A Citizen True
The days they rambled on. Barnett moved—if you could call it that, for a kid with naught but a lungful of air for luggage—from Maggie’s anteroom to the shed out back. Set up shop under the shade of an oak at the edge of the road. Flea market from out the bed of a wheelbarrow. Set out from there to conquer the land.
By the end of the season it was clear. GB a boy no more. He took to wearing shoes, for one, and a cap of a kind you see in the movies, khaki with a saucer brim and a drawstring of leather like a Mountie. And the smell of soap. And the shoes, shiny brogans of a kind a banker would wear, squeak in every step, crispy togs he wheedled off a undertaker the town over in exchange for a plaster of Paris phrenological bust from out the attic of an abandoned house.
For the shoes we mocked him.
“Boy been to the blacksmith I see.”
“Somebody shod the mule.”
“Now iffen he takes up lame, we gotta shoot him, no?”
There he was, a day later, the boot bin of Roe’s Army and Navy, poking through the dollar singles—jodhpurs and clodhoppers and patent leather regimental spats, Pershing boots and Russets and Webster Rubber Co. gymnasium sneakers. Found him a set of hobnail trenchers with gutta-percha toes. Not a pair, no, but near enough to serve—the one a tan with a crackly hide and the other, umber with a finish like the pit of the peach.
So there you have it. In full regalia the day he declared himself to Maggie. At the close of day he came, clunk up the steps of the Slapjack, the boots and the cap and now a tidy shirt, white, with buttons and a collar like a citizen true. Even the trousers a cut above. Sure, sure, the same leggings he lifted off a scarecrow the year before, and the rope for the belt, sure, but the tip of the hemp he burned, sealed with a pinch of tar, whammed a silver dollar into place so’s to feign the look of a buckle. Such a shock to see a glint of culture in the wild like that. The hen that lays the Fabergé egg. The clock in the belly of the gator.
Figured to catch her alone, in the still of the air, breath of Pine-Sol blooming up over the sweat of the day, up over the hiss of the mop and the slush of the bucket and the counter clear, and mum the radio, empty the till, upended even the chairs, skyward the legs, salute to the fall of the sun.
What he didn’t figure on, what he missed in his hurry to close the deal, in his hunger to show himself a man of the world, was the enduring appeal of a woman indifferent to the overtures of men. Maggie the Merciless. Maggie the Unmakeable.
There we were at the close of the day to flex, to strut, to pull the stump in the back and re-cobble the walk, hammer up a deck and a bistro table to go with the firepit and the umbrella, hoist with a hearty cry the white railing with the finial of beaten brass and the flagpole and the banner emblazoned with a coat of arms: The Slapjack.
Not that Maggie could ever be bought. Too broke to pay for labor, too proud to beg, too chary to barter favors, she conjured up a currency of her own to balance the ledger. A pie apiece the deal, portioned out (fetch a pair of calipers and a slide rule, now) on the installment plan, a slice a day. Whatever. The pie no more than a passing interest. It was Maggie was the vision. We all of us thinking this’ll be the day she turns, burns, takes hold of that beauty of hers and brings it round to bear on the one of us born to be lucky.
Into the center of it all now stumbles GB.
Where you been, boy? Circus up and left without you.
“I got a circus right here.” He held up his fist, palm out, cocked at the ear like a shooter of craps.
Boy looks like he’s on his way to enlist.
Off to fight the Kaiser.
“Let the mocking birds mock,” said Barnett. “I got me a plan.”
There where the transom angles in to breath, just over the frame of the door it broke: the red bar of the sun. Lit the floor, filled the cracks in the blue linoleum, smoldered up under the bootheels and the barstools and the raw timber of the chest of pies.
She had her back to us all. Bent over the wash bucket, the wringer in play, she made as if she hadn’t heard a word of it.
We’d each of us staked out a province of our own. Bidwell, pillowed up onto a stool with the knees out and the belly at ease. On their feet the others—Taylor, Cross, Lynch at anchor in the center, Cochrane with a elbow on the counter and a thumb in the loop of the belt a kinda hinge for the elbow there swinging like a barroom door. GB pilots around us, portages over a pile of rags, draws up alongside her. “Maggie. I got a idea.”
Brace yourself Maggie.
He got him a plan.
Louder now he says it. “I got a proposition.”
She turns to face him. Eye to eye now. He’d shot up over the summer. Broadened out at the shoulders.
“I got a proposition for you. I got a down payment.” That fist of his he lifts. Not but a breath away now. The hand opens. “Behold.” There in the palm the treasure: button of mud the color of char. “Behold.”
“Glory be,” she says. “The stigmata. St. Francis in the flesh.”
“It’s a down payment. I bought me a piece of real estate.”
We lose it. Cochrane hoots. Taylor slaps the counter. Even Lynch offers up a sound that—given the instrument through which it travels, the spars and the hollows and the boney apertures of the lanky frame—resembles a laugh.
“I bought it for you,” he says, GB.
“I look like a farmer to you?” She’s wringing the mop. It’s already been wrung, but she wrings. Keeps wringing it.
“It don’t matter what you do with it,” he says. In his hand he weighs it. The mud. “It’s like a trust.”
Into the heart of the bucket she screws the head of the mop. Plunges it. Steps away. Turns away. Upright in the open air the handle quivers. Maggie the acrobat. Dries her hands on the hem of the skirt. Steps up. Two-handed she gathers up the hand he proffers.
“What’d I say?” She looks him in the eye. Finger by finger his hand she opens to where the ball of earth wobbles on the flat of his palm. “What’d I tell you a million times?” She tips the hand. Off the saucer it rolls, blop, onto the floor. “I don’t take charity—”
“—I got the deed—”
“—not from nobody. You hear me?”
“Especially not from you. From the likes of you.”
Then out the back she clatters. Talk about a exit—the square of the shoulders, the rake and the mop and the bucket in hand, the bulge of the sieve in the apron pocket and, slugging up over the rim of the pail as she limps away, mop water the color of pearl.
In the silence GB takes a knee. With a pinch of the fingers he gathers up the crumbs. Rolls them back into a ball in the palm of the hand, as if the ball were a province in the making, as if you size a plot, not by the tread or the rod or the meridian arc, but by the ounce.
So when’s the honeymoon, boy?
I got me a book’ll teach you how to operate the machinery.
“You gotta play to win the prize,” says Barnett. He pockets the mud.
“What?” says Joe. “Say what?”
Joe got a look, a ruddy-in-the-dusk, a rust-of-whiskey-at-the-hinge-of-the-day grimace. “Win what?”
“You saying Maggie’s nothing?”
“I’m saying nothing’s what I’m saying. I didn’t say nothing.”
“The hell you didn’t. The hell with you. Maggie is the opposite of nothing. What do you say to that?”
“Nothing is what I say.”
The thing about liquor is the ambition it gives even the most laggard of us to seize the day, the castle, the collar of the fella at the far end of the bar. Joe saw himself a Galahad in the court of Fair Maggie. Defender of the Faith.
“You take it back,” said Joe. “What you said. You take it back.”
“I ain’t taking nothing back. I said what I said and I’ll say it again.”
“Say it then. Say it!”
It would have been better if Joe had punched him—broke a nose or chipped a tooth. Knocked him out. No shame in a KO. You take a punch. You go down with the ship. But no.
GB rises. Up into the face of the taller man he steps. Close, close enough to kiss. Joe smiles. Plants the whole of his hand on the head of GB and, like a bowler fishing for a hole to fit the finger, powers him back to a arms-length away. Barnett takes a swing. Misses. Joe grabs him by the collar—band of cotton GB’d worn for the first time in his life—and pins him there with that long arm of his. Barnett swings. Misses. Swings again. Joe gives him a slap across the face, open hand, like you slap a child or the flank of a horse. Stings him.
Barnett tries to wrestle free but Joe clips him again, this time top of the head. Smack. GB twists. Breaks the grip. Charges. Head-down he rams the bigger man in the gut, clamps ahold of Joe’s belt, bulls him into a thicket of chairs.
Into a table they crash, the two of them, hit the floor, slide to a stop with Joe pinned, in a sitting position, his back to the wall.
Take him, Joe!
Aswim in the liquor, Joe. He casts about to the left and to the right, as if shocked to find the earth in a place he never meant to put it.
School him, Joe!
Thirsty, the word for Joe. His right hand he raises, fingers in the shape of a shot glass. Salud!
GB buries his head in the belly of Joe and lobsters away, his legs kicking at the floorboards in pursuit of—somehow, somewhere—a purchase. Maggie shoulders her way into the ring.
In the movies you what, you cock the fist and let her fly, right? Smack on the kisser. Buzz Barton connects with a uppercut, lifts old Fuzzy Knight offa his feet and belly-up onto the bar. With a snap of the whip and a whistle (yippee-ki-yi-yah the tune), Lash LaRue plucks, from out the doughy fingers of the banker, that .44 Yellow Boy Winchester. That’s the drill, right? What all the men who never fought before picture the fight to be, as if the laws of physics obey the logic of a dream, as if to imagine a thing is to make it so, as if all of our encounters would, if only they could, partake of the majesty of a dance.
Back in the world of the real—the mosquito bite and the belly-ache and the tubercular rattle of the broken lung—we got us a collision of manly valor. GB the brave, Joe the boozy, served up like a side of roadkill there beside the dish of the day, Maggie. A clinch, a scramble, and GB hooked in a headlock, and Joe with the free arm thumping away, and GB thrashing at the legs of the chairs and the tables, like a eight-legged kraken there crab-walking up a patch of linoleum and into the light.
Maggie shakes her head. Gives them a kick. “Take it outside, boys.”
With the butt end of the push-broom she gives them a shove. Out over the threshold and onto the porch they tumble. Break apart.
Hard to figure what happens next, out there in the gray, but Joe’s got a hold of what’s left of GB’s fancy shirt with the tail and the sleeve and the button-up of the collar. Off goes the shirt like you shuck a ear of corn. Barnett tumbles—the white of the shoulder in the flash of the lamp—off the steps and into the dark.
Shame. Shame the word to follow. We crowd the door to catch the upshot of it all, for the boy to charge, for Joe to parry, for the taunt and the wager and the brutal joy of the bloody knuckle. Keen to measure, we were, these two, not for any commerce of our own, but for the godly pleasure of the practiced eye. To praise a man in purely animal terms, as with a race-horse or a stag. To comment—we who bear the cross, who smack the chiggers, who slap ourselves on the ear and the wrist and the ankle—on the finer points of bludgeonry.
We figured a massacre, what with Barnett a boy and Joe, tipsy as he was, taller by a head. Or we figured maybe, what with Joe so deep in the cups, a draw. Or maybe, just maybe, GB had the moxie to humble Joe. The gods intervene, the badger wins, Joe (the arrogant shit) humbled by a local boy.
Anything would have been better than what happened. GB landed clean (we could see that much) at the foot of the steps. Up on his feet. Brisk. Bare from the waist up. Ring of red at the neck and the hands, up to the elbows (as if dipped in a vat of wine) red, red as well. In the moonlight the barrel of the body a milky white, a color of the moon. GB takes a step.
Up top of the porch, Joe he climbs up into a kneel. “I done skin you, boy.”
Gives the shirt a shake, that shirt of GB’s, a shiver to rid the world of whatever lint or fleck or follicle might remain.
“A good whupping, boy, that’s what I love. Come on, boy, come fetch another helping.”
Barnett sees it, the shirt. He runs a hand up over the loop of the rope at his waist. Both hands, as if to find it, the shirt, somewhere on his person.
Backs off a step. Two steps, into the dark. Almost too quick to see what happens next, all of us looking on, Maggie in the frame of the door. He turns. Into the dark he turns, he runs. Runs away.
The Hammer of God
“The Honorable Joseph E. Nagel. That’d be you?”
Little pip of a boy. Voice like a piccolo. At the foot of the barber’s chair he stood. Buried in a pair of coveralls he swayed, stick of a kid in the uniform of the cracker, the share-cropper and the picker and the barefoot royalty of the abandoned pasture.
Joe spatulaed a hand up over the hills and valleys of that handsome face of his. Stirred up a scent of rosewater and lime. “Who’s asking?”
“You be Nagel? Name of Joseph Nagel?”
“So they say.”
“I got me a…” The boy fumbled at the shoulder of the britches, where back in the day the button held the strap that dangled now at a curl, like the peel of an apple. Thrust the other hand outward. “Here. A missive.”
We all of us thinking the same thing. Missive in the manner of the ballads of old. The lady and the knight. Bidwell holstered the comb and the scissors, wiped his hands on the tail of his blouse, relayed the note to Joe. “Say boy. That missive come with a Miss?”
“I’m thinking Maggie,” said Cochrane. He fanned himself with a flap of a calendar, honey in a one-piece at the bow of a canoe, the hand on the oar, the knob in the fist, the red O of the mouth a flavor on the make, a melodious proffer. We gathered round to read. Crowded the chair.
Not a scroll proper, but a brown paper roller shade drafted into service and bound with a ribbon and a seal. Joe broke the seal—candle wax, red, embossed with a button off a pair of chinos. Levi Strauss & Co. It was Bidwell (Joe looking on) who sang it out for all to hear:
In most foul manner you have impugned my honor. If you were a gentleman, I would challenge you to a duel, but being as you ain’t nothing but a low-born, a coward, I do hereby forgive and absolve you. After all, you don’t whip a dog for pissing on a rosebush. Dog is a dog is a dog.
At your service,
G. Gordon Barnett
Joe gathered in the note. Rolled it. Unrolled it. While we laughed, and quipped, and declaimed, in a medley of accents, say-rah and sear-rhah and seer-ray-ahh, he read it silently over again.
He turned to the boy. “So now. You the Stepin Fetchit here?”
Face like a fist, the boy. “I ain’t no Stepin Fetchit.”
“Looking mighty black to me.”
The boy straightened, reared up into the full of the height he could lay claim to. “My daddy says—”
Joe laughed. “I’m poking you, boy. See if you ripe.”
We laughed. A thin kind of laugh. Joe not what you would call a jocular fellow. The bayonet in the drawer of silver, that’d be Joe.
“Listen here, boy.” Joe crumpled the scroll into a burl the size of a coconut. Into the basket of clippings he pitched it. “You tell Mr. G. Gordon Barnett he got himself a duel whether he like it or not. Noon tomorrow. High noon. You tell him he fail to show, he’s a coward.”
“Yessir.” The boy hurried out the door.
What the hell, Joe.
The ghost of Andy Jackson.
No, no. He’s thinking he’s Bat Masterson.
Shootout at the O.K. Corral.
You got a gun?
What’s so funny, Joe?
“GB,” said Joe to no one in particular. “Little pissant. Never gonna show. What I wanna see, what I’m looking forward to—” He peered out the crack in the blinds, took in the whole of the street. “—is the bullshit excuse he gonna give. You see it yourself. He done already run from a fight.”
True enough. Not that that was cause enough to elevate our estimate of Joe, the Joe-ness of Joe. To treat with the errand boy the way he did. To tease him, that’s one thing. But to call him black? No call for that. That was low.
By the time Joe’d buffed his shirt back into place and cinched the tie and shaken out the last of the talc and the clippings, the boy reappeared. Another scroll. Fresh the ink. Dusting of rosin in the curl:
I accept the challenge. As the challengee, the code decrees that I choose the weapon and the field of honor, to whit:
Sledgehammer the Arm de Guerre.
Econlockhatchee Bridge the venue.
High noon tomorrow.
G. Gordon Barnett
* * *
By the time the sun hit the far side of the water-tower and flung the shadow up the slope of the grove, a dozen handbills feathered the storefronts and the pillars and the mailbox, the barber pole and the gazebo and the statue of the Colonel in the town square:
At the place where the mighty Econ meets the Roaring Elgin Line, a
Battle of the Titans
G. Gordon Barnett,
The Hammer of God and Hero of the Battle of Slapjack Mountain.
Ferry departs Purdy’s Fish Camp 11:30am
Tickets 50 cents. (Adult) refreshments available.
Armed only with sledgehammers and such manly vigor as the moment inspires, the mortal enemies meet in a one-time-only
Duel to the Death
* * *
The minute the barge—kick of the boathook, slap of the line on the skin of the water—parted the dock, the price of pie climbed by a quarter.
“It’s the scarcity,” said Maggie. “Give it a extra kick.”
She lifted the tin. Held it out over the water. With her free hand she snatched away the handkerchief. Apple with a crust of brown sugar and a rubble of raisin. Savvy Maggie. A halo of steam sweetened the air. “Iffen you wanna rescue this pie from the muddy waters of the Econ, you gotta pay the ransom.”
She sold it by the slice and then, as the distance from civilization grew, and the woods rolled in to cover the banks, by the sliver.
“Maggie. You thinking that boy of yours gonna show?”
“Well that boy not a boy now, is he? You seen him. Man about town.”
“I seen him in shoes.”
“Shoes. Hat. Collar with a button. Got the air of a gallant.”
“So you thinking—”
“I given up thinking what GB up to.”
“No. Not no more. Not in my employ.”
“What they saying is, the fight between Joe and—”
“I know what they saying.”
“For the honor of Maggie is what Joe—”
“Joe got the brain of a gerbil.”
“And the balls to match.”
“But don’t you—”
“Don’t give a damn.”
“He’s claiming GB insulted your honor, but GB’s claiming—”
“What makes you think I give a fig for what a grifter like Joe have to say?”
So she said. But she coulda stayed home. Coulda gone to fetch the sheriff. Coulda hooked him on the collar, GB, smacked him, set him—like she done a hundred times before—straight. But she didn’t. She baked the pies. Drew up a dress we never seen before, a confection of blue silk with a lace of white, fabric you wear for show, not a cloak you gather to shed the wind but a vestment you don to publish a color, secret color, color of the heart.
“Looking spry today, Maggie.”
“Beauty is a flower but only so an hour.”
“And that’s a mighty fine—”
“Price of pie don’t vary, Mr. Cross, with the pitch of the wind.”
“It’s a compliment is all. As fine of a dress—”
“Ain’t nothing but breath in a word of praise.”
“Breath is free. It don’t cost a penny. Nothing.”
“So.” She held up her empty hand, as if to weigh it. “I thank you for nothing.”
“Can’t a man even—”
“Do what he pleases?”
“Offer up a observation.”
“You got a question then ask it.”
“Why so cold?”
She reddened. “What am I? A stick of wood, a lump of coal? Gotta blossom into flame at the sound of your voice?”
And that was that. But we knew better. The barge slid onward, into the shadow of the bridge. The pilot slung a line across a piling. A tremor. Towards the makeshift landing the floating island drifted. Like a cube of ice in a shot of malt liquor, it embossed the yellow water, imposed a geometry of its own.
* * *
Maggie waited for the barge to lighten. Up the bank the able-bodied wound their way. The others shuffled the gear to make a seat of it—the bale, the crate, the barrel—and peered up into the shadow of the span.
Waited. So’s not to call attention to herself she slipped up alongside the pilot, grabbed a free line, nursed it back into a coil. Shaded her eyes. Cut-outs, the boys above, black on the blue of the sky. Here and there a voice. Fetch up here, Maggie. This party’s for you and woman of the hour and wedding bells and first blood. Scent of cedar in the folds of the dress. Mothballs. She’d always thought of her skin as the hull of a vessel or, in her tender moments, the hide of a creature of the deep. Flank of a seal. Of a dolphin. Nary a curve for show alone but, like a bullet, fashioned to sweeten the flight of a—she smiled at the thought of it—projectile.
Deadly Maggie. She fingered the lace on the sleeve. The fifty-caliber kiss. It never occurred to her, ‘til that moment, that the duel would ever amount to anything more than a spectacle of tomfoolery, another scam to silver the pocket of that boy, that halfa-man she made the mistake of taking in. The Hammer of God. G. Gordon.
A start of a smile. She reigned it back. It was not her intent to see the humor in it. She summoned up the memory to mock him, his pretense, his bull-froggian capacity to inflate a sack of air into a bellows of planetary dimension. The Hero of the Battle of Slapjack Mountain.
And then, in spite of herself, she laughed. Surrendered to it. It felt good to give the absurdity of it a say. There were no words. Words too small a container. The idiocy of it all.
And how it started. GB at the foot of the steps. Lighting off into the dark. It pierced her to think on it, the shame of it, the word abroad, GB a coward they said over the coffee cold and the scrap of egg and bacon, her in the kitchen out of earshot but nobody’s fool, Maggie. She knew what to listen for. She could read a jury good as any felon.
And then it struck her, the weight of the shame for the one who shoulders it. Not as an onlooker in a moment of mercy, no, but season after season, asleep and awake, alone in the dark and in the company of others.
And then, for just a moment, for so long as the moment lasted, she became him. Felt what he felt—the sandpaper leather of the dumpster boots, the hobo pride of the cardboard wallet, the little brick of a body in the shadow of the taller men. Pictured him, on hands and knees in the dark, as he fumbled at the cache of books he hid in the duffle at the foot of the cot. He’d always hid himself when he read, out of sight of the unlettered, the bully-boys, the fingers of brick and the bourbony voice of the mocker. She scorned him for his bookish ways, called him a Trick-or-Treater, a stripling, a boy with a brain all up in a boil over nothing.
To hell with you he said with a laugh. To hell with you all. Night after night, like a poacher in a blind he stilled himself, settled himself, rendered himself invisible to the world.
Through the crack in the door she’d mark him, press her face to the grain, spy him as he’d—with a hand at the base of the candle, a hand up under the spine of the book—stir up, from out the dark, another story. She’d forget where she was. Into the scene she’d body herself, into the skin of him, cross-legged on the floor of the Slapjack, the timber flexing with the every shift of the flesh, the earth in a slumber, the moon no brighter than a ball of soap. Pictured herself picturing, with his eyes, in the murmur of the candle, the words on the page, the avalanche of it all, the tales of Arthur and Odysseus, the Manassa Mauler and the Sultan of Swat and From Canal Boy to President, the Boyhood of James A. Garfield.
Hard to say how it—how such a thing could happen. How a poker pulls, from out the heat of the fire, a heat of its own. At the sight of the book in the blaze of the candle she felt (however she tried to mock it) a joy of her own. The heat of it. How it hurt. How to the marrow it hurt to feel again the promise of a joy. Christ. Christ-a’mighty. To be the blood and the bone of the other. Is this what it means to love?
A Person of No Account
Joe made a good show of it. Marched out in the a.m. with the boys in tow, hammer up over the shoulder and the doors of a junkyard oven at the back and the breast a kinda sandwich board, a vest plate of iron, blazon of the house of Hotpoint. Got him a doughboy’s helmet, you know, with the brim? Relic of the war. Too big by a finger. Wobbles like a cap to a kettle aboil.
What a walk it was. Down the main street. The local folk thick on the curb, loafers rising up, not so much to cheer as to gape at the sight of a sailor of tin, a Popeye you crank with the turn of a key.
Doughty Joe. Bold in the blaze of the day. Clanged up onto the railbed for the two-mile trek above the gravel and the cross-ties and the boil of the bendable air. By the time he arrived—too proud to fob off, on the boys who followed, the armor and the hammer and the rucksack fatty with ham and fritters and pints of ale—he was beat.
“So Nagel. Nagel. You think he’ll show?”
“Track him down if he don’t. Flush him out. Pound him. Into a posthole pound him.”
Flat as an anvil the bridge at the river. On either side the banks rose at an angle steep enough to climb with a pick-axe.
On the far side GB waited, just over the county line, outside the jurisdiction of the one sheriff and outside the ken of the other, Sheriff Sunny Jack Trapper of Alachua County, a man so vested in his daily tryst with the wife of the county assayer you could paint a house and barbeque a side of beef in the time it took for him to rotisserie off the mattress and back into his boots. Tucker’s Fishatorium. You know the place—offa Hiawassee? The squad car he’d park, in that grand manner of his (that flash of the blue light as he kills the ignition) dockside, in full view of God and his acolytes asleep in the shade or nursing a bottle of fermentable refreshment. Rod and reel aflutter he’d tramp out round the cat-tails and up the muddy track and through the breech in the fence at the back window of Cabin Number Seven, Rowdy Ranger Motor Court, by the day or the hour, and up over the sill like a burglar he’d climb, and into the soft arms of a gal half his age.
So there you go. Just goes to show you. At any given moment you got a half of the world in a hunt for a something you what? You can’t even name. How hungry the skin. A whole ocean of air in the offing, and every caress of the breeze a freebie, free for the taking, gratis, but no. It’s never enough. How ravenous for something so simple as a touch, we all of us, and here the whole of creation bumping upside us every second and what do we do? What do we instead? What do we seek? The skin to the skin. The face to the fist. The kiss. Go figure. Not a one of us born of the flesh ever free of that hunger, that fever to strike out at the fog, wham, to strike up onto something solid.
Halfway across the bridge when, below us, a broken cheer. The boat shivered in the current. Excursion Barge the sign on the bow. A couple dozen townies crowded the deck. House-frau in sunbonnets the color of butter. Clerks in fedoras. And farmers, them straw toppers they wear to a frazzle, and the postman, and the barkeep, and the whore with the harvest of hair (shock of red on the bare of the shoulder) beside the daddies and the mommies and the kid with the menu conicalled up into a megaphone. The preacher even, Sunday suit, Sword of the Lord in hand should the occasion call.
“Bar-nett! Barnett! Barnett!”
* * *
Maggie made her way up the bank. How strange to be the call to arms in a battle she had no say in the making. Quick to quarrel, sure, but that was a call she made of her own accord, a skirmish in a war she waged, with a kind of professional detachment, against everyone and everything. A thresher, that’d be Maggie, a thresher in a field. Every which way you swing the blade it bites.
And now the congregation. Here they were, from top to bottom, the whole of the flock in a swirl at her feet. Maggie the maiden! they shouted from the raft and the shallows and the bank. Maggie the fair! It was hard going, up the slope in the heat of day. Not so much a path as it was a scar on the shoulder of the bank.
To clear the sandspurs she gathered her hem, up over the knee and then higher, offered up for all the stick of a leg that marked her as an object of pity. Gather round, boys. Whatever might occasion the snub she was always a step ahead. In company she feigned a bitter gaiety, made light of herself, laughed at the thought of a tender word. In secret she mocked herself. Her childish reverie. Her whimsy. Not for Maggie the flash of the can-can or the saucy turn of the hip.
For the honor of Maggie!
The weight of a single word. It made her laugh. At the World’s Fair she paid a premium for a walnut that was not a walnut but a hand-crafted-out-of-Pilipino-Mahogany facsimile of a walnut. Such a rarity, such a wonderment, such a treasure to the very moment she—driven by a wicked impulse—gave it a whack with a hammer. Behold. A walnut after all.
So she was the walnut. And the boys? Buskers in a sweat to sell the crowd a fiction of wondrous value: the Honor of Maggie. What surprised her was how taken she was with the notion. Not that she would ever admit, or fashion into words a feeling so ephemeral but, for a second there, a half-dozen beats of the heart, she allowed as how the spectacle buoyed her, held her weightless above the broken trail she traveled to reach the top of the bank.
A teacher at Valencia College, Alan’s fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review, The Greensboro Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Hunger Mountain, Prime Number and elsewhere. Short stories of his have won contests sponsored by The Texas Observer, Hunger Mountain Review, Driftwood Press, The Prism Review and others. After an MA in Lit at the University of Florida and a poetry fellowship at Columbia, he earned his MFA at Western New England University.
Several short stories from The Slapjack novel have won or placed in contests here and abroad. The opening chapter won the 2021 First Pages Prize, the second chapter the 2022 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, and a later chapter the 2021 Rash Award in Fiction. Other chapters include a finalist for The New Ohio Review Editors’ Prize In Prose, a finalist in Terrain.org’s 12th Annual Fiction Contest, a runner-up for Australia’s 2019 Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize, and First Runner-up for The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2021. For details, go to alansincic.com.