THE BIG SNAPPER from Tales of Bridgeton by Mike Knoedler

 

 

The last time I’d run into Benny Unertal was in the bathroom at the Bridgeton outdoor swimming pool.  I was peeing.  Wearing just my suit.  Didn’t hear him come in until he was standing behind me.  His knees against my rear end. Forcing me into the urinal.  I was small for a nine-year-old.  Slid in easily.  Bare-foot in my own piss.  Benny’s warm urine splashing on my ankles.  Listening to Frankie Kronenwetter laugh.  “Gotta keep a watch out, little Mickey.”

This time I was playing under the suspension bridge that stretched from the public library in Bridgeton, across Little Bull Falls along the Wisconsin River, to the paper mill on the other side.  I wasn’t supposed to climb down the ten-rung iron ladder attached to the bridge.  To avoid the poison ivy, my mother exaggerated.  “Grows among the boulders like the quack grass in my garden.”  My brother, Dennis, exploded with a terrible case of the welts and itching two summers ago.  I believed catching it along the river was possible.  But Mother mostly feared something else: that one slip along the turbulent river would leave her in tears for the rest of her life.  I didn’t believe that could possibly occur because the river was too rich in temptation.  Just a block from our backyard.  Dennis fished near the dam whenever he wanted.  No reason I should miss out on those same adventures.

I’d just spent fifteen minutes operating with a sharp stick.  Probing the belly and puncturing the eyes of a carp discarded by a fisherman.  Now, approaching the root-beer colored pool just below the dam at the falls.  Lost in a spell conjured by a forbidden spot on the river.  I saw Benny.  He heard me, despite the rushing water.  Looked up from a table-top rock where he stood along the shoreline.  His black hair usually greased back into a perfect ducktail hanging in tangled strands over his face.  Hiding his scruffy beard.  Shirtless and shoeless. Wearing only muddied and crimson-streaked white briefs.  The fist I feared so much at the end of his muscled right arm held a knife.  He stared at me another thirty seconds then resumed his work.

I knew I should sneak back over the rocks and climb up the ladder.  But Benny held me there.  Digging with his knife again.  I took ten more steps.  Nearly stepped on the discarded head of the giant snapping turtle.  Benny pressed the writhing torso, belly side up, onto the rock.  Working the knife above the turtle’s claw.  The four legs squirmed in every direction.  Like they could run away.  Without looking up, Benny said, “He’s dead.  Just doesn’t know it yet.  Mickey, push down on him while I cut the claws.”

I stood alongside Benny.  Hands in my pocket.  The turtle’s tail twitched madly.  Warning me away.  “He’s immense.  Where’d you catch him?”

“Just below the pool.  Forced a stick across his mouth and he clamped on.  Dragged him over here.”

I thought about the carp, a species whose sole purpose seemed to be to encourage mutilation.  “What are you doing to him?”

“Carvin’ him up.  Push down with both hands so I can finish with these claws.”

He smiled and took a drag from his cigarette.  “He can’t bite and his claws won’t get you once I finish cuttin’ them off.”

Over the next forty-five minutes, Benny dissected the turtle.  Amputating the rest of the claws.  Popping off the hard underbelly.  Removing the meat from the thighs and neck.  Skinning the fat away from the red pulp.  His plastic bag full of meat next to the cleaned out carapace.  “Ma’s not that great a cook.  Except for turtle stew.”

He washed his knife in the river.  Licked the cuts on his hands.  Sat down for one more cigarette.  Slipped out of his soiled underwear and into his jeans, t-shirt and boots.  “You down here much, Mickey?”

“Sometimes, if Mom doesn’t know where I am.”

“Maybe I’ll see you again.”

That night, while I was drying the dishes, I asked Mom if she’d ever tasted turtle stew.  “Just once.  As they say about lots of wild meat, kind of tastes like chicken, only tougher.”

“I was on the bridge today.  Saw Benny Unertal catching turtles.”

“I suppose his family eats a lot of game.  They don’t have as much as a lot of people around town.”

Two months later, Benny and Frankie Kronenwetter approached me as I walked past Tommy Martin’s Pool Hall on Third Street.  I thought about crossing over to the library.  Too late.  Frankie grabbed my jacket at my throat. “Little Mickey, out again without your older brother.  Where’s ‘Denise’?”  Dennis, Frankie and Benny were all in the tenth grade.  “What do you think about this, Benny?”

Benny didn’t say a word.  An unlit cigarette dangled from his chapped lips.  Clicked his lighter open and closed.  Watching Frankie and me.  His knife attached to his black leather belt.  I wondered if the blade still smelled of turtle meat.  Frankie grabbed my Milwaukee Braves baseball cap and twirled it on his index finger.  Yanked my hair until my eyes watered.  “What the fuck, Frankie!”  I didn’t realize the words came out of my mouth until Frankie started laughing uncontrollably.  Benny tried not to, but couldn’t stop himself.  Nearly choking on his cigarette.  “The little pecker thinks he’s got balls, Benny.”

Benny shrugged his shoulders.  Cold-faced again.  Finally lit his cigarette.  Frankie reached down to pull my hair a second time.  Benny blocked Frankie’s arm and took my cap with his other hand.  “Leave him alone, Frankie.  He’s OK.”

Frankie pushed me aside and walked ahead.  Pissed.  Benny followed.  Tossed my cap behind him.  I squatted to pick it up.  Watched them go up the steps into the pool hall.  I headed toward home.  When I turned onto Pine Street, the soft song came out as unexpectedly as my defiance of Frankie Kronenwetter.  “Benny Unertal’s huntin’ turtles, Benny Unertal’s cuttin’ turtles, Benny Unertal’s eatin’…Mama Unertal’s stew.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Two Poems by Dave Benson

Aurora Irrealis
 
We marvel
at a chance encounter
with some incredible person,
a homeless man
who’s read Don Quijote
on the open seas,
a panhandling woman
who feeds her few morsels
to a skinny street mutt—
the magic in everyday life!
Rain drizzling through sunshine,
a little girl singing
to a rainbow snail,
a row of trees dancing
‘neath a blue and white
swirling checkerboard sky,
the wonder of a love
between two distinctly different persons,
and the purity in the passion of poetry:
it didn’t happen, but it’s true,
it’s not true, but it happened—
How can it be that we know
so much and yet so little?
 
              
Pond Trip
Sunlight caresses our faces,
our wooden canoe gently blesses,
cradling our bodies, rocking us
in a mushroom cloud lackadaisical,
you radiant auburn astern,
yo laid back in the bow,
a river between us flowing
upstream and down,
our eyes a leisurely bridge,
the lily pads on the pond
welcome us with tiny waves,
no need for a paddle while
our hands dabble in the water,
a busy dragon fly hovers,
zigs and zags and flirts about,
we giggle at the mad cackling
of your mother in another canoe
with your poor sister on her own
mushroom pad, but not ours

A NOBLE TRUTH by Steven Fortney

India crunches against Asia

And provokes its Himalayas.

 

The leopard stalks

And kills the impala.

 

Then the vile hyena steals

The cat’s capital from her.

 

The plummeting river

Carves canyons in rock.

 

A state declares independence

An anguished nation suffers war.

 

A white man thinks himself creation’s darling

And hangs strange fruit from poplar trees.

 

Men grow separate from women

And dominance and abuse grows.

 

A mother commends her son to war

Wails when he comes home in a box.

 

The camp guard hangs a baby

From a scaffold to praise holocaust.

 

Believers fly airliners into towers.

Thousands die because God is great.

 

Jesus suffers on a cross

Valorizing a young hero’s death.

 

Gotama eats a poisoned stew

Dies an old man, before his time.

 

Where is God? the rabbi cries

Where is God in all this pain?

 

The baby, strange fruit, crucifixion.

The poisoned banquet. Continents.

 

The absolute is on the cross, between Sala

Trees, as cosmos suffers just to become.

 

Becoming is pain. Living is pain.

Dying is pain. It is all pain.

 

WHAT A DAD! by Roy Dorman

 

The Summer of 1969. What a summer it was. However, this story is more about a workplace relationship than what stories of that time are usually about.

I was 22, the lead worker of a labeling crew, working for a local canning company. Six days a week, 10-12 hours a day, making $2.50 an hour. I had worked for this company summers while in school, but was now a permanent employee and considered a lifer by my buddies.

I wound up staying there for five years. I was rich and I was poor. Curse you, Tim Leary, for your lousy advice.

About 9:00 o’clock on a Sunday morning, a co-worker called to enlist my aid. We’ll call him Eddie; not his real name, but a name that fits him as well as his own. Eddie was a few years over twice my age, and while I hadn’t seen much yet, he’d probably seen it all.

A hard worker when sober, he was what today we would call a functioning alcoholic. He was a drifter, as were a number of our co-workers. Eddie claimed to have once been a successful carpenter down in Georgia. He said that after his wife died of cancer, he just didn’t give a damn anymore.

“Roy, I’m at St. Mary’s Hospital; can ya come and pick me up?” Eddie whispered into the phone.

“Geez, Eddie, now what happened?” I asked, yawning into the phone. In those days, my usual Saturday night ended a few hours into Sunday morning and last night had been a usual.

“I was at Ripp’s Bar last night and fell off my bar stool around closing time. They thought I got knocked out when my head hit the floor, but I think passing out was what caused me to tip over. Probably saved me from serious injury too. The dopes called an ambulance and here I am.”

“Sure I’ll come pick you up. Do I just ask for you at the front desk?”

“I knew I could count on you. Yeah, stop at the front desk. But here’s the thing. Ya have to tell them you’re my son and I live with you. Otherwise, they won’t let me out today,” said Eddie, again in a whisper. “They think that I need somebody to watch over me. Ya know, in case I got a concussion or somethin’.”

I thought Eddie probably could use somebody to watch over him on a regular basis, but that was another story. “Yeah, I suppose I can do that. There aren’t any surprises that are going to pop up when I get there, are there?” I asked warily. Eddie was a bit of a rascal and the relationship he had with the truth was often estranged. “They’re not going to ask me to pay your bill, are they?”

“No, no, I got the bill thing all taken care of,” said Eddie. It was becoming clear as to why he had spoken quietly earlier.

The people at checkout looked at me with what appeared to be sympathy. What a good son; comes in to pick up his drunk of a father who had fallen off a bar stool on a Saturday night.

“Come on, Dad, let’s hit the road,” I said as we left his hospital room.

“Don’t lay it on too thick,” whispered Eddie, with conspiratorial smile.

Eddie and I laughed and talked on the drive home from the hospital. He relived what he remembered of the previous night’s incident and then told about a number of other wild escapades in his life before coming to work at the canning company. The tales always involved heavy drinking and carousing into the wee hours.

When we were at work, Eddie was solidly into the boss/employee relationship and usually pretended to be pretty no-nonsense around me. This was the first time we had socialized outside of work and he was a lot looser.

This little vignette took place 45 years ago. It popped into my head recently as I was reading a book of poetry by Charles Bukowski. Those two were about the same age and probably had many of the same life experiences. What great theatre they would have made out drinking together on a Saturday night. I would have gladly paid the price of admission to sit at the bar with them, but I don’t think for a minute I could have kept up.

 

 

 

BOOKS, a poem by Richard Swanson

Fast friends, youthful companions

you loved spending time with, listening to,

fingering for assurance in library alcoves.

In adolescent crises heart-mates.

 

Drudges. Stern family stalwarts

glaring down at you, foisted on you. Blah blah

must-read’s. Wisdom volumes. Good for you,

your snubbing them, but wisely seeing them useful

for propping up hobbled sofas.

 

Bed mates, wildly offbeat, snarky.

On your own, up till dawn with them, you were,

and you could have done that all summer long.

 

Commiserators, through stenchy work days with

puffer-fish bosses and managerial spasms.

Commuter and lunch-hour compadres in the

wearing-down, turgid slog.

 

Sleazy companions. Glitzy, shocking, gossips,

thrilling fast talkers, bad dressers.

You’d never be seen with these types, but in your

hospitalization/near-bankruptcy/divorce

you needed cheap thrills: dog-eared, mauled

best-sellers, fifty cents at Book Schmooze;

two dollars a bag at a down-the-street estate sale.

 

Friends of friends. You’ll love this, you’re informed

by way of introduction, the volume guided into

your palm like a hand placed there for affectionate

greeting, a lifetime closeness in the offing.

(Once you wondered—the text superficial—

if the givers were really those you knew well).

 

Drop-in squatters. Mutterers, droners, hanger-on’s,

self-absorbed, user-friendly riff-raft.

Burnt out hacks trying to sell Plot Device 20 in a

who-cares-who-dunnit last gasp.

For weeks you’ve doled out sympathy for them,

your will to give them haven flagging and frayed.

The library’s Overdue Soon notice is the juice

of your courage to evict them.

 

Chance acquaintances. Stranded, en route to

some big city, you struck up a lasting connection to,

and ran off with, a work you found in that

small town’s motel lounge, the night-clerk dozing.

Imagine your reflex, later, discovering your new find

was one of those wisdom volumes scorned in your youth.

 

The ones that grasped you by the shoulders and

shook you, outlier minstrels of magical insights,

mind-invaders, gravitas seed-sowers,

subversives leading you to the you you’d become,

talking to you even when never beside you for years,

commandingly quiet in your special place for them.

THREE POEMS by John H. Sime

 

THE LEGENDS ARE TRUE

The legends are true.

And don’t give me that look.

That big yellow Moon

Could gnaw your soul.

Instead it melts

The fear.

 

 

KEENING OF THE CAT

No more will the old woman feed the cat.

And we both know it.

I add up the estate, kachunking on the calculator,

While, the cat crouches in the pantry and yowls.

It’s a sound that bores into hearts and memory.

I try not to ponder the cat’s future.

 

TOMBSTONE

There is a tombstone

Next to the road.

The cars go past, the lives

Move on.

The dead don’t care.

The corn stalks across the road

Quiver.

But the tombstone resists that temptation.