Gumby in the Glades (from Florida Palms, a novel in progress) Gumby’s canoe divided the green and golden blades under a heaven split at the hem, one side bruised a deep, unrepentant purple, where a large amorphous cloud fell off a cliff of its own creation and swept the eastern sky with rain; to his left, the glades swayed eerily beneath a flawless blue. Reaching dry land among the hammocks, he docked and heaved a backpack to his shoulder, trudging awkwardly through the opaque waters and small islands alone and into the wildness. For two days he trudged the unforgiving mush and gelatinous banks of the lower basin. By the third he reached an uninterrupted slab of solid earth and by the fourth picked up the trail of a male—a dark scrape mound consisting of soiled pine needles and black dirt covering a heap of scat, smooth and free of hair or bone, indicating a recent snack on rabbit or raccoon entrails. When the animal fed weekly on the larger white-tailed deer or feral spanish boar the shit came long and thick. Gumby prodded the heap with a knife, crouching close as he chewed hard bits of jerked alligator tail. He sniffed the soil, sinking his hands into the mud beside the wide-lobed tracks, undulating his back to emulate the stealth of a creature perusing the land as a king among the commons. It was the panther’s presence of mind he wished to inhabit, the feline regard and disquieting patience that gave it superiority over its prey. Gumby toddled this way on all fours for a quarter mile before he lost the tracks to water and found them again heading northwest a mile down an opposing bank, where he set up night’s camp. Without a dog he hunted one of the last hundred of its species, to strip from the panther its golden pelt for a black market value that remained undocumented but which insinuated heavy bids. He had ventured into the Everglades for other animals before but had yet to claim a panther, as had anyone, reportedly, since endangerment regulations began protecting the animal under law. Befitting a personal belief that hunter and prey must stand on equal terms, Gumby brought only his knives and a blowgun for its magnificent claws and fangs and little food so that they hunted conjointly. Keeping without a fire he opened his sole can of tuna and spread crackers on his bag as the night came alive around him. In sleep he dreamt of nothing. In consciousness he stripped the land to an empty plane barren of all but two creatures under a godless heaven. Dusk the fifth day brought the cat’s first tortured scream tearing through the humid dusk and Gumby woke the following morning to tracks circling the camp and claw-grooves scratched into the phalangeal trunk of a cyprus. There were even signs of the panther lying down. Gumby bowed against the base of the tree and wept into his shirt. It was clear the animal was just curious. By noon he had thrown all but one of his precious knives into the marshes and began to starve himself. For Gumby was beyond all other aspects of his nature a true lover of animals, and in the past had even threatened children who took to menacing creatures at the local zoo. Perhaps the most telling example came when another biker, a Hun from Connecticut, brought a living possum into a bar in Del Rio, Texas. He hung the creature by its tail from a wire of Christmas lights behind the counter while his friends hurled nuts and pizza crust at the possum until they grew bored and started throwing darts. Entering upon the scene Gumby immediately grabbed a towel and covered the beast, which was scared and hissing furiously, and shuttled it out the exit. A week later they found the Hun hanging from an overpass, both of his kneecaps gouged out by a claw hammer and one eye sliced through. But still alive. Come morning of the sixth day, Gumby stripped the bedraggled shirt from his back now empurpled with insect welts and padded himself in claymud to both protect himself from the hoarding mosquitoes and to mask his flourishing scent. By the seventh day, furious for being unable to undo one life wherein this span a god had created all, he stripped bare to his sex, crazy with pain. He rubbed thoroughwort and fleabane over his infected legs, unsure if they held any medicinal properties but hoping for the best. Failure drove him to the relentless pursuit of boar tracks, which would have had to serve as the cat’s replacement—exactly how his previous hunt had ended. Yet Gumby soon discovered with the boar’s gruesome disembowelment in a pine thatch that he’d unwittingly stumbled upon the panther’s trail again. The kill was but a day old and there were more tracks and more shit. He was relieved to be free of having to confront a boar, as they were ferocious creatures, equipped with sharp, chipped tusks. Once on a hunting trip he was forced to attend as a child he’d witness such a beast use its snoutgear to crucify a dog to a tree. Hacking away the boar’s ribs, he built a small fire in the earth and smoked the meat. Aware the smell might attract his prey, and that the animals often return to large kills, he used a lowslung twist of branches nearby as his sleeping post. He’d just finished scraping the meat onto a platter of leaves by the fire when the second scream echoed through the bluing woods like the spirit warning of a damned child. Gumby quickly grabbed his backpack and scurried up to his perch, clenching the scalding meat in his jaws, knowing the animal would only scale a tree if cornered. He carefully loaded the blowgun and pulled out his hunting knife, tossing the backpack toward the fire pit. He ate slowly, tenderizing the ribs with saliva, his mind a cradle of nerves. As he finished each rib he chucked the bone over to the pack. The time was near approaching. The sky grew overcast. It was cool and the damp wind littered salt on his tongue. Closing his eyes gave Gumby all the landscape he needed—the slight wind a kind of sonar, wrapping itself around fronds and roots, riding fast in the low places, funneling out pathways he couldn’t have seen. Here he employed the talent his grandmother used, a veterinarian blind from rubella, when wishing to view her rock garden whenever it rained, describing space as sound scraped from shapes. Gumby let the frustration and anger of her death at the hands of a burglar surface in him and immediately suppressed it, so that a coolness invaded every aspect of his logic. The wind swept under his genitals as he shriveled slothlike into a hug, gripping the bark. The camp smelled of smoke and he visualized the cooking pit, a hole brimming with ash and fire. A hole is the name given for the lack of something. It is not a thing but an absence. Gumby had to find the holes within himself. This is why he came—to will the empty parts of himself into existence. Though he honored the land’s fauna with his sympathies and respect, he lived in a human world and believed its reign in the hierarchy supreme. To kill a man he would need to sacrifice what he loved beyond all else, which would in turn deliver upon him the blind ambition necessary for the action. The first drops of estuarial rain fell sharply on his naked back, and he clenched his muscles to avoid reacting. A hole is no thing, he thought, beginning the ritual with a mantra of bastardized scripture he’d memorized and repeated many times before. It is not a loss, but an opening to what already is. It is the dead music of inner emptiness. An image of the pit jumped before his mind’s eye, and he continued. It feeds on whatever you clear for it. It loves not. It wants not. It is the necessary and hollow heart of God. Gumby remained locked in his position of meditation until the smell of woodsmoke brought him back. He did not open his eyes as he listened to the rain drumming the fronds, battering the earth with spoon-shaped impressions. He let it all pulse through him, winnowing out the hollows. He heard something, the prolonged giving way of a palm frond before rustling back in place. He drew the blowgun pipe under his chin and held the large blade flush against his thigh, balancing his ass on the limb. When he opened his eyes the panther was there and larger than he’d imagined. Slunk down with its tail raised and bent slightly, its beatific golden face broad and darkly embroidered, ears perked. Gumby knew that one shot was all he’d earned in this life. The rain fell harder and suddenly the panther began trotting towards him, taking refuge under the shadowy dominion of the very tree he crouched in. Taught muscles roped under its skin as if on pulleys; the claws would gut him as the teeth caught his throat, prying out his esophagus, emptying the aorta. Its gaze settled on a patch of sawcabbage and he understood it would head there next. He raised the pipe, took the breath into his rattling lungs, and set his tongue. Imagined himself as always spitting a watermelon seed through a straw. The dart sent a twitch like electricity through the lion. Hopping sideways on stiff legs, its fright gave way to a roar. After circling a little it began purring. Gumby hadn’t expected that, the purring, and the crushing shame of hearing it emptied his heart. When the panther stepped toward the brush its back legs suddenly wobbled and collapsed. Gumby could have let it die without the sight of him, but all things he felt deserved a face to their demise—the image of an armed man or the oncoming truck or an enlarged picture of rapidly dividing cells. He surged with the emptiness within himself and leapt naked and howling from the tree. After washing his red and puffy face he lay in bed, wearing only the extra jeans he kept stored in his motorcycle’s saddlebags. Glass shards of a destroyed motel mirror lay about him. The long cuts on both arms were still bleeding, acts of self-mutilation, a kind of vengeance he imagined pacified the spirit of the sacrifice. The emptiness Gumby felt flowered and wilted in turn. He struggled with reclaiming it but it was a harsh guilt and he cherished its departures. He knew it would come again when needed. Headlights flashed in the curtains, and he waited for a knock at the door, the cold bite of handcuffs. This was a game played. Though he knew they never caught you until you no longer wanted to be caught. He woke to the phone ringing, unaware that he’d been dozing. His eyes lit upon the panther’s pelt spread out over wax paper on the adjacent bed, drying. It smelled horrible, coupled with the burning incense. He pushed up and went over to the bathroom and made sure the ventilator was on. Then he returned and sat on the bed, taking the phone from its cradle. “Gumby.” “Yep.” It was Bird. “Did you get what you were after?” “Yep.” “Good. Any luck with the cat?” “Mh-hm.” “Ho my god, you serious?” asked Bird. “You’re the best there is, brother. Jesus. The big catch. Must be some kind of big price out there to be paid for it, no doubt.” His venomous self-hatred threatened to overtake him but Gumby mashed it down violently. “Guess so.” “I’ll miss having you around, brother. There’s no price on good security, that’s for sure. How you feel?” “Don’t.” “Eh? Don’t what?” Gumby stayed silent. “Well then. He’s still out there and nobody’s heard anything. So I’ll just ask you…can you get it done?” “I can find him whenever.” “Alright, but I’m asking if you can do it. All of it.” Gumby picked a shard of glass from his navel and pushed it under a fingernail. In his mind he saw the pit smoking, the animal blinking in the rain. “Yes.”
Archive for the ‘Florida Palms’ Category:
Death of a Seizer (from Florida Palms, a novel in progress) Seizer was shaving again. At first light he walked naked into his bathroom, flipped the switch, got the hot water running in the sink. Pulled a towel over his waist and located the leather bag in the cabinet, retrieving the white bowl and badger-hair brush that reminded him of a hometown apothecary’s mortar and pestle. He took his time with the lather. Liked shaving. Shaved as if the world were emptied of its triviality by the practice of this ritual. And always before showering; liked to feel the water pressure on his raw face. Finding the grain and stubble with his fingers, he stretched the old roosterflab taut. Remembered when he first ran away as a kid to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, living among the retired mafia, old men skipping pawns at the café tables. The little bathroom he had then, the shower piping hot until the room clouded over and the mirror disappeared. The elegance of talc and suds. The simple strokes of a precise tool edging off the body’s excess. Imagined his grandfather crossing the ocean from a small harbor village, packing along with the leather casing this very same bone-handled straight razor, whittled from a hart’s thigh. How in a cabin at ship’s bottom, endlessly rocking, eager to seek prominence in a new world, he was perhaps afraid—but not, and Seizer was sure of this, while shaving. Of the many benefits of steam, there is a calming assurance married to a sense of replenishment, dripping sweat. The ashen skin the first line of defense for the internals, so he cared for it, kneaded it, memorized its faults and ravines, the moles delicately raised for trimming. If he’d had a son, this is what he would have passed on. Could have with Duke or Lisbon, but he was away and when he returned they’d already taught themselves. Something the world considered a trifling matter, an everyday occurrence. But this is how a man ages, unmasked daily by this essential ceremony. Whole groups like the hasidim in Williamsburg announced themselves by their denouncement of the thing. Shaving. The amish from Lancaster and the Amana Colonies and hillbillies sprinkled along the Blue Ridge. The articulated styles of the arabs and egyptians, the mongolians and muslims. The hippies. The goatees of american fifties radicals, couched in subversion. Castro’s Cuba, all fish and music and cigars and the poor. Bearded. And to strip that away, this hair—a look considered by some the trademark of finance, gain, power, cleanly shorn with a tie knotted cleanly at the neck, the image of capitalistic venture, of the conservative mind. An ideal. But that was not it, he thought, tapping the porcelain’s edge, wiping the blade on a towel. Not it. Not my ideal. Not political, not a matter of scruff or anti-scruff, as some would have it. But a process of the spirit. The reclamation of Self, confronted by one’s own image in an empty room. This is what a son would have understood. It was a way to reappraise fate. The flesh you had been dealt, the life you’d chosen. It teaches a soul to be silent, to listen, to take one’s time. They would have stood side by side, the boy on a stool ladder, staring into the mirror together. They would begin with patterns, inching away the lather with a toothbrush, moving later to a butterknife, and finally the razor. Then one day the boy would ask him to leave, citing privacy, and he’d wait outside the bathroom door, calling out every few seconds, walking him through the motions, hoping he didn’t slit his throat. How it always started at the base of the earlobes, the water bleating. A dense fog growing in your chest where a kind of pride incubated. The mustachioed mexicans and policemen. The wispy artistic lines of the japanese. The sideburns of bikers. We make unto ourselves, ourselves. Facing all futures and pasts alone in the watery heat to regain some incommunicable peace with this and many other realities, this was shaving. But Seizer was not alone. Gumby watched through a slit in the door ajar, not admiring the technique but focused rather on the exquisite bone-handled blade now raised slightly beneath a hopping adams apple. Gumby knew what he was interrupting, the heat and dense beauty of the light. But it was the object that pulled him—the craftsmanship of the razor was astonishing. Bone white with whittled, brown channels, overlaid by a thin lacquer. How it swiveled neatly on a short pin. His special intimacy with knives and his desire to own the most exceptional examples were perhaps a decrepit form of the obsessive longing Seizer felt for a blood heir, to have a hand in determining what persons or objects accounted for your place in the world. Knives, blades, shivs—edges, which are the geometry of death. All matter exists to be fashioned and refashioned; all things fall away under the cutlass of some horizon. Slowly he let the door creep open, stilling his breath as he entered. As Seizer raised the blade to his throat, Gumby pounced, yanking him back by the arm, the razor flung red into the porcelain sink. But the room was too small and Gumby’s force too great. Entangled in each other’s lack of balance they romped, waltzing almost, overturning a shelf of hygiene products on their way to the floor where they locked together and wrestled like Darwin’s beetles. Gumby kept behind, shifting his weight to secure his leg’s grip under the ribcage, one arm around Seizer’s neck and the other beating his bald scalp with the blunt end of his hunting knife. It was over in less than a minute. Seizer lay motionless on the tiles. Gumby unfurled himself and scooted into the hallway where Cueball stood rigid by the door, palms flat against the wall. “Goddamn that old cat had some moves,” huffed Gumby, out of breath. He lay flat on the floor, staring up. “Did you see how meaty thick his neck was? I had no idea. I had absolutely no grip on him.” Rubbed his leg. “Whew. I cramped up. Goddamn.” Cueball inched forward, his fingers not leaving their position on the wall, and peeked in to get a better look at the bloodied naked man lying spread-eagle on the floor. “Is he dead?” “No he aint dead. Not yet at least.” Gumby dug the hunting knife in the floor and spun to his knees, favoring a leg as he stood. He rewrapped his rattail behind his head and dropped it down his shirt. Limped over and patted Cueball shoulder, handing over the blade dangling between two fingers. “Well, I guess that about wraps up my end. It feels weird to be the guy helping out. I don’t know what to do with my hands,” he said, smiling as he balled and unballed his fists. “Now get in here and help me lift him in the tub. Then he’s all yours.” “I don’t think I can do it.” “You can do it,” said Gumby. “Just remember what we talked about. Ferret out that hole. Meditate on your sacrifice.” During the three weeks of rushed apprenticeship Cueball learned a great deal about knives and close-quarter melees but nothing prepared him for this moment now and the actual execution of his instruction. It was like learning to drive stick and then being plopped down on the track of the Indy 500. They’d sat in Gumby’s kitchen going over diagrams, eating sparingly, training when they weren’t sleeping. Gumby had no TV and all his books were weapons catalogues and outdoors survival guides and wildlife magazines. Cueball submitted without much outward reluctance to all the drills and memorization of combat techniques. First of all, there’s no such thing as a knife fight—there’s the person doing the cutting and the one getting cut; you’ll have to think on your feet; you’ll only get a few strikes in before they want to wrestle; thrust up through the lungs stops the screaming; tuck the bade under your forearm like this, so you slash when you punch and on the ground you can dig back into their stomachs. They slept in hammocks and cooked rice and pork in a pan over gas. Gumby disappeared and returned at night without warning, carrying off boxes of dart frogs, tanks of snakes, cages of alligators—cleaning house for his hiatus, and keeping Cueball’s nerves permanently on-call. They discussed the blowgun once to dismiss it—Cueball would be the son of blade and bullet, as each man must find his particular style of weaponry to suit his nature. But blade to begin with, as Gumby demanded his protégé’s first hit be carried out eye-to-eye and messy, so it registered. By far the strangest thing required of Cueball though was this ‘sacrifice’ Gumby insisted upon, based on a questionable assertion which held that by killing something you loved, of cosmic lesser value than yourself, before killing something you didn’t love, of equal or greater value, you might somehow salvage your humanity. But Cueball went with it, thought about what he loved, which sadly wasn’t much, and finally suggested his collection of Garbage Pail Kids, a series of grotesque and humorous stickers culled from a decade’s worth of bubble gum packs. His idea was to burn one for each hit, or use them as a calling card of sorts. The novelty of it made him smile. Gumby responded by slamming him into a wall. “Show a little fucking respect! You think I’m some kind of psychopath? You think I just do this?” He unclenched his nails from Cueball’s neck and paced the linoleum. “If I’m the psycho, what the fuck does that make you?” he asked. Cueball couldn’t guess, and that satisfied Gumby enough to change his tone. “These people we hunt, they’re not good people,” he said. “Killing is like feeding. And if you’re not careful these people will poison you with regret, which they don’t deserve. You’ve got to feel nothing doing it. For those of us not born touched that means emptying out your spirit and replacing it for a little while with something else. Now tell me…what can you kill over and over again, even if it’s only in your head. And it’s gotta be something important, and it’s gotta be something you’re responsibility for.” Cueball didn’t even have to think. Little Julio was already there beside him. From that point on, things became easier and harder. Gumby stood over the body of Seizer, flicking himself near the nipples as he watched the steady but shallow breath-beat. “Get him under the feet.” Cueball scooted around the doorjamb and stepped lightly over the body. He caught a glimpse of the bloody razor in the sink, noticed the fresh wound leaking from Seizer’s jawline. Gumby found a towel and twisted it into a snake and wove the snake between Seizer’s armpits for handles. Cueball pulled the shower curtains back on the lion’s claw tub and together counting they hoisted laboriously the slumberous boss into the basin like a dolphin caught in the nets. “Big old son of a bitch,” said Gumby, clapping his hands together. “Okay then. Grab the knife. I’ll wait for you outside.” “What you mean outside?” “You want me to wait in the hallway?” “But you said we were doing this together!” “Well, we are. I mean, I’m complicit,” said Gumby. “I don’t have any blinders on. I’m helping you kill this man. But I won’t be around for the others, and it’s important you do this part yourself.” Sensing Cueball’s continued reluctance, he said, “Here, hand me the shortblade. And just remember, people die all the time. Think of our boys in Afghanistan popping the brains out the back of the Taliban. Pick your target and strike.” Cueball fished around the sink and produced the razor. Gumby took it and sat at the edge of the tub. He poked the soft flesh of Seizer’s chest and stomach, reiterating the internal damage to be caused by striking various body points. Cueball found it hard not to watch Seizer’s eyes for movement, the blood from his cracked dome issuing down in rivulets. He turned the hunting knife over in his hands. “Pay attention. He aint waking up. Probably already brain damaged.” “I am. I’m just going back over things we talked about.” “Good. Keep it fresh. You been practicing with that rubber knife? Good. Did you get that punching bag, fill it with sand? Okay, so you’re ready. So let’s do it.” “I’m not sure about this,” Cueball said, staring at the blotchy skin and purple cheeks, the hirsute sprays of hair. “A knife just seems awful. Like you said, I gotta find what I’m comfortable with. And I think I’d just rather shoot him, if I have to.” He looked down the hallway. “I got mine in the car.” Gumby didn’t know what to say. Just whipped his hair loose, staring away. The absolute nerve of this kid. “Fine. You wanna be a pathetic little shoot-em-from-behind killer, with no honor to it, no code, well you go on ahead. This shit’ll eat you alive, but fuck it, right?” “Wait don’t leave.” “No, you wanna go your own way? That’s just fine by—” Seizer came alive, catching Gumby’s arm. Pulling himself up he swung bearishly without aim, flailing and catching his side on the tub’s edge. Gumby tried grappling with him but Seizer rolled over and forced Gumby into a headlock, wrestling until they both fell sprawling from the tub and rammed into Cueball, spilling the hunting knife from his hands. On the floor Cueball kicked furiously at anything close. The yelling stopped abruptly, replaced by a groan and fits of wheezing. He turned to find Seizer lying not three feet away, watching him, gulping air like a land-stranded fish, the hunting knife pinched between his ribs as the blood came gushing, liquefying his socks. Seizer’s eyes rolled back as Gumby kicked him in the head until the labored breathing cinched in his throat. Then Gumby went to the sink and swiftly fell to one knee. He opened a slit across Seizer’s neck with the razor and the boss gargled the last bit of himself onto the white tiled floor. Cueball’s arms went rubbery and shook as he pitched forward and retched beside a small radiator. Before he knew what was happening he was being dragged from the bathroom by the shirt collar and rolled onto his side. Straddling him from behind, Gumby blew on the back of his neck. “Deep breaths, partner,” he huffed. “Let it go now. Let it go.” Cueball couldn’t imagine ever describing this to anyone. He felt like a rising balloon whose insides had suddenly crystallized and left him plummeting. Gumby slipped off to look him square in the face. “You’re famous bud. You did it. I told you. Let it take you where you’re going.” Cueball tried to concentrate on his breathing, which came from his mouth now that his sinuses were clogged with vomit. “You’ve come out the other side, brother. I knew you could do it. Your pop said pick the craziest motherfucker I know and I told him: that boy—he’s a live wire. He beat a man twice his size. I’ve worked around enough poison to smell it.” “I can’t breathe.” “Take it easy. Feel your stomach move. Feel the air in there. You feel it? You’re a dust ball on the wall, you’re so light.” Cueball imagined himself a dust ball on a wall. “Believe it or not, you’re handling this better than I did the first time. Just know this: you don’t have to fear anything ever again. Never again, little buddy. I’m so proud of you. Seriously, I couldn’t be more proud.” Cueball wanted to say he didn’t do it. That the knife fell from his hands and spun on the handle as if attempting to locate some true north, and that Seizer had simply fallen on it. But he could say nothing, slipping into the numbness. What just happened was either fate or magic. He welcomed unconsciousness. Gumby smiled, unveiling the vampiric tooth as his hard hand smoothed the pallid sweaty face of Cueball as if comforting a child with a fever, his voice gone quiet and soothing as a lullaby: You did it, boy. You did it. My boy. Do you know what you’ve gained here, son? Do you know what you now possess? You’ve gained the multitude. This is you born again. Yessir. The whole world’s yours to lean on.