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Nervous Ashers

The legend of the Silver Jews

There were mountain huts full of smallpox strung out along the hillsides between Escatawpa and Morgan City, birds boiling up and out of freestanding chimneys under the routine advent of rainbows and chainsaws, the old sound of cheap labor rising and falling in the weather that was like frosted bank glass and advancing. There were heaps of tangled sawhorses and tripwire, vacant jasper and wolframite mines, mounds of dead Ataris and scarred desk drawer bibles scattered across those abandoned counties that lay inert as rope.

Hazel and Bobby lived together in an old slave shack I used to rent out in the upper fields. They cut Canadian thistle and picked sloe berries off the blackthorn for a living, slashing their hands and bickering all day in the frayed heat, visiting me in the cool mainhouse most evenings. We’d sit in the rooms without ceilings, drinking white hill whiskey under the recombinant stars, and Bobby, who loved to go on about things, would reminisce about his dead wife who’d contracted a disease from sleeping too close to the fan. On Sundays they wouldn’t move a muscle. They’d just sit there like two piles of coins quietly warming through the afternoon, then slowly cooling off over the evening.

Bobby puts on his sound jacket. Shards of hospital bed are locked in the bass drum. Through the worn dolichoid rafters I can see birds flying over the practice room. The snare is stuffed with traffic tickets and out the window there’s my horse walking on the stream, the stream always behind schedule. There’s a dust mote hawk landing in slo-mo on my guitar. Hazel’s saying something about Earnest Wourlds over in Tullahoma who’d had a dream about a cougar sleepwalking on Polk’s grave and how that was bad luck for the region. (“Those that look out the window are darkened.” All those faces passed down through the centuries that kickstart the rivers and grow like nerve endings in a coal cart until they’re key-cold and shoved through the repaired death gate, a catafalque set free and released into the dirtways.) “And John and his father John trap mink under the chain lightning in the libraries they’ve landed in, where all the talk about shadow dappled paths is typeset, published, and poured into a break in the earth,” Hazel murmured to no one in the room. You might think it was all words and dark tickets as we began to play “R.M.T.” in the swarming weather chart sundown, and it was.

Outside, you’d still hear the music, hear someone yelling “actors dreaming got nowhere to stay / see my sheet go walking run and fly,” and it would sound better from far away, like a faded sketch of a long since forgotten pacer at the Downs, all the while platinum ticks are dropping off the trees like little Romans, onto an auburn shower curtain half-buried in the forest floor.

Already gone were the golden days of e-z credit, the days of approaching squat south-central skylines from underneath the ice blue tides of the windshield, the five-cent war comets, howling saran yaps and careening school chords. All that was left, looking like two lost eyeballs on the field after Spotsylvania, were a couple of black plastic busted knobs in the dirt, one for tone and one for rinse.

This place is like a haunted turnpike, closed down for years, where things still happen in the little turnoffs to the renowned teenagers that never come back (sold to the haunt in the black church). If you come in the day and you’re lucky, you might catch yourself a nice photograph of two sweatbees fucking on a coke mirror. You might see my horse breaking across a white wine colored clearing, or maybe hear the old chords coming, for no real reason, out of sockets in the walls (“because there’s an answering machine clogged with ice, deep in the Courthouse Mountains where he lived and died in the breech.”)