by Ron Yates
Uncle Bart was my mother’s only brother. Growing up, I’d seen him maybe once a year at family get-togethers, and I had noticed that he seemed to be aging faster than my other seldom-seen relatives, who remained sleek and fat between reunions. I had the opportunity during the last holiday season to spend some time with him while he was up from Florida visiting my mother, ostensibly on business although I never knew the specifics. I was getting ready for my final semester at the university and trying to think about the future. By this time Bart had become wizened and unkempt, full of irony, anger, and malicious humor, like Nick Nolte in his role as Father in Hulk.
My dad had died from a heart attack the year before and my sister had married and moved away to Birmingham, so Bart’s presence in the house was not as inconvenient as it might have been. He was there for a week. I kept an apartment near campus, but during the break, I was in and out a lot, enjoying time spent relaxing in my childhood home and helping Mom get through the holidays.
Having this other male presence in the house was strange at first, sleeping in my sister’s old room, shuffling through the kitchen in the mornings in pajamas and slippers, watching TV in the den with us, and taking his meals at the kitchen table. I soon realized that I hardly knew my uncle Bart and was surprised to find a sense of humor and gentlemanly demeanor underneath his gruff sarcasm. After a few days, Mom and I both were enjoying having him around.
The three of us talked about politics, the economy, and the Middle East, but he didn’t talk about himself much. Mom and I knew, although it was never stated, that he had no one to spend Christmas with. He had divorced four wives without producing any children, and the divorces weren’t amicable. The most recent had occurred just this year, contributing significantly to his overall contemptuousness.
“Melba was a goal-oriented person,” he commented one morning as we were finishing up breakfast. “That’s what attracted me to her initially. Problem was, her goal shifted from accruing personal wealth to my ruination. Damn near succeeded too.” He took a drag off his Doral light, leaned in over his coffee mug, tapped his cigarette fingers to his gray temple. “I’m not as gullible as she thought, though. I had some holdings in Tampa and PC that she didn’t know about. I landed on my feet, as I’ve managed to do over the years. But, enough of that. Tell me about your plans for the future, what you hope to do with an English degree.”
Of course, I wanted to be a writer, like most everyone who majors in English. I hated telling people that, though, especially adult men who’d made lots of money. I didn’t like their patronizing looks of mild amusement or their admonishments of, “Well, yes, but you’ll need a back-up plan,” so I usually said that I planned to teach or get into advertising or public relations. Bart’s reaction, though, was not what I expected. In a sincere voice he added before I could answer, “Naturally, you’ll want to write.”
From the counter where she was rinsing plates and putting them in the dishwasher, Mom said, “Yes, but he needs a back-up plan. I’ve been telling him he should get his teaching certificate. He could get on at a high school close by and maybe even coach baseball. I don’t know if you remember, Bart, but that boy used to love baseball.”
He looked across the table at me and winked. Yes, he remembered, and I did too, the warm Thanksgiving afternoon we’d spent in my maw-maw’s backyard playing catch while my great-uncles, aunts, and cousins sat around eating desserts and watching TV. He had sensed my boredom and initiated the conversation, which led to an intense session of glove-smacking burnout. “I hear you’re a pretty good pitcher,” he had said from a front porch rocker. You’ll have to show me what you got someday. I used to pitch myself, might could teach you a few of my old tricks.”
I was twelve and shy, but my boredom and his seemingly genuine interest prompted an adventurous reply: “I’ve got a couple of gloves and a ball in the car.”
He hopped up out of the rocker, and we ignored the grown-ups for the rest of the afternoon as he devoted his considerable energies to throwing and catching with me. Then it was time to go, and when I saw him again I was a teenager and everything was different. Things were really different now, in the kitchen with Mom, Bart looking too decrepit to even play catch anymore. He took another drag on his cigarette then suffered a minor coughing spell. “I’m gonna quit these damn things one of these days,” he said as the spasm subsided.
He got up and shuffled to the counter to pour more coffee. “Of course, Ann,” he said to Mom, “he’ll need a steady income, insurance, retirement, and so forth, but if he’s got that writer thing in him, he’ll need to get it out somehow. I think he should throw some energy into it now while he’s young. Who knows, it just might lead to something. With talent, good material, and a little luck, a person can still make it writing and publishing.” He sat back at the table and looked at me. “I’d like to see some of your work. I was an English major too, you know.”
I didn’t know and, mildly surprised, told him so. “Oh yes,” he said, shaking another Doral from the pack. “I read all the classics, got especially interested in the American greats, from the Naturalists through the Modernists: Crane, London, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and of course Hemingway. He was my hero. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
“So what did you do with yours? English degree, I mean.”
“Oh, I never finished. I only needed a couple of quarters—we were on a quarter system back then—when I decided to take a break. Went down to Florida, got involved in some business ventures, and one thing led to another. Never made it back to school. Kept reading, though, and thinking about it—for a long time.” His voice trailed off into despairing reflection.
I said, “Well, it’s never too late. I’ve had classes with lots of people your age. They’re called ‘non-traditional’ students—”
“Believe me, kid. It is too late for me. It’s your turn now, to shine, to make your mark in the world. We’ll talk about it more later, after I read some of your stuff.”
My part-time employer, Java Chop, a coffee house and deli near campus, had called me in to work that day, so I decided to swing by the apartment when I got off to print out a copy of my latest story. The working title was “Eb and Flo, a Love Story about Nothing.” It was an account of two androgynous characters who lead nondescript lonely lives, caring for their pets and following set routines until their chance meeting in a coffee shop. They each begin to organize their lives differently, to facilitate more “chance” meetings. They are slowly drawn into each other’s world, and through their coffee-shop dialogue, the reader follows them on their journey to completeness. I was pretty proud of it and eager to show it to someone. Although I had doubts about Uncle Bart’s critical skills and ability to appreciate what I was trying to accomplish, I hoped he would like it.
When I handed him the manuscript after supper he appeared confused for a moment. As the recollection of our morning’s conversation dawned, he said, “Oh, yes. Well now, this really looks like something. I can’t wait to read it.” He set the pages on the end table as he settled into an evening in front of the TV with Mom, watching their favorite investigative crime dramas. The next morning I noticed that the manuscript had been moved, but Bart made no mention of it during breakfast. It was the first weekday after the New Year holiday, and Mom had errands to run, gift returns mainly and an appointment for a pedicure. She seemed eager to get out of the house; instead of our usual bacon and eggs with grits, biscuits, and a full array of jellies, syrups and jams, we had Eggo waffles and microwaveable sausage patties. As we ate and chatted about the weather and how bad the traffic was likely to be, I sensed Bart’s eyes on me. I felt sure he had read the story and was examining me for structural flaws, signs of weakness that he was preparing to reveal.
I began to dread the moment of Mom’s leaving, of being left alone with him, and I tried to think of an excuse to leave with her. As she was putting on her coat and checking her purse to be sure she had the receipts, Bart looked at me. “So, it seems we have some time on our hands, alone, like old bachelors. An opportunity to . . . discuss things.” He raised an eyebrow diabolically, like an evil professor, then grinned. “I enjoyed the story. I’m impressed with your talent.”
Mom said, going out the door, “Bye fellows. You two try to behave while I’m gone. I’ll be back late this afternoon.”
When I answered, “Bye, Mom,” a small spasm of apprehension passed out of my body. He had said he liked the story, that I had talent. I surprised myself with how much this mattered, and I worked—at that moment and at times throughout the morning—to not let my need for his approval show.
He pressed the door closed behind Mom. “C’mon, let me pour you another cup of coffee before we get started.” As he shuffled across the floor in his slippers and baggy pajamas, I noticed his grizzled whiskers, his gossamer hair charged with static and standing off his head, but I also saw a light in his blue eyes I hadn’t seen before, a disconcerting impishness. “Let’s sit in the den,” he said, “where we’ll be comfortable.”
He disappeared for a second as I tried to relax in my usual chair. When he returned he was holding the “Eb and Flo” manuscript. He tossed it onto the coffee table and sat across from me on the sofa. “You’ve got some pretty good chops. On a sentence by sentence level this is right up there. It’s musical, lyrical, metaphorical, and all that. Your transitions transition and you’re able to do what all writers struggle with: move people in and out of rooms. But . . . the story is still lacking. In spite of your good writing, it’s a flop.”
I exhaled heated air from my burst bubble. “Well, thanks, I guess. For being honest—”
“But don’t despair. I’ve got what you and all writers need, material. I’m giving you a gift today, the gift of narrative thrust. Conflict, action, suspense, tension, drama—that’s what it’s all about.” He eased back into the cushions, reached for his cigarettes and lighter. “You might want to take notes.”
* * *
Back in the seventies Uncle Bart had been a student at the same college I attended. Aaron-Maslow had a wild reputation then, the number one party school in the state. He had begun as a serious student, a lover of literature with writing skills he hoped to develop. He attended on a full-ride scholarship—baseball and academics; he was full of promise and optimism in spite of the toxic political climate of that era and the increasing scope of domestic and international disasters. But after three years of college life—the stress of playing ball, staying in shape, and keeping up his grades in a cornucopia of sex, drugs, and rock and roll—he found himself on academic probation, no longer on the baseball team, and broke.
He was tall and good-looking with thick blonde hair to his collar and a mustache. He had managed to stay away from the heavy drinking, pot, and other drugs throughout his freshman year, but with lots of pretty girls and a party somewhere every night, the temptation became too much for a young man who had previously led a sheltered life. His hair grew, his manner of dress changed, and he formed new friendships with people who weren’t so hung up about grades and sports.
Bart had seen Davis around campus and had even had classes with him but didn’t get to know him until one night in May when he found himself at a party where the lithe and swarthy hippie was the center of attention. Upwards of 100 people—an assortment of freaks including students, faculty, and dropouts—had gathered at an old farm house a few miles outside of town. People were drinking and laughing on the porch, in the yard, and in clusters throughout the rambling structure. The main hive of activity, though, seemed to be back in the kitchen. Groups kept moving in and out of there in huddled discussion over loud strains of Led Zeppelin. Bart guessed the reason for the activity, and his theory was confirmed after he edged his way into the room to get another beer out of an ice-filled tub. Davis was leaning over the high Formica-covered counter, his straight black hair pulled back in a pony tail. He was flanked by a seriously interested group that seemed a bit younger than the rest, probably freshmen, two girls and a chubby guy with pink cheeks. Davis was holding forth, laughing, cutting his eyes from one to another, and showing them something on the counter. He was providing reassurance; then Bart saw them make the exchange: money passed into Davis’s hands, then swiftly into his jeans. The chubby guy said, “Thanks, man.” Davis responded by wrapping his arms around all three. “You guys are beautiful,” he said. “Enjoy, and let me know when you need more.”
Bart, hanging around the beer tub, became interested in watching this guy work. They exchanged glances once or twice as Davis displayed his charm through a steady stream of customers in groups and pairs, some excited and some apprehensive. There were lots of girls at the party and most of them at some point made their way to either Davis and his place at the counter or the beer tub. Bart, maintaining his vantage point, soon found himself in conversation with a hippie girl, breathtaking in her beauty.
She had reached into the tub, pulled up a dripping longneck, then tossed her head to settle her shag haircut back into place. In response to Bart’s stare, she smiled, flashing her big hazel eyes at his. “Hi. You keeping watch over the beer?”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess. This is an interesting place to stand. All the cool people end up in this room at some point. Here. Let me open that for you.”
He reached toward her bottle with an opener. She met him halfway and held the bottle firmly while he popped the top. Moving closer brought a slight misalignment in his mind. Her appearance suggested an herbal, organic smell, but her fragrance was more like expensive Parisienne parfum.
“Thanks,” she said with another slight head toss. He noticed the silver hoop earrings shaking against her fair skin. Thickly layered strands of hair the color of polished white ash swooped over her ears then followed her slender neck down between her shoulders. She smiled and let her eyes linger on his face for a moment. “So, when you say ‘cool people’ are you including that long-haired dude over there at the counter?”
“Sure, why not? I mean, he’s been the most popular guy at the party ever since I’ve been here.”
“Hmm . . . that’s interesting. Any idea what his secret is?”
“Not sure, but I’d guess he has something other people want.”
“Hmmph!” She knitted her brows in mock seriousness. “You don’t suppose he’s selling drugs over there do you?”
“Well, since his jeans pockets are stuffed with cash, that seems a definite possibility.”
She sidled a step closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “What do you think he’s selling?”
“No idea. Something twisted up in tiny little plastic bags.”
Someone in the other room put on a new album and they became aware of the beginnings of a much gentler tune, quiet acoustic guitar and lilting vocals, then the chorus: “Skating away-ay, skating away-ay, on the thin ice of a new day-ay-yay . . .”
“Far-out!” she said, “Tull.” She sucked in her lower lip, half-closed her eyes, and moved her head to the flowing rhythm. “Ian Anderson’s a genius,” opening her eyes to his. “What do you think?”
“Great, I love Tull!” As soon as he had spoken he felt that he had let too much excitement show over their having such a small thing in common.
She nodded and smiled, glanced back to Davis, who was relaxing between customers at the counter. “I think I’ll mozy over and see what this guy’s up to.” She turned and he watched her walk away in her cut-off jeans and clog sandals.
A couple of guys he knew came into the kitchen with bags of ice and another case of beer to replenish the tub. Bart exchanged pleasantries and helped with the task. When he stood up and looked over at Davis and the girl, he saw that she was leaning into him, his arm around the small of her back, lifting her short denim jacket and exposing a pair of dimples just above the top of her hip-hugger shorts. With a hand against his chest she pushed herself away and turned, smiling, to look at Bart. With one arm around Davis’s waist, she motioned with the other for Bart to come over. Making the few steps across the room, Bart noticed that Davis was also smiling at him, as if they were complicit in some scheme that was just beginning to hatch.
The girl said, “You were right. This character has been up to no good. I interrogated him and he confessed.”
“Guilty as charged, your honor,” Davis said. “Question is, what are you gonna do to me.”
She grinned. “Help you spend the money, of course.” She nodded toward Bart. “He had you pegged all along. He’s an undercover investigator, you know.”
“Undercover . . . that explains it, why I’ve seen him hanging around the student center in the afternoons, and carrying books in and out of the library.” He smiled warmly, looked at Bart with eyes the color of dark chocolate. “Now that you’ve nailed me, I guess you should know my name.” He reached out his hand. “I’m Davis.”
Bart took the hand in the accepted thumb-locking hippie grasp. “Bart. Pleased to meet you.”
He looked at the girl. “I don’t know your name.”
She tilted her head causing one hoop earring to dangle, the other to lie against her neck. “Mary. Simple and easy to remember.”
They drank and chatted in the crowded kitchen, mainly about the assorted characters who continued to come and go. Mary was animated, doing most of the talking. Several times when partygoers approached Davis with furtive glances and veiled questions, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and held up empty hands. Mary asked, “Are you all sold out?”
“Almost,” he answered, with an implication in his eyes.
She said, “Uh-huh,” then turned to Bart. “So, what did you say you were majoring in?”
“I didn’t. Haven’t had a chance yet.”
“Let me guess. I’d say you’re of a practical turn of mind. And you have a sadness in your eyes for all that’s been lost. And your body—” she eyed him up and down—“suggests physical robustness. I think you’re someone who climbs around on mountainsides and in valleys digging up rocks, looking for fossils. You, my new friend Bart, are a geology major.”
Bart chuckled. “That’s a very interesting guess. Your insightfulness is staggering. But, unfortunately, you’re not even close.”
“She does that all the time,” Davis said. “She guessed somebody right last year at a party and hasn’t been able to stop since. She is a great judge of human nature. Now, if she could only match the natures up with the right humans . . .”
She laughed and pressed against Davis. “I figured you out pretty quick, though, didn’t I? I guess that’s what really matters.”
“Well, you’re right about me being what matters most, but I’m not as transparent as you think. There are some nooks and crannies in my psyche that you haven’t peered into yet.”
“There he goes, talking about his psyche. Davis is a psychology major, as you might have guessed.”
Bart said, “I would have never known. I’d have placed him in the business department. He seems to have mastered the laws of supply and demand.”
As they laughed, drank, and smoked their cigarettes, Bart noticed the mood of the party changing. Movement and noise subsided, replaced by a subdued camaraderie. Pink Floyd oozed from the speakers. Mellow. Joints were circulating everywhere in the smoky house, and people seemed content in their various groupings, engaged in deep conversation. “Our work here is done,” Davis said. “Why don’t we split, get out under the stars and enjoy the great outdoors.” He looked at Bart. “Come on, Man. I’ve got some things to show you.”
It was indeed a beautiful night, even when viewed from the inside of Davis’s old pickup. The three of them rode together through scenic rural areas Bart had never seen before. The truck, a Dodge from the 1950’s, was battered and noisy but seemed eager for the changing terrain, the washed-out curvy blacktops and steep hills. They turned onto a dirt road that after a few miles became barely passable. Picking their way over harsh bumps and ruts, they approached a wooden bridge that spanned an energetic rocky creek. Davis eased the truck over the planks, water gurgling beneath them, then pulled over and killed the engine and lights. The trees on either side were black and looming under the full moon. The road was mottled black with shadows, lumpy with rocks and potholes.
They had just finished smoking a very potent joint, and Bart was suddenly struck with a wave of paranoia. What the hell were they doing? Who were these people? Were they going to kill him and leave his body out here? Perform some weird ritual? These thoughts flurried through his guts, producing body tremors he could scarcely conceal. They sat quietly in the truck for a few moments before Davis began rummaging around under the seat. Finally he said, “Here it is,” bringing up something in his hand.
Mary said, “Cool. I’m glad you brought that. Lemme have it.” She snatched the roll of toilet paper from him and nudged Bart with her knee and elbow. “Open the door, dude. I gotta pee.”
He exhaled, almost laughed, and pressed down on the Vise-Grip pliers that served as a door handle. Davis opened his door and got out also. Mary stepped gingerly over the ditch and disappeared into some bushes. Davis came around to Bart’s side and handed him a beer. The air was filled with the sound of running water, crickets, frogs, owls, and other night creatures. They each lit a cigarette and listened for a moment. Davis said, “Snake creek. Cool, huh?”
“Far-out . . . literally.”
Davis slapped Bart on the shoulder. “I’m glad you like my back yard.”
From Davis’s smile Bart couldn’t tell if he was serious or not; then he heard Mary approaching. She handed Davis the toilet paper.
He said, “Why don’t you roll us another joint while I fix up a little something else for us.”
Mary said, “Sure,” and got back inside the truck.
Davis turned his back to Bart and, bending over the Dodge fender, began to make preparations. When Bart stepped in closer, he could see three individual sheets of toilet paper placed side by side. Davis removed his large black wallet, attached to his belt with a chain, and dug deep into one of the compartments. “When I saw how sales were going back there, I decided to stash a little for personal use, enough to divide up three ways, a good number—Biblical, you know.” He placed the small twist-tied package, made from the cut-off corner of a sandwich bag, on the fender. It was mashed flat from being in his wallet.
“What is that, anyway,” Bart asked. “I don’t mess with hard drugs.”
Davis grinned in the moonlight, his teeth flashing white. “It’s not heroin, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the love drug, MDA, kind of a combination of acid and speed. It’s great, really mellow. Makes everything all better.”
“But I’m short of funds tonight—”
“Don’t worry about it. This one’s on me. It’s not that expensive anyway.”
“But we don’t really know each other . . . why did you pick me—”
Again the flash of white. “I trust Mary’s instincts. She’s a great judge of human nature, remember?”
Davis’s hands were busy. “Here,” he said. “Hold this lighter up so I can see.” He used the blade of his pocketknife to measure equal portions of the white powder into the center of each toilet paper sheet. He wet his fingers and made three little balls, wrapping the tissue around the drug. The passenger door hinges creaked as Mary climbed out with a freshly rolled joint.
Davis said, “Cool, baby. Go ahead and light that thing up. We’re gonna find God tonight.” He handed Bart and Mary each a little drug ball and kept one for himself. Holding it up just prior to popping it into his mouth, he said, “Shall we?”
Bart glanced at Mary. She winked, swallowed down her drug with a big gulp of beer. He did the same.
He had never seen anything as beautiful as fire, Bart thought later, except for Mary’s face as she laughed and talked inside Davis’s teepee. His was one of five spread out along the grassy banks beside the creek, a little community not far from the bridge where he had stopped the truck. As they had topped the last rise in the old Dodge, bringing the teepees into view, Bart had expressed his surprise: “What the—”
“My front yard,” Davis had said.
“You mean you live here?”
“Yep. Great views, cool neighbors, and really cheap rent.”
Davis and Mary explained, as they parked the Dodge at the edge of the meadow, that Dr. Ostrakan of the psychology department owned the land and had agreed to the teepee settlement as kind of an experiment, a “simple living” collective. The professor didn’t care what they did as long as they didn’t erect permanent structures and took care of their garbage.
“It’s amazing,” Bart said. “That you can live this way. I’d have never thought—”
“It does have its downside. It was great last summer when we built everything, but over the winter things got kinda rough. Some nights we stayed in town at Mary’s place.”
Bart registered surprise. Mary answered, “Yeah, my parents don’t know about any of this. They still pay for my apartment and expenses, thinking I’m the model college girl. If they knew I flunked out this term, they’d shit bricks. I won’t be able to keep it a secret forever, though.”
“Let’s don’t worry about that stuff,” Davis said. “Tonight . . . ,” he made an expansive gesture, “the sky, the creek, us. This is what matters now.”
As the drug dissolved and found its way into his bloodstream and brain, Bart felt a dawning realization that Davis was right, that this—the here and now—was what mattered most. With childlike excitement he helped Davis build the fire, bringing in sticks of wood from the stack outside. Then he watched Davis’s expert hands as he prepared the kindling and laid the sticks just so in the rock-lined pit.
As the fire crackled and popped, the smoke, heavy and slow at first, began to find its way out the top. Mary’s face with the firelight reflected in her eyes, the music of her voice, and Davis’s reassuring smile had combined to produce a feeling of contentment unlike anything Bart had ever known. Now, with the fire burning clean, flames dancing over a bed of glowing embers, the contentment was still there, radiating out to blend with the heat of the fire and the warm souls of his new friends he had met only a few hours before. Amazing. Love, that’s what it was. Bart was experiencing true love—he was sure—for the first time in his life.
The fire melted all reserve between them and for a long time, they shared stories from their lives, their childhoods, hopes, and fears. Mary was the first member of her family to attend college. She had a little brother with Down Syndrome and other developmental problems. Mary had stuttered and been shy as a child but had miraculously blossomed through the loving encouragement of her fifth-grade teacher. Davis was a surviving identical twin. The brother had died in a car wreck when they were toddlers, cracking his head on the metal dashboard. Davis, standing next to his mother in the front seat, had been saved by her partially restraining arm, thrown out just before impact, an arm that had not been strong enough to hold both boys back from death. Davis himself had been cut and broken; he pulled up his tee shirt to show a star-shaped pattern of white scars on his chest and ribcage.
Bart felt that he didn’t have much to share from his sheltered life. He had stayed clean, made good grades, played ball, went to church a lot. Never suffered anything, really, other than the scrapes and bruises of a childhood that seemed too normal. But he wanted to share; he wanted to give them something of himself, so he told about his dream of becoming a writer, how he felt that he was born to do something important, to leave part of himself behind after he was gone. He sometimes imagined books he had authored on library shelves waiting to be discovered by new readers generations from now, and he sometimes dreamed books, but so far he had not been able to capture them upon waking, only bits and pieces he had used to construct stories. He had written several stories he was proud of. He told Mary and Davis they could read them some time, that he would be honored.
They listened. Mary leaned forward, smiling, big eyes looking over the impish flames at Bart. “So now I’ve got it. Your physical robustness is for living and experiencing all life has to offer, to get it into books; the sadness in your eyes is for the human condition and your need to make sense of it. You, my friend, must be an English major!”
They laughed. Davis said, “My God, Mary, you’re clairvoyant! Our very souls laid bare beneath your gaze!”
As the chuckles subsided Mary said, “That’s really cool. English is my minor, majoring in art. Did I say that yet? Was, I mean. Was majoring in art before I flunked out. Anyway, I love to read, and I write poems sometimes. I’m surprised I never saw you in the humanities building.”
“Probably because my classes are always early in the morning. We have to get our classes over so we can spend the afternoons practicing.”
“Yeah, I’m on the baseball team. Was, I mean.”
“Wow, a real jock! But I guess that must be tough. All the responsibility, people counting on you.”
Bart didn’t know what to say.
Davis said, “So, dude, that is cool. I read a lot myself. Who are your favorite authors?”
That got the words flowing again. Bart told about Hemingway and his quest for one true sentence; about Flannery O’Conner and her Jesus-twisted characters; Tom Robbins, his far-flung metaphors and social insight. Each time he mentioned a book or author Davis and Mary nodded their enthusiastic agreement and exclaimed, “Cool!” or “Far-out!” They were readers too, loved Vonnegut and Brautigan as much as he did. The discovery of their common interests was a wave that carried comfort like soft caramel throughout his body, and the night passed, slowly and wonderfully, inside the teepee.
The floor, constructed from planks salvaged from warehouse pallets, was strewn with old quilts, sleeping bags, and pillows; there was a chair, a mirror, and several shelves, one of which held a softly glowing kerosene lamp, another a wash basin. Plenty of fresh, gurgling water running just outside; warmth inside. Cold beer in the cooler, fine Columbian weed in Mary’s batik bag—what else could anyone need?
The sky, visible through the smoke hole, slowly changed from deep purple to gray, and the stars faded. The sedative effect of the beer was beginning to hold sway over the diminishing effects of the MDA, and, after eating roasted wieners and a big pan of popcorn popped on the fire, the three were nearly talked out. Davis turned out the lamp, then began to snuggle with Mary in what seemed to be their usual sleeping area. Bart reclined a couple of feet away, resting his head on a rolled-up blanket.
The fire had burned down to mostly coals now, three charred sticks producing a flickering medley of blue and orange. Bart closed his eyes, but inside his skull there was still much activity. The drug and the night’s revelations allowed only a measure of relaxation; sleep remained outside, a foreigner patiently awaiting entry. He listened to the soft popping and hissing of the dying fire, and from Davis and Mary’s blankets he heard murmurs and whispers that blended with the gurgling of the creek just beyond the canvas wall. From out there he heard frogs croaking as the night slipped away, along with owls, whippoorwills, barking foxes, and an occasional splash in the creek, but these animal sounds were slowly displaced by the sounds of Davis and Mary cooing and caressing under their blankets.
The murmurs became moans of pleasure, then pants and grunts as the couple made love beside him. He was outside their zone of passion, yet he felt a part of it. His pulse was synchronized with their rhythm, and he imagined the sensations of their mounting pleasure. He did not feel shame, embarrassment, or the need to turn away, but rather contentment, lying there with his eyes closed, wrapped in the warmth of the fire, blankets, and love.
As the tempo beside him increased, so did the volume and pitch of Mary’s panting. Their movement became strained, a struggle for release, and Mary yelped with pleasure. Bart felt something stir beside him, then pressure against his arm. Mary’s fingers were pressing, making circles on his wrist. Then her hand found his and squeezed tightly as she stepped over the edge into a free-fall of pleasure. As the grunting and panting subsided, the sounds outside became audible again. Bart drifted off to sleep, holding Mary’s warm, relaxed hand.
Before a week had passed the three of them were on their way to Florida. Davis suggested the move in a way that seemed natural, considering their current academic standing and future prospects. They loaded their most necessary and cherished possessions—amp, turntable, speakers, albums, Native American artifacts, a few pieces of handmade pottery, baseball gloves, camping gear, jeans, tees, and several boxes of Mary’s clothes—under a makeshift camper on the back of the old Dodge and headed south to Panama City. The general idea was to be bums, to sleep on the beach until they could find jobs and a cheap place. They’d be getting there between spring break and the summer vacation rush, the ideal time to seek out opportunities. Davis was persuasive, Mary seemed excited, and Bart was unable to resist.
* * *
Time passed and my Uncle Bart ended up staying in Florida, until the last month of his life, living out his days with sea gulls, the sound of the surf, and beach music in the background. He spent the years getting married and divorced and pursuing a variety of business ventures including night clubs, car lots, and liquor stores from the western end of the panhandle down to Tampa. He did drugs, drank, and smoke until a few weeks after he critiqued my story in Mom’s den, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, already in the advanced stages. This would be the first spring break in many years that he would not spend on the Gulf.
After an obligatory round of chemo did nothing but make his hair fall out and leave him sicker, Mom contacted the hospice agency. A bed was set up—in my old room this time as it allowed easier access—and Bart was moved in as the dogwoods reached full bloom. He didn’t put up much of a struggle, letting the nurses, Mom, and the morphine have their way. During those last days he seemed to enjoy, more than anything, my company. At first I sought reasons to stay away from the house, a place that was taking on the smell of death in spite of Mom’s opening the windows to the spring breezes, and to immerse myself in work during my last schedule of classes before graduation; but after a week or so of trying to avoid the inevitable, I gave in, clearing my calendar of obligations for several afternoons.
Mom left us alone as much as possible, and we talked about literature and writing, the mysteries of life, and the amorphous webbing that binds us together with everything else in the universe. He laughed and was in good cheer most of the time, but he occasionally drifted off into staring, silent reflection. He was sharing deeply from the well of his collected musings, but he seemed to be struggling to go deeper.
When we had gone down to his beach-front bungalow at the end of the Perdido Key strip, just east of Gulf Shores, to bring him back to Georgia, we left most of his possessions for later and shut up the little house. But he had insisted on bringing a few personal items. There was a thick cardboard storage box, the kind made for holding files and records. It was battered and taped at the corners and the lid was sealed with layers of clear tape. As Mom was packing his slippers, toiletries, and necessary items, he elbowed me and pointed to the box sitting on the floor at the foot of his unmade bed. “That’s coming too. Me and that box have got to leave here together. Go ahead and put it in the trunk.”
I lifted the heavy box as he asked, without thinking much about its contents, and it rode with us back to Georgia. Bart’s final weeks slipped by, and I didn’t think of the box again until the afternoon when he told me to drag it out of the closet and open it up. I pulled out my knife and started to cut through the tape.
“Everything you’ll need is in there,” he said, breathing deeply from the oxygen tube at his nostrils as I pulled off the lid. “The stuff of life.”
The box was filled with notebooks.
“I took notes, kept journals,” Bart said weakly from his bed. “I always planned to sift through it, sort it out into stories and maybe a novel, but . . . I ran out of time. That’s all that’s left of me now. Not much to show for a life, is it?”
I groped for words. “You were a businessman. You provided goods and services. You helped other people to be happy and live their lives. That counts.”
“Goods and services. I guess that’s what it boils down to after all.”
I ran my hand along the spiral backs and cardboard covers, pulling one out into the light. The notebook was labeled in black magic marker on the cover. Neat block letters spelled out the word, “Environment.” The next one in the stack was labeled, “Lust.” I pulled out several more notebooks, each cover printed with a one-word title. Before I stopped and put the lid back on I saw these words: Crime, Jealousy, Punishment, Resistance, Revenge, Deceit, Murder . . . . There were lots of notebooks in there, but that was enough for now. “Wow,” I said, “interesting titles.”
Bart’s eyelids sagged over irises that had grown dull. “Yes. At least I had that. An interesting life. I was never bored, until now. This dying business is starting to get old.” He drifted off into a deep sleep from which he never fully awoke. A few days later he was gone.
After the sparsely attended funeral I carried the box to my apartment and parked it within reach of my futon. When I pulled off the lid, my hand went straight to the last title I had seen: Murder. I had to know if Uncle Bart had been a bad man. I suspected that he had, but, oddly—and I struggled with admitting this to myself—I didn’t love him any less for it. The notebook paper was yellowing around the edges, each page filled with Bart’s legible yet sloppy cursive. I read the first page carefully, skimmed ahead, then went back and read slowly. The notebook was indeed a first-person account of a murder that had been committed in the winter of 1976.
The victim was a sick old reprobate, proprietor of Ray Ballard’s Beachside Motel. He had provided Davis, Mary, and Bart a place to stay in exchange for their help in operating the establishment. The old man had other business interests and a trophy wife in her forties whose needs were not being met and with whom Bart found favor. Davis managed to charm his way into the old man’s confidence: Ballard, after an evening of drunken camaraderie with Davis, showed him a special stash in the maintenance shed that nobody, not even the wife, knew about. The scheme, according to the narrative, was Davis’s idea, but its enactment required Bart’s participation. He kept the wife occupied while Davis got the old man drunk then smothered him in his sleep. The wife was satisfied, upon discovering her husband dead the next morning, that he had died from natural causes. He had been in poor health for some time, and now she could collect the insurance. After waiting a respectable few days after the funeral, the young trio left the widow to her fortune, themselves making off with considerable loot, including boxes of war relics: Confederate belt buckles, bullets, canteens; gas masks from WWI; German Iron Cross and Swastika medals; a Samurai sword; Japanese Nambu and German Luger pistols; and various helmets, patches, uniforms, emblems, and flags. They also got away with a gallon jar filled with silver dollars. No investigation was ever launched.
What Davis, Mary, and Bart did afterward is another story, or maybe several. I’ll have to spend some time sorting it out. I’ll have the opportunity to do that now since Bart’s will named Mom and me as his only beneficiaries. He left her enough to allow for a comfortable early retirement, and she plans to move to Birmingham to be near my sister and the grandbaby that will be here in time for the holidays. Bart left me the beach house and $100,000. I look forward to moving down there after graduation and getting some writing done.
Ron Yates received his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, where he worked with many fine writers and teachers and completed a novel entitled BEN STEMPTON’S BOY, set in the rural south of the early 1970’s. Yates has recently completed a short fiction collection, MAKE IT RIGHT AND OTHER STORIES, a work driven by two key components of his aesthetic: a desire to create crisp, character-driven prose and to evoke place in a way that furnishes and textures the fictional dream.
Yates’s work has appeared in The Oddville Press, Still: The Journal, Bartleby Snopes, Clapboard House, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Rose & Thorn Journal, and Prime Number Magazine.
He lives in a remote area of east Alabama on the shores of a large hydroelectric impoundment and has taught high school literature, creative writing, and journalism for many years.
When not writing, Yates enjoys hiking, taking pictures, tinkering around with old cars and motorcycles, and playing on the lake.