Argh, I love this story. I hope you do, too.
They Burned Down the Home of Old Spooky Jones
by Betsy Phillips
When I was ten, I broke my back. There was this big rusty metal dome out on the playground. We weren’t supposed to climb on it, but we all did. No teacher stopped us. I fell from the top. It knocked the wind out of me, but I didn’t even know I was hurt until I tried to get up and couldn’t. Then I was scared.
My grandpa heard it on the scanner when they called it in. Beat the ambulance to the school. And I remember seeing him lumbering across the playground, his big hunting knife in one hand, a squirrel in the other.
“Louise!” He shouted. “God damn it. Don’t you move.”
No problem, Grandpa. No problem.
Everyone in town hated him. Which was fine with him. He hated them right back. His whole life people called him “Spooky Jones” behind his back. Every once in a while, they’d slip up and call him that to his face.
Like, right at that moment, when my teacher, Mrs. Burch, was rushing from the blacktop across the grass, trying to intercept him before he got to me with that knife. And that squirrel.
“Spooky! No!” she shouted. I remember, too, that she was wearing these kitten heels with a really sharp point, so she sank a little into the ground every time she took a step. In a way, it was like watching two horrors—my grandpa, some ancient giant, his hands out in front of him like Frankenstein’s monster, taking each step almost in slow motion, and Mrs. Burch and her herky-jerky steps, arms bent like bat-wings, steady as the rest of her shook. “Don’t kill her, please!”
This did seem to get my grandpa’s attention. He stopped for a second, but then shrugged, as if it was too much effort to explain. By now, there were sirens and the daytime cop, Bill Evans, and a handful of volunteer firemen had arrived. They, too, were now racing toward me. My grandpa stood over me, slit that squirrel’s throat, and yelled out, “Make her lucky, motherfucker.”
I know it sounds crude, but it felt like a prayer. Squirrel blood rained down on me.
I was lucky, too. So very, very lucky. I cracked six vertebrae and two ribs, but just bruised my spinal cord. I lost most of the feeling in my back, but I wasn’t paralyzed. I did have to wear this big cast that wrapped around me like a plaster corset. My mom wanted to take me into the city to the hospital, to see if there was something more that could be done for me. But there was no way my family could have afforded that.
As it was, my mom had to take another job at the gas station just to pay my medical bills. Everyone said we should have sued the school, but we didn’t have the money for a lawyer and, looking back, I doubt the school system could have afforded my medical bills either.
This meant I spent a lot more time with my grandpa. Someone had to watch me. First thing in the morning, my dad would carry me out to the car, drive so slowly and gently, like he was afraid I might break, and lift me out and put my on his dad’s couch. Grandpa would be cooking breakfast.
“Want some?” He’d ask, while my dad was back out at the car getting my books. And that might be all he’d say to me until lunch time. Sometimes he’d go out. He drove an old rusted-out pick-up that didn’t go into reverse anymore and that farted big black clouds of oil-tinged smoke when he came to the four-way stop. When it started up, it sounded like the end of the world. I could hear that truck for a good five minutes after he drove away and get that much warning when he was on his way back. When he got back, he’d always ask me, “Been snooping around?” But early on, I couldn’t get off the couch without help. During those afternoons when he’d leave, I was always afraid that I’d have to go to the bathroom. And how would I get up?
I hadn’t snooped.
Sometimes, he’d bring home groceries, a can of Coke for me, a six-pack of beer for him, a whole raw chicken for the one-eyed dog that sometimes roamed his back yard. That dog. He didn’t listen and he didn’t obey. No use naming him, he wouldn’t come when you called. He was a mess of scars and he was missing not just an eye, but part of an ear. He was the size of a Rottweiler and broad like that, but he was white, with black spots. I always wondered what kind of monster had taken his eye and his ear. It was hard to imagine who could have bested him. His tail had a weird bend to it—when he wagged it, it only went about half-way. And the dog always, always smelled like beer, like he must have sat in a bar when he wasn’t with my grandpa, though I never saw him around town.
My grandpa never smiled. Never had a kind word for anyone, though he wasn’t always mean. He just wanted the world to leave him alone and resented when it didn’t. He never hugged me, never played with me, and never, that I could remember, even touched me before I needed help getting off his couch to go to the bathroom. He didn’t let me die while I was under his watch. He fed me, gave me something to drink when I wanted it, and make sure I didn’t pee myself. That was the extent to which he could do for others.
My mom told my dad that she couldn’t believe my grandpa had managed to father seven sons.
“Just obligation,” My dad said. “He’s his father’s seventh son and his father was his father’s seventh son and on back, for generations. He did what he had to do to make sure the tradition was carried on.”
“Is Uncle Matt supposed to have seven sons, too?” I asked. My dad didn’t answer me. My dad had a hard time with his family, sometimes.
Early on, when I was still pretty unsteady on my feet, Grandpa had gone out in the back yard with the chicken. I heard a noise like someone was trying to play an accordion that hadn’t been used in years. Grabbing various pieces of furniture to steady myself as I walked, I made my way to the back door. My grandpa sat on the stoop, the broken-up raw chicken spread out on a paper grocery bag on the porch next to him. He threw a wing into the air and that old boulder of a dog jumped up to snatch it right out of the sky. That strange noise? My grandpa was laughing.
One afternoon, a month or so before I went back to school, Grandpa got a call from Bill Evans, the daytime cop, that Uncle Matt had been arrested.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get this straightened out,” he said. He was pulling some things—his knife, a rusty pistol, and, weirdly enough, his wallet—out of his pockets and putting them in one kitchen drawer. Out of the adjacent drawer, he pulled a rabbit’s foot, a red flannel bag about the size of a pouch of chewing tobacco, and a small, thick, gnarled root. He put those things in his pockets. He patted himself down, as if to make sure he had not forgotten any weapon he might be carrying on him, and then he headed out the back door. I waddled after him.
His truck smelled like the dog. The vinyl seats burned the back of my legs. I couldn’t get the seatbelt to latch and my grandpa struggled with it a while. “Fuck it.” He finally said.
The jail was the newest thing in our town, built just a couple of years before. It had twenty cells and a set of double doors that had to be opened remotely by a guard behind a bullet-proof window. We weren’t that dangerous—the people who lived there. Sure, people got beaten up and accidents that didn’t really seem like accidents happened. But, for the most part, our problems were not that bad and the people who had those problems, in turn, were also not that bad. The jail wasn’t really for us. The county made a lot of money handing the overflow from the city. Some of those guys really were dangerous.
That time my uncle got arrested, he was one of three prisoners in the whole place. When we talked to him, they let us have the whole visitation room. Not counting the guard, the father of a girl in my class, we were the only people in there.
At the time, I adored my Uncle Matt. He wore his hair long and shaggy, even though everyone at school called him a commie. He also liked to read and he gave me books he thought I would enjoy. When I finished them, he wanted to talk to me about them, wanted to hear what I thought of them.
Looking back, it’s obvious that he must have been miserable in that town, lonely and bored, too smart for his own good. It’s easy enough now to see how tempting anything that seemed interesting, that staved off the boredom must have been.
But then, sitting in that room, across that table from him, watching him run his fingers over the gouges someone had already carved in the tabletop, I was upset and afraid for him. He looked like hell. His eyes were sunk into his head and there were dark circles under them. The jumpsuit they had him in was too big for him and it made him look thinner than he was, so thin you’d think he might break.
My grandpa sat next to me, his hands folded in front of him, his head down. This upset me even more. Could he not see that something was terribly wrong with Uncle Matt? What kind of man doesn’t hug his son when that son is in such obvious distress?
They were quiet a long time, as if they were trying to remember whose turn it was to speak first. Finally, my Uncle Matt broke the silence.
“You have to get me out,” he said.
“I should leave you here!” My grandpa growled before Matt was even finished.
“Okay, okay,” Matt said. “Leave me here. That’s a good idea.” He meant it, which I found confusing. “The longest they’ll hold me is a week. Then I can come by your house and get the bail money.”
I didn’t get what he was saying. Why would he need the bail money once he was out of jail? But I got to grow up with Matt pulling this kind of shit on my parents, too. I came to recognize it. He was always scheming. Once he decided that you were going to give him money for something, he considered that money his. Once it was his money in his mind, he then felt no qualms about telling you what to do with it.
“I don’t have the money to bail you out,” my grandpa said.
“Well, you’ve got to get it, Dad,” Matt said. “I owe some bad—”
“You always owe some bad people!”
“I know. But these guys are really bad.”
“How much do you owe them?”
Now, this was the other thing I came to learn about Matt. He thought everyone in the family’s wallets should be open to him, but it seemed to offend him when you asked questions about his financial situation. He bristled at the question. But he answered it.
At the time, this seemed like the largest real number I’d ever heard of. I couldn’t imagine anyone in town had that much money, let alone in my family.
“Shit.” Grandpa said. “No fucking way, son. I don’t got it.”
Then Matt leaned over, like he was making some great and wonderful deal with Grandpa, letting him in on some secret that would benefit the two of them. Maybe Matt should have been a used-car salesman.
“They’ll take the dog.”
“What?” I blurted out. Grandpa scowled at me, but he nodded at Matt, because I’d asked the question he had as well.
“If they get that dog, they’ll wipe my slate clean. I won’t owe them nothing.”
“My dog,” Grandpa said.
“They’re going to kill me, Dad.”
“Then help me, for God’s sake. I’ll get you another dog. What’s the fucking big deal?”
“It’s my dog. How’s taking my dog clean your slate? How’s that a deal you can even trust?”
“That’s what they said.” Matt shifted in his seat. He looked at me and winked, like this was just some bullshit he had to go through before he inevitably got his way. “That’s the deal. They get the dog and I’m free and clear.”
Grandpa sat defeated next to me, his shoulders slumped, his chin in his chest, his hands hanging limply by his side. Matt tried hard to give the bad news the time it needed to sink in but he was giddy, already anticipating how Grandpa would help him off the hook.
“No,” Grandpa said, so quietly both Matt and I looked at each other to check if we’d heard correctly. “No. You got yourself into this mess. You get yourself out.”
“Louise!” Matt cried out. He wanted me to come take his side. I was frozen between them. I said nothing. When Matt realized Grandpa wasn’t going to change his mind, he shot up out of the chair and began to pace furiously back and forth.
“I’ll get you out of here,” Grandpa said.
“I don’t want out of here,” Matt snapped. “I want the god damn money or the dog.”
“No,” Grandpa said, again, this time louder.
“Fuck you,” Matt said, rushing at my grandfather. I don’t know if he would have actually hit the old man, but the guard stepped in before I could find out.
The guard took Matt back to his cell and my grandpa sat in the chair as still as the dead. His breathing sounded pained.
Finally, he reached in his back pocket and pulled out a white handkerchief. He shifted in his seat and wrestled in his front pocket. I expected he was getting something strange, but he came back with two old mercury dimes. He spread the handkerchief out in front of him on the table. Then, he tied a knot in the two corners closest to me. In the folds of each knot, he slid a dime.
He whispered something to it. I couldn’t make out anything but “in the whole round world, there is only one” and then that handkerchief stood up. The corners where the knots were stretched out toward me like rudimentary hands and the other two corners folded just enough to make the thing some feet. It took a few steps toward me, turned and took a few steps toward the way Matt had gone. It bent forward, and, with a great leap, it flipped over backward and landed.
“Can I touch it?” I asked, but I wasn’t paying any attention to the answer. I reached toward it and it slid, deftly, out of my way. It strutted around the table and, when I put my hands flat on the table top, the handkerchief came over and reached down with its knotted hand and touched my finger.
It felt ordinary. Like cotton against my skin. I looked for the trick, but I could find no wires, no mechanism that made the thing move like that. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. But just as I felt I was making a new friend, Grandpa snatched the handkerchief back. I probably slumped down in disappointment as he untied the hands. I know I didn’t realize until later why he was pressing the handkerchief to his face before we got up and left.
In the truck, I asked him, “How did you do that?”
“Can I do that?”
“It’d make my life easier if you could,” he said. “But no. I never heard of anyone in our family being able but the seventh sons.”
“I keep waiting for him to show signs.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Drugs. And he’s an asshole.”
When I got home that evening, I related everything that happened with all of the enthusiasm of a kid who knows something important the adults don’t.
“Your Uncle Matt is not on drugs,” my mom said, but I could hear in her voice that it was a lie. “He just has some problems. He’s sick and he needs our help.”
Later, as I laid awake in bed, straining to hear what my parents were talking about in the other room, I heard my dad say, “Well, it is just a dog. What kind of man wouldn’t do whatever it takes to help his own son?”
My mom answered, “It’s always just something.”
The next day, my grandpa never left the house. He didn’t come out of his room until nearly lunch. He looked rough, like he’d been drinking all night. When he put my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in front of me, he said, “Sometimes I pray that one of those girls I ran around on your grandma with got knocked up. That there’s another son out there, older than Matt, I don’t know about. That maybe your dad is my seventh.”
My dad was furious that he said that to me. I liked that he talked to me like I was an adult, though. And what could my dad do? The medical bills being what they were, he and Mom had to work. Someone had to look after me. Who else could do it? Uncle Matt?
The next day, when Grandpa left, he said, as usual, “Don’t be snooping around,” and this time, I took it as an acknowledgement that there was something to find if I did look. For the first time in my life, I went into his bedroom. It wasn’t big. The double bed that sat on the far wall took up so much space that I had to turn sideways to get between it and the Walmart pressed-board bookshelves that sagged into broad grins under the weight of all his books. Next to the bed, he had a record player and a few, very few records—Willie Dixon and Johnny Rivers are the ones I remember.
On the other side, there was a huge old chest of drawers, but the bed was so close to them, I couldn’t get the bottom drawers open very far. Only enough to see that they were full of clothes. In the top drawers, though, I found a couple of things that seemed important. One was a picture of my grandfather as a young man, not much older than me, maybe early high school, with his six older brothers—at least that’s what it said on the back. I never met any of them.
Uncle Matt told me once that the Joneses who could leave this place did and never looked back.
“I imagine your folks and you will be gone before long, too,” he said, but it took them a long time to get the money. My accident set them back, the town took a downturn, and then they spent a while being the ones Matt hit up or stole from. But, yeah, eventually, we left, too.
Anyway, the photo. All of them were smiling except my grandpa. He had a huge black eye and he was holding his arm like it hurt. He glared out of the picture.
Maybe if I saw that picture now, I’d understand something different about it. Maybe there was some indication that his brothers were concerned for him. But I remember being so pissed at them. Could they not see that something bad had happened to him? Was there nobody to look out for him? He seemed so alone.
The other thing I found was a small black book. I don’t know where I got the idea that it ought to hold all of the names of Grandpa’s girlfriends, but that was the kind of book it was. The leather binding was cracked and the spine was broken. A piece of butcher string kept the whole thing together. I opened it up and I didn’t recognize the handwriting. My only guess is that it must have been my great-grandfather’s based on the content.
It was full of observations of the weather and about which moons marked the best times for planting, Bible verses with notes on their uses next to them—“Ezekiel 16:6 will stop any bleeding”—and names of relatives in my family going back eight generations with comments about them. Josiah Jones, my great-great grandfather, was marked “useless and unreliable.” Uncles, at various remove, sometimes shared the same description. It seemed to be a family trait, passed down for generations, even more common than all the seventh sons.
There were a lot of seventh sons. By my count, twelve. And the rest of the Jones men seemed to have tried their damnedest to have that many—a lot of families had five or six sons.
I remember flipping through those pages, and how itchy my cast was while I was reading, how it hurt pressing into my thighs when I leaned forward, how hot it was. And then I remember how an ice-cold chill ran through me as I realized I was the first girl in the family. Whoever had written in the little black book knew of none and I knew of none. I hadn’t met all my cousins, but the ones I had met were all boys. No one ever mentioned there being another Jones girl.
I was it.
Young girls daydream about being special, about how, one day, her real parents, who are kings and queens or astronauts or at least rich enough to buy her clothes anywhere other than Walmart, will show up and take her away, or about how she’s destined to save the world. I knew I was not special. Life had made that pretty clear. But I was one of a kind. That must be worth something.
That’s why I took the two dimes out of the tray on my grandpa’s dresser and that’s why I slid them into the knots I made in one of his clean handkerchiefs.
“Stand up,” I said to the linen heap now on the dresser. And it did. That handkerchief stood up just like the one at the jail had. I wasn’t even surprised. I was only disappointed that I hadn’t seen my grandpa doing other tricks, so I didn’t know anything else to try to do.
I sat back on the bed, watching the handkerchief dancing around, the knots bobbing around like hands thrown in the air. I felt satisfied, like much of the experience of breaking my back sucked but this might have made it all worth it.
Just then, I heard someone trying to open the front door. I knew it wasn’t my grandpa. I would have heard the truck and the only neighbor close enough to walk over never did because she was afraid of the dog. My parent were both at work and, anyway, they would have called to make sure Grandpa and I were home before coming clear out here. The bedroom was on the wrong side of the house to sneak a look out the window.
But I knew something was wrong. I don’t know why I did it, but I slipped the black book down the front of my cast. I stood up and felt satisfied it was wedged in there firmly. I was just about to leave the bedroom when I turned back and grabbed the photo of Grandpa and his brothers. I shoved it down my cast, too, and then straightened up my shirt. I darted into the bathroom just as Uncle Matt was coming in the front door.
“Louise?” He said it so quiet that I almost didn’t hear him. I came out of the bathroom and was about to ask “What?” when he hushed me and dragged me into the other bedroom. “Louise,” he whispered. “You get into the closet and hide under some blankets and you don’t come out until I tell you.” He was plainly terrified.
“Is Spooky here or not?” A voice from the front room asked. I recognized it immediately. Bill Evans, the daytime cop.
“No,” Uncle Matt said. “Yeah, I think it’s too emotional for him, giving up that dog. He probably went to grab a beer.”
Officer Evans hollered, sounding like he was in the kitchen now, “You sure he’s giving up the dog? I don’t need the old man putting a curse on me.”
“It’s cool,” Matt said, waving me into the closet. “He’s fine with it.”
“No he’s not!” I said to Matt, but quietly, because I was afraid. He was making me afraid. Matt glared at me, but walked out of the room.
I’ve thought about this next part a long, long time. I’ve wondered if there was ever some time when Grandpa kept the dog tied up in the back yard, maybe when Uncle Matt was a kid, and that’s why he thought the dog would just be there whenever he showed up? But my dad says, no, the dog always roamed free and mostly only showed up in the back yard when he heard Grandpa’s truck. That was his signal to make himself available for food.
All I can figure is that Matt, so desperate to get out of trouble with whatever mysterious people whose interests were being represented by the daytime cop, thought he could just manifest that dog with his magical powers, even though he’d never shown much propensity for magic.
But that dog wasn’t in the back yard.
They waited for, I don’t know, it felt like forever, and I waited, too, sitting in the back of the closet, hiding behind hip waders and ancient snowmobile suits, my legs sore from resting on hard-soled boots. But that dog never showed up.
I was about asleep when I heard Uncle Matt screaming. I jumped up and ran out of the closet. My legs were tingling and I had to use the hallway walls to support myself, but I rushed to the back of the house. Out the window, I could see that one, huge police officer kneeling over my uncle, beating him to a pulp. If Matt had tried to fight back, that strategy had failed him before I got to the porch. He was whimpering and crying, but making no efforts to even protect himself.
The words “Stop or I’ll call the police” were out of my mouth before I could catch them. Here was the police, the only one on duty. Bill Evans, a man I had known my whole life, looked up at me and I swear, he was sorry. Not sorry he was trying to kill my uncle, but sorry that I had witnessed it.
“Oh shit,” I said, next. I turned and ran back into the house. I locked the back door and then hurried to the front. I thought about trying to run for the neighbor’s, but I wasn’t very fast, especially not for long distances. I locked the front door. Then, I went into the bathroom, locked that door, and climbed into the tub. It was all I could think to do—this was an emergency so I treated it like a tornado.
I could hear him pounding on the back door. He was yelling my name, yelling how he wasn’t going to hurt me. That was the last thing he said before he broke the glass out of the door and let himself in. He shook the whole house as he stomped through it. He only pounded on the bathroom door three times.
Thud, thud, thud.
I was shaking, I was so afraid. And, I don’t know why, but I thought of my grandpa the day I broke my back, him lumbering across the schoolyard with that half-dead squirrel. “Make me lucky, motherfucker,” I said, being at a loss for all other words.
Officer Evans kicked the door. But it wasn’t solid. It was just one of those cheap old hollow pressboard doors. The handle and the hinges were the most firm thing about it. His foot went right through the plywood almost to his knee. He tried to pull it back out, but the door had broken in toward me. Pulling his foot back out caught his sock and shoe in the plywood splinters. He lost his balance and I heard a crack that made me feel nauseous. His foot was still on my side of the door, but it hanged in an unnatural way.
I wasn’t sure what to do next. I could hear Bill moaning. And then, thanks to whatever god answers a prayer that goes ‘make me lucky, motherfucker,’ I heard him call dispatch on his radio and ask for an ambulance.
I’m sure Grandpa heard it come across the scanner. He beat the paramedics and the volunteer fire department to the house.
“Louise?” He asked through the door. “You all right?”
“Uncle Matt,” I said.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Grandpa said. Then he said, “Bill, I’m going to make this simple for you. From here on out, whatever you do to my people is going to get done to yours.”
I heard Bill pull his gun. That’s not a sound you mistake for something else. I know he was ready to kill my grandpa.
“This what you want for your granddaughter when you have one?” Grandpa asked him. “To hear you gunned down in your own home? You got no mercy for my family, have some for yours.” The house was quiet enough that I could hear Bill holster his gun.
Of course, everyone has to test a curse. That’s one of the first things you come to learn about human nature once you can curse. So, after the ambulance dropped Bill off at the hospital and they came back for Matt, we were both herded into the back to accompany him, even though Grandpa told the paramedics that Matt could “fuck himself.”
After we were out of sight, the other two cops set Grandpa’s house on fire.
Before we even made it to the hospital, Bill’s house caught fire. You can probably guess which one the fire department saved and which one burned to the ground.
Later, Grandpa and I stood in front of the ruins of his house. I cried to see the place I’d spent so much time reduced to char and stink. Grandpa stood motionless, his hands hanging at his side. I reached for one, held it as tight as I could. He did not grasp back. I looked up at his face and I shuddered, without even meaning to. He looked so alone, like he might not have even known I was still by his side.
I wanted him to be angry, to burn the whole rest of the town down around us, just by wishing and making it so. Seeing him sad was unbearable. How much is a person supposed to just take, before he breaks? I didn’t know the whole story of my grandpa’s life, but I knew, as powerful, as spooky, as everyone thought he was, forces beyond his control had left him without a home. I wanted to make it better. To make it right.
“I did snoop today.” I reached down the front of my shirt, into my cast, and pulled out the book and the picture. He took the picture from me and gave it a little shake, like he was making sure it was real. He nodded, which I believe was the closest he could come to saying thanks.
He didn’t take the book, though. “You should probably keep that.”
My stomach sank. They’d even ruined magic for him.
There wasn’t really anything for us to do until my mom got off work, so Grandpa sat on the tailgate of his truck, drinking a beer, waiting to see if the dog might show.
I stood in the front yard, staring at the neighbor’s house, thinking about the daytime cop and my uncle and the couch and the day I saw my grandpa, sitting on his porch, laughing at that dog. The one time I ever saw him anything even remotely like happy. I was pissed again for him. Fuck this place. Fuck these people. Fuck a son that never stops taking so much from his father. Fuck a hard world that makes men into this. Fuck having so little and losing it so easily.
Just then I saw smoke on the neighbor lady’s roof. Not a lot, just a small tendril, like someone had thrown a cigarette onto a pile of leaves and the leaves hadn’t yet decided whether to burn or just smolder out.
And I stood there, squeezing that black book in my hand, uncertain myself.
Obviously, if you were reading Tiny Cat Pants last year, you know the backstory to this. It got rejected twice, which, in the grand scheme of things is nothing, but I realized it was too close to my heart for me to be able to continue to send it out. The rejections felt too much like someone was saying that what happened to me just wasn’t that interesting.
The City Under Your Skin
The drugs make you tired when you want to be alert and awake when you want to sleep. So you lie there in the dark of your room, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for time to pass. You run your finger absentmindedly along the bandage. You’re constantly touching the bandage, trying to make yourself used to it. It takes you some time to realize how much of your breast has lost feeling in it. You watch the shadows move across the wall. Your belly rises before you like a soft and giving mountain.
Maybe you should be careful with it—your big old body. If these long weeks have taught you anything it’s how surprisingly easy we are to fuck up. A few wayward cells here, a little dark spot on a mammogram there, and the next thing you know, you’re cut open and your mom is bathing you again and pretending she’s not crying while she brushes your hair.
But the night is long and you’re bored so you poke at your belly, watching it jiggle and then settle in place. You push into the bulk of that soft expanse. You flick your belly button. And that’s when you feel it. No, not another lump. Thank goodness. Not another lump.
But a divot. You press harder, right where you imagine your liver to be, and, yes, beneath your skin, just below a thin layer of fat, is some kind of structure. Or the absence of a structure. You feel it, this low hard spot running down the length of you in a line nearly as straight as the incision on your breast.
Your first thought is that this is just that— a trace of some old, forgotten surgery, maybe even something that happened when you were too young to remember, and here is the evidence of it, just now coming to the surface. A scar. But, then, you realize you have not come to the end of this divot. There’s a flat spot and then the ditch continues.
That’s the word that makes sense of what you’re feeling in there. You come back to the flat spot and press at it. Yes, you’re convinced you can feel the edges of a metal culvert. A tiny one, sure, but a culvert. Which means that the flat spot is a path or a road going over the ditch.
Now you’re certain that you’ve lost your mind, that the drugs are making you hallucinate. But what’s the harm? There are still four more hours until dawn and surely that road goes somewhere.
You follow the road up the great hill of your belly and, at the top, a city awaits you. The skyscrapers poke at your fingers, the streets and parking lots feel smooth, barely hidden under your flesh. You inch your finger along, trying to make out any familiar landmarks. Is this a place you know?
Your house is quiet. Your husband lies next to you. Your daughter snores slightly down the hall. Your mother is on the pull-out couch in the basement. All the real people are asleep. You get up and go to the den. In the morning, your husband finds you in the chair, a map pulled up on the computer in front of you.
He wakes your mother and the two of them come back into the room where you’re slumped over, drool running down your chin, dripping onto the keyboard. They try to wake you, but the drugs, the damn drugs. By now, they’re both crying, though they don’t tell you that until later. They manage, somehow, to get you down on the couch. You sleep until long after lunch.
“Visiting my grandmother?” Your mother looks over at the computer, which has gone to sleep. There’s nothing to gain by looking at it, except to be reminded that there was once something there worth looking at.
That blankness, you think, is like the scar on your boob.
It annoys you to be constantly thinking of your boob. You can’t think of anything else.
Over the next few days, you want only two things—to poop and to drive to the city your body has placed a map of in your belly, a city you now realize is one you’ve been to a million times, where your mother’s family is from. The drugs keep you from both and you’re not sure you could survive the trip to make the second thing happen if you somehow cannot make the first thing happen.
You must wait.
Later, you’re sitting in the doctor’s office as he tries to explain that they do not know what they pulled out of you.
“It’s a dysplasia,” the doctor says. “The tumor is not cancerous, but it did appear to be forming,” he pauses, searching for a way to put what he wants to say in language that sounds appropriate for a doctor, language that suggests he knows what he’s talking about, “small, calcified areas. Perhaps made of bone. We need to run further tests.”
“Will it come back? Is it dangerous?”
“I don’t know and I don’t think so.”
He’s sitting down on the stool in front of the exam table you’re sitting on. You can see right down onto the pieces of paper he keeps in your file. Even upside down and in his atrocious handwriting, you read, “Stones?”
This is the moment for you to tell him about the concrete in your belly, the asphalt under your flesh. A body that can make rocks can make windows and steel I-beams. Is it so hard to believe that a body that could make a daughter could make a city? He has seen the stones, how your body creates. Tell him. Just tell him.
But you don’t, because you don’t want to be cut open again. There’s a limit to how much fear a person can comprehend. You can’t face another round of tests, more poking and prodding, another surgery. You know you should be scared of the strangeness in your belly, but you already thought you were going to die once this summer, from one thing growing in you. You don’t have it in you to be properly afraid of something else. Not yet.
You have some vague sense that this is not rational behavior, that this numbness is putting you in danger. But it’s a quiet voice and you can barely hear it over the unrealness of what you’ve been through.
“So, you’re fine?” Your daughter sounds disappointed when you get home from the doctor. “All this for nothing?”
Your husband snaps at her. Your mother packs her things and returns home. You are still sore and tired, but now that there’s nothing to worry about, you can’t imagine anyone is worried about you.
You go to the city. You don’t tell your husband or your mother. Just like you don’t tell them what a hard time you’re having believing that everything is all right. They cut me open. You want to say to them. I thought I would die. You should share those thoughts with them. They want to understand, they want to support you. They’re not the bad guys.
There is no villain. That’s the rough part. You’ve been squeezed and pulled and disfigured, by people who were trying to help you. They ran a wire into the tumor—you were wide awake for it—and it felt so awful you almost don’t know how to describe it. It wasn’t pain. It was pain’s worse brother, a feeling so wrong your body can’t even resolve it into pain. And later they followed that wire down to the tumor, to cut it out. So, even the wire, the worst thing, served a good purpose. You want to be angry and insulted and traumatized by what happened to you.
But angry at whom? Insulted by what? That, you think, is the biggest mind-fuck. All this sorrow and no place to put it. People die. They get cut open and it is cancer and then they die. Why are you being such an ungrateful fucker? Why can’t you be a gracious winner?
Oh, lord, how long have you be sitting at this stop sign? Long enough that your face is wet with tears you don’t remember crying. Too long. You pull into a gas station parking lot, close your eyes, and try to get your shit together.
You reach under your shirt and feel for the city under your skin. You follow with your fingers the same route you have just driven in your car. The parking lot you’re sitting in is hot under your thumb. You sneak a glance out the window. There’s nothing peculiar about the day or the sky above you.
With your hand flat against your stomach, you feel another warm spot just south of your belly button. You decide to go there in real life. You follow the roads you can feel in yourself with your finger. You follow those same roads in your car. You come to a small, gray house on a block of small, rundown houses. An elderly woman is sitting on the porch.
You get out of the car, though you’re not sure what you’re going to say to her. As you come up to the front steps, she smiles and points her crooked finger at you.
“I remember when we bought this house from you,” she says.
“I never lived here,” you say.
“Oh, well, you have the same eyes as the woman who lived here before me.”
“I think that was my great-grandmother,” you say. You think you should ask your mom for sure, but then, again, it hardly matters to you.
“It was a long time ago,” the woman says. She nods to herself, as if that explains something, and then she gets up and goes back in the house.
Now what? You turn from the house and feel around for another hot spot. There’s one, not too far from where you are now.
You like having something to do, even if you don’t quite know why you’re doing it. You follow the contours of your body and you end up in an industrial part of town. You keep driving and you come to a white bridge over some train tracks. On the other side of the bridge is a massive iron gate. Behind the gate is a cemetery.
You drive in.
The cemetery is enormous and ancient. The oldest stones jut up along the road and up the hill like crooked teeth. They crowd together as if there’s safety in numbers. Some graves sit in perfectly straight lines with identical headstones—these are Masons or Oddfellows. A sign tells you that this vast bare spot is where the city buried all the yellow fever victims.
Your mom calls.
“Honey?” she asks. You can hear the worry in her voice. Your absence has not gone unnoticed. “Where are you?”
“I’m in the Elmwood Cemetery.”
“You went to Memphis by yourself?”
When she says it out loud, it does sound like an incredibly stupid idea. That you thought you were okay to do it probably proves that you are not. You don’t know how to respond.
Your mother sighs.
“Your great-grandmother. She’s buried there.”
You check at the office and the woman behind the desk tells you exactly where your mother’s grandmother’s grave is. You find it as easy as can be. You stand under the yew, in the shade, next to her and you try to figure out what to say to her.
But all you can do is imagine what it must be like to be laying in that grave.
You look around and the part of the cemetery you’re in is empty. So, you climb down onto the ground and stretch yourself out next to your ancestor.
“I don’t know how to go on,” you tell her. Not her, of course. Just yourself. The slight breeze in the tree. The bird watching from the mausoleum across the way. The empty air. Your mother is wrong. This visit has nothing to do with her grandmother. There’s no voice from beyond, no secret meaning to what you’ve been through, no lesson the dead are trying to teach you. But you understand why your mother thinks there should be.
“I thought I would die. I thought I would lose my husband, leave my daughter without a mother. I felt like I was betraying my mom. And for what? Nothing. It was all for nothing.” Saying it out loud lets you sob, the kind of gut-wrenching ugly crying you haven’t done since you were a kid. You wail, because there’s no one to hear you and, even if there was, if you can’t break down in a cemetery, where on earth can you?
Let them think you’re mourning for this dead woman you never knew, whose name is familiar to you only because of an occasional mention by your mother. That’s fine.
It’s easier than trying to explain that you are crying because you lost something of yourself you don’t even know how to put into words. You’re crying for the wire and the scar. For the pain and for the spot the size of a softball that might never feel anything again. You’re crying because you thought you would die and now you’re not.
Once you’re done crying, you lie there quietly, your hands folded just below your breasts. The day is gorgeous. The sky is blue. It’s too early in the year to be terribly humid, but it’s warm. Pleasant. You look up in the sky, trying to see as deeply into it as you can. Willing yourself to see farther and farther. Like maybe, if you see far enough, you will see the curve of your own soft belly arching above you.
You absentmindedly run your hand along your stomach, following the path you took to the cemetery again, running your finger over the white bridge.
And then you feel something odd. There is no gate. You move your finger a little closer to your actual location and you feel no grave stones. It’s a vast, empty meadow.
There is no cemetery in the city under your skin.
When your finger is right on top of your location you look up again. You don’t see anything. Of course, why would you? But you close your eyes and reach up with one hand as you press down with the other.
And maybe, just maybe, you can believe you felt both fingers touch.
For the first time since you saw the mammogram technician’s face fall all those weeks ago, you feel that you, yourself, are a real thing in the world and not just a flimsy, malfunctioning barrier between life and death.
Last night, the little old ladies in my audience told me two ghost stories. One was about a woman whose son died in World War I–Bobby. He had gone to Vanderbilt, before dying in the war, and she became convinced that he was possessing or being reincarnated into a squirrel on Vanderbilt’s campus. So, she would come to campus all dressed in black and call out “Bobby, Bobby!” until a squirrel came up to her and she would know that was her son. She would then feed him and hang out with him. And then she died, but, of course, this didn’t stop her behavior. A couple of the women swore they’d seen her in the 40s and 50s on campus.
I love this story both because of the possessed squirrels, which, I’m sorry, is just awesome and because the hauntings double up. She is haunted and then she haunts.
The second thing they told me about was the Bell Witch. But not any part of the story I’d ever heard before. Apparently the Bell Witch used to haunt the streetcar lines. The drivers would all the time see a dark haired woman riding to the end of the line, but when they stopped at the end of the line, she’d vanish.
I have many feelings about the Bell Witch and the story of what happened in Adams has been debunked to my satisfaction. (In short, I think it’s clear that the first book about it was a piece of fiction kind of in line with what I do–taking real historical figures and making them legendary. Some clues to this effect are that Andrew Jackson never mentions traveling to the area or confronting the witch and, most importantly, that the whole way the witch works is far more Victorian than early Republic. In other words, the witch haunted like fictional Victorian ghosts haunt, not how people really understood the same phenomena before the Spiritualist movement. But that fiction was taken for fact and here we are.) But I’m growing more and more sure that debunking the story of the Bell Witch really misses what’s going on here.
Because, after all, why would the Bell Witch, a supernatural entity from Adams, a good hour north of Nashville, haunt the Nashville streetcars? Why would she appear in the mirrors of anyone who said “Bell Witch” three times in a dark mirror? Folks from Middle Tennessee don’t have “Bloody Mary,” they have “The Bell Witch.”
I think the hint is in the rise of the importance of the Bell Witch Cave. Pretty much any time you have people of European descent talking about a woman who lives hidden under the earth, they’re telling you, without knowing it, why the story has staying power.
The Bell Witch, I think, is, at least functionally, an American hidden folk. There are lots of hidden folks in European folklore. They’re not all the same. An elf is not a huldr is not a troll is not… and so on. But the very general idea that there’s someone to whom this land is important, who lives on it with you, and who’s responsible for the success or failure of your time on that land, who might steal your children, and who lives under or in the ground is wide-spread and old in European folklore.
There are theories, too, that most of the sky gods in European pantheons are actually the same god whose name got mangled as languages changed–Zeus is Ious Pietor is Jupiter is Tor is Tyr, etc. But their wives are not at all alike. Even in pantheons that we think of as being really closely linked, like the Greek and the Roman, Hera and Juno are different in really, really important ways. And Frigg is not much like either of them. The theory is that, much like the Catholic church came into an area and said, “Oh, those gods you’re worshiping? Those aren’t gods. They were just very holy people. They’re saints! Keep on worshiping them, just put your money in our collection plates now!” that the Indo-European sky god’s followers ingratiated him with local tribes by figuring out which local land spirit was beloved enough to function like a goddess-consort and then, in those communities, the sky god became her husband. A wandering Jovial (ha ha ha) dude with a local gal in each place he traveled for business.
In other words, the notion of a supernatural woman-ish land spirit who has a sacred cave and a set boundary of land she cares for and bad stuff she can get up to if you cross her is ancient. And since it can be talked about as if it’s a metaphor and not in conflict with Christianity, it’s the kind of folk belief that lingers.
I think that’s what the Bell Witch is doing for Middle Tennessee. True or not is almost beside the point. She is now the spirit of the place. The female energy we sense in the landscape.
I love this story with my whole heart, but I never could figure out where to try to sell it.
Sweet Pauline, the Pirate Queen, Governor of Tennessee
By Betsy Phillips
Andrew Jackson had a cussing parrot. If you believe nothing else of what I’m telling you, believe that he had a parrot who cussed like a sailor and that parrot attended his funeral. The bird had to be removed from the President’s funeral because of its prolific cursing—which, all things considered, probably shouldn’t have been surprising. It was, after all, Andrew Jackson’s cussing parrot. But in this anecdote is the revelation of a more surprising detail: when the slaves rushed to remove the cussing parrot from the funeral, they were appalled by its behavior because it was usually so subdued at funerals.
I repeat, it was usually so subdued at funerals.
This was not the first funeral the parrot had attended.
The parrot had a social life the likes of which we might envy today. It went to funerals, weddings, the inaugurations of at least two governors (more on that in a minute) and the swearing-in ceremonies of every Nashville mayor it hated.
Oh, how the mayoral candidates wooed that bird so as to not end up on its bad side if and before they became the leader of the city. No one had forgotten how that bird had harangued Felix Robertson at his first swearing-in, calling him a jackass and a poltroon and “the last tobacco leaf in an otherwise empty barn,” which was an insult that didn’t entirely make sense, but the vehemence with which the bird spoke it made all the prominent men of Nashville fear being referred to as such.
There are some scholars these days who will tell you that the Jackson family’s most trusted slave, Alfred, was probably behind the bird. In later years, it was obvious to visitors that Alfred’s competence and wit masked a great deal of misery. Perhaps, these scholars speculate, Alfred taught the bird phrases to repeat and gave the bird some signal for when to say them, so that the bird was, itself, just a mouthpiece for the informed opinions of a man who would be sold or killed for expressing them himself.
But I know for a fact that Alfred and the bird did not get along. One night, when Alfred had come into the study to tidy up, the bird squawked “Coward!” at him and Alfred, it’s said, snarled the same ugly word back at the bird. They never spoke to each other again.
No, for better or for worse, the parrot’s opinions were its own. That they likely didn’t differ much from Alfred’s just goes to show that anyone could see the truth of most matters. Most Nashvillians just chose not to.
The parrot once laid a clutch of three eggs and it was said that there wasn’t anything that those eggs did not know. Ask them a question and they would answer it. The trick was that one of the eggs could only answer truth and one of the eggs could only lie and one of the eggs could tell the truth or lie and you had to figure out what questions to ask them that would reveal to you the honest egg before you asked any question that mattered.
Two of the eggs have been lost over the years. But one is at the state museum. It’s not on display so you have to ask to see it. It’s small and white and unremarkable, except that, yes, it will answer any question you ask it.
I asked it, “Are you the egg that lies?”
It said, “Yes.”
And I felt like I had been the butt of a very old joke. I was embarrassed, but a little proud.
People used to believe that the parrot was that old New Orleans pirate, Pauline Lafitte, cursed by a witch to have to live in the form of a parrot until she forgot every word of French she ever knew. This had the effect of making her practically immortal, for who can forget her own name?
I don’t know if you know this story, so forgive me if I’m repeating something you already heard, but there were three great pirate siblings, Jean Lafitte, his brother, Pierre Lafitte, and their sister, Chère Pauline. Sweet Pauline the Pirate Queen, as the song goes. She ran the Lafitte warehouse in New Orleans, through which their smuggled and stolen goods were sold. But she was arrested shortly after the Embargo Act of 1807 and, as women tend to do, she disappeared from history.
Not from legend, though. The legend was that Sweet Pauline had taken a lover, a prominent politician in New Orleans. It’s said that his wife and his placée, who normally passed their days refusing to acknowledge the existence of the other, joined together to hire the witch to get rid of Sweet Pauline. Some now say she died and still haunts old corners of New Orleans. But a century ago, everyone just accepted as fact that she had been turned into a parrot.
According to that story, Andrew Jackson had gotten the parrot from that witch after the Battle of New Orleans and brought it back to Nashville because the man was always bringing oddities home—nephews, Creek boys, charming daughter-in-laws, Alfred, a slave girl who could count to thirty-three in twelve languages, a wife who smoked a corn-cob pipe, the ghost of Charles Dickinson, a mule that could win any race as long as a left-handed jockey rode her, and so on—but it’s also possible that Jackson had ulterior motives. To say he could be cruel is akin to saying that rain is wet.
The best evidence I have for the parrot being a person under some form of enchantment is that it attended the first mass held in Nashville, in the home of that old fur-trading French diplomat, Timothy Demonbreun, and all who were present and who left records, report that the parrot was very familiar with the ritual.
Was it truly Sweet Pauline Lafitte? Well, they did call it Poll.
And Poll was clever. Very, very clever. The kind of clever a woman might learn to be if she had taken a lover who made the laws she and her brothers were breaking. It was, for instance, Poll’s idea for Sarah Yorke Jackson, Andrew Jackson’s daughter-in-law, to sell The Hermitage to the state on the condition that the state let her live out her days there, after Andrew Jackson Jr. squandered all the Jackson family money and goodwill down in Mississippi.
There’s one story about Poll that has all but vanished from history, though it is as true as all the others and truer than most—how she became governor. It goes like this: On June 24th, 1861, Tennessee’s Governor, Isham Harris, best known at that point for having the state’s most magnificent mustache, dissolved Tennessee’s obligations to the United States of America.
At that moment, Harris was no longer Governor of the State of Tennessee of the United States of America. As far as he, and everyone who voted to secede were concerned, Tennessee wasn’t a part of the United States of America. But, of course, the United States of America still considered Tennessee to be a U.S. state.
But Harris wasn’t the governor of a U.S. state. The U.S. state of Tennessee had no governor.
So, Poll called in some favors and her backers declared an emergency election. In order to vote, you had to prove you hadn’t supported secession and still considered yourself a United States citizen, but it wasn’t clear what other laws still applied. So, everyone who opposed secession, and who dared admit that in public, voted. Men, women, black, and white. Poll received 178 votes. She had no opponents.
She was the Governor of the U.S. State of Tennessee.
When Harris demanded to meet with her, she reported told his messenger to tell him to “make his tongue acquainted with my sourest hole.” Harris then hired three men from Spring Hill to assassinate her. Apparently Harris had forgotten how long she had lived with men who believed the first and best solution to any problem was murdering. Poll quickly dispatched each of the three assassins and sent their bodies back to Harris covered in bird poop.
Harris gave up and fled Nashville for Memphis.
Perhaps the only real accomplishment of Poll’s short stint as Governor was her grand Inaugural Ball. She held it on the public square so that everyone in the state who wanted to could come. Very few people wanted to be seen at the Inaugural Ball lest they be mistaken for some kind of threat to the Confederacy. In fact, the only attendees I can confirm were present was Mrs. Polk, whose loyalty to the country that elected her husband president was considered a mild, but understandable, eccentricity, and Mrs. Acklen, who told Poll that she had not wed that “goat” and suffered through the deaths of her children just to put herself back in a position where men told her what she could and could not do. I assume the “goat” is her first husband, the notorious slave trader, Isaac Franklin. I also understand that Poll gave Mrs. Acklen some useful advice, when the time came, for how to best smuggle her cotton out of New Orleans. There’s all you need to know about Mrs. Acklen—that was her cotton, not her current husband’s.
The ball itself was a marvel. A hundred thousand birds descended upon the city—scarlet cardinals, jays the color of ripe berries, whole delegations of wild turkeys followed by armies of wives and poults, ducks of every design, enormous swans, bobbing peacocks and quail, hawks dancing in grand, tall circles above the city, joined by eagles and vultures, all surprised to see that, though their folk dances were different, they were not so strange as to be incompatible, and brightly colored finches leaping from rooftop to rooftop, giving an impression similar to twinkling lights.
And the noise! Everyone in town who remarked on it left incredibly similar descriptions—it was like a grand symphony warming up, all noise and chaos, but each note lovely in its own way.
When Poll came forward to greet her revelers, she smiled, spread her wings in welcome, and then said, “Well, shit.” The whole crowd tittered quietly as birds who understood English whispered translations to those that didn’t. And then a roar of laughter, as loud as close thunder, rumbled through the streets.
The people of Nashville who had not dared go to the ball all hurried to secure their windows from whatever madness was about to overtake the city.
But the madness was not to come that evening. Later, when Poll surrendered the keys to the governor’s office to Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s appointed military governor, the city would learn what it meant to live under strange rule. But that evening, there was only feasting and dancing and laughing until the wee hours of the morning.
After the War, Poll’s trail runs cold. There was a parrot in the Women’s Pavilion at the Centennial Exposition, but there were a number of birds in many of the buildings. I’m tempted to believe that might be Poll, but there’s not enough evidence to make me feel certain.
I found some stories about how Prentice Cooper took a parrot with him to Peru when he was appointed Ambassador to that country just after the Second World War. Obviously, I cannot prove that parrot was Poll, but I ask you, why would anyone need to take a parrot to Peru? Doesn’t Peru have enough parrots already?
And after that? Nothing.
I never gave up looking, though. I wanted to believe that a woman like that, proud, defiant, so alive, was not destined to be forgotten. Better a parrot than a footnote, right?
Yesterday, I was walking up by the State Capitol right at dusk, when I saw three state senators and two lobbyists standing under tree, waving their hands around furiously as they conferred about some obviously important matter. I paid them hardly any mind, when I heard a voice—that distinctive squeeze-box voice—impatiently asking, “Well, who the hell cares what the God damn Democrats want? There’s not enough of them to fill a car. I’ll give a fuck about them when they’re back in power.”
I stopped dead in my tracks.
“They’re not going to be back in power in my lifetime,” one of the lobbyists laughed.
“Sucks to be you, then, doesn’t it?” the strange voice asked. By now, the group noticed I was staring at them all conversing with whatever was in the tree. I flushed with embarrassment. I wanted to say something, to ask something, to just let her know that I knew, that I know, but what?
So, I sang, “Sweet Pauline, the pirate queen. Prettiest woman that I’ve ever seen. Quick and mean and good with a knife, she’ll never be a gentleman’s wife,” which was not the oldest version of the song, but the one I was most familiar with.
And I swear, out of the dark green leaves, came a streak of lighter green, almost the color of a pear. I thought I heard laughing, but that may have been wishful thinking. But I saw a parrot. I know it.
It flew off to the west, into the setting sun, and though I tried to shield my eyes to watch it, I lost it among the reds and yellows of the sunset.
A Woman With a Mason Jar Walks Along the Natchez Trace Mumbling to Herself
by Betsy Phillips
Wiley Harpe, Wiley Harpe, the pike they put your head on is long gone, and your skull is also missing, its final resting place forgotten. But the wind and the woods, they still remember the sound of bone on bark and the last noise that still means you in this world–knock, knock, knock.
You heard there were witches here and every place their feet touched earth, the grass refuses to grow. And you, you hopscotched those bare spots, placing your feet in the footsteps of those women, daring them to come and get you.
And then bad luck got you instead. If there was one thing you must have thought, when you were standing on the gallows waiting for your last fall, it was that witches were no real worry. A man’s enemy is more often just his own misfortune. No witch did you in. It was just the coincidence of you and a man who recognized you standing in the same crowd.
That’s a mighty big coincidence, don’t you think, Wiley? If you do still think, out here in the woods, you being mostly a memory of a bad time and a knocking noise most folks mistake for a lazy woodpecker.
No, your downfall lay in your predictability.
Your brother. You remember him? Big ol’ Micajah Harpe, shoulders broad as an ox’s back, fists like two hot anvils? They say he killed at least two babies, just out of the blue. Once upon a time, a baby cried and he grabbed that baby and slammed it into a stone fireplace or a cave wall or the cold, hard ground. It varies from telling to telling–how many babies, what he broke those small, delicate skulls open against. But the point is the same–he was an impulsive man.
He knew what he wanted and the moment he wanted it, he did it, being used to facing no real opposition to his whims due to his size.
That’s not a man who plans. He’s never had need of learning how.
You know what kind of man learns to plan, to scheme, to double-cross? Sure you do, Wiley, sure you do. The one who cannot win without a strategy learns to be strategic as a matter of necessity.
Do you think your brother ever suspected? When the posse was on your tail and there were two ways to safety–over the hill and through the swamp–you sent him over the hill and took all your wives through the swamp. You knew, yes, yes, you did, that, when given a choice between a swamp and anything else, men will choose to chase the evil-doer who stays on dry land.
Sure, maybe you thought he had a chance of escaping. But you had to know you were probably sacrificing him to save yourself.
There are so many stories about that moment and in almost every single one, it’s him, your brother, who is said to have urged you and your shared women into the swamp. Because who could have believed you would have planned against him? That you would choose your own life over his? The mistake they make is assuming you had honor.
But we know better.
A man who escapes with you will, soon enough, wish he’d escaped from you. First that murderous brute, your own blood, Micajah, and then that old land pirate, Charles Mason, who busted out of jail with you and then met his end when you chopped off his head for the reward.
Too bad about that man in the crowd. Yes, too, too bad. But you and your brother traveled with three women, and you had to know, from that old Scottish play, three is the smallest coven that works. Three women sleeping with devils.
Doesn’t always work out well for the devils. And stories get passed down, Wiley. Yours came to me. And I knew I would find you out here in the deep woods, little more than a cold shadow, a shiver that runs down an occasional spine.
Do you think a man can be redeemed? You must have given it some thought all these years, sitting out here among the trees, watching time pass, waiting on those angels or devils who’ve neglected to collect you. Do you think a man who kept his women sick and lonely and afraid can change? Can a man who can’t be trusted near a baby be trusted to raise a son? And, even if a man could become someone different, someone a woman could love without pain, do you think he would?
I’ll be honest, Wiley. I don’t. I think there are kinds of evil that pretty much carry through. And worse, I know it doesn’t matter. Learning the truth about a man? Well, a woman’s not always allowed to protect herself or her child. There’s always some judge, some preacher, some cold-hearted father saying “you made your bed, you lie in it.”
You kill the men who give you freedom, Wiley Harpe. That’s what I know about you. It’s almost like you can’t resist.
So, what do you think will happen when my husband comes home and he finds it empty–no furniture, no drapes, none of the plates we got at our wedding, no sign of me or the boy at all—nothing except for an oddly decorated Mason jar sitting on the kitchen counter?
I don’t think he’ll be able to resist opening it, maybe hurling it at a wall in anger and breaking it into a thousand sparkling pieces. And, if not, I have no doubt you’ll convince him to twist the lid. To let you go.
And what happens when you get loose in that house with him, Wiley Harpe, what then?
This one sat in my “almost done” folder for a long time, but, upon rereading it just now, I really like it. I don’t know what I thought wasn’t quite done.
By Betsy Phillips
The kids handled the changes better than the adults. We were floundering. Not for answers. We had answers, terrible answers no one wanted to hear. We were floundering for a new set of superstitions that would keep us safe. We got rid of the dogs—not sure if they were carriers—but then we had nothing to alert us except our own eyes and ears. So, we brought dogs back from the verge of extinction.
There were a lot of sleepless nights back then. Every knock and creak woke you. Was it something in the house? Near the house? But if none of the dogs were troubled, you told yourself there’s nothing to worry about. Another superstition. What if the dogs were in league with them? And why wouldn’t they be? That’s what the women at the grocery store asked. What had we done for dogs so great that they wouldn’t have sold us out?
But we didn’t do another extermination. And most of us were glad for the folks who kept their dogs hidden. Glad for the strays that could be coaxed back into town. We put our trust in them once again.
And the kids played with puppies like we never made the grave mistake of trying to get rid of them all. Like we might not have been making a grave mistake keeping them with us now. I guess that, when you’re new to the world, you don’t have any expectations for how things should be. For all they knew, there was nothing strange about learning to handle a silver dagger almost as soon as you were old enough to close your hand.
Like people who got their ears pierced as infants and don’t remember the pain, they didn’t remember how they got the scars from learning how to handle the blade, just that such scars were common.
We adults had no words for what had happened. Not words we were willing to say to each other. We didn’t want to be reminded.
But the kids, well, like I said, they handled it better. When my nephew, Evan, was younger, I found him at the park, talking to one of his little friends about some other little kid who had fallen off his bike. Evan said, “Oh, yeah, and then he wolfed all over” and he demonstrated by shaking and lolling his tongue out to the side.
“He what?” I asked, trying to keep my voice light.
“Aunt Jen, he wolfed all over, bleurgh!” and then he stuck his finger down his throat and wretched.
“That’s how my mom died,” the other kid said, growing more serious. “She got wolfed all over and bam!” The kid mimicked stabbing someone in the chest. My heart leaped into my throat and I reached for Evan, almost without thinking.
“Oh, Karen,” I said, so quietly I almost wasn’t sure I’d said it aloud. If Evan heard, he didn’t seem to notice. He laughed and mimicked the same motion and then the two ran off, playing monster killer.
I remembered how my sister Karen had been with Evan and I tried to be some of that for him. Strong, brave, loving. Tried to at least fake it, for his sake.
After I lost Jimmy and the kids, I was done, you know? I respected the government’s request that no one in my situation kill herself. I understand it makes it too easy for everyone who’s lost so much to just check out, once they see how it is, how peaceful, and calm and over.
So, I kept on breathing. I just quit living. I stayed in my house and let life go on without me.
Until Karen called.
I could barely understand her. It was still mid-afternoon, but her voice was already gravelly and her words sounded like they were coming through the wrong mouth. “Please,” she begged, “Come get Evan. Say he’s been with you.”
When they found someone who changed, they killed everyone who was with that person that day. That’s how I lost my Jimmy and the kids. Little Meg picked it up from someplace and that was the end of them. I was in Ohio helping my mom with my dad. That’s the only thing that spared me. And my dad got found out anyway. And I lost my mom and dad, then, too. Our mom and dad. I guess what spared me then is that they didn’t find my dad until the next month and they didn’t realize it wasn’t his first time.
After that, I kept to myself, half-mad from grief. But when I got that call from Karen, I went to her house and sobbed into her misshapen arms, already prickly with coarse hairs, and I took that boy to my house and I pretended like I babysat him all the time. No one ever questioned me about it.
And then I had to go on living, because he needed me to, because his mom couldn’t be there for him. And so I did my best for him.
When he was fourteen, the Sheriff came to our door.
“You doing all right here by yourself, Jen?” He asked. He looked over the top of his sunglasses at me.
“We’re doing okay, Sheriff,” I said, trying to seem friendly, but making no move to invite him in, even though, judging by the sweat on his brow, he could have used some water or an ice tea.
“Notice anything peculiar?” He asked. He squinted at me, as if he could, if only he adjusted his eyes right, see if I was lying to him. I tilted my head toward the interior of the house, like I didn’t want to talk to him about it in front of Evan. I stepped out onto the porch with him.
“Cooper down the road says your herd is looking smaller,” the Sheriff said. “You know you’re supposed to report any loss of livestock.”
“Sheriff,” I said. “I lost three cows last month and if you call Arlene and ask her, she’ll tell you I called it in. I’ve got a carcass I found a few days ago, yes, and I didn’t call it in, but it’s not my cow.”
“Cooper says you’re way down.”
“Sheriff,” I sighed. “It’s just me and the boy. We can’t handle a herd as big as Jimmy had. I sold half this spring. I can show you the receipts.”
“Well, show me that carcass,” he said.
“I think it’s just coyotes,” I said.
“You can never be too sure,” the Sheriff nodded. “Seems like those things are gone, but you know it’s cows first, then humans. We need to be vigilant.”
That’s a superstition as well. Cattle kills and human attacks have nothing to do with each other. But we want to pretend there’s some way to tell if they’re back. Some forewarning before the bad times.
“DTR,” I said as I smiled. Duty to report.
“That’s right, ma’am,” he said. I showed him the carcass and he looked at the bites. Too small to be our husbands and wives. “Coyotes,” he agreed. After all, how could a child take down a cow?
“Have you seen anything suspicious?” I asked. “I haven’t heard of anyone… you know… no families…”
“Not in years,” the Sheriff said.
“Good,” I said and I meant it. I walked him back to his truck.
“I just always thought this stuff was made up in Hollywood,” he said. I nodded. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
“What?” I asked.
“If that was true, what else is?”
It wasn’t much after that when we found out. I was asleep, three dogs in bed with me, when Evan shook me awake one black night. I could hear the nervous pacing of his dogs out in the hall.
“Aunt Jen,” he said. “I heard a noise.” I sat up, groggy. Like he did when he was little, he crawled up onto the bed with me.
“What did it sound like?” I whispered. But then I heard it, a loud thump, like something large had landed on the roof. I fumbled for my glasses and Evan worked to keep the dogs calm. When I found my way to the window, I peeked out into the darkness. The moon was not quite full, but it was large enough that, when the clouds parted, I could see by it. And there, in the trees, perched like buzzards, were gaunt, lanky bald men, their red eyes glowing, their sharp teeth long and glistening.
“You have your knife?” I asked Evan.
“Of course.” I could hear the hint of teenage disgust that I’d even thought the question was necessary. “What are they?” He asked.
“Something bad,” I said. “Something really bad.”
First thing in the morning, I called the Sheriff’s department. It took the Sheriff no time to get to my house, because he’d been with the county coroner up at Cooper’s place. Cooper was no more. He’d been torn limb from limb.
“No blood, though,” the Sheriff said. “Not like back then.”
“I saw them,” I said. “They weren’t. These were something else.”
Then the Sheriff got a call. It wasn’t just Cooper. Most the families in this part of the county were gone. Butchered and drained of their blood. Probably not in that order. I had to bring the Sheriff in the house, though I hated to. Poor man was heavy with grief.
“You are about the only ones who are left out this way,” the Sheriff said. “It makes no sense. Why would they leave you be?”
I shuddered. “I don’t know. They were on the house and in the trees. I don’t know.”
But after he left, it was all I could think about. Why were we spared? It’s not like we’d had advanced warning. My dogs hadn’t even woken up, before Evan came in.
Oh, I thought. Oh.
I went down to the basement and moved the far shelves away from the wall. I knocked on the door hidden back there and a soft voice said “Come in.” I undid the padlock and entered the small room.
“Karen?” I asked. “How’d you sleep last night?” She looked rough, so I guessed her answer before she gave it.
“Not well,” she said. “It’s not even the full moon yet, and I wanted to be out. I had a dream of killing. You have to be sure I’m locked in here tight come this weekend.”
But I tell you, I left her door unlocked, from that day on.
Okay, I have a plan for October. Not as awesome as previous Octobers, but, in my defense, I was farting around and trying to write a novel. So, here at Tiny Cat Pants, we’ll be having Spooky Saturdays. Five previously unpublished, spooky, though not horror, stories. Fun for the whole family, if yours is the kind of family who says “fuck” a lot and has trouble with the police.
So, every Saturday, six o’clock in the evenings my time, throughout the month.
- Buy Lord Huron’s latest album. Listen closely to the words.
- Enjoy this podcast that C. put me in the path of. And then laugh with me when I tell you that, when I typed “The Black Tapes Podcast” into my search area, it suggested “Is The Black Tapes Podcast real?” I wish. Lord, I wish.
If you also have a Twitter account, you can follow it here. I’m not going to have time over lunch to get stuff set up how I want, but I think I’m going to schedule posts for the midnight hour. Stuff from the book, maybe some photos of relevant locations, we’ll see.
Do you know what a “death crown” or a “feather death crown” or an “angel crown” is? The answer is here, but I’m curious to know if knowledge of them is still out in the world and how far it stretches.
I love this so much. It reminds me of Michigan and the dunes and being out in the boat with my brother. It makes me homesick for my childhood. And it’s a ghost story!
Creepy story about a family’s basement. Courtesy of J.
One October, a couple of years ago, we visited Allendale, a fictional home in Sumner County where poor George Allen met a Lovecraftian horror. In the meantime, his niece, Georgia, has annotated his account. Let’s go see what she has to say.
Man, you know, I think all I really want from life is to have enough spooky stories to tell on Halloween and to be well-known enough for telling them that I just spend all day moving from crowd to crowd, telling my spooky stories. But the internet is the next best thing, right?
So, here you go.
Here’s some stuff that I’ve written that has been actually published.
Here’s “All Heart, No Brains” in reverse order.
Here’s last year’s witches, including the crowd favorite “Bad Maddy.”
And last, but considering what’s supposed to happen this evening, if I’ve got everything set up correctly, “Allendale.”
Just a reminder, in case you’ve forgotten, the new and improved version of “Allendale” is going to appear (I hope) tonight at 6 p.m. as a treat for readers of Tiny Cat Pants. I’m also picking up the chapbook version from the printer this afternoon. If you read it and want a print copy, it’ll be $4 and you’ll be able to get it at East Side Story, where he charges sales tax and does things that keep the government off his back. If you are not able to go to East Side Story and get a copy, I’ll send you one. For free. This offer only being good to Tiny Cat Pants readers. How will I know you’re really a Tiny Cat Pants reader? If you’ve read far enough along to learn that you just need to email me your address and you’ve read well enough to figure out how to do that (hint, bottom right), that’s proof enough. I don’t have an infinite number of copies, so consider this offer good only for as long as I have copies after supplying East Side Story.
The online version of the new and improved “Allendale” will be coming down after a week, so enjoy for all it’s worth while you can.
Okay, I think that’s everything. WooooooOOOOOoooooooo.
We landed with a thump right outside the cave. On the one hand, I was relieved. We were all alive and, relatively, in one piece. Sure, I was going to miss my arm, but it was the right one and I’m left-handed, so it’s not that terrible. And the dog looked weird with no back legs and only half a torso but that didn’t seem to have dampened his spirits any. And the cat was fine.
But on the other hand, I had no idea where we were or how to get back home. I basically picked a direction to head because it looked like the easiest way to walk. No big hills, no other caves, just a large meadow with a hackberry tree at the far end.
It took us all day to walk to the hackberry tree, both because it was a long way away and because one animal had no back legs and the other was a cat. But when we got there, Hobs was waiting under the tree for us. Just like always, when I’m at the end of a walk, there’s the orange cat to make sure I get home.
We followed him and, eventually, came to the back side of the tear. He popped through first, then the dog, then me, and finally the new kitty. Back on the right side, we had all our limbs.
I ran to the house and grabbed a needle and thread and the very first thing I did was to mend that tear, which, yes, I should have done in the first place. Then I sat down on the ground, my arms around that big, stupid dog, and I cried until it flooded the creek. Even now, there are backwaters of the Cumberland that are salty from where my sorrow went down my creek, into Dry Fork Creek, into Whites Creek, and then into the river where it has stayed ever since.
But we are all safe now, for now, and that’s what matters.
The dog still likes Bart best, but I think he likes me a lot, these days. At least once I caught sight of him following me in the Trans-Am, head out the window, breeze through his hair, happy as can be. I was just going to the gas station, though, and he had better adventures to be on. So, he passed on by.
I had to rescue the dog, or at least try. Sure, he appeared to be down a leg and a tail and he had a sizeable chunk missing from his side and I wasn’t sure how I was going to carry him back up to the surface, but, damn it, no Lovecraftian eyeball pyramid is going to eat my dog without a fight. And since the dog seemed too oblivious to put up one himself, it was on me.
I flung myself at the eyeball pyramid.
And it promptly caught me in its tentacles, rubbed me against its eyeballs, which all felt like warm, pulsing olives, and then ate off my arm. I screamed, but I have to be honest, it didn’t hurt as much as I expected. You see dudes getting eaten by things in the movies—alligators, sharks, aliens—and you have to figure that’s a ten on the pain scale, right? But this was more like a two, like that pain you feel when you cut yourself shaving, but you don’t notice it until later and then only because it kind of burns. But then, when you see the blood, oops. It hurts.
So, I guess, if you have to die by getting eaten to death, you want to get eaten by an eyeball pyramid, because it doesn’t hurt that much. I resigned myself to my fate.
But, of course, Pumpkin did not come all this way to resign herself to shit. She leaped into the air and grabbed one of the tentacles. When another came toward her, she swatted at it. She dug her claws into the closest eyeballs and, when the pyramid let out a roar, she arched her back and seemed to shed enough fur for a billion cats.
The fur floated everywhere! It settled on the pyramid of eyeballs in a thick layer and each time the pyramid tried to open any eyeball, cat fur settled right onto the eye. Each tentacle, therefore, had to busy itself trying to pluck fur out of a thousand eyeballs.
The pyramid let out such a cry of despair I almost felt bad for it. But, this meant that it dropped me and the dog. We both slid across the floor toward an exit.
“Pumpkin!” I called. “Here, kitty, kitty!” And she did come with us, as we slid away on what I can only assume was a slick trail of eyeball juice, but, of course, she acted like she was too cool to really be associated with us in anyway.
I keep trying to decide where the place with the thing with too many eyeballs was, what real thing you could recognize it was the back side of, but it seemed to be at an intersection of Whites Creek Pike and Clarksville Pike and, in real life, those roads don’t ever run into each other. Plus, there’s no cave and to get to the thing with too many eyeballs, you have to go into a cave there at the intersection, lower yourself down one slippery step at a time.
“I’m going to twist my ankle and not be able to get back up,” I told the cat. She was unmoved. She scampered on ahead and I followed, using my phone as a flashlight as we walked along in the wet dark.
This is the point where, if this were an H.P. Lovecraft story, there’d be something weird, but also kind of hard to be afraid of—like an alien elbow or a whole town full of your cousins, but they have frog eyes, or sleeping squid-headed gods. You know how it is. And this story is the same way. I turned the corner into a deep chamber and there was a gelatinous pyramid of eyeballs. At the bottom of the pyramid was a whole row of mouths all opening their red, lacquered lips. Tentacles—because why bring up Lovecraft if there’s not going to be tentacles—sprouted out from the top. Each eye blinked open and shut at its own rate, so the whole thing had the air of a Christmas tree on a bad circuit, lights flashing, but not quite at the right time.
Each eye was more disgusting than the last. Not in some gross medical-trauma-porn way, but just in that it seemed likely that the thing could squirt four or five eyeballs right in your mouth or something. I don’t know how I sensed that the pyramid might be a malicious eyeball flinger, but there was no doubt.
I wanted to turn back. But, as I crept around the side of the pyramid, a thousand tiny eyes and a few of the big ones all on me, tongues flickering in my general direction, I saw the dog. Rufus. My idiot.
He was wrapped in this tentacle horror’s tentacles and it was, with some of its mouths, eating him. He seemed oblivious. He was grinning and enjoying the head-scratches only a thousand tentacles can provide.
“Oh, shit,” I said and, though I cannot be sure, I swear Squeaky, still by my side, may have said, “Oh, shit,” as well.
I was really low leaving the faerie king. I had directions to this place with too many eyeballs written on my arm and a nagging feeling that Rufus would have been eating whatever he found the whole time he was here—let’s be honest, who among us doesn’t think he snacked on baby mastodon poop?—so I might not be able to get him back even if I did find him. And, even if I did find him and get him back, just how in the holy hell was I supposed to find my way back to my house?
I walked along feeling sorry for myself when I felt something brush against my leg. I looked down, fully expecting it to be something unrecognizable—a parrot with the body of Hulk Hogan, a centipede with Hot Wheel cars instead of legs, an open wound that could quote Shakespeare, a piece of cake that looked like a dachshund, a foot carrying an umbrella, Shoeless Joe Jackson, but with shoes—but it was Pumpkin. Just regular Pumpkin, who must have come looking for me because Bart never remembers to feed her breakfast.
I explained to her my whole situation and showed her the directions on my arm. I waiting for her to say something or to sprout wings or anything that would suggest that she’d been changed by her time here on the back side of reality, but she just blinked up at me and walked beside me, occasionally darting between my legs to rub up against my other ankle, which caused me to almost trip, repeatedly, but, again, this was her usual behavior.
So, I went on and she came with me.
I was in the far field now, the houses along Lloyd still recognizable, but the great trees in the distance were unfamiliar. I saw ahead of me a great structure, like a stained glass window, narrow and rainbow colored, shimmering. I didn’t know how to understand it. It jutted at such a strange angle out of the tall grass, and it seemed to move in the breeze. Just as I was right about on top of it, a man stood up.
Oh, a wing! A great, dragonfly wing. And this was the King of the Faeries.
“You’re Rufus’s friend!” we both said at the same time. We laugh and said, “yes,” and then laughed again.
“Have you seen him?” I asked.
“Last Sunday, when we played cribbage,” he said.
“Oh, well, damn it. See, he’s here and—”
“Here? But this is a terribly dangerous place for an unaccompanied dog. You know what happens to anyone who eats in faerie-land.”
“They’re stuck here forever?”
He scrunched up his face like he was about to tell me something true, but then thought better of it.
“Not exactly. But it’s still best to not eat anything here.”
“Okay, but it’s Rufus we’re talking about.”
“I just want to get him home. Do you have any idea where he could be?”
The King of the Nashville Faeries made a circle in the grass as he walked and thought.
“He will, of course, be in the last place you look.”
“Well, obviously. I’ll stop looking once I find him.”
“So, the question is, where are you least likely to look? And that will be the last place you look.”
I sighed. “Well, I’m not really that familiar with your world, so I don’t know where I wouldn’t look.”
“What don’t you like?”
“I kind of find eyeballs gross and too many of things gross, like, if there’s a place where something has too many eyeballs, I would avoi—”
“There is such a place!”
When I got across the river, I was faced with an odd sight.
Ahead of me, maybe fifty feet in the distance, was my house. There was the garage and the rose we transplanted, and I could even see my neighbor sitting on his back porch, drinking a beer. I looked behind me and there was the rest of my back yard. I was home.
As close as I was, I found that I could not walk toward the house. I didn’t see a barrier but, as soon as I hit it, I could feel it, soft, with a lot of give, but not enough to actually let me into my back yard. I was still not in ordinary reality, but at least I could see I was very close. I felt around for the barrier and proceeded as if I were in a maze, keeping my right hand on the invisible wall between myself and my world, I proceeded to follow the wall, as it were, hoping that it would, eventually, bring me to a door or something. I despaired of ever finding the dog and seeing the house made me so homesick I could barely stand it.
Surely Bart would understand about me losing the dog once he’d heard the strange lengths I went to find Rufus.
I walked around my yard, following the unseen labyrinth, through gardens that didn’t exist on my side of the barrier, past thickets of trees too old and dense for my world. Eventually, I heard a great grunting and snorting noise and, as I walked back toward the old cow pasture, I came upon a great mastodon and her calf. The mother seemed agitated and I noticed that the baby’s head was wet.
The mother looked me straight in the face, her great eyes blinking slowly, as if she were examining my very soul. I didn’t know if I should be frightened or not. I had no idea if she was real or if I even was. Her giant eyelashes swept down and then back up and I found myself mesmerized by the slow, rhythmic movement. “Oh, mama,” I said. “Why is your baby’s head wet?”
I was overwhelmed by déjà vu. Was it not this very summer when I rested my face on Rufus’s head and, finding it damp, asked Bart why the dog’s head was wet? And had not Bart answered me that, when Rufus and Monty go to the park, one of the other of them eventually gets peed on? Why? Bart couldn’t explain it. It’s just a weird thing the dogs do at the park together. And here was this baby mastodon, large, but not that much larger than the dog. Small enough that I could imagine the two of the wandering through the field together. I could also imagine the baby mastodon putting his head down to see something more closely or to rest a moment with his new friend, and, then, yuck. Rufus had been by here, and recently enough that the baby was still wet.
“Which way, mama?” I asked, but she just snorted. I kept my hand on that weird barrier and set back to walking.
Andrew Jackson, or the bird of him, set me on firm ground and pointed me toward a faint light.
“Just head toward that, Miss Betsy,” he said and I admit, the way he said “Miss Betsy” made me understand something about Rachel that I hadn’t previously. It was an understanding one carried for the rest of her life deep in her core. No, lower. A little lower. Right there.
Anyway, I walked toward the light, which, though it seemed impossibly far away, ended up being rather close and small. It was, upon further examination, a tiny campfire surrounded by dejected fleas. Some of them were tossing protest signs onto the minute flames. One of the signs said, “Baths are for Commies and Bad Dogs.” Another said, “Take Back the TV Remote.”
Damn it. These were Rufus’s fleas.
“Why aren’t you guys with the dog?” I asked.
They rolled their eyes and pointed beyond the fire. Though it was still dark, I could just make out water ahead—a river.
“Did he swim across?” I asked. They nodded.
I’ll spare you the details of what I saw on that shore. But I will say this: as much as I hate fleas, something about seeing thousands of their corpses washed up on the river bank made me sad.
Still, I waded into the river and, when it got deep enough, swam across, after my stupid dog.
Even in the thick fog, the tear was sharp and easy to make out. I approached it cautiously, calling for Rufus the whole while, hoping he might just reemerge.
Of course, he didn’t.
I stuck my head in the tear in reality and felt the by-now-familiar breeze. I looked down, but I didn’t see any bottom. I honestly didn’t see anything at all. Below was as black and empty as above.
I stepped in anyway. It felt like I imagine stepping through a slightly-electrically charged rain shower would feel, or like walking through static. For a second, I felt I was standing on something. I turned back and saw my own back yard, hazy through the fog but familiar, and then like the cartoon character who realizes too late that solid ground is an illusion, I fell.
Down, through the blackness, down through the never-ending slightly cool breeze, down through silence like the grave. I fell so long that I ceased to be afraid of falling. It was obvious to me at that point where Rufus was—somewhere beneath me, falling as well. Possibly we would just slide down the backside of reality forever, until we starved and death ended our travels.
Hours went by and still I fell. I passed the time wishing I had left a note for Bart, wishing I had told him I loved him, and then reassuring myself that a brother never doubts a sister’s love. I felt sorry for myself that I would never see my niece grow up. I felt deeply ashamed at what I was certainly about to put my parents through.
They would give me a Christian funeral. I hoped my friends would have sense enough to read Whitman in my honor later.
I cried, too, in part, just to give myself a noise to hear. But eventually, I grew tired of the sound of my voice and I fell silently.
That’s when I realized I heard something, a faint whooshing sound. I strained to see if I could hear it better and in front of me, as if someone had turned on a light switch, was Abraham Lincoln, illuminated with his own inner glow.
No, not quite Abraham Lincoln. It was the head of the Great Emancipator, but his body was absent. In its place was the body of a vulture. He regarded me with some interest.
“President Lincoln?” I asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.
“Are you falling, too?”
“My dear, I fly on the wings of liberty!” He responded, giving his great wings a slow, majestic flap, which caused him to bob up out of my line of sight for a second.
“Is there firm ground somewhere?”
“Of course, my dear,” he said. I wondered how he put on his hat with wingtips instead of hands.
“Could you fly me to it?”
The great man wrinkled his brow and pondered my question. Then he frowned.
“No,” he said, but mostly to himself. “I don’t think I can handle the burden of another woman.”
“But Mr. Lincoln…” I objected. It was too late. He had already flown off.
Various other presidents came to check me out—Hayes, Garfield, Teddy Roosevelt, Johnson, both Adamses. None of them would help. But then Jefferson came by and who ever knew him to pass up a chance to get his hands on a woman?
“Mr. Jefferson!” I cried out, but even he ignored my plight.
I continued to fall until finally, the scraggliest, most broken buzzard you’ve ever seen made its way over to me. The head on the bare neck of that great bird was a scowling madman with a shock of white hair that was all cowlick.
“Ma’am, I heard you could use some help.”
“Andrew Jackson! Yes, thank God. Please. Help.” Because say what you want about Andrew Jackson, he’s not going to leave a fat woman in distress. He grabbed hold of me with his giant talons and began to carry me off. I cried out in relief. “Why wouldn’t anyone else help me?” I asked.
“Ma’am, I believe they mostly feel that the modern world has become strange and unsympathetic to them. They shy away.”
“But you helped me,” I said.
“To me, the world seems little changed in that regard. I don’t hold it against the current crop.” We flew on. “If you don’t mind me asking, miss, why are you here?”
“I’ve lost my dog.”
He seemed to be relieved that my answer was so simple.
“Big and yellow? Likes to chase rabbits?”
“I can point you in the right direction.”
I can’t say how I knew the dog had gone through the tear. I just knew. The second I saw the patch was off the tear, I knew the dog had gone in there. Worse than that, I knew I’d have to go after him.
At the end of September, Bart decided he was going to go visit some friends. Alone. Without the dog. He was serious about it. For the dog’s own safety, Bart confiscated Rufus’s car keys. I knew a week with just me and the dog was going to be somewhat brutal, since I simply could not walk the dog as long as Bart can walk the dog in the mornings and still function at my job without napping.
But I thought we’d worked out a system. I walked him in the morning for my usual length of time and then I came home and walked him in the evenings until I was exhausted. He pretended to be mollified.
He also spent much of the evenings sleeping right by the back door, so that, should Bart arrive home, he’d be right there to greet him. Sometimes, he even looked askance at me, like maybe I’d done something to run Bart off.
One day it was so ridiculous with Rufus moping around and sighing deeply and looking longingly at the back door like that was the direction salvation was coming from, that I called Bart and let him Facetime with Rufus. But this didn’t actually seem to help. It just made Rufus more convinced that Bart was somewhere without him.
The next morning, I woke up and I knew something wasn’t right. The house felt empty. I tried to remain calm. I went to the bathroom, put on my glasses, and poked my head into each room. The further I got through the house, the surer I was that Rufus wasn’t there.
Now the panic set in. My heart was racing. I felt too hot but with a cold sickness in the pit of my stomach. Damn it, damn it, damn it. I can’t lose another dog. Not yet.
I threw on my overalls and a t-shirt, slipped into my shoes and headed out the back door, which was, yes, god damn it, open. Who taught him how to open doors? Who thought that was a good idea?
It was foggy out and I could see only as far as the shed.
“Rufus!” I called. “RoooOOOOOoooofussssss!” But, in the mist, it didn’t carry. The sound seemed to go no farther than I could see. I kept calling, though, stumbling across the driveway, tripping as I made my way into the yard. I squinted but there was no sign of him.
I couldn’t even begin to imagine what I was going to say to Bart. Fuck me. How could I have been so careless?
The trees loomed out of the mist ahead of me and I had some thought that, maybe, he’d just already gone on our walk. If I could get to the treeline, I could make my way toward Lloyd and see if he was up on the road. I kept calling for him.
The backyard seemed to stretch on forever, though, and I stopped, suddenly afraid I was going to fall into the creek. I stepped back, in a direction I knew was safe, and my footstep made a weird noise—too big, too crunchy.
I looked down.
I was standing on the duct tape patch.
The tear in reality was uncovered.