"Year of the Possum" by Joey Poole
Year of the Possum is a Southern Gothic novel in which old secrets erupt in violence while a massive hurricane bears down on the South Carolina coast. Anyone interested in seeing more of the manuscript can contact the author at JRichardPoole@gmail.com or via Twitter @JRichardPoole.
Elgin Stogner sat on a plastic bench in some place he didn’t recognize. The afternoon was swimming back to him, but it was hard to hold, like dreams slipping out of his mind when the light woke him in the morning, the slimy eels of his memory squirming out of his grasp when he tried to grab them.
He’d been cutting the grass, he knew that much. But that didn’t make any sense—he hadn’t done his own yardwork in years. But he’d been cutting his grass, he was sure of it. It was hot, and the riding mower stopped running. After that it got fuzzy. He’d had to pee really bad, and he’d done it there in his yard because nothing made him happier than taking a leak outdoors. Then there were some assholes inexplicably driving right through the yard, and he’d shouted at them, flipped them a double bird. Then there was an ambulance, only it turned out that it wasn’t an ambulance, it was the cops, and they weren’t taking him to the hospital. They were taking him to jail. Him, Elgin Stogner, the goddamn mayor of Hammer Springs. Only he wasn’t the mayor anymore, was he? How long had it been since he’d been the mayor? And what kind of world was this when you couldn’t take a leak in your own yard?
He got up from the bench and went to a little window, where a woman sat, separated from the world by glass.
Excuse me Miss, he said. Or tried to say. No one could understand him anymore.
She looked up, seemed annoyed, then softened her face as if she were talking to a child, choosing her words carefully. Goddamn it pissed him off when people talked to him like he was a kid. But before she could speak, a tubby little cop who looked like he wasn’t even old enough to shave grabbed him by the elbow, too rough.
Done asked you to leave her alone, Sir, the cop said. Then he said something Elgin couldn’t quite understand to the woman. Why was everybody always mumbling, talking about him when he was right there in the room in front of them? This fucker was the same fucker that had hauled him in, he remembered now. He was just about to punch him in the nose for mumbling, for grabbing him the way he’d grabbed him, for being a smarmy little sawed-off shithead, when he saw whatshisface come in the front door.
Ed. His name was Ed. His only goddamned friend’s name was Ed. He said it out loud as Ed walked in and put his arm around Elgin’s shoulder and spoke to the cop, another something Elgin couldn’t understand, but it seemed like an apology. Just like Ed, he thought, to suck up to authority. Ed said something to the woman behind the glass, probably flirting in his goofy, neutered way, and Elgin was surprised to see that she smiled. Then they were walking out, Ed apologizing the whole way, saying something about how it wouldn’t happen again. Damn right it wouldn’t happen again because he was firing the whole lot of them, cleaning out the police department for bothering a man trying to take a leak on his own property instead of catching criminals robbing people’s houses for something to pawn for whatever it was they were smoking these days. Except he couldn’t fire anybody anymore, could he?
What could he do anymore?
Ed smiled a sad little smile and helped him buckle his seat belt. He was saying something that Elgin could only follow the gist of. The gist was this—Elgin had fucked up pretty bad, but everything was going to be okay and Ed still loved him.
Asshole, Elgin said. Immediately he hated he’d said it because Ed was a lot of things, but an asshole wasn’t one of them. But Ed just laughed, which made him an asshole again.
What was that all about? Elgin asked.
Ed began to explain, talking slowly so Elgin could understand. He was talking slow, but he wasn’t talking down, like the cop and the lady behind the glass had, like the doctors did, like everybody did since the accident. What he was saying didn’t make any sense, though. Something about him riding a lawn mower down the side of the highway and whipping his pecker out to pee on the side of road and nearly getting arrested for being a pervert.
The air conditioning in Ed’s truck was on high, and it reminded him of Lynda, who always kept it like a meat locker in the bedroom at night, the thermostat turned down so low they could’ve been sleeping in an igloo. Might as well have been, too, for how well that was working out. Except he didn’t have to worry about that anymore, did he? She’d left him years ago, not that he could blame her, really. The cold air was starting to make him feel better. He felt like he was coming up out of the deep water, the now world coming clear before his eyes, but still it seemed like everything real had been years ago.
Everything except his secrets. Secrets had no expiration date. They were always there like a razorblade in his pocket, and he had to carry them carefully, even now.
The town of Hammer Springs, South Carolina, was where most of Elgin Stogner’s secrets lived. Some of those secrets were just the kind that proliferate wherever there is money: shady real estate deals, questionable tax loopholes, a little election fraud during the campaign for his third mayoral term. Some of those secrets were people. Like Dee Weathers.
To understand this story, to understand Dee, you must know what you surely already know—that there are, of course, two separate Hammer Springs. The split used to be as simple, as clean, as absolute as those ridiculous aliens from Star Trek, white on one side, black on the other.
It’s not that simple anymore. More than a handful of black families live in the stately homes lining Sycamore Pines golf course, and you’ll find plenty of white folks in the trailer parks and federal assistance apartments crouched all around the outskirts of town. There are a little over a hundred white kids at mostly-black Hammer Springs High. Likewise, there are a few dozen black kids (not to mention a smattering of Pakistanis and Asians) at Stonewall Jackson Academy, the private school created exactly one year after Brown v. The Board of Education and still where most of the white folks (actually, most folks period who can afford it) send their children. Even the churches are not so starkly monochromatic as they’d once been. It’s no longer a split so much as a layered continuum, darker at the bottom and lightening as we move up the socio-economic ladder. But there are places around town where it still feels like two separate and wholly unequal halves.
If we’re exploring fully, there are actually three Hammer Springs, a Spanish-speaking one having bloomed between the cracks of the old order over the past few years. But everyone else remains more or less unaware of that one until they want tacos and margaritas or someone to pound nails into a roof in the blazing summer sun. So for this story, there are two Hammer Springs, and though race is still a factor in deciding where one fits on the spectrum spanning the gulf between them, it’s a distant second to money.
Dee was born with a foot in both of those Hammer Springs and now resides squarely in the middle. Her mother, who raised her pretty much all alone, came from a family who never had much money, and Dee is black—or, more accurately, a light brown just a half-shade darker than the one to which white women aspire in the spray-tan booth at her salon. But, what some people suspected and almost no one knew for sure was true: Elgin Stogner was her father.
She’d never met the man. She had seen him, of course, on many occasions—across the buffet at This Little Piggy BBQ, at the Catfish Festival in the fall, at Town Hall, where his mayoral office was just across the hall from the water department. A couple of times way back in high school, she even looked out from the pitcher’s mound and saw him in the bleachers at her softball games, where she’d been a consistent if not dominant arm for the Stonewall Jackson Lady Rebels.
Elgin had also bankrolled her entire life. Her mother, Charlene, had broken off the affair with him before she realized she was pregnant—Charlene was adamant about that when she finally told Dee the truth on her fifteenth birthday—but Elgin had never collected a dime of rent on their duplex apartment or the house they moved into when Dee was ten. Precisely one thousand dollars showed up in her mother’s bank account every Christmas, another five hundred or so when Dee’s birthday rolled around. Charlene, a seamstress who made a pretty decent little living on her own taking in alterations, used the money she saved on rent and Christmas to send Dee to Stonewall Jackson and set up a college fund, which grew to the point it paid for cosmetology school with enough left over to buy a new Mustang. Years later, when the time came for her to open her own salon, Dee had gone to town hall to pay the business license only to find that it had already been mysteriously paid.
She suspected, though, that it wasn’t Elgin who’d taken care of the fee, but his son Andrew, who’d recently started trying to be, in addition to her secret brother, her best friend. She hadn’t planned to go into work at Dee’s Cutz & More that Sunday morning. Andrew had summoned her there, promising mimosas to make it worth her while even though they both knew she wasn’t nearly as into day-drinking as he was. He hadn’t said what he wanted. She hoped it was just a haircut. But the text had been cryptic, and when she replied K, whats up? He’d only responded Its cool. Just don’t freak out followed by a string of emojis she interpreted to mean that it was something involving unexpected news that might just blow her mind. And champagne.
It hadn’t occurred to her that he might be bringing Elgin until she was halfway to the salon, and she nearly turned around and drove back home. Of course a part of her wanted to meet him, but it was probably too late for that now, him being the way he was after the wreck. She liked Andrew, but half the reason he was desperate to be close to her was to revel in his father’s fuck-ups, and she was beginning to think the dude was touched in the head, as her mom would say.
But it wasn’t Elgin he’d brought to meet her. It was apparently some vagrant. They made quite a pair, these two, and she nearly burst out laughing when she rounded the building and saw them standing at the back door. Andrew stood, tall and elegantly slim, dressed like he was headed to a fancy brunch, beside a man cut from a decidedly different cloth. This other man, Dee realized with a jolt of misbelief, must be Brandt, Andrew’s mythical out-of-town boyfriend he was always threatening to bring to Hammer Springs because, like his father, he had his own secrets, even if he wasn’t nearly as adept at keeping them buried. Brandt was not what she’d expected. He was dressed not as if he were going to brunch, but to some hippie music festival. Or to man the rides at a traveling carnival where you might catch hepatitis from the seat on the Tilt-a-Whirl.
But it wasn’t Brandt he’d brought to meet her, either. “Hey, Dee,” Andrew said cheerily before she even got out of the car. “This is Gilbert. He’s our baby brother, and we think he needs a trim.”
Lord, she thought, I’m done with this mess. Why can’t these people just leave me the hell alone?
But she opened the door and let them in, thinking as she flipped the lights on that one of Andrew’s mimosas might not be such a bad way to kick this day off after all.
“You gonna let me take that beard off, too?” She asked, looking at this man who allegedly shared a quarter of her DNA and trying not to be visibly repulsed at the thought of touching that beard.
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
“Damn, Andy,” Dee said, looking at her other half-brother. “I think he just ma’amed me.”
My mother told me about Elgin after the cancer spread to her bones. I’d called her on what must have been the last payphone in the world, because those things are long gone, but I swear that’s how I remember it. Maybe my phone had been stolen, maybe I just hadn’t paid the bill, I don’t know. There was a storm blowing in, and my memory of the conversation smells like asphalt steaming in the rain. “You sound like you're on more drugs than me," she said, which was saying something because she was on a drip by then, "so you need to write this down.”
“Okay, Mama,” I said, even though I was a grown-ass man and I’d called her Cindi for most of my life.
She was right about the drugs. I rarely did them anymore, not counting those the college kids who lived in the apartment underneath us shared, mostly shit I’d never heard of—South American extracts from ritual hallucinogenic cacti, some kind of chemical that was supposed to pry open my mind but really just made me pleasantly stupid, stuff like that. They’d given me that pill months before for driving them to the airport, where they were catching a plane to spend the summer in Colorado because that’s what kids with moneybags for parents do, apparently. My girlfriend, Dawn, whom I’d been with off and on for nearly a decade and had almost married twice, had left the night before for what I knew was the last time. I had no idea what that pill was, but I’d taken it either in celebration of my new freedom or to stanch the loneliness, I forget which. Whatever it was, it was no celebration. My skin was made of lead and my thoughts were humming so fast I could barely catch them with my words, and all I wanted was my mother even though I was nearly thirty-five years old and had not seen her in six months and I was terrified of her because I knew she was dying.
She was not in the mood to soothe me. She was in the mood to get things off her chest before it was too late, to exhale the secret buried in her heart before it became a stain on the part of her that was going wherever she was going. I tore a page from the phonebook and dutifully jotted down the address she gave me. Then I doodled a line of ants around it, waiting for her to tell me who lived there.
"His name is Elgin Stogner," she said. "He's your father.”
The ants began to march around the address but refused to move when I looked directly at them. Cindi began telling me about him, then broke into a prolonged coughing fit and a nurse came on the line to tell me I’d have to call back later. We’d gotten cut off before I could tell her that I loved her, before I could lie and tell her that I forgave her for not telling me sooner. Before I could ask her to wire me some money.
I felt cheated. She’d never told me about my dad, but had somehow led me to believe he was a traveler from out west, a lonely, rambling soul blowing through town, taking shelter for the night in her arms. It turned out that my notions of my father were lifted straight from the paperbacks she was always reading; I hadn’t been sired by some rugged, charming drifter, but by one of the countless interchangeable assholes amongst whom I’d grown up. I figured he was a paper mill stiff or a bricklayer—nothing against that stuff because I’ve laid enough brick to know I’m not very good at it, and we’d lived downwind from the paper mill long enough when I was a kid that the smell didn’t bother me. Worse yet, he was an insurance salesman, just some dickhead with a knack for poking waitresses.
Not long after I took the pill earlier that morning, I’d found an eviction notice I’d known was coming sooner or later tacked to the front door, so I left the payphone and went to the ATM to find out if I was finally truly homeless or not. I was. I over-drafted my bank account for $300, the most it would let me get out, and I spent half of it on a Greyhound ticket to Charleston. When I got bored staring out the bus window, I’d take out the address and stare at it. The ants were never in the same places, like they swarmed over the page when I wasn’t looking, only to freeze when I pulled the paper from my wallet.
The only thing I knew about Elgin was his name and that ant-infested address. I’d never even heard of Hammer Springs, South Carolina, even though I’d lived all over the swampier parts of that state with Cindi while I was growing up. Until I knocked on his door, I knew nothing about him except that he'd spent some time screwing my mom circa 1983. She’d filled in very few of the details before we got cut off on the phone. His work sent him to North Charleston several times a month, where they'd met. He was a little older than her. She'd been in love with him (Cindi was prone to falling in love) but she wasn’t stupid and knew he'd never leave his wife. He ended it on the phone, afraid his wife would find out about the affair. Cindi never saw him or heard from him again. Three weeks later she found out she was pregnant. She never told him about the baby, about me.
That’s all I knew. I never even googled the guy, never looked him up on Facebook, nothing.
I didn’t know that Elgin was loaded, that half the home and businesses owners around Hammer Springs owed rent to Stogner Realty.
I didn’t know he’d been the mayor for fifteen years, that the high school football stadium was named after him, that he had so much pull he could disrupt the peace with his dick hanging out and not get arrested.
I didn’t know that on his sixty-first birthday, only a year before I showed up, he’d rear-ended a log truck and nearly died. Or that the violence of the wreck had stirred up his brain, leaving him with a permanent twitch in his left arm, a slight downward droop to that side of his smile, his memory smashed to pieces he was always putting back together.
I didn’t know that he’d just run off another of the live-in nurses that his son, my newly minted half-brother, Andrew, kept hiring.
I didn’t know that Andrew was so haunted by the image of his grandmother slumped in a wheelchair, drooling on a baby doll in her nursing home, that he would do anything to keep his daddy out of one, even something so ill-advised as leaving me in charge of him.
I didn’t yet know what all that stuff about the sins of the father meant.
It’s funny how things work out.
Cindi was dead by the time I got to Charleston. I stuck around for her funeral, attended only by me, two of her ex-husbands, a couple of cousins, and a preacher lady assigned to her by the hospice. I wore a suit a size and a half too big for me that Buddy, one of the ex-husbands, the one who still loved her and had moved her back into his doublewide when she was dying, loaned me. I looked exactly like what I was: a piece of shit who didn’t even have a suit to wear to his mama’s funeral.
After the funeral, Buddy gave me an envelope containing $400 that Cindi had left me. I figured there’d been a little more and he pinched it, but I had no delusions that I wouldn’t have done the same, so I didn’t press him. I hit the road that same afternoon, figuring there was nothing for me anywhere in the world but especially not in Charleston, and that I might as well get a good look at the man who’d squirted me into existence and promptly ran away.
The closest I could get to Hammer Springs by bus was Orangeburg, where Cindi and I had briefly lived during my sixth-grade year with one of her boyfriends, the one she caught wearing her underwear, and the Uber from there out through the soybean fields and pine woods cost me nearly half of what I had left. The whole ride out there, I tried not to think about my mother lying under the ground in the blackest dark there ever was. I tried to tread the water of regret, tried not to think about how much of my life I’d spent hating her for all the piss-poor decisions she’d made and the way I’d been raised, always feeling like I was less important than whatever man or motley group of needy strangers she fell in with. I’d lived enough to have some empathy for her, to know that life for Cindi had been a tough row to hoe and she’d done the best she could. It was all a rotten mess, but if there’s one superpower I have, it’s the ability to stuff whatever bullshit I’m going through in my head down into my gullet and chew on it in silence, something she could never do. That’s what I tell myself anyway, and my life had turned out a lot like Cindi’s, the apple not falling far from the tree and all that.
I’d read about the probabilities of alternate universes, an infinite series of bizarro realities, and I fantasized about slipping into one of those through some rip in the fabric. In one of those universes I hadn’t been lucky enough to get kicked out of basic training, and I was already dead, blown to hamburger by a roadside bomb in Iraq. In one I’d come home as a war hero, and they’d pinned medals on me and I limped around, raising kids in a subdivision home, dreaming about killing myself every night. In one of those universes, I’d been there holding Cindi’s hand when she died. I liked to think that I—this particular quantum me sitting here in this particular quantum Uber—was just a facet of the real me. The real me was everything, the sum of all the experiences of the infinite possibilities of all my possible lives. Maybe that’s true, but there’s no way of knowing, so believing it makes about as much sense as Cindi making her life decisions on the whims of those little horoscope tubes they used to sell at the gas station. But it was a comforting notion, and I clung to it the way some cling to Jesus.
No matter which universe you’re in, Hammer Springs is in the middle of bumfuck nowhere. We drove for so long I began to think the driver was going to pull off in the woods and murder me, but at least he wasn’t a talker, at least not in this universe. When we finally got where we were going and he dropped me off, I was sure there’d been some sort of mistake. Perhaps the ant-ridden address I'd been carrying around in my wallet was a lie. I'd written it down wrong, or, more likely, the whole story about Elgin Stogner was just a morphine dream that Cindi had as she rotted away in the hospice. The whole prospect suddenly flooded me with terror. I'd been such a fool. Why hadn’t I shaved, or at least cleaned up a little? Why hadn’t I looked him up and just called him or something? But there was nowhere else to go and no money to get there if there was.
I walked up the winding concrete path and past the fountain to the front porch, wondering if it might more accurately be called a veranda. I'd seen houses like this in Charleston, starched, oak-shrouded mansions, but I'd never been inside of one, and neither had Cindi, unless she'd briefly taken a job cleaning one. I stood on the porch, straightening my beard, drawing up the courage to ring the bell, when the door flew open and a tiny, very animated lady charged past me. She slammed the door behind her, marched a few steps away, and ripped her white nurse’s smock off. "Y'all can have this muthafucker," she said, throwing the smock back at the house.
At the bottom of the steps, she stopped and seemed to see me for the first time. "You come to clean the pool or what?" she asked.
I nodded noncommittally.
"Well these people are crazy,” she said. “So I hope they paying you more than they paid me." She disappeared around the side of the house and then peeled away in a little red Toyota, shooting a bird out the driver's-side window and squealing the tires. It was quite an exit. Top two or three I’ve ever seen probably. I marveled at how exhilarating it must’ve been for her, being so present in that moment, saying exactly what she wanted for once. Then I began to see it as a sign that I’d come here to drop some soap opera bullshit on these people at an epically bad time. I should’ve seen it as an omen, a portent signaling that I’d slipped right through one of those rips in the fabric.
In another reality, I walked away. I probably hitchhiked into town and spent most of the money I had left on a Whopper with fries and a motel where there was likely hepatitis on the sheets. From there it splinters into several different scenarios, a few more budding branches on the infinite family tree of alternate-universe Gilbert Greens, depending on what I do next. In some of those, I end up standing on the side of the road begging for money with a cardboard sign, or, worse yet, I call Buddy and let him play stepdad by coming to my rescue.
In this one, though, I rang the doorbell.
Joey Poole is a writer from Florence, South Carolina. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Bull, Molotov Cocktail Lit Zine, McNeese Review, The Airgonaut, Malarkey Books' Derelict Vol. 1, and elsewhere. His short story collection I Have Always Been Here Before is due out from Cowboy Jamboree Press in early 2020. Follow him on Twitter @JRichardPoole or read his blog at JoeyPooleWrites.com.