Story in the Ozarks: Literary Fiction and Poetry
My poems and stories have been published in The Rockford Review, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Elder Mountain: a Journal of Ozark Studies, The Bryant Literary Review, Ghoti, and Carve Magazine, where my story “The Scar” was short listed for the Raymond Carver Short Story Award (see the story below). My poem “Sestina for Annie” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the editor of Ghoti. My stories appear in anthologies on Southern Experience from TBRA Publishers, an anthology from Editions Bibliotekos titled Puzzles of Faith and Patterns of Doubt, and an anthology from University of Arkansas Press titled Yonder Mountain: an Ozarks Anthology.
A Late Flooding Thaw is a haunting story, set in the southern Ozark mountains at the turn of the 20th century, told through the voices of Henry and Walter Bass, their wives, and the “other woman.” Henry and Walter struggle to escape the shadows of their alcoholic father, their reclusive mother, and the prejudice of the small town of Delaney. When Walter marries Emma, the only child of one of Delaney’s oldest families, tragic events are set in motion that change the lives of everyone involved. Soon everyone in Delaney struggles with the shadows of the living and the dead. In the violent world of Pentecostal religion, grace offers hope, but the failure of love brings destruction and the sins of the father curse the lives of the sons and daughters.
“A Late Flooding Thaw is a story of passion and perseverance, love and loss, failure and redemption. It’s not only a great Southern novel beautifully written; it’s the best novel I have read in years.” –Roger Hart, author of Erratics, winner of the 2000 George Garrett Fiction Prize
from Chapter 6. Emma Bass
When I was bad, Mama would say, “Emma, if you dine with the devil, bring a long-handled spoon.” Then Mama would use a long handled spoon to drive the devil out. The welts on the backs of my legs were the tracks he left behind. I grew up knowing if we missed a service at the Word of Holiness Church the devil was waiting with talons like a hawk to drop us into the fiery furnace. Daddy was a deacon. Every time the church doors opened, we were there. Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night prayer meeting. The devil was a handy man to have around.
During summer revival, Brother Leery breathed fire and brimstone two hours a night. And every night the altar call droned on and on, as Brother Leery stood on the dais like a fighting cock, head thrust forward, eyes bulging, praying in the spirit to break the grip of the white knuckles hanging on to the pews, to pry them loose and bring them down the aisle weeping, all the fight gone. He welcomed the lost sheep into the fold, washed in the blood of the lamb.
from Chapter 11. Henry Bass
Each time I bring the ax down and the red oak wood pops open like a ripe melon and the chunks fall off the sides of the block, I think of Walter. Sweat drips off the end of my nose and my eyes sting and my shirt sticks to my back. The sun, rust colored, touches the hilltop off the meadow’s edge.
Naomi is sitting at the kitchen table looking at her hands. She’s been there since Emma left. Over an hour. Hasn’t done a thing about supper, and it’s almost dark.
I should have seen it coming. Emma has shared the pregnancy with Naomi–the sickness, the movement in her belly. And something in Naomi’s eyes, in the quick way she looks at me and then away, and in the way her smile wavers and fades, makes my stomach turn. We’ve been married a long time. A breeder of horses would have sold the mare–or the stud–at auction long ago.
Story: “The Scar” (Published in Carve Magazine, where it was short listed for the Raymond Carver Short Story Award)
In the moment of mute surprise after the pickup drove through the back wall of the church, and before the pandemonium that followed, Mary remembered the elephants in the Ringling Brothers’ Circus and felt again the thrill of their sudden lumbering onto center stage. When Henry Swopes, the drummer in the worship band, was thrown into the third row of pews, Mary saw again the handsome young man in red, white, and blue, shot from the cannon over the line of elephants into the net.
Mary’s husband Will, sitting on the front row, as he always did, leaned forward as if to pick up a penny, and collapsed onto the floor.
Through the dust and smoke and panicked voices, Mary made her way from her seat in the sixth pew, where she always sat, up to the third, to the side of Henry Swopes, lying face down as if he had fallen asleep there. When she knelt and took his hand, a moment of hesitation washed over her in the noise around her, with her husband Will on the floor beyond the first pew. The faint odor of mildew rose from Henry’s shirt. Grease from the Exxon station lined his fingernails.
The sound of the ambulance in the distance rose above the voices of people in the sanctuary. Bobby Watson, a deacon in the church, stumbled up the three steps of the stage carrying a fire extinguisher into the smoke that seeped from under the crumpled hood of the pickup. Someone yelled, “Get that guy out of the truck.” Bobby could not raise the hood, so he sprayed the extinguisher through the collapsed grill.
When the ambulance pulled into the church parking lot, the siren dying in a low growl, its red light flashed through the hole at the back of the stage and silhouetted the truck cab in the smoke. Someone helped Will up onto the front pew, his face and his shirt bloody. Mary slid away from Henry on the third pew. Will put his hand on the back of the pew to steady himself as an EMT, wearing rubber gloves, examined his forehead, gently pressing his thumb into the tissue around the cut.
Will’s hands were clean, well manicured. He always wore gloves when he worked in the yard. Mary liked the feel of his soft hand absently rubbing her stomach as they lay in bed together. He was gentle, attentive to the things that gave her pleasure.
After returning from Kuwait in 1991, Henry Swopes had left his wife and two daughters in Oklahoma City and moved to the Ozarks to find peace. And he thought he had found it in the Midway Presbyterian Church. Henry’s haunted eyes when he first testified at the church, the awful things he had seen and done in the war, had made the hair rise on the back of Mary’s neck. When she went up to him after the service to offer comfort and gratitude, she took his warm hand in hers and looked into his moist eyes, then pulled his bowed head down onto her shoulder and hugged him like a penitent child.
There on the pew beside Mary, Henry began to snore. She wondered whether she could live with a man who snored. Will was a quiet sleeper.
When an EMT stepped into the third pew to look at Henry, Mary stood and moved up to the first pew and sat beside Will. She glanced back over her shoulder at the people. Some of the men herded their families toward the back doors. Some stood and stared at the pickup truck on the stage. Someone would have noticed her going to Henry on the third pew while Will lay injured on the floor. There would be talk. She took Will’s free hand and pulled it into her lap. He turned and looked at her, his left eye covered with gauze wrapping, and smiled and squeezed her hand. She licked her handkerchief and dabbed at the blood still smeared on his chin.
The ambulance crew took Henry away in a neck brace, but Will refused to go. He said he would stay until everything was cleared up, and then Mary could bring him to the hospital to get checked. The stitches could wait an hour. He took his role as deacon seriously, as he did everything in his life.
A state trooper led the driver of the pickup, handcuffed, limping, out the side door into the parking lot. An ice chest half full of Milwaukee’s Best sat on the stage floor beside the truck. Driving under the influence. It was an old story in Madison County.
When Henry Swopes had joined the church, his deep bass voice had been just what the choir needed. Not long after joining, Henry first took Mary home after choir practice when Will had to stay for the monthly deacon’s meeting. Halfway home Mary said, though she didn’t know him very well at the time, “Are you ever sorry you left your wife, Henry?” He looked at her across the open space of the front seat, and his hands tightened on the steering wheel. Without answering, he turned down the dirt lane that ran along the edge of Jack Barber’s alfalfa hay field, pulled the car off the lane into a grove of pine trees, and turned off the engine. For one quiet moment, Mary was afraid. Her throat tightened, and she moved her hand to the door handle in the dark.
But in the silence, over the ticking of the engine as it cooled, Henry began to weep. “I’d never go back.” His breaths came in quick pants. “Never.” He pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket and blew his nose, and the deep slushy sound seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the car. He looked over at her again, his eyes moist. She was sure, later, that the eyes were what did it. She pulled his head down onto her shoulder and, only mildly surprised, when he began to kiss her neck, she pressed her face into his hair. She smelled the mildew on his shirt even then. She and Henry made the same stop, there beside Jack Barber’s alfalfa field, almost every other Wednesday night after that, Will busy with one meeting or another at the church.
As the state trooper led him away, the limping truck driver appeared confused, not sure what had happened. Like a fly in a spider web, caught in events he did not see coming, Mary thought. She tried to imagine herself behind the wheel in the truck, not sure how she got there, struggling to stay between the lines.
In the spring of 1990, Sophie Collins, driving under the influence, had run the stoplight at the corner of Douglas McArthur Avenue and Ridge Road just as Mary and Will’s little boy Willie, riding his bicycle home from school, rolled through the intersection. Willie died before Mary and Will got to the hospital. The day Willie died seemed to Mary most of the time to be in the distant past, and yet in the half-waking of some early mornings it broke on her as if it were yesterday, and then she would try to remember what she had said to Willie that morning before school, after he knocked over his glass of milk at the breakfast table, as he had done so many times before. She might have said that she loved him even when he made her life harder than it ought to be. That even Jesus worried his parents sometimes. She might have said something like that, but she hadn’t. She had told Willie he was driving her crazy, that accidents didn’t just happen. That people were careless. As they came out of her mouth, she recognized with irritation some of Will’s favorite phrases.
A reporter from the Gazette stood in front of Will, writing in his notebook. “We’ve asked the county a dozen times to put up a guard rail on that curve.” Will reached up with his free hand and touched the bandage on his forehead. “It’s a miracle nobody was killed.”
He patted Mary’s hand, which held his in her lap.
She would have to tell him everything. Maybe tonight when they got home from the hospital, before the gossip reached him. Her heart beat hard. She imagined him lying in bed, just drifting off. She would sit beside him and say his name quietly, with no emotion, the way people do when they are about to give you the bad news. The way the doctor had spoken when he sat down beside Will and Mary in the surgery waiting room at the County Hospital. When he had said their names, Mr. and Mrs. Biddings, they had known by the way he said it that Willie was gone. Mary was sick before the doctor could finish his sentence. A nurse rushed over to her with a basin, but it was too late.
Too late for Mary. Too late for Willie. As she ran her fingers over the knuckles of Will’s hand while he talked to the reporter, Mary wondered if Will would know as soon as she said his name, the trick of her voice unavoidable in the gravity of the moment. Wondered if he would be sick before she could say what she had to say.
The state trooper’s engine started up out in the parking lot, revved up two or three times, and the gravel crackled under the tires as he pulled onto the highway. The man in handcuffs sat in the back seat. Under the influence. Too late to escape the consequences.
Sophie Collins had been convicted of manslaughter for the death of Willie Biddings. When Mary thought of it, a ragged hole opened in her chest and dropped down into her stomach, tunneled down her legs into her toes. Sophie Collins had worked nights as a janitor at the school for twenty years. She still drove the 1966 Dodge panel truck her husband, a house painter, had used before he died. Mary had not talked to Sophie since the trial. Sophie no longer came out of her house during the day except for the Borderline Group at noon on Wednesdays. She had her groceries delivered.
A tow truck backed up to the rear of the church building, its rack of lights blinking through the gaping hole in the wall. All these flashing lights, now that the accident had happened.
Will stood up, steadied himself, took the steps to the stage slowly, and walked over to where Bobby Watson and Jimmy Counts, the pastor, a thin balding man with a protruding Adam’s apple, stood by the cab of the truck. Bobby still held the fire extinguisher at his side. The three men looked down at the ice chest half full of beer as they spoke; then Will pointed to the hole in the wall, and Bobby nodded his head. Bobby glanced back over his shoulder at Mary. His eyes lingered before he turned back. Will shook both men’s hands and patted Bobby on the shoulder. Will came down the steps from the stage carefully, his good eye cocked toward his feet.
“Let’s go, Mare. Bobby’s going to tack some plastic over that hole for tonight. We’ll meet the deacons tomorrow and decide what to do about it.”
Will had always been good in an emergency. When Willie was killed, Will took care of all the arrangements while Mary lay in the dark bedroom, half sleeping through the Valium. At the funeral the heavy smell of the flowers had made her sleepy, but he kept his arm around her shoulders, pulling her snug to him. At the cemetery he held her arm up against him.
Now as they walked down the center aisle of the sanctuary toward the double doors in back, leaving Bobby Watson standing by the ice chest watching the crumpled hood of the truck slide out of the hole in the wall into the darkness, she gripped Will’s arm and tried to look past the bandage into his uncovered eye.
When they got to the car, Will laid his head back on the headrest and closed his eye. Mary drove to the hospital. With the windows down, the sound of the tires on the pavement and the smell of mown grass helped relax the muscles that had tightened in the back of Mary’s neck. When they drove through a lazy snake of smoke drifting across the street from leaves burning in a ditch, she thought of Willie running around a smoldering pile waving a stick in the air, swatting at the smoke.
When they came to the dirt lane that ran along the edge of Jack Barber’s alfalfa field, she slowed the car. Maybe this was the time and the place to tell Will everything. The scene of the crime. It would be quiet and dark in the pine grove. Maybe the smell of the pine needles and the bleak chirp of the crickets would help him understand why she had not resisted when Henry began to kiss her neck, when his hand began to fumble at the buttons of her dress. She might tell him that she could not breathe when she tried to remember the morning of the day Willie died. When she remembered the look in Willie’s eyes just after he knocked over the glass and her failure tightened in her chest like a steel band. The simple act that would have cost so little, squandered, suffocating her.
When Henry had reached over to her in the sweet scent of pines and the sound of crickets, his eyes brimming, it had seemed at the time so small a price to pay, to breathe again for a little while.
When she braked to slow the car, Will lifted his head and groaned. He reached with both hands to hold the bandage at his forehead.
“You all right?”
He grunted and kept both hands at his head.
She couldn’t stop now. He was in pain. And he needed the stitches. Her breathing slowed. She would have to tell him later.
At the hospital Mary parked in front of the sign that read Emergency Only. Will sat still, his eye closed and his hands in his lap, his head tilted forward.
“I’m dizzy.” His speech was slow. “I’m going to need some help walking.” He fumbled for the door handle, his hand shaking.
Mary had expected people in green scrubs to come running out to help, to see what the emergency was. But nobody came. The red letters over the emergency entrance seemed smaller than they had two years earlier, when she and Will had almost run into the glass doors that were so slow to open. She had raised her fist and pounded on the doors just before they slid apart. Blind machinery that wouldn’t respond to her need to get to Willie lying somewhere in one of the cold rooms down the long hallway.
And beyond those doors, more machinery. Lights blinked on and off, tubes hung from plastic bags, the click and rasp of respirators forced cold air into passive lungs. Quiet voices drifted from behind the nurses’ station. “Name?” A nurse had looked at the clipboard in front of her with eyes blank, revealing nothing. “He’s in surgery. Second hallway on the left, waiting room on your right.”
Will and Mary had barely sat down and gripped each other’s hands when the doctor stepped through the door, drying his hands on a faded green towel. Not enough time to get ready. If they had only been able to talk, pace the hall, build up a fragile scaffolding of hope, to recognize the numb hand of despair as it slid into their belly and gave them strength. But the plastic seats were hardly warm when the words rushed to meet them. “Mr. and Mrs. Biddings.”
Will stopped trying to open the car door and his hand dropped to his lap. “We’d better go in, Mare.” He sat silent, his head bowed.
When Will had first started calling Mary “Mare” after the wedding, she had resented it. It seemed to reduce her, as if marriage had simplified her, stuffed her into a pigeonhole that did not require some part of who she had been before. But she had never complained and had grown used to it.
Beyond Will, through the car window and the emergency room doors, the hallway led past the emergency rooms to the surgery where Will had held Mary as she retched the day Willie died, where he had kept her from falling to the floor as the nurse patted her on the back and said over and over, “It’s alright, Honey. It’s alright.”
Will had looked up at the doctor. “Is he?” The words had sunk dimly through the roaring in Mary’s head as she retched, and she had known the doctor was nodding his head in the silence that lengthened and rolled over her. Then as quickly as it had come, the nausea left her, and she sat up and tried to remember what she had said to Willie that morning as she mopped up the milk that dripped through the crack between the halves of the table onto the floor.
“Can we see him?” she had said.
And Willie seemed to be sleeping as a nurse collected the stainless steel implements from a table beside the bed. The sheet was pulled up to his shoulders, only a dark bruise on his temple and a scrape on his cheek. When Mary touched his shoulder, she felt the absence. He was not warm, and he was not yet cold. And the words ran through her head, So then because you are lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.
And Mary had laughed, a short huffing steam engine laugh that shook her as Will walked her back out to the waiting room. The doctor gave her Valium and offered a bed for the night at the hospital, but Will refused. He would need to make the arrangements.
Will leaned forward in the front seat and groaned. “Mare? I feel sick. Let’s go.”
Beyond the glass doors, a janitor pushed a dust mop down the hall.
“Do you need a wheel chair?” Mary said.
“No, I think I can do it if you’re there to steady me.”
They moved slowly. The doors slid open to let them pass. An orderly or male nurse, Mary wasn’t sure which, saw them and came to meet them with a wheelchair. The young man rolled Will into the second room on the left and asked her to wait outside.
Mary moved the car to the parking lot. When she returned, a nurse in green scrubs, a stethoscope around her neck, brought the wheelchair back out into the hall.
She looked at Mary. “You look worn out. Sit in this if you like.” She left the chair with her and went to the nurses’ station.
Mary backed the wheelchair up to the wall and sat down. The hallway was quiet and not as cold as she remembered it. Two nurses stood at one end of the nurses’ station talking. Another nurse leaned against the counter writing in a chart. Mary’s eyes closed. The low whisper of the dust mop and the padding of tennis shoes passed in front of her.
At the trial Sophie Collins had wept quietly as the judge pronounced the sentence. In the silence before the judge spoke, Mary had bitten her lower lip to keep from screaming. Willie was gone. Their only child. They wouldn’t be having any more. Mary had seen to that. Once was enough to go through the wallowing heaviness and the pain. And now there was nothing to be done. She imagined Sophie wasting away in a dark prison cell, the shadow of the barred window slanting across her lap.
Then the judge’s words had pressed onto her. Jail time suspended, drivers license suspended, Sophie’s life simply suspended. Sophie looked up and caught Mary’s eye, like a wounded animal in a trap, not struggling to get free.
Mary leaned her head back against the hospital wall and breathed the smell of disinfectant and human failure. She tried to picture Sophie Collins at that very moment in her darkened house, squat clapboard with peeling yellow paint on a bare lot. Mary felt short of breath. She had never imagined any future for herself except she and Will growing old together. Sleeping late on Saturdays, making love, coffee on the back porch. Weekday evenings, except for Wednesday night services, sitting together at home reading or watching T.V. Popcorn at the movies. Now she saw herself in some pale future, sitting alone in a darkened room lit only by the intermittent illumination from the television, eyes staring out of wrinkled flesh at the tube.
The air moved beside her, and she opened her eyes. A doctor stood at her elbow in a white lab coat, a clipboard in his hand. He looked down at Mary without expression and, his voice like tepid water, said, “Mrs. Biddings.” Mary’s stomach turned.
The nurse at the nurses’ station stopped writing in the chart and looked over at Mary. The clock over the nurses’ station said 9:37. The ten o’clock news would start in twenty-three minutes.
“We put fourteen stitches in your husband’s forehead. It wasn’t a very clean cut, so there might be a scar. Nothing he can’t live with.” The doctor paused for a moment. When Mary said nothing, he went on. “He’s groggy, so we’ll keep him here overnight. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about, but we want to be careful with a head injury.”
He walked toward the nurses’ station. “You can go in and see him now, but he may not be very alert. We’ll move him to another room in a little while.” He handed the clipboard to the nurse and spoke to her in a low voice.
The nurse watched the doctor’s mouth as he talked, her eyes shy. She smiled and played with the pen in her hand.
Mary wondered whether Henry Swopes lay at that moment in a room down one of the other halls, chin held up straight by a neck brace. Snoring.
The curtain slid in its metal rail in the room behind Mary, and a nurse brought a stainless steel basin full of green towels and small scissors and tweezers and clamps out of the room.
Behind the curtain, Will slept. Instead of the gauze wrapped around his head, a square patch was taped above his right eye, a small dark spot at its center. The room smelled of alcohol and the brown disinfectant smeared on the skin around the edges of the bandage.
She would have to tell him about Henry tomorrow. He would sleep now through the night. She shouldn’t disturb him. She reached out and squeezed his hand, soft and tan, but he did not respond. She wanted to touch the dressing on his forehead. She reached out and adjusted the sheet. He breathed quietly.
When she leaned down and kissed his cheek, the disinfectant smell rose to meet her. There would be a scar. Nothing he couldn’t live with.
Leaning over him there, she imagined herself driving home past the Dairy Queen and the flea market, slowing when she came to Maple Street. She imagined herself turning left on Maple and slowing again at Sophie Collins’ house. Sophie would be watching the ten o’clock news. She may have heard a report on the accident, maybe even seen video of the tow truck winching the pickup out of the hole in the wall.
Mary imagined herself turning into the gravel driveway, getting out of the car, and going to the door. She would knock softly, and at the sound of the knock, the volume on the TV would go down. After several seconds, Sophie’s voice would come from the other side of the door, small and frightened by a night visitor. “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Mary,” Mary would say. She would reach out to touch the mute door face as a dry leaf skittered past her feet.
The silence beyond the door would lengthen, the ten o’clock news barely audible. The door handle would turn and click, and the door would open an inch or two, and one of Sophie’s eyes would look at Mary.
“Mary,” she would say, and she would look down and wait for Mary to speak.
Mary would stand in the shadow of the eve, the long shadow that stretched back two years to the morning she had spoken to Willie as she dropped the dish towel onto the pool of milk, Willie looking at the floor, saying nothing.
In the silence that would spread around Mary and Sophie, Mary would swallow and breathe deep and say, “May I come in?”
Sophie would step back, eyes still downcast, and let the door swing open in front of Mary. And Mary would step into the half-light of the living room and follow Sophie over to the couch.
Mary kissed Will’s cheek again and whispered, “Sleep tight.”