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Last Words of the Holy Ghost
2015 Winner, Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction
By Matt Cashion
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2015 Matt Cashion
All rights reserved.
The Girl Who Drowned at School That Time
Reverend Baker opened the meeting with a prayer. When he finished, everyone said amen and looked toward John Hampton, who took a moment to express the school board's collective grief. Hampton assured the crowd that the teacher who had failed to account for Dotty Kirkland had been suspended, pending an investigation. He then introduced the board's first order of business: to devise a strategy that would prevent other children from drowning in the school pond. Cecil Goodbread suggested the pond be drained and filled with dirt. Hampton turned Goodbread's suggestion into a motion that was seconded by Reverend Baker and approved unanimously with the sound of aye.
A man in a Bulldogs cap stood in the middle of the room and asked what they planned to do with all the fish, and if they didn't have any objections, could he go ahead and catch them. A man in a Gators cap asked why that man should be entitled to all the fish. Voices rose around the room. Hampton banged his gavel and asked for order. Goodbread declared that because the fish resided in a pond located on school grounds, the fish were considered school property and anyone caught poaching would be subject to criminal charges of trespassing. Someone claimed that Cecil just wanted the fish for himself. Cecil denied the charge. He said, "I've already got a freezer full of fish."
John Hampton said the issue currently residing on the table seemed to be a question of how to dispose fairly and equitably of the fish. Reverend Baker said, "Fry them." A fish-fry, he said, could be used as a revenue generator toward the purchase of new blocking dummies for the high school football team. Roosevelt Powell said what about new band uniforms? Alice Davenport wanted new landscaping. John Hampton said Robert's Rules of Order specified the need to vote on one motion before proceeding to the next. He said the board should hold off on deciding how to spend the revenue until they knew how much revenue the fish-fry raised, if in fact the fish-fry was something someone was going to make a motion toward.
In the form of a new motion, Rev. Baker proposed that a fish-fry be held as a revenue-generating method to dispose fairly of the fish. Cecil Goodbread seconded the motion and it was approved unanimously with the sound of aye. Hampton suggested the first Saturday in June so it could also serve as a function to celebrate another year of good work. He said he was sure Ms. Haven would be happy to organize the day's events. Then he moved to old business.
I never agreed to organize the fish-fry. I was sitting behind John Hampton, recording minutes, and even though I objected strongly, I did not record my objection. I saw a version of myself rise from my seat and walk from the room and down the hall and out of the building into my car and drive as far away from Dunbar Creek as I could get — away from the heat and the cruelty and the mosquitoes and the ignorance and all the good old boys whose network I helped maintain. But it was just a version of myself, and I was still very much there, weighed down by all the history in the room.
When the meeting adjourned, I typed up the minutes so John Hampton could see a copy first thing in the morning. He liked to review the language and suggest revisions.
In addition to being the minute-taker at school-board meetings, I was the Chief Administrative Assistant to the principal of Dunbar Creek Elementary School. Captain Manning, the principal, called me his secretary, because that's what he'd called Hattie Flowers, the woman who worked for forty years at the same desk I took over eight months ago. He'd hired me three minutes into my first interview without asking a single question. He ate a doughnut and sucked his fingers. A stuffed bass hung on his wall beneath a plastic fish that sang "Take Me to the River," when he pressed a button. My first job was to install new batteries.
"You can call me Captain," he said during my interview. "That's my first name and not a nickname, after my great-great-great-grandfather who served as an officer under Stonewall Jackson. He named his son Captain, and he named his son Captain, and so on, until my father named me Captain. That's him, there." He pointed to a photograph of a man holding a musket.
"I see the resemblance," I said.
"That's the Manning jaw line." He looked at the picture again and smiled. "I named my son after him too."
I scheduled his tee times and made excuses for his absences. I officiated squabbles between teachers fighting over parking spaces and copy machines. Mr. Manning told me to write upbeat affirmations on bright poster paper and hang the posters in the halls. For example: "Attitudes are contagious. Is yours worth catching?" Every day I thought of quitting, and every day I failed to quit.
The children called me Jo. They brought me candy in the mornings and asked how I was doing. The children and the candy were what got me through the days. I had my favorites. Dorothy Kirkland had been one of them. She was a strange and beautiful child with long red hair and hazel eyes, and I never saw her speak to anyone but me. She asked me once if I could come live with her, and when I laughed, she started to cry, so I said we'd be best friends instead.
I had other favorites. Christie Skelton was a shy and sickly third grader who stood outside my door before first bell, seeming to ask permission, and I'd wave her in. Sometimes she handed me a brush and turned her back to me. While I worked through her knotted hair, she told me about her family. Her sister had been killed by a twelve-year-old hunter who mistook her for a deer because she and her boyfriend, both naked, had been rolling next to some bushes at the edge of a field. Christie's father was in prison for nearly beating to death the father of the boy who'd killed his daughter. Her mother worked graveyard at the slaughterhouse, drank beer while Christie ate her cereal. Christie's grandmother lived with them too, but she never left her bed. Sometimes, Christie asked me questions.
"Jo?" she'd say.
"How come you can't be my teacher instead of Mr. Cowen?"
I told her because I didn't have my certificate and therefore wasn't qualified.
She assured me that I was.
"Do you think I'm pretty?"
I assured her that she was.
During the first week of May, John Hampton called to ask how the fish-fry planning was coming along. I confessed that I hadn't started.
He said, "Ms. Haven — the secret to this project is delegation." Then he dictated how I should delegate. "You need to find someone who has access to water pumps and who will oversee the draining of the pond to about knee-level, then you'll need to find a group of men to walk a long seine net across the pond to herd the fish toward another group of men who will scoop them out with bare hands and nets and toss them to another group of men who will club them dead and toss them to the scalers and skinners and gutters, who will scale and skin and gut and give them to the cooks, who will roll them in flour and corn meal and drop them into gas-heated deep fryers where, once fried, they can be removed and placed in pairs inside styrofoam containers containing coleslaw and grits and hushpuppies that can then be sold for $6.95, including tea."
He asked if there were questions, though his voice told me there shouldn't be. I stared out the window toward the road and dreamed again of leaving.
My parents were waiting for me to marry, have children, dig deeper roots into Dunbar Creek. I'd come home from the state college the year before owing twenty thousand dollars in student loans. I hadn't wanted to go home. If I went home, I feared I'd get stuck, maybe married, and never leave again. I nearly went to Vietnam to teach English, and I would have, except my asshole father said if I went there not to come back, which would've been fine, except I didn't want my mother to suffer him alone. I was her only daughter. I thought she needed me.
My parents met at the chicken plant. My father's job was to rip the guts from chickens and pass the chickens to my mother, who washed them clean. They came home in bloody white coats, and throughout my early youth I pretended they were doctors. The smells sank into the carpet and drifted down the hall and covered me like an extra blanket on my bed. I tried to work at the slaughterhouse the last summer I was home from college, but I vomited every day, and my supervisor said, "We simply can't have this. You're causing unsanitary conditions."
My father asked me once a week if I was dating anyone, and once a week I told him no. When my mother held other women's grandchildren, looks of longing wet her eyes, and she looked at me so I'd be sure to notice.
All the men of Dunbar Creek, like their fathers, would die in Dunbar Creek. I was interested in none of them. I wanted to meet someone I could leave with. But no one was leaving, so I refused every invitation, even though it'd been a full year since I'd been touched. A full year since a college boyfriend left for Vietnam.
Ray, the school exterminator, was the only man I talked to regularly. He asked me out every week for eight months, and for eight months I told him no. He kept coming up with new reasons why we should get together. He said he should spray my duplex for insects. Then he wanted to show me his new truck, and then his new double-wide, and finally, his mother. He blasted through my door every Monday morning, impersonating Fats Domino: Hello Josephine. How do you do? Do you remember me baby, like I remember you?
He wore a green apron and a denim cap, and he kept the wallet in his back pocket fastened to his belt by a drooping chain. Ray knew nothing of the world, but he was the kindest man around. He never said any mean-spirited thing about anyone, and if someone tried to engage him in gossip, he simply shook it off. He never made one single reference, even with his eyes, that I was a little heavier than most. He was about ten years older than me, and already had some wrinkles around his eyes that made him seem wise. And when he sang his silly song, goose bumps danced up my thighs. He sprayed a lot more insecticide than he needed to, so he'd have more time to talk. He talked all the time. He even talked to me of roaches.
He'd say, "Josephine, the North American Cockroach will be the last living organism on Earth."
And I'd say, "You've told me that before, Ray."
And he'd say, "It's because their immune system continues to evolve."
Then he'd turn toward a corner and spray his insecticides, singing softly the same old song: You used to live over yonder, by the railroad tracks. When it rained you couldn't walk. I used to tote you on my back.
The children trusted me. Calvin Jones, a first grader, came to my office one April morning, holding both hands behind his back. He walked around my desk, saying he wanted to practice the show and tell he was supposed to perform later in the day, and when he got close enough he dropped a large hunting knife in my lap. I picked up the knife, put it in my purse and put the purse beneath my desk. Calvin put his hands on his hips and stuck out his bottom lip.
He said, "I'm telling."
"You'll get in trouble, Calvin. Captain Manning will have you sent away."
He said, "Captain Manning's a dickhead."
"Where did you get a big knife like that?"
"It's the knife my Daddy stabbed my Mama with."
"When did this happen?"
"About a few years ago."
"Is your Mama okay?"
"Where's your Daddy?"
"Who do you live with?"
"My aunt. And my cousins."
"What's your aunt do?"
I would have hugged Calvin right then, except we had a no-hugging policy at Dunbar Creek. This is what Captain Manning told me after he saw me hugging Christie Skelton one morning before school. She had come to me, saying some older boys had been touching her in the back of the bus. She was biting her bottom lip, staring at the carpet in a daze, holding her Charlie Brown lunch box with just her pinky finger. I'd only just put my arms around her when Captain Manning came through his door and summoned me to his office to tell me about the no-hugging rule, enacted by our school board attorney, who said such contact could be misconstrued as sexual harassment and thereby posed litigation risks. He recommended this after Burton Lewis, a P.E. teacher, had been accused of hugging too many of his students.
I told Captain Manning what Christie had told me about the boys on the bus. He said we had no business intervening. Government intervened in too many lives as it was, he said. The cheeks on his fat face turned red. His fat red cheeks had begun to shake.
During the final week of the school year, Ray put a penny on my desk and asked what I was thinking. He sat in the chair beside my desk and removed his hat.
He said, "You looking plumb pitiful, Josephine. Tell Uncle Ray what's got you down."
I told him I'd made no progress organizing the fish-fry and that I had no desire to start, though advertisements were already in the paper and flyers were posted all over town.
Ray said, "I'm sorry. I know you and that girl was close." He waited to see if I wanted to keep talking, but I didn't want to just then.
He slapped my desk. He said, "Tell you what. If it's okay with you, I'll make a few calls and get the whole thing taken care of. All you have to do is come to my place so I can fix you dinner."
What would one dinner hurt? I was relieved.
On the last day of the school year, Lou Duncan brought a dead squirrel to school in his lunch box and showed it to Christie, who came running to my office. I tried to get her to tell me what was wrong, but she wouldn't speak. She slumped in the chair beside my desk and stared at the floor. Becky Whittaker came into the office a little later and explained that Lou Duncan had been in the cafeteria playing "trade my lunch for your lunch" and he couldn't get any takers except for Christie, the last girl he tried, who only had an apple, which Becky had given her from her own lunch, and then Lou slid his lunch box in front of Christie and made her open it and there was this dead squirrel inside whose head was smashed and bloody and his eyes were still open and his two front teeth were hanging out over his bottom lip. I left Christie in my office and went to the cafeteria to find Lou Duncan. He was at a table with a group of boys who had the dead squirrel stretched out on the table in front of them, poking it between its hind legs with a plastic fork. I grabbed the squirrel by its tail and threw it in an outside trashcan, and little Lou Duncan followed me, saying there were plenty more where that came from.
Then Alex Hernandez and Franklin Harris got into a fist-fight in the cafeteria, which proceeded down the hall and onto the playground. They were sent to the office and waited beside my desk for Captain Manning, holding towels I'd given them for their bloody faces. I asked them why they fought so much and Alex said he hated niggers and Franklin said he hated spics, and then they stood up and went at it again. I got between them and pushed them apart. Captain Manning opened his door, invited them in, gave them doughnuts from his desk.
That afternoon, Terrell Becker, a second grade teacher, was caught taping his students to their desks so they wouldn't wander around the room while he was talking. Captain Manning told him not to do that anymore, it could be misconstrued. About that time, Harold Owen, one of Becker's students, was standing in the middle of the hall, blowing up a condom like it was a balloon. I said, "Harold, why are you blowing up that condom like it's a balloon?"
Harold said, "What's a condom?"
In the last hour of the day, Christie Skelton came to me, complaining that her head was hot. I made her lie across three chairs, then put a damp cloth on her forehead and fed her aspirin. When Captain Manning came out of his office, he frowned at her and patted her head. Christie looked at him with eyes that called him a phony bastard, and I loved her for it.
I took her home that afternoon because she didn't want to ride the bus and she said her mother would be sleeping. She lived in a trailer park of dirt yards where dogs were chained to concrete steps and shirtless boys walked in packs, carrying pieces of stripped bamboo they'd carved into makeshift spears.
"That's mine," she said. She pointed to a green trailer in a shady back corner. A Pinto was in front of it, burnt deep brown from fire, windows blown, tires flattened. I asked Christie what happened to it.
"My mama's new boyfriend set it on fire so she couldn't go nowhere."
Excerpted from Last Words of the Holy Ghost by Matt Cashion. Copyright © 2015 Matt Cashion. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Girl Who Drowned at School That Time,
Last Words of the Holy Ghost,
A Serious Question,
Chuck Langford Jr., Depressed Auctioneer, Takes Action,
Nothing Ruins a Good Story Like an Eyewitness,
Clarissa Drives John-Boy to the Jacksonville Airport,
Any Idiot Can Feel Pain,
What to Do When Your Spouse Is Burning,
The Funeral Starts at Two,