the tattoo as an expression of love for my mother. One thing no Southern boy will do is talk bad about your mother.
“My Mama was a Communist. But she was a good Mama, and I loved her, so I got the tattoo. You got a problem with that?”

“Sorry, man. I didn't know.”

Amazing, the allegiance of Southern manhood to the notion of mothering.


My bunkmates in Beauregard County were the usual mix. Jerry was black, a joker and a coke head who stole a weed eater and hocked it for dope money. Larry was a red-headed mill worker, a young tough in tennis shoes, jeans, and tee shirts with one too many drunk driving charges. Ralph was someone we all left alone: he didn't finish killing his wife before burying her. Said he was in a Xanax blackout; claims he didn't remember anything about it. He seemed normal enough around the breakfast table, but, nevertheless, we all steered clear of him.

Sam, on the other hand, had committed no heinous crimes we knew of. He was just run-of-the-mill crazy. An old man in overalls who talked to himself, kept a mumbled monologue running about god-knew-what under his breath all day long and half the night. Had a mute brother serving time in the same jail who, by all appearances, was right in the head, if not especially bright. It was Sam who got to me after a while.

Me and Sam slept in neighboring cells. Each cell contained six bunks, filled to half capacity during the summer lull, a season when three-hots-and-a-cot didn't have the same appeal as in wintertime. Not a bad gig, crashed out in a half-filled jail, if you had to build some time anyway. But every night around midnight, Sam took to walking over to the wall of iron that separated us, hanging one wrinkled, hairy knuckle off the bars like a monkey in the zoo, pointing at me with the other hand, and moaning. Groaning and howling like a banshee at a black mass. Of course, as usual, you couldn't understand anything he said. We laughed at first. But after a while it got eerie. Irritating. Downright maddening.

Jerry claimed Sam just had the hots for me. But Sam never did anything sexual. He just pointed a crooked, gnarled finger at me and moaned. For hours on end, sometimes clear into the dawn.

It was Larry who finally made the connection between Sam's shenanigans and my tattoo. One afternoon I stepped out of the shower, stood for a moment, then snatched my towel—not lingering for attention, but not covering up so quick as to reveal my fear, either—when Sam started moaning and pointing. When his dumb brother slapped my tattooed shoulder, silently nodding his head and pointing, Larry crowed, “It's the damn commie tattoo that ole Samuel don't like.” So that was it. This was why I was being denied a decent night's sleep: a couple of half-wit convicts hadn't heard that the Cold War was over.

I was lucky I didn't kill Sam. I tried to. Honest, I did. I'd had two months of sleepless nights, of being stalked by a psycho, my nemesis always on the far side of the bars. So when he started pointing and moaning in the bullpen where the common shower was, with no iron between us, I went for his throat. I found it and squeezed, harder and harder as his ugly, puckered face went from pink to crimson to scarlet, and that's the last I recall until Larry and Jerry pulled me off him.

“My Mama! My Mama!” was all I could say for the longest time. My buddies had me pinned to the floor, naked, dripping wet, hands locked behind my back, and still I yelled, “You two retard sonuvabitches better NEVER talk about MY Mama again!”

I mean, yeah, I was a Communist once, but I was always a Southern boy first of all.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

An untitled poem by Nicholas Shaner

Gnarled Oak, Knotty Pine is proud to introduce guest poet Nicholas Shaner.

Old sot in whiskey, lamp
Black shining along slick
Skin some old corpse long
Ago tied up, mostly rot
Thru now
And we seen ‘em nary
A month ago lining traps
In the woods didn’t
Think much anything that
They’d ever be back
But they done took that old
Boy clear past night
Their hounds were baying
Thru outer darkness rightly
At what sounded a panther’s
Scream and all we learnt
In them schools don’t mean
Anything nor let death down
From that boy’s shoulders
Where he perched with hay
Sickle, breath of wood alcohol
Baiting the boy’s neck, we’d seen
The way they came on down
Hollerin’ full and cussin’ each other
Empty of hand that night they
Did not check their traps
Knowing well the boy who done
Been thru earlier wasn’t to come
Back, yet what stranger we saw
Who followed him there?
I seen him also in the lines of yr.
Dress and oncet more in the
Light of morning, he waits for us
Stirring ashes in the fireplace
With the sickle he crouches upturning
A jar of white whiskey.
Let us go where he cannot follow no
bullet can take him down
I cast my die in a cruel gamble
And we run up the road tonight
Fast as hounds and quicker for
Them lonely eyes want us dead
Dear, my legs won’t run anymore
And my throat is parched with
An unbelievable thirst, death heavy
Upon my shoulders, his breath
Coal black and foul like embers
He spoke stirred in ashes, the words
He whispered scared me to hell.

Nicholas Shaner is a former Kentucky author who is notorious for turning down literary engagements. Little is known about his literary career and when prompted he insists he no longer writes. He lives alone in a small town in the foothills of the appalachian mountains.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Flash Fiction From a Visit to the City

A Walk through Midtown
by Randy Lowens

The Asian man with the leashed terriers watches as I pass. He wears a hemmed sleeveless shirt that frames a peacock tattoo. His face is open, friendly without smiling. Hungry, but I don't play that. Okay, maybe once or twice, but not as a habit.

Empty stretch of sidewalk up Argonne Avenue. A woman, young and blond, approaches. She's got a nice build, but I'm too old, too ordinary. She refuses eye contact.

Turn down Fourth Street towards Mrtyle. A brunette, my age, approaches at ten o'clock. Cute, not gorgeous. Maybe a chance. She turns to look, an act that seems to require more effort than it should. The fear in her eyes makes my chest collapse in a vacuum.

Back at the apartment, I slouch on the sofa, punching buttons and staring at the window behind the television as the channels strobe past.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Walking Away the Blues

This week we return to my blog's primary reason for being: original Southern/Appalachian fiction.

I don't plan to use this space for personal exposition. Suffice to say my camera is misplaced, so graphics will be in short supply in the near future.

And that's not a bad introduction to the story below. It hasn't been published before, though I did read it from the stage at the Clear Creek Music Festival a few years back. I hope you enjoy it.

Walking Away The Blues
by Randy Lowens

As the blue arc retreated, Lester laid the torch aside and raised his hood. With the hem of his shirt he pushed sweat off his forehead, onto the concrete floor where tiny mud puddles formed in the dirt. It was only midmorning. Gonna be one long day.

He removed his hood and laid it on the gear box, lens up. He ambled to the water fountain where he took a long drink and a deep breath. On Lester's third pull from the fountain, his boss appeared at the office door as if responding to an alarm. Short and wiry, bespectacled and gray, the man examined a wristwatch wrapped below rolled-up shirtsleeves, then glared at Lester. Yankee bastard. Probably don't even own a short-sleeve shirt.

Lester knew better than to return his employer's stare. He'd already lost one job on account of stuff like that. But he wasn't going to be buffaloed, either. So he took a long drink, turning his face skyward and closing his eyes as he swallowed. Then another, before finally shuffling back to his work station. Taking up the torch with his right hand, he placed the hood upright on his head with his left. He jerked his neck to drop the shield into place and struck an arc.


Five years had passed since Lester had moved from his hometown to the city. Five years, since he left his wife for the first time. Four and a half, since their reconciliation. Three, since the divorce became final.

He didn't miss her. He pretended to; he told folks that he did. (After all, you were supposed to feel bad about a divorce.) But he really didn't. What he missed was the sense of belonging to someone. Sometimes he felt like he had mounted an inner tube at the lake, drifted too far from the dock, and now he couldn't see shore.

Still, mostly he enjoyed being single. He enjoyed not having to satisfy anyone's demands. Picking up drunk girls in bars when he got lonely, then breaking up before they dumped him. It was two years since he had taken his ex-wife's picture off the wall and stashed it in a drawer. Made for less questions to answer from his dates.

Lester sat down on the couch in his living room and began thumbing through the classifieds. He was looking for a new job. Not one that paid better, necessarily, or that was closer to the house. Just a new one. He'd been working for the same company for over two years now, and sticking around too long in one place never seemed to work out. After a while they got to know you, and things got complicated. Life was simpler if you kept moving on. Made for less questions to answer all around.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Appalachian Portrait

In a previous post, I said I went three years without writing poetry, from the time I left Georgia until a recent open reading in Berea. That isn't true. After about a year in Kentucky, I wrote the poem below.

It's called APPALACHIAN PORTRAIT, and that pretty much describes it. It isn't "about" anyone in particular. Like many characters in my fiction, the poem depicts a composite of several folks I've met.

After living in the Kentucky hills a year or two, I wrote it while on vacation in Georgia. (Specifically, we were in Savannah visiting my lovely and charming stepdaughter.) I wonder if it was necessary to be geographically distant from my neighbors to write about them? Much of what I have written about a certain north Georgia cotton-mill town was penned after I left.

Anyway, here is the poem. Whatever its merits and demerits, I tried neither to romanticize my new locale, nor present it in caricature.

Appalachian Portrait

Chris McCrae stands alone on a hilltop.
His mother passed soon after Daddy ran off.
Now he's craggy and gray, cast in denim and leather,
the cuffs of his shirt stained with grease from his tractor,
his eye's like the sky's blue and white afternoon.
His long legs are bowed and his shoulders are hunched.

He doesn't know what he should do.
The bank note is due, and his wife's got the asthma.
His oldest smokes crank, and the baby has colic.
The neighbors are mad because the fences need mending
so his milk cow gets loose, and she grazes their garden.

The middle child stares as she plays Guitar Hero,
hollow eyes, no response as he asks about homework.
Chris stands alone on his twice-mortgaged hilltop.
His own mother passed after Daddy ran off.
He doesn't know what in the world he should do,
but he'll do it alongside the family.

(Grateful acknowledgment is made to BLUE COLLAR REVIEW, where this poem first appeared.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Renegade Poetry

I grew up in Trion, Georgia, a cotton mill town in the northwestern corner of the state. From early grade school, my classmates and I planned our escapes. Most talked of moving to the city, but I had the opposite notion: I would move to the woodlands and live the rustic life.

Many of my classmates made good on their plans. I have facebook friends in Chattanooga, Atlanta, and various other cities from Florida to Wisconsin. But when I visit Trion today, I still see familiar faces. I'm certain that some remained by choice, to be near family or carry on a family business, but many simply never broke the tethers and got away. Ruefully, one Wal-Mart associate admitted as much.

For myself, I did move to the woods, but not far. For my most of my life I remained in a county contiguous to that of my youth. Only recently did I gather my courage, and my family, and relocate to a cabin in rural Rockcastle County outside Berea, Kentucky.

Rockcastle is rustic, and rural, by anyone's standards. But Berea's population was said to have been over 14,000 souls in 2008. Trion, by contrast, was said to be just over 2,000. So you can imagine my amusement when, awaiting a poetry reading at the Black Feather Cafe' near Old Town in Berea, I was privy to a conversation about how gossipy folks are “in a small town”.

Those folks don't know. Berea has a business district with a bookstore, a college, two coffee shops and several pizza joints. They don't know how small a town can be, or how claustrophobic living there can feel. On the other hand, one former classmate--among the group who moved away to a more urban landscape --commented recently how fortunate she felt that she and her family were rooted in “small town values”.

So I've been thinking a lot lately about the effect of landscape on mentality.

The poetry reading that followed the conversation was inspiring. Below is some verse I penned the morning after. I hope you enjoy.

Renegade Poetry

Crumpled piece of paper in a college student's hand.
Ball point ink blots on a denim knee.
This is art?

The tourists' heels click faster as they pass us.
Cops ride by and stare beneath their flattops.
“Better clean up your act, you dirty poets!”
My subjects and verbs don't simply disagree; they go to war.
I mix a tall, cool metaphor and take a sip.

A hawk spirals upwards to the sun.
It touches, sizzles, and begins to fall.
The smoky trail of its descent scribes a hyperbolic arc
to earth below.

I am guilty of crimes against the syntax.
I've seen it all, and felt it, too,
but oh, the things I've read.

Punk rock lyrics in an Appalachian diction.
A timid tale told from a spiral bound notebook.
Crumpled piece of paper in a college student's hand.
Ball point ink blots on a denim knee.
This is art, y'all. This is art.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Return to the Verses

For three years after moving to Kentucky, I wrote no poetry. Last week, inspired by an open reading at the Black Feather coffee shop in Berea, I once again picked up the poetic pen.

Next week I will post that piece of verse, the product of a long and silent incubation. But first, here is the poem that preceded it, written shortly before leaving Georgia. Think of it as a goodbye. Or perhaps as a break-up poem.

Action Novels

Terry wants to write action novels, but can't
because he's from a small town in Georgia.
Cities are where the action takes place; besides,
action is present in tense,
and Confederate ghosts hover over his prose
like buzzards in the afternoon sky.
So Terry writes poetry nobody reads,
recycled at the end of each day.

Terry yearns to be a ladies' man,
but can't grow a mustache to save his dear life.
He labors an hour over one line of verse
so that when his sonnet is polished, complete,
Rhonda's done gone on the back of a Harley
in a cloud of red dust with a wink and a wave.
So Terry lies lonesome, ashamed, eyes shut tight,
and pictures them leaving together.

Terry would like to be a prosperous man,
but commodity futures tanked yesterday.
The wages of labor will scant keep him fed
(and you can't sell a poem that's never been read!)
From a church bazaar cookbook, he learns to bake bread.
When his mother writes, she sends casserole recipes.

Terry longs to make his father proud,
but it's too late for that: the old man is dead.
His lectures echo down empty hallways, and
belie the inscription on a marble headstone.
Terry prays every night on his knees.

Terry wants to drink bourbon, straight up,
but can't, so he'll nurse Vodka Collins instead
in a dimly lit corner of Al's Bar and Grill
in the heart of what once was downtown.

(Grateful acknowledgment is made to Wanderings Magazine, , where this poem first appeared.)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dancing Laundry and My Fickle Muse

When I began this blog, I had an idea for an offbeat story, another unpublished tale I believed in, a couple of new acquaintances I wished to introduce my vast readership to, and a folder full of quaint and curious pictures from the Near Eastern Kentucky backwoods. Well, you've seen all that, folks.

Today I'm winding up a mammoth remodeling project, recovering from a serious (and curious) back injury, increasing the hours I spend teaching my daughter in keeping with her maturation, learning to play the clarinet... and woefully neglecting this space. I beg your pardon, readers.

Spring is a joyous time of renewed commitments. Let us begin with a photograph. I snuck up from the bottoms and caught my laundry in a celebration of the season, dancing in the wind.

Honest, I didn't stage this. I found them that way.

What, you ask, is on my clarinet playlist? An eclectic blend of gospel, pop, hymns and--oddly enough, given that I rarely listen to this genre--a heaping helping of country music: "Amazing Grace", "A Lover's Concerto", "For the Good Times", "The Old Rugged Cross", and "Mansion on the Hill". That's right, the Old Man's "Mansion on the Hill". Now, the next time I run across a Hank Williams cover band who's looking for a clarinet player, I'll have an inside track.

Until next time, folks.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Less and Less Tasteful, or More and More Tasteless

I don't know what to say about this...

... except get your mind out of the gutter.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

They're Peddling It Right There on the Highway!

This week's post is part of a continuing series of odd signs and scenes around rural Kentucky.

If you have to ask, you probably can't afford it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Threat to Big Oil?

Taking a break from the blog's main purpose, literature as high art, this week's post is part of a continuing series about odd signs and scenes around rural Kentucky.

Call me cynical but, even with the Bush family out of power, my money is still riding on Big Oil.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Working Without a Net, by Randy Lowens

John dropped his bookbag on the sidewalk and stretched. "First thing after graduation," he announced to a passing car, "I'm designing a backpack that doesn't turn students into educated hunchbacks." He pulled a box of Marlboro Reds from his shirt pocket and lit up.

His mother nagged about smoking. The habit was out of fashion among his fellow students. Carol, his wife, complained about the smell and wouldn't let him smoke inside the house. John was forever "trying to quit", but that was just what he said to excuse the habit. Dying from emphysema or cancer, at some point in the distant future, was the least of his worries.

Cocaine, now, he really was trying to quit that shit. Soon, as in immediately, before Carol figured out he'd invested next month's rent in Peruvian flake. Besides, he hated peering out the blinds at four AM, searching for shadows of policemen in the alleyway. Three weeks had passed since he'd tooted up. Hardly thought of it, anymore.

He leaned against a waist-high brick wall that lined the sidewalk and blew smoke out his nostrils the way he'd seen Charles Bronson do in a black-and-white spaghetti Western. Across the street, a parking garage was being built. John was an engineering student, but he wasn't thinking of how the principles of physics applied to the structure. Instead he watched a fellow on the second floor roll up a drop cord.

The man appeared about John's age. He wore a mustache, jeans, boots, and a plaid shirt. If he traded his hardhat for a Stetson, he might have been the Marlboro man. He had finished cleaning some welds on an I beam with a rotary brush and had started gathering tools, preparing to depart.

John wondered where the guy was headed. Probably down to the corner bar to toss back a few. He'd shoot some stick, maybe croon a tune with his pals, then turn some cowgirl's head before turning in for the night. When this guy lit a smoke, nobody nagged. Men slapped him on the back, and women waited in line to two-step. No paranoia in the wee hours, no bleeding septum or bills he couldn't pay. John was suddenly filled with the conviction that this man lived a simple life, a healthy life, his body nourished by manual labor and his spirit by the camaraderie of his fellows.

When the man disappeared, John considered tailing him. If he hurried, he might catch the guy in the parking lot, ask what bar he frequented and make plans to meet later. Instead, John snuffed his butt on the sidewalk, shouldered his book bag and started walking towards home. Otherwise, Carol would rag his ass.

Carol leaned against the windowsill and watched a garbage truck backing up the alleyway. "I'll thank the Lord when you have your degree, and we can afford a real house with a lawn," she said. "That's not so much to ask. It's not like I want a mansion. A little A frame in a suburb would be fine." John stared at the sweat on the side of his bottle of Heineken. He held his breath and counted one, two, three: "Your father would loan you the money for a down payment, Morris. If you weren't so proud."

Carol always called John by his middle name, Morris. She said John sounded common and Johnny, childish. At first he'd liked that she had a special name for him. But lately when she called him Morris, he felt she was talking to some alter ego he'd never met. So he sat quietly and waited for this mythical Morris to reply.

John wondered if Construction Man was married, and if so, if he endured this crap. Probably not. He probably returned home each evening with a brand new beauty on his arm, until one midsummer's eve he crossed fates with a Debra Winger look alike, all soft brown curls and chocolate eyes, who moved in soon after. She secretly longed for a ring, a promise, but was too demure to ask. Construction Man was tempted to propose marriage, but thought better of it. He knew their love must be given freely, or not at all...

Carol's voice snatched John back into the room as surely as if she had jerked his necktie. "God, I hate working second shift," she whined, slumping into a chair. Red lacquered fingernails worried blonde ringlets that cascaded across her shoulder. "I swear, I must have the worst job in all Chattanooga. I should have stayed in school and let you support us."

Talk of finances reminded him of the upcoming rent. He thought, too, of the money owed his dealer. His wife's check would cover one or the other, but not both. If he paid the dealer, would the landlord evict them? If he paid the landlord, would the dealer slam a desk drawer shut on his fingertips?

Carol muttered something unintelligible, snatched her purse from the table and left for work.

John watched the clock until his wife had been gone precisely fifteen minutes. He stashed his book bag in the closet and strode to the bedroom. Reaching beneath the bed, he removed a mirror that was larger than a compact, but smaller than what hung on the walls. A razor blade lay atop the mirror. The surface was wiped clean.

He carried the apparatus into the kitchen and stepped on the pedal of the trash can. He hesitated, then dropped the blade inside. Next he walked purposefully to the window, opened it, and slung the mirror as hard as he could against the brick wall across the alleyway. To his dismay, it struck the wall on its edge and fell unbroken to the street below where it landed on a cushion of castoff cardboard. John fancied he saw a face in the mirror, grinning up at him. He pulled the window shut, turned, and sat on the sill. His breath came fast and his forehead was slick with sweat. Looking up he saw Jesus on the wall opposite, kneeling to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane.

John returned to the kitchen, his hair sticking out from the sides of his head like rays from the sun in a child's drawing. He fetched a bottle of Chivas and a highball glass form the cupboard. Crossing the kitchen, he stopped in mid stride and stood chewing the hair on the back of his hand. He returned to the cupboard, replaced the bottle and glass, and vanished into the bedroom. When he reappeared, he wore what Carol called his "slumming clothes": a pair of denim pants, a shirt with no tie, and boots.

An hour later his Camry crossed the Alabama line. It entered a gravel lot and parked next to a portable sign that read, "The Wagon Wheel". The second e was missing, but the message was clear.

Like the sign that advertised it, the bar and grill sat on a trailer. A porch had been added, fashioned from rough cut two by four's, and a wooden wagon wheel hung from the railing. Straightforward enough, John figured.

He sat with his lips parted and stared at the front door. As if suddenly remembering an appointment, he glanced at the seat beside him. A pint of Maker's Mark nestled beside a plastic bottle of Seven-Up. John took a sip of each and got out of the car. He locked the car doors, and the horn beeped as he walked away. He climbed the steps, took a deep breath, and stepped inside.

As the aluminum door swung shut behind him, he had the feeling of being naked before strangers. Two old men at the bar, the bartender, and a waitress swiping a cloth across a tabletop all turned and stared. One of the patrons wore a ponytail that trickled out from beneath a straw cowboy hat. The other was hatless, his hair neat and secured with Brylcreem. Both men wore plaid shirts, faded Wranglers, and cowboy boots with pointed tips. The cumulative effect was that of rugged men's wear, in contrast to John's Calvin Klein denims, pressed cotton shirt, and Timberland footwear. His hesitation snowballed into naked fear.

The bartender spoke. "Grab a seat, young un, and Karen'll be right with ya." John knew tables and booths should be reserved for larger parties, but he didn't want to join the gang at the bar. Since the place was nearly empty and it was already eight o'clock, he stepped around the pool table that occupied the center of the room and sat in a booth.

The waitress approached, wiping her hands on an apron and smiling. "Name's Karen. How are ya?"

He offered a weak smile and nodded.

"What can I bring you to drink?" she asked.

"I'll have a bourbon. Maker's... No, Jim Beam," he decided. "Make it a double, and a Miller on the side. High Life, not Lite."

Karen rewarded his selection with a smile and strolled off to fill the order. John watched her walk away. He released his breath and turned towards the guys at the bar. On a television screen above their heads, a youthful Jack Nicholson sporting 60's era sideburns climbed into the bed of a delivery truck to play Chopin on an old piano. The bartender changed the channel as his drinks arrived.

He tossed down some of the bourbon. It burned, but he recovered with only a small cough. The cold beer tasted good behind it. The muscles in his shoulders began to relax as he finished the whiskey. He burped silently, with his mouth closed, and signaled Karen for another double.

Sometime later that evening, Construction Guy arrived. John wasn't sure when because he'd placed his wristwatch next to the restroom sink as he washed his hands and somehow lost it. The cock on the wall was no help, either. It was only a blur.

John was certain the latest addition to the party was Construction Guy. He could tell by the way the fellow dressed, all metal and leather, by the deliberate way he ambled in and waited until he was leaned against the bar before removing his motorcycle gloves. (Why hadn't John thought of that before? Construction Guy rides a Hawg!)

Karen delivered John another round. He raised his shot glass and toasted her departing rear end, which was looking better all the time. He resolved to take her home come closing time. Construction Guy was going to see what ole John was made of.

He chuckled, proud of himself. He looked down at a puddle of beer on the table and got lost in it. From there the evening progressed like previews of a movie, flashing from one scene to the next with only the vaguest connection between. The pony tailed cowboy was standing nearby saying something about treating Karen, the waitress, with respect. John had no awareness of traveling from his seat to the doorway, but when the gravel parking lot chewed his knees and landed a haymaker upside his head, alertness returned. He rolled onto his side, curled his knees against his stomach and lay laughing.

The next day, John's kneecaps looked like Tennessee Pride Real Country Sausage. The bandage on his head kept coming loose, and he was suffering the Stone Mountain of hangovers.

At the head of the class, Dr. Tallmadge pointed at the blackboard with a yardstick. The equation was incomprehensible. John couldn't remember what the various terms represented, much less how they related to one another. He tried to focus on the instructor's words, but they were distorted like the voice of an adult on a Peanuts cartoon.

The class was Dynamic Systems 305. The first week, Dr. Tallmadge had used a quadratic equation to model the motion of an object attached to a spring that moved through a medium. John had found the analysis straightforward enough. The second order term was the acceleration of gravity, the first order was the spring's coefficient, and the damping action of the medium provided the constant. But during the second week, the instructor began to apply differential equations to analyze electronic systems. John had struggled with differential equations in math class, and as for electronics, he had no intuitive grasp, nothing concrete on which to hang his understanding.

The fifth week of class found him hopelessly lost. The subject matter seemed utterly intangible. The class was like a speeding train, and he stood on the station platform craning his neck in a futile effort to catch a glimpse inside the most recently passing car. The metaphor made his neck hurt. He rubbed it and leaned back in his desk to look out the window. What did Dynamic Systems have to do with designing a parking garage, anyhow?

As he examined the skeletal structure across the roadway, he thought of Construction Guy. He wondered what floor the man was working on today and if the hombre at the bar had really been the same fellow. He had felt certain at the time, but according to the principles of Probability and Statistics 202, probably not. He wondered if Construction Guy suffered for two days whenever he got drunk, or if upon awakening he had only to shake his head to clear it before flexing his biceps and tossing his toolbox into the back of his pickup truck.

A prolonged silence in the classroom brought John hurtling back inside the window. Dr. Tallmadge was looking at him, as was the young lady in the next row. The instructor must have asked him a question. "I, ah, I'm sorry, Dr. Tallmadge," John stuttered, "Could you repeat that, please?" The professor rolled his eyes, turned to the girl and nodded. She responded that a Laplace transform was necessary to describe the effect of the various stimuli upon the capacitor in question. John knew leaving class was a bad idea, but he figured puking on the floor would be even worse, so he hurried out the door towards the restroom.

Carol squinted at the strip of paper in her hand. She tossed it into the toilet and flushed. "Praise the Lord, at least I'm not pregnant," she announced.

"We could try some more."

She cut her eyes at him, but said nothing. She crossed the hallway into the bedroom and began placing clothes inside a suitcase that lay open on the bed.

"How long will you be gone?"

"How long? I don't know," she replied. "I don't know that I'll ever return."

John looked at his Timberlands, moping. Carol preferred him in loafers. He yearned for a pair of boots, real cowboy boots with pointed toes like the guys at the Wagon Wheel wore. So he wore Timberlands, and no one was satisfied.

Carol snapped her suitcase shut, lugged it out of the bedroom and placed it beside the front door. "I'll be back when you change your ways," she proclaimed. "I'll be back when the rent is paid in a timely manner, by your hand rather than mine. In other words, Morris," she lisped, oblivious to a speck of saliva clinging to her lip, "I'll be back when you grow up."

"Give your mother my regards," he called as she reached to close the door behind her. The latch clicked, and he was alone. He walked to the closet, removed a large cardboard box and began to pack his own belongings.

Midway through the second week, the East Ridge motel room was a dump. A thin, rectangular shaft of morning sunlight leaked past the drapery onto a table top littered with pizza boxes and potato chip bags. A mound of cigarette butts overflowed an ashtray and spilled onto the nightstand. "Damn things smell like my mouth tastes," John said with a groan as he stumbled toward the bathroom.

He had to brush his teeth twice, and finish a can of beer left over from the previous night, before he had confidence to brave the lobby for coffee and a newspaper. When he returned, he began sweeping the table's refuse into a plastic garbage pail.

He glanced at the styrofoam cup in his hand. "This coffee is grounds for divorce." He'd always loved that joke, but, somehow, today it wasn't funny. He slumped into a chair. The plastic cover made crinkling noises against his back. He wiped his eyes and rubbed his forehead. There was nowhere to go but forward.

He placed the chair on the sidewalk outside the door and balanced the ashtray on its arm. After retrieving an ink pen and some mail from his car, he sat down and opened his grade sheet. Dynamic Systems Analysis showed an F. He crumpled the paper, set it alight, and dropped it into the ashtray. Next he crumpled a past due notice from his landlord and burned that as well. Finally, he repeated the ritual with a letter from his estranged wife, a note that spelled out the timing and conditions of their divorce. Each flame began modestly, consuming only a corner of the paper, then peaked into a great leaping blaze that covered the entire sheet before collapsing again into timidity and ash.

Returning inside with the chair, he spread the want ads across the bed and began methodically searching for job prospects. Periodically he sipped his coffee. His courage grew with each swallow, in direct proportion to the caffeine that entered his bloodstream. By midmorning he was ready to start calling.

He dialed the first number. A woman's voice answered, curt and efficient. "Headrick Brothers Construction. How may I direct your call?"
"I, ah, I'm calling to inquire as to your procedure for applying for employment," he stammered.

"Yes sir, and what are your qualifications?" the voice immediately responded.

"Qualifications? Well, until recently I was an engineering student..."

"Do you have a degree?" After only the briefest pause, the voice continued, "I said, do you have a degree? We have an opening in structural design, but the position requires a bachelor's degree in engineering."

"No. No, I don't have an engineering degree."

"The engineering division also has an opening for a draftsman..."

"Oh, that's great."

"...which requires certification from an accredited technical school. Are you a certified draftsman?"

"Certified? I can draw, but... well, no, I don't have a tech school certification. See, I really wanted to be a Construction Guy, anyhow. I mean, I wanted to work as a laborer." John lowered his voice, aiming for a gruff tone. "You know, flex my muscles outdoors, hang steel and stuff like that."

"Can you weld?"


"Yes," the woman replied with a sigh. "Can. You. Weld."

"Umm, no."

"Then tell me, what qualifications do you have to become an employee of Headrick Brothers Construction?"

"Well, ah, I don't know. I guess I don't have any."

"I'm sorry, we only hire unskilled laborers through temporary employment services. Have a nice day, sir." The line went dead.

John stared at the classifieds page. It was inked up with check marks and exclamation points throughout the Building Trades section. He opened the blinds and for several minutes stood watching the sun climb towards noontime. At length he whispered, "Well, Cowboy, here we are. What the hell you gonna do now?"

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chickens in the Yard

Our family lives in a cabin on a wooded hillside. During the last big wind storm, a tree on the hill above us fell and struck the roof of our home. Since that event, we evacuate whenever heavy winds are predicted. I have just returned home from an evacuation, and I'm constructing this post on the fly.

We have a neighbor with a big heart for animals. Locals bring unwanted chickens and ducks and, after some complaining, she takes them to raise. Oftentimes, when passing her house, I reflect on how my former friends in Atlanta--most of whom I've lost touch with--would react to a picture of roosting time on her front porch.

When the ditches flood, her ducks can be seen swimming up and down the roadside. I was too slow to catch them in the act, but here is a picture of them retreating, in their own good time, back home to the yard.

But the sight I consider most emblematic, is of the ladder she built for a disabled chicken, unable to fly. So it could roost like the others.

She shares eggs with our family, but never meat. Again, she isn't farming, but rather making a, ah, humanitarian effort. This account is published with her generous permission. Here's to you, Wanda. You're a fun and caring neighbor.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Life and Writings of Mary Daly, by Holly Jennings

I never knew the late Mary Daly personally. I didn't even know her name until I attended a memorial service in her honor Jan. the 14th. I felt so many things there, shock, love and, in a strange way, fear. Fear that it might be too late to stand up to the masculine rule. Shock that she would turn her back on Catholicism, as well as turning her back on men. And love, that she would be so brave as to do so.

She wrote her own dictionary called the Wickedary, refusing to speak a language made totally by men. Even our name, the word woman, wo-MAN, has the word man in it. I realized that ladies (for lack of a better word) in this world are speaking a man's language.

The people who came to the memorial that night included bell hooks, Shauna Shames, Stephanie Browner, Tambone Clemons, Timi Reedy, Kathleen Connors, and, of course, my parents. They spoke of her with love and friendship.

To some people, Mary Daly was horrible, but to others, she was a hero. I choose hero. You might choose demon, but I choose hero. I choose hero because she stood up to the dominant male and said no. I choose hero because she chose a life for herself.

Holly Jennings was born in Lafayette Georgia, and moved to Kentucky when she was seven. Her father, a writer, has home schooled her throughout her life. Not surprisingly, Holly writes as well. She begs forgiveness for the short biography: she's only ten.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ground, by Jarrid Deaton

My grandfather's brain went bad. This is back when I was just a young girl and looking for reasons to run. My grandmother had been dead for a little over a year when he lost the handle on it all. He thought the family was falling apart. Thought we were cursed to never stay together. “The ties that bind get severed from the grave.” That's the kind of things he started to say. I was helping him to lead the old mule back to the barn when all of that craziness boiled over in his mind.

"Your father said you was talking some kind of foolishness about running away from home," he said.

I remember how the sun seemed to focus all its heat on my head while all the blood rushed into my ears. My whole body felt frail and toxic when those words came from his cracked lips. I was almost thirteen, the age when idle threats of escape are as common as temper tantrums. My father and mother had recently engaged in a kitchen-trashing fight, which caused me to blurt out my spur of the moment plan to get away from it all. I knew how paranoid he was about the family splitting up. The fact that my father said something about my desire to leave home made it seem like a prophecy to him.

"I didn’t mean it," I said.

"A girl ought to stay with her family till she gets married," he said. "Then she needs to move close to her homestead and raise her one of her own."

His voice sounded strange, like he was trying to hold something back but was losing the battle.

Standing there with the sun overheating everything, I got too nervous. The urge to flee was something that came at me so fast that I was running before I even knew what was going on. The thick dirt of the plowed garden filled my shoes as I made my way for the corn that sprawled its way across most of the field.

I knew he was coming after me. He thought, and I suppose it looked that way, that I had decided to make good on my threat to run away from home. Right then, all I wanted was to be back inside my home. I could see its green tin roof in the distance.

"Tara, goddamnit," he yelled. "Don't you run from me."

I kept running, the leaves of the corn whipped against my bare arms and made small, stinging cuts in my skin. I stopped for just a second to get my wind when I realized he had somehow circled around me.

"I told you not to run," he said. "I'll be damned if I let it take you away."

I started to say something else but the sobbing stopped my words. I was standing in the corn with my grandfather who used to take me on trips to the livestock market and buy helium balloons with Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony on them. Now he stood in front of me with his chest heaving and his eyes gone animal wild. His flannel shirt turned dark and damp in spots where sweat streamed away from his body. His arms shaking, he grabbed one of the cornstalks and pulled it from the ground. The dirt hung heavy and clumped around the roots.

"Sometimes you have to teach young women a lesson," he said. "Sometimes you have to wield a strong hand."

I started to back away but he came at me all in one motion. He swung the stalk and the dirt hit me in the face. The grit filled my eyes and mouth. My cheek felt like it was ripped open by wild claws. I went to both knees in front of him, my eyes closed tight in fear and from the dirt that stung them.

"You'll mind," he said. "It's best for you and the family. There ain't going to be no running away. You understand?"

"Yes," I said, the taste of the ground in my mouth.

He pulled a faded red handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped at my eyes and face.

"Go home and help your mother start supper," he said. "Your father should be getting in from work in the next hour or so."

As I stumbled through the rest of the field to reach the gate leading to my yard, I turned around to look at my grandfather. He was sitting in the place where I had knelt, the corn stalk across his lap, patting the ground with his right hand and nodding his head. I knew he was crying.

Jarrid Deaton lives in eastern Kentucky. He digs Nick Cave tunes and Bloody Marys. He received his MFA in writing from Spalding University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Underground Voices, Thieves Jargon, decomP, Thirst For Fire, Pear Noir!, and elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Fight, by Sheldon Lee Compton

I take my Case knife and cut another IV tube. All that juice pops loose, flows steady onto the bed sheets. The last of whatever they were giving me moves warm like a fever through my vein, comes flapping out of the tube from the bend of my arm. I lay back and start waiting. This is getting to be less and less fun.

The Case knife was part of a package retirement gift from Core Company Mining in 1976. More than thirty years I’ve been retired. I still take lunch at noon, one hour, a sandwich and coffee. I trace the notched-out curves on the knife handle with my finger while I wait for nurses or doctors, flick the blade open and lean in close to see old coal dust smashed down inside the groove on the blade. Somebody’ll come soon and I might can go home. Nobody’s been by to see me for three days. No phone calls for the last two, which makes for mighty quiet waiting.

The first time I cut my IV, the room turned into a blistered frying pan, at least half a dozen people burning up the floor, nurses and doctors and ladies from housekeeping. All their sound seemed like it was pulling at the walls, all that panic and rushing around, nurses telling nurses what to do and the doctor talking to himself in circles. It was just like electric currents.

Electricity was my business. For years it was my business. I was always connected to it somehow. I could feel where a current was running strong just like some people could feel their blood pushing through their arms. And I was always there to wrangle that power in, to put all that bottled up lightening to use, to fix it, to take my own power over it. It’s just like the damned phone. Without somebody on the other end of that current, it’ll just sit right there useless as anything.

So even though the room was burning up and sizzling that first time I nicked my IV with everybody talking to each other about crazy this, and crazy that, I was right at home. It was just like an undercurrent, running through all that loudness.

Crazy as crazy gets, an ugly, hateful nurse said the first time. Crazy man, crazy job. They don’t pay enough for this. Should just let him go home if that’s what he wants.

It was, without question, beautiful, and I was sure they’d send me home.

Just let him go home.

But that didn’t happen, and now there sits the phone, stupid and quiet.

Two kinds of information – signals and voice, but not at the same time, just on the same pair of wires. Somebody picks up the phone and the switch hook sends the phone into an active state bringing into play a short across the wires and opening up a current to flow. The exchange gets the DC current, attaches a digit receiver and then, bang, a dial tone. Copper wires, currents, all the electricity in the invisible world a person could ever need and the thing had not offered the first sound in two days.

I might need a new plan for getting out of here. I figure if cutting these tubes don’t work, and it didn’t the last time, I’ll just tell them I need to get outside for some fresh air. They might say no, but I’d get pushy about it. My knife could come in handy, if it came down to that. If it takes threatening somebody to get out of here, then that would be fine as frog hair with me. Home is where I need to be right now. I have reasons I should go home. But there was a time when work would’ve been better. Retirement ain’t for me, and that’s what got me in here in the first place.

Irene was fixing greens and pork chops the afternoon I had my accident trying to fix the front porch. The power saw jumped in my hand and turned around on me. It ate right into me, a thick slice sideways, but it missed its chance to crack through my old chest and get into my heart. Instead, it settled for just hacking off some tired, used-up muscle and taking enough blood to fill up a ten-gallon tank.

Irene pulled back from me when I made it to the kitchen, but she didn’t make a sound. She just got a sick look on her face and then went right past me and out the door. I watched her running with her hands flying around her head across the swinging bridge over to Cleve Tucker’s. She don’t drive, Irene, and just about the time I was fixing to go face up into a skillet of pork chops, there she was at the front door with Cleve in his car behind her.

It was Cleve Tucker who almost got me to hospital.


I was away from home a lot. The company had power stations across five counties and always needed crews to travel and work for a week or so if vacations or spreading cold or flu knocked out more than five employees at once. But it never really helped me get ahead, all the volunteering. I stayed at the Number 15 Station for the last ten years of my working life and never got a regional post before they gave me a Case knife, patted my humped-up back and sent me home.

Something else I got while I was gone was Cleve Tucker wearing a path down on that swinging bridge to my house.

After awhile, even when I was home, Irene was always going across the creek to pick greens and corn in Cleve’s garden or to borrow one thing or another. I never returned the favor. I never spoke a word about it or done a thing about it until I was bleeding to death in the backseat of Cleve’s four-door Chevy.

It was spitting rain when we started out. Everything was exhaust fumes and oil rags and greasy car parts in the back floorboard and my blood running off the seat and mixing with the oil and grease and parts. Before long, cutting down the road toward the hospital, the rain was as hard and fast as rocks dropping out of the sky. With Irene in the backseat with me, but pushed as far away as she could, I was spitting screams like fire. Cleve Tucker was a shocked deer at the steering wheel, and Irene just kept shrinking away from me in the back seat. I was spitting fire at both of them and raining blood all across Irene’s lap and then popping back up, yelling to Cleve to drive, drive, drive. And all the while Irene was looking away from me, watching them big sheets of rain slap down across the road, all that dark water slamming down from up there in heaven. Blue tracks of lightning made tracks through the sky and there was Cleve and the car hammering all the way through it. I needed to quit bleeding, start living, stop dying.

Just when I was about to get a breath and try to talk to Irene, tell her I loved her anyway, loved her because she was helping me the only way she could, she reached across the backseat and put her hand on Cleve Tucker’s shoulder. She was shy as a bird, the way she done it. She just couldn’t help herself. The sight of her touching him, brought me up out of that seat, dying out of my chest, and I hit her square and hard across the side of her jaw. I hit her with everything I had left. I wanted to break parts of her. She didn’t scream or cry out, didn’t make a sound, just slumped on over against the door as far away from me as she could manage. Then I went after Cleve. For Cleve it was an elbow to the back of the head, and the road and the rain like bullets and the flashing sky went spinning. Two or three seconds seemed like all it took and the car was stopped sideways in the middle of the road, a half a mile out from the hospital.

Cleve flagged down the first car that stopped and loaded me into the backseat. Car trouble, he told the old couple. And the old couple brought me the rest of the way to this hateful place and this hateful quiet and nothing to keep me from thinking about how soft Irene’s skin was under my knuckles.

After twenty minutes with the IV tube done flapping and all the juice gone and dripping off into the floor, I put my knife back inside the pillowcase. I’m working my way out of the bed, sitting up anyways, when a skinny nurse comes squeaking in, fixing this and checking on that, telling me to ease back down on the bed, telling me I need rest. She doesn’t say anything else, just tightens her lips, goes about her job. More IVs, sticking me with needles without saying a word.

When she leaves, I go into the pillowcase for my knife, pushing the blade up and down, hearing the old familiar snap. There’s three tubes now, and I slice through them all at once, snap my blade closed and pop the bed rail with the side of my hand. It drops and I swing my legs off onto the floor. One step and then another. Every step shoots through my chest. I pull back my robe and see black, bloody stitches. Two more steps into the hallway and it would be the longest walk I’ve had in two weeks.

I walk in little shuffle steps until I’m about six feet from the nurse’s station and slow down. Elevators have to be close by, hopefully before I run into the IV crew. I can hear them down there, talking about lunch and husbands and wives and sleep and the ridiculous hell a swing shift could work on all of that.

My knees are shaking, and it don’t matter how hard I try, I can’t get myself settled. The best I can do is just wobble along. I set myself as best as I can in the slippers they gave me, stupid slippers, straighten my back and when I do, the skin across my chest stretches and knots up over the bones. Two more corners and I see the elevator. The doors open. The doors really open, and nobody’s dragging me back to the bed and the tubes and the stubborn phone. I slide sideways inside and hit the button for the first floor. It’s just me and clank of the elevator's cables taking me to a place where there’s some room to run.

The elevator bucks and racks and I lean into a corner and watch the numbers flash a red countdown. Irene is scared to death of heights, it don’t matter how high, either. She shakes like a leaf standing on a chair. She sometimes needed help carrying corn or carrots back across the swinging bridge because of being so scared of heights. Hard for me to do that when I’m at work.

But I’m not thinking about the swinging bridge when the elevator doors open. Or, at least, I’m trying real hard not to think about it. What I think about is the sunshine busting through the sliding front doors not more than fifteen feet ahead of me. I can see wind blowing the trees outside. I wobble some more into the main entrance and the security guards don’t raise an eyebrow between them. Why would they? It ain’t strange for a patient to just take a quick trip out and get some air if they can. I stop in front of the glass doors and see my reflection. Knobby legs, stupid slippers, wrinkled up pajamas. I think of old trees and beat up trucks with rust spots, I think of stick-man drawings. I see my eyes, how they sink back into my head the way the outside of an apple starts drawing in on itself if it lays off the branch for too long. I think too much. Things can be okay. Things can be fine as frog hair. Irene is out there. My life is still out there, I can feel it moving, a hum, a current right under my feet.

There’s a set of benches at the edge of the parking lot and I squat to the ground beside them. My joints pop together and make sounds like small tools dropped onto a workbench. I press my hand to the ground, close my eyes and stay that way for a long time, then stand and start moving. No wobbling, no shaking. I leave my eyes shut for awhile while I walk and see Irene holding my hand, see Irene combing her hair, Irene reading a book. When I open them again, the parking lot is behind me and the current is a slow sizzle under my feet, that familiar flow of energy, and I follow it, just like always. Ahead of me there is the corn and potatoes and greens, baby-steps across a swinging bridge and my Irene waiting somewhere in the middle for someone to take her hand, maybe waiting for so long she knows no other thing to do.

Sheldon Lee Compton lives at the easternmost tip of Kentucky. He has earned paychecks as a teacher, journalist, coal miner, plumber, public relations specialist and carpenter. His work has appeared in New Southerner, Inscape, The Cut-Thru Review, Kudzu and elsewhere. He also blogs at Bent Country.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Rugged Outdoorsman

I have long fancied myself a woodsman. Growing up in a small town, my classmates dreamed of escaping to the cities, Atlanta, Baltimore, even New York, while I read accounts of pioneers and mountain men of the nineteenth century and fantasized about becoming a latter day version of the same.

In high school, while they cruised the parking lot of the first fast-food joint to appear in the county seat, I rode the back roads. While they watched ballgames on weekend afternoons, I wandered the forest. So it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream when, approaching the age of 50, I moved to a cabin on a forested hillside in Kentucky.

A neighboring piece of property was offered for sale recently. I acquired a key and drove to the site. The house was underwhelming, but I was more interested in the land, anyhow.

Snow still covered the ground as I began my trek up the hillside to investigate. Behind a barn that was tucked away on a remote plateau, I found tracks I didn't recognize. The paw print of a bear, perhaps? The black variety were rumored to haunt these parts. Or maybe a panther. I took a photograph and continued on my jaunt.

The land was more farm than wild, I decided. Some nice acreage, but not suitable to a outdoorsman such as myself. Returning down the hill, I spied an owl perched on the chimney of the house. I moved closer. I stopped and took a picture, lest my approach spook the creature and I be left with no record of him. From directly behind, I took several excellent shots. Then I circled the home to approach from the front.

I felt certain my appearance would cause the bird to take flight. Perhaps I could capture an image of his ascent for my blog! I held my breath and walked on tiptoe. Rounding the corner, I raised my camera... and took the picture shown. I had stalked a plastic ornament someone had placed atop an unused chimney.

I made a 180 degree survey of my surroundings. No pedestrians were nearby. No traffic passed on the road below. Holstering his camera, the rugged woodsman hiked back to his Nissan and drove home on roads scraped clean by county workers.

The paw prints proved to be those of a large dog. Perhaps a coyote, but who knows? Tonight I think I'll stay inside and watch a movie.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Market Day in Rural Kentucky

While exploring back roads recently in nearby Lincoln County, I happened across a quaint convenience store whose sign is pictured. Stepping inside, I asked the whiskered gent behind the counter how much he'd charge to tickle me with a feather until I begged for mercy. He was dialing the police as I squealed rubber out of his parking lot...

On a more serious note, the survival of independent stores is among the many enchantments of rural Kentucky.

Shortly before leaving northwest Georgia, I was dismayed by the closing of two local landmarks. The Country Store in Villanow is listed on the National Register of Historic places and is said to have been among the longest continually operating businesses in the state. Mad fluctuations in gasoline prices, which chain stores had resources to weather, forced the new owners to shutter the shop. Meanwhile, illness led the owner of the only store in Subligna to sell out as well. As far as I know, the former remains on the market. One may hope it will someday reopen. The latter has been converted to an all-too-familiar convenience store, and remains only as a fond memory of whittlers and tellers of tales.

So I smile when, touring the smaller towns of my adopted home, I pass a market such as this one. Hats off to Rodney and Ebeth Edwards of Villanow, Tim and Martha McWilliams of Subligna, and the Durhams of Stanford, KY (whom I have never met). You have lent unique charm in an era of ugly standardization.