Read The Roy Stories Online

Authors: Barry Gifford

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The Roy Stories

 

 

The Roy Stories

 

BARRY GIFFORD

 

Seven Stories Press

New York

 

Copyright © 2000, 2007, 2010, and 2013 by Barry Gifford.

A Seven Stories Press First Edition

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Seven Stories Press
140 Watts Street
New York, NY 10013
sevenstories.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gifford, Barry, 1946-

[Short stories. Selections]

The Roy stories / Barry Gifford. -- A Seven Stories Press First edition.

pages cm

ISBN 978-1-60980-497-8

I. Title.

PS3557.I283R69 2013

813'.54--dc23

2013012765

College professors and middle and high school teachers may order free examination copies of Seven Stories Press titles. To order, visit sevenstories.com/textbook or send a fax on school letterhead to (212) 226-1411.

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Acknowledgments

A number of these stories have appeared in the following magazines, newspapers, books or anthologies:

A Boy's Novel
(Santa Barbara),
A Good Man to Know
(Livingston, Montana),
Amerarcana
(San Francisco),
Another Magazine
(London),
Arizona Republic
(Phoenix),
Brick
(Toronto),
Bridge
(Chicago),
The Chicagoist
(Chicago),
City Lights Review
(San Francisco),
Confabulario
(Mexico City),
Dazed and Confused
(London),
El Angel de la Reforma
(Mexico City),
El País
, (Madrid),
Film Comment
(New York),
The Fireside Book of Baseball
(New York),
Flash Fiction Forward
(New York),
The Independent
(London),
L'Immature
(Paris),
La Nouvelle Revue Française
(Paris),
La Repubblica delle Donne
(Milan),
The Lifelovers ABC
No. 3 (Madrid),
Max
(Milan),
Memories from a Sinking Ship
(New York),
Narrative
(San Francisco),
New Sudden Fiction: Short Stories from America and Beyond
(New York)
Nude
(London),
The PEN Short Story Collection
(New York),
The Phantom Father
(New York),
Plan V
(Buenos Aires),
Ploughshares
(Boston),
Positif
(Paris),
Post Road
(New York),
Sad Stories of the Death of Kings
(New York),
San Francisco Chronicle
,
San Francisco Examiner
,
Santa Monica Review
(Los Angeles),
Southwest Review
(Dallas),
Speak
(San Francisco),
Vice
(New York) and
Wyoming
(New York).

 

Drawings by Barry Gifford. Barry Gifford's artwork is represented by the George Krevsky Gallery, 77 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94108. For more information visit www.georgekrevskygallery.com

 

For Jerry Rosen

and David Bromige

still around here

somewhere

 

“I listened and looked at them—there they were: the ones who would yet raise hell and kill a lot of bad people . . . I remember them all, I assure you. They pass and pass again through my memory, and I call them by their names as they go by.”

—João Guimarães Rosa,
Grande Sertão: Veredas

 

CONTENTS

PREFACE

The Vast Difference

Alligator Story

The Vast Difference

The Birdbath

Storybook Time

The Red Studebaker

The Trumpet

Unspoken

Haircut

The Invention of Rock 'n' Roll

Infantry

Drifting Down the Old Whangpoo

The Wicked of the Earth

Christmas Is Not For Everyone

Memories from a Sinking Ship

Memories from a Sinking Ship

A Good Man to Know

The Forgotten

Mrs. Kashfi

The Old Country

The Monster

The Ciné

Dark Mink

Nanny

Island in the Sun

An Eye on the Alligators

The Piano Lesson

The Lost Tribe

The Lost Christmas

My Catechism

Sunday Paper

The Origin of Truth

The Trophy

The Aerodynamics of an Irishman

A Rainy Day at the Nortown Theater

Renoir's Chemin montant dans les hautes herbes

Forever After

The Mason-Dixon Line

The Wedding

The Pitcher

A Place in the Sun

The Winner

The God of Birds

Sundays and Tibor

Poor Children of Israel

The Man Who Wanted to Get the Bad Taste of the World Out of His Mouth

Johnny Across

The Secret of Little White Dove

The Delivery

The Deep Blue See

Radio Goldberg

Why Skull Dorfman Went to Arkansas

Wanted Man

The Bucharest Prize

Blows with Sticks Raining Hard

The Chinaman

The End of Racism

Way Down in Egypt Land

Bad Things Wrong

Detente at the Flying Horse

Shattered

A Day's Worth of Beauty

The Peterson Fire

Door to the River

Sailing in the Sea of Red He Sees a Black Ship on the Horizon

Wyoming

Cobratown

Chinese Down the Amazon

Bandages

Soul Talk

Skylark

Flamingos

Wyoming

Saving the Planet

A Nice Day on the Ocean

Perfect Spanish

Seconds

Roy's World

Nomads

Ducks on the Pond

Sound of the River

Red Highway

Lucky

K.C. So Far (Seconds/Alternate Take)

Concertina Locomotion

Imagine

The Geography of Heaven

Man and Fate

Where Osceola Lives

The Crime of Pass Christian

Cool Breeze

Night Owl

Islamorada

On the Arm

Look Out Below

The Up and Up

Black Space

Fear and Desire

God's Tornado

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

The Age of Fable

The Great Failure

Irredeemable

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

The Sultan

The Liberian Condition

Six Million and One

War and Peace

Chop Suey Joint

Significance

Einstein's Son

The Albanian Florist

The Weeper

The Weeper

The Swedish Bakery

Ghost Ship

Caca Negra

Roy's First Car

El Carterista

Crime and Punishment

The American Language

Lonely Are the Brave

Force of Evil

The Choice

Bad Girls

The Sudden Demise of Sharkface Bensky

Portrait of the Artist with Four Other Guys

The Starving Dogs of Little Croatia

In the Land of the Dead

The Secret of the Universe

Far from Anywhere

Rain in the Distance

Bad Night at the Del Prado

The Theory of the Leisure Class

Innamorata

The Exception

Close Encounters of the Right Kind

Blue People

Call of the Wild

Arabian Nights

Last Plane out of Chungking

The Vanished Gardens of Córdoba

Benediction

About Barry Gifford

 

PREFACE

The stories in the first section are the last ones I have written (as well as “Benediction”) and are published here in book form for the first time. The others were written over roughly a forty year period and have been previously published in books and magazines. I'm pleased to have them collected now in one volume. They constitute not just one person's story but the history of a time and place, the late 1940s through the early 1960s in America, and is a record, as best I could render it, of the language of that period. This is not a memoir or an autobiography; these are stories, I made them up. Roy ages from about five to seventeen years old. After that, I have no idea what happened to him.

—B.G.

 

The Vast Difference

 

Alligator Story

A kid wearing a Tampa Tarpons t-shirt came running up the street shouting, “Some cracker just shot a gator!”

Roy and his uncle Buck were in the driveway of the house on Oakview Terrace, rinsing down the boat. They had just come in from fishing out of Oldsmar and had been gone since five o'clock that morning; it was now six thirty in the evening. They hadn't had much luck, having boated several kingfish and a few mackerel, but they'd run on sharks everywhere and had to cut lines to get rid of them. The weather had been spotty, the water in the Gulf was cloudy, and there were periodic brief showers. It was just the two of them, so they'd had a lot of time to talk. Roy was twelve and a half years old and he loved to listen to Buck, who was forty-five. Buck was full of information on almost any subject. He was well-traveled and well-read and today he had been teaching Roy about navigation, explaining a rhumb line, which is a course that makes the same angle with each meridian which it crosses; it is constant in direction throughout and always appears as a straight line on charts.

“But the curve of shortest distance between any two points on the earth is always an arc of a great circle,” Roy's uncle told him, “the sort of circle which would be marked out if we were to slice the earth into two halves, passing the cut through the ends of the course and the center of the earth. The shortest path will always be a great circle course.”

Buck had been a Lieutenant Commander in the navy during the war and he was a civil and mechanical engineer; sometimes his explanations were too esoteric or complicated for Roy to absorb, but his uncle was always careful to show Roy what he was talking about.

“It's the wind you have to pay the closest attention to,” said Uncle Buck. “The winds will control the course more than mathematical considerations.”

As the kid in the Tarpons t-shirt ran by, Buck asked him, “Where's he got it?”

“On the little pier at the end of Palmetto,” the kid shouted.

Buck cut off the hose and went into the utility shed and came back out with a sheathed knife and a hatchet. He handed the hatchet to Roy and said, “Come on, nephew, let's go down there.”

Roy and his uncle walked along River Grove under massive hanging moss and cut across the narrow skiff launch to Palmetto Street, which they followed down to the little pier. When they got there they saw a skinny man about forty years old wearing only a pair of gray trousers with the butt of a pistol sticking out of the waistband and a dark brown Remington Ammo cap slicing up the belly side of a six-and-a-half-foot-long alligator. The man's pants, chest, and arms were spattered with blood.

Buck and Roy watched him work for a minute, then Buck said, “What are you going to do with the hide?”

The man was working fast and he did not look up.

“Throw it away. There's a five hundred dollar fine you get caught with it. All I need's the meat.”

Roy and his uncle and two boys who were about eight or nine years old and had been swimming in the Hillsborough River watched the man hack and tear feverishly at the carcass. It was still very hot although the sun had begun to go down. Roy knew that it was against the law to shoot a gator without a permit; he guessed that the man didn't have permission to kill alligators, so he wanted to take what was edible and get going.

When the man had finished carving up the belly, he crammed the meat into a canvas sack, stood up and wiped his knife on his right trouser leg and said to Buck, “I'll leave the rest to you, then.”

The man walked off with the sack over his left shoulder. Roy noticed that he was barefoot and his right leg was considerably shorter than his left. The bag full of gator meat seemed to help keep him balanced as he made his way up the pebbly incline from the dock and disappeared behind the hanging moss.

Buck unsheathed his knife, flipped what remained of the alligator onto its stomach and told Roy to chop off the head.

Roy hesitated and his uncle said, “Come on, nephew, we don't want Fish and Game to find us. Run your fingers along the top of the spine and find the soft spot.”

The ridges along the gator's back were hard as stones and sharp-edged but not abrasive like a shark's skin. Roy's fingers found what felt like a seam two inches behind the head and with both hands wrapped tightly around the handle of the hatchet raised it just above his right shoulder and brought it down into where he judged the seam to be. The blade cut a half-inch into the hide before meeting resistance from muscle and tendon. Roy dropped down from his squatting position and straddled the snout with a knee on either side of the gator's head resting on the planks. The two boys watched intently as Roy hacked away until the head began to separate from the rest of the body. It took about fifteen or twenty minutes to sever the head entirely. When Roy stood up his legs and arms were trembling and his hands hurt.

“Pull the head away,” said his uncle, “and stand back.”

Buck knelt on the gator's back from the opposite end and began cutting at the hide. Roy stood with the two boys and observed as Buck swiftly but carefully skinned the ancient-looking reptile. Sweat streamed down Roy's uncle's face as he worked, cutting evenly as he progressed from neck to tail, taking particular care not to mutilate the feet. The sun had been down for three hours before Buck completed the job. Roy and the two boys, who were cousins named Rupe and Rhett, were seated cross-legged on the pier.

“That was tough, huh?” Rupe said.

“Alligators have survived for tens of thousands of years,” said Buck. “They don't live in houses, like people do, so they have to be protected from the elements.”

“God made 'em tough,” said Rhett.

“What you gonna do with the head?” asked Rupe.

“You can take it, if you like,” Buck said.

Rupe and Rhett stood up and together they lifted the head.

“Whoa, it's heavy,” said Rupe, and they dropped it. “We can't carry it all the way to my house.”

“Your mama wouldn't let you keep it anyhow,” said Rhett.

“Shove it into the river,” said Buck.

The cousins slid the head to the end of the pier and pushed it over. There was a small splash when the head hit the water. It floated on the surface for a few seconds, then tilted backwards so that the mouth half opened and grinned at them before the head sank out of sight.

“Them were some terrible lookin' teeth,” said Rhett.

Buck kicked what was left of the gator's guts, bones and intestines into the river, then lifted the hide under the front legs.

“Grab the tail with two hands,” he told Roy. “Put your arms underneath
.
Adiós
,
muchachos.

Rupe and Rhett watched Roy and his uncle carry off the hide.

Back at the house, Buck brought out from the garage a board about six feet long and three feet wide. He and Roy centered the hide on top of it, then Buck tacked it down so that it was stable. He went into the house and came back out with a box of salt and sprinkled the salt liberally all over the hide.

“Pick up the other end,” Buck said, and he and Roy carried the board with the gator skin tacked to it around to the backyard and set it down on the ground. Buck took two cinder blocks and placed them down five and a half feet apart, then he and Roy picked up the board and set it down end to end on the blocks.

“It'll be all right here for now,” said Buck. “The sun will hit it first thing in the morning, then we'll hoist it up onto the garage roof in the afternoon to dry out.”

Buck looped his right arm around Roy's shoulders.

“You did a great job, nephew. I know that head didn't come off easily.”

“You did the real work, Unk. You skinned the gator like a Seminole would.”

Both Roy and his uncle were covered with blood and gristle.

“How is it you were able to keep your concentration the way you did while you were skinning him?” asked Roy. “I mean, you hardly said a word for two hours.”

Buck pulled his blood-stained shirt off over his head and threw it down.

“I started thinking about your grandmother's second husband, the one who raised your mother. He hated me and I hated him and so I imagined that I was skinning him instead of the alligator.”

“Why did he hate you?”

“For no good reason, really. I'm almost fourteen years older than your mother. He disliked the fact that my mother had been married before, so he resented my existence. Some men are like that; some women, too.”

“Did he hate my mother?”

“No, she was a young girl, and he sent her away to school when she was old enough. I was almost a man, it was easier for him to hate me.”

“My mother never talks about him; all I know is that he died.”

“He had a heart attack after he and your grandmother were married for ten years; then she remarried my father.”

“You must have really hated the guy to imagine that you were skinning him.”

“I pretended that he was still alive but barely conscious and that he knew what I was doing but was too weak to do anything about it. I imagined that he didn't die until after I skinned him entirely.”

“Did he do anything terrible to you?”

“He banished me from his house, even though my mother and sister lived there. To see me, your grandmother had to meet me somewhere else, in a park or at a restaurant. Whenever she gave me money she made me promise that he would never know that she had.”

“That's crazy, Unk. How could she allow that to happen?”

“I don't know, Roy. People do all sorts of crazy things.”

Buck unfastened his belt and let his pants drop to the ground. His skinning knife was in its sheath which was still strung on the belt.

“I'm glad I never had to meet him,” said Roy.

“He wouldn't have hated you, nephew. What's terrible is that I still harbor such awful feelings for a man who's been dead for twenty-five years. It's no good to keep that kind of poison in you because after awhile the poison starts to work on you. I hope you never have to hate anyone like that.”

“I hope I won't, either.”

“All right, let's wash up and get some dinner.”

“Why didn't we save the head?”

“The only way to preserve it would be to soak it in formaldehyde. Too much trouble. The catfish are feasting on it.”

“I bet those cousins are telling their folks about the alligator now.”

“Come on, Roy, get your clothes off.”

The head was scary, Roy thought, but it was beautiful, too. It was too bad that Rupe or Rhett hadn't kept it.

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