A Spoiled Tuna Salad Sandwich, 1977
Beneath a substantial oak tree in the Appalachian foothills—a touch southwest from Wilkes-Barre—Sylvester lay reclined and barefoot, idling creek-side, resting his head atop a smooth, blue rock. The creek was just a gentle thing in summer. Its sound lulled the eight-year old’s eyelids lower. Lizard chasing. Frog hunting. Mushroom stomping. A body could only do but so much aerobics in the thick, midday humidity before it hollered, break. Sunlight licked brightly through the forest’s canopy and fell all around him, scattered and angled as if through a Nazareth lace. In the gaudy luxury of a shaded moss bed, Sylvester was nearly melted. Mush. His stone pillow felt light, buttered. A family of rock doves were nesting, cooing, in the body of a dead sycamore. The woods yawned with him. By fall, the creek would be running clear and shouting. By winter, when the water was high and brown and thrashing with trout, it would roar. But on this July Sunday, it barely chirped. Hushed. Just a thin, yellow puddle. Its only swimmers were minnows and tadpoles, zigzagging monotonously beneath the scurry of Jesus bugs, scooting off towards some feather’s rippling whisper. Sylvester mellowed in that happy ether and dreamed—aloof to the crawlers and sliders in transit around him—and woke sometime later with the immediate impression of having lost hours in an instant.
Dizzy-headed and still sleep-fogged, the boy admired the amber glaze of approaching twilight, the cicadal orchestra’s hum, the continuity of a solitary moment. Perfect, unbreakable calm, until his large intestine shuttered audibly and the hot vinegar sea-gas of lunch’s tuna salad sandwich flooded his mouth while also slipping wetly through his rear. It was an emergency.
In the woods around Gabo County, Pennsylvania, one didn’t usually chance into a stranger—deer, bear, and bobcat were more likely—but Sylvester’s shyness, coupled with his creek spot’s unspoiled serenity, set him off to find a more secluded, sheltered locale. He stepped over the creek, heading deeper into the forest where the trees were denser, springs bubbled, and big rock formations jutted from the hillsides and spilled waterfalls into cool, dark pools. With clenched cheeks he shuffled along a game trail, through undergrowth and around thistles, straining his eyes in every direction, hoping that his active desire might somehow manifest the perfect toilet. His belches and winds ever increasingly more acrid and frequent, until in one flash of knowing he realized the time had come. Sylvester stopped. He would have to make do with where he’d landed. But nothing looked right. The trees were too skinny to provide a real screen, the bushes too scrappy. In every direction, his line of sight seemed preternaturally long and vivid. Another putrid exhale gagged him. And, with modesty swallowed, Sylvester dropped his trousers, squatted, and expelled four long, fiery squirts. Even before he finished, he knew he’d made a mess. His second movement sputtered out in wanton bursts, splattering wildly behind him, and ricocheting back onto his body. He looked up to the heavens: three vultures circled patiently a few thousand feet up.
Unsure how much he’d soiled his legs and hiney, Sylvester legged carefully out of his pants and underwear and checked the back of his shirt for shrapnel. It seemed clean, so he left it on, gathered his bottoms and began to look for leaves or a nice clump of moss to wipe with. Though the evacuation left him feeling lighter and a little relieved, his continued to shrink and contract and soon his head was throbbing. The air was unbearably still, and the boy had the sudden impression of being slow broiled, lobster-potted. Chilled sweat broke out riot, and he clutched a young birch tree for support, to gather himself, but respite evaded him. His waste’s odor seemed to have infused the forest air. He was too close to it. He wretched, but after a few orange clumps, all that came was a clear, bitter mucus. Hot and cold, his shirt was now drenched with sweat and stained with dirt and vomit. He got rid of it and dropped all his clothes by the birch. He had to get away from the smell. Naked, fevered, panicked, Sylvester fled deeper into woods trying to escape his own odors.
The sun eased itself behind the western ridgeline in a show of red and purple. Evening was coming fast, and Sylvester was heading ever further from home. Lost without knowing it. His head was dense with pain, his ears clogged. He looked without seeing, deafened to everything but a high pitch ringing blasting from some internal belfry.
Around ten that night, Claudine, Sylvester’s mother, figured Sylvester had went for dinner at a friend’s house and was fixing to spend the night somewhere with a color TV. On the other hand, Sylvester Jr—Sylvester’s daddy—was three days in the wind. Working. Always working. Working so much, you’d wonder why they hadn’t been able to get a brick house in town. Working so much, you’d wonder why every note was always overdue. His little liquor shed, his business. A little nothing, a hole, a joke. And it wasn’t about the illegality of it, that wasn’t the bother for her. In fact, less than bothered, the illegality had been something like a thrill. When she was seventeen, she even believed for a minute she was about to be Bonnie. She’d taught Jr how to tie quarters off with string so you could empty cigarette machines without spending a cent. She’d told Jr about the man her daddy nearly locked up for bootlegging one winter—it had been a big case at the dinner table, he couldn’t keep himself from bragging about the scope of it, he was expecting a medal from the governor, a promotion, something, surely, until one day in April, Claudine realized she hadn’t heard a peep about it in months. And when she asked, her father just said that the case had been closed—nothing more. That summer, they took a real vacation. Drove to Philadelphia and took a plane to a resort in Aruba. That was a summer—had she been nine, ten? She couldn’t remember for sure, but she still remembered how her scalp tingled for days after that local woman braided her hair. She still remembered the sweet thrill of stealing sips of her parent’s red and pink cocktails, the ones in the coconuts too. She’d loved coconuts. She knew her daddy had been paid to get that man off. She liked that, and remembered his name, thanking Jesus in her nightly prayers for providing a man who could give them such a nice vacation. She had put Sylvester Jr on the trail, really got him his liquor supplier. He wouldn’t’ve known where to start without her. She tried to recall the last time she’d had a real vacation coconut. One like the Arubans. And as she cataloged the past eight years with Sylvester Jr in terms of meals and times, she realized that not only was she in a drought of good fruit, but also good times. A dull, monotonous wash.
Pregnant at fifteen, kicked out, and barely seen her parents since, even though they were only a county over. Even though her daddy was crooked, they said they couldn’t have a pregnant sinner in their house, in case Jesus was coming back soon. Eight years on, and Sylvester Jr was just as dumb as when he’d put the baby in her. Dumb and mean; broke and boring. All he was good for, really, was keeping the jar a quarter full of Oaxacan Red and a fairly steady stream of gin. She’d let herself believe that they were outlaws, rock and rollers, but the facts were the facts. She was tied to a loser. A nobody. Maybe the only redneck who couldn’t turn a profit off the Pennsylvania Blue Laws. Hopeless.
She went down to the kitchen, pulled a can of pineapples from the cupboard, poured a glass of gin, and checked the fridge. The tuna salad had definitely had it. Taken a foul turn. She dumped the bowl in the trash, but the smell reeked through the can even with the lid on. She tied off the bag and took it outside. This should have been Sylvester’s chore. Plus, he should have finished the tuna salad. Like father, like son. Wasting everything they get their hands on. She put the television on. The only show coming in without static was Kojak. Claudine hated Kojak—a bald, aggressive loser, too similar to Sylvester Jr for comfort—but watched it while she finished her drink and her pineapple. Gabo County was going to put her in the nuthouse if it didn’t kill her with boredom first.
A quarter-mile from home, Sylvester Jr was in the backroom of an old, abandoned barn he’d been running as a speakeasy the past four years. It was Sunday, so he was letting Mason sing devotionals with his guitar on a stool in the front to about a half-dozen drunks—all slouching in rickety chairs, at chipped, stained, and pocked tables he’d salvaged from the Elks when the chapter in Benton had shut—and Rochelle was pouring drinks behind the bar. On the weekends he ran a small poker table. Usually the games didn’t go so long, but this weekend there’d been a kind of miraculous convergence of travelling salesmen. They always spent and drank when they came through, but it was rare to get seven at once in the same weekend—ones who loved cards to boot. He called in his most reliable boys—Wally, Dean, and Stanley—to help. Stanley was a good dealer, and Wally and Dean were sharp players. He was going to bleed these salesmen until they didn’t even have a road sample, necktie, or tire jack to their name. He was already spending the cash in his mind, something for Claudine—sure—but Rochelle too.
“You boys good in here? Anyone need a drink?” Sylvester Jr asked. “I’m going to check the front.”
The vacuum salesman wanted a beer if it was cold, a whiskey if they were out of ice still; Stanley, Dean, and Wally wanted beers—hot or cold. They were going to be hot. Rochelle didn’t carry ice. She was a real, mature woman. Full bodied, with all the airs of a royal; a stunner, with shining black hair in tight curls. Sylvester Jr had only discovered this taste within himself when Rochelle walked in a few weeks back, looking to make some extra money. Not that he felt done with Claudine, but she still looked just the way she always had; same plain paisleys and denim, same freckles, same monotonous blue eyes and thin, squeaking, complaining lips. Same every day, which was fine, until Rochelle. Rochelle. He couldn’t get around it. Every time he saw her, he had to hold back little pleasure grunts. He didn’t want to be rude. But he had a feeling she knew—sometimes when she bent over, the mmms escaped before he could stop them. He figured it was reciprocal, though he still hadn’t decided the best way to finesse the situation. Maybe tonight was the night for a little caress? Divine. He was about to make the most money he’d ever made, he’d probably be walking out in a few hours with enough appliances and insurance policies to make any old czar blush, only right that he should get to swoop a little bit of a big behind. Only right.
Sylvester Jr could just about feel the heft of her derriere in his palm and, walking through the bedsheets he’d hung to separate the front of house from back, he closed his eyes and let a little Presley-an gyration free from his groin.
“Ro-ro-rochelle, I need you to wet these lips. You got something good for daddy?”
“Oh, so you’re Rochelle’s daddy now, too?”
Something wasn’t right. He opened his eyes. Rochelle with a subtle, knowing smirk, and her opulent posterior poking out, her panty line just visible and Claudine, frowning.
“Junior. Stop staring at her ass and look at me.”
Rochelle giggled. “I was just about to get you, she—”
“Claudine, what’re you doing here? Why’re you bothering me at work?”
“Hmm, I’ll leave y’all to it,” Rochelle let her hand graze Sylvester Jr’s leg in a way that appeared both accidental and intentional and walked through the bedsheets into the back.
Mason started in on Gloryland.
“Where’d you pick her up?”
“Shoot, she just helps on the weekend. It’s nothin’.”
“Nothin’, like I said.”
“Big Daddy Nothin’, away all weekend.”
“Claudine, you know I’m working.”
“Workin’ on getting Raquel’s panties off. I should smack some fire out of you. Gawking slack-jawed piggy.”
“Claudine. It’s nothin’. I got a big poker game goin’ in back. Why in the hell are you here. Seven salesmen. Seven. Shouldn’t you be watchin’ the boy?”
“Well, if you’d been home in the past week, maybe you’d know.”
“Little Sylvester’s gone missing. He went out to the creek with a sandwich and ain’t been back since. I thought maybe he’d come here.”
“Bullshit. Why would he come here if he was at the crick? You just want to make a scene. Get back home. The boy’s fine. I got work.”
“No, he is not fine. A mother knows when something is wrong.”
“You’ve not one mothering bone in you. Nearly every weekend you walk down here, crying foul, and every time you know darn well the boy’s just at the Freeman’s boy’s place. You just want to cause a scene and embarrass me in front of the clientele. Go back to the house. I won’t say it again. Get.”
“Get? Have you lost your mind? You must be drunk. You think I’m a dog, Junior? That’s what you think? You think I’m a dog who can’t mother a boy?” She picked up an ashtray from the bar and threw it hard at Sylvester Jr’s face. He shielded himself with his arms, but the barrage continued. Claudine pelted him with anything within reach, empty Yuengling cans, nearly full Schlitz cans, quarter-full cans of Narragansett. Mason’s guitar and singing kept most of the attention, though Clement, a regular and a drunk, couldn’t help from softly tossing his empties from his table to the bar, within Claudine’s arm’s reach. He landed five before the sixth slipped awkwardly upon release and flew past Claudine’s head.
She turned to the tables behind her. “Who wants my attention? You got it.” But other than Mason singing, the patrons were still, avoiding eye contact, sipping their drinks. Clement had his head on his table, playing opossum. “That’s what I thought.”
“Claudine, look I’m apologizing. I was out of line.”
“You going to go find Little Sylvester?”
“How long has he been gone?”
“You call around yet? You know he probably just went for dinner and television at the Freeman’s.”
“You need to take responsibility, Junior. You need to—”
“Baby, baby,” Sylvester Jr cooed, “I got a big game in the back, but you know I love you; you know I love the boy. I’m not letting anything bad happen to him or you, baby.”
Rochelle stepped through the bedsheet screen. “Did you call me?” Claudine refused the bait and glowered at Sylvester Jr. Rochelle hipped her way into Sylvester Jr’s smelling distance. “I thought I heard you callin’ for me.”
“No one called for you, Rochelle. Get back to tending the card game.”
“Hmm. My mistake. I need the handle of Turkey anyway,” Rochelle inflected a little lust into her voice and locked her eyes on Claudine’s. She bent down for the whiskey. “Don’t hesitate to holler if you need me, Syl.”
“Get to the game, I’m talkin’ to Claudine here.”
Rochelle shrugged and took the whiskey with her to the backroom. Mason was playing “I Was There When It Happened,” and Clement decided it was safe to sit back up, and began clapping along, stomping his feet on the dirt and sawdust.
Claudine was torn between tracks. She wanted to punish Sylvester Jr, and though she’d started with the missing son, who she truthfully figured was fine, she was fully perturbed by Sylvester Jr’s new bartender. The switch from one to the other, though honest, might seem disingenuous. She was burning, though. “Well, Junior?”
“Look, the boy is fine. Just head on back, he’s probably already asleep in his bed.”
“You’re just going to let your son die out in the woods so you can get your shrimp tickled. You disgust me. My daddy was right about you.”
“Well your daddy don’t love you, do he? Now get—”
“Excuse me, now I hate to step into something domestic, but maybe I can help?” Clement had been trying to triangulate an entry for a few minutes. These types of disagreements usually needed mediation of sorts, and mediators usually didn’t need to pay their tabs.
Claudine turned, “And who the fuck are you?”
“Baby, that’s one of my best customers. Don’t cus him.”
“Now, now, it’s alright. I was just going to say, I’m something of a hunter myself, and if your boy is in the woods, t’ain’t a better tracker than Nixon. Me and your missus and the ol’ bloodhound can have him back in a jiffy.”
“I’m not his missus. But I’ll use your dog. Let’s go, Junior.”
“Baby, I can’t leave the store. Clement can take you. Can’t you, Clem?”
“Sure, sure, I don’t mind. Not a bit.”
“You’re just gonna let another man rescue your son?”
“Claudine, now, wait—”
“Miss Claudine, I don’t mind. Just my truck is on blocks right now. Can we use yours?” Sylvester tossed him the keys to the Chevy, happy to be getting Claudine away from him. “Yes ma’am,” Clement shook the keys happily and gave Claudine a wink, “and Syl, just cover my tab, that’s payment enough.”
Out in the woods, Axel Latimore was snaking. He’d caught a northern copperhead and a real beautiful milk snake, a special rose red edition. They were both still now, quiet in their canvas sacks, tied off at the end of a pole. They’d resigned themselves to his care. It was nearing dark, and Latimore was getting ready to head back to town. Two prime ladies? No reason to be greedy. There was still a touch of light in the purple sky, but it wouldn’t last long. One of the last days of this month’s crescent—no good for night catching. Still, he decided to take the long way back, to check some of the rocky plateaus near the deep springs, just in case something special was out past its bedtime.
He caught the smell first. A latrine gone wrong, yet he resisted the urge to flee. He felt compelled to sniff out the source and followed it to a spring known for good frog legs. It was rank, but no dead toad could stink like that. A patch of tall, bright turtleheads rustled and there was a sickly moan.
“Now ain’t that something? A talking bush.” He moved closer. “Like the Sistine Ceiling, I’ll tell you what.”
Beneath him, a pale white, smelly boy lay naked in a wreath of pink flowers.
“Not often you catch something like this, no sir.”
He leaned down to touch the boy’s head, he could feel the fever heat inches before the stroke.
“Shh. Keep sleepin’, Latty’ll take good care.”
Latimore cut two leg holes in a spare sack and set the sleeping Sylvester’s legs through them, slung the boy over his shoulder, and started back to town, whistling Country Roads.
In the purple light of Latimore’s basement, Sylvester lay half-conscious on a pile of moving blankets. It was two in the morning, and Latimore—exhausted by the thrill of kidnapping—was slumped, sleeping in his wheeled office chair, with his feet on his desk. A small metal fan oscillated a few inches from his toes at the back of the desk, whirling vainly to dry his chronically swamped feet. The chair squeaked, the Sylvester belched, the fan hummed, Axel snored, and everything else in the basement hissed. The back wall, stacked to the ceiling with glass terrariums, was filled with snakes, as were the ninety polypropylene drawers on either side of his desk. It was a collection which had been decades in the making, and though he wasn’t sure why, he knew that the boy was meant to be part of it.
The burps turned to moans and then to full wails, echoing from every surface so it seemed to be coming from everywhere. Latimore, broken from an exceptionally deep sleep, for a moment forgot he had taken the boy and thought that one of his serpents had finally grown its own larynx. Dazed and disoriented by the child’s cacophony, he looked around for the special snake—eager to reward its ingenuity with a gentle head stroke and a supple white mouse. But before he was able to connect the crying to the boy on his own, his Old Lady had done it for him—she too had been woken by the cries, two floors up.
“Axel!” She was at the top of the basement steps, hollering down to him. He always hated when she hollered at him in this way, so he held his tongue, letting the sick boy roar. “Axel! Is that a damn child crying? Answer me, Axel! Don’t make me come down there!” He lit a cigarette. “Axel, why the hell do you have a crying child?”
He heard the stairs groan beneath her descent and exhaled a cloud of smoke above his head, then called back, in his regular speaking voice, “Shit, Maw. What makes you think I got me a child down here?”
[excerpted from an upcoming novel]