A Postcard from the Delta
Michael Gaspeny
Coming December 2022!
Pre-Order Available! 
Binding

 

 

ISBN 978-1-60489-332-8, trade paper, $17.95

 

 

 
 


Excerpt from Book:

Hello

 

 

            When everything is gone, what do you make out of nothing? Thatís the fix my blues heroes faced, and my trouble now. Every day I go to Howliní Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson like a fundamentalist studies the Bible. Their music is sacred to me. I know itís 2000, the new millennium, and Iím 19 and supposed to like rap, country, alt rock, or head-banging music, but for me the rock of ages is the blues, and I like to draw my power from the source.

            I need the music more than ever. Up until three months ago, I was a high school football star with a steady girlfriend, high grades, and a commitment to his community. I was popular, even admired. Iím Johnny Spink, and I used to live in Spinkville, Arkansas, an Ozark town named for my ancestors. Now Iím a long way from home, staying with my Uncle Roy in Islamorada, Florida and dragging toward graduation at Coral Shores High School. A scar runs down the left side of my face from the corner of my eye to the jaw. It looks like a long, ragged strip of dirty pink bubblegum. So far Iíve resisted seeing a plastic surgeon. Although the scar is ugly and humiliating, it guarantees people will avoid me, and I want privacy at this time in my life. Iím tired of hearing other people talk (except for Mr. Futrelle, whose story plays like a movie in my mind during bad times). The scar keeps essentials in front of me. Maybe farther down the road, when I grasp my lessons, Iíll have my face repaired.

I had to leave Spinkville last Thanksgiving after I walked down the driveway, shaking the sleep from my head, to fetch The Mountain Eagle from its orange mailbox tube and found what looked like an old, gnawed boot. When I grabbed it, my fingers felt something slimyóbones, mangled, and stinking! Bile rose in my throat.  Those bones used to walk and run, before they were twisted and hacked away. I slung the foot to the ground and lurched to the porch, tasting acid. My right hand felt contaminated.  I yelled to Dad.

            He rushed out, straightening his thick glasses, and looked where I pointed. ďMy God, Johnny!Ē he shouted. ďThey wonít leave you alone! You tried to tell the truth and look what youíre getting! Thatís it! Iím calling Ed Sellers.Ē He was our sheriff.

Since the Esmeraldo game the previous Friday, I had received threatening phone calls and poison pen letters from an array of haters. In a sense, the foot was my morning news. It could have been mine. Last fall, I enraged Arkansans from many corners of life. For a brief time, across the state, I was notorious. Ministers and leaders of racial organizations scorned me on TV, slanting statements I had made to the media during a post-game interview.

            I rushed inside, washed my stinking hands in steaming water twice and doused them with rubbing alcohol. I brushed my teeth to drive the sick taste from my mouth, the toothpaste almost gagging me. Away from the football field, I was squeamish. What scared me wasnít slasher flicks, but real-life horror in the headlines every day and the racial injustice I had studied in a pre-college course at the University of Arkansas. There I saw a picture of Emmett Tillís mauled corpse in his coffin and film of Rodney King being clubbed and clubbed. I learned that plantation owners had slit the Achilles tendons of slaves attempting to run away. Our text at the university contained a photo of a mob posing with a lynching victim it had mutilated. The gathering was a festive family affair, with mothers holding picnic baskets and big-eyed kids fascinated by the dangling man. The picnickers had complexions like mine. It horrified me that during the era of segregation, when many monstrous acts were committed against black citizens in my home state, the foot on my lawn could have belonged to Mr. Futrelle, the man I call Mr. F, the man I admire more than anyone in the world.

            I put the toothbrush down. My mouth stung. A car surged up the driveway. From the front door, I saw Dad and Ed Sellers inspecting the foot. Ed slipped on latex gloves and slid the foot into an evidence bag. As Ed drove off, Dad said, ďWeíre getting you out of here today!Ē On the two-day drive to Uncle Rayís place in the Keys, the foot lay at the edge of my mind like roadkill on the wayside. Just before Christmas, forensics experts in Little Rock determined it was a paw that once belonged to a black bear.

But that didnít cleanse my memory or keep me from thinking about the bear.  I avoid reminders of mutilation, including the meat section at Payfair and the marinas at dusk when the party boats return with their hauls. Proud anglers pose for pictures under their catch impaled on spiked racks. Then mates clean the fish, knives flashing, and flip slimy scraps to herons and egrets. I watched that ritual once, for about twenty seconds, before I rushed from the dock. A few months ago, it would have thrilled me to be smiling in one of those photos. But that was in a different life. Now I know what itís like to get caught and cut.

Fortunately, my reputation has not followed me to Florida. Down here in the manana-land of the Keys, where everything can wait except fishing, Iím just the silent outsider with the weird scar who sticks to the back of the room and the palm shadows along the Overseas Highway. Even so, sometimes I have a fugitiveís dread. What if someone discovers my secret, and the slurs start again? I have been called everything from a ďwiggerĒ (white nigger, in case you didnít know) to a bigot. I have been attacked by the NAACP and defended by Black Muslims.

I stay in a small apartment downstairs from Uncle Roy, the only person in the Sunshine State who knows what sent me here. Heís a tight-lipped fishing guide, gone before sunrise and often at night. He looks in on me every few days, but mostly he lets me keep to myself, which is the lifestyle he practices. Roy broke out of societyís maze long ago. Born in the mountains with a passion for fishing, he came to Islamorada, which the chamber of commerce, with good reason, calls ďThe Sport fishing Capital of the World.Ē

When I was in the mountains, I loved to fish, too, especially with Mr. F, but here in anglersí paradise, Iíve lost my enthusiasm. Back in December, Roy took me fishing for bonefish and tarpon; even though he released our catches, it disturbed me to jerk the fish out of their element, and I asked to go back to shore. Maybe for the first time in my life, I know exactly what I need, and thatís to leave fish and people alone. Writing is a safe way to create sympathetic company at a distance. Although Iím imagining you, your presence is real. I hope youíll hear me out.

Roy is my motherís brother. Sheís been gone about twelve years now, not dead, as far as I know, but departed, a fault-finding alcoholic who ended her connection with both sides of the family. We all disappointed her. I donít miss her outbursts, but I would like to know where she is. When I was little, my parents were drunks. They drank like drains. Before dinner, Dad cracked beers and Mom popped wine corks; afterward, ice burst from trays and rattled in glasses for the nightly visit by Jack Daniels, the only taste they shared. At our house, bottles chimed and glugged. Most of the time, they held off arguing until they thought I was asleep. Why were they drinking? Dad had inherited Ozark Poultry, the largest employer in Spinkville and a business he hated. Mom, detesting our drab town, took such lengthy trips that one became lasting.

Otherwise, I had the happy existence of a well-off boy who could lug a football. Folks in Spinkville loved me, and I thought I loved them. Dad entered rehab, joined AA, sold the poultry plant, and became mayor. He and I lived as we pleased in the neglected rooms of our ancestral home on a hill above town square. Despite these blessings, one side of me must have sensed that trouble (or real life) lay just ahead, because the first time I heard the blues, the music grabbed me. I was easing the dial around my radio, hoping to pick up a football game, when I hit this growling singer backed by a band that sounded like an amplified tool box being shaken up and down. The song was Howliní Wolfís ďSmokestack Lightning.Ē His ferocious groan and those guitars clanging like radiators split me in two. I had no idea what smokestack lightning was or what the words meant, but, oh, how I wanted to know. And, if I donít do anything else, if you stick with me, I will prove to you that I got blindsided by smokestack lightning and itís still teaching me.

While I didnít know it at the time, the shock in that song edged me toward the Saturday morning some years down the road when Coach Chuck Hurd raised the subject that led to my downfall.