But as always, since it's Wednesday, I have some fiction for you! Journalist and author, Richard Alley, is sharing an excerpt of his extended short story, Headwaters, with a section title "Hav-A-Tampa." Richard writes a regular humor column about parenting in The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal and was the grand prize in the 2010 Memphis Magazine Short Fiction Contest. In 2010, he was accepted into the Moss Workshop for Fiction at the University of Memphis with novelist Richard Bausch. You can see more from Richard at his website and his blog. Enjoy!
By Richard Alley
They drove all day, his father smoking one wood-tipped Hav-A-Tampa cigar after another from a box he kept on the floorboard, and drinking coffee from an old Thermos of chipped plastic. To this day, when Ben thinks of the man, it is the smell of tobacco and coffee mingled with the sweat of the road that he recalls. The air in the truck hadn’t worked, Ben wasn’t sure if it even had an air conditioner, he’d never known the vestigial vents to blow more than warmed-over engine air at him. They rode the whole way, from Illinois to Tennessee, listening to the farm report going in and out with the radio’s reception. The windows were down and Ben worked his hand up and down in the rush from the warm air; up and down, up and down, like a wave. By the time they made Memphis his right arm was a shade darker than his left.
At the cotton merchant’s warehouse on Front Street, they stood in a cavernous room while the inspectors studied his daddy’s cotton bales by the sunlight streaming in through floor to ceiling windows. Ben sidled off to one side to watch an old black man push a steel rod into stacked bales, mesmerized by the fuzz set free to float around in the shafts of light. Ben tried holding his breath as long as possible to keep from breathing in the minute fibers.
“He’s aerating ‘em,” a man with a push broom and toothpick in the corner of his mouth said. “Keeps ‘em from bursting into flame.”
Ben only looked up into his creased face and then back at the man with the rod.
“Whole place’d go up with fire.”
After a lot of talking and laughing, and one of the men covering the wood-planked floor around him with tobacco juice, they all went to an upstairs office where one of the inspectors gave Ben a Coca-Cola and helped him onto a windowsill as wide as a sofa to watch the river below. The men, including his dad, all signed papers and shook hands and then Ben and his father left.
“Let’s go to the Greek,” his daddy said as they walked along a sidewalk crowded with men in seersuckers and women discreetly patting their damp faces with stark white linens.
The restaurant was only slightly cooler than the city air, but smelled of pork frying and coffee brewing instead of horse piss and diesel. The place held row after row of red vinyl booths and Formica tables, and the two slid into a booth against a far wall where Ben could see all the action, could watch as the waitresses came and went from the kitchen or poured drinks at the soda fountain against the back wall. Customers entered and left, and the owner worked the register as though greeting family at the front counter.
There were four waitresses working and Ben was glad when the prettiest approached their table with two tall glasses of ice water beaded with condensation, some of which dripped onto his bare knee. He lunged for his glass, drinking down half of the water while his father looked over the menu.
When she came back to take their order, she brought a sweating silver pitcher to refill his glass. “Somebody was thirsty,” she said, flashing him a smile. “What can I get you gentlemen today?”
Without consulting Ben, his father ordered them each pot roast with mashed potatoes, corn and collared greens, a coffee for himself and another Coke for Ben. At home he never had more than one Coke in a day and he wondered if this was something he should keep from his mother. The waitress wrote the order on her pad, took the menus from the table and, before turning to leave, Ben caught her smile and wink at his father.
Ben had heard his daddy called “handsome” by ladies back home. He was tall and lean, the kind of muscular lean you get from eating three square meals a day and working hard in the fields from sun up to sun down. He was a deep nut color year-round and his forearms were strong and sinewy with pronounced veins protruding through the wiry, blonde hair, and rolling down to his fingers. His cheeks were hollow with high, angular bones and his hair, white ever since Ben could remember, and when not under the cover of his red IH cap, was swept back from his ample forehead.
The other waitresses smiled, too.
They ate their meal in silence and, afterward, the Greek’s mother brought Ben baklava. His father stood to stretch his legs and commiserate with the Greek’s elderly father, a half-blind ogre who kept watch over the hallway that led to both the lavatories and the kitchen. As their conversation wound down, his father took the elder man’s hand and squeezed it, patting him on the shoulder and then, Ben was surprised to see, cupped his cheek with a massive hand as though scooping up a kitten. The old man smiled and nodded, looking just to the left of his father’s face.
When they left and walked up the alley, Ben asked him what he and the man had talked about. “Being old,” he said.
The smell of the tobacco shop hit him in the face with the force of a feather pillow, all smoke, wood and age. The selling floor was long and narrow with dingy tile flooring and a ceiling that rose up thirty feet, towering over Ben so he had to tip back to see the nicotine stains there forming patterns on the plaster like clouds. His father spoke to the shop’s owner, a slight, bespectacled man with a straight-stemmed pipe jammed into his grin, who must have had twenty years on Ben’s father. His father leaned in to speak quietly and gesture over his shoulder back the way they’d just come. The proprietor peeked around his father as though he expected to find someone there, but only nodded and pointed to the back. Ben followed his father up a slender, creaking staircase to a loft that looked out over the whole of the store.
There were five men huddled around a table in the center of the room underneath a light illuminating the table’s felt; blue smoke, and little else, issued from the men. His father nodded hello to the players, they nodded back, and one opened a box to offer whatever was inside to him. He shook it off and pulled a Hav-A-Tampas from his shirt pocket, lighting it with the silver Zippo he’d had since the war.
As they’d come upstairs, his father had pointed him to a dimly lit corner with a few mismatched chairs and a small table. As his eyes adjusted to the light, Ben saw someone, a human form he’d missed before. He approached and sat across a checkerboard from a gangly black boy about his own age, with overalls and yellow eyeballs. Without speaking, the boy moved a checker piece one space towards Ben then looked back up into his face. Ben, feeling challenged, moved one of his own pieces. They played three games this way, without speaking. Ben won one, his adversary two. During the fourth game, Ben asked him what had happened to his daddy. There was only one black man sitting at the table and he had a leg bandaged from foot to mid-calf, his own overalls pant leg sliced to the knee. “My grand-daddy,” he said before jumping and capturing a piece.
He told Ben that his grandfather had been out fishing from his jon boat in the flooded fields of Arkansas, just across the river from Memphis, when a cottonmouth dropped from a tree into the boat. His grand-daddy pulled a shotgun and blasted the snake away, killing it, but also sinking the boat.
“He walked two miles through water to his waist for the highway, and on the way he was bit on the ankle by a copperhead,” the boy said.
Ben thought for a minute before letting out one shrill bark of a laugh followed by a snort. His new friend, the storyteller, laughed aloud at this and slapped his thigh again and again. The men at the table stopped their game and talk to turn toward the boys who fought to stop their laughter and resume their own game.
Later, through a haze of sleep and smoke, Ben watched as his father peeled bills from the stack he’d won and paid the owner of the store for a box of hand-rolled cigars and a handful of Hav-A-Tampas. The old man tried to give him change but he waved it away and called for Ben to follow. After making one stop for coffee before leaving town, with his daddy giddy on rye and a winning night of cards, they drove straight through the night to Illinois.
Though a silent man, his father talked and talked about farming and people he’d known and city life versus the farming life. He spoke of his own father, a man of stone from a place called Minis that Ben had never visited and wasn’t even sure still existed. His daddy talked with purpose, as though he had to; as though not to would cause him to burst into flame. It was the most he’d ever spoken to Ben at one time and Ben tried his best to stay awake for it, but a 10-year-old boy just doesn’t have the capacity for long-windedness that an adult has.
He must have kept at it all night because as they pulled into their long, rutted driveway and Ben awoke, he was still talking, not stopping until he cut the motor and sat staring at the farmhouse, a deep cigar-rattled sigh preceding silence and keeping time with the cooling of the truck’s ticking engine.