June 14, 2012 / Creative Writing
In “The Canyon, Age 8,” the poet Timothy E. G. Bartel describes a certain coming-of-age brush with a minor sin, one that leaves him “tasting his new words.”
April 2, 2006
Jarvis stood on the corner of Fifth and Spruce, squinting nervously at the now open door of the cab that had nearly crushed his feet. At the same moment, Willie happened to be barreling down the sidewalk in a wild rage, throwing pedestrians out of his way, and screaming about sabotage and conspiracy. He crashed into Jarvis from behind, sending both men head first through the open side door and into the back seat. Jarvis was pinned to the floor of the cab by the enormous man’s bulk. He was able to see the shoes of at least two other passengers and by the shouts and the dull repetitive pain he was feeling in the area of his right kidney, he could tell that someone was kicking him. Willie, quite out of breath, lifted hisself up, gasping for air like a surfacing whale.
With aid from another passenger, Willie was restored to a proper sitting position and shortly thereafter, Jarvis received similar help. There were five other personages already seated: a young, handsomely dressed man and his equally attractive female companion, and two aristocratic women, all of whom appeared to be traveling together for they sat closely on the side farthest from Willie and Jarvis.
The fifth passenger was a scholarly looking man Jarvis estimated to be in his early thirties dressed in a brown twill suit. Jarvis, seeing that there were seven passengers including hisself, exclaimed what a marvel it was so many could fit and that had a wager been offered before his abrupt entrance, he would have confidently accepted that no more than four personages would be able to ride at one time. The man in the brown twill suit extended his hand to Jarvis and introduced hisself as Dr. Hartley St. John. He inquired as to their health and specifically Jarvis’ kidney, as he said he had witnessed—with horror—the older of the two aristocratic women purposefully digging her heel into his side as he lay trapped on the floor. Jarvis responded by saying he had already forgotten all about the stabbing pain and that surely the woman must have seen a spider or centipede crawling on his back.
There were two bench seats running the width of the vehicle; situated so that passengers, when seated, faced each other. Jarvis would later remark that those seats were the most comfortable he had ever encountered and that ‘a personage could content hisself in those seats for hours doing nothing but staring out the window.’ Though they were benches, it would be more accurate to describe them as enormous overstuffed couches, covered in green velvet with hand-stitched seams—the kind one would be wont to find in a wealthy gentleman’s billiard room or den.
Dr. Hartley St. John sat opposite Jarvis and wore a placid, patient, and self-assured look on his face. Willie sat next to Jarvis, indeed too close, for Jarvis was wedged between him and the door and finding it hard to make even the slightest adjustment in position. Hartley St. John turned to introduce hisself to Willie but as he opened his mouth to speak, the young handsome man interrupted, thrusting his outstretched hand into their midst and saying rather loudly with a professional tone,
“Fritz Carmichael the Third.”
He turned to each of them and repeated his name. Jarvis noticed he possessed the trick some men have of coming off as if they’ve looked you in the eyes when really their sights were locked on a point somewhere above the forehead.
“I couldn’t help but overhear, did you say your name is Hartley St. John, the scientist and organizer of explorations all over the globe?”
Hartley St. John smiled shyly and adjusted his collar.
“Yes, that’s me, though I don’t know about being famous.”
“Oh, don’t be modest. Here you are in a cab with perfect strangers and yet I recognized your name.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true.”
“Tell me something, when I introduced myself just now, did you recognize my name?”
The Doctor repeated the name several times before delivering his verdict,
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t recognize the name, but it rather a good name, if I may say so.”
Fritz turned his handsome face toward Willie and Jarvis, in turn, and raised his thin eyebrows as if to ask, ‘and what about you?’ Both men shook their heads nervously and could not help but feel as if they were back in grammar school and had answered the teacher incorrectly. Fritz’s expression changed from one of patronizing warmth to the cold steel of a ruthless tycoon. He threw up his hands and said to the older woman,
“See, Mother, this is exactly what I was telling you the other day. My God, how could they not know of Fritz Carmichael the Third? Father and Grandfather before him poured their entire lives into this city, sacrificing everything for what? So that the very people they spent their energies on can stare at me with idiotic looks on their faces and confess to not recognizing my name!”
“Fritz, you must calm down, don’t aggravate these persons. Men like these are likely to cut your throat or burn down your house or God knows what treachery.”
“No, I won’t calm down, Mother! These people, these goddamned dirty masses of people…they go about their lives without so much as a thought to what makes it all work. They’ve no idea of the powerful men that keep the world running. Never mind who gives them electricity or makes sure there is money in the bank for them to feed their miserable litters of children. They consume, that’s all. They eat, drink, and breed… incessantly, bringing more of their despicable kind into the world. And who foots the bill? We do, people like us who keep things running. And then they have the nerve to curse us, US, for being rich and making the decisions that they’d be either too stupid or too weak to make. Damn them all!”
“Oh Fritzy, you’re such a card!” This out of place jovial comment came from the younger aristocratic woman, and it was clear she was both drunk and incredibly stupid.
“Mother, it’s ten o’clock in the morning for God’s sake!”
“We all have our vices don’t we?” The older woman smiled mischievously and patted her son on the knee playfully. Fritz ignored her and sat back violently. After some moments of silence, he sprang back up and was about to launch into another tirade when his attention was diverted to something happening on the street outside. The other passengers followed his gaze and realized the cab had stopped moving and was surrounded on all sides by a crowd of people.
“Now what in the hell is all of this!”
“We seem to have driven into some kind of parade,” cried Hartley St. John with delight, “I wonder what the occasion is?”
“We don’t have time for this…Driver…DRIVER!” shouted Fritz.
“What do you think is going on? Jarvis, can you tell?” asked the Doctor.
“I can’t say for sure, but look over there, isn’t that the Trundlesauce Brand dwarf?” Indeed, it was the Trundlesauce dwarf, the official symbol of the brand, walking beside two children carrying a banner that read, ‘Trundlesauce Brand: From the Hands of Children.’ Willie had been sitting quietly with his hands folded in his lap, exhausted and dejected, staring straight ahead at the smoked glass partition that separated the passengers from the driver. At the mention of Trundlesauce Brand, however, his eyes lit up and the vacancy that had constituted his manner thus far disappeared.
“That is as fine a product as there is, I use it all the time.” said Jarvis.
“Now there is a fellow with some fine taste, let me tell you.” Willie looked around at the other passengers and pointed at Jarvis. “Trundlesauce is the finestbrand there is!”
“Nothing like it, I’ll vouch for that, sir.”
“Chef Bartholomew uses Frau Ponti products and I personally find they are of exceptional quality,” Fritz said coolly.
The smile vanished from Willie’s face and he snapped his head around and burst out,
“Clearly sir, you are under some stress, which is understandable in these days of trouble, but I must say you’ve been ill-informed. I cannot speak to the misinformation you’ve been fed directly, but can certainly say that this notion that Frau Ponti provides a product of equal or superior quality to that of Trundlesauce Brand is, quite frankly; horse-feathers. Chef Bartholomew, he says, Ha! I remember that fresh faced fancy lad the first day at the academy; he needed help tying his own apron strings! Now, sir, if you would be so kind as to keep your fat-mouth shut on subjects you know nothing about.”
“I’ll scream it from the rooftop of city hall if you’d like. Everyone knows Frau Ponti has the best stuff in town and from what I’ve heard that lard ass Willie has completely lost his mind.”
“Well sir, again, I have heard your position on the matter and the only thing I can say to it is that you are quite obviously full of rubbish! And it is a sad day, indeed, when a man can’t even take a relaxing trip in a cab anymore without being bombarded by the malicious ramblings of the mentally anguished. Frau Ponti, indeed!” (Willie spat)
“You know I’ve heard he’s abandoned all manners of hygiene and that he repackages day old bread as fresh. Yes, I daresay he’s lost his mind,” said Fritz’s mother.
“Oh, I’ve heard that too, shame, shame. Willie has really fallen out of favor, a real disgrace to the apron,” said Fritz’s sister.
“Lost his…?! Fallen…out…of…” Willie could barely contain hisself and it seemed by the way he was squirming that at any moment he would burst out of his own skin. He kept opening his mouth and closing it, biting his fist and chewing on his moustache and his face was turning various shades of purple. Jarvis could not be sure of the others, but he was certain the older woman had seen Willie’s name embroidered in elegant stitching across the top of the apron he wore, and being of a sensitive nature, felt he had an obligation to stand up for the man.
“Excuse me, but my name’s Jarvis L. Hannady, and there are a few places on this earth where that name means something, and I consider it my duty to stand up for a man being slandered when he’s not able to defend hisself. Now I’ve spoken with Willie only once in my life, and I’ll be the first to admit he lacked courtesy, but he’s a busy man and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s always had my orders ready on time and charged me a fair price, and that goes a long way in saying something about a man, in my book anyway, so if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you all changed the subject entirely.”
Fritz leveled his gaze upon Jarvis. “What’s the meaning of wearing those dark glasses in here? Are you some kind of vampire or degenerate pimp? Hahahahaha!”
The comment made little sense to Jarvis, and having no experience in returning insults continued with his defense of Willie.
“Well, I have to tell you, I read in the newspaper how there’s a famous pastry chef in Paris, France that has Trundlesauce Brand hand delivered by children daily. It’s the only stuff he’ll use. And although I don’t get a chance to sample his wares often (being that I live all the way over in Sykes) I can affirm that my Nora got me a birthday cake last year made specially by Willie hisself, and it was undoubtedly the most delicious cake I’d ever put a fork to—not to mention just about the most beautiful cake I’d ever seen.”
“Did you say Sykes? I didn’t know people were still allowed to live in that cesspool!” The three Carmichaels burst into outrageous laughter. “Oh yes, I’m quite sure you would find his cake delicious…and really, you must drop this nonsense about Trundlesauce Brand, its absurd.”
“Just stop it, all of you! Fritz, you’re an absolute ass.” For the first time the voice of Fritz’s female companion filled the cab. The others had scarcely noticed her until then, for she sat near the window on the other side of Fritz, buried behind his dark suit and outrage. She sat with her arms and legs crossed and stared out the window, a very picture of stoic resolve. It seemed to Jarvis, in the moment that he first laid eyes on her, that there was something tragic and sorrowful about her, like the women in the stories his mother had read to him when he was a child. She was beautiful and Jarvis loved her immediately, though not in the way he loved his wife who he would always remain faithful, but in the way a man loves sitting in front of a fire while his children play on the floor. It was a piercing, painful love that fills a man’s heart with praise for the very gift of life.
“Yes, really, I can’t remember seeing behavior so repulsive, and to think you claim to be the son of a great man, and purportedly a gentleman.” said a frowning Hartley St. John.
During the argument, the driver had managed to maneuver through the crowd by turning off onto a side street. Fritz gave a sidelong glance at his companion and said in an annoyed tone,
“Oh please, Kate, do you have to be a bitch this early in the morning?”
Willie, who was feeling similarly to Jarvis about the woman, erupted from his melancholy,
“You sir, are a fiend, a FIEND! I’ll tear you limb from limb you slick-mouthed-blue-nosed-spoiled-little-rich-boy! I demand an apology to the lady or you’ll find that though I be a baker of cakes, I am no weakling, I swear to you this day that’ll I’ll thrash you about the head unless you apologize this instant!”
Willie’s outrage was delivered with such a roaring ferocity that the occupants of the cab (minus, Fritz’s drunk and stupid sister, who simply giggled and stared cross eyed at her own hair) were held breathless for a moment. Willie’s face was beaming with a noble light and Fritz began shouting for the driver to stop the car. Willie grabbed him by the wrist and began to twist his arm, procuring whimpers and screeches of pain from the now pitifully frightened young man. Indeed, Fritz Carmichael the Third, so recently full of confidence and scorn had taken on the look of a school boy being punished for putting tacks on the teacher’s seat.
The driver pulled the cab over to the curb and the door swung open.
“Out! OUT, I say!” shouted Willie.
Fritz’s terrified mother pushed her drunken, stupid daughter out of the cab and it was only after Fritz offered an apology to Kate did Willie release him from his strong, bread kneading hands. He crawled over the lap of his companion, Kate, and fell to the sidewalk with the aid of a shove from Willie. He stood quickly and attempted to regain the dignified, arrogant pose he had spent long hours in front of a mirror perfecting.
“Anarchists! All of them! Come, Kate, before they rape you!”
Kate sat with the same stone face and rigid posture as before and moving nothing but her lips delivered an expletive filled message to Fritz Carmichael the Third that she would not be disengaging the services of the cab just yet. He stood, stunned on the sidewalk as his mother feigned to have the vapors and his stupid, drunken sister was already halfway down the block attracted to the cart of a street vendor selling sparkling watches.
The door swung closed and the driver pulled them back onto the street. He took a right onto the next side street and then a left a few blocks later bringing them back onto Spruce Street heading south and out of the city. Willie began to speak.
“Well I’m glad that’s all taken care of.”
He breathed a sigh and continued, “Hmm, you said your name was Jarvis Hannady…hmm, where have I heard that name before? Wait, I’ve got it! You’re the fellow that orders the one hundred fifty pound bags of Trundlesauce Brand brown sugar! I’ve seen your name on purchase orders.”
“Why yes sir, that’s me.”
“I want to thank you for your defending me to those…persons.”
“Think nothing of it, really, it’s like I said, a man has a right to defend hisself to others, and when I saw that you were in no shape to do so, I knew it was my duty.”
“Yet you had no cause to speak so kindly of me. I have been a brute and the things they said, well, some of them are true, you see. I am losing my mind, or perhaps I’ve already lost it, whose is it to say anymore?”
“I can’t speak to that Willie, but to my untrained eye you seem sane. But if you’re feeling spent, then I say it’s a stroke of good luck you came tumbling into this cab. It sounds to me that you could use a nice relaxing drive to clear your head.”
“Luck? Perhaps…I have a confession to make. I don’t know quite how to say it…well, out with it now…earlier, when we ‘met’ so roughly on the street corner, you may think that I ran into you out of haste and wanting to catch this cab and…”
“Willie, really you don’t need to…”
“…I was trying to make my way into the streaming traffic where some bus or delivery truck would surely run me down. You see, I had my mind fixed on self-murder…there, I’ve said it.”
The two were interrupted by the crackling voice of what they assumed was the driver. The sound came from a small wooden box in the upper corner of the cab, directly over the left shoulder of the operator.
“Tickets?” asked Jarvis, “I think maybe we need to buy some tickets.”
“Buy them? Listen pal, I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but you’d better have some tickets back there, or else,” came the voice from the front seat.
The Doctor and Kate produced a ticket and the driver slid a small window open in the glass partition. He stuck his hand through and collected their fares.
“This is only two tickets, and there are four of you. I better see two more tickets real quick, got it?”
Jarvis and Willie stared at the open window and the outstretched hand, confused.
“Check your pockets, buddy, if you know what’s good for you. Don’t make me come back there and check them myself.”
“We’d better do what he says.”
“But I haven’t got any ticket, Jarvis. I don’t even know what he’s talking about,” whispered Willie.
“Me neither, but I don’t see what else there is to do.”
Jarvis and Willie began to search their pockets half heartedly. Willie dug deep into his apron front but produced nothing but lint and a cake decorating tool. Jarvis, on the other hand, was one to carry any number of objects on his person.. As he emptied his pockets, he piled them on the green, velvet seat. Amidst the pile of screws, rubber bands, coils, sugar packets, a protractor, and a hand calculator Willie noticed a small, woman’s hand purse. He picked it up and asked with a chuckle,
“What’s this? Your purse, m’lady?”
“Oh, no, a woman dropped it on the street yesterday. I hadn’t got a chance to take it to the police station yet.”
“Well let’s see what’s in it.”
Before Jarvis could protest, Willie unhitched the clasp that held a leather flap shut. He then turned the purse upside down and two beige tickets fell out. The driver, looking through his rear view mirror shouted,
“For crying out the back door! There they are, pass them through!” then as an afterthought, “Say, buddy, what are you doing with a hand purse anyway?”
Jarvis looked down at the ticket on the velvet cushion. It was three inches long and two inches wide. On one side there was a thin, green line running the length, representing a road, with the outline of a green cab driving on it. A smiling driver was sticking his head out the window and giving the ‘thumbs up.’ On the other side there was an indecipherable table of numbers and letters. They handed their tickets through the opening in the window and immediately the glass slid shut again.
“Good thing you had that purse, old boy!” said Hartley St. John.
Nothing more was said of the strange event and all sat in silent thought disturbed only when having passed far beyond the city limits, they crossed a lone soul on the side of the road walking with his hands in his pockets.
“Driver, umm, excuse me, driver.”
Willie, coming to the aid of the soft spoken Jarvis, took up his new friend’s cause and began shouting at the driver and even pounding with both fists on the smoked glass partition. They could see the dark, shadowy figure in the front jump with a start at the sudden rattling of the glass and the small wooden speaker crackled to life.
“What’s all that noise back there, somebody having an attack?”
“My friend, Jarvis, wishes your attention.”
“See, we passed a man back there and I thought it only right if we stop to see if he needs any help…or a ride.”
“A ride! What do you think this is! Lord Almighty, a ride he says!”
“You sir,” interrupted Willie, “will turn this car around immediately and see if that man needs any help, or I will come through that glass like a ferocious bear and eat you!”
The driver looked in his mirror and seeing it filled with the gigantic, mustached face of Willie, began to turn the car around. They pulled alongside the man and Jarvis realized he could not be older than twenty, though by his wild hair, dusty denim pants, and cracked leather boots he looked the part of an old cowboy worn rough by years of hard riding and living on the range. Jarvis rolled down the window and asked the youth if he needed a ride or some other assistance. He smiled and Jarvis was shocked at how straight and brilliant white were his teeth.
“That’s the best offer I’ve received in a month of Sundays, I do swear it truly. I would surely take a ride from you even if you were heading into the very maw of Hades.”
Jarvis swung open the door and the dusty traveler climbed in next to the Doctor.
“My name’s Duberry and I’m sure glad you turned around for me.”
The driver turned and they were off again. The window slid open and he began to ask for a ticket when Willie pounded on the glass.
“No more nonsense about tickets, he doesn’t need a ticket.”
“Wait just a minute,” said Duberry, “I’ve got a ticket right here, he can have it if he wants.”
Duberry produced a ticket from his denim jacket pocket, just like the others and handed it through the window. Willie looked at him astonished.
“How in the world did you come by that?”
“Well that’s a story I’d sure like to tell sometime, but…”
“See, the thing is, you don’t’ know me very well, and I’m afraid if I start telling it you’ll think I’m a liar, or crazy, or both.”
“Nonsense! You’re amongst friends, here.”
“Still, I’d feel better waiting until we know each other better.”
“Foolishness! Just take one look around this cab. Surely you can tell by this gentleman’s (pointing to Jarvis) face that he’s as compassionate as a saint. And this Scientist over here (nudging Hartley St. John in the ribs with his elbow) well, he’s as peace-loving and docile as the Virgin Mary, I say! And as for her (nodding towards Kate), well, I don’t know much about her, but what I do know is very good so far. I can’t speak for everyone, but I, for one, can offer you my solemn word as a gentleman and a baker that I will not think you’re a liar or crazy.”
“I don’t know how you can say that before I even tell you the story, but it’s your word, free to give as you deem fit, and I gladly accept it. And it’s plain to see that you’re all very decent fellows…and lady. Now if you other two fellows are willing to swear similar oaths, I’ll get on with it.”
“And what about me? Don’t I have to swear?”
“Oh, begging your pardon, no offense intended, it’s just that, well, your beauty speaks for itself. It just doesn’t seem right asking someone so beautiful to swear on anything.”
“I swear on the grave of my dead mother that killed herself in a fit of jealousy and despair, that I will not think you a liar or crazy.”
“Damnation!” said Duberry, slapping his knee then realizing it was perhaps an inappropriate response, “that is to say, I accept your oath.”
Duberry assured the Doctor and Jarvis that the lady’s oath was strong enough to cover them as well, and so he began his tale.
“The day I graduated from high school my daddy gave me three things: a thousand dollars cash, my granddaddy’s compass, and a piece of advice. He said to me, ‘Son, a fool and his money are soon parted, but a man with a compass always knows which way he’s heading.’ He went on to tell the story of my granddaddy, and how he was a paratrooper in the war, sent in behind enemy lines to disrupt their communications. It came to pass that through traitorous dealings the enemy learned of my granddaddy and his mission, and one early dawn they stormed his position and overwhelmed he and his men and drug them off to the camps where they were cruelly tortured and some even put to death.
For three long years my granddaddy endured freezing winters and scorching summers, forced to perform grueling labor for sixteen hours a day. They forced him to work in an ammunition factory in the village, building guns and bombs to kill his countrymen. He lost nearly all his toes to frostbite and the labor bent him nearly double. If you think I’m exaggerating the facts, you’re wrong, there’s no need to exaggerate the truth when it’s as vile as this. It came to pass that more and more prisoners were arriving everyday and they got in it their minds to get organized and sure enough within a few months they had a plan for escape.
With the help of a local farmer and his family they were able to stow gear and provisions little by little in a cave in the forest outside the camp. They waited for a moonless night and sprung the plan and it worked out just how they thought it would. The only thing is my granddaddy was left behind, on account of his physical infirmities, but that ended up being what saved his life, you see, because the very night of the escape the Army bombed the town. They had found out about the ammunition factory and they firebombed the entire area, laying everything to waste. Every last one of those escaped prisoners died in that forest, blown up and burned by their own country’s army. The next day the troops came marching in and liberated the camp and my granddaddy came home a decorated war hero.
‘Damnation!’ I said when my daddy finished telling me that story. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Son, there’s three things that every man will need at some point in this wearisome life: Luck (or what some religious men call Providence), Hope, and Kindness. I didn’t know what the hell he meant by that, but I believe in the years that were to follow I began to understand maybe a little.
It became clear to me, standing there in my daddy’s garage that it was time for me to set out into the wide world. I didn’t say anything, but I knew my daddy was feeling it too. We shook hands and I took off walking down the road, and that’s the last time I saw him, even to this very day. Parting is pain, they say, but not in this case. Now I love my daddy, but there was something natural and true about my leaving, and this went a long way in quieting the pounding roar of blood in my ears. There was one parting yet to make, though, and there is no power on earth can hold back the tide of sorrow that was soon to drown me beyond all hope of rescue.
You see, I had a one true love and her name was Jessie. I lived for nothing else but her. I walked to her house in town and marched directly up her stairs without saying hello to her momma or anything and threw open her bedroom door where she lay on her bed and I said, ‘Jessie, you are my one true love in this world and I live every breath only for you. I’m fixing to leave this town, maybe never to return, and I’d be a fool, indeed to leave without you. Come with me now, Jessie, and we’ll make our way together through this wild world.’ You can imagine, that delivering a speech like that, a man would expect an affirmative response, but Jessie struck me down low when she said, ‘Duberry, my dearest love, I cannot go with you and leave my momma behind all alone. We may make our way together in this world but it must be here, in this town…for now.’
She reached out her hand for me to grasp and I knew that if I did take it I may just fall under a spell, struck frozen for all eternity, doomed to live out my life in that house forever. This I could not do and I backed away slowly and retraced my steps, backwards, down the stairs and out the door. I felt as if my heart was torn from my chest and I knew that it was kept in a jar on the shelf in Jessie’s bedroom.
You can imagine how lost I was and the first thing I saw when I awoke from the daze of heartbreak was a motorcycle for sale on the side of the road. I bought it for five hundred dollars and it came with a full tank of gas. I fashioned the west to be where things go to die—and as I felt dead inside I set my sights towards the setting sun and rode off. I laid some rubber to the road, and let me tell you, I imagined that each mile I laid between me and Jessie just brought me one mile closer to seeing her again. Even if I had to drive clear around the globe I knew I’d again rest in the gentle embrace of my sweet gal, despite her disclaimer.
I spent a good year—year and a half rambling around the country, passing the time in a manner suitable for a youth such as I—general carousing, whoring (pardon me, Kate), and rough-housing. Altogether I think I managed to get thrown out of just near every bar and cat-house in a thousand mile radius, and that’s no lie. One day blended into the other and one town was the same as the next…all towns except for one that I pulled into on a starry night. It was cold, I remember that clearly, and I could see my breath and the breath of the cows in the pastures alongside the road. I was in need of a drink so I bellied up to the only bar in town. About halfway through the night this sheriff walks in and he’s giving me the eye, you see, and I just laughed because if I had a dime for every sheriff that gave me the eye I’d be as rich as Fritz Carmichael the Third, I tell you what.
Now he was one of these one-horse- town, hayseed sheriffs that likes to give just about anybody that’s a little different a hard time. I don’t hold his intentions against him, he’s just trying to protect his town and all, but sure enough this particular sheriff was meaner than a red devil and he was sure fixed to stick me with his fiery brand. He didn’t give me any trouble whilst I was in the bar, spending money, but no sooner had I left and set off down the road to find some place to sleep for the night, did he pull up behind me with his lights a flashing. He sauntered on over to me, sitting on my motorcycle on the side of the country road and he says, ‘Son, what’s the trouble, I think your lost.’ And I answered, ‘Sheriff, as sure as my granddaddy’s a war hero, I am not lost.’ And he says, ‘Well now, I think you’re mistaken about that, son.’ And I says, ‘I suppose you aim to show me how mistaken I am.’ And he says, ‘Son, that’s the first true thing you’ve said all night. Now come off of that motorcycle so I can ‘inspect’ it.’
I knew what he was planning to do so I said, ‘Sheriff, I mean no disrespect and I’m not looking for trouble, but I’ve ridden to hell and back on this motorcycle, and if it comes down to it, I’ll break every goddamned bone in your body before I let you lay a finger on it.’ Well you can imagine how he took that, coming from me especially, and I was either drunker than I thought or he was quicker than a man of his size ought to be, but either way he landed a few good licks before I even had a chance to get off my motorcycle. Needless to say, he whooped me soundly and dragged my bloody carcass into the jailhouse and threw me in a cell.
There I lay on the cold jailhouse ground like some cadaver waiting for the mortician, for how many days I cannot say. When I awoke I was on a cot and for a moment I dreamt I was back in my daddy’s house tucked in tight underneath my blankets, but alas, I opened my eyes and saw the lean iron bars casting shadows around the room. There was a man sitting next to me humming a soulful tune and tapping his cane on the floor. I inquired as to who it was that hummed such a heartfelt tune in my ear and whether I was to expect such a welcome every morning when I awoke. The man laughed and said as long as I was in that jailhouse I could surely expect it.
He says to me, ‘A letter came for you whilst you were adrift.’ And I asked, ‘A letter, from who?’ And he answered, ‘Don’t rightly know, but it’s a fine penmanship on the envelope.’ I ask him if he’ll go ahead and read it to me and he said he’d be much obliged and this is what that letter said:
My dearest Duberry,
I regret to have our final words in such a fashion, but I can see no chance of us meeting face to face. In my heart I know this is the better way, for surely two hearts torn asunder by Fate cannot endure the strain of reunion lest they fall victim to sleeping passions better left undisturbed.
In short, I have forsaken your eternal love, for I have married a house-painter. He is a fine young man who I am sure you would approve. I am pregnant with his child even now. I am giving your pledge of love back to you, for I am sure there is another in this wild world able to reciprocate said gift, and is surely more deserving of it than I.
‘RESPECTFULLY!’ I screamed. You’d think it’d be something other than ‘respectfully,’ I think I deserved more than respectfully. Damnation! Had I a heart left I’m sure it would have broken into fourths, but as it was I found I felt nothing, almost as if I expected a letter such as that all along. That’s not to say I did not weep, for I did. I wept for the past two years, I wept for my daddy, and I wept for the whole earth turned upside down and full of cruelty. The old man patted me on the back and sang old hymns to comfort me and verily, the emotion passed.
I spent a good month in that cell, never seeing anyone but the man who delivered our meals. No other prisoners came, just me and the Old Man. One day I said to him, ‘Old Man, funny thing about you…you always sit in that corner next to the cot, in the shadows. Now we’ve been in here a month together and I can’t say I know what you look like.’ He answered, ‘Well then, come and have a look.’ So I walked over to him and he lit a match and held it up to his face and I’ll tell you now it was the most normal, respectable old man face you could imagine, that is, until he opened his eyes and I saw they were all milky and dull full of cataracts. I said, ‘Damnation old man, are you blind?’ And he said, ‘Well sir, I can’t see but I am not blind.’ And then it struck me, if he couldn’t see, then how did he read that letter from Jessie?
So I shout at him, ‘surely sir you must be some kind of powerful warlock or a phantom from the fiery depths. I have no wish to entwine myself with the powers of darkness, so whatever your business be, I’ll thank you to kindly leave me out of it.’
“I’m in the ‘business,’ as you say, of Hope. You see, sometimes people can’t be trusted with what they got, so I hold onto it for them for awhile, until they need it again, that’s all.” The way he said those words…so humble and kind…I realized then he was no purveyor of dark magic, no sir, and I’ll tell you another thing; right then and there I believed those to be the most poetic words I’d ever heard a man speak. ‘Do you think you are ready to leave this cage?’ he asked. And I said, ‘Yes, I suppose I am.’ What happened next I cannot explain other than to say he looked at me, winked, and all the sudden his face starts getting bigger and bigger and then I realized that it was me getting smaller. I shrunk down to the size of an ear of corn, and he picked me up in his hand and put me on the window ledge and I slipped through the iron bars into the moonlit night. ‘So long’ I said and he gave a little wave and that was that. I found a safe place to sleep in a grove of fruit trees and when I awoke the next morning I was back to regular size.
I scraped together what few dollars I could find and bought me a ticket on a riverboat heading upstream. It was slow going, naturally, as the boat was full of pleasure-cruisers and gamblers, and we stopped at every damn town along the way to pick up more people. I thought that boat couldn’t hold no more people, but sure enough we’d pull into some dinky port and the gangplank would swing out and more people would come piling on like rats fleeing a sinking ship…except in this case the opposite, of course. They kept moving everybody around to make room for all the new passengers until I got so fed up with it I just told them I’d sleep in the goddamned hull, and sure enough, I did.
I found me a cozy spot down amongst the liquor barrels and watermelons. I have to tell you it was a far sight more comfortable than that sardine can they had me in up top. They shoved fifteen of us into that room and I say there’s barely enough room for one. I made my complaints known to the First Mate but he just kept blowing his whistle in my face and waving more people onto the boat with his white-gloved hand. The way people piled on to that ship you’d think it was the last lifeboat on earth with the flood waters rising fast.
I wasn’t about to cause any trouble, though, especially being a wanted man and all, and it dawned on me that this here steamboat might just be the best place for an escaped convict; crowds of people too busy gambling and drinking to notice me or even care, plus they’d stopped keeping track of names after the first or second stop anyway. They left me alone and I kept to the belly of the ship. I found all kinds of interesting things down there rooting through the cargo hold. I even found that there were long crawl spaces running the entire length of the boat, sort of like a maze, and I mapped them all out. Those tunnels took me all over that boat, and let me tell you, some of the things I saw going on in the cabins…well, maybe I’d better not talk about that just now.
Well, now it doesn’t take a scientist like Hartley St. John, here, to conclude that somewhere along the line we were set to run into some trouble. I figure we’d traveled about six days up river when sure enough, she found us. That big old boat sitting low in the water ran aground in a shallow stretch of the river. I was in a crawl space above the main gambling and banqueting hall when all of the sudden there was a crunching sound as the hull was grinding along the rocks of the river bottom. Then there was a loud crack, like a lightening strike, and the whole boat lurched and don’t you know I was holding onto that catwalk railing for dear life. Below me I saw the crowded hall filled with people falling all over each other and howling like coyotes. Poker tables were tossed in the air, the dice pits turned over, and the roulette wheel had come loose and was rolling along the dance floor. People were diving this way and that. It took a few seconds for me to catch my breath and when I did I realized that all those people below me weren’t hollering out of fear, no sir, they were hysterical with laughter.
The band kept playing and the horn section was blasting away like they were Gabriel and his angels come to wake the dead and call the living to meet them in the sky. I made my way down off that catwalk just as quick as I could and I rushed straight away to the bridge, but I was to find no help there and maybe it would have been better for me to plunge myself over the side of that high railing and let the chips fall where they may—if I may borrow that gambler’s saying.
When I reached the bridge and threw open the door the first thing I see is the Captain, standing at the helm wearing nothing but his hat screaming out ‘ramming speed’ over and over and blowing the fog horn every couple of seconds. I just about pulled by hair out there but then I looked over and saw the white gloved first mate with no less than six dancing girls circling around him, lifting up their skirts whilst he played an accordion and kept time. Sights like these got me to start questioning my sanity, as you can well imagine it would. Something told me though that I wasn’t mad, and if I could just find one more person on that entire boat that wasn’t mad either, then everything could be worked out and sense would be made of it all.
I ran over to the Captain and tried to get him to notice me but he just kept staring out the window and tugging on the fog horn line. I looked down and saw that the throttle was stuck in the ‘full speed ahead’ position and the lever was broke off, and this fact, aside from everything else going on around me was what worried me the most. I took off out of the bridge and towards the back of the boat and it was no easy task to get there. If I thought there were a lot of people onboard before, I couldn’t believe how many more had seemingly come out of the woodwork. They were like locust, multiplying before my eyes, and I pushed my way through the crowd like I was fighting against the waves of the ocean.
Fighting that crowd took a lot out of me and by the time I reached the decking that overlooked the paddle wheel I was soaking wet and gasping for breath. I leaned against the railing and through the bars I could see that things were just as I had feared. We ran aground somewhere on the front half of the boat, of course, and we’d sort of teeter tottered so that the stern was lifted up out of the water. Like I said, the throttle was locked on full speed ahead and the wheel wasn’t meeting any resistance. It was spinning so fast it was nothing but a big red blur and the wind of it blew in my face and revived me a little.
All around me there were couples—old and young—dressed in tuxedoes and evening gowns, smoking long cigarettes and holding martini glasses and brandy snifters up like they were goddamned trophies. One woman who had to be in her sixties was twirling around in circles and waving some kind of exotic fur above her head. She twirled her way right to the edge of the railing and sure enough was over it before I could reach her. I waited with dread to hear the screams that would surely come from her as she was chopped to bits by the wheel, but I was relieved to instead hear a splash and when I looked down into the water she was paddling around with her head thrown back in tremendous roaring laughter. She was covered in a film of oil and grease which I gathered must have come from a burst pipe or cracked engine hose. I could see the dark ooze, like a shadow atop the water, creeping out away from the boat and towards land where small, frothy waves were lapping against the shore. The setting sun broke through the clouds and with its dying breath turned the river red, and the creeping shadow was like the blood in the Nile when Moses struck it with his staff.
I turned my attention back to the wheel and sure enough there were thin wisps of smoke starting to rise from the axle. I could read the handwriting on the wall as clear as a bell, you see, and I knew all it would take is one spark, one errant flick of a cigarette butt, and the whole goddamned ship would go up in flame, not to mention that dark, blood red film covering the water all around us. We’d be trapped, either to burn with the boat or burn in the fiery waters, and being somewhat of a poetic man, I could not help but think of that other fiery lake, the one of Hades itself, and I imagined that the ship was the Devil’s.
I must admit, I’d given up pretty much all hope of survival at that point. Swimming for the shore was really the only chance, but something inside told me I’d never make it, and I couldn’t face the idea of first burning alive and then drowning. I looked around and saw all the people laughing and talking and carrying on without a care in the world, either oblivious to the danger or at the very least ignoring it. I wished I could be like them. I lit my own damn cigarette and sat down on a bench to smoke it. I remembered my daddy’s words, ‘Son, there’s three things that every man will need at some point in this wearisome life: Luck (or what some religious men call Providence), Hope, and Kindness.’ It seemed to me that I’d run out of all three when through all the din and chaos of the carousing crowd I think I hear a familiar sound, yes sir, I think I start to hear the humming of a soulful tune come down to me on the wings of sweet melody, then I’m sure I hear it and I start to look around frantically, and there, sitting on the end of the very same bench that I had accepted as my funeral pyre was the old goddamned man!
‘Old Man!’ I scream, ‘What in the hell are you doing here!’ And he just looks over at me and smiles as if we’re meeting outside in the churchyard on Sunday. ‘Hello there, Duberry,’ he says, ‘I sure expected to see you again sometime though not on this boat.’ Well I am ashamed to say I lost control. I started screaming at the Old Man and accusing him of being the Dark Fiend, the great Satan hisself! He just waited for me to finish, though, and looks at me with those dull, milky eyes full of patience, and says, ‘Oh come on now, you know I isn’t the Devil, no sir, though I sure have met him many a times. Enough of that foolishness, Duberry. What are you doing here, anyway?’
‘What am I doing here! What are YOU doing here!?’ I scream. ‘Well now, I was fixin’ to try my hand at the roulette table, but it seems with all the commotion it’s been overturned. How do you like that?’ he answers. I grabbed him by the collar and shouted into his face, ‘Old Man, this ship’s a going down, you’ve got to get moving right now or you’ll perish, I swear it.’ And you know, he looked up at me with his dull, milky eyes again and as peaceful as ever says, ‘I’m old, can’t you see, an old man like me ain’t afraid of a little dyin’, now you get on out of here and leave me be. I think I smelled some rhubarb pie back there in that dining room and don’t you know that’s my favorite.’
Well that was just too much for me to handle. I reached down and grabbed that Old Man and picked him up and slung him over my shoulder. I started running as fast as I could up the deck towards the middle of the boat where I know there’s a break in the railing. I was shouting for people to get out of the way and if they didn’t I just knocked them over and the whole time the Old Man is just humming his tunes in my ear, though I wasn’t paying much attention to that at the time.
I reached the break and took a moment to catch my breath and all of the sudden there is a huge explosion from the rear of the boat and I see the brightness out of the corner of my eye and I feel the heat on my back and both of us were thrown by the force of it all over and down into the oily water with a splash. First thing I do before anything else is make sure I’m holding onto that Old Man, and sure enough I had him tight around the wrist before I even broke the surface for my first breath. I start paddling with my free arm and kicking as best I can, making my way to the shore, but it was slow going as you might imagine. I looked around and saw other people from the boat in the water as well and I look back to see the ship in flames. There were people all along the deck, just as before, some on fire and some not, and to my horror I see that every single one of them is laughing and carrying on just like before, and the screams of the people in the water weren’t screams at all either, but the very same laughter as I heard before!
Even after I made it to shore and looked back to see the flames rising off the film of the water, and the people ablaze and thrashing in the water, all I could hear was that laughter and when I looked over to see if the Old Man was all right, there’s nothing there, and when I look down at my hand I see it’s clenched tight around something. And I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the hand and forearm up to the elbow of the Old Man hisself.”
At this point, Duberry paused and wiped a tear from his eye. The others sat silent, unsure of what to say. Duberry looked away out the window and it was clear that he was finished with tales, at least for that day. The Greenline Cab continued down the road, bumping along in the ruts made by wagons and tractors, spreading a blanket of dust in its wake.
Seth M. Rash
Seth Rash lives with his wife in Indiana. The following is an excerpt from his first novel, still in process, entitled “The Greenline.”