Old Mike's Body



I didn’t like playing Legend of Boggy Creek. Leonard was always the Fouke Monster, and our cousin Odie and my little brother Jack would go into the woods looking for him. I liked going out to East Texas but I didn’t like playing Legend of Boggy Creek.

Odie would say, “He’s real, Jordan.”

He’s your big brother and too old to be playing in the woods, I thought.

Jack grinned. Even Odie knew what I was thinking. I don’t talk much. Not at all anybody can hear. Why should I? People complained at first, but then they got used to it. Sometimes I think they even kinda like me a little better quiet as I am. I ain’t deaf. And I hate the word dumb. People use stupid words for things they don’t understand.

I like not talking, because some of the things I think, I figure I ought not say to anybody anyway. Like that I know the whole world’s alive, and I mean really alive to speak and all. It’s just some can hear it and some can’t. Not everything talks to me but Uncle Darwin’s house did the morning before. I felt sorry for Uncle Darwin and Aunt Betty and our cousins, the coal company making them sell what Uncle Darwin had built with his own hands—he’d learned brick laying in the army, he said, “Over in Japan after the war.”

Don’t let the digger git me, said the house.

I’d been up earlier than anybody but Mamaw that day and she give me a biscuit and sausage and I went down the road to Uncle Darwin and Aunt Betty’s. I went through the woods that used to go so far you could get lost and sat at the edge where all the trees and every sawbriar and all the flowers and weeds had been cut and hauled out to make room for the dragline way off in the distance. It was so big you could still see it good. That cleared out land looked like the moon under Neil Armstrong’s foot when I was little and the TV showed him and Buzz Aldrin walking on it.

Papaw had told me how the digger—what he called the dragline—had to walk to move, it was so big. And he was right. Even that far away you could see it lift a big foot on its side and move it on ahead and then stand up the whole dragline bigger than a house and set down further on. I watched it walking a long time before it reached out to make the first cut. The crane bent in front and the bucket touched down like it was trying not to wake up the earth underneath it, and then it pulled back a stretch of dirt like it was a giant peeling an orange. The crane swung up the bucket and the whole thing turned toward Uncle Darwin’s house like it was teasing it, and then the bucket curled up like a big hand and dropped a whole hill of dirt that would of covered our backyard back in Mesquite.

I watched it until I heard them yelling for me to come in for breakfast at Uncle Darwin’s. I come out of the woods and you could see how nice the house was to be one out in the country like that. Uncle Darwin had built it where Mamaw and Papaw used to have a wood house and their old outhouse still sat behind the backyard, even though nobody used it anymore. Leonard and Odie were country cousins all right, even if they had a brick house like us in Mesquite.

“Don’t work no higher’n corn nor lower’n taters,” Uncle Darwin liked to say. Everybody quoted him on that. “Take the ground and make it square, stack ’em up and looky there.” Seemed like he was near as old as Papaw, even though he’d married my daddy’s sister. Uncle Darwin had been all over the world before he bought the old place and built on it.

I felt sorry for them having to move soon, but also for their house. Uncle Darwin’s hands was as red as bricks and about as worn. They’d try to get away from him when he lit his cigarettes. If his hands had touched all them bricks, then something of life had gone into them added to the straw and mud he said made them up to begin with. If we was made of mud and that was alive, and bricks are too, then why don’t people think a brick is alive as much as them?

Cause they’re too busy talking to listen.

Don’t let the digger git me, said the house.

I won’t, I said, but only cause the digger ain’t what they gonna bring to you. They’ll just use some old regular backhoe to knock you down first. But I’ll pray for you to get used again, even if it’s brick by brick all over, in a hundred houses. That won’t be so bad, will it? To be all over, but helping that many more people keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer? And keeping the snakes outside.

I don’t want to die, said the house.

I didn’t say nothing to that. Why tell a lie? The house must have heard the digger eating up the ground and spitting it out. When you can hear something scary but you still can’t see it, that’s the worst. Even if you know it’s your cousin Leonard off in the woods just pretending to be the Fouke Monster.

Odie went on about it. “He’s real. I seen the movie and it’s true. Leonard and me seen it at the Cherokee Drive-in Theater off of One-Forty-Nine. That’s almost all the way up to Longview. Last Christmas, right after y’all visited. We got to go to the theater cause Billy-Wayne drove us in his truck.”

Odie said “theater” like “he ate her.” He talked kinda like the big slow mouse in the cartoons with a little smart mouse as his friend—sometimes looking out for his big buddy and sometimes slapping him around. The big mouse would say something and the little mouse would pull his hand down his face so hard it stretched it out. Odie talked just that slow.

Everything gives me more reasons to stay quiet.


The butterfly flew as all do, no straight line finds what life requires. Despite the constant damp it had not rained in over three weeks in these woods yet a mile from Iron’s Bayou, and the butterfly would soon die without moisture. Near noon it had lit on a bullfrog’s eye and sipped its tears until the frog started and it fluttered away from the wild tongue shooting out. At the clearing along the trailer deep in the woods the butterfly saw red and sensed wetness, and its zigzagging found it, and it settled to sip. A species not normally accustomed to drinking blood. But there it was, pooling and spilling slow down the stump, into cloth that was easier to light upon and sip through without getting stuck, the butterfly’s feet working the collar cloth to free them of the blood while its proboscis uncoiled to slip through and drink deep, and live another day.


We went out to Mamaw and Papaw’s most weekends, but the week before we’d been all the way to Arkansas to Granny’s place and Mama fought the whole way. Daddy didn’t fight back much, but she’d take both sides enough to keep it going. If we was heading out to his folks in East Texas she wouldn’t fight so much, which didn’t make sense to me. It was when we was going to Arkansas that she’d talk about hardly ever going to her mother’s place, even though it was a longer drive, and we was going there anyway. You might think she’d of been happy going to Arkansas, but for some reason that set her off worse—that we didn’t go to her mother’s place nearly as much as to his folks.

Granny lived in Horatio, a little town by the mountains. Her house was brick but never said nothing to me, just sat the other side of the minister’s house from the church. I didn’t like going there so much, mostly on account of we had to go to church and hardly ever went fishing. And if we did, it was nothing but little perch in a pond. If Mama wasn’t so mad she’d tell stories about the old farm she grew up on, all the animals they had, and riding her own horse when she was just Allison’s age and Allie about to start kindergarten. But that only made it more boring to end up at Granny’s house, the old farm long gone and not even anything to see from the road the one time Mama took us out there and tried to show us. Not much out at Granny’s said anything, Granny herself not much more than me.

The road moaned out most of the way up there, but you could only hear it in the floorboard. My sister Allison slept on the seat, Jack on the pillows and blankets in the floorboard, and I lay up on the back deck, Daddy turning up the radio just enough for my ears alone while Mama went on about things.

That last weekend we’d been out to Arkansas, Jack and I had to share the pullout sofa in the living room—everything in Granny’s house was a lot nicer than Mamaw and Papaw’s—and it was hot and we had the wall fan on until a storm come in. I didn’t mind the dark so much as Jack did. It wasn’t so dark that night anyway but Jack still acted spooked. You wouldn’t think many cars would be going down that road, especially at night, but it must have gone somewhere way past the church. The headlights of cars going by made shadow lights of the front window slide up the far wall and run along and then drop and disappear. At least they said shhh.

It was darker for a while and then big lightning lit everything up so close the thunder woke the whole house. Boom, like I never heard before. Mama came to check on us and I knew Jack was scared but he stayed on his side of the bed and said he wasn’t. Mama went back to bed, and the thunder went off in the dark with the storm going away. That was when it happened. I thought Jack was just goofing around cause he was scared, and maybe he was at first. He was trying to tickle me and I punched him until he stopped. But then I felt his hand come over to me and he started to touch me—like he mighta been touching himself—and I hit him good and he stopped. But then he giggled and tried it again. I hit him harder and slid out of the bed and just stood there. Jack was crying. I got back in the bed but stayed way over on my side. And Jack was staying way over on his. But I could hear him crying in the dark. And then him whispering.

“Please don’t tell nobody. Please don’t tell. Promise me you won’t tell.”

He meant don’t tell like don’t sign it to nobody—which I don’t do unless I have to anyway—but I didn’t know what got into him. Another car’s lights swung the window shadow through the room saying shhh and I knew Jack could see me sign I wouldn’t tell nobody. And I didn’t. The next day we all had to go to church, like we never did at home or Mamaw and Papaw’s. Granny’s singing in the choir usually put me and Jack hard to work at not laughing. But that day Jack was quiet and sat on the other side of Mama and Daddy and even Allison and wouldn’t look at me.

After we had dinner we left. It was Allison’s turn to ride on the back deck, but I let Jack sleep in the floorboard again where you could listen to the ghost road moaning at the car going over it. One time Jack had told me he could hear it too, but that night I don’t think he could or if he could it wasn’t helping him. I could hear he wasn’t sleeping. Daddy was singing and whistling to the radio up loud, to all the songs he knew like “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.” Nobody but me could hear Jack crying into a pillow. I turned around to put my head at the other door so I wouldn’t be able to hear him down there.


So that next weekend there we was in East Texas playing Hot Wheels in the living room of Odie’s house. And Odie wouldn’t stop going on about the Legend.

“Billy-Wayne says he’s been to Fouke and it ain’t that far away, just barely into Arkansas. That creature’s a Bigfoot and they like swamps and such as we got along the Sabine and specially Iron’s Bayou. The creature scared a little kitty to death just looking at it. And the laws was driving along one night and it jumped the road in front of the police car, didn’t even touch the road, just flew across it from one side to the other. They call it a Skunk Ape too cause it smells so bad.”

Odie wrinkled his nose and looked at us, like we could smell it now. Odie was big and pale no matter how much time he spent out in the sun, just freckled up a lot. He was older than Jack and younger than me but even when he wasn’t talking you could look at him and tell he was younger in the head than our little sister Allison—maybe than any of us city kids had ever been. But I never thought about it much. Odie was just Odie. And his big brother Leonard was so different that Odie just seemed like our real country cousin. Odie couldn’t know about a lot of things we knew except him watching the TV, and the TV never showed a lot of the things I’d seen in Mesquite.

“There ain’t really no monster, is there, Jordan?” Jack looked like he’d be disappointed if I shook my head no, but he looked scared at the same time. I just looked at him and then through the window into the woods.

Leonard was older and he never played with us except when Jack and Odie would look for him in the woods. It was so hot outside you had to wear shoes to walk in the sand and there wasn’t even any birds to shoot at with our BB guns. Uncle Darwin and Aunt Betty’s house had one air conditioner in the living room and we’d run the Hot Wheels track off a stepladder we brought in from Uncle Darwin’s shed, high enough to get the cars to loop, only none of them could stay on all the way around. Every time one of the cars would drop out of the loop Odie would make an ambulance noise and Jack would laugh.

Uncle Darwin and Aunt Betty were fighting in the back.

Odie looked embarrassed and said, “Y’all want to go play in the woods?”

“Yeah,” said Jack. Though he looked nervous.

I shook my head no and just shrugged. Odie and Leonard had a lot of comic books and broken toys up in the attic room. It’d be hotter up there but not as hot as outside. I was going up the narrow stairs and the air conditioner stopped to rest and the house sighed, You might be leaving. Then I could hear Aunt Betty starting up again and I didn’t want to hear more so I went back down quiet so they wouldn’t know I was still inside, and then I slipped out the kitchen door and went to the outhouse.

They had a regular bathroom but I didn’t want to hear fighting. Mama and Daddy fought sometimes like that but I never heard a slap like I heard once at Odie and Leonard’s.

Before Uncle Darwin bought Mamaw and Papaw’s old house and built on top of it, the outhouse had been the only toilet there and you had to go out to it at night with a flashlight. That always scared me so much I’d hold it until I couldn’t hold it no more and then I’d go slow, keeping the light down to watch for scorpions and snakes, everything out there singing in the dark and most of it happy sounding but so much of it, like everything was making everything else crazy. And the scariest things you might not hear, or you didn’t hear so often. Like one night a woman screaming bloody murder in the woods and I ran inside and woke my mama and she sent me back out.

“That’s just a screech owl, Jordan.”

I knew she wasn’t lying, cause of her growing up on the real farm in Arkansas, with cattle and all. She’d tell about how she was the youngest and when her brothers were grown and gone and the bull got out she’d have to ride it down. If she wasn’t scared of that sound, then I shouldn’t be.

That screech owl still sounded like a woman going to hell under a hatchet, though.

The outhouse wasn’t so scary in the daytime. Wasps had taken it up but you just had to ignore them. The wasps just said the same thing. Busy, busy, they said. They were just paper wasps and I figured they made paper with a lot less stink about it than the paper mill you could smell some days out past even where the digger was stripping up the moon out there.

The outhouse didn’t say nothing but it still smelled bad.

Thanks, I said anyways. I was glad to have a place to go that wasn’t in the house with the fighting or in the woods with all that Legend of Boggy Creek.

Leonard’s minibike came up the road like a big metal bug, had to been coming from Highway 59, and stopped out by Uncle Darwin’s old shed. Then I could hear Odie and Jack shooting their BB guns in the woods and breaking off pine branches to swing around. And then Leonard running. I’d just wiped myself but it sounded like Leonard was coming right at the outhouse and the bolt catch had fallen loose on the door. I stomped my foot and jumped to pulling up my jeans in case he didn’t hear I was in there but he run right by and on into the woods.

I didn’t hear anything, so I pulled my jeans back down and wiped some more. My stomach’s tore up seems like all the time some days and last year at school the kids teased me for taking so long in a stall. The wasps just said busy but then I could hear Odie and Jack and then Leonard out in the woods, whooping out like he was the Fouke Monster.


Old Mike’s body sat as it had before, only a little slumped in the lawn chair facing away from the trailer, his clothes soaked. Blood had stopped coming out of his neck and what had been his head lay across the clearing in drops of red and white now dried on the leaves of the chinquapin tree he’d been looking at when his world stopped. Chips of bone lay scattered across the weeded sand he had once called his front lawn, one piece of his skull the size of a coffee saucer lying under the big pine beside the dirt drive to his fishing trailer.

The butterfly had flown on after resting on the collar of Old Mike’s shirt at the end of his neck, so full of blood it could hardly lift. It had arrived not long after Old Mike had thought his last thoughts, whether to go fishing in Iron’s Bayou, or Martin’s Creek instead. He had spent two days out at his fishing trailer away from Junie-May. That morning he had heated the same pot of coffee made the first morning and gone out to sit in his lawn chair to see the sun come up through the chinquapin. He had not heard anyone going up the trailer doorsteps behind him, had not heard anyone in his bedroom take up his 12 gauge, and had not heard the screen removed from the window only the distance of a short bass bug cast from behind his head. Old Mike had lost that much of his hearing, though if he had heard it all, and known his end coming out the trailer window with the barrel of his own shotgun, he might have known why but not had time to guess who. The sound of the slide carrying the shell into the chamber registered in his brain only as a question not long enough to realize how the answer would touch him—he might have next thought Who’s hunting in these woods so close? as to have located the sound from behind him, the final answer to a long series of questions now come home—before the shot dispersed all his thoughts into the air.

Now his body leaned a little to one side, no more than a sigh as it lightened into the sand around it, the stain of his blood and other fluids finished spreading around his lawn chair.

All he had seen and heard lay across the clearing in drying clumps, and some of it had already evaporated into the heavy air, some of it even riding now in the belly of a butterfly. He had survived an orphanage fire, rheumatic fever and later the Spanish Flu, the sinking of a transport off the coast of France, the battle of Cantigny and, later, the Argonne forest. He had done well selling old growth hardwoods and scrub pine for the landed classes when everyone else hungered through the Great Depression. When those with land found the gas beneath it, he sold even more woods to clear pad sites and pipelines.

He had gambled away and drunk down one fortune, lost cattle and a fishing worm business, settling into semi-retirement on the rents of people in trailers on patches of land covering no coal or gas. He had found Junie-May at a Saturday night country dance and married her out from under a Carthage banker. His children had prospered, multiplied, and spread.

He had survived other things unrecorded in newspapers and county deeds. Through his childhood in the orphanage earlier than he could remember. So touched, he had touched others. And he had passed this along, far beyond the clearing of his fishing trailer, not only to the grandson Leonard who slid Mike’s shotgun out his unscreened window to end his life. Like the pollen of flowers long dead, the touch of Old Mike reached yet through the dark woods, slipping under the pine curtain of East Texas and out into the larger world.


 

Jay Lee Ellis teaches creative nonfiction writing and publishing at the University of Colorado. An active jazz drummer, his first degree was from Berklee College of Music, before graduate degrees in writing and literature from UT Dallas and New York University. He has published three scholarly books, including No Place for Home: Spatial Constraint and Character Flight in the Novels of Cormac McCarthy (Routledge). His creative work most recently appeared in NOON.