Authors: Donald Harington
By the Author
The Cherry Pit
Some Other Place. The Right Place
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks
Let Us Build Us a City
The Cockroaches of Stay More
The Choiring of the Trees
When Angels Rest
Thirteen Albatrosses (or, Falling off the Mountain)
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright ©1996 Donald Harington
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
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P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
For Larry Vonalt
All lies and fantasy, but true as God’s gospel.
—Vance Randolph on
The Architecture of the
Ozark Folklore, Volume
To him the men of Stay More are still gods.
—Martha Duffy on
Give a cock to Asclepius.
—Socrates, last words
ood of you to drop by again. Pull you up a chair, sit on your fist, and lean back on your thumb—but I see you’re already seated. Can you hear me? I may mispronounce a few words, and the way I pronounce others may strike you as mispronunciation. I’ve had all of my teeth taken out, not like the old codger who could boast, “I never had no trouble with my teeth. They just rotted out naturally.” What with my missing choppers and the stroke I had a while back, not to mention my chronic stammer, it’s a wonder I can still hear myself talk. Yes, I may misunderstand myself now and again. So don’t hesitate to ask me to try to repeat myself if you don’t catch it the first time. Now if you’ll be so kind as to reach down beneath my cot and feel around, you’ll find a near-full bottle of Chivas Regal, the last of a whole case of the stuff that Gershon Legman—you know the great bawdy bibliophile?—arranged to have sent to me last Christmas. Fetch it up here and we’ll have us a snort. I’m a badly backslid alcoholic, you know. But I can tell you, I don’t never consume more than a half a pint a day. I’m not one of these fellers who just can’t stop once he gets started. I was sorry I couldn’t offer you a shot or two when you came to visit me last, that winter I was in the
hospital—when was it? two years ago?—but the
people are really tight-assed and by the book, unlike these here rest homes where they look the other way or pretend the janitor’s broom didn’t mean to knock over your bottles a-cleaning under the bed. But that visit you paid me to the Veterans hospital, you must’ve already had a lot to drink, a whole bladderful: I haven’t forgot how you went outside on the hospital grounds and there in a snowbank took out your tool and urinated the letters V-A-N-C-E into the snow. I couldn’t see it, but a nurse told me about it; she told as how that hard January cold kept the snow on the ground for weeks more, and those letters stayed there, yellow on white! You know, there’s been some talk, probably just a joke, about the University is going to build me a monument and put up a statue in front of Old Main: a heap of white marble imitating a snowbank, with a bronze figure of me a-hunching over it with one hand aiming my tool. But back to that
visit, before you went out and pissed my name in the snow, you told me your dad had just passed on, and you said to me, “Vance, I’ve just lost my actual father, so you’d better get yourself well, because if I was to lose my spiritual father too, it would just finish me off.” And you recall what I said to that? All I could think of at the time to say to that, choked up as I was? All I could say was, “Bless you, my boy, I aint about to cash in, just yet.”
But I’ve thought a lot about that. Me, who never had a son, who never fathered a child, leastways not that I know of. There’s not much I can give you in return for those kind words. This here scotch won’t even repay you for that splendid review you wrote of
Pissing in the Snow
for the local underground paper. I won’t pretend that anything I could say, running on at the mouth the way I do, could scratch your back the way you’ve scratched mine. No. But I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’ve decided that one little thing I could do for you would be to confess to you that I’ve actually been to your Stay More myself, once, a long time ago, and I could tell you the story about it, if you’d care to hear it. Might be you could even make a novel out of it, for it concerns your Doc Swain, God rest his soul. I haven’t told anybody this, not even Herb Halpert, my diligent annotator, but Doc Swain is the model, or simply the source, for “Doc Holton,” who appears in so many of my folktale collections, particularly
Sticks in the Knapsack
The Devil’s Pretty Daughter,
to name just two. I reckon you know, though you hardly gave a clue in those novels of yours in which he briefly, all too briefly appears, that Doc Swain was quite the raconteur! He believed in the power of laughter to help the healing processes, and he rarely visited a patient—and I suppose you know, or ought to, that in those days he always went
the patients instead of having them come to him—he rarely visited a patient without telling a good joke or a real funny story, which helped many a nervous patient to relax and feel good enough to start getting well. Why, I myself was present once during a difficult childbirth, what they call a breech delivery I believe, when Doc Swain told the mother such a hilarious yarn that her shudders of laughter helped expel the baby! But I’m getting ahead of my story, which begins not with Doc Swain but with myself and how I happened to find myself in Stay More in the first place.
Mary Celestia hasn’t heard this story herself, have you, Mary? No, all these years she’s been obliged to hear me rambling on, sometimes just a-talking to myself, sometimes telling her stories, sometimes just arguing the damn fool things that show up on
or in the papers. She just sits there sweetly on her own cot, or lays on it, and she doesn’t interrupt me except when I’ve got my facts badly wrong, as occasionally I do. She’s blind now, you know, so I have to describe to her what’s showing up on the
or what the papers say, and I have to read her mail to her. Hers is not the blindness of Homer or Milton—though she could tell you some tales of her own—but of Tiresias, who accidentally gazed upon the naked beauty of wisdom and lost his eyes for it, but had the power of soothsaying in recompense. Oh yes, Mary Celestia could tell you everything that’s going to happen. She could even tell me, if I asked her, how much longer she and I will have to live in this miserable little room before we move on, or pass on, or whatever. Mary. Mary Celestia! Now listen, love, I’m a-fixin to tell a story to this clever novelist, and you aint never heard it afore yourself! It is a story about myself when I was about this gentleman’s age, about half of what I am now, long before you met me, but I’ve told you how I was one for drinking all the time in those days, and I wasn’t too happily married to Marie, my first wife, and used ever excuse I could think of to get away from her. This is the story of how I got away from her one summer and wandered around the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, looking for the wildest parts of the country where progress was still unknown and I might find and collect some rare old folkways and stories and superstitions and sayings that I hadn’t never heard before. This is the story of how I come to find myself in a lost, lost place called Stay More, which happens to be the name of the village that this gentleman has written so much about. But this is mainly the story of a strange, remarkable backcountry physician named Colvin Swain, and how he come to hide his heart from the world, but finally revealed it to me. I ought to have written this into a book myself, but now it’s too late for that. So, Mary, listen in, if you’ve a mind to, but some of it aint pretty, at all, and some of it may make you think I’m just sawing off a bunch of whoppers to see if I still know how to lie convincingly, but I swear, if there’s any lies in this story, I didn’t make ’em up myself.
Now son, maybe you should just shut that door. People are a-hollerin too goddamn loud out there. Don’t you hear ’em? No, I reckon you caint. Some old bat is screeching, as she constantly does, “MEDICINE! MEDICINE! MEDICINE!” It’s the only word she knows. And there’s this feller a-going, “It’s time! It’s time!” When me and Mary Celestia first moved in, I thought he was just trying to answer the old lady that it was time for their medicine, to quiet her down, but he doesn’t even know she’s there. Later I opined he was just complaining that his supper was late, or something, but I honestly don’t know what he thinks it’s time for. He makes such a racket, we can’t help but get to wishing it was time for him to pass away. And there’s this real old lady in her wheelchair, older’n me, and she’s always screaming, “Tell me another’n, Grampaw! Tell me another’n, Grampaw!” as if she was still six years old wanting a bedtime story. You’d think some of these people belong in the loony bin, not just a common old rest home. And there’s this real witch out there, I’m told she has Tourette’s syndrome, who’s uttering obscenities that would shame a sailor. I wish you could hear it. If you could hear it, you’d realize what I long ago did: the nastiest language loses all its power once it gets frequent. But the loudest mouth belongs to this old gent who keeps saying, again and again, “About that time, six white horses flew over.” Did you ever hear that expression? It’s what smart-alecky kids used to say if they didn’t believe something you’re saying. I met the old cuss once, when he wheeled his chair right into this room and looked me in the eye and said, “About that time, six white horses flew over,” and if I hadn’t already heard him hollering it a hundred times in the hall I would have thought he was making a personal accusation about my untruthfulness. I raised my cane over his head to get him to back off, and I said, “Yes, and all six of ’em bombed you with their turds.” He gave me a look like he’d actually been hit with a horse turd, and he got out.