George Singleton

GEORGE SINGLETON has pub­lished four col­lec­tions of short sto­ries (These People Are Us, The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Why Dogs Chase Cars, Drowning in Gruel); two nov­els (Novel, Work Shirts for Madmen); and one book of writ­ing advice (Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds).  A new col­lec­tion of sto­ries, Stray Decorum, will appear in 2013.  His fic­tion has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Oxford American, Playboy, Georgia Review, Zoetrope, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Epoch, Glimmer Train, and so on.  His work has been anthol­o­gized wide­ly, includ­ing ten appear­ances in the annu­al New Stories from the South. He was a Guggenheim fel­low in 2009, and received the 2011 Hillsdale Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.  Singleton teach­es at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, and lives in Dacusville.

Photo: Glenda Guion

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Gripe Water

 

My wife’s child­hood friend, Dottie, I assumed, nev­er encoun­tered an eti­quet­te hand­book, or nev­er had the com­mon sense and decen­cy to con­tact any num­ber of social skills experts who offered advice in dai­ly news­pa­pers or inter­net web sites.  How hard is it to take a deep breath, drop the knit­ting needles, and con­tact a grief coun­selor or birth con­sul­tant in the­se days of omnipresent blog­gers?  You’d think that the first half-dozen times Carol mis­car­ried would’ve taught Dottie to stay home and wait for an all-clear.  I don’t want to accuse my wife of impa­tience, but maybe—what with three ear­ly mis­car­riages behind her with­in two years—six or eight since we offi­cial­ly married—she shouldn’t have told her friend Dottie, or my rel­a­tives, or even me.  One time I got on the inter­net and found a preg­nan­cy author­i­ty who said that, until every child­hood dis­ease had a cure and car seats got deemed fool­proof and fail­safe, an expec­tant moth­er shouldn’t announce her preg­nan­cy until the kid enrolled in sec­ond grade.  Maybe the spe­cial­ist exag­ger­at­ed.  I’m begin­ning to think that a num­ber of every­day blog­gers like to show off their sar­cas­tic view­points, that they sit back in their rooms alone laugh­ing over what peo­ple might under­go in the realm of bad luck and poor  judg­ment.

You might as well leave now,” Carol told me right before Dottie showed up the ear­ly after­noon after the last mis­car­riage.  This was a Saturday.  Two nights before, Carol went to the bath­room, et cetera.  We didn’t go to the emer­gen­cy room, or call an ob-gyn.  I’d always said, “Do you want me to take you to the ER?” because it wor­ried me.  I would always say, “We need to see some­one more spe­cial­ized than a gen­er­al prac­ti­tion­er.”  I think I stole that line from a hus­band-char­ac­ter I watched one time dur­ing a made-for-TV-movie.

She and I didn’t even have reg­u­lar GP doc­tors.  It’s not like we were Christian Scientists.  Carol and I, it seemed, were the type of peo­ple who believed that bad news and wor­ry caused sick­ness and pre­ma­ture deaths.

It’s noth­ing,” my wife always said.  “It’s not even notice­able.  There’s not much dif­fer­ence than sit­ting down first thing in the morn­ing and find­ing out your peri­od start­ed in the mid­dle of the night.”

I’d looked up some infor­ma­tion myself, qui­et­ly.  I ruled out some kind of Munchausen Syndrome see­ing as Carol would more than like­ly deliv­er a child and then push it down a flight of steps if that were a valid diag­no­sis.

Please don’t let Dottie come over,” I said.  “She’s an idiot, and you always get upset after­wards.”  I didn’t say any­thing about how, on top of her ini­tial stu­pid­i­ty, Dottie’d got­ten “born again,” and couldn’t par­tic­i­pate in a two-per­son con­ver­sa­tion with­out Matthew, Luke, John, and Mark horn­ing in and spout­ing off.

Here’s Dottie: Carol announces her preg­nan­cy, way too early—“A mir­a­cle, at age thir­ty-six!” or –sev­en, -eight, -nine, and Dottie will get to work knit­ting an afghan.  Two or three weeks lat­er my wife tells every­one about the mis­car­riage, and Dottie shows up with one square of the baby’s afghan, announc­ing, “You can use it for a triv­et,” or oven mitt, or some­thing to set down between a ter­ra cot­ta planter and wood­en table.

Carol said to me, “Go to the bar for a few hours.  Go watch foot­ball games.  Call up Eddie and Albert and have them meet you down at the Side Pocket.  I’ll be okay with Dottie.  She means well, real­ly.  And if you’re here I’ll get all ner­vous and either be mean to her, you, or both of y’all.”

That’s anoth­er thing that showed up in all my mis­car­riage research: Certain wom­en couldn’t be left alone, cer­tain wom­en insist­ed on being left alone, some wom­en pre­ferred only the com­pa­ny of strangers, and oth­ers sought out old child­hood friends in order to rem­i­nis­ce about mid­dle school P.E. teach­ers that they lat­er real­ized were les­bians.  The per­cent­age of those wom­en who even­tu­al­ly left their hus­bands was pret­ty high.

What I’m say­ing is, there’s an infinite num­ber of pos­si­ble ways each mourn­ing near-moth­er will act.  I guess if I should ever weigh in on the sub­ject and leave a com­ment on some of those blog sites, I might add, “Certain wom­en lose all ratio­nal abil­i­ties and force their hus­bands to go out binge drink­ing with Eddie and Albert,” et cetera.

I left the house, but didn’t con­tact my friends.  We worked togeth­er, the three of us, thir­ty miles away at Die-Co, the die cut­ting out­fit.  Eddie and Albert were my best friends, but even after work­ing togeth­er fif­teen years when­ev­er I saw Eddie and Albert I thought “Eddie Albert,” which made me think of the actor who played Oliver Douglas on Green Acres, which caused that the­me song to play in my head for some time after­ward.

Or I thought of the actress Eva Gabor who, from what I learned, got mar­ried five times and nev­er had a child.

Eddie and Albert didn’t know about Carol’s oth­er mis­car­riages.  They nev­er said to me, “When y’all going to have some kids?” even though Eddie had three daugh­ters and Albert a son named Albert, Jr.  I don’t accuse my friends of being inat­ten­tive or self-absorbed.  Die-cut­ters, on the whole, think about pro­tect­ing their fin­gers most of the day, and at night the sev­ered fin­gers they’ve seen on the floor.

*

Maybe I don’t always feel like drink­ing out­side the house when Carol’s friends came over and my wife shut­tled me out.  Carol worked the cos­met­ics coun­ter at a Belk depart­ment store thir­ty miles in the oth­er direc­tion of our Calloustown abode.  Her co-workers—I for­get their names, but they worked Fine China, Lingerie, Children’s Shoes, and Handbags—showed up at times, always com­plain­ing about the store man­ager, no com­mis­sions, moth­ers who accused their kids of grow­ing out of clothes on pur­pose, and the lack of basic human civil­i­ty in gen­er­al.  Anyway, the co-work­ers drove all the way out to our house on occa­sion, and Carol request­ed my absence, and so on.

Like almost every time this occurred, on this par­tic­u­lar day of the most recent mis­car­riage I drove into two-block-long Calloustown, parked my truck, and found myself inside Southern Exotic Pets, a place that spe­cial­ized in rep­tiles, trop­i­cal fish, the irreg­u­lar chin­chilla, and– accord­ing to rumor—trapped and shipped din­goes from Australia.  If I know my cani­nes, the din­goes were noth­ing more than pointy-eared thin dogs from the swamps down in the low­er part of the state and south­east Georgia called, plain­ly, Carolina Dogs, and rec­og­nized by the AKC.  For what it’s worth, unlike typ­i­cal, non-fer­al pure­breds, Carolina Dog bitch­es under­went three estrus cycles in quick suc­ces­sion, much like my wife.

Southern Exotic Pets stood between the Side Pocket bar and Calloustown Grill.  Across the street we had a pawn shop, a fire­works out­let, and a store­front long vacant and unrentable due to the ghosts liv­ing inside ever since Grady Dorn shot and killed his entire fam­i­ly and then hanged him­self there inside what had been his Calloustown Florists busi­ness.  It’s not like a curi­ous per­son couldn’t wile away a good few hours, which often made me won­der why Calloustown nev­er seemed to attract north­ern retirees and/or fugi­tives in need of rel­a­tive­ly-safe refuge.

I walked into Southern Exotic Pets and waved at Spence, the own­er.  He yelled out, “Sorry to hear about Carol!” too loud­ly.  I nod­ded, held up my hand, and turned toward the stacked up aquar­i­ums.  I passed blue neon gup­pies, tetras, angelfish, the usu­al.  I tried to stare down an apart­ment com­plex of Siamese fight­ing fish, but they seemed bored.  On down the aisle Spence kept a cou­ple pira­nhas and a slith­er of eels—which made me think that a sushi joint should open up in Grady Dorn’s old flow­er shop see­ing as the chef could cross the street and get his fresh ingredients—and then I round­ed a cor­ner to a line of snakes, lizards, sala­man­ders, and tor­tois­es.

If a five-year-old boy had not mis­tak­en me for his father—at least that’s the orig­i­nal sce­nar­io I concluded–I might’ve leaned down to a ball python and thought about Dottie show­ing up and con­strict­ing all the air out of our house.  But the kid, two ter­rar­i­ums down from me, tapped on glass and said, “Here’s what I want.  It’s a corn snake, but I can tell every­one it’s a coral snake.  ‘Red touch yel­low, kill a fel­low.’  This has red touch­ing black, so it’s a corn snake.”

I walked over and bent down to see.  He looked up and said, “Hey, you’re not…”

Growing up, I had mis­tak­en a stranger for my father, too, a num­ber of times.  I nev­er real­ized if I was the one who strayed off inside gro­cery and hard­ware sto­ries or if my father wasn’t the most con­sci­en­tious guardian.  To the kid in front of the snake I said, “How long will that corn snake get?” and hoped that he wouldn’t start scream­ing out, what with how mod­ern par­ents implant fear and para­noia into their children’s heads, right­ly or not, to the point of it being impos­si­ble to approach any child aged two to nine­teen and say, “Hello, kid, do you know any­thing about how that Kentucky Fried Chicken box you’re hold­ing got die-cut?” with­out a moth­er appear­ing out of nowhere, already punch­ing 911 on her cell phone.

Hey,” the boy said.  He didn’t need to intro­duce him­self, I thought.  He wore a stick-on Hello My Name Is nametag on his shirt with “Rex” writ­ten in block let­ters.  Who let his kid walk around in pub­lic with a nametag? I thought.  Now that was an uncon­sci­en­tious guardian.

Hey back at you, Rex.  I’m Duane.”  I said, “Do you want me to help you find your father or moth­er?”

Whenever Eddie, Albert, and I got togeth­er, Albert got stuck think­ing non-stop about Duane Eddy, the gui­tarist who record­ed the 1960s instru­men­tals “Peter Gunn” and “Rebel Rouser.”  Sometimes when Albert didn’t respond to ques­tions both Eddie and I knew he’d got­ten those twangy notes stuck in his head.

Rex looked like he belonged in a break­fast cere­al com­mer­cial.  There weren’t many chil­dren left in Calloustown—occasionally some­one over the age of forty might have an unplanned pregnancy—and I thought about how I’d nev­er seen this kid before.  Maybe he lived in a town even small­er than Calloustown, a place like Gruel or Level Land that couldn’t sup­port a store that spe­cial­ized in pets oth­er than cal­i­cos, Dachshunds, and min­nows.

Rex said, “A coral snake’s one of the most dan­ger­ous snakes in America.  There’s the rat­tler, and water moc­cas­in, and cop­per­head.  But the coral snake’s bet­ter.”

I’m not sure why I decid­ed it was the prop­er time to tell this lit­tle inno­cent boy about a non-exis­tent myth­i­cal crea­ture my crazy uncle Dillard told me about when I was Rex’s age.  I said, “Coral snakes are scary, but not like a pine gator.  I doubt they sell pine gators here.  They’re too rare and vicious.”

Rex shook his head side­ways, then said, “What?”

A pine gator,” I said.  “It’s kind of like a reg­u­lar alli­ga­tor, but it has a monkey’s tail.  Pine gators are shy, reclu­sive ani­mals that most­ly live in the Appalachian moun­tains.  They hang down from tree limbs, you know, and wait for peo­ple to walk by.  Or deer.  Pine gators have been known to eat the heads off bears that aren’t pay­ing atten­tion, or that are spend­ing too much time by a pine gator’s per­son­al tree sniff­ing around for hon­ey­bee hives.  You can hard­ly even see them, they’re so cam­ou­flaged.  A pine gator’s hide looks just like a pine tree’s bark.”

I felt sure that Rex wasn’t from here, or even the state of South Carolina.  It’s not dif­fi­cult to make out a stranger—the men have hair­cuts per­formed by pro­fes­sion­als, the wom­en pluck their eye­brows con­sis­tent­ly, and chil­dren don’t squint, stam­mer, and wear long sleeves in sum­mer to hide their scars and bruis­es.  Strangers ask for direc­tions back to I-26, I-20, I-85, or I-95, they try too hard to use dou­ble neg­a­tives when talk­ing to us, they leave tips at the Calloustown Diner.

Rex said, “I used to have a pine gator for a pet.  I had one.”

You did?” I said.  “I nev­er had one.  I’ve seen a cou­ple, but I got scared and ran.  I didn’t want my fin­gers bit­ten off, see­ing as I already work as a die-cut­ter.”

Mine’s was named Gypsy,” Rex said.  The corn snake in front of him lift­ed up toward its cage’s roof, then dropped down.

That’s a pret­ty good name for a pine gator,” I said, though I didn’t mean it, see­ing as we didn’t live far from Irish Travelers, and I knew that the term “gyp­sy” wasn’t all that right a thing to say.  “I believe that if I ever had the good for­tune of own­ing a pine gator, though, you know what I’d name him?  Gypsy!  I’d name him Gypsy, that’s what I’d do, no doubt.”

Hey, that was my pine gator!” Rex said.  He laughed, and stomped his feet.  “I just said that!”

He walked toward me, and then, with­out my hav­ing to take his hand or shoul­der, fol­lowed me to the cash reg­is­ter where, I assumed, we’d find his par­ent.  “I came across this lit­tle snake afi­cionado over in your snake sec­tion,” I said to Spence.

You did?”  Spence looked over his drug­store-pur­chased read­ing glass­es.  “Nothing I like more than to have a her­petol­o­gist in the room.”

The kid said noth­ing.  Spence and I stood there look­ing at each oth­er for too long, then we looked around to find no oth­er adult in the pet store.  I said, “Rex, was your father or moth­er in here with you ear­lier?”

He said, of course, “Why do you keep call­ing me Rex?”

*

We ran out­side and yelled for help.  We looked down aisles, behind aquar­i­ums, in the stor­age room, in the restroom.  We did every­thing three times.  In between I said, “What’s your name?” and “How did you get here?”  Looking back, may­be I didn’t give the kid enough time to answer.  When he start­ed crying—wailing, real­ly, just like any kid in a movie about divorced par­ents or not get­ting a toy—I didn’t know what else to do out­side of call­ing Carol and inter­rupt­ing her sul­len ren­dez-vous with Dottie.

We got this kid down here at the pet shop don’t know his real name his father or moth­er seems to have aban­doned him!” I yelled over the phone.

My wife said, “Try ‘Jacob.’  Try ‘Jacob,’ ‘Jason,’ ‘Joshua,’ or ‘Jeremy.’  Those are the most pop­u­lar names right now.”

I looked at him and asked if those were his names.  He said, “I’m not sup­posed to say my name to strangers.”  He’d quit cry­ing, but Spence need­ed to hold a Kleenex to the boy’s nose.  I wasn’t going to do it.

Just bring him home,” Carol said.  “We’ll fig­ure this out.”  She turned her head from the mouth­piece and said to Dottie, “You see any Lost Child posters on your way over here?”  To me she said, “Dottie says check his pock­ets and tags of his shirt and under­wear.”

Good idea,” I said, and hung up.

The three of us stood there at the reg­is­ter.  Someone next door beat on the wall, either excit­ed or upset with the foot­ball game being aired.  I told Spence what Carol said.  “I ain’t doing that,” Spence said.  “Ten years from now Little John Doe here will have some ques­tion­able mem­o­ries and the next thing you know you and me’ll be shar­ing a pris­on cell with Father Fudgepacker.”

The kid said, “I want the corn snake.”

I pulled the back of his t-shirt and looked at the tag.  His par­ents hadn’t print­ed a name there.  I said, “Is your daddy’s name Rex?  Did you get that stick­er from your dad­dy?”  I thought I’d come up with a good idea, log­ic-wise.  My father always let me wear the paper bracelets they wrapped around his wrist at the hos­pi­tal, back before drink­ing and dri­ving was a sin and my father wrecked his car often.

Spence said, “Who wants a corn snake?” and smiled.

I do,” the kid said.

I don’t know any­one named ‘I.’  You’re going to have to be a lit­tle more speci­fic, or Duane here’s going to take you out on the side­walk and pull your pants down.”

I said, “Damn, Spence, shut up.  You’ve already gone too far with the Father Fudgepacker thing.”  I said to the kid, “I’m not going to pull your pants down.  Do you want a Tootside Pop or some­thing?  Spence, you got any Tootsie Pops back there?”

Who is it that wants a corn snake?” Spence said again.

”George Washington nev­er told a lie,” the boy said.  To me, he no longer looked like a child actor who starred in cere­al com­mer­cials.  I kind of didn’t like him—or his parents—and may­be thought about how lucky I was not to have to deal with a kid dai­ly.

I want­ed a drink some­thing bad.  I felt it nec­es­sary to go to the Side Pocket and pull for col­leges I’d nev­er heard about.  It wouldn’t’ve tak­en a gun to my head to dri­ve home, shoo Dottie, and get to work impreg­nat­ing Carol until she kept a baby to term.

Spence said, “No, you idiot, I don’t have any Tootsie Pops.  Does this look like a can­dy store?  Why would you even get the boy’s hopes up in such a way?”

The boy start­ed bawl­ing again.  “I want a Tootsie Pop,” he blurt­ed out.  Something flew out of his nose, then returned.  It looked like a moray eel, I swear to God.

Spence said, “Who wants a Tootsie Pop?  I don’t know any­one named ‘I.’ Again, you have to be more speci­fic.”

I thought about how a five-year-old child wouldn’t under­stand “speci­fic.”  The child, though, said, “Wyatt Speight, Jr. wants a Tootsie Pop.”

See?” Spence said.  “That ‘junior’ part sure makes it eas­ier.”

I said, “I know that you can’t leave the reg­is­ter, so keep an eye on him and I’ll can­vas the block look­ing for his par­ents.”  To the kid I said, “Did Wyatt Speight, Sr. bring you here, or your mom­ma?  Or Wyatt Speight’s par­ents?  Do you know what your mother’s maid­en name is, in case I need to look for those grand­par­ents?”

Little Wyatt shrugged his shoul­ders.  Spence told me to shut up, go ask around, and look for a suck­er for the kid while I was at it.

*

Because I’ve seen the news, City Confidential, Cops, America’s Most Wanted, 20/20, Dateline, and those oth­er tele­vi­sion pro­grams that delve into the uncom­pro­mis­ing side of evil human beings, I knew bet­ter than to walk into the Side Pocket, stand on the bar, and yell out, “Is any­body in here look­ing for a lit­tle five-year-old boy?”  I don’t want to say any­thing about my Calloustown cit­i­zens dur­ing rough eco­nom­ic times, but there was the chance that some of them might want an extra kid around for cheap labor, and the oth­ers for pos­si­ble ran­som demands.  No, I walked into the bar, ordered a beer from Pony Robbins, the own­er, and looked around for unfa­mil­iar faces.  I seemed to know every­one, and if not by name I knew them enough not to be named Wyatt or Speight or senior.  I said to Pony, “You seen any strangers in here today?”

He wore a long pony­tail, which I guess he grew what with his offi­cial, given name.  Sometimes Pony Robbins got drunk and said, “I’m glad my dad­dy didn’t name me Mohawk or Fu Man Chu.  I’m glad my par­ents didn’t name me Beehive, or Bob.”

Pony said, “You just missed Eddie and Arnold.”

There’s a lit­tle kid next door who’s lost his par­ents.  You know any­body around here named Wyatt Speight?”

Pony shook his head No.  “Only locals and reg­u­lars today.  You can pret­ty much tell if an out-of-Calloustowner’s been in here by exam­in­ing the bot­tom of this.”  He held up an emp­ty tip jar.  He hand­ed me a glass of draft beer.  “You look like you seen a goat,” Pony said.  He always told peo­ple how a goat’s eyes scared him more than a wisp of specter cross­ing an emp­ty street, say from the old florist’s place over to the bar.

I drank my beer, ordered anoth­er, and placed a five-dol­lar bill on the bar.  “I’ll be right back,” I said, and went to the din­er and called out “Wyatt Speight, Sr.?”  then repeat­ed the process up and down the street, stick­ing my head in store­fronts, and so on.

Nothing.

Somebody at Calloustown Diner said, “Wyatt Earp” imme­di­ate­ly after my sum­mons, evi­dent­ly think­ing I want­ed to start up a bas­tardized game of word asso­ci­a­tion.

When I returned to the Side Pocket fif­teen or twen­ty min­utes lat­er, Carol and Dottie stood beside my emp­ty stool.  They had Wyatt Speight, Jr. with them.  The kid had a piece of yarn tied to his wrist which, I learned lat­er, orig­i­nat­ed from a pot hold­er Dottie knit­ted, et cetera.  My wife held the oth­er end of the yarn.

I told her you weren’t in here,” Pony said, “but she rec­og­nized the five dol­lar bill you left.”

I thought he joked.  I said, “No one showed up at the pet store?  We need to call the police.”  To Wyatt I said, “Did some­one drop you off and leave you?  Did you hit your head?  Do you know your address?”

Pony said, “Your wife goes through your wal­let and mem­o­rizes num­bers on the bills.  Then she can go to places you say you haven’t been, and trades mon­ey from the reg­is­ter in order to look through all the seri­als.”

Dottie said, “How old are you, Wyatt Speight, Jr.?”

He said, “Five and a half.”

Hey, didn’t you have a mis­car­riage five years and eight months ago, Carol?”  Dottie stomped one foot down and opened her mouth wide.  “If you ask me, this is the Lord’s way of giv­ing you the baby back to you.  And that’s how good Jesus is!  He’s saved you from dirty dia­pers, vac­ci­na­tions, a breast pump if you so chose that option, pot­ty-train­ing.  The list goes on!  Jesus prob­a­bly saved y’all’ses mar­riage see­ing as old Duane here didn’t have to lie and sneak out of the house when he couldn’t take the kid howl­ing from col­ic any more.  Jesus saved you a for­tune in hav­ing to buy gripe water.”

I looked at Carol, hop­ing she’d be able to read my eyes, with which I tried to say two things: “We need to ditch Dottie some­how,” and “Do you real­ly go through my wal­let?”

Wyatt Speight, Jr. said, “Are you my new mom­my?”  Maybe he had some kind of wall-eye prob­lem, but he appeared to be ask­ing Pony.

*

Out of every­one involved, Spence—who may or may not have bought and sold cobras, Inland Taipans, black mam­bas, bush­mas­ters, cot­ton­mouths, and dia­mond­backs to ques­tion­able  breed­ers and collectors—called up the sheriff’s depart­ment and the Department of Social Services to report the sit­u­a­tion.  When Deputy Leonard Marder showed up to ask ques­tions, we left the bar and returned to the pet store in case anyone—namely the kid and me—needed to re-enact the scene.

We let Spence give the appro­pri­ate answers.  In a place like Calloustown, die-cut­ters were con­sid­ered much more reli­able than house­painters, roofers, or pulp­wood dri­vers, but not shop­keep­ers.  There were a num­ber of occa­sions where­in I allowed some­one else to talk to an author­i­ty fig­ure, main­ly because Die-Co came out Dyke-o to most people’s ears, and a cop, or meter read­er might be prej­u­diced imme­di­ate­ly.

What time did you first notice the boy?” Marder asked.

I don’t know.  What time was it, Duane?”

Dottie said, “I come over at noon.”

My wife said to Dottie, “Let’s let them fig­ure it out.  Let’s go get some cof­fee.”  I don’t know if I said, “Thank you, Carol, thank you,” audi­bly.

To Marder I said, “Yeah, I’d say about noon.”

The kid said, “I had Cocoa Puffs for break­fast.”

I didn’t think any­thing of the state­ment, but Deputy Marder might’ve had bet­ter train­ing than I under­stood.  He said, “So you’re not from Calloustown, are you?  We don’t sell Cocoa Puffs around here.”

I said, “What the hell’s gripe water?  Dottie—the wom­an who just left with my wife—said some­thing ear­lier about babies need­ing gripe water.”

Leonard Marder said, “Where you been, Duane?  I thought you and your bud­dies took your bour­bon with gripe water.  Go on over to the Bag ‘n’ Pay and look in the for­mu­la sec­tion.  Or in Mixers.”

He seemed unnec­es­sar­i­ly adamant about his direc­tive.  Maybe I breeched the law enforce­ment officer/witness pro­to­col.

Spence said, “Every min­ute counts, I’m think­ing.”

Wyatt Speight, Jr. said, slow­ly, a series of num­bers.  It wasn’t lit­tle-kid-try­ing-to-count num­bers, either.  He didn’t go, “One, two, three, eight, fifty!”  He count­ed out sev­en dig­its, which Leonard Marder wrote down while I con­cen­trat­ed on a defense strat­e­gy, see­ing as that’s how I ran my life dai­ly with Carol and my boss.

Spence said, “You can use my phone here.”

Leonard Marder said, “I don’t know why they went and got us all cell phones.  Got to dri­ve out of the coun­ty to get a prop­er and reli­able sig­nal.”

*

I learned lat­er, on Monday, that every­thing worked out for lit­tle Wyatt Speight, Jr. and his par­ents.  There had been some dishar­mony in the fam­i­ly, evi­dent­ly, and Wyatt, Sr.’s father-in-law tried to scare his daugh­ter.  The old man kid­napped young Wyatt, young Wyatt escaped, and his grand­fa­ther chick­ened out and drove two coun­ties away.  Was he going to ask for ran­som mon­ey?  Did he plan on re-invent­ing his life else­where, com­plete with very young son?  Eventually, I felt cer­tain, Leonard Marder, or the Department of Social Services case­work­er, or a min­is­ter, would rec­og­nize the entire sto­ry.

My wife and I had returned home with­out say­ing much to each oth­er.  I don’t want to say there was a ten­sion between us, but some­thing caused us both, I felt sure, to feel a need to be alone and with one anoth­er simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.  Perhaps it was guilt—I beat myself up for own­ing seed that couldn’t grip for more than a mon­th, and I got that Carol, too, under­went a sense of hope­less­ness in regards to our ever fill­ing the extra bed­room with a crib, mobile, and stuffed ani­mals rem­i­nis­cent of what thrived in tiny cages at Southern Exotic Pets.

Carol sat down in the den and tried to teach her­self how to knit.

I stared at her more often than not for the rest of the week­end, in hopes that—should words come out of my mouth—I wouldn’t say some­thing that might make her cry.

We didn’t answer the tele­phone when a tele­vi­sion news reporter called from fifty miles away.  I kept the TV tuned to the Weather Channel and con­cen­trat­ed on a doc­u­men­tary about Hurricane Hugo which had affect­ed Calloustown periph­er­al­ly twen­ty years ear­lier.  Carol and I didn’t answer the phone when a news­pa­per reporter called, or when Dottie called, or even when Wyatt Speight, Sr. called and left a mes­sage of grat­i­tude.

I said to my wife, “We would make the best par­ents ever, more than like­ly.”

Carol’s needles clacked out a noise that—if I remem­bered rudi­men­ta­ry Morse Code well enough from back in Boy Scouts—spelled out either S-O-S or S-O-N.

Like I said, I learned the entire sto­ry on Monday.  I had called in sick, and fig­ured it safe to go buy a news­pa­per to check out both Saturday and Sunday’s scores.

I read where Wyatt Speight’s father promised his son that corn snake, as it end­ed up.  And, right there on page 2A under Local News, the father men­tioned how his son real­ly want­ed a “pine gator,” but a snake would have to do, after this ordeal.  He said, “I want to thank all the peo­ple who helped bring my boy home,” and said that he wouldn’t be press­ing charges again­st his father-in-law, a man who “fought some demons.”  Evidently the grand­fa­ther thought Wyatt, Jr. like dinosaurs more than snakes, thus the “Rex” ploy.

My wife and I ate Alpha-bits for sup­per that night, as we had most nights, spelling out words to each oth­er, and wait­ing with­out com­plaint.

_________________________

 

Interview with George Singleton

Meg Pokrass & James Whorton, Jr.

Can you tell us any his­to­ry about “Gripe Water” the title, how it came about, was born… any back­sto­ry on it? We love it here.

A: First off, I wrote a sto­ry about eleven years ago called “Gripe Water” that got pub­lished in Zoetrope, except the edi­tor there didn’t like the title and changed it to “Seldom Around Here.”  Then, when that sto­ry was in a col­lec­tion called The Half-Mammals of Dixie, my edi­tor, Shannon Ravenel, didn’t like “Seldom Around Here” or “Gripe Water,” and asked that I change it to “Page-a-Day.”  Gripe water—I think it’s kind of an old-fash­ioned ton­ic for a child with colic—always stuck with me, and I final­ly tried to write a sto­ry that I could hon­est­ly call “Gripe Water.”  So there’s that.  As to this par­tic­u­lar sto­ry, I’ve been writ­ing a slew of sto­ries about a fic­ti­tious town called Calloustown, where Reconstruction nev­er took place so much, and I want­ed to meld the very old South with some­thing as omnipresent and con­tem­po­rary as Amber Alerts.

Do you find it irri­tat­ing that in our media-packed cul­ture we have now become self-con­scious and  para­noid…  and we have to feel weird about being friend­ly to kids? I love it in the sto­ry that you tack­le this light­ly it is done just right.

A: I have a friend who went into a pub­lic restroom to take a leak.  A 13-year-old boy said the guy fon­dled him.  My friend’s face was all over the local news.  The kid lat­er said, “Oh, I just made it up.”  Funny how the news didn’t cov­er any of that.  Yes, it’s a scary, para­noid, liti­gious world.  I haven’t seen any­thing like this since the Old Testament.

What is it about teach­ing high school kids that  you love the most?  Tell us about what is hap­pen­ing in your writ­ing pro­gram? What is new there?

A: I don’t have to unteach most of my stu­dents.  I teach at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a pub­lic res­i­den­tial school of about 240 stu­dents.  They have to audi­tion and inter­view to get in, and it’s mighty com­pet­i­tive in cre­ative writ­ing.  We take 12 stu­dents per year.  Now, when we get them—most of the time they’re close to the top of their class­es, et cetera—they’re either tread­ing water or doing the back­stroke.  None of them are drown­ing.  It’s not so hard to teach a kid how to go for­ward, toward the clos­est, and most log­i­cal, shore.  They’re in my fic­tion writ­ing class for three hours per day, five days a week.  They smoke–wait, I smoke, but I have to walk off cam­pus about ten miles to the clos­est damn “smok­ers’ bench.  They smoke sto­ries out like crazy.  I require 30–45 pages per nine weeks.

Over the last few years we’ve had a num­ber of kids win the Scholastic National Portfolio Awards (7 in the coun­try, we had two this year, a cou­ple four years ago, one last year), and kids win the National Merit in the Arts Awards (20 in the nation, two in our class­es this year.)  One of our graduates—who is a junior in col­lege now—had three poems accept­ed at Poetry his fresh­man year in col­lege.  One kid who just grad­u­at­ed last mon­th from USC film school signed with an agen­cy for a nov­el he wrote.  The list goes on.  They get out of South Carolina, go to places like Princeton, Duke, Harvard, Brown, Kenyon, Chapel Hill, Rice, Penn, and so on.  I want them to come back.

Back to the ques­tion (sor­ry about the adver­tise­ment): These stu­dents want to be in class, so they do their work.  They are sponges.  I have them read a sto­ry (at least) per night, and they have to do 60 read­er-based respons­es per nine weeks.  More often than not stu­dents will read, say, “I Dated Jane Austen,” by T.C. Boyle, then go read a dozen more of his sto­ries.
(from Jim W.) How do you feel about teach­ers assign­ing your work to their stu­dents?

A: There are a num­ber of sadis­tic pro­fes­sors out there.  Lord, lord, lord.  Seriously, I love it, of course.  One time I had a sto­ry in some kind of anthol­o­gy that had a “Teacher’s Edition,” though, and for my sto­ry there were all the­se allu­sions to what I was doing that I had no notion of as I wrote the sto­ry, or after I fin­ished the thing.  Who’s writ­ing those things up?  As long as teach­ers or pro­fes­sors let their stu­dents read a sto­ry, then say, “What does this mean to you?” and then say, “You are cor­rect, that is what it means for you,” then I’m okay with it.
You told me that you like flash fic­tion. I would pay you hun­dreds of dol­lars to say some­thing nice about the form. Here at BLIP we like it and run a lot of it.

A: Flash fic­tion: Easy to write a piece, hor­rif­i­cal­ly dif­fi­cult to write a great one.  I attempt to write flash fic­tion once or twice a year, just in hopes of writ­ing a decent piece.  I don’t think it’s hap­pened yet.

How has the inter­net messed with us as writ­ers and how has it helped us as writ­ers?

A: Because I’m a cur­mud­geon, and have been since the age of about 30, I have detest­ed the internet/computers for the most part.  I still used a type­writer in 1994 or there­abouts.  Man, when you think about it, things real­ly hap­pened fast, didn’t it?  I remem­ber first see­ing word proces­sors in about 1988, then every­one had one of those lit­tle boxy Macintosh things about a year lat­er.

I hate to admit it, but the inter­net is a great thing for writ­ers, for the most part.  My only prob­lem is look­ing up, say “gripe water,” then end­ing up read­ing about how Louis XIV was a col­icky child or what­ev­er, then look­ing at pho­tos of the Palais de Versailles, and so on.  My fault.

What kind of nasty things do writ­ers do and or/say to each oth­er? What are the good things writers..do and or/ say to each oth­er? (hm) (may­be skip this)

A: I don’t live around a slew of writ­ers.  Well, I take that back.  I live with­in a stone’s throw of Ron Rash, Ashley Warlick, Keith Lee Morris, and oth­ers.  Good things writ­ers do or say: “Hey, man, way to go,” when anoth­er writer has good for­tune.  A writer has good for­tune, for the most part, for work­ing hard.  I’ve always said that writ­ing is not a com­pet­i­tive sport—worrying about what oth­er peo­ple are doing doesn’t help.  (I would like to add—curmudgeon here—that it’s not a spec­ta­tor sport either, and I want all those odd peo­ple to quit writ­ing their nov­els and look­ing all dreamy-head­ed at cof­fee shops.)

Do you have a per­son in mind that you are writ­ing a sto­ry FOR when you write sto­ries? Someone you are talk­ing to?

A: Level-head­ed, ratio­nal, befud­dled, lib­er­al-mind­ed men and wom­en.

Have you ever been in jail?

A: I live in South Carolina.  On top of that, skin is the largest organ, yet the small­est pris­on.

If you could do any­thing now, this sec­ond, what would it be?

A: Find some lev­el-head­ed, ratio­nal, befud­dled, lib­er­al-mind­ed men and wom­en who actu­al­ly bought books.  How come my roy­al­ty state­ments keep going back­wards?  Who’s in charge of those num­bers, that dude from NASA doing the count­down for rock­et take-offs?

What is next for you as a writer? What are you work­ing on?

A: Next col­lec­tion of sto­ries is called Stray Decorum, but it won’t come out until September 2013, if there’s still a world.  I have a short nov­el called I Would Be Remiss that’s all Acknowledgements, but I don’t think anyone’s inter­est­ed in it.  No sweat.  I’m still work­ing on the­se Calloustown sto­ries, and when I get about 50 of them, I’ll dwindle it down to fif­teen or so.  Big-ass gar­den this year, too: toma­toes, jalapenos, squash, sweet pota­toes, cucum­bers, can­taloupe, Brussels sprouts.  Brussels sprouts!  Who eats those things?