He pushed the flowers into the folds of my apron. Keep walking, he said. Keep walking. So I walked. Then he said, You will lose all your roses walking like that, dear girl.
Bull Wainwright owned a chain-gang. Tim Christie sold rum. Nell Andrews got around. Susan Anthony sewed curtains. Elijah Winters fucked a horse. Joseph Bedsole staged plays. The Virgin Mary, a.k.a. Marybeth Fieldstone. M.B. Waters, Narrator and Jesus. Ivan Bedsole blew off a bridge. Xavior Livingston died. Peter Castleworth seemed too smart for his own good. Gaylord Steinbeck called himself a firebrand. His son, Leroy, a hero. His daughter, Addie, a drunk. Jake Billingsley got caught with a condom. Augusta Wells hid with her lover in a sand-dune. Missy Waters fell in love with a building. Joseph Cornell, that man was so crazy. Because it was September, he insisted we enter his wigwam for a feast of honor. We walked inside to find a pair of collapsed dollhouses and a pyramid of burning bird cages. He asked six of us to form a foreign relations committee, gave us a marble cylinder and told us to go out into the pasture and fill it with cow manure. When we returned, he promptly accused us of lunacy, then ordered we stand aside while he wrapped himself in electrical tape. At last someone, whose name I forget, had the nerve to ask what all this meant. Thimogona, he said. Nothing more.
The statistics are in. Doctors have concluded. People are talking. The state vouches for the salubrious effects of our climate, particularly. While elsewhere you may be improved, here you are fully restored. Rest assured, you will leave this 1.8 mile stretch of sunshine, pop. 808, randy as the day you were born. Doctors are nowhere to be seen. CVS and Walgreens have fled in embarrassment. Medical students walk around confused. Nurses have been foreclosed upon, our hospitals now their homeless shelters. All you see when you walk by are shuttered windows, and the occasional shamed-face peeping out at us from the shadows. 99% of our unemployed are hopelessly educated. They harass you with their medical charts, shouting fancy Latin words. We laugh, laugh, laugh. If you’re interested, the following maladies are cured within 5–7 days of residency: hay fever, gonorrhea, gout, lupus, rickets, gangrene, asthma, tongue cancer (stick it out), male pattern baldness, abnormally large ovaries, abnormally large breasts, homosexuality, Type 2 diabetes, cyclic vomiting syndrome, scurvy, insomnia, melanoma (surprisingly), Cotard’s syndrome, anorexia, opiate addiction, pedophilia, lung cancer, rosacea, gum disease, halitosis, walking sickness, amnesia, bedwetting. Others take up to two weeks or, if female, perhaps a month: hand tremor, night terrors, Urinary Tract Infection, love of books, hypertension, excessive sweating, heartburn, virginity, acne, Mad Cow Disease, acid reflux, and, strangely enough, the Bubonic Plague. As to various mental deficiencies, I’m sorry, we can’t help you. I purposefully did not mention arthritis, because there’s been a bit of debate about that. Arthritis Today still has a small clinic set up, despite a measly clientele. Most are naïve out-of-towners or defensive subscribers. I don’t wish to add fuel to the fire necessarily, but did I mention I’m 102, happily taking dancing lessons?
This town was in the midst of an identity crisis. We believed T.D. Jakes was really T.D. Jakes. We believed T.D. Jakes was not really T.D. Jakes. He was T.D. Jakes, he wasn’t T.D. Jakes. This is what happens when young men leave their mothers and go as far southwest as New Orleans. We hear nothing for years from the scoundrel, then, one day, a letter from jail, stained in plum juice, penned in atrocious scrawl. We handed it to Loretta, who took one look at the postmark and tossed it into the wood-stove. “My son would be here tending pigs,” she said, matter-of-factly. That’s the last of T.D. Jakes, we thought, or so we thought, but then frog-loving weather comes, and the grasses grow higher than a hound’s tooth, and in saunters a man with rolled up trousers and grass between his teeth, shaking hands at the general store, asking for mama. Well, we sent little Albi for Lorretta but, from the washboard, she wasn’t to be moved. “My son would be here tending pigs,” she said, slamming the door, sending Albi a‑trotting. Well, that left us in one hell of a pickle. With no firm direction from kind or kin, we were on the verge of fistfights and hair-pulling, when Watkins suggested it might be time to break in our courtroom. We asked Sheriff to tie up the imposter til we got hold of Judge, whom, we rightly guessed, was off drinking somewhere. Promptly a posse’s ordered, but in the meantime, word spread through the county like syphilis, so that by the time we fetched Judge from a cypress pond, the courtroom’s packed tighter than a hog pen, with folks lining the road 100 miles east all the way to the courthouse steps. The only person not around was Loretta. First thing Judge did, after guzzling a tall glass of water, was demand she be summoned, so we send little Albi back again, but she doesn’t get past the door this time, though we know she’d been there alright when we saw the black eye and crumpled little note. The judge told her to read ‘fore the court, but little Albi’s so shaken up, Judge had to do it himself. The note’s, if anything, matter-of-fact. “Only time I’ll be seeing any man by the name of Jakes again will be with the good Lord himself or at the wrong end of a rifle.” Signed, Loretta D. Jakes. Well, Judge says, wiping his eyes on a handkerchief, I guess that leaves Willie. Willie, who knew Jakes well-nigh well and still had some scores to settle, sprung from the back pew quicker than a water moccasin, plowing right over Ms. Haversham, and halfway to the docket before bothering to button his waistcoat. Once inside, Willie took a good long alligator look at the man and said, “Oh yes sir, I’ll testify, that’s him alright.” Seeing as no soul in the history of Elbert County had ever crossed Willie P. Peterson, we all assumed the case open-and-shut, until, that is, Sue Bell Jones stood up, and in a fit of divination or insanity, offered her sweet wonders to the prosecution. What happened next is harder to describe, but people were switching sides faster than jackrabbits, and we’d like to swore we’d never make up our minds until, at last, in the fifth and final hour, Judge ordered the exile unshod, stripped, and shorn, and sure as the ladies swoon, suddenly, we all knew.
It began with the problem of fog. The driver couldn’t see. The boat was heading toward the mouth of the waterway, and the driver couldn’t see. The waterway was closed to boats, and the boat headed toward the mouth. One of the barges broke. One of the barges broke loose. The boat was pushing barges, and one of the barges broke loose. It hit the bridge. The waterway was closed, and it hit the bridge. The driver couldn’t see. He didn’t know it hit the bridge. The bridge was a railroad bridge. The barge hit the bridge. The bridge was a swivel bridge. The barge hit precisely at the swivel point. The swivel was welded shut. The barge bent the weld, moving the bridge, moving the rails. The weld bent, instead of breaking. Instead of breaking, the weld bent, and the signal did not change. The rails moved, but the signal did not change, because the weld bent, and did not break. The driver couldn’t see. The driver of the train couldn’t see the bend in the bridge, because there was no signal, the signal didn’t drop red. The train drove over the bend, because the train was late. The train would have missed the bend in the bridge that separated the rails, but the train was late. The air-conditioner broke on the train, delaying the train, and the barge hit. The barge hit, because the air had broken, because the train was delayed. The barge hit the bridge and bent the weld twenty minutes late. Because of the fog. Because the driver couldn’t see. Or if. If either could see. If the signal had dropped red. If the weld didn’t bend. If the air didn’t break.
After the burn, we had wonderful energy. Lines for bucket brigades were out the door. People were seen sliding on ice! Yellow fever raged, as if with an urge to compete. Old lady Dell caught it reading a letter with a baby on her lap. An ordinance was passed, outlawing letters. Our two iron hand presses were utterly wrecked. Maybe that was from the burn. We turned over all the planks with blood on them, trying to forget it. We hid the pieces of shell in the dirt. Paul Jones steamed up from Savannah, intent on delivering the mail. He was so intent. It was clear we couldn’t just sit around sliding on ice anymore. A half-starved cur roamed between fences. A horse woke up, feeling cold. People, not particularly brave, wheeled out an old, condemned cannon and set it at the foot of Catherine Street. I’m sorry Paul Jones. You should never believe a story told by its own heroes. Moss had caught fire, the oak dripping flame.
Duffie Taylor recently graduated from the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Her work has appeared in both literary journals and the anthologies, Best New Poets 2007 and Thirty, the celebratory collection of work from the first three decades of the Mississippi Review. She lives and works in Mobile, Alabama.