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Backstabbing Good People
Ken Egler Jr.
The Baum Shelter Thursday Music [Summer Series]
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the country. There was no real frequency to the trips. Some days my mum would simply wrap a bottle of wine and cheese in an old wicker basket and race her cherry red SUV from our sheltered, suburban cul-de-sac onto the eastbound interstate, the hills of Pennsylvania rolling all around and boundless like the Pacific.
Looking back to those days it's always high summer and the world is green and gold and pulsing with life. I can't remember the winter afternoons we must have spent huddled in the den drinking cider and building fires, or the late spring rainstorms that must have sent us scurrying through the yard to clomp muddy shoes on the wide back porch. It's only blue sky, the shimmering river and a backdrop of leaves so green they seem to admit their own light.
A stark contrast, these airy images, to places I've lived more recently.
There's not much green now, though there's pulsing life of another kind not fueled by pure rain and wind and natural growth. Now it's all diesel fumes and coal and furious desire. It's cracking, ruined tenements and trash tumbling in the wind. It's clusters of shabby dressed people standing in doorway and sagging bus shelters.
I'm not complaining. They never really feel like slums when you're living
in them. Besides if you drink enough coffee and smoke enough loose tobacco no amount of shabbiness can get to you. You're too distracted making plans to move on and up and forget about the darker parts of the world. The mind is left to blur the sharper edges of life, to hide them behind the sunspots of memory that speckle the inner eye. My mind does, at least. Blur the edges. And nights when the rain is drumming hard enough against the window and the windy starless night
masks the dusty world spread out below and around my shabby apartment, I'm flooded with memories sharp as a razor. Images of green and gold.
At times like these I can nearly see my mother, drumming her fingers on
the grey leather steering wheel as she wove our glinting, growling Yukon through the dense waves of green that lead to Peter's house. I loved to stick my head out the window as we picked our way along the narrow stream of road. I'd study the clash of the car’s nail-polish exterior with the woods' pastel greens and earthy, soaked browns, or the blue reflection of sky off the spinning chrome wheels. We were time travelers. Shiny intruders in a verdant world.
Peter’s house sprang out of the woods like a startled deer. I'd jump from the car and leap the crumbling stone wall and tear down a twisted path that emptied into a wide, slow moving creek. There I'd find Peter standing ankle deep in the cool, clear water. That is the image that stands out most strongly, a young boy of ten in filthy overalls and a long brimmed ballcap of equal affection. Sometimes I would stalk quietly down the last few yards of the path, stop right at the edge where it spilled onto the creek bank, and watch Peter as he picked around in the crystal water or gazed queerly upstream. I always suspected he knew he was being watched. Something in the way he cocked his head and smiled as I held my breath and tried not to crunch on the bed of rotting
leaves that coated the forest floor.
But most of the time I kept running until I splashed into the creek
beside Peter, startling the fish that had ventured close to his feet. They
nipped at his toes and cleaned the calluses on his heels. Sometimes the fish would even settle close and nuzzle Peter's ankles as he dropped crumbs from a stale loaf of bread he kept wrapped in a brown canvas nap-sack. The fish never nipped at my feet, no matter how quietly or carefully I walked into the water. Peter always said it was something about my smell that sent them scattering, probably from those closed, hot shoes I wore. Fish don’t like the smell of closeness, he would say in his slow drawl that rings in my ears still. They liked the smell of open water, the smell of tanned, sandaled feet and grass clippings.
"How do you know what the fish like if they can't talk?" I asked Peter
once, full of green envy that they would kiss his feet and not my own. Looking back I don't suppose it was anything particular about the fish and their kisses that filled me with such jealousy. I simply couldn't grasp how slow, simple Peter could do something I could not.
"Sure they can talk," Peter replied, "they just talk real quiet and
you've got to listen real close."
Perhaps it is the vividness of these memories that gives them such
significance. When I look back over my life there is so much blurriness and dubious amalgamation. How many versions of myself have come and gone, fading in and out without any real borders or definition? What I know is that I miss the unity and meaning of my earliest days. There were no hidden questions standing beside that meandering creek, none of the nagging doubt that begins one day to define everything we do. My only advantage is that, unlike most men, I can pinpoint the moment of my demise. Maturity did not sneak up on me slowly and take me one night, unawares. No, I was not fortunate enough to slip so slowly into adulthood that the turn seemed natural or acceptable. It was a thing of
terror and suddenness and has driven me to places I never thought I'd go.
It was a particularly bright and scorching summer day when I decided to
trick the fish into nipping my feet. A Sunday it must have been, because I was wearing this pair of black leather loafers my mother always made me wear to church. The shoes made my feet sweat even more than usual, and I could feel a dampness in my socks as mum picked the familiar path through the glowing woods, dodging the ruts and roots that wriggled across the road.
This caused me a significant deal of stress. How could I help that my
mother made me wear shoes to church instead of sandals? That I would emerge sweat soaked from that stifling church? I squirmed in my starchy collar. Peter didn’t even have to go to church! He never even had to wear shoes if he didn't want to. All the worrying, of course, just made my feet burn more, and soon a sharp anxiety was welling in me as I ran down the twisted path, which by this part of the summer had grown thick with weeds and fat green branches sagging from tired trees. The final stretch of the path was grown over so thick I had to crawl on hands and knees to get through. My shirt was wilted and drenched by the time I stood up and brushed the red clay dirt from my knees and elbows. It was then that I noticed Peter laying belly up, fast asleep, on the creek bank, his feet dangling into the water, surrounded by a dozen or so glistening catfish!
Peter had on the same filthy overalls and stained tee-shirt he always
wore. The clothes looked dry and loose and comfortable compared to my own scratchy garments. Peter's arms, wiry and tanned the color of a wrinkled paper bag, were folded behind his head. I could tell from the shallow rhythm of his breathing that he must be asleep, though his eyes were obscured by a long-billed ball cap pulled low. I drew in my breath and approached cautiously, suddenly aware of the dead air hanging thick above the creek, the dragonflies whizzing about, the mudskippers and toads all singing beneath the scorching midday son. The creek trickled by a shriveled silver thread, slithering thirstily and half dried-up.
I reached Peter's side without making much noise. His breathing still
matched the slow pulsing of the creek. From here I had a better view of the fish. They were smooth and oily, light glinting off their backs that arched out of the water pooled along the creek banks. Small pops and squelches echoed from the fish. Some rolled. Some swam in circles. Some sat leisurely and still, sleeping like Peter.
Maybe those are fish voices I said to myself, though I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. On the ground to Peter’s right was the small canvas sack. The one he always carried. It’s top flap hung open, a dark olive green, and the few metal clasps on its front dazzled my eyes like tiny spotlights. I was always fascinated by the pack, by its fluidity. The thing seemed to grow and shrink like the creek did, stretching and subsiding as Peter saw fit. Sometimes Peter would pull things from the sack that I never thought could fit: rope, chord, loaves of stale bread, hunks of meat, fishing line, tackle, towels, even a needle and thread. Thinking of these things, I began to crunch across the creek stones back towards the path and Peter's modest pile of
The pack was a trove of all the sharp and shiny objects young boys dream about. There was a huge Swiss Army knife that, as a boy, I coveted above all things. My own mother absolutely refused to buy me a pocket knife. She even forbade that I handle Peter's, though sometimes he would let me use the blade whittle a stick to a sharp point as we sat and talked by the creek.
Also in the sack was an oddment of tackle, double sided hooks and various gauges of line. This time the hunk of stale bread was accompanied by several strips of some dark, salted meat. Probably some of the deer jerky Peter's father often made in a small smoking shack another hundred yards down the creek. I stole a glance back over my shoulder at Peter, his breath was coming quicker now but still ebbing with the rhythm of sleep. His smile had tightened into a look of concentration. He was dreaming, I thought, and reaffirmed I plunged my hand into the pack and snatched up the jerky.
I should stop here and say that stifling afternoon still haunts me in a
way that I don't expect I'll soon forget. Once, after a night of strong martinis and tequila, I told my wife about my cousin Peter, about the twisted path and the creek and the fish. We were laying in the dark of our bedroom, and as I talked she wiggled closer.
I seldom speak about my childhood, and when I do she feels I'm opening up to her in some deep way that peaceful people with fonder memories of childhood seem to find important. Now, I enjoyed childhood, but most days I don't see much good in looking back on it. It's too full of things to miss and the mistakes we've made. When I reached the tale of the time I fooled the fish I felt her tense up, and by the end she had shrunk away and shivered. I did not roll over to examine her face, where she reveals all her thoughts to me, but I know the look she must have worn, eyebrows pulled down, her eyes sharp. The next morning my wife had returned to good spirits. She even felt bold enough to ask me about Peter, why it was that she had never met him or even heard about him, with my family being so small. Was he dead? she asked, flushed with concern.
Now, I don't often lie to my wife, and I lie even less about things that
are important, but I could not tell her that I didn't in fact know whether Peter was still alive. We hadn't spoken since my mother died, and that was the first time in at least ten years. For all I knew Peter still spent his time picking around in that lazy creek, a relic of days gone by. He got a job and moved south, I told her. With both of our mothers dead we simply fell out of touch. I think it's beautiful how she finds such things so sad, and how she can forget about them so quickly.
I should also take a moment and explain that catfish are generally
peaceful creatures, content to spend their lives floating upside-down and picking for scraps in muddy waters warmed by the sun. But like any creature with a mouth and a stomach -- and especially any other fish -- they get somewhat more agitated when food's running scarce and there hasn't been any rain in weeks. This was mysterious at the time, and I didn't realize that today the catfish were not gathering around Peter's feet to nuzzle or nip or pick small bits of skin from beneath his nails, but because they were starving. They were waiting for the bread crumbs he always dropped.
They must have sensed my approach somehow, and they started to pucker and wreathe as I stepped gingerly around Peter and approached the water with oily meat in hand. I stole one final look back at Peter, who still wore the same tight look of concentration. And with that I stepped into the water.
It was cooler than I expected for a stifling midsummer day, and the
pebbles coating the bottom were smooth and slick with creek slime. My plan was to enter the creek ten or so yards from Peter's dangling feet, where the catfish were still gathered. I would wade in sneaky and slow from downstream and start dropping bits of the meat. That way they wouldn't notice my scent until I was on them, and besides it would be masked by the smell of jerky.
Apparently catfish can smell downstream, for they scattered before I got close to Peter's dangling feet, and so with tears welling in my eyes I started ripping the meat into huge chunks and hurtling them into the water. The blackened hunks sank quickly to the bottom, but an oily sheen began to collect in the still water, and before long a few of the more adventurous catfish swam close to investigate, for it's not often that fish smell the smell of salted, smoked deer meet. Encouraged, I dropped the last piece of meat right between my feet, and soon the catfish were circling closer and closer. Soon they were brushing my ankles and nipping my toes and I laughed a hearty laugh of victory.
It took me a few minutes to realize something was wrong. The water was still frothing violently after all the jerky had been snatched up and devoured. It hadn't occurred to me that the catfish had never tasted the savory, bloody taste of meat, and in their starving state it drove them into a kind of frenzy. Their bodies twisted and fought and bit and bled until they couldn't tell one another's flesh from the jerky they had sampled a moment before. Soon the bigger fish were devouring the littler fish, ripping off fin and feeler until only the biggest fish remained intact and whole and the stagnant stream ran red with gore and guts and blood. I leapt from the chummy water in time to see the last of the
fish, two giant, gnarled ancients circling one another in an unmistakable dance of death. The smaller of the two had already suffered a mortal bite and was pulling its own entrails through the water. It soon succumbed to the other, though not before biting out both its eyes. The last thing I saw as I ran from the river was the eyeless, puckering maw of the last living fish, ravaging the corpses of his brothers and sisters.
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Backstabbing Good People
excited to be hosting the Tennessee grown band Copper Into Steel. Also
performing will be the Pittsburgh natives Backstabbing Good People. Ticket’s will be $5 for an evening full of great music.
More info (www.smiling-moose.com/)
Black Coffee: 9pm
Copper Into Steel: 10:15
Backstabbing Good People: 11:30
Ken Egler Jr.
He reties the shoelace around his waist,
stares hard into the mirror’s mannequin eyes,
splashes a rusty broth onto his sweat burnt face,
notices pictures of paradise and
beautiful women scotch-taped to the walls.
“Last Call,” rains
counting the skein of
in her tip jar
turns on the light
and drops her chignon and
downpours black rivulets
uncauterize a morass of love’s past
and it downpours outside.
beneath a nulliparous sky
barren of stars
he can tell the curve of the road
by his wet footsteps
the reflection of the
and the rain of yesteryear
thick on six caryatid bottles.
For you Zebra fish, especially.
Of your tetrachromacy
That lets you see so many more beautiful shades than me.
For all those birds flying way up in the sky
I can fly as high as them, you see
But what I lack is their tetrachromacy.
Oh, if only human beings could possess such stunning sensory capabilities
I’d only ask that they lend them to me
So just this once I can see how they see
And discover new tints and hues
You see, I’ve grown tired of my normal color scheme
And my spectrum could use some re-defining.
Baum Shelter Thursday Music !!!![Summer Series]
Thursday June 28th, 8:30pm, 0$, B.Y.O.B.
361 Melwood, Pittsburgh PA 15213
Harvey Birdman and the Attorneys of Law
Intergalactic Fantasy Safari
Missing the Mark
Chilled Monkey Brains (touring band from Florida)
Photos from Baum's wall-to-wall, jampacked, smash hit house concert last Thursday: