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Vol. 4, No. 2

Haw River Cosmology
by Dale Ray Phillips

~

My father had a wagerer's heart and a gambler's luck at love. Weeknights, I bicycled to his trailer to deliver the sacked supper my mother or Eugena had prepared. My father considered these meals as subpoenas for his love, and the messages my mother appended as something other than indictments.
    "Do you think she'll still feed me if the divorce goes through?" he asked. "Let's see what today's fortune is." He lifted tomato slices and searched under slabs of ham. My mother often tucked little notes inside sandwiches or garnished plate lunches with them. The memos varied with her moods. The baby kicked last night, one said, while another time she claimed my father was the worst mistake she ever made. More than once, they were so hidden that my father got a mouthful of her crazy emotions. This wasn't considered too odd; Erbie Compton once bit down on a Trojan cooked into a meat loaf when his wife discovered the condom in his truck's glove compartment after her tubes had been tied. She baked it into the meat loaf, looped into a bow. The most unusual dispatch my father received was a supper which included a sachet of dried pinto beans and rocks wrapped in foil like baked potatoes. The only edible item was the usual seasoned fresh fruit. The note instructed that he make stone soup with the rocks and that he plant the beans in his pasture to see if a magic beanstalk grew. My father shrugged and ate the blackberries dusted with Eugena's concoction of powdered sugar and herbs.
    "I guess I'm eating takeout tonight." He handed me some bills peeled from his poker stake. "Run to the burger joint and get enough cheeseburgers for the game."
    Poker nights were Mondays and Wednesdays. My father wouldn't play every night, because losses and tempers must settle. Nor would he play on weekends, when drunken payday fights often erupted. My father ran the type of game the community tolerated. If a man was losing too much, my father would slip him a sip from the luck changer--a bottle of Crown Royal laced with a substance Eugena brewed which the local doctor claimed worked better than ether. The luck changer had saved mortgage payments and Christmas funds. It took smelling salts and strong coffee to sober someone from its spell.
    "Never take a man for more than he can stand to lose." My father pointed to a man on the couch, out cold, who had wanted to bet his daughter's birthday pony. "That way, he'll always come back for more. It's the guy who's lost too much that gets you in trouble."
    To stage a poker game with impunity, you need the high sheriff or his deputy at the table, a judge or an alderman or two, a reputation for clean dealing, and a trailer park down the road where prostitution can take place off premises. You give free shooters of moonshine, because selling it constitutes bootlegging. A church deacon prone to backsliding is a welcome addition, and an M.D. more skilled in general surgery than in cards (his hands twitch when he bluffs) will sweeten the pot. You set betting limits and follow poker protocol because men love the order inherent in games. An odd alchemy takes place once the cards are shuffled and cut. Chance and luck lose their random nature and transform into the belief that they are predictable. Things become other than what they seem. Twos are called deuces, kings become cowboys, queens become ladies.
    I was allowed to observe the first hour or so of the Wednesday night games, so that my mother could enjoy some solitude and recuperate. I emptied ashtrays, fetched shots, and listened. The conversations ranged from locker-room burlesque to sexual speculation. I learned that women and cars must first be warmed up, and that a French tickler would turn a moaner into a screamer, capable of shaking family portraits from the walls. If you put a penny in a jar on the nightstand every time you made love the first year of marriage then took one out each time after that, you'd never empty the jar. The guy who invented Spanish fly had a heart attack shortly after he experimented with dosages by spiking his wife's wine. When you die like that--in the saddle--you're fortunate. Clever husbands knew to ask the obstetrician for a honeymoon stitch. These bon mots got jumbled with recent history and national news. After John Dillinger got shot, the FBI discovered he had the largest penis on record. They kept it pickled in a formaldehyde jar housed in a dusty room in the Smithsonian alongside the half-pig, half-human offspring of horny farm boys. I learned of women who had smothered infants with pillows or held them under in bathwater. The M.D. with the telltale hands cataloged suspicious deaths after his second drink. He had seen suicide wounds which probably weren't self-inflicted, tumbles from high places that might not have been accidents, known swimmers drown, and robust men succumb to coronaries which he suspected were arsenic-induced. On his third drink, he turned philosophical and postulated that love's darker nature was the real problem. Love can turn on you; that was why he had never married. As an intern, he had worked in a Raleigh emergency room. As luck would have it, he was on duty when his fiancée came in after a fatal car wreck. She took the steering wheel through her sternum, and her chest looked like a mangled bird cage. Though she was DOA, he had massaged her heart; he had held it in his hands and kneaded. A guy she had been seeing on the side--another intern--died with her. The M.D. said that holding her heart made him understand one thing: Here was a mass of muscle that never knew what it wanted. He told the story as if it explained the origins of sadness.
    My father always used the doctor's tale to call for a break. I passed around cheeseburgers while players stretched. Men waiting for a seat in the game played craps in the kitchen. I collected the house's cut and set a sealed deck on the poker table.
    "It's Shitwell time," said my father. Aside from being a straw boss and a real-estate broker, Elver Talmadge Shatwell ran a Saturday night poker game with no limits, in which out-of-town men with heavy rings--the kind designed to inflict brass-knuckled damage--gambled. Elver arrived punctually on Wednesdays at midgame, sniffed out the loser, bought his seat, and played for exactly an hour. He was known for three things: his ability to exploit misfortune, his luck with women, and the pride he took in his hair. He was the only male customer my mother had. My father and Elver took a rival's pleasure in each other's presence.
    "Nice haircut," my father said. "Too bad your widow's peak still shows."
    Elver Talmadge ignored him. "You're not running this place right," he said. "Let me buy in halves, and we'll triple the profits. A smart man could turn this into a real moneymaker."
    "I get by," said my father.
    "Tell you what. I'll buy the land, you keep the business."
    "It isn't for sale."
    "The driving range won't work." Elver shook his head. "Trailer-park poker. You've got no vision."
    "I've got twenty-twenty. That's hindsight. That's eyes in the back of my head."
    "Well, those eyes need glasses."
    "Cut you for fifty," my father said.
    "You're on."
    If he wanted to, my father could palm an ace, deal a king from the deck's middle, deliver a straight flush, or keep you one card short of what was needed. He never cheated with anyone but Elver, and he let him win. Once, I asked my father why.
    "Keeps him coming back."
    "Why would you want him to keep coming back?"
    "I like the look on his face when he understands I've got something he wants."
    "I hear that guy sleeps in a hair net," I said to my father, relaying something I'd heard in my hideaway.
    "So what. That's no odder than laying under a beauty shop." I had confessed my hideaway and a portion of what I'd heard to my father. His face weighed what I knew, then he allowed it to drop. "Get on home to your mother before she starts to worry."
    When I got back, my mother was inspecting her old high-school album, trying to match faces with gifts. "Did your father like his meal?" she asked, and I couldn't tell if her concern was staged or real. I'd heard through shop talk that pregnant women did mysterious things--like eat wedges of red clay because they craved the minerals.
    "He said the beans were a little raw, so we got cheeseburgers and he dug in. And he said thank you." The truth was that he'd misplaced his appetite lately, pushing the food around and complaining everything tasted strange, as if he had a new tongue. Heartburn and stomachaches were not cheery signs, he claimed.
    Then my mother and I pieced together the new quilt she planned to sew for the baby. She talked as we worked. She asked did my father seem to miss her; did I understand the impending divorce had little to do with me; did I comprehend the desperation of her feelings? What were two people to do, she asked, when the spell of love wore off and they found themselves lost inside lives they never wanted?
    I didn't know the answers, so I redirected her attention back to the quilt. A suitor had been leaving segments of cloth by the door--not remnants, but high-grade corduroy which in bolts would have fetched top dollar. The pieces had even been washed to ensure softness and to make their color fast. This suitor had cut the segments into a pattern, and nights before sleeping we tried to order them. It was like trying to fit together a puzzle depicting the night sky and constellations, with no celestial box picture for guidance.

 

~

My mother had decided to resort to black magic to purchase the life that she wanted. She consulted my step-grandmother Eugena, who could broker happiness or disaster into being. Eugena believed in the doctrine of intent, wherein the intentions of the spell caster worked in conjunction with the potion.
    "Will this get me what I want?" my mother asked my step-grandmother. "Is this a love potion, or what?" They had decided my father was such a hardheaded case that they would lace his fresh fruit with a powder.
    "It depends," said Eugena. "Be careful what you wish for--you just might get it."
    With me her answers were more direct. "This squabbling is just in their blood." Eugena reduced love to conjury and the world to simple axioms which I often misinterpreted, for this was the summer of misnomers. I thought in their blood referred to the Rh factor which had caused my mother to miscarry a previous pregnancy. Now it caused them to battle. I heard chest of drawers as chester drawers, guessing that a guy named Chester held the patent on the design. They're like dogs in heat, my father said one Saturday when he came to get me and he saw gifts heaped by the door. I reasoned he meant dogs in August, huddled in shade under a porch.
    Eugena was the local Merlin. She knew the names of plants and the words to incantations. She could home-remedy boils and nervous tics, talk the fire from a burn, or break the delirium of a child's fever with poultices. For Eugena, tea leaves and palms yielded the future, and babies in utero indicated their sex by the way a wedding band revolved when she dangled it on a string above a pregnant woman's great stomach. Peach branches divined water in her hands, which were as gnarled as cypress stumps and had delivered babies and stitched together the results of many Saturday nights. Witch hazel and rose water and eucalyptus were their smells, and mornings she soaked them in Epsom salts and massaged them with ointments like sick patients to get them going. Her ring finger was abbreviated at the knuckle from a mill accident so long ago that child labor hadn't been illegal. She had outlived and outsmarted the three husbands who had placed a band on that nub. Both index fingers had witch's nails for the puncturing of troublesome placentas.
    When not midwifing or dispensing astrological advice, she mixed medicines. As her understudy, I ground roots and made powders of dried leaves. Her clients paid mostly in produce and favors, and as a result, her window screens never had holes and her larder was stockpiled with canned delicacies. Meals at her house were like Thanksgiving every day. "Stay away from that old hag," my father had warned. He claimed she had taken my grandfather for a ride. An inheritance dispute and a belief that she had somehow hastened her husbands' deaths had soured my father's opinion of Eugena. And she dressed like a man, in brogans and overalls and sometimes mygrandfather's altered suits.
    She took a potion maker's view of our lives. The old beaus were simply minor ingredients necessary to make major agents--my parents--act according to some grand design.
    "When your parents understand that love is more crooked than straight, they'll settle down." Eugena was boiling a copper-colored liquid into a tincture for a woman wanting relief from hot flashes.
    "But my mother kicked him out," I said.
    "Every bed needs a good shaking." Her one concern was Elver Shatwell. "A man like that can set things off balance."
    "They're already pretty wobbly, if you ask me," I said.
    "What do you know?"
    "Not very much."
    "I bet you know more than you admit. Hand me that cane syrup. This batch smells bitter."
    What I did know was speculative, at best. I kept a secret list of things I understood, in a ledger like a true scientist. When I felt at odds with myself, I recited the items--an incantation with no particular order. Buckhorn, dandelion, or rhubarb could serve as a laxative or purgative. Bloodroot and elder flowers could make you vomit. Chickweed and comfrey were two ingredients my grandmother cooked into the lotions my mother sold at the cosmology shop to soften old ladies' parchment skin. Chamomile tea soothed menstrual cramps; skullcap and valerian eased a case of the nerves. Ginseng and saw palmetto could muster sexual urges. Certain herbs had dual properties, and must be administered as carefully as the half-truths I heard from my hideaway. Squawvine and goldenseal could stimulate the contraction of the uterus during labor or end an unwanted pregnancy if taken early. When a woman came to my step-grandmother's house after dark with a kerchief over her head, she wanted squawvine's darker properties.
    When you repeat something enough, like a spell, I wrote in my ledger, it takes on a life of its own. Stories had a self-engendering quality. Thursday nights, when I delivered medicines to Eugena's customers, I'd tell myself I was distributing the best love had to offer. I'd knock on the back doors of houses which smelled of supper lingering and the peculiar odor of desperate faith. I could read embarrassment in their faces as I handed them a concoction to remedy the parts of their lives they wished to keep hidden. When people connect you with their darker selves, they'll answer the door in their late evening disarray. I saw Marvin Craig in his wife's kimono and high heels, and the M.D. with gloved, bloody hands suturing the wrists of a judge who battled with depression.
    "Keep your poker face on about this," he said to me. I handed him a vial of the luck changer. Did my deliveries cure or perpetuate such things?
    You can't trust sounds, I also wrote in my ledger. Sometimes my mother spoke on the phone with a voice I thought she had reserved for my father. "Oh, you," she would say, then she hung up embarrassedly when I slammed the refrigerator door so she would know I was listening. Sometimes, noises reordered the roll call of my worldview. Once, I had been lying under the floor of the cosmology shop when I heard Elver Shatwell and my mother make love.
    "I can't believe I'm doing this," my mother had said.
    "Then watch yourself good in that mirror," said Elver. "When your divorce comes through, and you take him to the cleaners, we can do it in broad daylight in that goddamned cow pasture, if we want to."
    "All you worry about is property that isn't even yours." When the barber chair above me swiveled, the bolts drilled through the floorboards creaked, and the loose washers made lazy little orbits. "Be gentle. Be careful."
    "Careful didn't get you like this."
    Then my mother made sharp gasps, as if hurt and pleasure were confused.
    "Good?" Elver asked when they had finished.
    "It was extraordinary," my mother said theatrically. "I think I felt the earth move."
    "I can't tell when you're acting and when you're real."
    "What, no marriage proposal?"
    "If I married you, I'd be your husband. Why would I want to be in his shoes?"
    "You bastard," my mother said.
    "That's better. That's real." So were the sounds of her angry sobs when he left. This knowledge obtained from cosmology shops and from mixing potions made me feel like a ghost to myself. Why are all evidences of childhood spectral?

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