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A Short Story from Fulton's Monkey:


by Joseph T. McFadden

While she works, Mabel Mills looks across her kitchen counter through a rear window into the simmering landscape where the sun of late summer wilts everything to a silent standstill. Listening, almost holding her breath in the silence of the smothering land, she awaits and dreads the approaching mid-afternoon hour. She drips sweat in the heat of the kitchen, both hands too busy to fan.

The silence deepens as the day advances. All living things have stopped moving. The birds are soundless except a mourning turtle dove and an occasional bobwhite. Cattle and hogs seek shade and rest, chickens retreat under the house, dogs loll in dusty shade. Surrounding pines on the slope down to the open fields, and towering cypress trees in the swamp beyond, sag and bleed pungent rosin penetrating the torpid air. The grassy garden, the pasture weeds, the kudzu vines hiding the eroded gullies, the gum and oak leaves, all fold and droop in the seething stillness as mid-August drives the vegetation on to a final fecund ripeness.

The low rumble of an approaching motor begins out in the distance of anticipation and grows to real sound as the expected looms, and right on time it arrives. Her husband, Willard, drives past the open kitchen door and parks behind the house. She turns to watch. A cloud of powdery dust drifts past his mud-splattered car. And her fears are confirmed. She knows by his actions. He has come home with another load of dynamite. He gets out of the car, pulls his big black felt hat down further over his eyes, folds the front seat forward, hoists out a big box and heaves it to his shoulder. The black DANGER printed on the cardboard side states itself emphatically. Stooping into the car again, he one-hands another box to the other shoulder, turns, and kicks the door shut. The torn fenders rattle and drop dry clods. He bought this Ford new only six weeks ago.

Willard spits a spout of brown tobacco juice into the dust, turns his back, and his tall form recedes downhill, swaggering with self-importance under the load. A big proud brunette man with a purpose, strong as an ox, he has a ceaseless appetite for work and no fears. Her dread grows.

She swelters in the hot house with no electricity and no plumbing. Flour powders the apron covering her matronly hips, long blond greying hair strings down from a pile atop her head. Sweat drains into her soft blue eyes, and she wipes at her burning temples with the backs of both wrists, her hands helpless in biscuit dough, brushing the hair back, leaving trails of flour. She works quietly. The humming and singing stopped a long time ago.

Her hands stop kneading while she watches. Willard carries the nitroglycerine caps in his overalls pockets. She imagines a sudden stumble, and with no free hands to catch himself, he pitches forward, the boxes, full of dynamite sticks, slam to the ground. Jarring does set off explosions. There would be nothing left but a crater in the raw earth. She has become very nervous, to the point of repeating herself often: "Willard, you're going to blow yourself to smithereens one of these days the way you drive with dynamite in the car. The jolting alone could do it, and God knows if you had a wreck."

As always, Willard pays no attention to her, the way he pays no attention to anyone once he sets his head, his usual attitude, like the way he drives. Mudholes do not stop him; he plunges through full-throttle, splattering mud all over the car and the roadside bushes, and he slides into embankments, crushing fenders, and keeps going. Things loose in the car, including children, fly and bounce around. He seldom gets stuck. He goes through ideas the same way.

This time, he circles the crest of the hill and swaggers to the tool shed and hoists the load down into the open doorway, self confident. He has been in the dynamite phase now for more than two years, and has grown accustomed to handling it, or more to reality, less careful; nothing fatal has happened yet. He kneels to the ground, takes out his pocket knife, and cuts open one of the cartons. He stands, removes his big black Stetson hat, and mops his brow. Blue wetness stains his shirt in back and down the sides.

An oppressive fear and black despair wring Mabel to the brink of desperation. He is the only living thing industrious in the killing heat. He has been home less than five minutes; she has been married to him fifteen years.

Within her view through the kitchen window, outbuildings dot the grounds behind the house. Among them, the WPA privy brims the hill, its backside facing south toward the sun. Willard's actions have led Mabel to know this little house is the target of his latest idea. But despite the foreknowledge she feels a surge of fear dive into her belly when he gathers up the open box and goes toward the privy. This time, it is not just anguish for his dreamy notions, but genuine terror and a nagging premonition, but she can't make him stop. He places the dynamite box on the ground and goes to work again in the hole he has been digging during the past two afternoons.


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