​Jason Akley




Eng 381B

Pinckney Benedict

Team A

24 January 2017
Beneath Was the Van Gogh


Now it’s just a barbecue stand on Route 13.  Used to serve as a guard shack.  I haven’t been in there myself to try the food, but from the number of cars outside during lunch hours it must do a good business.  That’s a picture of the gang here.  Taken… oh probably the late fall of ’26.  Just before the Shady Rest was bombed and burned down that winter.  See that guy standing near the back of that truck?  One fella came in here said that was his uncle.  Not part of the gang just sort walked into the picture.  You believe that?  Weird how things get connected that way.  Must have been huntin’ carrying that rifle…

You open a vein it bleeds.  Same as the earth I reckon.  After all these years of showin’ ‘em—these old photographs—black and white and newspaper clippings yellowed beneath the glass sometimes I feel like I just walked into them like I stepped back in time ninety years to when my father was a young man.  To when men fought over these coal fields and prohibition was in effect when alcohol was considered “un-American”.  And what would it say?  The land?  It’s in the pictures too I guess.  Just looked over in the background as souls parade through.  As they look into the eye of a camera and for an instant the motion stops and the light is a certain way.  No, maybe the earth should tell the story.  If’n it could speak.  Like it does in the hands of a painter.  In colors and shadows.  If pictures could lie I guess they would change.  We just do all the changin’ around them and give them the attribution.  ‘Spose the earth needs seasons just the same as a man does though—so as to fool time.  Or maybe time fools us.  I don’t rightly know.  What’s history for if even the land can’t learn from it?

In the end it was a bet.  I’m not a violent man, but I do like to gamble.  The earth is the supply and we are the demand.  It was the coal fields of Little Egypt brought Charlie Birger to southern Illinois.  And he brought whiskey and beer with him.

You ever play the stocks?  Got this thing called binary options.  Bid on whether the price is gonna go up or down by a given time.  A “put” is a bid that the price is gonna go down.  A “call” and you think the price is gonna go up.  Used to play blackjack as a young man.  Kinda reminds of that.  The minimum bet is $25 a hand.  That’s how I play.  All you gotta do is follow the live signal from the broker.  And it’s all or nothing.  You lose you lose it all.  You win and it’s anywhere from a sixty to eighty percent return…  See here—got this app on my smart phone.  Let’s me know when there’s a live signal from the broker.  I put in the amount I want to bid and anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes later the rate expires and I’m either seventeen dollars richer or I lost twenty-five bucks…  Asked my grandson ‘bout it.  He did the math.  I have to win sixty percent of the time just to break even.

If it’s too good to be true don’t believe it.  Funny thing is if it’s in writing you have the tendency to see it as truth.  But for most of my reading I’ve found most things written down is a lie.  Especially when it comes to money.  You don’t get nothin’ for free.  Guess it ain’t strange what’s usually offered as free is somethin’ you want.  Shit.  Even free dirt you got to shovel it…  But I’ve experienced my share of sell pitches—yessir—start with somethin’ you want and they wrap it all up nice for ya.  Money is made off of folks wanting money.  If you wanna lose weight don’t eat.  It’s what we obey that corrupts us.  Distribution of wealth?  Sons and daughters off to die in a war?  It’s the man who obeys risks the most—wake up one mornin’ and wonder where your soul is—it’s back there in your dreams.  Time ain’t the only thing lost in sleep.  No, livin’ means the law has to be broken.  Guess Charlie Birger and his boys knew it.  I mean how much are you really willing to pay for a drink?

It ain’t my broker that’s criminal.  It’s the system.  But I must say I like it.  I like it when that live signal pops up on my phone.  I put $250 in my broker’s account a week ago.  I’ve been up and I’ve been down.  The way it works I’m never gonna get rich—I know that—even though that’s what they promised.  The way it’s set up is to keep you playing…  But it gives an old man like me somethin’ to do.  Not many folks come for a museum tour anymore.  When they do it’s usually my lunchtime.  That’s why I eat out of Tupperware…

The brass was a dull brown unshined unpolished and if you looked closely the darker remnants were the residue of dried blood.  He left it on the bureau and she does not touch it in her cleaning.  She leaves it where it is and begins humming.  The cat is following her.  Everywhere she wipes with a dust cloth he steps tentatively head down sniffing a paw in mid-air inquisitive—investigating her work.

Peggy Birger used to not be Peggy Birger.  Her married name before was Peggy Lane and her maiden name was Moscowitz.  She’d been remarried for a year now.  But the cat still belonged to her ex-husband.  At least the cat seemed to think so.

Evil is done as evil is seen Peggy’s mother used to say—Marry a man who ain’t blind.  She couldn’t say she took her mother’s advice.  Not at least until love turned to convenience and her relationship with her ex-husband was convenient.  Now when he whined about things being unfair she just made it harder for him to see the kid.  It wasn’t like he could make much fuss.  Not with Charlie in the house.  And as an employer.  The key to a divorce is to keep it on your terms.

Another thing her mother used to say is a woman has her illusions built on stilts.  That way they don’t never have to touch the ground.  She couldn’t say she didn’t once love Oliver.  They had a son together, but just like the earth has its seasons folks have them too.  And a cycle once broken don’t never spin around again like it done before.  He let go and she didn’t grab back on.  The rest sort of took care of itself.  She’d moved on.  Wasn’t for her to feel sorry for those that didn’t.

Charlie made sure she got a cut of his take.  For the baby.  The rest he gave her was considered a gift.  The motives for it relinquishing her from gratitude.  She saw herself as high-minded to let him have a say at all in the affairs of their child, and when questioned by him about her motives—well, a real bitch would have done worse.

Things with Charlie weren’t always so great, and when she got down she turned to her mother’s religion.  She liked that because then it gave her an enemy.  Not an enemy inside herself, but outside.  Inside was all peace and tranquillity, and when the outside dared to disturb her or question what she should do or not do or even have the indecency to accuse her of hypocrisy in how she looked at herself compared to how she looked at others—she would hum a hymn and if any of her enemies were present they would have to flee from her firm and unshakable stance that God loved her blessing her with mercy while those who would deign to put her salvation at unease would feel His vengeance.  She had quite a thing going.  As her mother would have said the power ain’t in God’s hands.  It rests with those not afraid to use it. 

She moves to the mirror.  In the gray light of the room her reflection smears.  She studies her profile turning her head to the right and the left.  Her humming ends with an air of disapproval.  Looking not into the eyes she spits onto the glass and rubs earnestly with her dust cloth to remove the streaks.  The cat walks underneath her work his tail curling up to flick an arm already tiring in its circling ministrations.  He turns his head to look at himself back arched.

“You’re not making this easy.”

The cat passes in front of the mirror his ears twitching.

“You’re just like him ain’t ya?  A man needing approval.  Thing is you make it depend on a woman’s work.  Well you ain’t getting it from me.  I ain’t your momma…  You ever feel rage?  I ‘spose not beings you’re a feline.  A slave morality ain’t in your nature.  But I figure he must have felt it—rage—you ain’t sure what you’re mad at when a woman does and that just makes it worse…  He was an educated man—Oliver was—I used to told him that’s just words.  Don’t take a smart man to know that power don’t come from what you know but in how you die all those little things you give up those words we call them by how livin’ them is short but once they’re dead they stay dead a long time but you remember every slight the memory of words which say your salvation once was in my love but you are also in my hate in the fact that when I die I will not call out to you to remember me to say This I loved about you and the imperfections which are many… and I am and you are and what contains us we will never know the outer perimeters.  For the past cannot hold us.  The past is what we are now and that will change with tomorrow and what’s wrong with you that wasn’t right for me might be right for someone else so that good friends don’t have to be lost they just find different pasts for themselves different words…  Damn if this mirror don’t want to stay clean.  Like somebody sneezed on it.”

The winter had come early and now the rains came to melt last week’s snow.  Peggy moves to the window and draws the shade letting the morning gloom of light overcast in a gray mist give the pinkish hue of the upholstered Victorian furniture a look of something sad and old.  The cat still sits perched on the corner of the bureau.  He’s licking his paws.  A calico his fur is a mixture of black and orange and his eyes are yellow.  If he’s been listening to Peggy at all he doesn’t give the assurance that her words will bring her good luck or fortune.  He stares up into the mirror at the reflection of the painting on the opposite wall.  It rests above the embossed black horn of the phonograph—a rendering done in acrylic.  One of Charlie’s men had done it at his request.  When Charlie Birger asked you to do something you did it.  As a hired gun he was familiar with coal and had only dabbled in paint.  But then as to some educated men like the slighted Oliver it was not who made the painting which made it art rather those who regarded the painting calling it such—it was the process the work which mattered—and to Charlie Birger though the rendering was not original he liked it on his wall and let his wife have her matter of taste in the rest of the furnishings.  As for the brass knuckles resting on his bureau and the blood dried on it—some work is never finished—the words just die.  Peggy pays no mind to it now and continues with her cleaning.  She hums a new song.  The cat’s ears twitch in a faint acknowledgement and then as if to sleep was to be awake in order to really hear the story his eyes slowly close to the wordless sound.
You think I’m hurting you, Bob, but you been hurtin’ for a while now.  See you haven’t been yourself.  You’ve never been yourself.  I’m helping you now, Bob.  I’m helping you find your salvation.

he kneels in the street his hands aren’t tied arms just hang the fingers curled in the mud the snow left after the rains head chin down hair a bloody mess one eye already sealed shut purple and black right jaw laid open the skin folded over revealing the bone mouth blood and broken teeth only the rattle of his breath choking on it a sign of life

See it seems like nowadays people get knowledge before they have knowledge.  I’m giving you experience, Bob.  So you’re not so turned around anymore.  Them movies you go to see at the picture show.  Them books you read.  They ain’t real.  This is real, Bob.  They don’t write stories about losers.  Anything told from your point of view right now why it’d be a jumbled mess now wouldn’t it?   Still stuck on whether you deserve this.  That’s the knowledge before the knowledge.  See you should be feelin’ sorry, Bob.  Not sorry for yourself.  But sorry for me in you havin’ to make me do this.   Sorry for me feelin’ sorry for you because you see you coulda done somethin’ different—I gave ya the opportunity.  People do things for attention.  Why’d you make me do this, Bob?  You knew I’d know the money was gone.

i needed it

Why’d you need it, Bob?

didn’t have no money for Christmas my kids needed presents

Then why are you acting defeated, Bob?  That’s what happens when you know what you knew came too early for really knowing it.  They’re linin’ us up on a grid now, Bob.  Did you think your ignorant youth would be rewarded?  When you say things old only pain could know?  Let me help you, Bob.  It takes two to make this and only one to die and I won’t be there to help you along with the other part.  That part you got to do alone.  And you know it.  You know that now—don’t ya, Bob?

and I am not there who you are where you are and he may stand and I may fall and everywhere you see the hearts undergrown the this could be because we are here together and you are there alone so who am I could not be you an enrichment engrained that there are some things you can never be and one aspect of me can contain all of you and all that we name now and after while I am here for them I am not there for me as I have heard it from others I have seen realizing who I was when I was with them and how I am when I am alone our intentions and what I’m willing to try depending on if I’m surrounded by encouragement or dismay am I loved is who I  am around them and you better know who you are sitting at a table of enemies and now the distinction becomes crystal how we all keep score when you think someone is different than you better and others not like you because you see them as something behind you who you are is where you are and today I choose both the laughter and sorrow the anger and content for even here where there is no pity and only a gun I am among friends I am bold to see what I believe those unsightly angels those ignorant manipulators who are who they are wherever they are they are the legends they are the crazy ones and they are of an infinite variety as told after… the undefeated voiced in the attitude of the loser and you you are the one that’s waiting on me to name it

Yes the gun was always there the trigger and then like backwards the back of Bob’s head blows off and he falls back on his knees and the gun and the hand holding the gun knowing what it is and what it aimed at satisfied in the residue of smoke.  Charlie Birger stands the gun now to his side the finger off the trigger restless a shadow without a face looking down on the dead man almost saddened without a purpose hesitant on getting in the last word before walking away and he mumbles for no one’s ears:

I would have given you the money if’d you just asked, Bob.

Then the feet move away from the dead man the sun behind the passing clouds shining in a slow progression on the hardened mud grooves and soft puddles of Saline County the emptied Harrisburg street.
And so now see the men see the men who were with him.  Sometimes I wondered what they believed in but I don’t know there’s times when the clouds are dark and full of rain and the winter comes cold the snow without footsteps you get stripped down deep and you don’t live you exist the meaning of that how the world’s absurd and meaningless the morality a thing of the mind constructs based on information.  Ain’t it funny when you learn something you begin to notice how it directs what you see what you hear and you don’t know that you’re searching but you are and then you have beliefs…?  It’s all lies.  This world.  Our beliefs meant to placate us.  The truth a demographic.  What channel and what time.  How your preferences are cached and you’re shown what’s probable you’ll like.  Every camp has their propaganda their defense the existence of another camp.  With Charlie Birger it was the KKK.  But the men who were with him maybe it wasn’t about that nor money neither.  Hell you can get along with most anybody long as beliefs don’t come up.  You can eat with them you can sleep with them and you can ride and never have to share your limits.  No talk beliefs and you begin to think some people are stupid and if you sanctify it well then you have an evil intelligence.  Every moral system has a scapegoat and for some of these men Prohibition on poverty on the land most of them second generation coal miners they didn’t need a belief to get their bread to watch their children grow and sing Christmas carols and even in those dark days when the clouds are full of rain they built on the raw existence with faith hope charity the consequences of law and they knew they knew right and wrong…  So when you see one people say this and another people saying that they still are of the same people saying everything in the world you need to know or say and if one grabs your attention look for what’s behind the curtain for no one ever says anything without first having an idea in mind on who wants to hear it so don’t let the stupid folks the stupid things bother ya don’t get frustrated at rightly seemed injustice because someone out there thinks you’re stupid too with the things you say and do the things you believe and the best you can do the best version of yourself is to laugh and don’t get mad it all has a way of working itself out and if existence is absurd and meaningless at least you’ve had something to say about it.  

 I don’t know seems like now though I go about thinkin’ you know what I know.  Like the words though useless somehow fill it fill time and space so that I can talk and you can talk about what we already know we just don’t say it and then the words hit and you see it in your mind the feelings forming around it and out of the past the words just said an image rises a setting a backdrop where you see the words play out softer and softer til you can’t even hear them no more but you see what the words are sayin’ and you feel them as if another has taken your place on stage to tell the story your story our story the confluence castigated til it’s neither me or you him or her us and them but like one big room with all our voices and what carried them there waiting to speak listening to be heard the words which were always tripping over themselves muted in the motivations seen in the faces the eyes the setting in a way determining the outcome for in this room there is no exit there is no way out and the words—well, the words have nowhere to go.  That’s how I feel when I come here when I look at these old photographs and see these walls that have stood for damn near a hundred years.  I can’t tell their story without telling my own.  And what you leave here with is just your story added to theirs—I know that now.

See I guess the Ku Klux Klan didn’t like to imbibe.  They was good ol’ boys Southern Baptist Protestant while the miners the men who worked the coal fields like Charlie Birger himself who came back to Harrisburg after being in the army up in South Dakota good record honorable discharge and being a cowboy and all when he opened up a saloon here guess it seemed like good business to go in the liquor trade become a bootlegger seeings how most of the other men who worked them coal fields were immigrants like his folks with strong ethnic tendencies that included alcohol as a part of life them being Catholic or other religions and not a dry morality as practiced by those who regarded themselves as Klansmen.  From pulpit to politics you saw the dynamics as set by a dominant society in a specific geography.  And by well—the womenfolk.  Yep by the spring of ’23 the Klan had a good following in Williamson County supported by the farming community and folks in the larger towns holding meetings that had attendees sometimes in the thousands, but it takes a charismatic leader saying what you want to hear adds numbers to a group and the Klan found that in Mr Young someone with the propensity to have the law on their side and he had it being a former federal lawman.  Hell by the time he was gunned down most elected officials were Klansmen and mobs went from door to door forcibly searching for alcohol and if they found it why you found yourself in jail—a Klan jail.  They was the good guys you see.  Many of them deputized by federal authorities to aid in the enforcement of Prohibition.  But to Birger Harrisburg was his town.  He didn’t abide by no crime.  Wouldn’t tolerate it.  When somebody was robbed Birger repaid their losses and the thief was found shot dead a few days later.  But by oh about ’26 Birger knew it wasn’t rival bootleggers he had to worry about.  Everybody knew even his enemies the Klan was bad for business.

Seems simple enough but things get clouded when you don’t know whose side you’re on and that’s why you need to know who his men were.  I guess you see them in these old photographs you see the faces the eyes you can imagine the words they speak in their given background and we’ve had plenty of time to wait and see see how it all turned out how history puts it as such and such facts but I don’t go in for straight journalism because facts well they’re always slanted by opinion you see what you want to see and then you say that’s how it is.  You gotta look at the motive.  For Birger maybe it was money plain and simple.  I’m not sayin’ I know the man but I know how he died and the some ninety years that has passed since and the books the history books have already been written.  Maybe time makes us objective I don’t rightly know but even if I was or wasn’t a drinkin’ man I can’t say I do know.  I don’t know which side I’d have been on.  Some men don’t do things for money.  Good or bad right or wrong to some men that’s just words laid on an action later but to some men men who may want to see the world burn it’s the getting away with what can’t be gotten away with the impulse for what they do.  They know you can’t take away the desire and at any given point in history when someone has the power the majority muscle to say there are enough of us that say don’t do this why I guess there’s just some men who like to be outnumbered who like to say Yes there may be enough of you to say I can’t do this but to hell with you I’m gonna do it anyway.  No you can’t take the desire away but when you take away the warning when you say go ahead and do it I guess it ain’t really a desire no more.  I mean how can it be?
No I didn’t go in I just heard the shot fired and the sheriff he went in and then I heard more shots and when I went to see the Grand Wizard was dead.  Along with two of his men.  The sheriff he killed three of ‘em before he went down too.

It was an old saloon on a street of mud.  Late January 1925.  Jack Dunby sat in a wooden chair in a small office in the back of the bar turned speakeasy looking over the man that sat behind the desk to the rear door of the establishment.  Concrete steps led up from it to the street where but a month before Robert Bingham had been shot to death after being caught stealing from the local merchants.  Dunby didn’t have his legs crossed in fact he had his knees together to hold his rolling papers.  But it wasn’t tobacco he was breaking up.

Have a drink?  Birger says from behind the desk.

No thanks, Dunby says, that stuff’ll kill ya.

They’re not called that anymore.


Grand Dragon is what you’re looking for.  Or Imperial Wizard, Deputy.  Haven’t been called Grand Wizard since the Reconstruction Era.

Oh… well anyway he’s dead.

If you know what you want you have to know how to say it.

Deputy Dunby licks his reefer cigarette and strikes a match.  I know what I want, he says.

Do you?  That’s the problem with most people—they try to hide it.  Or they say God’s will and such reluctantly abandoning themselves to ascetics and other such religious renunciations nonsense.  They say they don’t want it, but they do.  Then they punish themselves.  Cover it up with rationalizations.  They say they keep their eyes open to opportunities then they’re too chicken shit to take them when they show themselves.  If you know what you want you take it.  It ain’t handed to ya.  Then what you want well it’s like you already have it.  People see it in your eyes.

I’m not afraid.  Dunby’s eyes are lidded and now his legs are crossed a shield of smoke between him and Birger.

No… you look like you have nothing to hide.  Kinda the trick between this world and any other.  Take it as a fact everybody knows anyway.  All your dirt and shameful secrets.  Virtues and vices.  The scale of them don’t matter much.  Privacy is God’s show.  Don’t belong to a man’s world.  You can’t be who you are if you’re afraid people will find out things about you.  Makes for awkward associations those soft petticoats of politeness the hesitance to offend.  Like I said if you know what you want you have to know how to say it.

I thought you might want information.

What do you think I need to know?

Dunby lifts his marijuana cigarette pinched between his fingers.  Would you trade in this if it were illegal?

There’s no money in it.

No?  But there’s money in alcohol because the federal government has prohibited it?  Because the local Klan is trying to enforce that prohibition?

Marijuana ain’t illegal.

Yes, but what if it was?  Would it be much different than it is now with alcohol?  Would there be men like you willing to provide it to those that want it?

Depends on who wants it.

Well… maybe it’s like you said.  If you know what you want you have to know how to say it.  I hear you’re building a place for yourself.  Outside of town.  A place where a man can find a drink and other sorts of entertainment.  Now that the Klan is in mourning could be favorable to business.  Duly elected law officials back in office—why you might have friends you didn’t know you had.  Friends like me.

And what would I want from a friend like you?

I was thinking cars.


Ya…  I heard you fancy stealing them.

Suppose I do?

Why a deputy sheriff like myself might see a reward for a returned stolen car.  A reward where you might have a take.

Birger leans back.  He looks younger than he is younger than Dunby.  But that isn’t the case.

Do you believe there’s still good people in the world?

Yes… yes I do.

Then you know it ain’t about the money.  It’s about getting it.  Give people the right information they’ll do good things with it.

You think the people are getting the right information?

I don’t know.  But I might be able share with you what I know about cars.
And I knew I wasn’t never his first love but even when they politely asked him to leave after the rest of the homicides were attributed to parties unknown and he built the Shady Rest just across the county line between Harrisburg and Marion I knew and hated that dulcet hunger of having a body a woman’s body which he touched believing he touched it and no other and though I had been married to another man and had a child he kept me at a playful distance and I wondered I still wonder if I ever made him jealous.  So it is at times I wish I didn’t have it.  I wish I didn’t have a body could make me happy or sad healthy or sick I wish I could say no when it says sleep no when it says run walk or crawl and I believe there’s love in the world and people to love with it but damned if I don’t want this heart of mine in a time and space anchored to beat wild and say with my eyes I lust and with my mouth I covet and in this physical living presence resides all there is to decay decompose and with every turning of day into night witness this which is the pride of my life the whisper of the worms and you hear them you hear them singing to your bones don’t cry don’t you cry no more and so it comes it comes the time where in the self-aware that gives us our soul I say I have to say:  O the hell with it—I must be scorned…  and no no none of us is immune none of us have the focus the sincerity to wake up in the morning without a yesterday behind us and with our eyes open say yes I know now I remember how it felt and I will not let it touch me again those things of this body what it thought was truth yesterday now a lie no it don’t look at it that way it ain’t one big long line unerring unswerving with what was behind always behind how it goes on our trial our pain our joy just the chance to continue the verse no it don’t see time like that because it sees a lot of startovers lots of things that seem like endings but really they’s just so something else can happen so you can come back to it and in its frustration and boredom always on a one track mind in its season taking what it sees and like a lonely hunter the rest fades away that one thing becoming all we say to our man you ain’t hard to figure out life so full of juices all that water the patterns of emotions I am above it all that you feel weak not in thought knowing that that line well it might go straight ahead and straight behind but it’s got some curves to it some highs some lows how it all comes in waves the hasty dramas of when it all goes wrong when it doesn’t go as planned you don’t get your way the universe seemingly at odds making the effort difficult a pain a chore and you have to exert all your energy just to focus on the trivial problems that need your attention and when one is fixed another appears and you just want to say I will stop I will not move only to see it all slip back into the recesses of night where you return and close your eyes to say to tomorrow No no it won’t it won’t hurt and while you sleep it laughs the dream feeling pretty good when you ain’t seeing time in any lengths…  And that’s why I stayed with him why I stayed with Charlie even when he moved us out of Harrisburg to the Shady Rest and he didn’t want to take nothing nothing with us.  He said we’d start over.  Can’t say I didn’t get a little mad.  I had to give up all my stuff but he took that painting.  Maybe it put it all into focus for him maybe he thought he could go back to it back to that dream how looking at it looking at anything we call beautiful makes us feel we’re immune to it–that damn line.  I don’t see what he saw in it though.  After all it was just a pair of shoes…  They say picture’s worth a thousand words.  Don’t know ‘bout paintings.  Both need an observer I suppose.  Then you just observe what’s observed.  I’ve never been one to study them because that means looking for myself in them and maybe I’m just afraid to do it maybe I just don’t care but I do know you can see love in them because of Charlie how he saw himself in them and how that could be me how he saw me if I but dared to look too if I believed the getting together wasn’t as important as the staying together the hurt even in happy endings the Yes I love you and you love me out of which there are things hoped for the day the hour when tomorrow I will be given for what I gave and though I know there’s that other truth though I know you can say ain’t nothin’ happens less someone is making money even in such violence as this the selfishness the cold brutality of you have taken from me so I will take from you there is there must be a creative side a force which says even if tomorrow hurts there is this to look forward to—an answer.  An answer to that question which brings love into being.  And will I be loved back will I see the things I’ve hoped for will I hold them in my hands and even as this the desire of having you fades away I have waited and it did come.  And he may destroy but he will also love the dying necessary for the protection and this we know as unerring as the linearity of time in what I know is but the small focus of my life with its transgressions and the simple joy of being around people who make me happy who say Yes there is tomorrow and all its answers but I am with you I am with you until your tomorrow and mine are but the investments we’ve made together which even death can’t take away from us…  Ya Charlie could be awful nice when he wanted to be.  He could also be a mean sonofabitch.  That’s why I didn’t look at it really look at it to see what it meant to him and why I didn’t mind at all when he told me to cover it up.  I knew he had his reasons.  I don’t judge.  I just observe.  Funny what role you got to play to do that.  I mean with a painting or anything else how you see yourself looking at it doesn’t depend on what you see it’s the other way around and who’s really making it—what you see—is it the picture the painting the creator’s observations or are you just following procedure taking from what you know beforehand as to the framework of the design.  You see I saw what I saw because I know him.  And so it was true in anything he created that he knew me too.  And I wish I just wish sometimes there was nothing nothing before to make me see what I see now.  I wish I was new.  I wish everything could be like that.  And you know what—sometimes it is…

Peggy Birger reached the toilet before she vomited.  It was a cold morning still dark and they were in their new home in his new hideout just across the county line.  Of course the cat came to watch though his curiosity never seemed to kill him.  He merely sat licking his paw his paw then wiping his face.  Peggy rose from where she knelt and did the same with a washcloth at the same time looking in the mirror seeing the only picture in which the observer is the observed and with her eyes she looked into her eyes maybe searching searching for that mysterious smile.  She heard the cars coming.  Charlie hadn’t come home last night.  She slept alone but didn’t mind because she liked it.  With the cat following she went to the front door and stood at the screen as the cars pulled into the drive.

Looks like you got yourself a new one, she said.

Charlie stepped out of the driver’s seat and looked back as if what she was talking about was behind him.  Yep, I reckon I did.  But who owns it will get it back.

I need to talk to you.

and what words what will they form so he sees it so he sees the picture I’m about to show him so that in one simple frame all that I am in him can be me in what I saw a moment ago and words will reveal what I saw in my eyes as his eyes now see when they see when he sees me smile

The cat walks between her legs and they are alone inside facing each other the painting on the wall behind them and Charlie looks into her eyes and waits.

I’m pregnant, she says.
Ya it was a regular Hatfield and McCoy’s.  After the KKK was out of the picture Charlie Birger had his rival in the Shelton gang.  I’m not one to muse on why people do what they do what we’re all wired to do really whether we’re selfish or not and what folks nowadays would call the psychology of a sociopath but maybe somewhere in the wiring between intelligence and the absolute power which is its goal maybe there’s a trigger a mechanism stirred from childhood memories where the corruption stops something the corruption can’t get to and it lurks there somewhere in the subconscious saying I need you I need someone anyone I need them to say Yes I forgive you…  And I don’t know I just don’t know if pity has a rational function.  How ruthless would I be how ruthless would you be if you saw something you wanted and you had the means to get it without being caught without consequences?  What prohibits us to covet?  And then it comes down to the simplest of questions–what do you fear?  Perhaps the balance is in the limitations–yours and mine–the fact that someday our bodies will give up and die that to exceed these limitations only leads to aberrant behavior a contradictory force to what set it all in motion and in the proscenium of the hate which leads to love and all the pride the anger the jealousy played out time becomes a track around the sun and the vultures disappear in the moon and what ends begins in our mind many times until we see the fruition of our knowledge and we know the power just sets us back the power goes backward so that if we just but remember how we live and have children how we care and protect them and then grow old if we but see how we all covet the dream how it was once when we could be anything could do anything the future all hope no denial no delusion and then there it is that first time we fail we are rejected and all that we saw happening falls away into its obedient sparks seeping into memory and we say Stupid!  Stupid! and like a locker you keep away selections of the past that remind you of how wretchedly you can hate yourself and you go through the list and now just think about that how you felt when you felt weak when you felt naive a fool and just imagine it ain’t only you and what if someone you love feels that you see them feeling that the child that was once you…  maybe Charlie Birger couldn’t feel it didn’t have the trigger the mechanism which made him capable to empathize in this way and maybe that’s what made him a sociopath–he disdained pity

Now I ain’t saying there is no God he says fact is there’s a road a man goes down and if you’ve heard it the Jesus story you see how it’s an example to us what God is what time is that there’s compassion in reason in the simulacrum of the sacrifice conquering death and yes someday maybe someday soon the bridegroom will come and we will be married in that banquet of heaven we will see time in the bed of our desires how consciousness is tied to our sensations and this is what attaches us to the world what we always feared the good the evil how they became one or the other depending on your world the hubris of thinking you know what that is and maybe the only peace bowing at your women’s feet in this world and the next in all possible worlds—you know—to make the best of it… but it don’t matter because there’s still that same road it’s just in some worlds I don’t go straight on through and so maybe I oughta ask you—are ya saved? Maybe in this’n you are in another one you ain’t and it’s infinite you see all the possible choices the directions it may go and hell even maybe even God don’t know it all not every moment from some of it He hides just time before and after before there ever was a before and after and then there’s me and I start as a name and form and then my senses perceive and I have consciousness subject to the law of determined causes and I see the anguish of my freedom still yet in the ambiguity that I am both a negative and a positive and I am ignorant I know nothing except that I must become God but I am either too big or too little to see how one thing leads to another like a purgative needs a tragedy and I know, then… I’m evil he says the smile even in the eyes no doubt about it—I know I have no faith in cause and effect…

and I see the face I see the smile and every time I don’t see I guess I can’t see it and I think to myself

see you can show a man the truth and nine times out of ten two minutes later he’s forgotten all about it because it ain’t what he sees…  But my how it can be pretty though you know?  The truth simple.  The void.  You find the weaknesses in the strengths and even then the argument holds because how else can you explain it—the nature of evil?  Faith is your world.  It’s your eyes it’s your ears it mouths these words—but I can’t make you see it.  Some say it’s there and you go there.  Some say it’s here and you stay right put.  And the devil comes and says It’s all of it—and my God—it’s as about as purty as it’s ever gonna be because you see he’s tellin’ it—he’s tellin’ you the truth.  And how big or how small, well, it’s both—somethin’s gotta contradict.  Somethin’s gotta go against the cause.  Else what?  Else’n you’re sayin’ God is evil?  That evil is part God?  Faith is your world.  Where good is good.  And I don’t know at what age it happens.  But you bite your lower lip.  And you know hurtin’s good.  It feels good to hurt.  Feels powerful…  And that Golden Rule—abolished.  And A don’t lead to B.  Things exist and then go away.  And then they come back again.  Movement is life.  And if you’ve seen anything that moves it ain’t the same—Time for it ain’t the same as judged by us.  The boy becomes the man and the man has the boy in him but never the man in the boy for where else do the lies come from?  From where did it began?  It is outside now I am outside and I make you see what I see what I myself was shown and all of this all of us dancing shining light into one another’s eyes so that our shadows define the darkness the only darkness that we know all of us with our stories…  see you can show a man the lie is the truth but he will forget.  He will forget what the beauty caused.  And when you forget what it caused you cease seeing the connections from there forever going backwards in deductions never assuming what’s induced and you’re free…  that’s the truth he says—I suppose you can say the devil gave me my freedom

so he turned from the mirror and forgot what he looked like.  And maybe he looked at a painting instead.  You can’t believe what you see—no you can’t.  Not in that first instant not until you’re told what it is.  Then it becomes what you see.  I guess to Charlie the truth was a matter of time intervals.  Dependent on who was servin’ the booze.  And like all of us he found a certain satisfaction when some things were right on time.  He was romantic in a way.  Larger than life.  Which makes me wonder now after years of tellin’ it if I’m up to the story if maybe I need to take a look in a mirror and stare for as long as it takes to know where my freedom comes from because where you can know good and evil paradise ain’t far from it as I’m sure any snake would know and somethin’ in us I don’t know some urge in me wants to admire him wants to root for him as if if that could be my identity so be it and let the women come runnin’ like the basis of any good story any good yarn you’re gonna tell for it’s more than just one simple plot following only one main character like life like anything we regard larger than life the stories are interwoven and yet no matter what we want it to be emotionally satisfying optimistic we want the boy to get the girl that’s how we want it to end.  But after years of tellin’ it I’m not sure who Charlie’s woman was I mean I know who he loved and you have their stories but if I’m gonna tell this like a romance like he was some modern day Robin Hood who stuck it to the rich in order to give to the poor if he was really that kind of man a man who could look away like that and forget a man who can be what a man thinks a woman wants I just wonder and I have to pause sometimes when I come to this part of the story—I have to wonder what he thought he looked like naked—not in the sense stripped down naked like how they do when they take you off to prison (Charlie knew the procedure that formality very well when he was taken into custody maybe he was even smiling that last time as the guards hurried him over to Franklin County) I’m not talking in a physical sense like when you’re stripped down and searched I just mean naked like how in the story it says their eyes were opened and I don’t know I take that to mean when you’re standing in front of somebody you love and they see you and you see them—I just wonder if he ever had that.  He might have had no faith in cause and effect but in my experience when you have that and a child follows, well, it gives ya a whole new insight into freedom, and evil is another world…  I see you looking at it.  I have myself when I’ve been in this room alone wondering what I’m going to say to people who come here wanting to know about Charlie Birger and this jail the things collected here that make you think of some sweeping grand era like you’ve seen in the movies like you can hear the crackle in some old jazz record as the time-stilted images of black and white flappers dance a jig in some cotton club bathtub gin speakeasy and the men in the cigarette smoke have their hair slicked back—the Roaring Twenties the Jazz Age—seems so far away but it’s right here in this room in these things collected from its past, and you can’t help it but say they too probably wanted the boy to get the girl that’s how they wanted it if you could walk a mile in their shoes.  Even when the feuding families don’t think so.  And that painting, well, if the stories are true it came from the Shady Rest—it survived the bombing and burning just like Charlie Birger survived.  But not his wife not his unborn child.  It’s a woman and a cat and I myself wondered if that was it if that was what Birger looked at and didn’t forget turning away—yes I’ve stared at it a good long time.  I wasn’t the one that was told but some say there’s even something underneath it.  That another painting lies beneath.
The letter was simple.  It was not hiding any subterfuge.  Not in the one Charlie wrote nor in the one Oliver wrote to Peggy.  It was the delivery that was different, and in one the content didn’t matter for in the other there was a gun.  At the end of one letter a mayor was dead a mayor of a small town west of Benton where Charlie would eventually hang—shot down by two gunmen under the purvey they were delivering a letter from the leader of the Shelton gang (apparently this mayor aiding and abetting members of Charlie’s rival)—the other letter a choice (at least it was left as a choice) written from the embittered hand of a sad ex-husband.  It was found by the son.  Oliver and Peggy’s son.  Long after Peggy was dead after Charlie was publicly executed years later left in the effects the paperwork stored in a box the son found after the father had died.  Strangely it began with a passage from the Bible a story from the Gospels an account taken from the book of Luke:

Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.  It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.  So watch yourselves.

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.  Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” 

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?  Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?  Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?  So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ”

…when a man thinks on a thing it is true that much goes through his head so much so that he may forget why he thought it why he spent so much time meditating on it and from this one can go freely onto the reasons this is so as I have gone into the reasons for this letter.  Or better yet—the emotions.  For I can say: who are you that this is so that your grief is so great against the impiety the injustice done towards you who are you O man that your life and what you’ve felt in it is so important?  I can say this, and at the same time I can say it to my enemy to the person who has injured me and be fooled.  For in this way my sins and the sins of the person who’s sinned against me are both small and puny while at the same time maintaining their significance.  The sin is as only important as the forgiver.  In it being forgiven.  And I may say:  How many times?  How long will I let you hurt me?  But so can the people who I have hurt and go on hurting because they have hurt me and so… where does this leave us?  There is temptation and there is trespass and yet how easy how simple how utterly delightful it is for us to steal another’s innocence their faith.  What joy we get in watching someone stumble.  This inevitably tied to our identity.  Because where you are is who you are.  I imagine for our ancestors in the garden we can blame it on the snake.  He tempted us to sin, but what I sometimes can’t understand is if we were truly without sin as innocent as they say how was it that we were tempted?  How did sin come into the world?  For if tempting someone is a sin where did this first temptation come from, and what were we tempted with?  It all comes down to a choice.  A temptation leads to a choice, and without that none of these questions would matter.  So I find myself circling.  For I can say: You caused me to stumble! And you can say:  Ha!  But you always had a choice…  And from this I don’t know where there is a beginning.  Where it all ends.  In my mind in my memories remembering hurt and injuries I see you the mother of my child and you sing to him you begin to hum not just one of your songs not one of many but a hymn which I can’t say is mine only belonging to me as if its message were my own mine alone but a hymn I took personally that had meaning for me a hymn I turned to in my tears when I needed to retreat to a place where there was peace where I was loved and you sang it to him to quell his tears in the heat of one of our arguments and in this my insignificant life my mind suddenly pierced by a thousand burning daggers I said to myself, cold:  I no longer believe…  And I was in hell.  And then I thought:  No for then it is about control and if it is true that when a man thinks on a thing he does it so for a time a season he may say to his mind—think on these things—and from there even forget that which caused it so he even accuses himself as he goes back one thought one memory at a time to find to remember that which caused him to think on the thing in the first place… the deductions go no further the inducements not as real and I look to this world to what maybe a painter sees to a picture to this frozen earth a winter that seemingly never ends and while my heart cries out:  When?  When will the sun warm me? That still small voice says:  No—you do have a choice.  Just as those that tempt you do.  And can you?  Can you innocently make another stumble?  Funny how in this passage forgiveness is tied to faith.  The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for, but you have to believe it.  You have to see beyond the glaring imperfections.  The disappointments.  The apathy.  And your choice creates the world…  I forgive you.  And in this my faith is born.  What makes me so unworthy is this is merely my duty.  And so what?  What am I tempting you with?  Sometimes the divide the chasm is too great—between the forgiving the forgiven…  I don’t know.  God only knows.


(dated: 23 December 1926)
And it was like a sea.  What’s buried there.  What’s uprooted and planted there.  His eyes (Oliver’s) and not Jack Dunby’s (which look bemused, pliant, protected by some safe place—eyes which say watch yourself) and with a croak by which he wished to summon up force Oliver whispers almost chokes:  I want in…
and he would have to wait.  Wait until spring.  The winds blew heavy on the shoreline, and only a remnant of the water was thawed.  Just enough though for his purposes.  Across the expanse above the rock formations the naked trees stood, which in a few months would bud and bloom.  Right now the land across Devil’s Kitchen looked like a gray wall—colorless, blended with the white-wash of the rock—the only green the rich moss which mottled the stones.  It would be May before the flowers.

and all of this all of this water—how does it freeze and thaw and what is lost in the process?  I hear the chop the gurgle the faint slap as if where I stand here is the indiscretion.  And what’s buried can’t come up.  What I see down in can’t look up and out.  For what is within can’t be without… Nothing changes except you grow older.  And the laughter in this is the beauty.  Don’t try I says.  Don’t try to love because then you’re just trying to be God.  That’s why you can’t understand it.  You just gotta believe…  See that’s what he didn’t get why he pitied himself that I was father to his child why he stood with the photographer and wasn’t even in that picture—Love makes you a free man.  Anything that gives you a sickening feeling of powerlessness ain’t a debt you can’t repay it’s a debt you should never have to pay a debt in fact never owed by you.  He was like a mouse is to a cat.  He thought he was indebted to a woman.  But really he just liked being caught in order to be set free.  Really he was just the foreplay before a meal…

he left himself enough rope.  Even without being weighted down the body would sink. It was wearing clothes in a frozen lake.  Like water like anything what’s lost in the process time.  But only a fool would want immediate gratification.  Only a fool would want the seed he has sown to present its fruit with no time in between.  So many subtle pleasures are lost this way…

and he says Oliver says I didn’t have a gun

before the rubble before the painting was moved and he had buried the body weighing it down that winter in the frozen thaw of Devil’s Kitchen my partner (or his partner or what was formerly his partner until he stole that car for which he didn’t want no reward or return guess he kinda liked being behind the wheel of that one) and not just him but his woman maybe she knew too much maybe she handled the accounts I don’t know but both bodies with bullets to the head and then rope and stone and the white placid flesh disappearing beneath the brown churn of driftwood some of it floating but most of it like fingers fragile ready to crack and crunch under the layer of ice suspended there just showing above the surface like some monster from down below had vomited it up and it lay suspended there the driftwood unable to sink back down beneath the cracked ice I watched I watched from up above the shoreline where the naked trees did not cease the buffet of the heavy winds

and I watched I watched as then too because I didn’t have a gun

I wasn’t in the picture because I couldn’t shoot and she sometimes laughed or was humiliated or both because one time I shot I shot every round in that clip aiming at empty cans and bottles resting on fence posts I fired til every round was gone and I didn’t hit a thing I missed every can every bottle and after the noise of the very last recoil there was just men’s laughter and her humiliation like my humiliation my expurgated virility when she waited and the desire was not there.  The desire was not no passion but I still taste her languid lips I smell her hair all spilled out underneath me the firmness of her naked thigh spread the soft valley between her breasts the stale sweat of her skin covered by the bedroom mist of her perfume and I see her face in the moonlight the wet down of hair above her lip as her tongue darts out that shade to her eyes a cast a demeanor which if there were words would say I am here all that I am this body this flesh and I give so that you may be in debt and in these eyes I know they say I give but I don’t know if you will be able to repay for how how do you take from nothing and come away saying This has been mine?

then the denial the disgust and when your body is gone from me the desire in all its hunger and I say in my aloneness in my need Has not all this happened before?

you could smell it you could smell the whiskey burning down the road and I wanted in because I was out and because I was out I could see I could see her in the picture.  She was in the window a shadow an outline in the light cruel it seems in its remembrance in its very appearance for she was looking out on the man she loved while I looked in loving her loving someone else and he was there standing with back arched in the windowsill—the cat.  And so I can hear him talk and what he said when she wasn’t there and what she said when he wasn’t there and what they said together when I could listen only imagining what I didn’t see what I didn’t hear and it’s like in that picture it still stands The Shady Rest stands the whiskey on the road the burning the smell that gas smell intoxicating to the nostrils outside on the outside where the road leads out the road in the sky the sky in the road going to some distant lake and she a part of it now she is the sky she is the road and somewhere sometime I will come to the point where the two meet but for now instead I’m left here standing in the remnants where the bomb exploded the black smoke rising to where she was and she was she was that now she was that smell…  Dunby said the hideout would be empty.  That Shelton’s men would clear it before the fuse was lit but after a series of explosions and the fire that ensued four bodies were found charred beyond recognition and one of them was a woman.  And I looked I searched the blackened remains but I didn’t find the bones of a cat.  Like the painting he was gone.  And the painter who took it.  As for the partnership what I wanted in on because of being out being out of that picture some man named Hancock took a photographer from Goreville Charlie sitting on a rocking chair atop an old Ford shotgun in his lap his men all around the car holding guns and she she and that cat an outline in the window that partnership ended a few days later Charlie even handing me the gun which at close range I couldn’t miss but I couldn’t do it and I watched from above the shoreline as the winds buffeted as the bodies sank and Charlie said Well at least you could keep the car if’n you can’t keep your woman and I said The child but Charlie wouldn’t hear none of that he had retribution to exact his eyes exacting in me what I had said that he could only imagine in what he didn’t see what he didn’t hear a dead woman a dead police officer and his wife well he knew that blood wouldn’t wash easily off my hands and he said something about the Time of the Preacher how a man can find truth by using his powers of observation his reason instead of following blindly what he’d been told how wisdom can be had and to focus that wisdom the world is figured out on your own he said it while I was holding the gun his eyes exacting staring intently not to where my gun was pointed but at what my eyes were looking at and I remember for a moment the sun came out from behind the clouds and the frozen lake became a thousand points of light and I could hear my own heart beating in between the slush and gurgle of the water slapping against the rocks and I wanted to say But I heard what she said when you were not there and like so many truths that go undiscovered unobserved if we only knew them if they knew us they could maybe help us figure out this world but I kept silent my fingers trembling and he took the gun his eyes never leaving me and in my own eyes tears now tears to the knowledge tears to that greatest pain the pain a man feels when he is awarded insight but is powerless to do anything about it

walk with me he says

and the son now five holds his father’s hand and they are in town walking the sidewalk after just eating You know your mother is dead he says and the boy nods squeezing his father’s hand it is warm and clammy despite the freezing temperatures the cold front coming in promising more rain maybe even snow 

Justice… that’s just a word.  You say it when you want something and you don’t know how to get it.  You want a happy ending though you’re not quite sure what happens when the story leaves off but you believe for every moment set right in all of infinite time it can’t compare nothing compares to that first footstep in Heaven—and like God you can say It is finished…

they found a Mr. Prince Albert can full of marijuana in the car in the glove compartment with a spare revolver Damn Hopheads Charlie says Shit alters your brain ain’t like drinkin’ and in the Harrisburg newspaper the next day police officer and his wife go missing but the Prince Albert can is found where they left it in the car in the glove compartment the revolver gone the car found on a back road in the woods just south of Vienna near Dixon Springs

just know there is a difference between how people see you from a distance and up close he says For when they say I know him it’s not the same as They knew him and this is what they said what they will say of your mother

am I going to remember her Poppa?

you will remember what they say and not what you knew you will know what I tell you some will say your mother was this and she will be that and others will say She did not love you, but Him and then her story will be lost in his and as you get older you will say to yourself I find this important I am important because of this and unless people tell you you are important because of it like something that dries in the sun it will shrivel up inside you and with enough time you will say with them It is not important but remember Remember this: This is the sum of a Man’s reputation

but I can still smell her

Hold it then hold it in your memory for even if you do this or that and other people say of you He did this or that what matters most is your Name is written in Heaven

and he thinks of it he thinks of the picture now how it is with the painting but without the painter how neither hold a memory of him in them and he says to his son We will not stay I can’t stay here all we have here is Dead and I call no man happy for happiness is a Goal

in his pocket two train tickets West

And good riddance Charlie Birger says The arrogant prick had his woman killed my woman by doin’ just what he was supposed to do because he said he wasn’t goin’ to do it—all that was left out Money…  

what was it he wanted?


No she didn’t get it but I made for damned sure he got it—returned, un-opened

she never did get that letter

I don’t know you get away with things long enough you begin to think it’s like you ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong then when you do get caught I guess it’s like being angry—you’re just plain mad.  Maybe because you think it’s already over.  Some folks see an ending when others don’t and I guess this is because some things don’t really end—we just act like they have.  Sometimes you just say enough is enough I will not hurt anymore and that terrible awful feeling where your heart starts beating fast and your mind takes that paranoid cue where you feel like something’s gone terribly wrong you’ve done something terribly wrong and everyone will know you will be exposed humiliated shamed that there are laws everyone else follow and you’ve violated them in some way done something unpardonable—you say enough This is the end and instead of fear you feel anger…  It’s a strange psychological process—when it happens.  The end of something.  The end of love.  The end of the innocence.  For really when you say It is finished you’re really saying you’re ready to begin something new.  You’re not afraid to begin something new…  And I don’t know maybe anger is that final straw that final fig leaf maybe wrath is the emancipation from fear where you say I will not go down without a fight I believe in life after love.  And you see the failures the weak ones and how cruelly they are treated.  The ones that say it’s not over that cannot see the end.  Maybe their minds cannot fathom it they are prisoners to their own fear and you see them every day you see other people ones like Charlie walking all over them.  For you are not kind to fear.  You can’t respect it.  You know such people will do anything submit to any shame and let themselves be taken advantage of simply because they don’t know how to end it.  They don’t know how to finally say to themselves that this thing is over.  They hope in circumstances.  They let other people’s choices and the consequences that follow determine their fate.  They do not change.  Only their surroundings do.  And so maybe that’s it what made Charlie different what allowed him to do things most of us would be afraid to do—he saw the end and instead of being afraid it made him angry.  I guess instead of seeing a lot of crosses he just saw a waste of wood…

would you care to move on?

you go on with the girls I’m going to stay for a minute he says staring at the painting

the old man giving the tour opens the door from the parlor and the woman and two girls enter the cellblock the actual interior of the jailhouse not in use now for some thirty years but the graffiti is still there the blackened engravings etched in the metal chipping away at the paint names and years all of it smelling metallic and of old concrete dank and moist the prisoners long gone some of the empty cells used for storage now and some still with the old cots the lined mattresses spilling straw rolled up revealing the sagging springs beneath and like an all-seeing eye the hole in the wall opened and closed with a sliding door so that those outside can see in can see all that is happening inside safely beyond the wall beyond the corridors of iron bars and yes he was here once Charlie Birger was here

you’s two married?

divorced I’m his ex-wife I’m here to drive him crazy

well you sure got two pretty little girls

Yes Delilah is seven Bell is four

well they’re well-behaved…  how come you’s two?

we had a house once maybe we’ll buy a house here again

oh you’re looking to purchase a home here in Marion?

there’s land and a house out near Devil’s Kitchen—twenty acres… he works at the VA

you gonna remarry and buy it?

Oh hell no… but I was hopin’ he would give it to me…

the old man doesn’t know whether to smile until he sees her eyes he looks back to where the man is still studying the painting

say Bud?  You ready to see the rest of it?

and I saw pain while the rest saw consequences you try and then you try again and so you think you’ll keep on trying but the other has stopped and instead of pity you’re faced with justice you’re faced with someone’s happy ending even if it only leads to your sadness but they do not say Why are you sad? because they do not care

a photographer from Goreville you say?


Hancock was his name?


my grandmother my mother’s mother—she was from Goreville—her maiden name was Hancock

she must have played with him played with him for hours that’s what you gotta do you gotta wear a cat out if’n you don’t want him prowlin’ at night—gotta give’m somethin’ to pounce on—a cat loves to pounce

and he looks underneath he looks beneath the painting behind it the old man following his children his ex-wife since they exited the parlor the rest of the Society a group that day of three men and two women on the other side of the hall across from the staircase sitting at the conference table in what’s been made the office and from the stacks and filing cabinets paperwork is still believed in—septuagenarians eating their left-over stews from Tupperware bowls—they cannot see him

and there it was

it was as the old man said beneath it was the Van Gogh underneath the painting of the woman and the cat both from the brush of an amateur but somehow fitting in this place in this parlor room to a Marion jailhouse with all its other collectables but it wasn’t what was underneath it was what was behind

he knew his master by who fed him…  and as to us?  if we could only imagine?  Forever worshipping You?

it is Man’s chief end what gives us our equality so many broken hearts so many broken souls our greatest fear being alone with no one to love us—but does this sound like it?  does this sound like worship?  No it’s frustration and restlessness—frustrated desire… we were afraid then we became angry… and worship?  Well, it has been relegated its place… to be coveted and defiled by the impure impulses of the artist

he took the tour.  What the hell else was he gonna do.  And it was it was like stepping into someone else’s life and living it for a while the fallacies to the argument the reasons for the defense none of this mattered for if you made it important it just made you weak they had leverage on you becoming the unrelenting pressure point that came boiling up every once in a while the fact that you knew very well what was going on how you too have stood outside looking in how we all play God to the things that matter very little to us how it gives us our distance and we say they are feeling it but I do not and when I do they will be the same as me they will judge and objectify my passions so when the old man returned them to the parlor the pictures the things from the past they suddenly seem so far away and he says

Easter is a moveable feast.  It ain’t fixed on any calendar and that year it came early after the full moon, but I think he was ready.  If you ask me and I go to church regularly one or two songs of praise and I’m about done I want to sit I want to meditate on something else what I’m going to eat what I owe who owes me and I think to myself—this is what we’re going to be doing forever?  Ya I guess you could say he was just ready because despite these facts of what to eat what I owe what is owed me despite the frustrated desires the restlessness even the things that I have done that I’m not proud of that could be seen as workings towards evil—they all have worship in it—it all worships God.  And so maybe that day when they hung him up in Benton after he shook the hand of his executioner he looked up at the sky and he saw the trees and the grass those first wildflowers which begin spring days and he said what we all say when still within ourselves we look out and surrender what is within and we say we have to say…  Yessir that God—He’s a mighty fine artist—you bet

and she says after:  what did you find?

it was just as he said my grandmother her father—he dabbled in photography—but who?  Who put it there?

you could see her too not just as in that painting the one over the Van Gogh if you looked closely if you were looking for it you could see her in the window an outline in the light and you could see him too—you could see that cat.  The picture was wedged under the frame in the upper left hand corner the original not one of the blown-up copies posted for tourists—The Shady Rest the picture of Charlie with his men.  Oliver had dated it beneath the signature under the careless cursive of the artist’s hand—the name of the photographer:

John Hancock

well just remember anything you put your name to I get 28% she says and if you find yourself in good with a woman I can ruin that too I can have you again but she was just excited about the seed she’d saved from the last quarter and one had budded it sat in her kitchen window opposite the wall where his gift from Texas hang—do you think it will grow?  she asks

Yes, it will grow… long as the cat don’t get it

so with the girls in between them they walk down the jailhouse steps and talk about the coming summer and where to plant it