Hurricane, a Prose Poem

Job.  It was an appropriate book for the weather because, after all, Job’s troubles had started with tornadoes striking the house where his sons and daughters were feasting, killing them all.  Hubert listened to the wind shake his house and thought about the book of Psalms, where King David had written:

He makes winds his messengers,

flames of fire his servants.”

He wondered what the wind had to tell him tonight. Probably nothing. Maybe, that it was time to go out in the storm and let God have his way. That painter on the coast had done it. Anderson. Walter Anderson. Rowed a boat out into the Gulf of Mexico, clear out to Horn Island, tied himself to a tree and howled into the throat of a  hurricane. He was dying too. Cancer. The storm didn’t get him though. The cancer did.

Everything was in order, he guessed. The will was signed, cattle records filed, pass book and insurance policies locked in the safe-deposit box. His lawyer knew where everything was, and Caleb wouldn’t have any trouble sorting out his affairs.  He’d already made the arrangements at the funeral home—everything paid for.

There were worse ways to go out than in a storm. God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. Jesus calmed the waters. He would be with his cattle, and that’s where anybody who knew him would expect to find him. Out in the field with his cattle. That’s where Caleb would know to look.

He rolled another cigarette and thought about it, picked up his matches and lit it and took a deep drag. He coughed it out, eyes watering, and waited until he could take another pull.

When he finished the cigarette he ground it out in the ashtray and dropped the butt in a mason jar about half full of butts, insurance against a day with no makings.

He set the Bible on the table beside his chair and stood up to go.

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In Honor of Father’s Day

The following is a re-post  of a section from a Nonfiction piece titled “The Tools We Work With.” The essay itself was a part of the introduction to my dissertation, which explored the idea of creative writing as work. My father, Clarence Engel, certainly taught me the meaning and value of hard work.

 

When I was thirteen I took my first job outside my father’s supervision. A man hired me for two weeks to help gut a church sanctuary that he had contracted to remodel. My father’s jobs were slow and he could spare me. When I took the job, the way my parents treated me changed. My father bought a pair of lace up boots for me, where I had always worn tennis shoes to work before. My mother worried that I had enough sandwiches and coke money for lunch. She made my father talk to me about how to conduct myself on a real job. He said something like “Just do what they tell you.”

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The best part of the job was being paid to destroy. The man who hired me didn’t say ten complete sentences to me the whole two weeks. He wasn’t much bigger than me, and his silence and his close set eyes made me nervous. I started on a row of tall, frosted glass windows that had to be torn out and replaced with stained glass. I used a hammer and chisel, removing the brick around the sills one at a time. Mortar dust dried my throat and tasted of lime. I admired the straight lines of my work, the way the whole bricks stacked into a neat pile. When the man came to check on me, I stepped to one side to show him the layer of brick I had chipped out, the unbroken window glass. He picked up a sledge hammer from the floor, handed it to me and said, “That’s real pretty, but let’s see how hard you can swing this thing.” He pointed at the row of windows left in the sanctuary and I understood that on some jobs fast was better than pretty.

I began to notice weather while working for my father, something I had always taken for granted. We worked in attics where the summertime temperatures reached one-hundred and forty degrees, and in the cold and rain and mud where I layered my clothing to stay warm and dry. The weather gave each day, each job, a different set of problems to overcome, and intensified my sense of satisfaction as we loaded the tools and drove home in the pickup. Even now, when I drive through my home town and see the houses and businesses where I helped my father install a heating and cooling system, pour a foundation, or snake out a drain, I remember the weather better than the work.

Over the years my father mashed his fingers, crawled on his hands and knees under floors and across attics, burned himself with acetylene torches and acid, and was electrified once as he stood on a ladder and gripped a piece of conduit that wasn’t grounded properly. The electricity held his grip until someone thought to shut off the breaker. Another time, while trimming a section of air conditioning duct with tin snips, he ran a two inch sliver of jagged metal completely through his thumb. He wrapped a handkerchief around the thumb to catch the blood and drove to the doctor’s office. The doctor dabbed at the chunk of metal with alcohol, jerked it out with a pair of pliers, and wrapped his thumb in gauze. My father looked at his thumb as we were driving back to the job. “I should’ve done that myself,” he said. “It would have been free and it wouldn’t hurt any less.”

When I was seventeen years old my father was buried alive for thirty-five minutes. He was on his hands and knees at the bottom of a ten foot ditch, tapping a new drain into the city sewer line, when one side of the ditch sluffed off and buried him under seven feet of earth. The opening in the pipe and the air pocket his body made allowed him to breathe.

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My older brother Gary was working for my father that day. Gary said the backhoe operator was afraid to dig with his bucket. “I’ll take his head off if I go too deep,” the man said. Gary called the man a son of a bitch and said, “My daddy will be dead anyway if you don’t crank that thing up.”

The backhoe took off three feet of earth while my brother went for help. Soon, ten men were digging with shovels and hands, getting in each other’s way. My father told me he could hear the digging. He said that he thought about his brothers and sisters, and about my mother and Gary and me. He was sure that his life had come to an end.  Gary told me that they first uncovered one of his hands, and he heard my father call out that he was still alive. Afterward, a reporter asked my father what he planned to do next and he said, “I’m going home and spend time with my sons.”

I still have the clipping from the front page of the newspaper. The headline reads: “Tupelo Man Prays For Second Chance While Buried Alive.” The picture shows my father sitting on a pile of dirt with the hole in the foreground, staring down the street with a faraway look, and Gary beside him, looking scared. When I came home from my own job that afternoon, my father met me on the driveway and hugged me, hard. He was crying, and dirty in a way that could only come from being buried. There was grit in his eyebrows and teeth and ears, pressed into his skin so that he still smelled of soil the next day. He was sore for days afterward, but otherwise unhurt.

 

My father didn’t talk much about the experience, but once he told me how long thirty-five minutes really is. I don’t remember any changes in my father’s relationship with Gary and me. We were close before the accident, and remained close afterward.  I didn’t understand how his death would have affected me that day because I didn’t experience the fear firsthand. I remember being embarrassed by his embrace, by the display of emotion. I wouldn’t understand what had happened for years to come.

Just after he bought the pickup, my father had a magnetic sign made for each door reading “Engel Repair Service” in red, with our telephone number and the type of work spelled out beneath in blue letters. Sometimes he talked about my brother and I going into business with him after we graduated from high school, but we both went to college instead.

Hubert, Waiting for the Hurricane, a scene from a novel in progress

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Job.  It was an appropriate book for the weather because, after all, Job’s troubles had started with the tornados striking the house where his sons and daughters were feasting, killing them all.  Hubert listened to the wind shake his house and thought about the book of Psalms, where King David had written:

“He makes winds his messengers,

flames of fire his servants.”

Hubert wondered what the wind had to tell him tonight. Maybe nothing–a big storm like this hit the Mississippi coast every few years for as long as he could remember, a long time. Maybe, though, it was telling him that it was time to go out in the storm and let God have his way. That painter on the coast had done it. Anderson. Walter Anderson. Rowed a boat out into the Gulf of Mexico, clear out to Horn Island, tied himself to a tree and howled into the throat of a  hurricane. Anderson was dying too. Cancer. The storm didn’t get him though. The cancer did.

Everything was in order, he guessed. The will was signed, cattle records filed, pass book and insurance policies locked in the safe-deposit box. His lawyer knew where everything was, and Caleb wouldn’t have any trouble sorting out his affairs.  He’d already made the arrangements at the funeral home—everything paid for.

There were worse ways to go out than in a storm. God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. Jesus calmed the waters. Hubert would be with his cattle, and that’s where anybody who knew him would expect to find him. Out in the field with his cattle. He rolled another cigarette and thought about it, had just about made up his mind when the shooting started down at the river. It was just far enough away, dimmed by the wind and the rain, that he thought it was firecrackers.

Hubert smashed out his cigarette and stood up, waiting for a moment for the dizziness to pass. When he could walk he pulled on his boots and headed out the door, pausing only long enough to pull on his rain coat and pick up the shotgun from the corner by the door.

Night Walking along Black Creek: A prose poem for Jim Harrison

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Black Creek, Mississippi

Night Walking along Black Creek

For Jim Harrison

 

The year the coyotes were so bad the boy would sneak out of the house after bedtime and stand at the edge of the pasture, watching his father’s truck make long slow circuits of his cattle, counting the match-flares as he smoked his Camels and cradled his shotgun.

In the national forest, he walked the bluffs above Black Creek, navigating by feel and sense more than by sight. He shinnied tall thin saplings all the way to the top, until the tree trembled beneath his weight and the slightest lean would lower him to the ground, where he would release the tree and hear it spring back into the sky. Robert Frost called it “swinging.”

He practiced walking silently; surprised animals bedded down for the night–deer and bobcat, exploded at his feet and bounded away into the deeper shadows.

Along Black Creek, water flowed over a gravel shoal, punctuated by the slap of beaver tails and the bass drone of bullfrogs; snakes and muskrat rippled the water, swimming upstream.

Eddies of white foam sheltered behind sedimentary rocks and logs and cypress roots, while the clear smooth surface of the water became a deeper part of the night.

Everywhere the rich smell of rotting logs and leaves, dirt, swamp gas, animal musk, pine trees, and water. The soft whisper of hunting owls gliding overhead, tree-frogs ratcheting, the call of whip-or-wills and night hawk screams, the groan of trucks out on the highway, which couldn’t be heard during the day but whose sound carried better at night, and finally, as if in response to the whine of the truckers’ tires, the song of the coyotes gathering for the night.

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“Mississippi,” Part V, a short story

Gpa_bill_coyote_dad_1That was just one of the times Caleb had been drawn to the front of the church, pulled forward by some sin he couldn’t name. Each time, Caleb had felt relieved to be forgiven, but as he had grown older and thought about it more, Caleb began to suspect that his father hadn’t been angered over some sin his son had committed, nor was he particularly relieved that Caleb had chosen to rededicate himself to Jesus. Caleb had finally decided it was shame Hubert felt. Shame that his son had been so weak as to have to prostrate himself before the rest of the congregation.

Maybe Jessica thought he was weak too. She had wanted him to be able to tell her something that afternoon. He should have been able to tell her something about the coyote that would have made her feel better, but he hadn’t, and now he knew that the coyote was going to hang on that box between them like a persistent headache, like the dread a boy feels when he knows he’s going to be punished for something and the imagination has too much time to work. Jessica had insisted on being shown the mailbox. They had walked out to the road at dusk with a gallon of water. She had stared at the box as he described the coyote again, and Caleb knew she was imagining Lulu stretched over the bare metal. Jessica looked at him, waited a long time, but Caleb hadn’t known what to say. Finally she had turned and walked back to the house without saying anything, while Caleb dug the toe of his boot into the gravel, his face flushed with anger and frustration.

After the television preacher signed off with a call for donations, Caleb turned off the set and went back to bed. A light breeze filtered through the screen. Jessica rolled over as Caleb pulled the sheet up.

“Where’ve you been,” she asked. Her voice was thick.

“Watching the preacher.”

“We ought to get a satellite. Two stations.”

“At least one of them is educational,” Caleb said. He wrapped an arm around Jessica’s waist and nestled in behind her.

“It’s public now.  Public television. They don’t call it educational anymore.” She lifted his arm and slid across the bed, closer to the window, closer to the cool night air.

 

“Mississippi,” Part IV, a short story

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Brad Dourif in Director John Huston’s Wise Blood

As the television preacher wrapped up his sermon the scene changed to people inside a church singing “The Old Rugged Cross.” Whenever he heard the song, it never failed to draw Caleb back into his childhood and all those Sundays when the preacher finished and led the congregation in an “invitation” song, where the members were invited to walk to the front of the auditorium and ask to be baptized, or ask forgiveness for public sin. Sometimes it was “Rugged Cross,” but usually it was “Just as I Am”—all six verses, with the occasional verse almost whispered. There was something about the power of two-hundred voices whispering that seemed like it could explode the stained glass windows. It was a sound designed to prick the hardest heart. Sometimes, if the preacher wasn’t satisfied with the response—especially if there was no response—he would interrupt the song leader between verses: “I know there’s at least one person in this audience with a heavy heart this morning, someone who needs to come forward and ask for forgiveness. I wouldn’t feel right leaving here this morning without singing at least one more verse of that sweet old song.”

Caleb could remember singing “Just as I Am” for twenty or thirty minutes some Sundays, with the preacher keeping time softly on the worn leather of his Bible. Once they’d had a week long Gospel meeting where the visiting preacher held his Bible over his head during the invitation, the text held open facing the audience, as if the words could reach out and pull the repentant soul forward. Caleb had stood in the audience that day, eleven or twelve years old, more or less innocent of anything but ordinary, everyday sins, fighting with himself not to answer the preacher’s call. There was no good reason to go forward, but the weight of the words were like a magnet.

“Just as I am, without one plea,

but that Thy blood was shed for me,

and that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,

Oh Lamb of God I come, I come.”

Verse after verse, and sometimes they’d sing the last verse over and over, or sometimes just start the song again. Every few minutes the preacher would break in to preach a little more.

Caleb broke. He’d worked his way to the end of the pew, not caring if he stepped on anyone’s feet or tangled their legs, and stumbled down the aisle as everyone looked up from their song books, relieved, Caleb knew, that someone had finally given in and they could go home soon. He walked down the aisle, all the long way to the front, into the arms of the preacher, crying like a little boy more scared than hurt who can’t stop once he starts. Hubert and his mother had followed Caleb to the front and sat one on each side while the preacher kneeled before him and listened to his teary confession. Caleb blurted something about wanting to rededicate his life and show others Jesus through his life, and he had cried through the preacher’s speech about “tender hearts” and the prayer that followed, but when he sneaked a look at his father’s face during the prayer, Hubert stared down at him with a look of suspicion that asked “What did you do to have to come down here and cause me to have to follow you?”

Mississippi, Part 3, a short story

South Fork Church of Christ baptistry mural

There was nothing on TV that late. Preaching on one channel and a satellite weather pattern on the other channel, but Caleb went back to the den and turned on the set anyway, sat in the La-Z-Boy and watched the gray shadows solidify into a television preacher sitting in a rocking chair. He had an open bible on his lap, although it seemed to be more for decoration than anything else since he never looked at it when he spoke. His gray eyes bored right into his imagined audience.

A river mural had been painted on the set behind the man, like the scene that country churches used above the baptistery: the river Jordan inviting the lost to wash away their sins in baptism. It was almost the same mural Caleb had spent countless hours of his boyhood wishing himself into, as he sat straight-backed against the bare oak pew, dressed in black suit and white shirt with a clip-on tie digging into his throat, afraid to squirm or even pull the too tight collar away for fear of Hubert dragging him up the aisle to the front steps for a whipping. From the earliest Caleb could remember, Hubert and his mother went to church every Sunday morning and evening for worship and preaching, and every Wednesday night for Bible study and singing. Twice a year they held gospel meetings that began Sunday morning and stretched the week, every night through Friday night. Hubert tolerated no foolishness in church, and while other kids usually got to draw stick men on paper or even sprawl along the pew with their heads in their mother’s lap, Caleb feigned perfect attention to the preacher sweating in the pulpit. The only salvation had been that mural and the cooling water it promised. Caleb had spent countless sermons scanning every inch of that tree-lined river. He hung a rope on a tree that leaned out over the river, and he imagined giant catfish lurking in the deep pools. Jesus had been baptized in that water and the spirit of God descended on him in the form of a dove. It was only years later, as an adult, that it occurred to Caleb that the mural featured a white-tail deer drinking at the foot of cypress trees draped with Spanish moss, a lovely, delicate, parasitic plant better suited to Mississippi than to Israel, All those Sunday sermons seemed even more of a lie than ever before.

Still, there was something comforting about listening to the rhythm of the preacher’s voice rolling out those worn out phrases when the house was so dark and still. Caleb never would have admitted it to Jessica, and if he heard her footsteps on the stairs he would switch channels, but he missed going to church. It wasn’t the people he missed—he had seen too many examples of bad religion to ever want that again—it was the comfort that came from believing in something absolutely. Hubert never questioned his beliefs, and with that confidence came the strength to look down on every other walking creature in the world. Hubert slept the deep contented sleep of the justified, never feeling lonely or unsure of himself, or feeling anything other than contempt, masked as pity, for anyone who didn’t accept Jesus as their savior. For Hubert, any non-believer was either hopelessly ignorant or embraced in a conspiracy to destroy the world. Caleb had once been that sure himself, before the questions began, the ones he couldn’t answer.