Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Was a Full Moon on Buck Creek by Charlie Bennett

A high school student in the American back-country visits his friend's grandmother to accept his punishment for trampling her flowers; by Charlie Bennett.

She was deadly with a fly swatter, and somewhere near barbaric with a switch. Even made my poor buddy Clayton pick them out. Don't bring one back too small and flimsy; choose one appropriate for the crime was her message to him. Clayton had learned a lot the hard way. With the switch.

Clayton lived with his widowed grandmother, Betty Mae Winkler. Young for a widowed grandmother, a tall, lanky mountain woman who'd developed a deep, rough voice over the years. She had tan, leathery skin, bleached blonde hair and azure eyes. Walked around with a Marlboro burning between her fingers half the time. The rest of the time, there was one burning in the large round opaque green glass ashtray on her octagonal end table beside her well-worn spot on the brown and orange yarn textured couch she enjoyed riding on Saturday nights through The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. A bunch of city-slickin' Hollywood bullshit, but fun to watch.

Clayton said she was great most of the time, until he screwed up, and then she became The Buck Creek Hide Skinner. We all lived either on the knobs or down in the hollers along Buck Creek.

The Hide Skinner loved hummingbirds. Her property was known to be a Club Med for hummingbirds. Many checked in and never checked out. So, maybe it was more the Hotel California of hummingbirds. A hummingbird feeder fronted every window in the house. She was the patron saint of hummingbirds. And the devil to wild and rambunctious Buck Creek boys trying to kick down the door to manhood.

But Clayton usually only talked about what she had bought him, or what she had taught him, which he spoke of more frequently and more proudly, confident because he knew the old ways of things. Well-schooled in the mountain ways, she knew more of the local folklore than anyone it seemed. She loved Merle Haggard and Bobby Vinton and anything having to do with trucking or truckers. But more than anything probably, she loved hummingbirds. Sugar water feeders kept them coming back, again and again, for more.

We knew we were safe to come in the house on the evenings when we heard Bobby Vinton's version of Blue Moon blaring from her record player. Usually meant she'd gotten into the rum and was blissful until she passed out watching The Twilight Zone or Star Trek. She always drank from white and red striped straws. On other nights though, if she caught us close to the house, she'd poke her head out the metal and screen door and yell, "Go on and get your asses away from the house and my flowers before I skin ever' goddamn one of ya!"

We would have found another place to play around, but there was something about the unpredictability of her temper and the sense of safe danger she represented that brought us back, the faithful, just like the hummingbirds.

Most photos you see from those days seem to have a sorta orangish tint to them, which I guess is appropriate. My few photos surviving the family's Buck Creek days have that orangish otherworldly tint to them. I understand a lot of people feel those days were as orange as I feel about the 1920s being black and white, but they weren't just orange. They were alive in rich, dark and fecund oranges, yes, but also earthy greens and browns and warm yellows. I remember gourds being everywhere in autumn. Which reminds me - the Hide Skinner had a hummingbird feeder made out of a gourd which she'd bought from the Amish, according to Clayton. The gourd was adorned with painted daisies. Those Amish were as crafty as all hell get out. I reckon they still are, from everything you hear, but I don't see their wares anymore. I moved away from that country. But my dreams still run throughout those hills and hollers and into Buck Creek, into the cold rippling water, over smoothed rocks and dark crawdads, through sticks and fish, and the creek carries my dreams right down on into Red Lick.

Betty Mae Winkler, the Hide Skinner, was beat down from the weight of unsought, scorned dreams that had not only gotten away, but had persisted in writing taunting, belittling postcards to her psyche, chiding her for not only not catching them, but for not having the courage to even legitimately chase them, or the imagination to believe that she could actually pursue them, success be damned. She was just stuck in death's checkout line. There were a billion lanes open (and they only had to be self-service if you wanted them to be) at the mortality store and here she was, miserable and stuck in the only lane that would allow you to pay with a check, because people like her always wrote a check, because people like her thought they had no choice but to write a check, no matter how many mortal payment options were presented to them. She'd never had the awakening. She'd never understood that the only thing she was really stuck in was her way.

It was around Halloween. I knew Clayton had gone up the mountain to spend the night at his great aunt's like he did most Saturday nights. When Clayton was gone (that little bastard was good with a .22), Betty Mae liked to fire her shotgun up in the air when she saw anybody set foot on her property, so I knew to be careful, and not to make it difficult for her to see it was me once I'd knocked on the door. But I did want to get to the door without her seeing me so she would at least have to talk to me for a second before turning me away.

Clayton said she'd always dreamed of being a teacher. She must have changed a lot since she'd given up on that. But she did love books. She'd read The Amityville Horror seventeen times he said. She was obsessed with America's mythopoeic tragic crimes like the Tate and Labianca murders, the Amityville DeFeo murders, and the murders of Jeffrey MacDonald's family, the marine doctor at Fort Bragg. So, I'd found a copy of Helter Skelter by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (and some other guy) at the flea market and bought it on impulse to give to her, as a gift. She was so damn mean, I was beginning to get sweet on her. She couldn't have been a day over fifty at the time, but they'd been a pretty hard fifty, skin-wise, well, and voice-wise, not so much otherwise.

Just as the sun was ducking down for good, I snuck up the knob from the back side of the house. I could hear Blue Moon playing as I crested the hill and crept closer to the house. She and Clayton lived two knobs over from ours and I could see their house from the tree line back behind our place. On days when rain had settled over the creek all day, a great mist rose up the hills and their place looked like it sat in the middle of a beautiful dream. Nestled in the mists of heaven. That night, it just looked like it was ready for some Night Moves. I listened to a lot of Bob Seger in those days. The air smelled of burning locust wood and grass. It was a full moon on Buck Creek. Moments don't linger in autumn on the creek. Especially under a harvest moon when all the trees become totemic and that immutable mystery settles into the sylvan darkness.

I could see her through the golden light of the window moving about in the kitchen, busy with something, cleaning, or making a new cocktail. I planned to pretend I didn't know Clayton was gone and then give her the book. I'd put on some of my Dad's Avon cologne just before leaving the house, hoping my parents couldn't smell it. Strong, but manly. I needed the manly part to work olfactory black magic, like the aphrodisiac incense of the earthly spiritual hill folk. They really got it, more than they did in the city, but mostly due to environmental circumstantial luck and good fortune than anything else. It was all the reason you needed to be proud. Thank the Good Lord Honey.

I knocked on the door in a rapid, hard succession of nine, trying to get over top of Bobby Vinton who'd started again on Blue Moon, so she'd hear me. Blue Moon, I saw you standing alone.

She opened the door and spoke through the hard wire metal screen door.

"Clayton's not here," she croaked after taking out the cigarette. "He's up to Aunt Marlene's. Be back tomorry night."

"It don't matter. I came to give you something for us messin' up your flower bed that time. A peace offerin' and all," I said, offering the book with a blood spattered title, Helter Skelter, on the cover. A damn fine, unhandled copy. Stiff pages. Unblemished picture of the stunningly beautiful Sharon Tate inside.

"Well, I guess you need to come on in then," she said and creaked open the metal door, taking the little hook off its latch. A toddler could have kicked that door open.

She was too thin and overly tanned, but somehow still strangely attractive. Maybe it was simply the Mrs. Robinson effect. She had the drunken four-holler stare going, and the smile of pure metaphysical bliss. Drunker than a dog.

"Come on in here and sit down," she said, waving me to the old couch where she plopped down and took another drink of her coke which was obviously laced with a healthy run of rum. Amber light filtered by the fringed lampshade dimly lit the room. CHiPs was on the television but the sound was muted in favor of Bobby Vinton. Ponch and Baker were pursuing someone on a Los Angeles freeway.

"I've already read that book but I don't know if I have my copy still," she said, taking it from me and throwing it on the table next to her. "I remember when all that happened. Some crazy shit. Would you like something to drink, Honey?"

"Maybe you've had enough of those and we could share a Mountain Dew," I said. "With two of those straws in the bottle."

"You've got to make time for the universe, for yourself, Honey. Enjoy the ride, or go crazy. This is the only way I can enjoy the ride for several hours a hit. It all goes away in a second, and you don't know when. Thank the good Lord, Honey. You can grab a Mountain Dew out of the refrigerator."

"I'm not worried about the universe," I said. "I just want to get through high school and get the hell out of here."

"You're not going anywhere, you little shithead. You'll just read about it all."

"I guess now that you know I was the one who messed up your flowers, you'll be wanting to punish me somehow, like you do Clayton, with the switch maybe?"

"Is that what you think I should do?"

I couldn't look at her. "I guess so."

"You see the room at the end of the hall, that's mine. You go outside and pick out a good switch and bring it back there."

She pointed to the door and grabbed her drink, stood up and walked down the hall, swinging her hips. I went out and pulled an appropriate switch off a maple tree not far from the house. A spectral chill ran up my back. I stripped it of leaves as I walked back to the house. Once inside I took my Bob Seger tape out of my pocket and put it in the stereo tape deck. There had been only silence since the Bobby Vinton record had ended. My tape was already cued up for Hollywood Nights.

She was standing there in her red satin slip with her drink in hand by the bed.

"Give me that. That will do. Now drop your pants and lean over the bed." She took another drink and ran her tongue over her upper lip.

I did what she told me. She hit me with the switch and I was galvanized from a confused and twisted darkness into the light of understanding. She continued hitting me and it hurt just enough. She moaned like she was the one getting whipped.

"Stay. Out. Of. My. God. Damn. Flower. Bed."

"Anything you say. I'll do it."

"Goddamn right you will. You don't tell Clayton or anybody else about this and we'll just keep it between us, okay?" she said.

"Of course," I said. "You're just giving me what I deserve."

She hit me one more time with the switch, harder than the others. "Alright, now pull 'em up," she said and gave me an open-handed slap on the ass and walked out of the room, throwing the switch aside.

I joined her in the living room where she was settling in for The Love Boat. She turned off the stereo and turned up the television. I grabbed my tape out of the deck.

"Full moon tonight. Don't go coming around here on a full moon. No telling what I'll do to you. Do you believe in werewolves?"

"No," I said. "But I believe in lunatics."

She crossed her legs, lit a new cigarette.

"Well, I'm both, Honey, when the moon is full. Come over a little earlier next Saturday night and I'll teach you how I make the hummingbirds hum," she said and looked at me almost cross-eyed, unable to focus, but smiling. "I've drank too much tonight. You better be getting back over to your place before your parents wonder if something has gotten you in the night."

"Okay, I'll see you later," I said. "Maybe I can come back over next Saturday night."

She looked up at me with those beautiful, evil eyes radiating through hanging smoke.

"Maybe you should. But make it a little earlier and you better be damn sure that Clayton's already up to Marlene's."

On the walk home I hummed Blue Moon and waited for that lunatic to come charging at me from the woods. The gorgeous moon hung over the tree line as I rubbed a tender spot on my backside. Blue Moon, you knew just what I was there for.

I stared at the killing moon and wondered if I shouldn't go back and put my buck knife's cold blade against her throat. Isn't that what she really wanted? I could make it feel like something out of those books she liked to read.

You saw me standing alone. Without a song in my heart. Without a love of my own.

I'll surprise her with that next Saturday night I decided. I let the moon guide me home and went to bed naked and hungry, boxed in by cedar walls. I dreamed that night she was an animal, tearing through those woods, looking for me, thinking she would have ripped me apart if she found me.

10 comments:

  1. now that´s one helluva story, rite of passage and all that. there´s a lot more in those characters. another installment? loved the descriptions and dialogue. first class!
    Michael McCarthy

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    1. Thanks for the kind encouragement Michael. - Charlie

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  2. Nicely done. I'm with Michael - this is ripe for another chapter. The characters jump right off the page.

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  3. Great story in the tradition of southern gothic writing.

    -Kentucky Bred

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  4. What a dandy story. Appalachia or the Ozarks folks can easily cuddle up with this fine story. Waiting in line at the mortality supermarket, well, that's writing perfection. Kudos.

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    1. Thanks. Inspired by younger years spent in the hills of Kentucky. I appreciate your kind words. - Charlie

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  5. No; no further instalment required because Bennett has shown us with his consummate skill that the essence of adolescence is that anything is possible be it good, bad, indifferent. Whatever may happen next is far stronger remaining hidden in our minds.
    Grandma Mae; thrillingly chilling, and yes, I've read Helter Skelter.

    Brooke Fieldhouse

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  6. Much appreciated Brooke. "Helter Skelter" will keep one up at night. - Charlie

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