Monday, June 29, 2009

"Uncle Snuffy on Doomsday"

This weekend I was going through my list of stories I've written over the past several years, looking at where I'd sent them and at their rejections. I generally send a story to at least five or six markets before deciding whether or not to give up on it. Then I thought, why not put some of them on my blog? I'm not sending them out anymore, so why not post them? I'm not doing this hoping someone will see them and want to publish them. That's extremely unlikely. So why am I doing it? Maybe because I hope you'll enjoy them. They're not doing me much good sitting on my hard drive.

So here's a story I wrote at Clarion in 2004. I sent it out to six different markets, got six different rejections. Several editors liked it, just not enough to buy it. Some of the editors didn't like the name Uncle Snuffy, saying that it reminded them (and would remind readers) of the comic strip Snuffy Smith. Does anyone under the age of 40 even remember Snuffy Smith? Didn't think so. But I still like Uncle Snuffy and the other characters. Who knows - I might even use them again.

Uncle Snuffy on Doomsday

“Don’t tell your Aunt Mabel ‘cause she’ll blab it all over town, but the world’s gonna end pretty soon, couple of months, tops. I seen it on the TV a few weeks back. Took my money out of the bank this mornin’. You should too.”

Uncle Snuffy winked at his nephew, leaned over the right side of his worn black La-Z-Boy and spat. A stream of Beech Nut tobacco juice the length of a shoelace spurted into an unlabeled silver coffee can.

Mark took another drink of his Budweiser and wondered if Uncle Snuffy had gone to the bank looking like he did at that moment, with uncombed puffs of white hair sticking out in every direction, a three-day growth on his leathery face, and wearing a one-piece khaki work outfit. Wouldn’t you want your last time at the bank to look a little more dignified?

“End of the world?” Mark said. “You can’t mean it!”

No matter how old he got, Mark’s voice always regressed to childish incredulity when Uncle Snuffy started in on his predictions. It was bad enough that, at thirty, Mark still looked like a kid with a baby face and wispy blond hair. He hated that he sounded so young, as well.

“Come on, Uncle Snuffy. You don’t really think the world’s going to end soon. That’s just silly.”

Mark turned from his seat on the floral-patterned couch and glanced out the living room window. His six-year-old son Jonathan was playing with his toy dump truck in Uncle Snuffy’s front yard.

“Damn right it’s gonna be soon,” Uncle Snuffy said. He leaned forward in his chair and a small cloud of acrylic stuffing burst out from one of the chair’s many cracks. Uncle Snuffy’s toes pointed in on each other as if magnetized. Mark realized he’d never seen his uncle in shoes, only a pair of yellow cotton socks.

“Them guys on the TV, they ain’t hardly ever wrong about that stuff. Oh, they screw up the weather damn near every day, but they hit this one right on. Gonna rain today, by the way. My joints is actin’ up.”

Mark looked out the window again. It was getting a little cloudy. Maybe he’d better---no, he’d let Jonathan stay out for a few more minutes.

He thought about the company picnic next weekend and wondered if Jonathan would have anyone his age to play with. That would be nice. It would also be nice to get that promotion, the one they announced every year at the picnic. Mark had spent eighteen months of overtime to earn it, far more than anyone else.

Aunt Mabel’s shrill voice shot out from the adjoining kitchen. “Norton! What are you talking about in there? Are you telling those lewd stories again?” Mark smelled turnip greens and sweet potatoes. He always tried to think of a way to avoid Mabel’s greens when he visited, but could never figure out how.

“I ain’t tellin’ nothin’ dirty, Mabel!” Uncle Snuffy bellowed. The old man still had a strong lung capacity at age seventy-seven. Practice, maybe.

“Lookit,” Uncle Snuffy said in a low voice, pulling out a tattered book from the bookcase behind the chair. He showed Mark a brittle page with an intricate diagram of triangles and circles drawn in tiny handwriting. The old man pointed to a series of overlapping circles that looked no different from any of the others on the page.

“See this?” Uncle Snuffy said.

Mark leaned over. He thought it was the oldest book he’d ever seen. “Yeah.”

“I read this and didn’t give it no mind until I saw that show. Now they said on the TV that an incident at a major public event would take place, followed by a flood, followed by the collapse of a major source of transportation.” Uncle Snuffy leaned back and held his chin up, like he’d just won the lottery. “Wanna know what them things were?”

Mark was about to say no, but got distracted by the shattering sound of a pan hitting the kitchen floor. “Aw, shuckins!” Aunt Mabel said.

Uncle Snuffy ignored the distraction, leaning forward in his chair as if Mark had just given his full approval to continue.

“First,” the old man said, “we had that incident at the Tater Festival last weekend. Remember? Dub Nelson’s runner-up pig got loose and ate every last bit of Sarah Mitchell’s chili. Folks thought Sarah might win the chili cook-off this year, ‘course now we’ll never know.”

“Uncle Snuffy,” Mark said, “outside of the county, the Tater Festival doesn’t count as a major public event.”

“Second!” Uncle Snuffy said, holding up an index finger, “With all the rain we had over the weekend, Kelsey’s Creek flooded on Monday.”

“Just how bad was this ‘flood’?”

“Ruined Kelsey’s basement! Damn near destroyed his Tulsa Drillers baseball card collection.” Uncle Snuffy grimaced and spat into the coffee can. Mark thought the memory must be painful for his uncle, to say nothing of Kelsey, so he remained respectfully silent.

“And third!” Uncle Snuffy said, raising two fingers, “The bus to the nursing home broke down on Tuesday.”

“You can’t really call that a collapse of a major source of transportation.”

“I heard Annabelle Fitzhugh started smashing plates and stompin’ on Alka Seltzer tablets ‘cause she couldn’t get to Tuesday Night Bingo. I’d call that a collapse, yessir!”

Mark shook his head and drank his beer. The old man was reaching new heights of lunacy, no doubt about it. But Uncle Snuffy had been right about some pretty unbelievable events before: the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the 2000 Presidential election, and Julia Roberts winning the Oscar for Erin Brockovich.

“Okay, Uncle Snuffy, I’ll admit you’ve gotten a few things right in the past, but you’ve really blown some, too. Texas never formed their own country, Nixon never landed on Jupiter, and Elvis never came back to coach the New Orleans Saints. So when you say the end of the world is just around the corner, I just can’t buy it.”

Mark shook his head and noticed movement near the window. He glanced back and saw that eight-year-old Sammy Justus had just walked across the street to play with Jonathan. Mark wasn’t wild about Sammy or his parents. For one thing, they allowed their dogs to run around the neighborhood unleashed. And Mr. and Mrs. Justus were both pet psychologists.

“I can see you might be a touch skeptical,” Uncle Snuffy said. “But here’s the kicker: it’s all here in the book!” He thumped the page with the drawings. Dust particles flew from the book to the floor. Some drifted into the coffee can.

“Just what book is that?” Mark asked, leaning forward for a closer look.

Uncle Snuffy looked at Mark and pointed a thumb toward the kitchen. He mouthed the words “Is she looking?” The old man shaped his hands like binoculars and brought them up to his eyes.

Mark glanced over to the kitchen and shook his head, hoping Aunt Mabel wouldn’t see the motion.

Uncle Snuffy waved Mark closer. Mark sat on the edge of the couch and perched his elbows on his knees. In the kitchen, Mabel was humming “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

“This here book,” Uncle Snuffy whispered, “is the official personal journal of Nathan Bedford Smoot!” He smiled and nodded with obvious pride.

“Who’s Nathan Bedford Smoot?”

Uncle Snuffy frowned and closed the book to his chest. “Boy, they didn’t teach you nothin’ at that school you went to. What was that place called?”

“Chapel Hill,” Mark said.

Uncle Snuffy’s eyes grew wide. “Well, they didn’t teach you spit about American History! Nathan Bedford Smoot was a private in the Confederate Army in the War of Northern Aggression. Now as a soldier, he couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if you put the instructions on the heel. But he was an envisionary!” Uncle Snuffy waved the book in his left hand, then leaned over and spat another stream of Beech Nut into the coffee can. “He predicted all kinds of stuff in this book. I found it at an American Legion book sale last month.”

“What’s he say in the book?” Mark asked. He glanced outside and saw Jonathan sitting on the ground, watching Sammy Justus. Sammy was trying to get his black Lab Dixon to do some type of trick.

“This page is a series of math’matical formulas that tell you what could happen during certain times of the year,” Uncle Snuffy said.

“And you understand the math?” Mark said.

“Hell no, but I can read his chart. Smoot explains it all in the back of the book. Any idiot can figure it out. It’s got to do with the stars and full moons and animal behavior and all that stuff. Well, he predicted the incident, the flood, and the transportation breakdown!”

“Come on, how’d he do that?”

Uncle Snuffy looked at his nephew with half-closed sleepy eyes. “What do I look like, boy, Alex Tree-beck? I don’t know how he did it! I just know he’s right! Two, three more months and this’ll all be over!”

“So what are you going to do?” Mark asked. The boys were still outside with the dog.

“Thought I’d run off to one of them casinos down on the coast. Always wanted to go, but Mabel would never let me. Pretty soon money ain’t gonna do anybody any good. Might as well have some fun!” Uncle Snuffy laughed with his tongue hanging out. Mark backed up on the couch. His uncle hadn’t brushed.

“But what about Aunt Mabel?” Mark said.

“Hell, I’m leavin’ her half the money I took out. She can do what she wants with it. I just don’t want her to know about it ‘til after I’m gone. Might try and stop me. Fewer people that know, the better. I’m just following my dream. Everybody should have a dream, Mark. You should take Jonathan and do something fun while you still got the time.”

Mark didn’t believe one word about the end of the world prediction, but Uncle Snuffy was right about one thing: he should spend more time with Jonathan, especially since Mark was the boy’s only parent. Jonathan kept growing so fast; he wouldn’t stay a little boy forever. For the first time, Mark thought about skipping the company picnic and taking an early vacation. Jonathan might like Universal Studios or maybe Sea World. Someplace big and fun.

Mark looked out the window. Jonathan wasn’t there. Neither was Sammy Justus or Dixon.

The screen door to the kitchen slammed and Mark bolted up. He saw Jonathan from the living room and sat back down, relieved.

“Hey Aunt Mabel!” Jonathan announced. “Guess what?”

“What, sweetheart?” Mabel said. She set the greens on the kitchen table and gave Jonathan her full attention.

Jonathan stuck his head out the kitchen door. “Come on in, Sammy!”

Jonathan held the door open. Sammy and his dog Dixon walked into the kitchen. “Go ahead, Sammy, put the glasses on him!”

Sammy reached into his jeans pocket, took out a pair of wire-rimmed glasses and placed them on Dixon’s nose.

“Okay, boy,” Sammy said, petting the dog.

The dog sniffed in the direction of the greens, cleared his throat, and spoke. “The end, ladies and gentlemen, is coming soon.”

Jonathan tugged at his aunt’s apron and grinned. “Ain’t that somethin’, Aunt Mabel?”

Aunt Mabel smiled like that was the sweetest thing she’d ever seen. Mark stared at the dog in astonishment.

Uncle Snuffy slumped in his chair and shook his head. “Hell, now everybody knows.”


John said...

he couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if you put the instructions on the heel

You made my day. Thanks. Can't wait to see what else you post.

Unknown said...

I remember Snuffy Smith, but I'm almost to your age cut-off. Not quite though.

Unknown said...

I remember that story! Not the comic, which is before my time, but the actual story you wrote.