excerpt > Phong Nguyen > The Adventures of Joe Harper
I’d been p’inted in the direction of hell a long time; now I’d set my feet a goin’.
My compass read South, though I scarcely needed it to read me the right way. For all my folly and failures as a man, ten years at sea had learned me to navigate by open sky. My aim was the Ozarks, a region rumored to have more oxbow lakes and karst springs than people in it, and I reckoned it would take me only another week as long as I kept the sun on my left cheek in the morning, and on my right after noon. Half a-way to the prize now, I had just won the keystone that day and was ready to celebrate alone with a sour drink and a crust of bread.
I’d started out at Cave Hollow up where Injun Joe been buried alive, but since I didn’t aim to remember my wayward boyhood every day ’til I growed old, I struck out for the Ozarks where caves was plentiful and folks warn’t known for asking questions. All I knowed for sure was that ruther than listen to the current of the Mississippi below the cliff face all day pulling at me to drift on, soon I’d be hearing the soft slurp of waves on a rocky shore somewhere closed off from any other body of water.
On the way down thar I ran acrost a one-road town with a saloon that once’d been used to waylay travelers turning south from the east-west road. The burg itself was barely there, just the bones of buildings, with the houses spaced at such a distance from one another you wondered if the owners warn’t being extra mindful of the range of buckshot.
Their saloon was a former country home where ruther than putting up bird-feeders it offered up its walls to woodpeckers. A porch had been hastily built to take in sudden business moving in the other direction—from south to north, in the aftermath of Lincoln’s war. It hadn’t rained for days, yet the roof looked badly rained-on. As for the old saloon itself, ’t was well occupied with rum-dums, though most was asleep or mighty close to ’t.
Seeing my ragged shoulder bag and my generally hungry appearance, the proprietor cleared all the cash from the bar top and didn’t mind that I seen him do it. His yaller hair flared out from his brow and temples like a lion’s mane and his beard, of a slightly darker hue, was trimmed to a p’int. Behind him were his wife and another feller, sleek as a leopard, who served drinks. “Where you running from?” his wife says before I even take the stool. I hadn’t made it far enough into the hills yet that I was rid of the hen mothers whose occupation was to nose into others’ business.
“St. Petersburg. But I ain’t a-running.” She could see plainly I hadn’t a pack to lay down, much less a horse to haul it on. The counter had used to be white, with tan streaks made up to look like ivory—the one lavish detail in an otherwise run-down saloon—which had faded and soiled to a cracked brown. Even so, they judged me a vagabond, unworthy of sharing patronage with the drunken wastrels and assorted scoundrels who commanded the share of the room. My misfortune was that I’d have to wait ’til they were done a-pestering me before I could get on my way and properly call myself a hermit on his way to a lonely death.
“What are your plans?” she says, and I had sudden visions of Susie and Faith and Mama Sereny and Aunt Lily and Tom’s Aunt Polly and the one thousand women I growed up under and had at long last broken away from.
“To live until I’m dead,” I says. “Preferably someplace southern and lonesome.”
The barman nodded like he heard it all before, and I s’pose he must have. “Think that you’ll find the right life there?” he says. His tolerance for brooding strangers was lower than the missus’.
The second feller kep’ checking over his shoulder, showing his whiskers, his face pockmarked like a leopard’s skin. His arms were bare, to show the work he put into ’em, I reckon, and the muscle moved beneath the skin like rats burrowing through a sack of feed. They was powerful suspicious of this stranger in their midst, I reckoned, and it was this other feller’s job to sort out suspicious strangers. I’d just walked in the door, hardly, and it already brung back to me the reason I designed never to see hide or hair of another human being for the duration of my mortal life. “Just the ordinary sort. I’ve taken up too many high-minded dreams already.”
To this news he only nodded, for he couldn’t have knowed how many years I’d spent following that rascal Tom Sawyer, drunk with the borrowed vision of a man worthy of the title “Joe Harper the Terror of the High Seas,” and how much harm I’d done in the world trying to live up to that name.
“You ain’t unique,” he says. The barman dasn’t lie. “Leastways you’ll be warm,” he says, “down South.” His wife spat on the counter and scrubbed it fiercely, though the froth of her mouth did naught to erase the filth that was caught between the cracks.
I sat ca’m and pacific ’til I glimpsed they was both staring at me like a deer tick.
“D’you got any three-day loaves in back?” I ask.
“D’you got any nickels?” he says.
“I was goin’ to ask for the crusts, if you had left-overs.”
“I don’t store old food,” he says.
As a St. Petersburg boy, I reckoned this was the height of human folly. “None of your patrons is poor?”
“The wise ones carry coins when they walk into a saloon,” he says.
“No,” the wife says, as if to her husband, just loud enough to absorb from where I sat, “The wise ones move on, ’stead of taking up precious air in Lone Jack.”
Her hint was blunt as a butter knife. “I guess I ain’t wise,” I says.
“It’s the foolish you oughter worry about,” the woman says, slowly and full of hidden intention. “They git lost sometimes and you never hear from ’em agin.”
The only thing that kep’ my mouth from pronouncing “This is lost, ma’am,” was my manners from having been raised under those one-thousand women I tole you about.
“D’you got a spare room to let?” I ask.
“D’you got any nickels?” the man says.
I reached in my poke and fingered the two di’monds I kep’ from my pirating days. I weighed the risk of revealing them with the risk of starving, and judging that there wouldn’t be another saloon on this road until the great saloon in the sky, I chanced it. Pulling them out of the poke and placing them on the bartop, I says, “Sorry, no. I only got di’monds, and I don’t aim to buy the building.”
She hid it well, but the wife she flashed a wolfish smile. The barman he kep’ a face of a stone lion. “I’ll entertain your ruse, and let on those are real di’monds,” he says, “I s’pose I’d give you a month’s room and board for the big’un.”
“I s’pose you won’t,” I says. “You never seen a di’mond like this ’less you been to El Dorado.”
He looked at his wife but she warn’t taking her eyes off the di’monds. Though she was old enough to be sunken cheeked and worry-lined, and half the weight of her husband, you could see by the rim of her one wide eye that she was the one to be a-feared. “All right. You can have the swill ale and crumbs, but I ain’t cooking for you. One night is all you are welcome to.”
I judged the free food and drink would suit me, but I dasn’t take a free bed. It could ’a been an act of Christian charity, I s’pose, but I reckoned these good country folks just wanted to rob this vagabond of his di’monds while he slep’.
Phong Nguyen is the author of two short fiction collections, Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History and Memory Sickness. His stories have been published in more than 40 national literary magazines, including Agni, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Boulevard, Massachusetts Review, Chattahoochee Review, Florida Review, Mississippi Review, and North American Review. Nguyen’s storieshave been given special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology, and have won the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award. He is Editor of Pleiades: Literature in Context and serves as an Associate Professor of English at the University of Central Missouri. He studied writing and publishing at Emerson College (MA) and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (PhD). Learn more about The Adventures of Joe Harper.
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