The last address was easy to remember. But in a year living on the outskirts of downtown Portsville, Calup still confused First Street with Second Street about every other time. Maybe that’s what happened with his last letter. Confusion was now his general state of mind, even on good days, when it was only mild. At eighty-six years old, there were more days when he could remember what was in his lunch box the day the Number 2 tipple burned on Shelby Creek than he remember what street he lived on.

The post office lady pulled to his mailbox. He got up from porch swing and started toward her. She cradled a large pink box in her arms. Written on the side were flowery words reading Thirty-One. Not for him, no sir. Before Calup could make it to the edge of his yard, the lady shook her head and hunched her shoulders, hopped in her truck and sped off.

When he sent the contents of the storage chest to his daughter in Indiana he used a large media package. Calup half expected Cayaha to send it back. But now that it seemed she might be taking a notion to keep what he sent, he was seriously regretting sending the love letters he had written Susan, tucked away all these years at the bottom of the chest.

There wasn’t much in the chest, not like you’d expect from a package sent to a daughter from a father who was barely there most of the time. One would expect a whole spread of things trying to make up for lost time. But Calup knew that wasn’t possible. And there was nothing of any real value in the chest. All the same, three weeks and no response. He had to have mixed up First and Second again. It was the only thing that made sense. It happened the last time he sent Cayaha a card for her wedding anniversary. She told him so when he finally got her on the phone a couple months later.

When Cayaha was still in grade school they sent her to stay for a month with Susan’s brother up in Indiana. Susan said it would do her good to visit family and get her nose out of books, play like a normal girl, quit worrying about skinning her knees and get a little dirty.

Susan’s brother, Paul, drove cross-country delivering RVs, hauling his Chevy Rabbit along and driving it back from every state you could think of and some you couldn’t. Calup’s reservations had a lot to do with the fact that he never cared much for Paul from the start. Paul drank, played cards with drunks, fought with his wife, Nora, night and day. Paul and Nora had three daughters. Striped snakes were more kind, easier to get along with on account of the fact that their parents mostly left them alone. Kids left alone and bored are going to find the time to head in bad directions.

Paul’s three girls – Melanie, Sara and Brit – were all older than Cayaha and pure hell on wheels. This added to his worries, which he kept to himself and, instead, thought about all the possibilities after Susan slept easily two feet away from him. Those sleepless hours were tough, watching shadows of branches cast from the moonglow appear and disappear along the walls of the bedroom. In those black forms he saw Cayaha being bullied, shunned, yelled at, ignored, lonely with no books, no solitude. For others, maybe not a big problem. For his Cayaha, it was a straitjacket, no sunlight, no hope. During those hours alone with his thoughts beating away at him, Susan snored. Calup could not imagine what she dreamed of because she smiled between breaths, and it didn’t seem there was anything to smile about then.

What he couldn’t know was that the reality of Cayaha’s circumstances in Indiana was about as bad as he thought it was, but with a stranger set of characters. For the entire month she stayed with Susan’s family they were visited nights by a crew of people headed by Rocky and Kelly, a couple who had stayed drunk, to the best of Calup’s recollection, the entire twenty-five years they had lived together. The two of them moved north with Paul when coal busted for a while and factories elsewhere was the best option for work. Of course they had no intention of working, whether they were in Kentucky or Indiana or anywhere else for that matter. Rocky and Kelly’s only intentions were to party, their own unique blend made up of poker games, loud music, and drinking. Lots and lots of drinking, along with the occasional joint, if it was available.

Had Calup been there (and how he had wished a thousand times over that he had went with her) he would have been able to negotiate the kind of swarm that happened within a household when people like that got together, negotiate it for Cayaha, rustling her from one room to another if arguments started or drinking got out of hand. But he wasn’t. Nothing about that was ever going to change.

Turned out Susan thought the trip would toughen Cayaha up. Instead she came back saying she woke each morning and watched deer scatter across the yard and sprint toward the pond at the back of the house. She cried the way an adult would cry, no expression, just tears dropping every few seconds from the corners of her eyes, telling how one morning a big dog, a German Shepherd, she thought, chased a deer down and killed it at the property line in front of the house. She remembered how the steam lifted off its torn belly and floated away like smoke.

The trip was a failure on all levels, and the weeks and months and years that followed were picked apart by family, by counselors, by psychiatrists until Cayaha was a husk left by crows, empty and slowly dying. Still empty, still dying, but he was through thinking about it just now. It had cooled considerably after sunset and the Braves would be playing since they were off Monday. Baseball, beer, and a cool breeze could wipe a day clean better than about anything else.

He situated the radio on the porch rail. With Pete Van Wieren calling the count, Calup could almost forget. Some nights he prayed out loud to come down with Old Timer’s disease. Forgetting would be a way to stop one hour from becoming the next hour. These days it seemed getting from afternoon to evening and from evening to the next morning was the longest walk he’d ever taken. And he was tired, and he needed rest, and he needed Brian McCann to knock at least a sac fly and get Chipper in from second. It would be nice to take a series from the Mets at Citi Field. Calup tipped his beer and took a long swallow. This was the kind of evening that could almost clean him in a spiritual way, lift his guilt and regret for a brief time. Susan never understood why he carried, as she called it, his suitcase full of bricks, and now, six deep on Wildcat Cemetery, she never would. She took everything in stride. Parents make mistakes, she would say. Children are stronger than we give them credit for. Not everything bad that happens to this family is your fault. It was nice to know she almost certainly died at peace, probably telling herself that nobody was perfect and you’d be surprised who could get into heaven these days.

Calup woke early as usual the next morning and went to the porch with his coffee. Post lady would be here in an hour or so. He watched the sun coming up and searched for whatever sort of inspiration or glory people seemed to find there, but all he ever saw was that color of bright washed pink, like a nosebleed from a cloud. That sort of bitterness that stole even a beautiful morning ate at him most days now. It was a new feeling, and one he didn’t welcome. Keep moving along, bitterness. We’re all full up here.

He sipped his coffee, already cooled from the milk he added, and fought off those old bedtime thoughts, fought at them until he heard the rumble of the post lady. He watched her place a stuffed manila envelope in his box, struggle to close the latch, and then finally leave it hanging. She waved and he waved back. When she marched to the truck, she stopped and slapped her thigh, bent and grabbed a package, his package. Turning, she held it up and smiled at him. Calup didn’t move from the swing. He motioned for her to sit it down outside the fence, and she did. The sun was bleeding yellow now, the color of ripe corn.

It didn’t matter what was in the envelope; it didn’t matter the package was the same size as the chest he sent to Cahaya. All a man could do was everything he could, and the fact that he hadn’t done this enough in his life was its own trip to Indiana. It was grief on top of grief on top of grief. But time won’t stop so a person can catch their breath. Time falls across the world the same way it always has, with a hatred for living creatures unable to lean into that forward motion. Calup held his wristwatch to his ear and counted off ten, twenty, thirty seconds. The sun had stopped at the edge of the sky. Who knew when it would move again.

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VICTORY PARTY by Sheldon Lee Compton

He talks to me through the trees. Not through them, like he’s standing on one side of a treeline and I’m standing on the other, but like he is the trees.

We will stay together, become taproots, strong and lasting, he says. Or we are both oaks.

Discussing trees and strength becomes tedious, and, sometimes, he starts in about my little sister. Those conversations don’t last very long.


The Olympics. 1984. Summer, because both Daddy and the man were wearing tshirts instead of coats. And because I’ll always remember Katarina. It was their fight that brought the police to Fox Bottom. Our area anyways, the part in the far northwest corner where Fleet Mitchell had his ratty garage fixed up as a body shop. But he didn’t fix vehicles, he sold cocaine. And this was at a time when almost everybody was only selling pot or cheap liquor.

One of the two men was my daddy. The other man, John something or other, was a nobody to me, just some guy who decided that night, the night the Olympic ice skating was on television, was the night he was going to shoot Daddy. It was Fleet who wanted him to do it.

That’s what he told us right before the fight started. He looked at me and my sister and said he was going to go shoot our dad. I remember his eyes were like wet glass in his sockets and his mouth sagged when he talked. I remember he smelled like mothballs. Then he whispered as he walked away that Fleet was going to set him up nice for doing it.


Before Dad went to prison we used to get together with all the uncles and aunts and cousins on Sunday nights and watch episodes of Chiller. It aired late Sunday night, 2 a.m., and me and my sister didn’t have to worry yet about school, being so little. The night Fleet tried to have Dad killed I kept thinking of how the show opened with that dark swamp and the craggy old tree and then the weird hand coming up out of the fog of the swamp. The music sounded sinister and then how, from somewhere in that deep blackness came a voice saying only hooooo and then chillllller. These days horror movies or shows remind me of how alone I am, skipping to the bathroom in the dark and back to an empty bed.  These days I’m in one of those episodes all the time.


It’s not that we shouldn’t be talking about my sister, his daughter, our kin, it’s just that we shouldn’t be talking. As in hearts would be lighter if we kept words out of it. We should be keeping that line, holding that grudge. But trees have that knack of sticking around, and I’m not going anywhere soon. So here we are, swaying and dying and returning to life and not talking about my little sister as best as I can manage. I have to remind my father. I’m right on point with, Let us remain positive; let us lift our chins. Let them not touch our breastbones in defeat.


Mom and a lot of her friends knew something was coming that evening and rustled all the kids into the top floor apartment where Mitzi had her little beauty parlor set up. It was the only place with a television. She turned on the television, told us not to go outside, and left. The channel it landed on happened to be showing the moment Katarina Witt took her second gold medal in figure skating events for East Germany.

All these years I’ve thought it was an argument about my mom, but that wasn’t even close. Daddy and the John guy were fighting over cocaine. And they were fighting, and yelling, more importantly, about cocaine loud enough so all of Fox Bottom could hear.

Estill Buchanan heard. And he called the police. He’d been waiting for a reason ever since Fleet moved into the bottom a year before and I blamed him hard at the time, but looking back on it I see he was an old man with no family. He was scared all the time.


It’s not that he died recently, alone at the head of a holler four counties away while I ate ice cream in Chevy Chase and later went to a Wildcat game. It’s not exactly that. It’s that the last time I saw him was at a victory party for his first cousin, a close family member who had just won an election for county clerk. He sat beside me when I got there and held out his hand for me to take. I didn’t take it. I still remember how the long hairs on his arm glowed in the sunlight and how he shrank into an old man when I got up to leave. It’s a ruination, forgiveness. I can’t have my mind changed about that. When he spoke he sounded like Shakespeare writing the Bible.


Before we talked through the wind in the leaves he gave me one, and only one, piece of advice that has lasted and never failed me. Always slap a man, and make sure you do it at the first sign there’s going to be trouble. They can’t charge you with any real conviction in a court of law for an open hand slap. This as opposed, of course, to a nice, tight fist. And, little missy - this is how he said it - and, little missy, it will break a man’s will with him standing right there in front of you.


When the police came the whole place lit up red and blue. The mountains went from dark to disco bright and dark again with trees flashing like Christmas lights. We all went to the windows to watch three cops drop Daddy to the ground and handcuff him. They dragged him belly-first to the squad car. It hurt like heartbreak at the time. It hurts like heartbreak now, and nothing makes me angrier. Not what happened, but that I still hurt.

So, yes, Katarina Witt won two gold medals for East Germany. That’s what I focused after the arrest. For weeks I followed news about Katarina Witt. I wanted to change my name to Katarina. Later on, the East German government gave her cars and jewelry, property and homes even, to keep her from defecting. I don’t know if she ever accepted any of the gifts but I always imagined she did. And I hated her for it, being famous, beautiful, successful, and getting gifts. And because it wasn’t only East Germany who loved her, the whole snobby world loved her.


I sat in a swing covered by a wedding ring quilt my aunt made. She was my dad’s older sister and therefore one of the few who would speak of him without reservation for the fragile and small amount of pride he had built up since prison. Part of that was this election win, his cousin’s day in the sun and, of course, his day in the sun. Maybe his first.

Seeing him move around the party so naturally, so organically, but, at the same time, with that underlying insecurity when he thought he might not be as welcome as he hoped reminded me of a wind hoping to gain strength but always held back by some object in its path. Even a force of nature is only as strong as the nature it encounters.


Little sister heard the same advice about taking a man’s pride by stunning him with an open hand but hardly listened. Something inside our father had been broken apart and my sister could see it, could sense it like a stench all over the man, and she was offended that she came from such weakness. She knew that for all the braggadocio and mustache pulling, our father was weak. The man’s desires made him so, the way he gave up on a thing the moment it took a little fight. His neediness. I was never able to feel that hurt as sharply. It never darkened my mind in the same way.


He had went from one end of Pike County to the other campaigning, knocking on doors the same way they did it in the old days. He bought votes; he drove those same voters to the polls. He attended church picnics by day and argued good old boy policies in honky tonk bars until they shut out the lights. And he loved every minute of it, that’s what it’s important for me to remember. The political process, the human side of it, the side where a campaign can become a spotlight to dance in, fed his ego. Now he wanted his daughter beside him, holding his hand at the victory party. He wanted the cake and wanted to eat it too. He wanted someone to bake it, in the meantime, and pay the grocery bill, pour the milk, light the candles. I’m of the mind that he’s old enough that his wants won’t hurt him.


But let us remain positive; let us lift our chins. Let them not touch our breastbones in defeat. Maybe I am a white oak and you are a hickory. And maybe you say one strong thing and it’s always another, weaker thing. So here we are, still talking and then not talking. The trees wave along the hillside, bending, but not for long. If taproots hold the ground here, you wouldn’t know it by the way the wind bullies them.

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