Blip Magazine Archive


Home : Archive : Links

Clint McCown

from The Weatherman

For me it all boils down to family problems. Nothing original in that, I realize--we all own plots in that cemetery. But my case might be a little different from most in that I can trace fifteen years worth of nightmares and paranoia--and, oddly enough, academic obsession-- back to a particular moment in my life, a single instant on a summer morning at the freight yards, where I’d gone to steal coal from abandoned railroad cars.

I was eleven years old, and on that day my friend Tippy Parker and I had hiked down to the Cahaba River like we did most every summer morning. The county had had its share of rain that spring, and even the summer had been damp, but a June drought to the north of us had left the water level low enough that we could wade long stretches with just our pants-legs rolled. We each carried a mason jar for minnows, which were plentiful in the shady spots along the western bank, and which we could sell for a quarter to Andy’s Bait Shop just across the trestle.

We also each carried a sharpened bamboo spear about five feet long, which we had whittled from broken fishing poles. Our intention was to use these spears to fend off any copperhead or water moccasin we might inadvertently provoke. Tippy claimed to have seen four snakes already that summer, but one of those turned out to be a broken fan belt, so in truth he might not have seen any at all. I sure never did. But we were boys, after all, and welcomed any excuse to carry a weapon.

We worked our way up to the third bend, crossing out of Cahaba Heights and into Irondale. From there we cut through the marshy flood plain to Shades Creek and, crossing over, climbed the sandstone bank behind Blackie’s Gentlemen’s Club, a low cinder-block dive on Front Street across from the Norris freight yards.

Blackie’s was a mystery of the adult world to us then, with neon cocktail glasses on the sign above the door and windows haphazardly blackened with slapped-on coats of paint. On the far side, across the gravelly pock-marked street, was a string of coal cars that had sat untended for more than a year, each slowly filling with season after season of rain. They’d long ago been emptied of their loads, although not entirely; most still held scatterings of coal beneath the stagnant water in the bottoms of the cars.

Wading those coal cars was easier than wading the Cahaba, or even Shades Creek, because the footing was firm and we had no worry about snakes. The bottoms weren’t even slimy, although I can’t explain why. Maybe the compartments were treated with chemicals. Maybe the coal dust somehow kept the water too gritty and poisoned even for scum. Maybe it was just too damn hot. In any case the texture along the iron beds stayed rough enough for our bare feet to find traction. We still had to move with care--the open cars, it seemed, were a favorite target for drunks with empty bottles. So we slid our feet carefully through the black water, nudging aside the shards of broken glass as we scavenged for the coal. Tippy kept a burlap bag tied to the belt loops of his jeans, and in less than half an hour we could pluck out enough burnable chunks to fill it.

This piecemeal dredging of the coal cars was not a pleasant activity, especially on a sweltering summer day, when those rust-coated sides burned hot enough to raise a blister. But we weren’t doing it for fun. Tippy’s family was pretty bad off, even by local standards. His dad was an older guy, over sixty, who’d lost his job at the Shell Station because they thought he’d been stealing empty oil drums. Free coal was a real windfall for the Parkers because it meant they could heat their house come winter. That might not seem like a big deal, this being mid-Alabama where it almost never snows. But the Parker’s house was mostly tar-paper, so it didn’t have much in the way of insulation, and January, even around here, can get cold. If the temperature drops to thirty-five overnight, that’s what you get out of bed to in the morning. Besides that, the Parkers had one of those old pot-bellied cook stoves--the only one I’ve seen in real life--and Mrs. Parker fixed all their meals on it. So the coal made a difference there, too.

In six weeks we’d lugged home nearly three hundred pounds. A couple of times Mr. Parker gave me a nickel for my part, but usually he paid me in magazine pages. He’d tear out big color pictures of pretty women in lip-stick ads and give them to me. That seems kind of creepy to me now, but at the time I thought it was a pretty good salary. So just about every day we’d bring in a full sack, which we’d then carry around back of the chicken coop and empty into one of Mr. Parker’s oil drums.

To this day, coal still seems like some kind of miracle fuel to me. It never rots, it never gets eaten by termites, it won’t go bad like gasoline. It’s a rock that burns. And on top of all that, it’s where diamonds come from.

I assume that means that under the right circumstances, a diamond can burn, too. Not from any ordinary fire, of course. When they cut Arch Hathaway’s body out of his station wagon, for example, the arm that was handcuffed to the steering wheel was burnt down to the bone. But his big diamond ring came through just fine--still sparkled like a star in that morning light. The setting was tarnished, but that was all.

Anyway, the coal. Tippy and I were just starting our first slow sweep through the murky water of an old Southern Railways car. Most of the coal cars were black, but this one was a dingy rust red, older, I think, than the others. It was directly across Front Street from Blackie’s, close enough that I could have hit the front screen door with the right piece of coal. On other days, in fact, I had done just that. Kids throw things, after all, and even though it had cost us some effort to collect the coal, after climbing back out of the cars, sun baked and soggy, and filthy beyond reason from the brackish water and our own stinking sweat, we couldn’t resist flinging the occasional chunk toward the tubing of Blackie’s neon cocktail sign. It was a natural target for an eleven-year-old--colorful, exotic, and highly breakable.

To my secret relief, we never hit it--barely even came close. Coal is pretty lightweight with a lot of odd facets and sheared edges. That meant the harder we threw, the more crazily each piece would carve out its own idiosyncratic path through the air. No big league pitcher ever had the kind of curve or slider we achieved involuntarily on every throw. Consequently, the entire cinder-block front, which had no windows, was peppered with our impact marks. Blackie must not have cared, since, beyond putting dents in his screen door, we never really broke anything. In any case, he never washed the black marks away.

But on this day, August 26, 1963, our last day ever to scavenge coal at the freight yards, Tippy and I never got the chance to try our luck against the sign. A car with a bad muffler pulled into the gravel lot next to Blackie’s. We noticed because there was seldom any traffic along this stretch of Front Street, at least not during the day. The Club didn’t open until sometime in the evening, and there were no other businesses along that desolate stretch, no destination but the barricaded dead-end overlooking the creek at the far end of the yards. From the belly of the coal car we heard the slow, noisy approach, then the faint pop of gravel, then silence as the motor died, then the slam of the car door.

Neither Tippy nor I had ever seen Blackie--he was a late-night phantom known by reputation only. His Gentlemen’s Club, a brown-bag private drinking establishment in an otherwise dry township, was famous throughout the valley as the embodiment of danger to both body and soul. Our minister at Christ’s Church had used the word vice in decrying the activities of the place, and even though our parents rarely spoke about the specific goings-on, rumors of knife fights and drunken brawls circulated regularly through the schoolyard. It was said he was a bootlegger, that family fortunes had been lost at his poker table, that he rented-out women for a dollar. He was the richest and most notorious black man in all the Shades Valley towns, and to those of us in bed by nine o’clock, he was as intangible as myth.

"Maybe it’s him," Tippy whispered, and he quickly began to untie the burlap sack from his waist. While he fumbled with the wet knots, I pulled myself up the sloping wall to take a look. A brief glimpse was all I could manage--the rim of the car was like a stove top, so I couldn’t hold on. As I slid back down, Tippy cast the coal sack aside and scrambled up the wall himself, burning his own fingers as I had done. With a sharp cry he leapt back down to the bottom of the car and plunged his hands into the dark water. After a few moments he straightened slightly and pressed his palms against his thighs. "I couldn’t tell anything," he said hoarsely.

That was hardly a surprise. Tippy had poor eyesight--so poor they always made him sit up front in school. Nearsighted, I guess he was. His parents couldn’t pay for glasses, though, so he pretty much viewed the world through a perpetual squint. I often had to fill in the more distant details. My eyes were fine.

"Just some regular guy," I told him. I’d seen the man for barely an instant myself, and only from behind, as he disappeared beyond the screen door. He was thin and blond, I could tell that much, and he wore cutoff jeans and a tee-shirt. I noticed he was sunburned along the backs of his legs and arms.

Tippy fished around for the coal sack, which had slipped beneath the water out of sight. "I have to go home," he said, lifting up the mouth of the sack and pulling the drawstrings tight.

I took the sack by the neck and raised it from the water with one hand. "It’s not even half full," I said. "Your mama couldn’t heat a chili-pepper with a load this small. "

Tippy sucked in a slow breath through gritted teeth, and I suddenly realized that the look on his face wasn’t a squint but a grimace.

"I jumped on glass," he said.

"Lemme see. "

He put a hand on my shoulder to steady himself and drew his foot from the water. Blood trickled from a thin slice along the soft skin of his instep. I held his foot and carefully pressed around the edges of the cut. A fresh trickle flowed from the end nearest his heel, and I wiped it away with my fingers.

"It’s a little deeper right here," I said, pointing to the bloodier half of the gash. "But it doesn’t look too bad. You feel any glass in there?"

"I don’t think so," he said, squeezing his foot with his free hand. "It don’t really hurt all that much. "

"Well, let it bleed for a while," I told him, wiping my fingers on my shirt front. "That’ll clean it out. And don’t put it back in this water--no telling what kind of corruption we’re standing in. "

"Maybe I’ll get lockjaw," he said.

"Maybe you will. "

Tippy smiled at the possibility. It was always good to imagine a little drama in our lives. "I’ll pour peroxide on it when I get home," he said.

"Peroxide’s for little kids," I told him. "Put something on it that stings, like iodine, or tincture of methialate. That’s how you kill germs. "

"Alcohol," he declared. "I’ll pour alcohol right down inside the wound. "

"I bet you won’t," I said.

"I will too. "Tippy took the coal sack and tossed it over the rim of the car toward Front Street. "I ain’t afraid of alcohol. "

He pressed his foot carefully against the rough slope of the wall and stretched forward, hooking his fingers over the edge. He hoisted himself quickly up the incline and swung down on the other side. I followed him up over the rim and dropped beside him in the yellow dust.

"You talking about wood alcohol or grain?" I asked.

"Grain, you dope. Wood alcohol makes you go blind. "

"Only if you drink it, moron. Anyway, where you gonna find grain alcohol? Your daddy don’t allow it in the house--I heard him say so. "

"There’s other people got it," he said, but without much conviction.

"Name one," I challenged him.

Tippy looked down at the ground and shrugged his shoulders. His parents, like mine, belonged to the Temperance Union, and his were Holy Rollers besides. Liquor simply didn’t exist in our world, except as the principal villain in countless cautionary tales. Tippy had a better chance of finding a penguin in his mother’s pantry than a jug of moonshine or a bottle of Jack Daniels.

I picked up the coal sack and tested the heft--five or six pounds, at the most. I handed it to Tippy, and while he retied the sack to his belt loops I turned my attention to the minnow jars. The minnows were still moving, but instead of darting back and forth, they now cruised slowly along the curve of the jar. We needed to change the water soon or we’d lose them.

That was one lesson we’d learned the hard way. Most days we’d be lucky to snag half a dozen or so; minnows were quick and difficult to catch barehanded. But one day we hit the jackpot--stumbled into a whole school bunched up in a narrow stretch where Fuller Creek met the river. We could have reached in with our eyes closed and still brought out a handful. I’d never seen anything like it. And of course our greed got the best of us and we kept putting more and more minnows in the jars until finally they were packed in so tight they could barely wiggle. By the time we got them to the bait shop, they were all dead. Not enough oxygen in the water.

Today, too, we’d had good luck, finding a clotted run of minnows in a shallow pocket along the river bank. This time we showed a little more restraint, but it was tough to resist overloading the jars when the minnows were right there for the taking. Maybe we’d been too greedy once again--I couldn’t tell yet. There’s always a line between enough and too much, but it’s hard to know where that line is until you’ve crossed it.

Tippy picked up one of the jars and, using his bamboo spear for balance, limped a few steps to the shoulder of the road. He stopped there, as if he were waiting for a break in traffic, and I noticed the small drips of blood that trailed behind him on the hard-packed ground.

"What’s the matter?" I asked, coming up alongside him. "Mama won’t let you cross the street by yourself?"

Tippy nodded toward the building in front of us. "I’ll tell you somebody who’s got grain alcohol," he said.

I laughed. "Blackie’s got it, all right. And I guarantee he’ll be keeping it, too. Here, gimme that. "I took his minnow jar from him and handed him my stick of bamboo. "You’ll shake ‘em up too much, the way you’re walking. "

"You don’t know what Blackie might do," Tippy said. "He might give us a little bit, if we asked for it. Just for medicine. "

"Yeah, right. "I held the two jars still for a minute to let the cloudiness settle, and then started across the street. At the edge of Blackie’s gravel lot I turned back toward Tippy, who stood rooted to his spot,

"I bet he’s got band-aids, too. "He lifted his foot and rapped the shorter bamboo spear against his heel to shake loose some of the freight-yard grit. "Probably be glad to help us out. "A smug smile crept across his face. "Unless you’re scared to ask. "

"Just get your butt across the street," I said.

At that moment, I don’t know if I meant to take his dare or not. Tippy wasn’t hurt that bad, but a sliced-open foot could be a legitimate excuse to knock on Blackie’s door. I knew there was no chance to get any alcohol from him. No black man in the county was crazy enough to give liquor to white kids these days--not with all the trouble we’d had lately. He’d get himself run out of town, or maybe worse. But if we somehow got to talk to Blackie himself, face to face, even if it was just for a second, we could be big shots in the neighborhood from then on.

Tippy eased his way across to me, using the bamboo shafts like crutches. "What about it, Tay? Got enough guts?"

"These minnows are winding down fast," I told him.

"They ain’t no worse off than I am," he said. "I’m the one still bleedin’. "He spat into the gravel to show his disgust. "You’re just chicken, is all. "

I looked over at Blackie’s dented screen door, not ten steps away, and shook my head. "Least I’m not stupid. "

That was the wrong thing for me to say. Stupidity was a sore spot with Tippy because he was, in fact, stupid. He was the only kid anyone knew who had actually failed the first grade, and this year he had failed the fifth. He didn’t say anything at first, but I could see from the way he tightened his jaw and stared past me down the street that I’d made him mad. I knew he was calculating his next move, but I couldn’t guess what it might be. We often pretended to be cruel or tough with each other, and sometimes, without our meaning for it to happen, we’d go too far, and that familiar moment of crisis would suddenly arrive. I recognized that moment now as Tippy took a long slow breath and raised up the longer of the two bamboo spears--the one that was mine.

"I’ll show you stupid," he said, and before I could make a move to stop him, he let it fly, full force, toward the doorway. It was a perfect throw, one that tore through the lower center of the rusty mesh and lodged there, half-in and half-out of Blackie’s old screen door. We both froze, then, neither one of us believing the line that Tippy had just dared to cross.

I don’t know why we didn’t run. My whole life would have turned out differently if we had. But recklessness is its own kind of liquor, and can swamp the mind in a hurry. Without a word passing between us, Tippy and I began to move toward the damaged door, daring each other forward with every tentative step.

When we reached the pitted concrete slab that footed the doorway, I tucked the jar from my right hand--Tippy’s jar-- into the crook of my left elbow and reached out to retrieve the spear. It was right then, before I’d even begun to pull the bamboo from the screen, that we heard the first muted shot. We both jumped, and Tippy’s jar tumbled forward onto the stoop, shattering in a splash of dying minnows and glass. Two more shots followed the first, and Tippy broke into a run, bad foot and all, and disappeared around the corner of the building before I could even sort things out clearly enough to react. For the longest four seconds of my life I stood stranded in confusion. I needed to pick up the broken glass, I needed to scoop up the minnows, I needed to take back my spear, I needed to run. But I couldn’t think, or even move. I couldn’t do anything but stand there in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time, as muffled shouts and curses rolled forward from some back room in Blackie’s Club.

Then the sound of an inner door banging open.

Of chairs flung against a wall.

Of a table overturning.

Of the bursting clatter of things going to pieces, scattering in all directions across the floor.

Then three more shots, much louder this time, much nearer the front, and the rising up of shadows beyond the screen, and the gasping cry of the Black man now barreling toward me from the shallow darkness of the Club.

I thought I was killed for certain. But still I couldn’t move, even as the screen door banged open and Blackie, it had to be Blackie, lunged across the threshold, stumbling through the broken glass, and pitching forward, his heavy body colliding with mine in a glancing blow that sent me flying to one side as he skidded awkwardly to his knees in the gravel.

He knelt there, head down, blood drooling in strands from his gaping mouth, struggling to breathe. I don’t think he even realized I was there, or if he did, he was far beyond caring. He coughed a couple of times and vomited weakly into his hands, then settled slowly back on his heels. I remember expecting him to fall over, but he didn’t, he stayed slumped on his knees, his head resting on his chest, like a man in prayer. Like a statue, that’s how still he was. And then it occurred to me that he was dead.

I looked toward the doorway, hoping to God the thin blond man would not be there yet, that I would still have time to run, like Tippy did, and leave this nightmare behind me. But what I saw there scoured every small hope from my heart. The screen had not swung shut--the shaft of bamboo had been knocked nearly free when Blackie forced the frame back against the outer cinder-block wall, and now the sharpened end of the spear drooped into the dirt beside the stoop, propping the door wide open. There in the entryway, with the gun still in his hand, stood the only person in the world I already knew to be afraid of.

It was my cousin Billy.

Billy was from the Hatcher side of the family. We shared a great-grandfather, James Hatcher, a blacksmith who was killed in the Spanish American War. Billy’s father had died in a war, too, in Korea, which is maybe why Billy was always so wild. He and I grew up on the same street, just a block apart, but he was eight years older, so except for family reunions, we almost never saw each other. I’d been alone with him only twice. The first was when he was thirteen and I was five; he tied me to the stairway in his mother’s basement and burned me with cigarettes. The other time was four years later, on a Sunday afternoon, right after Billy had come home from his second stay in reform school. He spotted me in the schoolyard and chased me all the way up to the roof of the gym. When he finally caught me by the arm, he laughed, like the game was over. But then, without reason or hesitation, he tossed me from the roof like a sack of trash. It was a long drop, maybe twenty-five feet, and if I hadn’t caught a grip in some willow branches, I might have been hurt pretty bad.

Now here we were again. Only this time there was already a dead man kneeling in the dirt. And this time Billy was mad.

He stepped out onto the stoop and glanced quickly around. I looked around, too, hoping for some policeman on patrol, some passing car, some hobo headed for the river, anything that might somehow alter my situation. But the street was deserted--no people, no stray dogs, no birds, no presence of any kind. No sound but the soft grumbling of a distant train; no movement but the small halo of dust stirred up by Blackie when he fell. Billy calmly raised his pistol, aimed it at my face, and pulled the trigger. The empty click surprised him.

"Fuck!" he yelled, and started toward me. I tried to scramble away, but he was too quick and too close, and before I could get half-way to my feet he caught me by the back of my shirt and dragged me toward the open doorway.

But I wasn’t feeling so paralyzed anymore. The monster here wasn’t the terrifying phantom of my imagination that Blackie had been; the monster here was my asshole cousin Billy, a skinny punk with no more bullets in his gun, a flesh-and-blood human being with a flesh-and-blood susceptibility to pain.

As he hoisted me up over the edge of the stoop into the minnows and broken glass, I reached down with my free hand and jerked loose the piece of bamboo from the open screen door. He must have seen me make the grab, because he stopped in mid-stride and slammed me on my stomach against the concrete slab, smashing the second jar of minnows beneath me. I knew I was cut, but it didn’t matter, and even with the wind knocked out of me, I could still maneuver. I squirmed sideways in his grip and rammed the spear upward as hard as I could, up the left pant leg of his baggy cutoffs, catching him on the inside of his upper thigh. Bamboo, if you carve it right, allows a sharper edge than ordinary wood--stronger, too, and more blade-like--and now I was able to push the narrow point deep into a knot of muscle. His whole body tightened involuntarily, and in that split-second of delay, before he could react in my direction, I twisted the shaft, and shoved it further in. Billy howled and staggered sideways, dropping me before I could stab him again. He rolled onto his back in the gravel and grabbed his bleeding leg with both hands.

"Goddammit!" he screamed, and the rage in his voice was so fierce I thought he might come after me again that very instant, in spite of any damage I had done. But the wound, apparently, was a good one, and for the moment Billy stayed where he was--as did I, because the wind was still knocked out of me, and I couldn’t yet run. So for an oddly calm handful of seconds we both just lay there, hurting, in the gravel, with the dead man propped absurdly between us, fighting our separate battles to regain control. Blackie’s screen door, I remember, creaked on its hinges and slowly swung shut.

But soon enough my breath came back, and I was on my feet again. At first I thought to break toward the river, but Tippy had gone that way and might still be waiting for me just behind the building. Besides, the flood plain offered no place to hide and was too swampy for running, and if Billy caught me to near the river he could drown me. My best bet was higher ground.

I lit out across the road toward the freight yards, and even though I heard Billy slipping in the gravel behind me, I didn’t look back, not then, because I didn’t want to know how quick he still might be, or how close, or how crazy. I didn’t want to know anything.

I just ran. I ran past the line of coal cars, and across three sets of empty track, and past the loading docks for the Birmingham Southern, and the Central of Georgia, and the Seaboard Line, and then I veered between equipment sheds and dodged a handcar overturned in the weeds, and raced along a drainage ditch, and jumped the ditch when it angled toward the river, and my lungs burned and my side ached, but I kept running, because I had no choice, and I ducked beneath a row of cattle cars on the Great Alabama Southern, and sprinted past the holding pens and past a switching spur, and came out, finally, on the far north side of the rails, up by the main tracks, where at that blessed moment a string of boxcars rumbled slowly along the upper end of the yards.

My legs were nearly spent, but I set the lumbering boxcars as my goal, and forced myself into a final kick, a last, desperate burst that carried me up alongside an empty car, up within reach of the iron ladder bolted to its wall. The ground was level and the train was slow, so it was a simple matter to grab a high rung and gain a foothold, and from there, to work my way up the ladder and step through the open boxcar door.

That’s when I finally looked back, down that long cluttered slope toward the flood plain and the river. But there was nothing to see; Billy was nowhere behind me. Maybe I’d lost him in the rail-yards. Or maybe he hadn’t chased after me at all, maybe he was still on his back in the gravel. Or maybe he’d driven home to put more bullets in his gun. I didn’t like not knowing, but that part was out of my hands because the boxcar came with a limited view, and Blackie’s place was hidden now by too many other things, too many sheds, and warehouses, and train-cars, and trees. Even the mid-morning sun glared against me.

I stepped away from the opening, into the shadows of the car, and sank to the straw-littered floor, exhausted. The mild vibration of the tracks hummed in my spine, and leaning back against the cool, dark wall, I began to shake. I looked down at my tee-shirt, mottled with blood, and brushed my fingers lightly across the cotton to feel for glass. A few small splinters glistened in the weaving, and I drew them out as carefully as I could.

It felt good to have something small like that to focus on, something appropriate to do, something uncomplicated. I guess I must have sensed already that complications would mar my life from that time on, that nothing in my questionable future would ever again be as simple as stealing coal from the freight yards or catching minnows in jars.

And, in fact, a further complication descended upon me even then, as my eyes adjusted to the smoky hollow of the boxcar. There were others in that stale half-darkness with me.

Clint McCown heads the creative writing program at Beloit College, where he also edits the Beloit Fiction Journal. His most recent novel is War Memorials (Houghton Mifflin), for which he received his second Pulitzer Prize nomination. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared widely.

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at

Copyright © 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.