Thomas M. Atkinson | Standing deadwood

Thomas M. AtkinsonTHE RACCOON TOOK A CRAP IN MY TRUCK LAST NIGHT. Inside the cab, in the cup-holder. I was still a little bleary this morning and my coffee thermos wouldn’t sit straight so I kept trying to push it down. That’s how my day started. That and a sore knee. He must have dropped down out of the pine and pushed in the cardboard I had over the busted rear window. I can’t remember what Gwen threw to break that out. Back when she still had the strength to throw stuff and hadn’t pawned everything in the house worth throwing.

Some night if I can stay awake long enough, I’m going to put out a can of Super Seafood Supper cat-food and when he’s fat and happy and licking out the bottom of the can, I’ll shoot that little fucker right through his eye, just so he knows it was me. Skin him out and hang his carcass in a tree to warn off his buddies. I’m starting to believe the house was built on sacred ground, cursed by a great Ohio chief like Cornstalk, right before one of my wife’s relatives cut off his nut-sack for a tobacco pouch. I don’t know what else would explain everything going insane, even the animals. My great-grandmother was Shawnee, and claimed an unbroken bloodline back to Black Wolf, who raided up and down the Big Sandy and Tug Fork, down into Virginia and crossing the big river up into this part of Ohio, killing the men and babies, stealing the women, and trading the children to faraway tribes. But besides black hair thick as fishing line, which I passed on to my daughter, and being a sorry, sloppy, and cheap drunk, I don’t see it when I look in the mirror. That’s why I can’t ever catch him, because by my third beer I’m either drooling on the sofa or I’m out on a tear chasing down Gwen.

This time last year I got the ladder to clean the leaves and needles out of the gutters. Blocked gutters in the winter can cause ice dams and do all kinds of damage. I was a roofer for seventeen years right out of high school, back before the Mexicans started doing it for free, and I got nothing to show for it except bad knees and a shingle hatchet under the seat of my truck that slides out if I brake too hard. Now I work at the discount tire place over on Route 4. Down the whole length of gutter on the east side of the house, every six inches, like he had a tape measure, were little piles of raccoon turds. Not piles that had been on the roof and got washed in by the rain, but direct deposits. In the quiet hours of the night, a raccoon is climbing on my roof just so he can hang his fat ass off and crap in my gutter. I don’t know why. There’s a square hole in the front porch where there used to be a rail post and he likes to go in there too. Last August he took a dump in the swimming pool of Amber’s Barbie Wee Three Friends Splash Splash Splash Playset and chewed off the little blue plastic umbrella. She and the Wee Three Friends were already living with my sister up outside Akron by then so we both didn’t have to watch her mom go bat-shit crazy every couple of days. She asks about it every time I call, and if she doesn’t forget about it soon I’ll have to get my mother-in-law to find a used one on the eBay to send her for Christmas.

When I got to work Billy was already out in the service truck and Grimace was climbing up out of the pit from underneath an old BMW.

He said, “Hey, Chief.” But it didn’t really sound any more like Chief this morning than it did any other morning. Billy named him Grimace after that purple thing in the old McDonald’s commercials. A few years back, the batch of meth he was cooking blew up in his face, so like the original, he has no ears or nose to speak of and what’s left of his lips are pulled back so tight he has a hard time closing them around words or food. Every morning his senile mother paints eyebrows on the angry purple skin and he lets her because it was her house that got burned to the ground. They change a little each day and sometimes it can take hours to put your finger on just what mood he looks like he’s in. But not today.

I said, “Concerned. You look concerned.”

Grimace said, “Really?”

He’s not big on mirrors and each morning it’s up to me to let him know how it turned out. He thought a moment and said, “Yeah, I am.  But I wonder how she knows?”

More often than not, Ma Grimace’s work with the eyeliner pencil seems to capture what’s going on behind the hillbilly botox.

I said, “Mothers know these things.” And there was a time that I believed that, back before Gwen left Amber alone with only a cigarette smoldering in the shag carpet to keep her company.

Grimace worked his chin against the pull of scar tissue and said, “They’s holding a driver’s side caliper for me over at the Beemer store. Hey, you know the difference ‘tween a BMW and a porcupine?”

Counting Billy, I’d heard it at least twice for every BMW we’d ever put tires on, but it was so painful to watch him get out “porcupine” that I just said, “Seems like I’ve heard this one.”

He said, “Porcupine has the pricks on the outside.”

Grimace’s laugh would scare Christ down off the cross.

He said, “If you go get it for me, I’ll fix that flat that’s waiting on you. Billy don’t have to know.”

Billy likes Grimace to take care of his own work, even if that means a customer lounge full of staring strangers on his way to a parts counter. Me, I don’t mind helping him out.

I said, “Is that it?”

He said, “That’s it, Chief.”

On the way to the BMW dealer, I could hear a song in my head like the bandit raccoon had returned the ghost of my stolen CD player. It was “Chief,” by a singer named Patty Griffin. I used to like it, liked it so much I bought the cd for Gwen, called “1,000 Kisses,” and gave it to her on Valentine’s Day. At first, Gwen and Amber would sing and dance around the kitchen. Then Gwen started listening to it over and over, just that one song, and she’d sing along with the part about dreaming and flying and laughing “way up high” as loud as she could. And hour after hour, day after day, that’ll wear on you. I came home from work one cold October day and Amber was sitting up in a pine, in a little pony t-shirt and stocking feet because freezing to death seemed better than another four hours three minutes at a time. I went in the house and snapped “1,000 Kisses” into a thousand pieces and that was the last time I’ve heard it anywhere except inside my own head. For a while I tried to remember the lyrics, like maybe there was a riddle hidden in there somewhere, but all I could ever hear was the part Gwen sang.

But nobody but Grimace ever called me “Chief,” and I can’t remember now whether I first liked the song because he called me that, or if the name came later, in one of those twists you won’t ever figure out. I could ask him, like I could buy another “1,000 Kisses,” but either one would make the answer disappear like summer fog. Better that it’s out there and I never find it than have it gone forever.



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3 Responses to Thomas M. Atkinson | Standing deadwood

  1. Bonnie Durrance September 2, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    Good story! Stayed with it.
    One question: have you actually seen a raccoon leave his scat in a cup?
    Where I am, the fox will do that, just for fun. She particularly loves to leave it in my shoe. But the raccoons have their own latrine.

    • Thomas M. Atkinson September 2, 2014 at 9:03 am #

      Thanks, Bonnie. To answer your question, no, but only because the cup wasn’t available. The gutters is “real life” and we had one that was particularly fond of the cut-out left from a missing deck post.

  2. EJ Runyon September 2, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    Moon Magazine,
    Thanks so much for bringing us this piece. This was wonderful to read, I kept wanting to turn and show someone just how much a line affected me.

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