Chapter One: Skinning Beasties
by Rae Bryant
At sunlight, he sets the lawn chair and studies the hole in the ground, bends down and floods the hole with river water poured from the Budweiser bottles upended, one after another, until the black snake wiggles its way out and to the surface. He studies the snake’s languid curves as it glides toward a brush along the river’s edge. “Look at it go. A miracle.” The creature is seconds from imminent escape and he jumps up from the lawn chair and chases it down, steps on its tail with a Dickies steel-toed work boot. The black snake twists back on him and curls around his ankle. He hoots, hopping and shaking the creature loose then stomps it down. He picks it up, its black coils twitching and jumping, the creature like some long, dark, cold trophy he’s chased around the world and he holds its death in his hands like he’s earned it. And then the sky opens. The rain washes the creature’s red insides down through his fingers and into the earth. He turns to the girl standing close—skinny and thirteen with long blonde ponytails and a Patti Smith T-shirt, says, “If it were seeds, it might grow into something beautiful.” His look is ripe with loss. The house, the dealership, his family gypsy living in a conversion van parked too long on the Harper’s Ferry Campground. A mongrel look. Like he’s worked it all out to its end and now it’s going to be what it’s going to be no matter how much he’s got to stomp it into the ground.
“Don’t trample my roses. Damn it Bob.” Janis has a red bandana tied around her Clairol Blonde No. 1 grown out halfway to dark roots peppered and gray. Rosie the Riveter meets post-menopausal Blondie. She picks up a squat hummingbird candle votive, some flea market forget-me-not, from the picnic table and moves it to a better place at the center of the picnic table, an inch off center now but somehow it’s a perfect setting and Janis nods her head at it like setting a dog. Bob mutters something about the vulnerability of misplaced rose bushes and she points to his boots. He’s still holding the black snake draped between his hands and dancing a slow worm. He looks down at his boots. A single rosebud has disappeared beneath his right Dickie. He jumps on his left foot then backs up a step and kicks some soil onto the violated bud, its red petals spilt out of its sepal now and the stem bent over, broken and hiding in the earth.
“That’s the third one this week.”
“Must be a sign. A trifecta.”
“Don’t start on that again.”
He drops his head and hands the black snake to Janis for cleaning then walks to the back of The Gipper. Bob found Gipper in the classifieds, a decommissioned campaign van. Gipper got its name because someone painted a giant, smiling Ronald Reagan face and American flag on each side of the conversion van, the eyes lit up and lofted like speaking to the heavens. Bob spent a good portion of the remaining cash and brought it home and christened it with a Budweiser all on the same day the foreclosure papers came from the Bank. Neighbors stood on their front lawns and peeked out their windows while Bob guzzled whiskey and sang the National Anthem, insistent that Janis and the girl cover their hearts in celebration. They needed road names and he took Dylan. Janis took Joplin. The girl, he decided, already had her road name. He and the girl thought it was funny. Drowning in debt. Janis scolded them for it and shepherded them all inside as soon as Bob completed his anthem and christening.
Bob opens The Gipper’s doors and rummages through the bright red Craftsman toolbox packed into the back. He takes out a filet knife still in its holster and attaches the holster to his belt. Then he takes out a pair of pliers and stuffs them in the back pocket of his blue jeans. He’ll fix it with a catfish. That’ll turn her venom to honeysuckle. He grabs the spinner rod and tackle box and hands the girl a white Styrofoam cup full of black soil and earthworms from the General Store. He waves the girl to his side and they make their way to the edge of forest and the last site with the dingy yellow canvas tents and tied down tarps molded but tidy like a forgotten military outpost. He says, “Who do you think lives in there? Something wicked I think.”
“Why wicked? You’re always thinking wicked.”
“Look at it.” He waves a hand at the dingy yellow tent as if a Godly proclamation.
It had become the girl’s job to challenge her father’s convolutions and proclamations. A right of passage, the daughter watching over her father’s derelictions like God’s angel over Moses. “Wicked says as wicked does.”
“Clementine. You need some vision. Imagine you put all your wicked into that moldy yellow tent. Shut it all in there and built a moldy force around it so it can’t escape without that mold and stink. Your wicked would stay put and if it didn’t, you’d know because you smelt it in the wind, your wicked walking around and free. There’s a function in that.”
“Put all your wicked in there and someone might wander in and find it one day.”
Bob raises his hands and spreads them out. “Bob’s House of Wicked! Yes mam. Hang a sign on it then the wandering’s on them.”
They could go on for hours. Janis tired of their philosophies months ago and left the girl to mind him one morning, after Bob had gone off for his early constitutional. They were a few weeks into their indigence and Janis had had enough. She said, I’m giving him to you now Clem. Gypsy blood. He never will sit put, no matter how glorious the chair and the home he’s built around it. There’s no cure for it. It’s as much him as his heart and brain and stomach. Taking it out of him would surely kill him. To love him means loving his gypsy too no matter how far and wide and deep the gypsy goes. Then she warned the girl. If her daddy has gypsy, she must have it too.
What if I don’t want to have it?
No one wants what they’ve got, darlin’. It’s the reason we’re here. Working out the not wanting.
They take the gravel path back through an edge of maples and poplars, the leaves on fire in orange and red, the gravel popping and crunching beneath their sandals. About half a mile in, the gravel thins out to mostly dirt and everything goes quiet except for the animals. Birds, squirrels, rabbits probably. Beasties.
On the left, they come to a rubble dam washed mostly away in the water. On the near shore is a concrete water intake and an overlook platform at the end of a giant L that juts out and into the water. A rickety wood and metal bridge connects the gravel road to the concrete and beside it, Bob finds a steep trail down to the water about ten feet or so. The girl’s sandals don’t have much tread and the path is slick. He starts down first, the rod perched over his shoulder. He tests his weight on a sizable rock stuck out of the earth then he stretches out his hand. “Don’t drop the worms Clem. They’re dinner.”
She holds tight to the small Styrofoam container and takes hold of his hand and they inch their way down the path till they stand firm on the shoreline and river rock. She’s cracked the Styrofoam and she curses. He says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.” She snaps it back. “My children are walking in the truth.”
Deep laughter. “Right you are girl. Right you are.”
“Why didn’t we just buy some bacon at the General?”
“Fishing is a righteous talent Clem. Every man and woman should know how to fish. It’s self-sustainment. A practice. What would I be if I didn’t teach you self-sustainment?”
“I’d rather have the bacon.”
Bob takes hold of the girl’s shoulders and spins her to him and clips her chin with his hand too rough but the girl is used to it now. His eyes are blue backed with fire and brim. “We’re low. We have to make with what we can. All right?”
His eyes go back to normal and he lets go and the girl resists the urge to rub at her shoulders. He points to a spot on the ground and they sit. He takes the filet knife from its holster and cuts a clean edge at the end of the line then picks through different hooks in the tackle box. He chooses a smaller hook and tries to feed the clear thin line through the eye of the hook but keeps missing and hands the hook to the girl. She feeds the line for him and he shows her how to wrap the line over itself three times and feed it back through. He sucks on the knot so to make it slick then pulls the tiny knot cinching it down on itself. He says, “Find a good one Clem. Lively.”
She pokes a finger into the soil and holds up a pink and dinged earthworm that coils so slowly it might be dying. He tells her to keep looking. The next worm coils around her finger with some speed and strength and Bob tells her that’s the one. He hands the hook to her and instructs her on how to push the hook through, not too far, feed it through the body past the smooth band, out the other side and through again. “You have to wrap it a few times Clem. That way it won’t wiggle off.” She doesn’t want to do it. She tells him several times. He asks who’s going to feed her if she can’t feed herself? He’s not going to be around forever. What will she do then?
“I’ll eat berries.”
“You don’t even know which ones will kill you and which ones will give you the shits.”
“They all give you the shits.”
“Just do it Clem.”
She holds the worm between her fingers and pushes the hook into the smooth pinkish skin.
“Careful now. There you go. Out the other side. Make sure he’s on there good.” A pop and blood and pus and she makes a face and he tells her they’re worms. They can’t feel. He pushes the red button on the bobber and a tiny brass hook shoots out from the end. He cinches it about a foot up from where the worm dangles on its hook. Then he stands and holds the rod out for her to study. The worm, wrapped up over itself and through the hook twice, hangs over the still water and wags a slow curve back and forth below the hook. It might be heroic. She says a prayer for it. Bob swings the rod back and to his side and flips the point of the rod forward and lets go of the reel. The worm and red and white bobber cast out into the water and it’s surprising how quickly the line catches right and with the current. He hands the rod to the girl. Her first cast is short and the worm drops into the shallows. It comes up longer. It’s ripped through its skin.
“Go on. Do it again.”
The second cast is farther out into the current and the water takes the earthworm and bobber and the line strains against the tip of the rod and the tip bends a little to the right then straightens itself. He tells her to sit. It’ll be a while.
To the right, the concrete platform rises two stories above the shoreline, a gutted, haunted place. Six giant and rusted metal doors face the river current like they could swallow anything coming down river. Above the doors, a white sign reads WATER INTAKE in giant red letters. At twilight sometimes, the girl walks to the intake and sits on the top edge of that concrete platform and stares down into the fetid pool of water laid stagnant inside it for who knows how long. A person could easily drown, stuck down in all that murk.
Across the water, on the opposite shore, is a section of the C&O canal. Between the intake and the canal, a rubble dam makes its crooked seam across the river, the stone washed out and ruined in sections, parts of it holding the water back. Hard to see how far the drop over the rubble dam is.
Bob is talking about Byrne Island again. Byrne Island sets downriver a bit. Mostly brush and weed trees and remnants of skeletal foundations now. Before 1924, the B&O company held picnics with as many as five-thousand to six-thousand people at a time. Amusements a plenty. Swings, croquet, boating, music and dancing. In ’24 the flood washed away the buildings and the footbridge and the B&O wouldn’t spend money to refurbish it. Too many floods. So they moved the bandstand to Harper’s Ferry Town Square. “Someone should reopen the amusement park.”
“You said it keeps getting flooded.”
“Could work. If a person had the right plans for it. You want to tell me what happened at the General today?”
“Just wanted to hold it awhile. He won’t say anything. He didn’t see anything really.”
“We don’t take so close to home.”
“I said he won’t say anything.”
“Well. You make sure of it.”
Bob reels in his line and casts it out again and starts talking about cheeseburgers and wouldn’t it be a miracle if they could fish for cheeseburgers. What he wouldn’t give for a cheeseburger right now. He pulls the line in and casts it upstream a little and close to the shore where the inlet is deeper and the water is still. Long poplar branches hang out over the edge, making shadows on the surface. Three seconds after he casts there’s a jump on the line and he takes hold of the rod and explains each step, reeling then letting the line out, reeling and out then jerk and catch. An hour later, they climb the bank with a small catfish and two sunnies and Bob’s convinced he’s found the secret fishing spot of the universe. He’s saying things like, Ask and he will deliver. God’s everlasting spirit. The catch is so small, just babies, and she wants to throw them back.
“Can’t be picky now. Have to eat what we get. We are but God’s envoys of the food chain. An inherited flaw of privilege.” He starts back up the bank to the trail and she pauses and backs up toward the trees. She opens the Styrofoam cup and sprinkles the last of the worms and soil into a soft spot between two large roots rounded up and out of the ground. There are two live ones and one dead. The live ones wiggle on the surface and she pushes a fingertip down into the soft soil so to give them a start. She sits and waits for the worms to find their holes then she throws the dead one into the river for the fish. He yells down from the bank. “Come on. What’re you doing?”
The girl waits a minute, hunched over like she’s peeing in case he decides to check on her then she climbs the bank and grabs his hand and he pulls her up to the trail. He says, “What happened to the worms?”
“I dropped them.”
“Damn it Clem. We needed them for morning.”
“All right then. Let’s go.”
Janis is coating the sections of snake in flour and old bay. Bob walks to the back of the conversion van, pulling up the loose waist of his jeans along the way. He really should cut his hair. He fidgets with the silver braided wedding ring on his finger the way he does when he’s working something out. He takes a Philips head screwdriver out of the toolbox and moves to the picnic table with the catfish still hanging from the line. Janis has her head wrapped in a red bandana, she’s in work mode, and she’s putting up a fuss warning him to be careful with her table but Bob isn’t listening. He clears the tablecloth and the candle votive and slaps the catfish onto the picnic table. The catfish makes a thwack sound. It jerks and twists.
“Damn it Bob. I told you to be careful with my table. I made it nice.”
“Pigeon, I’ve got to clean these fish.”
Janis smacks him with a red and white dishtowel, the one the girl bought her last Christmas, and Bob chases her down and smacks her on the butt then he turns to the girl with serious business. “Clementine, I’m going to show you how to skin a catfish. If you can skin a catfish you can do anything.” He takes the screwdriver in his right hand and slams the point of it down into the catfish’s head and through to the wood and sticks the catfish to the table like that. It twists and thrashes, its head stuck with the screwdriver like a pinwheel. He sings, “Oh my darlin’…” slow and soft so no one but the cat and the girl can hear him. She stares at the screwdriver like she wants to yank it out and throw the cat back into the river with its brothers and sisters, but she just stares at the cat, thrashing around like that. It’s not dying. Its gills are gulping. It’s taking too long to die. “It’s just nerves Clem. It’s dead.” He pulls the needle-nosed pliers from his back pocket and holds the catfish by the tail and uses the pliers to carefully work the small hook from the its mouth and it might be a gentleness for how careful he wiggles and pulls at the hook. He says something about hooks being precious and the hook pulls free. He sets it to the side then grabs the pliers and grips the long barbed spine on the cat’s back and yanks the spine back a little. The spine and dorsal start to rip from the back and he says, “That’s what I want you to do. Rip the spine back just like that. Don’t get stuck with it now. It’ll hurt and your hand will go numb.” She takes hold of the pliers and the spine and yanks as hard as she can and the spine peels off with the skin in one smooth draw. The catfish twists and jerks. Bob takes hold of its body with his left hand and the filet knife with the right and finally cuts off its head just below the screwdriver and the body lays still as anything but the mouth at the end of that little piece of head keeps moving as if gasping for water. He laughs. “Well I’ve not seen that before.” Then he rolls the catfish over and cuts off the pectoral fins and spines and makes a slit up its middle and cleans out the guts. He removes the tiny bones and slices the skin from the meat with the filet knife flat on its side and pushed gently to the interior of the skin, slicing the meat away with smooth, elegant swipes of the blade. Bob has never been so elegant. When the meat lies in a neat pinkish pile, he cuts the tail from the skin and he lays them all together, as if a catfish puzzle put back together and she asks him why he cut the tail from the skin. The meat was already off. He says, “You do a job, you do it right and thorough. See that Clem?” He points to the six pieces of the catfish, the tail, the skin, the innards, the bones and meat in little piles beside them, the head with its mouth still gasping for water, and he says, “That’s a complete picture right there. You look at that and tell me God isn’t in it.”
Janis brings the bowl with some flour and Old Bay and a little milk mixed in and Bob drops the meat into the mixture. She complains she really should have an egg or two. She rotates the filets in the flour a few times and when the skillet is hot on the campfire and the oil is bubbling, she drops the breaded filets into the skillet. They sizzle and pop and soon smell so good the girl’s mouth waters and she feels bad for wanting to eat the catfish so much after the way Bob treated it. Janis throws in some snapped green beans and Bob opens three bottles of Budweiser and when they’ve all eaten and are sitting in their lawn chairs, watching the fire and the moonlight off the Potomac, he says, “Tomorrow I’ll find some work. Must be someone round here who needs an honest back. Right Clem?”
The girl sits with guilt in her belly and satiated like a sinner fresh off her righteous. Happy full but weighted with sin. Bob’s back is as honest as her hollowed out belly.
A train rumbles by then calls out its whistle from the cliff above them then there’s Blue sitting in an empty chair, come for dinner. He plucks some haphazard chord on his acoustic then stops before it makes any sense and starts up another chord. His John Lennon spectacles are up high on his head like sunglasses and his sun-bleached hair is back in a ponytail now. The Columbia University T-shirt he’s been wearing three days straight, maybe longer, is dirtier than it was this morning. Must have been hauling wood all day. The girl is looking at him funny. He says in slow West Virginian, “I won’t bite.”
“Want a beer?”
The girl opens the cooler and grabs him an Old Milkwaukee dripping with ice water and takes one for herself. Bob and Janis are fussing over the tenderness of black snake. Blue starts to apologize for the day before. She must have been shocked.
Blue throws back his head and laughs.
“Do you even know her name?”
“You probably have some ideas about me that probably aren’t true. Some of them you’d be right though.”
“Why were you spanking her?”
Blue looks over at Janis and Bob now bickering about whether to sprinkle more Old Bay or not. “She wanted me to.”
“She wanted you to spank her?”
“Sure did.” He smiles and takes a gulp then spills it on his chin and down his front when a slur of hoots rise up from the RV colony. Blue jumps up. “Here we go. Come on Clem. You can help me.”
Bob starts toward the RV colony with them and Blue waves him off. “It’s all right. I got it.” The girl follows Blue to his trailer for the ax then follows him to the colony. He’s mumbling about second one this week and the man’s got to be seventy-five. You’d think he’d be used to it by now.
At the base of Mr. Anse’s RV step is a timber coiled and deviling. Anse is twanging hootenannies, his tongue slipping like overcooked chicken off its bone, never quite staying in the right place and marinating so you can’t tell where the meat ends and the gristle and bone begins. Every once in a while he’ll pause and push out his red suspenders or push up his tan fishing hat and give you a chance to catch up a little. He’s a site. His whole left side covered in burn scars, a house fire he won’t talk about. Ash says he still shouts in his sleep sometimes. He’s a doozy. Local Harpers Ferrians for years have floated several myths, some not withstanding the apocalypse and risen dead. Mr. Anse starts another series of marinations that only Blue and Ash can understand. Ash, Anse’s grandson, is standing to his right and pulling nervously at his Ziggy Stardust T-shirt. He has a stick in his right hand and is trying to poke the timber away but the timber just keeps snapping at the end and settling back on Anse.
Blue grabs the wood ax out of Mr. Anse’s hand. “Ash,” he says, “Back up boy. No sense getting bit.
Blue studies the timber coiled up and rattling hellfire now. It rises up and slow on its coils. Mr. Anse is whispering some marination and Blue says, “I’m going to bring this ax down on the count of three Anse. And you get out the way when I do it. All right?”
“Wellallrightson. Getontoit. ‘Forthistimbereatsme.”
On three Blue brings down the ax and Mr. Anse jumps a sidestep and there lay the two halves of the timber, head to tail, the mouth snapping at its own rattle still going. Blue studies the two pieces a moment then he brings the ax down a second time just below the head then a third just above the rattle and picks the rattle up and hands it to Mr. Anse. He slices a gulley in the dirt and kicks the timber head into it and covers it. With Bob’s black snake that’ll make two serpents for dinner. Janis’ll be happy.
“Wellillbe. Lookatthatfinething.” Mr. Anse shakes the blood from the little piece of tail and rattle then shows it to Ash and Ash grins big and gives it a go. The rattle sounds like it never stopped. Anse grabs it back and stuffs it in his pocket and pulls at his suspenders. Blue and Ash collect the pieces of timber and carry them to his camp where they skin it and cut it into sections. Mr. Anse recites the flora best for smoking timbers—chestnutoak, blackoak, northernredoak, chestnutoak, easternhemlock, redmaple, blackgum, floweringdogwood, mountainlaurel, blackhuckleberry, BlueRidgeblueberries, deerberry, mapleleaf, silvermaple, sycamore, greenash, cottonwood, whiteandgreenash, tulippoplar, bitternuthickory, hackberry, sugarmaple, Shumard oak, spicebush, pawpaw, Americanbladdernut and Americanhornbeam—and it makes like a rhythm. When he’s listing things is really the only time you can sort of make out what he’s saying. Blue and Ash start stepping to Anse’s beat, all three of them dancing around as they skin the timber then Blue hands the timber to Ash and Ash walks it over Janis and she slices the timber pieces into smaller into fritters and covers them in the same flour and Old Bay she used for the black snake and the catfish then cooks them all up in a skillet over the fire. Ash and the girl snap some green beans. Mr. Anse is proud. He makes sure everyone has a timber bite. Says sharing your near death with your neighbors builds an everlasting kinship.
Janis is wearing lipstick. Red. She hasn’t worn lipstick since passing through Parkersburg months ago. They stopped at a bar and had a sandwich and beers, the girl ordered a Shirley Temple. It was the last of their good cash, Bob kept one of the checkbooks handy. That night, Janis wore her red lipstick and made a point of kissing everyone around the pool table on the cheek with her red lips. It was the last time she really laughed. Drunk laughed, but at least she laughed. The girl sits and studies her red lips, now, trying to work out the occasion. Is it the meal? Two snakes and a catfish are bountiful gifts.
She motions to the empty lawn chair. “Sit with us Clementine. Be sociable.” Ash throws a hand up, stupid grin on his face. He changed his Ziggy Stardust T-shirt for his Let’s Dance T-shirt. Washed his face and hands. He might be cute if he wasn’t so stupid looking. Sean Penn-ish with a little work.
“Be nice Clem.”
“I’m being nice.”
By the time the whiskey comes out Bob and Mr. Anse decide to look for work together in the morning and by the time the whiskey is gone they’ve decided everyone should save up and rent a cabin for the winter, somewhere along the river. Blue runs to his trailer and comes back with a fresh stash and Bob decides the kids should join in for their first official tokes. To commemorate everlasting kinship. Janis tries to argue but Bob asks how she can argue with nature, the seed of the earth. He puts up a finger, meaning wait a minute, he’s going to be brilliant any second. He shuffles quick over to Gipper and opens the back then brings out his personal Bible. He searches through his highlighted passages and finally, everyone watching, he puts up a finger again. Brilliance has arrived. “Essene Gospel of Peace. Book I. Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed. You see?” he says. “A God given right.” Bob starts into a Woody Guthrie version of House of the Rising Sun and Janis quiets. Once he starts to singing, the matter’s done. Before long he decides he should have a God given bath and strips down to his worn, stained briefs and sandals, still singing House of the Rising Sun. An Iacocca quote is written in faded black Sharpie across his droopy briefs in tiny girlish letters: If you want to make good use of your time, you’ve got to know what’s most important and then give it all you got. Janis argues as he walks to the water’s edge. Ash and Clementine take giant tokes then grab flashlights and follow Bob like ducklings to the water and line up on the bank behind him in his Iacocca briefs. His arms and legs are thin and pale covered in a sheen of dark hair from midway down. Red blemishes on his back and back hair straggled out below his shoulders. Janis scolds him again. He’s going to get pneumonia and isn’t this a fantastic sight for his daughter? Bob stops singing. He turns on her and he’s twisting the braided wedding band on his finger again. There’s a hollow in his chest like his momma pulled a piece of him out at birth. “Pigeon. I’m going to take this here bath and that’s all there is to it.” His skin glows sickly pale against the black of the water stretched out before him. Janis argues they can’t see the far bank and he could drown. She’s right. The water is black and the sky is dark. The far bank might not be there at all. It might have disappeared for how dark it is. Flecks of flashlight catch shallow ripples of current flowing toward the shore or rather toward Bob like he’s calling the water to him. He chucks his sandals and pauses a moment then bows his head in prayer and Janis is scolding him still but she might as well be mute. Everyone is trying not to laugh too hard so not to offend Janis’ stern display of reason. Then Bob walks out, chin raised up and feet padding along the surface of the water as if wetted stone. Janis quiets. The laughing stops. And it isn’t so much a miracle as an inevitability. He’d been trying to tell them all along. He told the bank and the credit card companies and the gasman and the telephone man and cable companies and Delilah at the General Store. A miracle was coming. Bob twists around and faces them, his witnesses, and stretches his arms wide and smiles. He’s beautiful. He says, “I told you. God’s work.”