4.05.2007

Epiphany

The last thing Earl Martin ever said was “sixty-seven,” which was quite an extraordinary feat, and one still talked about by the doctors at Burlen County Memorial Hospital. One theory had it that during life, Earl had consumed so many depressants that he was immune to the pre-surgery anesthetic, kind of like the South’s answer to Rasputin. Before they put him down they asked if he was allergic to anything. He said: taxes, police, and Yankees. The fact is that most people make it only to about 98 when asked to count backwards from 100 after 30mg of Somicane. But old Earl ran through all of the 90’s without a pause, followed by the next twenty numbers in perfect reverse order. It was the 68 that really slowed him down, taking him three tries while the amazed doctors pumped more drugs into him. Earl’s heart operation was supposed to be low risk, but a slip of the intern’s bone saw later, and his aorta was chewed up like a puppy’s teething toy. Not long after that he presumably found his eternal self in a long queue of mostly Asians waiting to be assigned a harp. That’s the charitable version, anyway.

The surviving members of the Martin clan had a farewell covered dish luncheon after the funeral. It was held at the fairgrounds, but due to a mix-up, the Folk family reunion was scheduled for the same time and same picnic area. Tempers flared briefly, but when one of the Folks was determined to have been related to Earl through a bastard son, the astonishing coincidence was interpreted as divine will that they should enjoin their respective celebrations. The Folks were gathered to celebrate the return of William James Randolph Folk III, or JR, who had just been released from the state correctional facility. He had earned the opportunity to engage in this cultural experience by writing other people’s names on checks. The significance of one loss (being Earl, if you could in your heart call it a loss), and one prodigal return (JR, who was not much of a plus either) was not lost on the church-going participants—which most were—and was a topic much discussed by the elderly ladies with hairdos like ripe dandelions. The most notable unenthusiast was none other than Earl Junior (Shorty), who wanted nothing more than to drink PBR and be left the hell alone, excepting for maybe a break to play horseshoes. He’d splurged on a couple of cheap cigars at the Stop N Joe and was more than a little put out by the sideways glances given him by Mrs. Gladys Folk, the self-appointed moral conscious of the Folk clan, and in truth, the whole town of Smut Eye. Shorty blew his blue puffs of Sweet Petite at her when he got the chance, but it destroyed his sense of calm just knowing she existed.

Things just hadn’t turned out the way they were supposed to. Fixing cars was as far as Shorty had gotten in his dream to be a NASCAR driver. He leaned way back in the aluminum folding chair he’d brought out, leaned against a post holding up the roof over the picnic tables, and scratched around for one good thing that’d happened to him in the last, oh, five years. This led straight to the thought he’d been nursing all day like a canker sore—now he’d never get to settle the score with his old man. But the thought of all of his grievances against his mean as a snake father began to sour along with the first cigar, and Shorty couldn’t maintain the concentration required to hang onto his solitary woe. He was distracted by the sweet sound of a V8 approaching.

A new red Corvette sputtered gravel down Fairground Lane, demanding attention. It was a convertible, and the sole occupant was a young blonde who looked somehow familiar to Shorty.

“Oh, it’s Ginnie!” said JR’s mom, Elaine Folk. “She made it after all.”

The name did it for Shorty. He remembered Virginia Folk all right. He’d spent some sweaty teenaged nights thinking about algebra class and the smell of shampoo. One of his deep dark secrets was trolling the IGA, sniffing all the shampoo to try to figure out which one was hers and having to give up in frustration after his ability to discern scents faded after the third or forth sniff. Shorty might have been bolder in his attempts to put his feelings in action if it weren’t for the weight of the entire Folk clan that was attached to such actions. So he took what he could get, which was mostly to look and (if he was lucky) smell.

Ginnie it was, and she sprung herself from her car and practically bounded up to a shrunken woman Shorty surmised to be her grandmother. He felt vaguely foolish witnessing the other family’s rather private moments, and took the opportunity to busy himself in the cooler, taking over two minutes to locate the beer can that was exactly the coldest. I suppose he wished it would just all go away somehow. It wasn’t fair that life made him want things he couldn’t ever get. Not that he ever put it so directly to himself. You and I have that luxury because we’re not there at the picnic, with lousy Polaroids of our recently deceased rotten fathers stuck to pine barn poles with thumb tacks, and reminders of past failures driving up in cars we could never afford. He needed his minor victories as much as we do.

Can in hand, Junior hesitated, reached back in to get the second-coldest can as well (with a surge of pride because he knew exactly where it was), and headed for the horseshoe pits where his cousins Dan and Doug were finishing a game.

“Doubles?” he asked, holding the second-coldest PBR to Doug. Dan had recently totaled his third car, and his wife would positively drive a stake through his heart if he had a drink or looked at another woman. That’s why he was very careful not to look in the direction the occupant of the red sports car might have gone. The one glance he had (accidental) convinced him that his ‘better two-thirds’--Gayle--would make him sleep on the couch if he so much as breathed in the wrong direction. Dan had lost so much capital with the loss of his driver’s license that he may as well have been a serf.

“Sure,” the brothers nodded. “Who’s the fourth?”

“Ray?”

“Ahright.”

Ray Martin didn’t really need to be asked. He was the reigning family horseshoe king. He could throw ringers like most men can pick their nose while driving a stick shift. He took up the challenge nonchalantly and led the Ray-Shorty team to an easy victory. It was in the middle of the second game that things began to get interesting. Not because Ray had lost his touch or Doug and Dan had developed manual dexterity, but because of JR. Remember JR? He’s the one who’d just got out of jail for writing bad checks. Not that that was all he was guilty of, not by a long shot. JR wasn’t exactly a white collar criminal is what I’m saying.

In case you haven’t figured this out, JR was Gennie’s brother, had been for most of his life, since he was about five years old. That made him too old for Shorty to have known him in high school, but he was certainly a figure in Shorty’s thinking, conveniently ignored in his fantasies. JR had a reputation as being tough, mean, and quick as a water moccasin.

So JR, who had been suffering under Aunt Gladys’s watchful eye, finally confronted his own desires, said to hell with protocol, and borrowed a couple of the beers in Shorty’s cooler. He wasn’t particular about how cold they were. One he stuck in his pants pocket, and the other he tapped three times on the tab and then popped open. Then he wandered over to the horseshoe pits. His sister showed up not long after, and they watched the game and chatted about the family. Gennie did most of the talking, saying how good Aunt Gladys looked, and you’d never know she’d given her gall bladder back to God, and how Nana didn’t look an inch shorter than last year. For his part, JR mostly nodded and sucked the fizzy alcohol down.

When Shorty saw JR walking over, his natural territorial makeup competed with a dash of fear at JR’s reputation. He nodded as the other stuck a third of his hand in to his pants and coolly drank down the last of his first can and crushed it into a compact cylinder. This he tossed Frisbee style into the 55-gallon drum that served as a trash can. It was twenty feet away, but the expert toss edged over the near edge and thonked satisfyingly into the inside. Shorty’s horseshoe, on the other hand, missed widely and rolled right into Gennie’s path as she approached to watch beside her brother.

“Hey, watch it there Cowboy,” she said, smiling.

Shorty tried not to be affected by her, hated himself for it, but his brain churned away producing interesting chemicals despite his efforts. She’d started calling him Cowboy after he’d jumped over the biggest guy from Sesser one night, in a football game. Gennie wasn’t the cheerleading type, having too much of the same stuff her brother JR had, probably. But she had been at THE game, and seen Shorty make that sweet touchdown. She told him afterwards that it looked like Shorty was trying to break a bronco, the way he’d come off that huge guy’s back, one hand flailing for balance and the other clutching the football. Shorty had liked that, that she called him Cowboy. He had hated being called Shorty, but had learned to accept it in the same way that he’d begrudgingly come to terms with a thousand other misfortunes, one by one.

“Hey Gennie. Sorry about that. Took a bad bounce.”

“What’s the score?”

“Seven-all. Playing to fifteen.”

Ray took a pinch out of a green can and set to work. His first horseshoe settled neatly over the stake and spun half way around it. JR nodded at the beauty of it.

“Ringer!” Gennie said, lighting up.

“E-yup,” said Shorty, chewing up the last stub of his cigar. He spat it in the sand like he imagined Bruce Willis would, and waited for Ray’s second throw. It was a thing of beauty—it went high in the air, almost up to Shorty’s eye level, and chunked into the stake, sticking deeply in the sand.

Dan was up, and he tried to top Ray’s horseshoes on the stake to no avail. That left only two points for Shorty (or Cowboy if you prefer) to take the game. He threw the first horseshoe much too high, nearly hitting Dan in the shin. He glanced involuntarily at Gennie, but she hadn’t seen it. Shorty closed his eyes for a moment and very secretly asked the Good Lord for one tiny favor—that just this once he would have an ounce of luck. The kind of luck that a long time ago he had taken for granted. The throw of the horseshoe suddenly wasn’t just about Shorty’s long history of wanting things that seemed to require talents beyond his ken, it became a contest between him and the most general of all forces that bend our fates.

Shorty emerged from his prayerful squint and nearly wet himself. His so-called father Earl was standing not three feet in front of him. Earl looked terrible, glassy-eyed, and with a large hole sliced into his bare chest. He swayed and held out an arm to steady himself against Shorty.

“D-damn,” was all Shorty could wheeze out of his nicotine-stained lungs.

“Ah didn’t treat you raht, boy. Ah ain’t proud of it.” Earl muttered, eyes fixed now on Shorty.

Shorty’s heart jumped in great bounds, encouraging him to relocate, but he was rooted like an old cypress. A wild glance told him no one else seemed to find this remarkable, this apparition. He wanted nothing more than what he always had in Earl’s presence—to desperately be quit of it.

“Gonna make it raht now, boy. Got mah last chance,” Earl said.

A tiny bit of relief trickled down Shorty’s back. Either that or it was sweat.

“Now don’t screw this up!” Earl began to get excited. “Y’allways screw it up! Goodfernothin…” but Earl trailed off and glanced downward with what could be construed as fear in his eyes. With a shake of Shorty’s shoulder, Earl vanished.

The horseshoe clanged home with authority. Shorty couldn’t remember throwing it. He felt numb and damp from terror—afraid at what his brain was doing, but more afraid of the responsibility that had been laid upon him.

The victory produced more than a little relief in Dan, whose wife had gone from withering looks to staring at the burning hot dogs on the grill in front of her and tapping her foot three times a second. The reason was clear to both of them: Dan had found himself within fantasy range of the wrong kind of woman, and that was reason enough for condemnation. In case you’re curious, the wrong kind of woman was one who wasn’t butt ugly, pregnant, and with a seven foot jealous husband by her side.

“Let me help you with the hot dogs, dear,” was Dan’s best attempt at saying “I’m unworthy to share the planet with you, please forgive me for being close enough to another woman to count her breasts.”

Shorty walked halfway across the grounds before he noticed Gennie following him. He wondered, distractedly, why she would notice him now. But when he finally stopped and turned to face her, he could see something in the reflection in her eyes. He felt a burning inside him still, from the impossible experience he’d just had. It must show on the outside too, he figured. He had become something different, holy even. Like all those guys with weird names in the bible, with their burning bushes and staffs that turned into snakes. He knew, too, that it was indelible, even though he’d never heard that word in his life. A feeling of imminent change followed him like a cloud. He knew things were going to be different now. And he wouldn’t screw it up.

He looked at Gennie the way he figured Moses would have.

“I hope your brother didn’t drink all my beer,” he said.

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