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James Lineberger

the physician's tale

A Brief History of the Old South

The Great Speckled Honky Tonk

the physician's tale

i’m sure there’s a reason
for this weeping that comes on so suddenly
with no apparent cause
but when i mention it my doctor gives a quizzical smile
and shakes his head saying
well at our age things change and we can't always anticipate
what direction
our thoughts are going to head off in
                                               yes i said i know i know
and i don't mean to say i’m especially religious
but a couple weeks ago
on the 22nd
the date of our ruby anniversary
my wife is off in the kitchen
stirring up
her fabled potato salad to honor the occasion
and i'm just relaxed in the den clicking through the tv channels
when i land on pbs and the bill gaither gospel hour
and they're singing
                                  farther along
                     and the joy
in it broke me up
                worse than a funeral
and i was so into it i mean i never do stuff
like this but
as they segued into
                                               rock of ages
i got down on my knees i’m not ashamed to tell you
                            singing right along
                                                         with them
all of a sudden she bursts into the room
waving her metal spatula like a sword and hits me the face with it
        leave then just get the hell out of here
you never loved me anyway you
                                                  never loved anybody

and understand doc
i had grown accustomed to her confusion and the quick temper
but this was the first time she moved to open violence
which caught me competely by surprise
and i held up my arms
trying to back off but i tripped and lost my balance
and she slashed me again with the damn thing
right across my nose
and that did it
                    i just lost it
                                    backhanded her
across the coffee table
and she went tumbling over and if she broke something
i didn’t care and i fell down on top of her and started
strangling her
                                                 and her eyes rolled back
and i'm spit-shouting it
                                   die die why don't you just die
but then she changed again
still gagging but with this crazy laughter  too
while i kept digging my fingers in her neck
and if our son hadn’t come in from work just then and pulled me away
god knows what would've happened
                 that's the way it ended
and how we finally admitted the time had come
to pack her off to the nursing home
                                                           but dammit doc
i already miss her i do
and visiting now
holding her hand listening to her babbble
she's not even there with me
like the body hangs on but her spirit just got tired of waiting and went on ahead
and i keep asking myself how we ever got this fucked up
yet the only answer that halfway makes sense
is some things you can't make them come out right no matter which way
you turn

                                 but as i search the doc's face
for a response
he makes no comment at first
ducking his head noncommittally
but then
seating himself on the wheeled office stool
he rolls it closer
and offers an awkward smile
as he attempts to erase our usual formal distance
and address me

jim i wish you had known my wife evelyn
she passed away a few years ago
acute leukemia
and as her condition worsened
we decided it would be best
if she should move to the guest room
to provide some relief
from the stress and and changeable duties
required of me at the clinic       
and the times she had to spend alone
she kept the cell on her pillow
refusing my offer to bring in a nurse
                but she never phoned
and i too resisted calling to check on her
but then one day i came home to find her dead
and grasping her cell so tightly
the funeral home
had to ask if it was okay to break the departed's fingers so they could
get it away from her
                                no i said leave it
                                                                        and that’s how
she was buried enabling her perhaps i thought
to make contact from the beyond
which was stupid stupid i told myself because i didn’t
believe in a hereafter
and when the phone would ring later with no data showing
on the caller id
nor any voice on the other end
i knew i was making things up
                                                  trying to bring her back
but nonetheless i would oftimes
the buzztone of the open receiver
saying  baby i love you
                                        love you
but after a while i no longer picked up on those
calls nor could i bear to return
to the guest room
and the only way i can describe it
is a complete shutdown
in my feelings and a coldness set in
a certain almost contemptuous attitude toward others
but i knew
enough about the grieving process to realize i had simply entered
another phase and i tried
to accept things without complaint or any real desire
                                           to move on
until one day i awoke
with a sudden indefinable new energy
and reentered the guest room determined to rid the place
of my evelyn's vaporous and delusional
                        i bent to the task
with a furious all-consuming passion
attacking the floor
and as the regimen progressed
i began to sense within a growing strength and healing power
as the guest room became my room
her bed my bed
and one glorious spring morning
i happened to see
                                                                a spider web
hanging from a corner of the ceiling
as if to taunt me
and i grabbed the broom and brushed away the sticky net 
trying at the same time
to swat the spider itself but the creature
made its escape
fleeing into a crack behind the crown mold
                                   and that i thought
                                                                      was that
but the next day the spider had a new web in another corner
and again i destroyed the little helllion
                       and again
it escaped and again rebuilt the shiny orb overnight
each time in a new place
until finally i got out our kitchen butane torch
and set fire to the beastie
erasing it in the charred burnt path of the flame
and for a brief moment i felt a joyous surge of relief
                                                                                  but that night
there came a dream
where it was given to me that
no no
the spider had been a conveyance
                      for evelyn's soul
allowing her astral presence both mobility and renewed life
and i went outside and searched
until i managed to catch
another spider in a bucket and brought it to the bedroom
where i left it undisturbed to do its business
but that night when i returned from work
the new spider had disappeared without even attempting a web
                and i just
threw my arms open begging her
                                to come home
                                                baby please
but she never reappeared jim
the moment passed me by don’t you see
and here you are
asking for help yet what can i offer
i'm not a shaman or a priest
and getting too old to call myself a doctor
but i believe this:
everything we think we have
                we lose
and everything we care about
                                     today tomorrow
the past
none of it belongs to us
and there's so much we can't see or hear

                               his voice trailed off but his lips kept moving
as if to frame some further statement
yet suddenly
                right on cue
my cell phone started ringing
and i frowned at the display screen
confirming the dread call
                                sorry i said
it's the nursing home
they never ring me unless it's important
and the doc gave a knowing nod
as i said hello
but instead of a nurse answering
it was my wife
who had somehow
got hold of the cordless mobile at the desk
and sneaked away with it
speaking in a furtive whisper
                who is this
dummy i said
it's me whata you want
and she gave a sudden triumphant laugh
well that rips it
                  she said
back when i was alive
i use to think i hated you
but i just discovered one shiny fact you sumbitch
i hate you even more
                                      now that i'm gone
breathing hard and rolling about
to elude the aides who tried to remain calm and professional
as they circled for possession of the phone
while she slithered and crouched
like some cornered creature from the wild
screaming don't touch me
i'm invisible i'm not here i'm dead damn you

                     yet what happened next
got even more twisted up
for as i listened
the hostilities started to occur
both on the phone and outside of it
all at once
like a jerky sidewalk video
and i'm looking on
as these two old fucks do their ruby anniversary all over again
cursing and clawing at one another
right there in the recreation room of her retirement home
while the dumbfounded aides and therapy staff
stand gawking
as we screeched and fought like unforgiving children
searching blindly
for some way to get loose from it
thing imprisoning us
until at last
exhausted and trembling
she held me close
whispering it it softly
                                close to my ear
fool you fool
don't you know i never wanted
                                                any man but you
but before i could reply
somebody grabbed hold of the cordless and punched the off button
ending us altogether

                                      and in the heavy silence

all i could do was stand there
bereft and alone
as the doc reached a hesitant hand to my shoulder
everything okay
                             he asked
you tell me i said

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A Brief History of the Old South

The class behind us
            the one whose English teacher married
                        our English teacher that bunch always

thought they were better than us somehow
            like they every one of them
                        had been born in the National Honor Society

and the Key Club and could read Chaucer without a pony
            younger than us just
                        like their teacher was younger than ours

never realizing then that he got his power from them
            that they owned him balls to soul
                        a man who could never get out of their clutches
once he was in
            but spent his whole career
                        imagining he was the one in charge

thinking first he would steal our teacher away
            then cause her to get pregnant
                        then tired then restless then bored then

then finally coerced into retirement locked up in the house
            with their only child Steven that would later
                        become a concert pianist and travel all over the world

playing to beat the band
            and whenever one of us tried to go visit
                        the boy's mama they would spirit her off

to do rubbings from the headstones at Winston-Salem
            or make her tag along to the apartment
                        of one of her husband's former students the one at MIT

or in the Peace Corps or USC
            take your pick a woman that used to could
                        scream Out, damned spot! and make the hairs stand up

like static on your arms
            but now when you saw her at Food Town or JC Penny's
                        you would hardly think it

was the same person this little hunched over
            lady in black shades and flip flops hair in scraggles
                        wearing a print dress that all

she had to do was pull it over her head like a sack
            staring at her list and mumbling to herself
                        and if one of us dared to speak she would duck away

to another aisle
            or just abandon her buggy groceries and what all
                        and head for the exit where one of the ones from

the class behind us would be waiting
            behind the wheel of the Hudson Hornet
                        she paid for with surplus retirement checks and traded

in every other year for a new model
            that pretty much resembled the one before but so what
                        her husband explained in a voice as dead
as the dead
            fountains of Versailles if I hadn't stolen you away you'd still

be riding around in Chevrolets
            and then as if we had never seen her she was gone altogether
                        murdered we surmised

covered up with lime in the basement of that house
            he bought out past Watts Cross Roads leaving behind
                        an uncontested estate

of nothing but a closetful
            of those sack dresses and three uncashed checks
                        smelling like the sachet in her underwear drawer

and when we asked one of the ones that came after us what had happened
            he just gave this tiny smile like he was in on it
                        from the beginning rubbing his hands together like

he couldn't get the blood off them and all
            we could do was wait until they came for us in Jeeps
                        and locked us up in the armory for a whole weekend

with MP's with loaded M1's until they could get
            the paperwork done
                        and every man jack in the Old Hickory Division processed and shot

for typhus and tetanus
            and pack us off to the Chosin Reservoir to see the elephant,
                        until we were bleeding Technicolor red

on the treadmarked snow
            until we couldn't even remember our teacher's
                        name or call her up in our dying prayers people screaming everywhere

Out Jesus Mary Motherfucker get me outa here
            clawing and scrubbing our hands every which way
                        dead ones and live ones piled together

until faraway in the distance like a chorus of muted trumpets
            we could hear the faint cries of the ones that came after us
                        moving among the trees

the stunted black trees in Birnham Wood
            cursing cajoling slapping at them with their swords telling
                        us to get up and walk like men.

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The Great Speckled Honky Tonk

Way it used to be
at the old Mt. Holly filling station
was when you pumped your gas
it would come foaming up
in waves behind the glass container at the top
of their visible pump
which was so accurate and dependable
that daddy who repaired pumps for Sinclair
never had to even lay a hand to that one
still it was the only station
in town
back towards the end of the war when
sometimes whole train loads
of German prisoners would be passing through
and even us kids could feel
like the whole world was changing
but the Mt. Holly gas station was
the same as always
and mama who never learned how to use the visible
one time let this stranger named Dorsey Spangle
do the pumping for her
not something daddy would ever advise
but he was off in the mountains
fixing pumps in West Jefferson and mama put a finger
to her lips and made us promise not to say a word
not even when Dorsey Spangle
told her he was out of a job and was
trying to get a ride
to Nashville Tennessee and become
a country music star
like Roy Acuff who did The Wabash Cannonball
and that other one which mama
liked so much called
The Great Speckled Bird which they used to sing
in church when she was just
a little girl you don't say Dorsey Spangle said
and then he said if y'all was to fix me a sandwich or two
to last me on the road I would
play some of the ones on my guitar from
my Nashville rebedrawer
and mama smiled a smile like us boys had not seen before
that we could think of like she
was staring at the ground and Dorsey Spangle
all at once
so we then we piled into daddy's old Lincoln Zephyr which
Dorsey Spangle said reminded him
of a hearse he used to drive
that doubled as a ambulance in Dallas
gollee mama said i got a aunt that lives in Dallas
over near Gastonia
maybe you know her Pearl Redmond? maybe
i do said Dorsey Spangle
and maybe not is she a kind of squat woman that
works for the sheriff's office
cause that one and me
had some times that got me into a fix cause she
was a married woman and never let on until
you know what i mean
it was too late
and he whanged the strings on his guitar and laughed
out loud now don't y'all frown that is just one
of the jokes I tell on the stage
well I swan mama said you could have fooled me
I bet you give the ladies a time
don't you
no sir no sir m'am Mister Spangle said
I was baptized at the Free Will Baptist Church of the Tabernacle
and I live by the scriptures I don't
covet no man's fortune nor his sheep nor his
man servant all excepting if some
maid servant was to make signs at me I aint responsible
and he slapped
the guitar again and laughed out loud
and when I looked at mama
she was grinning too and trying not to do it
but that is how it went until we
crossed over
the Buster Boyd Bridge and passed by Lucia School where
me and Richard and Bud
all three had the same teacher who was
the principal too because
it was a three-room school and I'm not ashamed to say it
we learned our multiplication tables good as
you or any of yours
but after you pass the Lucia Village it is nothing
between you and the Catawba River
but dirt roads and scraggly pine trees that look reddy brown
from all the dust that gets flung up
and that's where we lived: on the backwaters in a two storey log cabin
painted with creosote which never
stopped smelling but mosquitoes wouldn't go near it
and it was a good life I knew that even then
you could throw
your windows open at night
and we were brown as Indians and rode stick horses
all day long even in the wintertime
and ddn't get sick anymore like it had been
when we lived in Kannapolis
where we had the mumps and the measles
and everything else and daddy
like to went crazy doffing at Plant Six
but here we were now which mama
called it the Garden of Eden
and it truly was before Dorsey Spangle came in and changed
everything upside down
like mama didn't just fix him sandwiches she made
catfish stew daddy's favorite
and she deep fried her hush puppies too
which would melt in your mouth they were so tender
and Dorsey Spangle sat at the head of the table in daddy's chair
and ate to his heart's content poor man
mama said you had to be starving well it was close
said Dorsey Spangle but you
are a good Samaritan that if I didn't meet you who knows
I might never have made it to the Ryman and shook
Mister Acuff's hand and then he said what
time is it and went to the Philco
and turned it to the Opry on WSM and it was Kitty Wells doing
The Great Speckled Bird Dorsey said only
she calls hers It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels
y'all see cause in music
everbody is brothers and sisters to everbody else
and then he started playing along
with the radio and got mama to take a drink from his Old Crow
and she started singing too
doing her Speckled Bird against the Honky Tonk
and she got so sad she started to cry and Dorsey Spangle
said now now and took her in his arms
and started slow dancing to Jeannie Seely doing
What a Friend We Have in Jesus
and even after us boys got to bed the radio
was still playing
soft and sad till we fell off to sleep
and in the morning before
we got up mama had drove Dorsey Spangle out
to the four-lane where he could maybe catch a ride
with a eighteen wheeler
but he never sent a postcard like
he promised he would and Richard
started having bad dreams
that would wake him up crying and he would say it was
Dorsey Spangle dressed up
in a devil costume wagging his tail
and a couple days later when daddy got home
from West Jefferson
first thing he said he said you know what I want me
is some catfish stew
and mama said will somebody tell me why it is
we don't never eat nothing around here
but fish fish fish
and daddy just gave her a big hug and said
ahh Eva think about all
the poor starving children in Europe.

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James Lineberger is a retired screenwriter. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard; The Cortland Review; The Main Street Rag; UCity Review; Natural Bridge; Pembroke Magazine; Quarter After Eight; Free State Review; Sheila-Na-Gig, B O D Y; and New Ohio Review, where he won the 2017 Poetry Competition, judged by Rosanna Warren. 


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