A 60-year old man is sitting in a lawn chair. He is whittling a yard-long, cylindrical stick with a pocket knife.
This is Memphis, TN in 2005.
A few years ago before Cathy dumped me, I was down in a swamp in Mississippi. I popped this squirrel out on a long branch, and it dropped like a wet rag into a clump of honeysuckle and briars so thick it was like a wall. I got down on my hands and knees to push my way in and was squinting around trying to see that damn squirrel, and I saw a tiny hickory tree in the middle of it all.
The lumber companies had been slobbering and slobbering for any acre of trees they could get for years. My cousin resisted long as he could but finally let ‘em in. They ravaged the landscape, he pocketed some cash. In the aftermath, hardwoods would spring up, but vines grew all around them right away. I saw with this hickory those vines twisted around it up a bit on the narrow trunk. Made it start growing in a spiral.
So there I was on all fours, and I heard a voice in my head say, “Walking stick!” Not that I need one. I walk just fine, and I’m not old old. But I just saw a walking stick so clear in my mind, I ran back up to the camp for a hatchet. I fought and wrestled with those bushes for I don’t know how long.
Jimmy was sitting by the fire when I came back up, and he goes, “What the hell happened to you?” because I was drenched in sweat and covered in scratches.
“Squirrel fell in this patch of briars,” I said.
“Then where’s the squirrel?” he asked.
I’d been too busy chopping out that hickory to think about the squirrel.
Our camp was there by my great uncle’s old shack which was just a house for raccoons, spiders and snakes now. But I found some sandpaper in the drawer of an old chest and spent the rest of the weekend rubbing off the bark and stripping those vines out of the grooves of the spiral. Everybody was laughing at me because I did nothing but sit by the fire and work on that stick.
By the time we were all packing up to head back to our wives and the so-called real world, I had it stripped down pretty smooth. But I couldn’t leave it alone. Back home, I sat out in the backyard and sanded it bone white.
Then it was weird because I got depressed that I couldn’t sand it anymore. It was already smooth as marble. I kind of thought I should leave it that way. But suddenly I just felt like shit not having something like that to work on. I had never really had a hobby other than drinking.
Then one day I came home from work early to the empty house. This didn’t happen much, so I was half-expecting to hear the bed squeaking and walk in on Cathy fucking the mailman.
Funny to think about that now. Why would I give a shit? Not like we ever fucked much anymore. But I remember at the time unlocking the door I was already wondering if my shotgun was loaded. Shit. Just thinking about her cheating made me mad like she’d already done it. But I guess that’s how it is when you’re just hanging on, when that’s all marriage is for you. It’s all just about keeping accounts of who does what. And fucking the mailman would tip the scales. Not that there’s ever a right time to fuck the mailman.
But the house was dead quiet except for a distant beeping. I wandered all over looking for what was making the sound and finally found an alarm clock under my son’s pillow.
He had the same bunk bed we bought him when he was little. We tried to tell him he didn’t need a bunk bed since he didn’t have to share it with anybody, but he was set on it. It was cool to kick the ceiling. Over the ten years since then he migrated from the top down to the bottom. So I was just sitting there looking around at all of his shit – clothes everywhere, electronic crap that probably didn’t even work anymore, cigarettes he made no effort to hide whatsoever.
This old book from the museum was sticking out of his book case. When he was little, his class was going on a field trip to the museum. Cathy said I should go. What do you mean I should go? It’s a week day. I have to be at work. Then take a day off. You think I can just take a day off like that?
Boy, then the real guilt trip left the station. You’re missing EVERYTHING. You don’t throw the ball with him. You never get here before he goes to sleep. Not that I didn’t know all that, but I was working a lot of overtime to make enough money for us. Shit.
But I took a day off and went on the “Art of Africa” field trip. I felt like a fox in the hen house riding the school bus with his smoking-hot teacher and the other moms.
We walked around the museum where they had these squatty wooden statues that all looked like ET. You figured someone carved them with a sharp rock. There were pieces of cloth covered in zebras and giraffes.
We went to the park next to the museum and ate ham and biscuits Cathy sent us for lunch. Nice spring day with dogwood blooming. Then I watched him run around with all his school friends.
For a while after that day I managed to come home at his bed time and started telling him stories about zebras and giraffes and lions and elephants. Cathy would’ve disapproved of most of them because the elephant always wound up farting in someone’s face.
I don’t know why I stopped. I came home late a few times in a row and fell back into old routines. It’s a hell of a thing to realize you were a shitty father when there’s nothing you can do about it anymore. I couldn’t go back in time and throw the ball with a 6-year old Jackson. Still can’t. The past is a big iron gate.
I hardly ever saw Jackson anymore. He was a sophomore by then, and it was like having a ghost in the house – microwave door slamming at two in the morning.
While the kids were running around the park back on the day of that field trip, I went into the gift shop and bought the book full of the stuff we saw.
Sitting on the bunk bed, I pulled that old book out and thumbed through a few pages before I found these, I guess, staffs. Sticks a chief would hold. Or a high priest. A lot of them had shapes carved all over – zebras and squatty gods with lips that looked like how you’d draw a pussy on a bathroom wall. I knew right then sure enough what I wanted to do with my walking stick.
You know, I say I didn’t have any hobbies. But when I was young I did a lot of, I guess, art work. Drawing. Carving. Painting. Nothing too faggy like at the art school, but I was real into it. I had this fine set of chisels and shit. Before I made a single cut on that stick, I sharpened all of them so sharp you could cut a hair in half. I could shave with them.
As long as it wasn’t raining, and sometimes when it was, I was out under an oak tree in the backyard most of the weekend. I had my box of tools and an ice chest full of beer.
This guy Tippie tended the old lady’s yard next door. Tippie is a black guy a little older than me. Soon as I’d see him, I’d wave a beer can for him. He’d scowl back then disappear in the garden.
Mrs. Wolgemuth had a big garden like you’d have in the country squeezed into her backyard. She’s died since then, so I guess it’s gone now. Can’t imagine any of the white trash that moved in there would fuck with a garden. But Mrs. Wolgemuth had butterbeans and squash and peppers and everything. Okra. And every kind of flower blooming all over the rest of the yard. She had award-winning azaleas out front. All of this thanks to Tippie and his green thumb.
It never took Tippie long to cave and slip over to the chair I had for him. For a long time though he’d do this weird thing I couldn’t figure out. He’d sit for a minute and sip on his beer, then he’d skip back over behind the briar bushes and run the weed-whacker for a second then skip back to his chair.
Finally, I was like “What the hell, Tippie?”
Tippie goes, “Man, long as she hears me running that weed-whacker, she won’t catch on. Ain’t no more weeds to whack. I get done with it like that.”
I said, “So you mean to tell me, you’re hopping over there and running the weed-whacker just to make it sound like you ain’t sitting on your ass?”
“That’s right,” Tippie said.
So I said, “Tippie, bring that goddamn weed-whacker over here.”
He does. I got some duct tape and taped down the trigger on the weed-whacker. Then I got some big, thick extension cords and set everything up. Then I told Tippie to run the weed-whacker back over to Mrs. Wolgemuth’s yard.
When Tippie came back, I said in this high-pitched voice: “Lawsy, what’s that son of a bitch Tippie doing out there? I don’t hear no weed-whacker? Guess I’m paying that bastard to sit on his ass.”
Then I connected the extension cords and “buzzzzzzzz” that weed-whacker starts going on the other side of the sticker bushes.
Tippie sipped his beer and goes, “Man, you a lot smarter than I thought.”
Tippie was my technical advisor. I wasn’t gonna carve up my precious stick with any old shit. I wanted something epic like the Bible. I had already gotten a good start on Adam and Eve down toward the tip. But I couldn’t remember a damn thing from Sunday School when I was a kid. Tippie didn’t know fuck more than me, but he sure thought he did.
“You gotta put the Fay-ro up on his pyramid,” he said. “And Moses shouting up, ‘LET MY PEOPLE GO!’”
He knew I knew he was full of shit, but I started carving a pyramid anyway.
And then he had to go on about pyramids all afternoon.
“You know why they’s a pyramid on the dollar bill? The Shriners the ones started this country for real. Ben Franklin was a Shriner. Washton. Jeffson. All of ‘em Shriners.”
I was like, “Shriners?”
I said, “The Shriners are the guys with fez hats driving around on the mini-bikes. You just mean the Masons, right?”
He acted like I was splitting hairs in the worst way and rolled his eyes and said, “WhoEVER the fuck they was, the pyramid with the eye on top is a Shriner symbol. See the Shriners are like a bricklayers union. The idea’s if you get all your measurements right like on a pyramid, the eye of God opens up. But they mean, like, you the bricklaying Shriner become God, just ‘cause you stuck some bricks together good. That’s how Ben Franklin thought. They’s all Satan worshippers. That’s why this country so evil.”
All that talk of Shriners, I went ahead and put a fez on Pharoah.
It took me about a year to go through the whole Bible or Tippie’s whacked-out version of it. If you were from Mars you’d think the most important part was when David saw Bathsheba in her bathtub. Much as I didn’t know the Bible, I was pretty sure there was nothing in there about her having a big-ole fine ass.
Then it got too cold to sit outside, and there wasn’t anything for Tippie to do in Mrs. Wolgemuth’s yard anyway. Wasn’t a single leaf left to rake. So he wasn’t around, and I was on my own. Fortunately, I’d gotten to the New Testament by then, and I knew the Jesus story pretty well since that was most all they talked about at church ever.
I moved operations into the garage where I had me a badass space heater. One freezing cold day in January, I heard Tippie out of the blue shout, “Who the hell’s that, John the Baptist?”
He told me he was checking up on Mrs. Wolgemuth’s hot water heater, but I had this gut feeling he missed me. It hit me I missed him too. So I waved a beer at him, and he grabbed a chair and pulled up next to the heater.
“That a bug he’s eating?” Tippie asked. I had remembered something about how John the Baptist ate locusts. Sometime later on I heard the preacher say that they weren’t locusts like bugs but flowers or cactuses or some shit. But by then I’d long since carved him into my stick munching on a big fat bug that looked like a Twinkie with wings.
Tippie didn’t bat an eye. “That’s right,” he said, “Motherfucker ate locusts.”
I was starting to worry I was gonna run out of room on my stick. I skipped over all the miracles and walking on the water because I figured the crucifixion should be kind of a big deal.
By then I’d gotten up to the spiral part of the stick where the honeysuckle vines had wound around it.
Tippie goes, “Hey, you know, Jesus went to Hell for a few days after he died.”
“What’re you talking about?” I asked.
He said, “It ain’t like he was sent to Hell for being bad. He went down like a general or whatever. Let everyone out who was good now that He died for they sins.”
So I carved a bunch of devils with pitchforks dancing in flames with people burning all up through that spiral.
On the knob on the very top of the stick I carved Jesus’ face gazing up at you with a big smile.
“Yeah, man!” Tippie said. “He’s flying up to Heaven!”
It was springtime by then. Tippie and me were back out in the yard. The last coat of varnish had dried on the stick, and I was real carefully sanding off some specks of dust. But both of us were feeling bereft because I was basically done with it.
Good thing was along the way I’d found some other nice sticks down in the swamp and was starting to work on a few of them at the same time. You know, I was sort of getting in the swing of making sticks. But this Bible one was the first, and it felt like me and Tippie had come to the end of something.
It was afternoon turning into evening, and I just handed the stick to him.
“What?” he said.
“Take it,” I said.
“Like hell,” he said.
“Goddamn it,” I said.
“Alright,” he said and took it.
Not like he stopped coming over and drinking my beer while I worked on the other sticks though.
But then he stopped showing up. I was starting to wonder. Then I heard a few things.
Some ghetto punk asshole came up dead in a ditch. When I got bits and pieces of the gossip and read a few articles in the paper, I made a few guesses about what happened.
The Commercial Appeal said this ghetto punk got himself beaten to death by a blunt instrument. An unidentified blunt instrument. Something that left weird marks.
What had happened was this punk had raped Tippie’s daughter. Cornered her in a bedroom where everybody was hanging out or something. Tippie promptly beat the kid to death with my walking stick.
It was mostly a community justice type of thing because the kid was just a drug-dealing gangster. Or, I guess, you say “gangsta.” Everbody had been counting the days before he’d get shot in the head.
And you know how black people are with the cops. They all knew good and well Tippie did it, but wasn’t nobody gonna talk.
A long time went by then I get this call from the police station could I come down for a few simple questions. Oh, no, no, they say, nothing to worry about. They just need some help clarifying the facts on one of their active cases. I was wondering when it’d come back to me about that stick.
This black uniform cop led me down a hall and told me to wait outside this door. He poked his head in then shut the door and told me, “They be ready for you in just a second.”
So I sat there for a second then he asks, “You having an okay morning, sir?”
It was alright, I answered. Glad to get away from work for a while.
“Hope you ain’t in trouble with your boss.”
“Naw,” I said, “they think I’m at the dentist.”
I was wondering why he felt like he needed to stay there with me. He asked me what I did for work. I told him I was a dispatcher at UPS telling truckers where to dock and shit. I told him it sucked ass. Then he goes, “They’s some days I’d be happy to trade places. Yep. Some days you see what these drug-dealing punks do in they own neighborhoods. I just don’t know what to think. Sometimes I’m not sure what I’d do if I was left alone with a few of ‘em.”
“Sounds rough,” I said.
“You know what I’m saying?”
It hit me finally he was tipping me off about this interview.
“I think I do,” I answered.
Right then they opened up the door. They were all real chummy. Did I want some coffee or a Co-Cola? It was two guys. On this side of the table was one of those super-dignified types of black guys in a tweed jacket who sounded like James Earl Jones. The other guy was a Yankee in a three-piece.
My stick was right there on the table. I decided to save them some trouble and asked “Where the hell’d you find my stick?”
“So it IS your stick?” the Yankee sort of sputtered like he’d been hit by a bolt of lightning.
“Hell, yeah!” I said.
James Earl laughed and boomed, “Well, that’s about all we were trying to find out.”
“Well, well, I mean, well,” the Yankee sputtered some more, “Almost all.”
Would I mind sitting down? So I sit down. James Earl boomed over whatever the Yankee was about to say, “Let me tell you, I’m dying to ask you something.”
“Is this John the Baptist?”
“Why is he eating a Twinkie?”
We had a good laugh then I told him about the locust misunderstanding, and we had another good laugh. All the while the Yankee was drumming on the table with this wad of pencils.
I asked them how they found me. It wasn’t like I was some world-famous walking stick carver. The Yankee said it was a really “extraordinary” coincidence. His girlfriend made him go into this art gallery in Victorian Village. There was this stick with similar sort of carvings. It took me half a second, but I made the connection.
Next one of the sticks I carved I gave to my son. He told me it was “cool” but didn’t jump up and down or shout or anything. Then out of the blue he tells me that his art teacher wants to put it in a gallery she helps run. Folk art. Guess I’m a folk.
“How ‘bout that?” I said to the Yankee.
“How ‘bout that?” boomed James Earl.
“Well, can I take this one home?” I asked knowing damn well the answer was no.
“Mr. Taylor,” the Yankee gets real serious. “Can you tell us how did you lose possession of this stick?”
A teensy-tiny smirk twitched there in the corner of James Earl’s mouth. I looked back over at that Yankee and thought, “You stupid motherfucker. You dumbass. If you had asked me like WHY did I give my stick to Tippie, I wouldn’t have thought nothing. But, no, motherfucker, you been talking to so many folks down in the hood who’ve been stonewalling you, you just assume you’ve got to out fox me before I’ve given you a cause to think so. How did I lose possession of my stick? You KNOW how I lost my stick, but you need to figure out how to get me on the witness stand putting it into Tippie’s hands. You know what you just told me with that question? You are at the end of the line. If you are trying to fox me into saying something after probably ten people watched Tippie beat that kid, then you ain’t got nothing else. I’m your last hope. So you need to make damn sure you don’t fuck it up. Too bad you’re a jackass.”
What I actually answered was, “Someone stole it off a table in my garage.”
His knuckles went white around his pencils.
“So you didn’t give your stick to someone?”
I said, “Man, I spent two goddamn weeks on Bathsheba’s tits and you think I’d just give my stick away?”
Blam! There it went. He smashed that wad of pencils down on the table and goes, “Maybe you wanted to do something nice for a friend.”
What the hell are you talking about?
“Are you denying that you and Sylvester Johnson spent many an afternoon …”
“Sylvester Johnson. Known to his friends as Tippie.”
“Sylvester?” I said. “Sounds like a nigger name. And Tippie for sure is a nigger name.”
“Now Mr. Taylor, we’re just having a chat.” Yankee was doing a bad job of trying to calm down. “Let’s be honest with each other. I know Mr. Johnson is well-liked …”
“Listen!” I slammed my palm down on that table and rattled the stick. “Maybe up in Boston or New Fucking York y’all love your niggers so much you marry ‘em and make little half-nigger babies. But if you’re trying to suggest I’m giving happies to any old yard nigger who might cross my path, I need to straighten you out real fast!”
James Earl was just looking down at doodles he was making on a pad. Me and the Yankee locked eyes. We were both thinking the same exact thing: “You don’t want me in front of a jury.”
His grip loosened on those pencils, and he let them drop. That was it. Final defeat.
“Anything else I can do for you gentlemen?” I huffed. The Yankee just shook his head. James Earl walked me to the door and asked the uniform cop, “Does Mr. Taylor need transportation home?”
“I’m good,” I said.
“Much obliged for your time,” James Earl said and stuck out his giant hand. I gave it a good shake then he disappeared behind the door.
I don’t know how much later it was, I was cutting the grass when a police car pulled up. The same black uniform cop got out holding my stick. He strolled through the grass shavings toward me. I was worried he had finally heard about all of that nigger stuff and was gonna beat me to death with my own stick. But he just held it out and said, “Thought this should come back to you.”
“How’s Tippie?” I asked.
The cop answered: “He’s getting along.”
Then he asked me, “Whatchu doing mowing in the heat? I do it on toward evening.”
I said I was just crazy. He said, “you’d have to be” and laughed. Then he waded through the shavings back to his car and drove off.