A journal of narrative writing.
Like in a Western

They call this yellow dirt in the yard mustard, which in long summers gets bored into by thirsty wasps and hornets. Mink goes out in junior cowboy boots, knowing it is trouble to do this, but on Sunday mornings his daddy is indifferent.

The man is cutting wood for the stove in just-after-sunrise light.

“Farwood,” Ike Corprew gruffs, biceps-wipe to his eyes, which are salty red and runny. “Inside with it, boy.”

Much as Mink knows, his mama has always been dead. She never spoiled the boy, but treated him with ice cream, brushed the pale curls from his blue eyes. Nothing she can do for him from behind a headstone.

He takes a rusted hatchet to shed the kindling of its piney bark before he takes it inside. They work together wordlessly, a big and a little man, in sweat and yellow dust. Mink loads the stove and lights it, sits to the bare table and rubs cream on his daddy’s saddle to bring out the dark shine.

Ike darkens the tiny front doorway and lifts a wiggling stick.

“Snake,” he says. This means they have a new skin to add to boots or belt.

They breakfast on chunk toast, coffee, and some smoked ham which has almost gone bad. Ike pours rye whiskey into his coffee and stares off till his eyes relax. On a low plank bench by the back door the dying moccasin writhes, its pale belly undulating with waves of death. A purple smear of blood fills the grooves where Mink learned to carve his initials in white pine, and later – when his hand grew steadier with age – his mother’s short, plain name.

Ike’s eyes follow the boy’s to the toddler bench. The serpent’s head has stilled, only the tail moves.

“It can still bite,” Ike warns, rubbing a massive hand across his face like one who has just gotten out of bed. “Lop its head for us, boy.”

Mink, who is small for ten, squats at the bench and holds the knife over the snake’s lean throat. The blade, as Ike says, is sharp enough to cut a breathing hole in a coffin. He brings the blade down, severing head from body. The tail still flickers.

* * *

Mink sits atop a post by the chute, looking at a blue sunset above the packed bullring. Ike is wrapping a gloved fist with the powdered rope, sitting stiffly atop his bull, Red Devil. The boy tips his hat to a fat man sitting across the ring, about halfway up the bleachers. Mink is proud of his cowboy hat because it is not made of straw like the other kids wear.

“Gimme a second,” Ike growls, so close the boy can smell his daddy’s sour breath. But they don’t wait and Ike jolts into the ring, twisted, left arm bent upwards like a ballerina’s, Red Devil lurching, the soft clumps of dirt – the whole earth – vibrating.

The man across the way waves his big white hat in the air. Mink cups his hands to his mouth and hollers. Ike beats the limit and spills running already to the dirt, holding his hat on his head, his black leather vest flapping at his back.

“Hoooo!” Mink hollers.

The man across the way is whipping his hat through the air and laughing, laughing so hard it looks like his face is on fire.

* * *

Mink was one of the smallest boys on his pee-wee baseball team. A baggy jersey and his hat brim rolled into an upside-down U, he was teased as much for his puny size as he was for the fact his daddy couldn’t keep the uniform white enough.

“Your daddy wash you in whiskey, too?” they would sneer. “Cause he washes your clothes in it. Don’t he? Or beer. Is it beer, tadpole?”

Mink would ball up his fists, lay them on his knees, and look off to the treetops beyond the fence, or settle his eyes on the motionless flag in center field.

On this evening, a beefy-faced pitcher gives Mink a twisting punch to the ribs after the game. He wanders out of the dugout crying, muffled, mostly with his eyes. Ike sits on the tailgate of his truck, sucking at a beer and watching a few of the younger ladies.

“Hey, boy,” Ike growls. “Why tears?”

As Mink sputters, the man grows where he sits. He calmly puts the can in the bed and bangs closed the tailgate. He wipes his hands on his dirty jeans and passes his trophy cowboy hat to Mink with instructions to get no snot on it whatsoever. Then he sizes up the crowd of men and boys who are climbing into other trucks and cars.

Ike rolls his fists like when he is mounting a bull and walks to the man who has tolerated his son becoming a bully.

* * *

Mink sees his daddy on the Sundays before Ike goes in front of the judge and gets two years on the state farm. They had him charged with attempted murder but brought it down to felony assault and battery.

They locked up the house and sent Mink to stay with his Aunt Shay. It was worse than ever. Ike said it would be the same as living with the devil himself.

“Keep one eye open at night,” he warns as they load him, in shackles, onto a rusted bus with men peering wanly or with anger from dusty windows.

Aunt Shay is not a big woman, but she has the arms and shoulders of a man. Short blonde hair. No eyebrows. A snarl always to her cracked lips.

“You eat too much,” she tells Mink early on. “You ought to work for meals.”

He says he has been working ever since the beginning. He says he doesn’t mind working around, whether he has to or not.

“You’ll have to,” Shay leers, holding what looks to be a fat dead cat in the crook of her muscled arm. “And then some.”

Her beaten clapboard sits high off the swampy lot. It is almost fully encircled by short pines. There is always a cat stuck in some limbs, mewling.

“Your mama was purty,” Shay tells him one gray afternoon after the bus has dropped him off from school. “I was never anything to look at. So I took to fighting and drinking. Fucking.”

Mink is watching a cat awaken from its nap in the corner of the bent porch. The cat acts as if it is being born, as if consciousness is new, startling, and dull.

“Go wash your face and ass.” Shay spits on the dirt and the cat looks over. “I cain’t work with no man who stinks.”

“Yes,” he says. “But I’m still just a boy, Aunt Shay.”

“Not for long,” she says, rolling a cigarette between her browned, stubby fingers.

* * *

Ike writes one letter a week. Usually it tells Mink all that is happening in the bunkhouse and the yards. It is clear from the handwriting that somebody is taking dictation from his father. Neat and curvy, like a teacher or social worker.