Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bent Country, by Sheldon Lee Compton

I steadied myself on the embankment. Below, down the hooknose incline of brush and gravel, ran the tracks, glinting like a school of silver fish running in the moonlight to chase the C & O. I stood carefully, leaned my head back so it was only me and mother-fish moon in a blanket of black, and pissed loudly.

Pete and Bryan waited in the car while I finished, Pete slouched behind the wheel of his Grenada and Bryan in the passenger seat. Bryan tapped the window as I zipped and tugged to readjust. I turned and flashed him the finger. The Poverty House would be there. It wasn’t going to close down while I took a piss.

“Jesus, Van,” Bryan said as soon as I was in the back seat. “We still have to pick up Deb. You’re already piss drunk. Seriously."

“Man’s gotta piss, Hoss. Man’s gotta piss,” Pete said. He didn’t wait for any response but punched the gas pedal peeling trenches into the gravel that left behind a dust burst rising off into the sky to join my mother moon.

I looked out the back windshield, tried to watch the sky for as long as possible. My piss splash would be shining gold on the brush the rest of the night while we stomped and drank at the House. I found myself wishing I could take it with me and realized I was very drunk. Aware of this, I slid sideways in the backseat and fell into an impossible sleep while Pete straightened out curves like a child finger-painting his own escape plan.

A half-mile from Deb’s house, Pete cut the engine and rolled through the last few curves with the headlights off. He pulled the Grenada to the side of the road and waited. Bryan leaned roughly against his door and got out. He crept to the back and eased the latch on the back door and sat down beside me.

“Hi, Bryan,” I said.

Bryan smiled. “Drunk ass.”

We watched the house in silence. Awake again, I fumbled in the floorboard for another beer. Bryan motioned to the bag and I pulled another out and handed it to him. We drank our beers slowly and watched Pete watch for Deb.

“There she is,” Pete whispered.

We leaned to the window and saw Deb moving across the yard, a lean figure moving like a swan through the swells of a lake. Blonde braids bounced across her shoulders and when she smiled I saw Pete lean toward her and their smiles lit the world. I finished off my beer just as she got to the car and settled in beside Pete. She spoke softly to Pete for a time and then turned to us, her braids swiping at the air, her evenly tanned arms draped across the back of the seat.

“Hey, losers. I was just telling Peter here that we’re gonna have to burn out of here like bats out of hell. No cruising in silent like you came in,” Deb said. She reached between my knees and came up with a beer. “That’s gonna be nice, huh? Dad’ll just cuss in his bed and pray for damnation and vengeance for the wild heathens, right? Right.”

“Here we go!” Pete yelled, starting the Grenada and pulling into gear.

“Long live the heathens!” Deb yelled back to Pete.

More trenches more dust bursts floating away to the moon. We were leaving behind us wild souls ascending to the unknown, marks of where we had been like my golden splash alone in the brush, a part of me for this place to remember.

The final decision was made the day before. Me and Bryan and Pete were leaving the next morning or afternoon for Peru, Indiana. There were jobs there in factories. Jobs in buildings, not underneath mountains in two-foot high coal with angry machinery and men who looked swallowed up and drained of their blood, walking, working faded carbon copies of men thrown together with burned leather and discarded bones, hollow-eyed and forever silent while they ate their sandwiches.

Our fathers all worked or did work the mines. Pete’s dad was killed picking rock from the belt line. Caught his leg and pulled him off into the coal. He was the outside man and the rest of the nightshift crew was inside. It took three hours before anybody noticed Pete’s dad was missing. By then, he was covered up under tons of coal, crushed. They dug him out after the foreman convinced the rest of the workers that he hadn’t skipped out and left shift. It was a closed casket. Pete was two years old.

Every day before our shift two words were always looping inside my head as persistent and undaunted as a bird’s song. Pete’s dad. Pete’s dad. Pete’s dad.

I wondered if Pete and Bryan had the same song in their head. Every shift, looking into their eyes, it seemed they might. We made our decision after three months at the Jericho Number 5 Mine, and The Poverty House was our last night before Peru. He hadn’t said anything, but we all knew Pete was going to ask Deb to come along. She just finished her junior year of high school and there was the chance she would stay, a really good chance. Pete didn’t see it that way. Pete always saw things his way, then made it happen.

Now, speeding to Haysi, Virginia to our bar under my moon there was another song in my drink-rattled head, a bird song beautiful in the morning light, a canary to replace the death call of the crow.

What is the answer? Peru is the answer. What is the answer? Peru is the answer.

Dress was casual at The Poverty House. If some poor shit showed up in blue jeans, the bouncer or from time to time the owner, a guy called Blue Eyes, turned the guy out. Slacks and dress shirts. Church clothes. It was helpful to know this driving from Calvary to Haysi. I pushed the wrinkles from my slacks at the front door and nodded to the bouncer, a thin man named Herman.

“Hello, folks,” Herman said, crossing his arms and taking a step toward us.

Pete pulled out his wallet and paid the cover charge for everyone. A miner from Burned Rock had once tried to push through Herman a few years back and dodge the cover, but Herman popped his eye with a boney elbow. They said the eye oozed black and sluggish out of the socket after Herman hit him. Herman also had nails driven up through the soles of his boots so out of the back of the heels there was this sharp tip of the nail that stuck out about half an inch, just enough to sweep kick somebody’s gut open. To look at him, Herman wasn’t much, which is why I guess he was tested like that from time to time. But military experience, and horrible experiences those, were Herman’s weapons. We all avoided eye contact as we passed through the door.

The House was dim with only a few patrons seated at the bar, regulars. We paid the second charge at the front desk for a running tab at the bar and then passed the two or three older men on stools, craning their necks to watch us pass. All of them had hair slicked back with oil and wore checkered button-up work shirts with the sleeves rolled past the elbows. One of them, a high-cheeked amber-colored man who had to have come from a strong Cherokee line, offered a slimy grin to Deb and Pete laughed at him as we went single file to a table with two white candles burning in the center.

The orders, except for Deb’s, were simple. Beer, beer, beer. Deb asked the waitress for a boilermaker with a second beer chaser and a full bottle of Tvarscki.

“Bring us a shot glass, cutie,” Deb called after the waitress, a dish rag of a girl, beaten down by night after night of half-breed Cherokees telling bad jokes and asking for rides home. A space of utter darkness poured from her eyes, vacant and fundamental, focused on squeezing out the hours. She nodded and left for the bar.

While we waited for the drinks, the band started plucking strings and running scales, adjusting amp levels and positioning a microphone as big as the head of a twenty-pound sledgehammer and bright silver in the dimness.

“Check one, check two. . . check one, check two.”

The front man for the band, which, according to the decal on the bass drum, was called The Shine, jerked across the stage, pulling the mic chord across his shoulders and around his waist, fly-fishing across the stage. He belted out a single note, deep and grating, the whiskey-soaked voice of an old man, thick and raspy. It sounded fine.

“Guy’s got some pipes,” I said into my beer bottle.

“That’s for sure,” Deb added and propped her hands under her chin watching the singer flop across the stage. “He’s high. He’s like Jim Morrison. Look at that.”

The singer turned on stage, tuning his instrument, the hard voice and lean body, the presence, his front man tools. He stopped and across at us. We were the only visitors at a table. The rest of the bar was empty except the Indian and the other regulars.

“I’m going to the bar,” Pete said and quickly stood up.

Deb watched after him and then gave me and Bryan a couple seconds worth of strange looks and went back to watching the singer.

I could hear Pete at the bar ordering Jack Daniels, a bottle. Then I heard the bartender, a lady in her forties with jet black hair and heavy purple lipstick, tell him the seat was reserved. I went to the bar and sat down beside Pete. In front of him was a napkin Scotch-taped to the bar. The napkin said the stool was reserved for someone named Rose.

“Deb wants to fuck Jim Morrison over there,” Pete said. He waved his hand to the stage where the singer had stopped his rehearsal ritual and was now sitting at the edge of the stage, his feet dangling off the edge. The band seemed to be waiting for the crowd or some cue for when to start their set.

“Check one, check one,” the singer baritoned into the mic. He sounded bored, and Deb was right. He was definitely high.

I couldn’t argue. It seemed Deb was into the guy. So for a time we sat at the bar, having scooted a couple stools down for Rose who still hadn’t shown up. Gradually the bar picked up. Groups of five and six were filing in, paying their bar cover and moving to the other tables. The tables sat off from a hardwood dance floor, and men outnumbered women, just like our group. Most groups had just one girl in tow, and that girl was probably with one of the others. Finding some hard love my last night in Kentucky was going to be a challenge. I’d have to find the sister, the girl who made her brother take her to Haysi for a night out. More likely there would be some fighting.

I looked back to our table and Bryan gave a quick hand motion for us to come back. Deb was out of her chair and moving to the dance floor, the curves of her body shifting like the smooth surface of a cut diamond under her dress. The singer, who by this time I thought of as simply Jim, had hopped down from the stage and was walking slowly across the hardwood. I poured myself a shot of Jack and turned to fill Pete’s glass when I saw a flicker of hard white light at his belt line.

“I’m gonna gut Jim Morrison,” Pete said holding the knife under the bar. “I’m gonna gut him like a fish.”

Bright dance floor light. Arms and legs swooping in blurred arcs. The knife clattering across the floor. Deb yelling then whooping and laughing insanely. Bryan holding Jim Morrison’s arms and rocking back from the transferred energy of Pete’s body blows administered to the singer’s ribs and gut. Me wiggling a tooth now loose from a lick I took from some guy I never saw before, maybe the half-breed, but I couldn’t be sure. And then Herman and the odd, complete silence.

One by one, cradling us like fresh caught fish by the back of our new trousers, Herman sent us skidding across the dirt parking lot. The skinny bouncer with the deadly boot heels held Pete’s knife up in the moonlight and then tossed it into a nearby thicket of trees. Deb waited in the Grenada. Her braids were slung out the open window, sleeping snakes against the Bondo of the driver’s door, her head lopped sideways, blacked out from cheap St. Louis vodka.

“You’ll be good enough to get to work tomorrow, Pete?” Herman asked. His voice was even and calm

Pete righted himself in the parking lot, stumbled back into the packed dirt and then got to his feet. “What?”

“You get into work and then bring me your payday next week to hire a new house band or pay for Calvin’s doctor bills. That comes from Blue Eyes, you stupid civvy.”

Pete grinned at Bryan and then winked at me.

“I’ll do better than that, Herman. You tell that to Blue Eyes. I’ll make good on all repairs and pay the band or hire another fag or whatever. I’ll do that and then some. Money is no object.”

“Money is no object,” Herman said. “Money is always an object. But you wanna go deeper to make good on this, then that’s fine by me. Should be fine with Blue Eyes. See you next week.”

Herman resumed his spot in front of the door and through the darkness I could see the swelled places of his knuckles, droplets of blood hanging there, skin peeled up and white, ready to start bleeding as soon the circulation made its way back to his knotted hands. I wiggled my tooth with the side of my tongue. The half-breed hadn’t got a good lick in, but Herman had popped me in the mouth. It was the fingerprints of my teeth hanging off Herman’s knuckles. No wonder my head was spinning like a top. I turned my attention to Pete as we made it back to the car. He pushed Deb across to the open passenger window to make room behind the steering wheel and I kicked the back of his seat with my knee. Pete turned around and, seeing my busted lip, laughed and started out of the parking lot.

“Money is no object?” I finally asked.

“Van, don’t you understand nothing. We’re not even gonna be here tomorrow. I coulda told Herman I was giving him my house to make good and it’s all just talk.”

I sat quiet for a time, Bryan leaned against my shoulder. He held tight to his stomach and was laughing under his breath. It came out of him like a weak breeze twisting through a torn down valley. Probably a cracked rib. Cracked rib, busted tooth, crazy Deb and Pete the Knife and not a good buzz between us. The Poverty House was a bust. Soon I allowed myself to lean gently against Bryan and the two of us held the other up for more impossible sleep.

When I heard the hissing again, much louder now, my first thought was that one of Bryan’s cracked ribs must have busted through a lung and the life was escaping him like a balloon. I shook him awake. Deb was gazing back at me, eyes of fire and her mouth a small pink circle in the middle of her face. Her eyes looked like tiny saucers streaked with tomato sauce. Pete was hunched behind the steering wheel, furious in his silence. The hissing grew louder and then the front of the Grenada started flopping like the fin of a hooked bluegill.

“Flat tire,” Deb said sleepily.

“Flat lung,” I said, shaking Bryan.

“Flat tire,” Pete said. “Flat tire, Hoss.”

No spare. Those two words were repeated, yelled, screamed, and kicked around until they almost lost meaning. No spare. We were hours from home, breaking the speed limit.

“Let’s hitch,” Deb said.

She was sitting on the guardrail smoking. She and Pete hadn’t spoken. The comment may have been directed to me. I started to answer when Pete whirled around the grill, jumped the guardrail and stood five inches from Deb’s face, arms stiff at his sides, fists clenched, soft curls of smoke from her cigarette appearing to come from Pete’s ears, the top of his head.

“We can’t all flash a leg and get a ride,” Pete spat.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Deb said and took a long last drag from her cigarette.

With Bryan leaning against the back bumper, I eased over and hopped the guardrail and joined Pete who had stalked five good steps from Deb. I sat down, clearing my head and saw the firefly of Deb’s cigarette streak down the bank, its ember the single red arch of a midnight rainbow. The glowing ember bounced onto the tracks below. It thought of my splash earlier and rubbed my eyes, trying again to clear my head. Pete didn’t seem nearly as drunk, which was comforting, even now with all the Deb problems and flat tire, considering he was driving. The ember nearly landed in perfect balance across a flatted out rail and then lightly fell to the middle, a red light fading into the dark.

The ridge line was visible even in the darkest dark, its outline rolling past on every side of us, thick and more dense than the sky itself with millions of years of vegetation. The Rockies were young kids compared to our soft curved mountains, naked and cold, ugly rocks jutting up like half-wit bullies, no majesty, no history, just flat gray fault line hemorrhoids. But our majestic ridge line circled now like a sea snake watching us drowning in the depths, hanging on to a shredded Goodyear.

Pete wasn’t talking and Deb wasn’t talking and maybe because I was drunk and not my usual mediating self, I also continued to sit quietly. A scooting about of roadside gravel trailed up behind us and Bryan put a hand each on our shoulders. His breathing was less labored now and I only now noticed that he had taken what may have been a knee to his forehead. A knot the size of a bird egg cast a small shadow across his brow. Bryan: the human unicorn lunger of Calvary. I laughed and Deb shot me a look, her eyes sparkling beautiful fire.

“Fear not,” Bryan said. “I have the answer.”

“Peru is the answer,” I said. My lips were still numb.

“Shut up,” Bryan said.


“The C & O runs through here to Burned Rock about this time,” Bryan continued, then glanced at a nonexistent watch, screwed up the corner of his mouth. “Anyway, it ain’t come yet. It’s coming. It always slows here, I’ve seen it. We blind jump it and when she cranks back up we ride to Burned Rock, walk to Calvary and get a car and a spare. From Burned Rock, it’s just a half mile walk.” He held out his arms, favoring his side as he did so, and made a wobbling bowing gesture.

Pete had been listening without looking at Bryan. He had left his gaze somewhere out there with the sea snake. “Yeah, sure thing. That can be our backup plan,” he finally said. “Backup plan. Got it?”

All of us, even Deb, looked at Pete. Going hobo on a train back to Burned Rock was not the most desirable suggestion made since the flat sent us to the side of the road, but it was something. It was a little better than clinging to a shredded Goodyear and crossing our fingers. But now Deb was off the guardrail and easing over to us. The sleek, slow movements of her legs cut through the moonlight. Her breath might have smelled of electric rain waiting in the clouds. She ignored me and Bryan and now it was Deb who was in front of Pete. It was some kind of musical guardrail game.

“So what’s the real plan, Peter?”

“Don’t call me that, okay?”

She sulked the way Deb sulked, a gorgeous set of tics and twitches. The flash lightning and storm clouds were gone. If I’d known her the way Pete knew her, I’d say she was worried. Pete must have noticed it, informed as he was. His voice was different when he spoke again.

“We just ride the flat hard as hell back home,” Pete said, and went to her, taking her small shoulders in his hands. “I’ll drive it straight, sixty, sixty-five, and that’ll keep down the grind on the rim, at least enough to get us there. I’ll have to get another rim on top of another tire, but we should get there.”

Deb’s features softened. She gave Pete the gift of her smile and then kissed him hard on the mouth. Breaking the speed limit so that three good tires lifted on the current and eased the grind on the rim seemed to excite her endlessly.

My golden splash machine shriveled inside my khakis and then, suddenly, I needed to relieve myself again. I paced off a good distance and pulled out, bending, adjusting, and going through my routine. There was a firm smack against my side. My knees buckled and piss streaked my pant leg. Bryan sidled up next to me.

“You going on the roller coaster ride?” he asked after I finished.

“You made me piss on my pants.”

“You pissed you pants?”

“No. You made me . . . Look, Never mind. I’m not riding that thing back home. I’m with you. Let’s play it hobo style and catch the C & O.”

Bryan seemed pleased with this and we walked back to the Grenada where Pete was inspecting the damage to the tire. Deb was already at shotgun picking her fingernails and holding them up in front of her face, nibbling the edges. She waved to us and we squatted beside Pete.

“Pete, we’re catching the C & O,” I said. I thought of the silver fish streaks of moonlight on the rails from earlier chasing their way across the broken map line of tracks leading through the valley.

Pete seemed generally unconcerned, but content. “Okay, Hoss. See you in a few hours and then we’re out of here. Out of here for good!” He whirled around the grill again, the strange dance an exact replica of what he had performed in hot white anger just moments before. White hot anger, white hot lust. I figured there wasn’t much difference. Didn’t look to be, anyway.

As soon as Pete was behind the wheel it was bursts of dust and trenches again and Deb waving backwards out the window, her nibbled fingers wiggling a goodbye. I wondered if she noticed the stain down my new pants. Seeing the sparks fly like welded metal from the rim, I wondered if we looked like wicked souls ascending, lifted away with the dust.

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

Friday, June 26, 2009

James Baker Hall Dead

James Baker Hall died on June 25th. I confess to not having read him (yet--only so much time and energy in one life-span) but I had read about him a few times in connection with Wendell Berry. The poems I'm able to find online are quite good, though. I'm combing the online booksellers soon, so if anyone has a book recommendation, I'm game.

From Tom Thurman at ket.org:

James Baker Hall

A Profile

James Baker Hall grew up in Lexington, KY, where he was a multi-sport star athlete at Henry Clay High School. With money he made from his paper route, he traveled to Paris at age 20. After finishing college back home at the University of Kentucky, he left for graduate work at Stanford, where he was later joined by fellow Kentuckians and UK alums Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, and then Ed McClanahan.

Jim squeezed in a stay in Seattle between stints at Stanford. Later he settled in Storrs, CT, where he was joined by Gurney for a time and re-established ties with Bobbie Ann Mason, then a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. Jim is quick to give credit to UK writing professor Bob Hazel for encouraging young writers to explore the world before settling down to write about it:

“The one thing that Robert Hazel insisted upon that had an immediate and lasting effect on us all was that we get out of Kentucky,” he remembers. “We had to leave in order to escape the provincialism of our heritage. And what leaving Kentucky at that time meant more often than not, if not all the time, was New York. So we went somewhere.”

After leaving Connecticut, where he bluntly states that his life was in turmoil, Jim returned to Kentucky in the early 1970s as a writing professor at his alma mater. As a poet, photographer, and filmmaker, he has established himself as a major creative force in many fields, and in 2001 he was named to a two-year term as Kentucky’s Poet Laureate.

“I came back in 1973, after having been gone for 20 years or so ... and I found out after a number of years that I had very, very profound unfinished business here. But I didn’t know that when I came back,” Jim says. “And I stayed on because it’s my home. You don’t have to like your home, right? You only got one.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Interview with Dorothy Allison

This is not my interview--I will have some up one of these days, though--but one by Susanne Dietzel from Tulane University, conducted in 1995.

When I taught a writing course using what I called White Trash Literature maybe ten years ago, nearly every author we read was met initially with skepticism and ennui--another themed writing class. Most of the students had taken the class because of the subject matter, though, thinking I don't know what--that it would be an easier grade? And for some of them it was--it was a tough class to keep on topic,because I had so much to say and and a captive audience. But the one book they were uniformly floored by was Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina. Like many inexperienced readers, students thought novels were true a great deal of the time, if not always, and this book, and the harrowing film made from it, stuck to their brains like burdock, and reinforced this mistake, and it took some talking to disabuse them. And the film showing was one of the few times I had multiple walk-outs. As I said, what struck them, always, was what they termed 'brutal honesty.' They respected the text too much to question or discuss it, except for a couple voluble quick wits who made fun of it. So I was glad to see Dietzel dealing with that aspect of Allison's work specifically in this interview.

This interview was conducted as part of the annual Zale Writer in Residence Program at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women at Tulane University in November 1995. This year the program committee had invited award-winning novelist Dorothy Allison, who is most famous for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, to be the Zale Writer-in-Residence. Dorothy Allison's work is securely located on the borders of southern and working-class literature, with deep roots in feminist and lesbian-feminist activism and politics.

Dorothy Allison is the author five books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction and the winner of numerous literary awards. She grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Florida and now lives with her partner, son, and dogs in northern California.

This interview was conducted by Susanne Dietzel, a Visiting Scholar at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women and doctoral candidate in American Studies and Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is now a Visiting Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at Tulane University.

This interview was transcribed by Kelly Donald and Michelle Attebury, and (only slightly) edited by Susanne Dietzel.

Susanne Dietzel- Dorothy Allison is an award-winning poet, novelist, and essayist. She is also an activist in feminist and lesbian feminist politics and, later on I want to talk a little bit about the connection between writing and politics. She has published five books, the first was a collection of short stories called TRASH came out in 1989. Her second book is a collection of poetry called THE WOMEN WHO HATE ME, poems 1980-1990 that came out in 1991. Dorothy Allison is most famous for her novel BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, which came out in 1992, and won the Lambda Award, and was nominated for the National Book Award. She followed that one up with her absolutley wonderful collection of essays called SKIN that was published by Firebrand Books in 1994 and here is her newest book, called TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE, which is a memoir about fictional and real families coming to terms with each other and with their history. Dorothy Allison grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Florida and now lives in Northern California with her partner, child and dogs.

Susanne Dietzel- What I find most striking about your writing is your brutal, but loving honesty. As a reader, you just come to love, but also hate your characters. Your fiction then is to some extent relentless, because you take your reader right into those experiences. But again, I kept coming back to the themes of honesty and love that I think are really the foundation of your writing.

Dorothy Allison- I have a theory about writing fiction. I often run into young writers who ask me the question "How can you tell those terrible stories about people? How can you make them seem almost real, or liveable or loveable?" And my theory is that if you create a character and if you tell enough about that character, even if you are creating someone who is a villain or someone who does terrible things, if you tell enough about them, then you have the possibility of loving them. And that if you tell enough about a character, even if you use a character based on people you know, you don't create an act of betrayal. It is when you use characters in small ways that you betray them. The key is to make the portrait as full as possible and it is not possible if you lie. It is not possible if you try to hide. And the thing that writers hide is themselves. I don't belive you can be any good as a writer if you're trying to hide yourself. So, I get told a lot that I'm brutally honest. I essentially think that I want to do it right, and I don't believe that you can if you try to shave off any margin of safety. If you're trying to be safe, you got no business writing. If you're trying to control what happens, you really don't have a whole lot of chance. The only thing you can control is to create as full a portrait as possible. Then you can make people seem human. But you don't really get any safety in that. And you don't get to lie - except of course that you are telling great lies.

Continue reading.

Monday, June 22, 2009

How I Learned To Shut Up And Listen

What to say about Rachel who pressed
a dark pistol against her chest and gave up
in the middle of the day at the lakefront—
the hot cutting from tit to ass cheek,
missing all of the organs except her
mind which to this day she coats
in cocaine and sugar daddies.

Or Jean Paul who would tell me
what blow jobs were like when we
were kids, and he'd take advantage
of a smile and feathered hair to laugh
when laughing was inappropriate. His
stories of making it with the girl
who sat in front of us in class
became a form of history when
they found him hung outside
his girlfriend's trailer.

When I hear television news smile
about the tragedies of being alive—
again and again I wonder what
you are doing. The last time
we talked we fucked against
the wall in complete agreement
that whatever it was, was over.
The idea of a heaven everyone
seems to go out of their way
to avoid. The art of darkness.

What to say about the bad things?
And the ones contemplated while
I pretend to not be another asshole
in middle America? I once fell for
a Filipina hooker with blue contacts.
What is wrong with listening instead
of talking into the deaf wind?

Kenneth Clark
has lived in most of the southeastern United States. He writes poetry and micro-fiction. His poetry has appeared in Night Train, Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), and Greatest Uncommon Denominator.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Catfish Skeleton Reminder

I have been away on vacation with the fam. At the Museum of Natural History, I ran into a catfish skeleton, so I had my lovely bride Heather take a picture, in lieu of breaking the glass case and committing a crime. I'd take a vacation in the South for sure if someone would take me noodling. I even had takeout catfish nuggets for dinner one night. They were all right.

Stories and more edificational posts coming this week. Here's a travel tip for you: don't drive to DC from Boston. Just don't.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

That Secret Code: Working Class Literature

I pulled these interviews by Orman Day from the site of Third Coast several months ago meaning to add to my collection of links on or related to Larry Brown. While I wouldn't call his portion revelatory, exactly, Brown's story resonates even more when compared with the other interviews: Dan Chaon, John McNally, Susan Straight. You only get out of the working-class mindset by isolating yourself, changing social class entirely, pretending to forget what your past is like, becoming an 'other.' To remember what you left is to induce the gut-crunching homesick everyone who leaves feels: you might alienate your family, lose your bone-deep familiarity with your surroundings, and end by apathy your other relationships within that class, but you'll always have that guilt.

I'm posting the introductory portion and a few questions. For the full Monty, visit the Third Coast link in my first paragraph.

Larry Brown, Dan Chaon, John McNally, and Susan Straight tell what working-class literature means to them—how and why they individualize the experiences they do, what they hope to leave behind, and the pleasure they feel when they get a ‘laugh of recognition.’

by Orman Day

Their childhood homes didn’t have shelves lined with leather-bound classics, but they made fervid use of their library cards. Their parents didn’t have the money to take them on European tours of museums and ancient architecture, but they learned that books would let them hike through the elephant grass of Hemingway’s Africa or study the wind-riffled waters of Loch Ness for signs of a huge, hoary snout, and a whip-like tail.

For the four of them, youth was a time when money was tight, but their imaginations were fertile. As early as five, one of them—bored with TV and his stash of books—started to create his own stories in secret.

In their twenties, they couldn’t rely on trust funds to finance garret flats in Paris or Brooklyn or San Francisco. Instead, they needed to work to buy their groceries, ink, and reams of paper. One of them joined the Marines and then became a firefighter.

Although the details and geography vary, these four rose out of the working class to win literary plaudits:

Larry Brown—who died of a heart attack at age 53 in November 2004—was a Mississippi native and master of “grit lit” whose work includes the non-fictional On Fire, short story collections Facing the Music and Big Bad Love, and novels Fay, Joe, Father and Son, Dirty Work, and The Rabbit Factory.

Dan Chaon is a Nebraska native who teaches at Oberlin College in Ohio and whose books include the novel, You Remind Me of Me, and the short story collections, Among the Missing and Fitting Ends.

John McNally is an Illinois native who teaches at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and is the author of The Book of Ralph, a fiction, and Troublemakers, a short story collection, and has edited anthologies.

Susan Straight is a California native who teaches at U.C. Riverside and is the author of Aquaboogie, I Been In Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, The Gettin Place, and Highwire Moon. She was a National Book Awards judge in 2004.

Here are their observations about their lives and literature in response to questions sent them by email in 2004. Answers from Brown—who interrupted work on a new book to participate—arrived by snail mail just months before his death in November.

What kind of work did your parents do?

Brown: My mother worked at Camp Electric Company in Memphis when I was a kid, next to Sun Studios. Jerry Lee Lewis used to come in there and get cigarettes from the machine. Later she worked at Katz Drugstore, over on Lamar. Much later, when we moved back to Mississippi, she worked at Sears for a long time, then the North Mississippi Retardation Center, running the switchboard. My father took us away from Mississippi in 1954 because he couldn’t make it sharecropping. He worked at Fruehauf Trailer Company for a long time. Then he painted houses some, and worked at the Mid-South Fair. When we moved back here, he worked at a stove factory in Oxford until he died suddenly early one morning in 1968.

Chaon: My father was a construction worker—a journeyman electrician. My mother was a stay-at-home mom or (as she said) a “housewife.” My dad traveled a lot and during the summers we would sometimes live in a rented trailer house near where he worked. The most memorable of these was an enormous worker camp, a huge trailer encampment outside of Gillette, Wyoming.

McNally: My father was a roofer for thirty-something years, but for about five or so years he tried to run his own wall-washing and rug cleaning business. He bought two machines and put ads in papers, and I’d occasionally go with him to help out. I was probably between six and ten years old. He wasn’t making as much money as he did roofing, which is why he went back, but he always wanted to run his own business. He hated working for someone. My mother worked in a factory until she had to go on disability leave for health problems. It killed her not to be working. (This is where we used to part ways: she always thought I should have a job, that it would be good for my character; I hated working and would resist looking for a job as long as I could.) She was from a large sharecropping family in Tennessee, and she started picking cotton when she was three. At thirteen, she left home, moved to Memphis, and got a job in a nursing home, working there for about six years before moving to Illinois with her mother and two sisters.

Straight: My mother was born in Switzerland, lost her own mother at age ten, and her family emigrated to Canada and then the US. She left her home in Fontana at age seventeen and began working as a secretary, and she worked for insurance companies and banks for my entire life, except for ten years when she stayed home and raised foster children with her own (five total). My stepfather has had many jobs: he owned a series of laundromats and repair facilities, and when I was in college, he got a great marketing job for a linen company. He is retired.

Was money a major concern?

Brown: Yes. Always. We were very poor.

Chaon: My dad wasn’t very good with money. I remember times when he seemed pretty flush, and other times when it seemed that we were broke. My parents were always buying things and then having to sell them, or having them repossessed.

McNally: Money was always a concern. I tend to think that every argument my mother and father had was about money—and they argued a lot. My father, always looking for some way to make it on his own, would spend what little money we had on, say, “stock” for the flea market; my mother, on the other hand, was the one who had to buy the groceries, etc., so she always knew how much money we had or didn’t have. We used to move from one apartment building to the next—I went to five different grade schools—and the one thing my mother always wanted was a house. Once we finally moved into a house (my sophomore year of high school), my mother feared we were going to lose it, and my father always complained about how much it cost. The house ratcheted up the stress-level for the few years we lived there. After my mother died, my father (burdened with medical bills) filed for bankruptcy and let the bank take the house.

Straight: Money was always a concern. Every minute, until I was in college. We wore homemade and used clothing, we ate inexpensive food, and there were lots of kids. But as the clich├ęs go, we had a great time playing ball in the park, running the streets of our neighborhood and the foothills (we loved dirt surfing down the barren hillsides!) and not until I went to high school did I realize how much money and clothes and haircuts mattered.

Remaining interview here, in case you missed it above.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Love Letter by Donna Vitucci

Dear Sam,

Once they sprung you loose from the war, why go to a no-name Oklahoma town, among strangers? Why hole up in a boarding house with a freckled girl who has no idea the shine and purpose you held in 1932? Why, Sam, do you prefer flat plain to the glory mountain? Why not come home to the sister who wrote you when writing seemed the least effective means of relaying devotion? Come back to your people, who would lavish love and forgiveness in equal measure for all you sacrificed over there. We’d bind your wounds, every one. I would.

The preacher would pour praise from the Sunday pulpit like Saul anointing David, and those praying in the pews would sing your heroics. You were our chosen one, Daddy’s chosen one, first born son, and he never got over you leaving.

While you’ve been gone, Daddy’s told stories we never imagined we’d hear. Darren, he only half understands. To him it’s another way of Daddy soothing him to rock-a-bye-land. The harelipped midwife, once Mama expired, Daddy said, she snapped the pelvis easy as a chicken’s wishbone to get that baby free. Woman said, “She never should have had more than one.” The one being me, and believe me, I wear that mark of being “the one” like a birthmark. Thus, the baby stuck in the canal, our little Darren, got deprived of some oxygen. At least the way he is he’ll never be going in the mine.

Oh, Sam, no reason now not to come home to this West Virginia holler, where I know your heart is, where works a daddy who loves you like a worshipper his God. He took and tried burying that deep affection, but every day Daddy comes up from there more rock and less man. All this time we’re supposing you’re part of the marriage ‘tween him and a first wife. But the woman, he revealed in a fit of drink, took off to be a singer, “or mostly a whore, while I gave my name to another man’s son.” His secret wiped the world black a minute, then the stars came out, twinkling so bright they hurt my ears. My mind clanged like a piston so I hardly heard him add: “Chose my first wife for vices, chose the second on her virtue.”

I know what I’m telling you here is all background, all edge of story because to tunnel to the truth, to write it on paper any clearer would be like greeting the dark mouth of the mine and the decision to take each new day down into it. Like the locomotive you stared at til you realized staring wasn’t going to stop it, til you realized in that contest it was you or flying steel and it was never gonna be you.

Me and Darren, we make the home now. Mothers gone. Yes, two mothers AND two fathers. Sam, I loved you, I love you still. Don’t you see we aren’t blood kin after all? And it would be all right. It would. Even the preacher would say so.

You have my heart.


Born and raised in Cincinnati, Donna feels very nearly southern, what with that Ohio River and Kentucky practically part of her back yard. On her mother’s side of the family every uncle and male cousin has been a truck driver. Before trucks they drove wagons, mostly ice deliveries to the bars in Over-the-Rhine, an inner city neighborhood in the heart of downtown Cincinnati.

Donna’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in dozens of print and online publications, including Natural Bridge, Hawaii Review, Meridian, Gargoyle, Broad River Review, Hurricane Review, Front Porch Journal, Beloit Fiction Journal, Storyglossia, Insolent Rudder, Turnrow, Night Train, Juked, Smokelong Quarterly, Another Chicago Magazine, and Ginosko.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Writers Who Deserve More Attention I: Tim McLaurin

I mean, besides all of them. :-)

I'd like to create a warehouse of links occasionally, referencing writers who may or may not be on your list of popular or well-enough-known writers, along with some small commentary. When I do these, they'll be subject to additions and corrections at various points as I find more information, and I'll let y'all know when I edit. Today's writer is Tim McLaurin, a North Carolina native with a few novels, two memoirs and one epic-length poem to his credit.

I discovered his work by following the blurb trail from Harry Crews to Larry Brown to McLaurin. The first book I found was
the memoir Keeper of the Moon, probably his best-known book, in which he described his difficult childhood as well as his adult experience in recovery from the multiple myeloma which eventually killed him at age 48 in 2002. I'd read Crews' A Childhood first, so I knew more or less what I could expect from McLaurin. Poverty--hardscrabble poverty--and alcoholism, along with often-rapturous desciptions of the natural world, and considerable attention paid to the whys and wherefores of family interaction. The book remains in the enjoyable though quotidian realm until McLaurin begins to detail his battles with cancer. I wish everyone who ever sent me a cancer story would read this before sending it out again. It is a rock-hard revelation of a story, one you won't forget soon. I recommend, besides Keeper of the Moon, the following titles:

The Acorn Plan
The River Less Run
The Last Great Snake Show
Cured by Fire
Another Son of Man

Here's a small list of relevant links if you'd like to find out more about McLaurin:

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Blind Lemon, by Jim Parks

"[African-American folklore] is like jazz; there's no inherent problem which prohibits understanding but the assumptions brought to it."

--Ralph Ellison, Paris Review No. 8 Interview by Alfred Chester & Vilma Howard

Walking into the uncomfortable warmth of the building, the odor of warehoused, enfeebled, sick humanity struck the senses like a soft blow from a foul flannel rag. Spotless floors and walls, televisions blaring so that weak ears might hear them, someone struggling weakly to play an old hymn on a spinet from the Baptist book of devotional music, the aromas of overcooked vegetables and meats reducing down to mushy preparations all conspired to make one feel a little bit sick,oppressed.

The researcher, clothed in collegiate chinos and a plaid sport shirt, his steel rimmed spectacles glittering under the bright lights of the nursing home, wore a jaunty jazz man's Kangol cap at a rakish angle.

He tried and tried to get the old man back on the subject.

"No, sir, I mean to ask you about Jefferson, you know. Blind Lemon. Back in Dallas."

The ancient black man, confused, looking up and over his shoulder at his daughter and a nurse, couldn't hear him. He chafed under the wool of the tight Army tunic, running a forefinger around the tight collar with one hand, pointing to a row of campaign ribbons on his chest with the other.

The writer nodded at the ribbons and smiled, scratching an itch in his professorial beard gone gray, white in some spots.

"Is this motha' from the Army, or what? I thought they were interested in how we chase Pancho Villa through all that cactus in them Model T Fords, man."

The writer and the old man's daughter exchanged glances. He had already visited the family home in South Dallas where he and his wife had raised half a dozen kids while he worked on the railroad and in warehouses until he retired. After he had become enfeebled, he went into the rest home near where he had been born, a cotton town an hour's drive from Dallas.

"Daddy, listen. The man say he want to know about the time when Blind Lemon Jefferson stay at our house in South Dallas. You know, the guitar man from Wortham, from Groesbeck, from Marlin. You know, the blues man. He. . ." Her tone was insistent, though patient, a little loud for politeness.

The old man still didn't understand.

After a lifetime in the news business, the researcher, whose day job as a copy editor on the Dallas daily started as a beat reporter prying facts out of people grief-stricken, scared to death, injured, angry, crazed, knew hearing impairment when he saw it. The man was so hard of hearing he had no idea what was going on.

He had decided he was going to be decorated, once again, for his pre-World War One service in General Black Jack Pershing's skirmishing band of marauders that had pursued the rebel bandit Villa across the border into Ojinaga and beyond, into the barren desert country, after the Mexican chieftain had made raids on Douglas, Arizona, and Presidio, Texas, during the Mexican revolution of 1917.

What made that story interesting was that for the first time, the Army had used motorized transport, Model T's, to pursue the fleeing Mexican irregulars. It was the beginning of the end for the cavalry.

Though it was a fascinating subject, unfortunately it wasn't what he was interested in at the moment. He was working on a coffee table book, a definitive oral history of the famous Dallas neighborhood of jukes and dives, pawnshops and liquor stores, bootleggers's cafes and hotels known as "Deep Ellum."

Another spot for the inevitable birth of the blues, nurtured in the plantation towns and shipped to the hub cities.

It was so-called because Southern people often mispronounce Elm as "Ellum." The "Deep Ellum" neighborhood was anchored at its main point on both sides of railroad tracks with sidings for warehouses just East of downtown Dallas on Elm Street, the same street where almost fifty or so years later and fifteen or twenty blocks west of there an assassin with a high-powered rifle lay in wait for President Kennedy on Dealey Plaza, the Dallas County Courthouse square.

"Does he have a hearing aid? Perhaps if we put it in, he would hear us and catch on," the newspaperman turned historian interjected to the woman, who was, herself, in her seventies.

"Well, he have one, but it's broken. Besides, he only hear what he want to hear." She turned the corners of her mouth down and looked down on the top of her father's head in a severe frown.

The writer was starting to believe it.

He kept the tape recorder rolling. The detail of what he, the old boy with the ancient Army tunic, wanted to talk about was marvelous. There were all sorts of little asides about cantinas, what the people were like, how much beers cost, how much tequila and pulque would set a soldier back, how the old man and another private soldier named Ace Jackson spent most of their time fixing flats caused by cactus thorns and keeping the radiators of all those Model T's cool, then catching up to the skirmish line on the double.

He let a jolly forty-five minutes pass as he listened to all this.

"Was it hot, sir? After all, Presidio is almost always the hottest place in the state during the summer, and. . ."

The little old buffalo soldier's eyes lit up. He'd finally heard something.

"Hot! Shee-it, man. It was scalding, boy. I was too hot to worry about anything, man.

"It was a little old bridge up there that they had blown up, went across a little gully, and, man, when we got up there they really let us have it. They shot all up in there with some kind of machine guns, man. We had to wait 'em out. . ."

"Yes, sir, I see," the writer shouted, leaning in close. "What I am interested in was the time you met Blind Lemon Jefferson, the blues man, and he stayed at your house. How long did Blind Lemon Jefferson stay at your house?"

Suddenly, the old man reared back in his chair, his chest expanding, making the brass buttons of his old Army tunic strain, his cataracted, blue-filmed eyes suddenly blazing behind the trifocal lenses of his glasses.

This interview was not about his war with Pancho Villa, after all. It was about how he had invited a newly-arrived traveling man with a guitar to stay awhile in his home.

"Blind Lemon Jefferson! He a git-tar man! That fool stay at my house, man!"

Yes, sir, the writer shouted at him. Where had Jefferson come from?

"He been everywhere, man. Beale Street in Memphis, Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, Sugar Hill everywhere, The Beat in Marlin, The Sunnyside in Houston, all down in Loo-zee-ana and Mississip'a. Man, he been everywhere picking that git-tar and playing them blues."

How did he meet him?

He sat back and pondered.

"I guess up on the corner where he was playing. I don't hardly remember no more. It's been a long time ago."

He grinned back over his shoulder at his daughter and the nurse again.

Did Blind Lemon play on the corner?

"Seem like they all did. They play and folks would dance. Put down cardboard they got from the freight warehouses over on the tracks and dance, spin around on they heads and they backs and come up dancing. Yeah."

Was that in Deep Ellum or in South Dallas?

"Both places. Everywhere. Didn't be no rules against it. They be doin' it everywhere, man. They be inviting the git-tar man on inside the cafe to have a little somethin' to drink, a soda pop or somethin'."

He slapped his knee and laughed.

"Had plenty to drink in them cafes."

Well, was it his policy to open his home to boarders, or did he just decide that he liked Blind Lemon and decided to. . .

"Man, you akses way too many questions, boy! Here I thought you were from the Army and you were going to do something about my medal and everything and you be talking about all this here trifling shit like this. This here don't be about nothin'..."

The daughter gave the writer a pointed look, said, "I think Daddy is tired now. Maybe another time."

He folded up the microphone, put his notebook in his pocket, took one last picture and shook hands all around, backing away from the interview feeling confused and sad.

"It's been a pleasure, sir."

"Yeah, man, come back when you can stay a little longer."

He snorted.

"Daddy!" His daughter attempted to shush him as if he was a rude child.

Driving back to Dallas, cutting down through the smooth asphalt between the miles of stout cotton plants and geometrically precise rows of cultivation, he suddenly felt morose, mourning he knew not what.

Was it another missed opportunity to learn something about the train-riding blind man that brought his style of blues to Dallas, had been in Clarksville in the Delta, traveled the South, only to die in mysterious circumstances in Chicago? He was a cipher, but an important cipher, one about which little was known except that he was from the East Texas cotton town of Wortham in Freestone county. It was as little to know as what was known about Robert Johnson.

A blind man with "an uncanny ability to get around without much help from others," the biographers often said in their foreshortened, abbreviated narratives. In fact, many people thought he may have had partial sight, since photographs of him show that he wore clear, thick glasses and not the dark glasses completely blind men usually wear.

"He a git-tar man!"

He fairly shouted it at the windshield, knowing it would become one of his most cherished stories, something to tell people about his life, his work.

He was already framing the section of the book he would make out of the interview. How he loved his craft.

When he reached the city, the tedium of the black land giving way to motels and factories, warehouses and railroad yards, he crossed Trinity River bottoms and detoured into the potholed streets of South Dallas, stopped at a liquor store and bought a short dog of white port and a lemon, squeezed it in the wine, shook it up, poured a little bit on the ground for the dead, their spirits hovering all around him.

Throwing back his head and chugging down the sweet, syrupy stuff, he noticed a wino rolling up on him.

"Save me a spider on that, daddy?"

The writer handed him the bottle, winked, said, "Sure, dude. Knock yourself out."

Starting his old car and throwing it into gear, punching one of his home made tapes into the stereo and turning it up, he threw back his head and shouted, "He a git-tar man!"

Jim Parks is a Texan, a newsman, a truck driver, commercial fisherman, deckhand and a dreamer. Keep him away from the firewater and don't mess with his food or his woman.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Quick Informational Post--Request for Submissions

If your creative work owes anything to or resembles the works of the following list of folks, please consider sending me a story or poem or essay to feature on Fried Chicken and Coffee.

Harry Crews, Larry Brown, Dorothy Allison, Paula K. Gover, Lisa Koger, Chris Offutt, Silas House, Chris Holbrook, Lee Smith, Ron Rash, Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, Donald Ray Pollock, Russell Banks, Tom Franklin, Cormac McCarthy, Andre Dubus, William Gay, Charles Frazier, Tom Cobb, Breece Pancake, Pete Fromm, Nelson Algren, Dorianne Laux, Mary Lee Settle, Mary Hood, Daniel Woodrell, Dagoberto Gilb, James Lee Burke, Isabel Zuber, Willy Vlautin, James Crumley, Gwyn Hyman Rubio, Jayne Ann Phillips, Charlie Smith, Andrew Hudgins, Richard Hugo, James Dickey, Chuck Kinder, Gurney Norman, James Still, Wendell Berry, Mark Richard, Pinckney Benedict, Tim McLaurin, Brad Watson, Steve Yarbrough, Rick Bass, Richard Currey, Bobbie Ann Mason. . .
I'm always interested in reading writers I don't know, too, so if you have suggestions, please shout out in the comments.

Later on this week we'll have another piece by the Legendary Jim Parks. Stay tuned.

P.S. Did any of you know that Wednesday is White Trash Wednesday for some bloggers? Google up some stuff, if you like. I learn something new every day.