Sunday, September 04, 2011

Appalachian Banjo

His grandfather rolled Zigzag and Chum. He sucked on Popeye cigarettes putting the lit end in his mouth. He met a deaf mute at the church bazaar on a warm June night, the stars glittering like broken crystal. She was dressed in a rose skirt and sandals. She registered sounds through the vibrations they made. Everything was corporeal, a feeling.

The deaf mute had a scullery maid’s aplomb for rearranging sock drawers and linen hampers, which she did quietly and with steadied poise. She scrubbed other people’s floors with her bare hands and a bishopric-lye she kept in a tin underneath her bed. She’d rather they smile or smell the lilac of her neck, a place seldom touched by hands other than her own, than pay her. Her days were divided between scullery-work and stitching frayed pant’s bottoms and wayward coat-sleeves. She used a bone-thimble and a seven-gage sewing needle and thread so thick you could truss a chicken with it.

The florist made beautiful nosegays for the deaf mute carefully choosing each flower and arranging them into exquisite bouquets: Windflowers and Daffodils, Whortleberry and Venus’s Looking-glass, Toad-flax and Teasel, Sweet William and Silver-weed, Persian Candy-tuft and Narcissus, Mandrake and yellow Madder, Larkspur and Ladies’ Bedstraw, Jonquils and Indian cane, Hornbeam and Hawthorn, Goosefoot and Goats-rue, Foxglove and Dodder, Date-plum and Cinquefoil, Chaste-tree and Bugloss, Bladder-senna and Black thorn, Arum and Amaranth. He wove them together with the greatest care never once mislaying a flower. She like fruit flans, peach or currant apricot and anything that tasted like anis.

He was taught how to play checkers by a Quaker with hairy arms and a coughing laugh. The Quaker offered him tiny cupcakes with frosting. He ate anything that was put in front of him not wanting to appear ungrateful. His great grandfather and the Quaker delivered sermons to the lost and forsaken, the Quaker coughing and laughing all the way through. Neither his great grandfather or the laughing coughing Quaker gave a damn about the lost and forsaken; they did as they were told not once questioning their callings.

He met Delaney at the Lutheran crab fry on a sunshiny August day. Delaney sat over a table cracking crab shells with a nutcracker he carried in a scabbard on his belt. He espied him from a distance as he was in no mood for pleasantries. Once Delaney had you in his sights he would chatter on, the insufferable fool, and he did not suffer fools lightly. Most of the crab-eaters were either recumbent or in a state of decumbency, few were there who sat up straight or left their elbows off the table. Two congregants of the Lutheran church sat by themselves cracking crab shells. ‘This is strangely disturbing’ said the one to the other. ‘all these crabs and not a shell insight.’ ‘Don’t you mean in sight?’ said the other.

His grandfather smoked inhaling and exhaling at the same time. He tamped bungholes with a wooden mallet swung from the top of his shoulder, stopping only to readjust the spigot with the heel of his hand. His grandmother rode on a cushion that smelled of oxen sweat, the horses breaking into a gallop. The anvil-man hammered tacks into braided hair just big enough to slip through a bridle. The first time he saw her she was reading the National Geographic. He thought this rather odd, as most people simply read the captions under the photos.

‘The world is all there is’ his grandfather said. ‘vectoring nonsense’. ‘And the smell’ said his grandmother. ‘the bloody smell!’

When he was a boy his grandfather ate honey sandwiches with the crusts removed. He ate delicately taking small bites. His mother made him honey sandwiches with a butter knife she kept in a kitchen drawer next to the refrigerator. She spread the butter first then unspooled the honey with the end of a spoon. Sometimes his mother bought cone honey with bees’ stingers and twigs in it. ‘Dungarvan honey is the worst’ he’d complain to his mother. ‘it’s too sweet’.

‘Out of my way you!’ shouted his grandfather striding up the street on his way to the Kingdom Hall. A parade of people walking in single file made their way past his grandfather, his anger itching like poison ivy. ‘Out of my way I said!’ The single file broke down the middle, some pitching to the east others to the west, his grandfather making his way up the centre. ‘That’s more like it’ he grumbled, ‘show some respect for the old man’.

His grandfather wore his belt round his waist like a coil of intestine. He wouldn’t allow the sun in through the bedroom window until he’d said his morning prayers. He asked his grandmother if they ate Oats for breakfast, his grandmamma replying ‘My child you ask such stupid questions’.

His grandmother cut toast into fingers and pushed them into the porridge with the held end of a spoon. Everything tasted better once his grandmamma had touched it. ‘This is no life for a man’ muttered his grandmother. His grandmother’s cataracts were gray not whitish like most peoples’.

The doctor was concerned that the two halves of his skull might never join. A flap of skin was obstructing the two sides from coming together ‘and if it doesn’t fix itself the boy will have a soft spot on the top of his head’. ‘Can’t you do something?’ pleaded his mother. ‘Your son’s fate is in God’s hands not mine’ said the doctor matter-of-factly. ‘anyhow, madam, we’re not in the business of miracles’.

The doctor’s cure for stuttering was to stuff her mouth with cotton batten and use her tongue as a tiller. The elisions continued, bits of cotton finding their way into her stomach. Cow’s give more milk during a quarter moon his great uncle said. When his great aunt told him that this was as queer as a Quaker nickel his face went as sour as lemon biscuits. She told him many queer things but he never gave them much thought. She felt small when her grandmother looked at her and big when her father smiled. She emptied the commode-pot out the back veranda, tossing the night’s emictions onto the dewy grass. His great aunt’s life was unbending, the bane of being a Quaker’s daughter. Blood sickness and anemia, common to the Mormon calling, were uncommon in a Quaker home. The Mormon’s spurned medical intervention seeing it as a sectarian evil created by man. His great aunt refused to let his mother play with the Mormon children. One of the Mormon children died from blanching anemia, the prophet denying her a blood transfusion.

His grandmother ironed creases into his grandfather’s pants using a vinegar bottle filled with starch and a flatiron she heated on top of the stove. She rubbed goose fat into his trousers to keep the crease from coming out. He never did get the gist of the iron. He thought it a waste of time as his grandfather’s work made everything wrinkly, and besides, his poor grandmother’s back ached afterwards.

His grandmother, her hands covered in flour and half-risen yeast, larded pies with enough butter to choke an ox. She never once stopped to think that her pies might stiffen rickets in her children’s bowed legs. On Sunday evenings her grandfather played music with the men at the lodge, strumming his psaltery like a Appalachian banjo. His mother’s mother made Christmas pudding in a Chockfull of Nuts coffee tin. She pealed the label off with a paring knife and relabeled it CP for Christmas pudding. She boiled the eggs, flour, raisins and currants over low heat, adding the Brandy after it had simmered. His grandfather always stole a bowlful the day before Christmas. He added an extra handful of cloves which his grandmother frowned upon but pretended she hadn’t noticed. The year he was born there was no spectacular meteor shower like the year his brother was born. He remembered his mother’s disenchanted face. He remembered the doctor clearing his throat then the bright lights and the smell of ether. The following year there was a comet so bright and dazzling that it filled the night sky with heavenliness. The doctor told his mother to push, his tiny mucousy head crowning, his mother’s face labored with exhaustion.

Some people believe in a single god others in a multiplicity of gods, each with its own divinity, and some believe in nothing. His grandfather fell somewhere between the god of nothing and the many, and when he worried about death, which he did from time to time, he lifted himself into the first camp, the camp of one god, the god of transcendence and immortality. This god was a fearless god, a god of magic and alchemy, and simply knowing this made him feel less ill at ease and frightened. Sleep is like the devil, said his grandmother, always lurking in the dark. His grandmother said strange things that caused his grandfather no end of discommode. When she spoke in a soft whisper it always came out like a scream.

The day he was born it rained so hard the sky almost vanished. The sky was so blue and deep that you couldn’t see to the bottom. That day his grandmother made Mormon pickles canning them in Mason jars with flimsy rubber stoppers and screw-tops that never quiet screwed tight. The brine was so murky it reminded him of bull’s semen or curdled milk. She used a double-boiler with a tinfoil lid and an oversized wooden spoon that had teeth-marks in it. The smell of cucumbers and his grandmother’s fingers pitching the spoon up against the side of the double-boiler left an indelible impression on him. The day he was born the house smelled like Mormon pickles and the washing solution his grandmother used to sterilize the pickling jars.

When she was fed up with his ne'er-do-welling she would say ‘You’re sure to put me in an early grave’. He poached a handfuls of pickles and slid like a rattle out the back door. ‘You’re mule headed just like your grandfather’ she said.

Molasses, that’s what she like on her toast. Her mother told her that it would make her lips fuller and stop the trembling in her legs. It never did, but she put it on her toast just the same. She thought it funny that wives’ tales are told by silly men not wives. Wives’ tales are like fairy tales, she thought, a troubled beginning and a happy ending. All she saw was the troubled beginning never reading through to the happy ending.

The cobbler fixed old broken-down shoes and boots. He spoke in grunts and seldom wore the same soft-soled shoes twice. He knew of the cobbler but had never made his formal acquaintance. He couldn’t afford his services so had very little cause to. He stuffed crumpled newspaper in the toes of his boots sidestepping the need for professional shoeing.

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"Poetry is the short-circuiting of meaning between words, the impetuous regeneration of primordial myth". Bruno Schulz

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