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    Big Chief Tablet: Presh Tales from the Lowcountry

    Brought To You By The Oxford American

    Picture it: You drive home from the grocery store, pull into your cul-de-sac, a short and quiet street. You like the way the afternoon sun casts across your cul-de-sac like the paradisiac light of some ambitious Netherlander’s painting. It is a modest street. Its homes are small. You like this, too. It makes you feel a slight moral superiority to those who have homes with closets. Your wife wants closets, dreams of them, asks for them for Christmas.

    Why, you ask.

    To put things, she says.

    What kinds of things?

    All kinds of things, she says.

    The thing is, you have some insecurities about your property on the cul-de-sac. It is on the margins of middleclass respectability: Cute, yes. A porch, yes. Even trees and a park, right there. But you feel the neighborhood is only one or two rental agreements shy of Escape From New York anarchy. These renters come in, and these homes start to look like pornographic films and ritual murders are being filmed inside: the venetian blinds tattered, a front door that appears to have been clawed at by a large mammal, strange garbage by the roadside: empty boxes of Milwaukee’s Best, cartons of latex gloves, discarded tubs of what appears to be lizard food. These lizard people are up to no good, you fear.

    Nevertheless, you like it here. It wants to be respectable, a verdant rung on the ladder from working prole to affluent burgher. And it will be good for your children, teaching them the virtues of simplicity, humility, and what sorts of trees to climb when chased by marginalized dogs.

    When you pull into your cul-de-sac, you slow down, as you do not wish to run over Old Man Winter, an aged veteran who is blind and wanders into the street to gather tennis balls knocked over the fence from a nearby public court. He gathers these balls, which are the last remaining objects he can see besides the sun, and hands them out to the squirrels, whom he believes are children. He usually sits under the umbrella of large dogwoods purchased by his dead wife in the mists of prehistory from a mail-order catalog, which he speaks about with great awe.

    It was a book full of trees, he says.

    Amazing, you say.

    In spring, the dogwoods bloom white and hang over his yard like a low cloudbank.

    You are always concerned about running over Old Man Winter, as you do not wish to murder what is likely the last surviving infantryman of the Crimean War, whose name you do not even have the decency to know.

    What’s your name again, you ask.

    What’s that, he says.

    Your name, you say.

    Tennis balls, he says.

    Your name, you say.

    Dogwoods, he says.

    Name.

    Dogwoods.

    This goes on.

    But as you pass his humble estate today, you notice something strange: Old Man Winter is not there. Instead, there is a naked man fighting with one of the azaleas.

    You pull into your driveway and look again.

    He is not naked, just wearing flesh-colored shorts designed for a toddler. You park, and before you can get inside your house, the shirtless man is standing behind you.

    I got a flare, he says.

    You turn around.

    A flour, the large woman behind him says.

    They are in your yard. They are holding sheets of paper.

    A flyer, you say. Oh.

    I can do anything, he says. Trim, chop, lop, rake, dig. I can do it all.

    He can do it all, the large woman says.

    The man is what your father would describe as squirrelly. Like a squirrel, he jerks, frets, stiffens, shuddering in fleshy paroxysms the way most people do when attacked by the Holy Spirit. Like a squirrel, he wears no shirt and appears capable of climbing trees. Unlike a squirrel, he seems overly concerned with rubbing his nipples. Despite his smallness, his chest is thick, muscular. His abs, defined. He is ripped. He also appears coked to the gills. You have seen this type of man before, but cannot remember where. Ah, yes! Cops. The TV show.

    The woman behind him worships a more endomorphic god. She explains that she is Old Man Winter’s granddaughter. She is a big gal, with the build of a large and talkative toad. Your eye is drawn to her hair, which can best be described as Thunderdome-era Tina Turner. It is red, and it swells up and out from her skull as though desiring to photosynthesize with the nearest available sunlight.

    They speak to you, hand you a flare, and are gone.

    I’m just glad we don’t live next to people like that, your wife says.

    We’re very lucky, you say. We have good neighbors.

    A few months later, you notice an ambulance in Old Man Winter’s driveway. Father Time has caught up with the man. They will saw him in half and count his rings. For a week, his family sits Shiva in the carport, which they have transformed into a saloon. He has fathered a tribe of excellent drinkers and smokers, who seem to find great pleasure in yelling at one another on a variety of topics, from the temperature of their beer to the proper usage of diapers, tongue rings, and Bowie knives.

    You hide behind a tree and listen.

    On the day after the funeral, you see Captain Squirrel and Lady Thunderdome carrying what appear to be laundry baskets full of garbage into the house.

    What are they carrying, your wife says.

    Their stuff, you say.

    Oh no, she says.

    Picture this.

    Cars pack the dirt driveway, clog the street, park in front of your house. There’s something vaguely menacing about it, this excessive parking. They are blocking your view. Granted, it is merely a view of the other side of the street, which is generally of no interest.

    You let it go.

    And it continues.

    And you know it is wrong, to want to firebomb the cars that obstruct your view.

    I do not like this, your wife says, looking out the window.

    Relax, you say. Show some Christian hospitality.

    But really, you don’t like it, either, and you don’t like that you’re aware of your not liking it, which means you’re probably too weak to go through with any sort of firebombing plan. Your father was not so weak. Your father had a stick in the car just for hitting people.

    Relax. You have no reasons for this anxiety. It’s just a vague unease, a thin intestinal miasma, about the cars, the people, the guttural bark inside the dark carport. It is only later, while cutting the grass like a dutiful burgher, that you notice, on your property, what appears to be the feces of a large mammal.

    Your dread now has ambitions of rage.

    You will do what you always do when you need to let off steam: a drum solo. But wait: someone is sitting on your drums. A small boy, maybe nine years old.

    Who are you?

    I’m a drummer, he says.

    These drums are filled with magic and power, you say. What is your name?

    Cody, he says. This is not his real name, but so very close.

    The little towheaded boy seems nice enough, even though he touched your drums, which in an ideal world would result in his public execution. But you remember Christian charity and explain that you will give him lessons. First, though, he must answer questions.

    How many of you are there, you ask.

    Depends, he says. I got, like, four brothers and two sisters and three daddies.

    That’s impossible, you say.

    He shrugs.

    What does your momma do, you say.

    She’s in the beauty school, he says. She can do hair pretty good.

    Who pooped in my yard, you say.

    It wasn’t me, he says.

    After a brief drum lesson, Cody is released without formal charges. 

     

    "we have good neighbors," 9" x 8", mixed media on BFK, 2012, Katherine Sandoz

    Later, at bedtime, you tamp down your anxieties, predicated on hearsay and dormant prejudices about shirtless people who touch their own nipples. You close your eyes and doubt the prudence of your decision to buy a modest home in a neighborhood that could, with one rogue family of squatters in a corner lot that anchors the southern boundary of the park from which this community draws its best hope for economic vitality, sink back into the chicken-fried mass of Poor Southern Whiteness.

    You wake at midnight. In the distance, the canons boom.

    What is that sound, your wife says.

    Boom. Boom. Boom.

    You go to the window, eager to espy these people launching field mortars into the park. But nothing, not even a flare. Dark.

    Boom. Boom. Boom.

    It happens every night for the next many nights. At midnight, and two, and four.

    Your wife overheats. When her sleep is profaned by acts of wanton sonority, she grows fractious and unhinged and adopts the behavior of certain cave-dwelling Sméagols who have lost their preciouses.

    I want to murder them, she says.

    Go to sleep, you say.

    You have to stop this, she says.

    I’ll go talk to Jimmy, you say.

    Jimmy is what you have been calling him, which is short for Jimmy Crack Corn, which is long for crack, which you are pretty sure he smokes.

    You slink into the backyard and surveil across property lines in the dark with a headlamp and a stick for hitting people. You see what is happening. This is no mortar. These are doors. Doors that slam with great force. Sliding van doors, car doors, tailgates, shed doors, screen doors. The backdoor, in particular, slams with such booming fury that it sounds like someone is hurling manatee carcasses into the bed of a pickup.

    Suddenly, a light.

    You creep to the veil of bamboo and attempt to discern what unspeakable acts of horror are being wrought in this place. Grunting is audible. What is this? A meth lab? A manatee death camp? If they see you seeing them, will they murder you? Why are you wearing a headlamp, you idiot?

    Stop it! This is no time for critical thinking!

    The slamming continues. You must do something before your wife pours a bottle of Benadryl into her soul. In a burst of courage, you drop the stick and remove the headlamp and step around the bamboo curtain into the midnight gloaming. And there they are: Jimmy and his woman, him sweating like a can of beer, his square eyeglasses fogged up, searching through boxes with great violence the way foxes hunt for voles in fresh snow. They do not see you.

    Evening, you say.

    Here’s what happened: You apologized for your family’s vulgar habit of sleeping at night, while Lady Thunderdome belched out both an apology and what sounded like a whole onion, while Jimmy C.C. made some barking noises and rubbed his nipples like a magic lamp. You explain all this to your wife, who slams her head into the pillow in an effort to induce an aneurysm, which she believes may help her sleep.

    It keeps happening, every night. The Battle of Verdun.

    What are they doing, you think?

    Drugs, she says.

    They act just as unhinged during daylight, when Lady Thunderdome pilots her van like a banking jet, her regal mane attempting to escape its life of hairsprayed servitude through an open window. She rockets past her driveway and slingshots herself from the rounded end of the sac like the ships Freedom and Independence around the dark side of the moon in Armageddon and comes to a neck-breaking stop in front of our house. Then pulls up. Then back. Then up. Then back. Then into her driveway. Then out. Then in.

    When she finally comes to a stop, Lady Thunderdome removes from the van a small, pale, thin baby that appears to be made of gray plastic. It does not cry, despite its recent jaunt in the G-force simulator. The baby just stares at you. It can see you watching it through the blinds. It is a Deliverance baby. It knows things.

    You feel bad about thinking the baby should be in a remake of Deliverance and resolve to stop being so white and just talk to these people. Be a neighbor, Jesus. And then one Saturday, there he is, on the safe side of your picket fence, drinking a Miller Lite and staring at you like he’s got a secret and wants you to pay money for it.

    Howdy, you say.

    In a frightening burst, a barking animal rushes from amidst the piles of refuse in the carport, toward you. It is a wiener dog, a long turd of a pet the color of a bratwurst that has been grilled by the fires of Satan. It hates you. It barks with fury: deep, amplified, angry barks. You hate small dogs and greatly desire to see it carried off by a large raptor. The dog sticks its head through a gap in the pickets and barks again. It coughs. It yaks. It vomits.

    I fed him a sirloin, Jimmy says, proudly.

    The dog is now eating its own vomit six inches from your shoes.

    And then, without warning, you have a perfectly normal conversation about lawnmowers and proper squat-thrust technique. These fears of yours are silly. He is just a workingman, and you are an assface. Sure, he doesn’t appear to own any shirts. So what? If you had a build like that, you’d be naked all the time, too. Sure, the last remaining possessions of Old Man Winter now lie in damp, exposed heaps around the yard, burgeoning cradles of life for unborn vermin and carrion birds. Sure, he seems to pepper his speech with halftruths, like the part about how he’s an entrepreneur or how he can get you a backhoe.

    Why would I need a backhoe, you say.

    To dig shit up, he says.

    Of course!

    You really like the way Jimmy talks. It reminds you of Mississippi. It is hard to describe, something like the sound of a distant chainsaw pinched in a knot of pine. This is why you like him. And you resolve to continue liking him, which you do, until, midway through the conversation, when he explains what he’s about to do to the house.

    We gonna make it a beauty parlor, he says.

    Stunned, you nod and drift off into a nightmarish reverie where the cul-de-sac overflows with large, loud women and their skyward hair, pouring out of the front door of Old Man Winter’s home underneath a sign that reads Tina’s Kut n’Kurl or perhaps The Mane Event. It will be like Steel Magnolias, except where all the characters live in trailers and carry knives. You exit this hellish vision and catch Jimmy in the midst of his construction plans, which involve destroying most of the sixty-year-old azaleas and dogwoods that remain the property’s last redeeming feature.

    Can you believe it, you say to your wife. A beauty parlor.

    You try to forget ever selling this house to anybody but a meretricious slumlord. The property has already taken on a decidedly post-Katrina quality, rolls of sodden carpet leaning against trees, velour recliners exposed to the elements, dead sticks of furniture lazing in the sun like poisoned cows. You have seen cats and opossums fighting in the carport.

    Can you believe it, you say again. But your wife has no time for this.

    That dog attacked our children, she says.

    When?

    Earlier today.

    You find your three-year-old in the bedroom, lying motionless like a wounded soldier and covered excessively in Dora the Explorer bandages.

    You want to hate them.

    Love thy neighbor as thyself. What does it even mean? And what if you hate yourself, too? Does it mean you make friends with a man who acts as though he has a head full of Bolivian Marching Powder? Is it wrong not to want the cul-de-sac sullied with beauty salons and fighting opossums? What would Jesus do? More importantly, What would your father do?

    What he would do is he would shoot all the animals.

    Also, he would not live here.

    He prefers to live in the country, with deep stands of hardwoods between him and his neighbors, which make him feel better about shooting blindly in their direction. He has been known to shoot cats that venture onto his property and leave dusty feline prints on the glittering gunnels of various fishing boats. He is a brave man who stands up for what he believes in. And what he believes in is shooting cats. You have no such high ideals. You don’t even have a bass boat. You are a disgrace.

    I could shoot the dog, you say.

    Don’t be ridiculous, your wife says. You should shoot him.

    It’ll be fine, you say. They won’t buy that house. Their family will kick them out.

    I hope, she says.

    It’s a nice little house. Somebody will buy it. Nice yard. Great trees.

    A few mornings later, you wake to the sound of a chainsaw.

    Dear Lord, you say.

    Is that legal, someone says.

    You are standing in the street, holding beers, trying not to stare at the rape of the natural world currently taking place in Old Man Winter’s yard. What you see is this: The lovely old unbroken stand of dogwoods, they are on fire.

    The trees are on fire.

    What’s he doing, someone says.

    Destroying property values, someone else says.

    Two unfortunate turns of events have precipitated this gathering of concerned homeowners in the street. First, the scorched earth that threatens to destroy your neighborhood, and second, the fact that Jimmy Crack Corn and Tina Turner have begun asking people for money. The story was that they’d just lost their debit card and just needed a little cash.

    For what, do you think?

    For crack, your wife suggests.

    They lost their debit card a lot. At least once a week.

    It was Tina who did the asking, their thinking, perhaps, that it would be easier to give money to the imminent valedictorian of the region’s most prestigious college of beauty, than to a man who operated his nipples like a pair of important toggle switches. The others are angry about this, but you withhold judgment, trying to remember what Jesus said about the meek inheriting the earth.

    They have asked just about everyone on the sac, but not you.

    This is bothersome. You wish to be asked for money. You desire this spiritual test. You don’t know what you will say. Yes, maybe. Or no. This is all so exciting!

    But not the burning and the yard. This is not exciting. This is dangerous and sad and is starting to feel like a John Steinbeck novel and may end with someone beating Jimmy to death with his chainsaw.

    Look at him, they say.

    He has felled two or three dogwoods already and has begun pulling azaleas out of the earth with his truck, leaving nothing but a row of divots like shallow baby graves. The corpses are heaped on hazardous bonfires in the yard, around the stumps of the felled trees, on which Jimmy has also dumped clothes and other garbage. The corner lot now looks more like a scene from Platoon, with smoke and flame and death and shirtless people with lit cigarettes in need of showers and education.

    Somebody should say something, someone says. About the yard. About the money.

    Everybody looks at you. You live next to him. You are the one who talks to him. The others drift back to their own yards, where they hose down their roofs in case of stray cinders. You are left alone, staring, wondering what to say, when Jimmy sees you.

    They were all so pretty, you say.

    They’re pretty dead, he says. Ha ha!

    He looks happy, destroying life. The work suits him and his jolting gestures—the yanking and plucking and sawing and burning and running around the yard like a prairie dog who has eaten a mescaline-filled beetle.

    But he does not seem high when he comes to your door a week later, asking for money.

    It is ten o’clock.

    Your wife jumps.

    It’s him, she says. Do not give him drug money.

    What if they need food, you say.

    She runs to the back of the house.

    The last time someone knocked on your father’s door at ten o’clock, he threatened to pour gasoline on them and see what would happen. You open the door and don’t even have the decency to have a bottle of lighter fluid. At first, you don’t recognize Jimmy, because he is wearing a shirt, which makes you mistake him for a perfectly normal human being. But also, he looks dejected and deflated.

    Evening, he says.

    Here it comes.

    He needs fifty dollars, he says. For supplies.

    You wish to say yes, to give freely. You also wish to say no, because you have a mortgage and Jimmy Crack Corn is a shiftless, freeloading joblot. The virtues of Christian charity and American self-reliance war within your doubt-wracked breast.

    So instead, you ask: What kinds of supplies?

    His story lacks a unity of theme, although it experiments playfully with narrative structure and involves many incongruous references to banks, checks, paydays, President Obama, University of Georgia football, and the murder of his father during a home invasion sometime during the Johnson Administration. When the monologue finds its unruly terminus, far off its supply route, you are chagrined to announce that you carry no cash.

    In this modern age, you say.

    Right, he says. And is gone.

    You are torn. On one hand, you feel pity for this man. On the other, wrath.

    Here is a man living in a free house who has farmed out most of his children to various scorned lovers and distant kin and who spends his jobless days setting the cul-de-sac on fire and his nights preparing for the South American tour of Stomp while your wife contemplates murder under a threadbare comforter. It’s time for a confrontation. Somebody needs to have a talk with this man. A real come-to-Jesus. Teach a man to fish, all that. It will be a cathartic, cleansing moment.

    You will say: Hey, man. Are you okay?

    And: Why do you keep lying about money?

    And: If you build a beauty parlor here, I will beat you to death with a shovel.

    And: Stop burning your garbage. This is not a Cormac McCarthy novel!

    And: At least stop burning the aerosol cans. The explosions are scaring the children.

    And: It would be fine if you burned the dog.

    Your wife takes to locking the screen door on the porch, which would prevent Jimmy C.C. from knocking, but it does not, because one night, there comes a knocking on the window.

    The window.

    They are knocking on the window, your wife says. She is highly upset.

    The window!

    Steel yourself.

    It is time.

    Tell him, your wife says. No more.

    You stand. You open the door, the screen door. But, no: It is Lady Thunderdome. She drops on you a sad tale about—actually, this is quite amazing—a lost debit card.

    For what, you say.

    For diapers, she says.

    Damn you, woman!

    Thirty seconds later, you are shoving into her hands the legal tender of Huggies, which you offer in lieu of U.S. currency or actual crack. She is not expecting this and seems very disappointed, inspecting the diapers a bit too closely, assessing their potential as barter goods.

    She marches back into the night.

    Moments like these make you wonder: Are you a good neighbor? Are you a jackass?

    And then, they disappeared.

    They did not move, no. Their injured cars remained, three in all, furred in thickening coats of pollen and ash, but it was a haunted house. Cody and the Fake Baby disappeared, too. Rumors spread. They would be evicted, kicked out, a splinter in the Old Man Winter family tree. Strange cars were seen. A crime scene van, they said, on a Sunday morning. Crimes against humanity or specific people, it is unclear.

    Soon, weeds choke up through the baby graves. Remnants of azalea rootstems shoot up springlike, green as new money, challenging the weeds for attention and staying, for the time being, the building of anything as ridiculous as a beauty parlor. The concrete column of a birdbath juts into the sky, bathless. The garbage and black sooty heaps remain cancerous, threatening to darken everything and further diminish your hopes of selling, moving to a neighborhood where people have the decency to hate one another in a gentler, more respectful way.

    But at least it’s quieter, you think.

    Your wife has calmed down. She was recently moved by an encounter with a missionary to a Filipino island who spoke of maggots in her cupboards and dusky Dickensian children in need of shoes.

    It gives you perspective, your wife says.

    I suppose, you say.

    I want to be a missionary, your wife says.

    We are, you say. We’re just really bad at it.

    She is sleeping better now, and when bouts of thunderous cannonade commence in the dark of night, as they sometimes still do, she no longer wakes up. She has a new migraine pill that induces a coma. It is better this way, your wife on drugs.

    Jimmy remains elusive. Occasionally, you think you see him, at night.

    And then you see it, one dark autumn evening, the distant and growing flame. Another fire in the front yard, high and proud and bright as a column of midnight sun, and before it stands a shirtless squirrel-man holding something flat and square and large. He lifts it high over his bespectacled head, his eyes blazing with two lesser fires, and throws the thing through the curtain of flame. It is a sofa cushion.

    Picture this. 

    1 year ago
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