Sunset at Murrells Inlet by John Stupp
On the water
we saw a couple
fishing for flounder
in the dark
stabbing at fish
in the marsh
at low tide
stars were out
on the creek
in the air
like a bubble
from an aquarium
through the calm sand
of the sky
Tenants of the Shade in Texas by Lana Bella
in the Ginny’s Longhorn Saloon,
a thin man, chain-smoking,
hopes to pull mercy in this midnight
room made of gin-soaked
muses and barnyard tongues,
his eyes, steely like a vise grip,
stream signals over
the length of my lonely rage by the bar,
how still everything
that chokes my distrust which ventriloquizes
the fragile words from his lips,
even a storm of grief finds no sympathy
in the iced brown liquor —
his breath-ridden Texas 5 cigarette smokes
coast above the wires of the atmospheric
emptiness, in the porous skin
of the mist, I hold pieces of me in the dim retreat
that is saturated at the edges,
I am once again,
sitting, far away in a snapshot of myself
on the bar stool,
and across the universal dividing line,
the man finds himself trapped
in a blank space he cannot escape —
Away in a Manger by Thomas Elson
Two days after Elaine’s hurriedly planned wedding, the reason for the ceremony arrived premature and stillborn.
John, whose first wife had died from complications of the Spanish flu, was now a widower for the second time. He refused to hold the funeral of her mother until Elaine arrived. He wanted all his children there, but Elaine, the only child born of his second marriage and the only child he read to at night, was over six hundred miles away with a husband who chased oilrigs in eastern Montana. Josephine, the oldest child, now seventeen years from the burial of her own mother, would be at the funeral; however, the other children had their own families and rarely visited.
After his second wife died, John hung three photographs and a painting on his bedroom wall. A blurry sepia-tone of his first wife on their wedding day, a second photo of his youngest son in his Army uniform proudly displaying his tech sergeant stripes, the third picture was of Elaine. Then he hung a framed painting of a large yellow circle given to him by Elaine years earlier.
John had inherited the Rock House homestead from his father and other relatives, who had carried their legendary jars the Volga Germans filled with Turkey Red wheat from Ukraine. As soon as his father proved-up the homestead, he replaced the sod hut with the Rock House that John inherited in addition to the ownership or control of over 3,800 acres of land in three states.
In the years since John’s father settled in Ninnescah county, Berdan had built a bridge across the Ninnescah River that linked with another town, and proceeded to transform itself from a muddy village with a wooden cavalry fort and open sewage into the county seat of Ninnescah County with brick streets, a city sewage system, a new military base, a country club, a public health nurse, and three doctors; however, the town was without a hospital.
There were four hotels in Berdan. The three-story Calabeck where a few traveling salesmen shuffled in and out; the four-story Briggs where pool sharks hustled hubristic locals; and the flat-as-the-plains Maxwell where very few travelers stayed. Then, there was the Webster Hotel. A new eight-story, blond brick building with marble wainscoting, polished brass doors, and a palace-sized lobby with a pharmacy on one side and a full service restaurant on the other. A solid walnut reception area dominated the north side of the lobby.
Droughts, floods, fires, wars, recessions, depressions and death passed through this state, but it was the wind that controlled. Flags whipped, trees cracked, shingles flapped with a drum roll then flew away leaving ripped tarpaper and slatted wood as poor protection for what was to follow.
There had been a hard freeze in March, then more wind and erosion followed by inflated prices and deflated income. When the wind blew in, and the land blew away, the water evaporated, the money dissolved.
In a normal year, John’s crops were knee-high by the fourth of July, but now it was late August, and the blistered crops had grown no higher than an inch above his ankle. Last year, his land was moist, his grain amber. But with two growing seasons each year, the last two seasons yielded negatives – no ale-colored husks of corn, no golden bales of hay, no amber waves of grain.
The drought and depression combined with a reduced crop yield, plunging prices, property seizures, and the Volstead Amendment resuscitated a business spawned well before statehood.
John and Josephine met in the center of the Rock House inside a hidden room accessible through a door in the back of his bedroom. They hatched plans to offset the impact of the collapse of wheat and cattle prices.
“Look at this,” said Josephine as she handed her father a hand-written projection of their bushel per acre yield, “Our harvest will be down by 60%”. Waited while her father reviewed her hand-drawn bar graph, then said, “Last year, our wheat sold for $1.32 a bushel, and this year it’ll be a miracle if we get 40¢ for it.”
Though born in this country, Josephine carried the resonance of her father’s Volga German accent. As astute and sturdy as her mother had been, her tight smile and suspicious eyes told the story of a daughter who saw herself valued only for her utility to the family. She joined the family business during high school to handle the numbers – yield per acre, cost of doing business, margins, and the family bank accounts lodged in three states.
It was Josephine who calculated the size of the interior room with its limestone interior walls, trap door, and fifteen-foot radius that had been used by John’s father as a shelter from Indians. She had done the math; the hidden room provided seven hundred and six sq. ft. of storage space. It was Josephine who suggested that it become a staging area for the nightly deliveries of moonshine.
“Damn dry land,” said John, “Less than half the normal rain.” He pulled his long-ashed Camel from his mouth.
“Maybe it’ll rain,” said Josephine.
“If it did rain, it’d fall on brick-hard soil and bleached-out wheat.” John waited for her reaction; when there was none, he recited the state’s constitutional provision, “The manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors shall be forever prohibited in this state,” he sat silent, and, in that moment, commanded her full attention, “except for medical, scientific, and mechanical purposes.
And that, presents us with an exploitable moment.” To Josephine, her father’s mellow Volga German sounds created music in the hidden room.
John had the land, the contacts, the transportation, and the raw nerve, but he hated the bribes, the pay-offs, the subterranean double-dealing. Nevertheless, he sensed a weakness. Others were unequipped to pivot – to mold themselves to exploit the state constitution. “Those old hotels can wrestle with speak-easies, cheap moonshine, and Sheriff’s departments. We’re getting out of the ‘shine business. Our approach will be to exploit the medical and scientific clause.”
Since 1881, there had been statewide prohibition. The 21st Amendment made liquor legal, but in this state, prohibition was constitutionally fixed. No open saloons, no liquor stores, no county options.
John inhaled, then exhaled his next sentence, “The owner of the Webster Hotel cannot afford to operate it.” John nipped from his Four Roses bottle, then continued, “We are going to buy it.” Swallowed and said, “We can take the hotel over just by assuming his monthly payments.” Waited for Josephine to object. Heard nothing, and went on, “We’ll have a full-service private restaurant. Like a country club, but with lower monthly dues.” Looked at Josephine as she nodded, then added, “Plus we’ll have a drug store on the opposite side of the lobby.” The ash of his cigarette grew longer, but never wavered.
For John, it was both an exploitable and a controllable moment. With the Webster Hotel, he would have all he needed. “Our way will be to run whiskey from Canada into Ninnescah County. We’ll sell it through the pharmacy with doctors’ prescriptions, and through the bellhops to the guests in the hotel rooms.”
He looked at Josephine, glanced at his desk, and said, “With the private restaurant we’ll cater to the oilmen, farmer-ranchers, road workers, and the military from the base north of Berdan.” John paused, “And, with the pharmacy, we can cater to all the Southern Baptists and Mennonites who won’t drink in front of one another.”
Bootlegging out of Canada required not only a manufacturer, staging areas, and retail outlets, but also transportation. With his two Bay Oil stations, John could keep his rolling stock of flathead V-8 1.5 ton Ford trucks in gasoline, tires, and maintenance on the rough country roads twenty-four hours a day. “We’ll control the whiskey as it travels from Canada into Berdan.”
“I talked with the sisters at the school. They want a hospital in Berdan, but they’ll never have the money to build. We can do a dollar-a-year lease to the sisters; and their hospital can be on the top two floors. We’ll run guests on the lower six floors.” Waited for Josephine’s reaction.
She had worked with her father for years, and picked-up immediately, “Right. That’ll tie the doctors even more tightly to the drug store in the hotel.”
John’s aunt saw the white chat clouds on the flat highway trailing the Sheriff’s car as it turned off the county road onto the hard dirt drive to the Rock House. The sheriff, John’s brother-in-law, was still angry with John for derailing his dead sister’s vocation as a nun, although he had never set foot inside a convent, a seminary, and rarely a church.
When the Sheriff turned into the drive, he passed four railroad tracks, then a cattle trough next to the windmill on the far side of the barbed wire fence, a clothesline where two headless chickens hung by their feet while their necks oozed blood.
John stood outside the Rock House, his half-seen visitor framed by the endless rolling prairie that bisected the sky a million miles away. The Sheriff handed him a telegram. “Elaine’s coming home, John, but she’ll be late.” He saw John’s eyes move from the telegram to the church across the street, then said, “I’m sorry”.
The persistent wind swept unimpeded through Canada, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and changed everything in John’s world. The wind hit and delivered a sharp twist that burned his face, then coarsely shifted while dust whirls, combined with baseball-sized dirt clods, attacked his barn. The walls of his barn had become a graveyard for grasshoppers.
John swallowed, made the Sign of the Cross, walked inside the Rock House, and, while the Sheriff stood next to him, called the mortuary to tell them of the delay.
Josephine and John’s aunt sat at the dining room table. In his soft German accent, the emotion in his voice heavy, he said, “The funeral will be four days from now.”
His dinner remained untouched and cold. His aunt looked at him, patted his side of the table, then said, “Remember when Elaine outgrew her cradle? And you kept it. In fact, you still have it. Called it her manger.” Elaine’s manger. John engineered a smile and made a decision.
Josephine leaned forward as if what could have happened had been delayed, and in her matter-of-fact manner reminisced about the time at the Lemon Park swinging bridge when Elaine tried to walk on the thick rope handrails.
John reached for his Camels. With a flick of the wooden match against his thumbnail, he brought the flame to his cigarette. He decided to forgo his usual shot of Four Roses bourbon from the half-pint bottle behind the picture of the Last Supper next to the Napoleon clock on the kitchen counter.
He placed his hands on the table, sat, leaned back, then hunched forward, looked at no one, and said, “Her first day at school just next door here.” Stopped, pointed to his left as though no one at the table knew where the school was – even though all his children had attended. “I walked with her. Her in her purple dress.” He adjusted his cigarette and continued, “And when I met her after school, she had this bright yellow picture. Just a big yellow circle she painted.”
The others at the table heard a viscous sniff, waited for the appearance of his handkerchief. They remained silent when he lowered his head, and, once again, made the Sign of the Cross.
John listened to a few more stories about Elaine, then stood, stuffed the half-pint into his back pocket, and, followed by Josephine, walked from the table to his bedroom, then entered the circular room through a hidden door at the back of his closet.
He now had another death in the family, another wife to bury, but tonight he and Josephine had work to do. He knew he would not sleep easily even with the comforting sound of a windmill’s turns and creaks.
John’s shoes clicked as he walked on the wooden railroad platform toward the wall-mounted telephone. He lifted the receiver, waited for the operator, told her the number, then fed nickels into the machine.
As soon as the voice from the next station answered, John asked, “Has the Montana train arrived?”
While he waited for Elaine’s train, he thought of her wedding. Despite being hurriedly planned, it was held in the church. She wore a white dress, and with her arm in his, they followed the ring bearer and flower girl down the aisle. At the reception, the young beauty of the family danced with her father while guests pinned money on her wedding train. At the dais, tradition dictated that she remove her shoes, and push them behind her chair to serve as receptacles for more cash.
When Elaine arrived at the train station, she was driven straight to the mortuary to be next to her mother. John followed in his own car. It was then he decided there would be no open casket. He stopped and called the mortuary before Elaine arrived.
John knew the family traditions at the mortuary dictated that relatives recite the rosary for twenty-four hours. When the optimal number of people were present, somewhere around the sixteenth rosary, an aunt would faint. Hours later, the family formed a line, bent over the casket, and kissed the dead. Then the uncles and cousins lifted the dead from mortuary to hearse, from hearse to church, from church to grave.
For the second time in seventeen years, John watched as his wife was lowered into the grave. He waited until the priest finished reading, then hesitated. Part of his soul had ripped. Within an instant, he felt weak, heavy, and old. He turned around, leaned forward, placed the telegram and Elaine’s manger into the grave, then knelt while his daughter’s coffin was lowered.
He would be there when the generations shifted. He would be there when they shifted a second time, and a third time. He was in all of them; but now, after the burials, after the dinner, and after the farmers left to do their chores, John sat at his desk inside the hidden room behind his bedroom at the Rock House.
He heard the windmill turn and creak. Tonight, sleep would wait. Tonight, he and Josephine had work to do.
About the Contributors
John Stupp is the author of the 2007 Main Street Rag chapbook The Blue Pacific and the 2015 full-length collection Advice from the Bed of a Friend (also by Main Street Rag).
A Pushcart nominee, Lana Bella has a diverse work of poetry and fiction published and forthcoming with over 130 journals, including a chapbook with Crisis Chronicles Press (spring 2016), Ann Arbor Review, Chiron Review, Coe Review, Harbinger Asylum, Literary Orphans, Poetry Salzburg Review, Poetry Quarterly, QLRS (Singapore), Sein Und Werden (UK), White Rabbit (Chile) and elsewhere, among others.
Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with no safety net to catch them. His short stories have appeared in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Red City Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Perceptions Magazine, and The Literary Commune.