Clara Curtis

“Clara bought another freezer.”

These words passed among the neighbors each time it happened, and they all nodded knowingly, having long ago concluded that Clara Curtis had indeed slipped over the edge into a comfortable sort of crazy that was perfectly harmless and acceptable.

It was simple enough, after all; they had all known people who had grown up in the Depression, when every penny, every scrap of cloth, every button or buckle was precious, and the food, well people would have shelves upon shelves of home-canned vegetables, pickles, even meats, and smokehouses were filled with hams and salted sides of beef. So it was only natural that Clara, who was born in Mississippi the very year Calvin Coolidge was elected president, would harbor the bitter memories of her early years and retain the habits of her childhood for a lifetime.

Why, those freezers were just full of frozen food—chops and steaks, bags of blanched limas, green peas and corn, stocks and soups—most of which, they said, were fed to the occasional homeless men who having heard of her soft touch would end up first at her front door, then on her back porch eating a hearty meal, usually with plenty of her homemade yeast refrigerator rolls, which were a highly-regarded addition to the pot luck suppers at St. John’s Methodist Church, where she was a devout attendee and tither. Her neighbors would see them stretched out in a post-prandial snooze on the white wicker settee on her back porch in the warm afternoons, but they were always gone by the morning.

Then there were the dogs. She couldn’t abide cats, Ms. Clara, but she loved dogs, all kinds of dogs, and if she found a stray she would take it home for caring. Those she fed from the heavy sacks of dry dog food she had Kenny the check-out man at the local grocery deliver to her house. Though home deliveries were long a thing of the past for most, Clara, being of such an age and means, was an exception to this rule, and nobody begrudged her the privilege. She was, after all, Mrs. Harvey Curtis, that same Harvey Curtis who was one of the founding fathers of a local oil exploration group that happened upon a rich field in a nearby rural county, resulting in a considerable fortune which the childless Widow Curtis held with formidable tenacity in the palms of her tiny immaculately-groomed hands.

And the flowers, let’s not forget the flowers. Clara’s house, an unpretentious two-storied brick affair with three awkward gables, stood in a space surrounded by a ring of trees that provided shade by degrees according to their nature, but around the building itself circled a ring of light that in the spring brought daffodils of every shape, size and color as well as what one local horticulturalist called “the most magnificent collection of heirloom azaleas in the state”. In the summer her marigolds and zinnias laid a golden/scarlet quilt across her south beds, and in the fall burgundy castor beans towered over crimson cockscomb. The coda of every year was a pirouette of the beautiful old mums that shared her name.

How many freezers did she have? Oh, at least three, some argued four and one or two knowledgeable observers just nodded sagely and whispered “five”. There really was no telling, since the house was old and after all did have a huge basement that was sure to be cluttered with God-knows-what else. But this was bound to be her last one, they nodded. After all, she was what? Nearing ninety? And sure, she got around just fine, called a cab when she needed to go anywhere. She’d had a string of regular drivers from the company over the years, the current one a wiry, sullen young man with a shaved head and tattoos who watched over her like a hawk and helped her in and out of the cab.

“I’m sure she tips him very well”, they’d say with more knowing nods. Her alone in that house without a soul in the world, but all the money! That church itself would have folded a long time ago if it hadn’t been for her. Mr. Curtis had that (much younger) half-brother, of course (a drunk, a wastrel, but handsome as Satan they said) who would probably lay claim to some money, but they knowing Clara and her tight fist knew he wouldn’t get a penny.

Still she was getting on, and it was in October, in the lingering heat of a clinging summer, she died. Her driver, who had to break through a window to enter the house, alerted the authorities. They found Clara downstairs in the basement with a dead puppy in her lap surrounded by not three, but five freezers.; written on the first were Cleatra, Rose, Milo and a dozen others; on the second Ophelia, Casper and Rue in the same number; on the third was Mr. Callahan, the fourth Mr. Jones, and in a far corner, Mr. Curtis.

The Delta Red

As the year cools down, hunters up and down the Mississippi flyway flock to the wild with guns and dogs for game. In the Mississippi Delta, arguably the heart of the flyway, men of a certain feather abandon their usual nests of domesticity for camp, in Irwin Hester’s case his duck camp on Concordia Island in Bolivar County.

“It’s not really an island,” Irwin said. “If anything, it’s a peninsula, since the river makes a tight loop around it.” He looked out the window at the sunset spread out over Arkansas. “You’d think they’d have a special name for a riparian peninsula, but they don’t.”

Irwin retired from what he calls “the oil business” almost a decade ago. He received his degree in geology from Mississippi State in the early 70s and began working with Gulf Oil, stayed with them through the merger, and remained, working his way up the ladder, eventually landing in Pittsburgh at U-PARK. An only child, Irwin never married (“Just too damned busy,” he explained). When he retired in 2012, he came back home to Mississippi, made a home, renewed old friendships, and moved his folks’ old home to the end of a dirt road on Concordia Island. Twice a year, the beginning of duck season and the end, November and January, he holds camp.

“I make real, Texas-style chili,” Irwin said. “It’s the best, and once you’ve had it, you’ll never call anything else chili. I learned to make it when I lived in Austin. I knew a guy who cooked it at his hunt camp up on the Pedernales River. He said he got his recipe from Lady Bird Johnson herself.

Irwin’s chili has no beans, no tomatoes, and no onions. He uses a lean cut of beef, usually a top round, cut into large chunks, coats these in a mixture of smoked paprika, crushed leaf oregano, cayenne, and ground cumin, and browns them in a cast iron Dutch oven. For each pound of beef, he soaks, peels and seeds four anchos. He uses the water from the peppers in the beef, adding more to cover about an inch, and places the heavily-lidded pot in the oven at a low temperature (“Just enough to make it simmer”) in the morning, and by the time the sun begins to go down, the chili must be stirred (“Once is enough”) and returned to the oven until the men return from the field, the fire is blazing, bottles opened, and a guitar is passed around. He keeps a bottle of Crystal hot sauce available.

“It’s as good a bowl of red as you’re going to get on this side of the Mississippi,” Irwin claims.

Believe him.

Kettle-Fried Matzo Balls

The name beneath this recipe from Jackson’s New Stage Theatre’s Standing Room Only: Recipes for Entertaining (1983) is Ellen Douglas, but everyone should know that Ellen Douglas is the pen name for writer Josephine Ayers Haxton. Born in Natchez, she married composer Kenneth Haxton in 1945 and shortly afterwards moved to Haxton’s hometown of Greenville. There she befriended Shelby Foote, Hodding Carter, and other local literati.

According to the author, she entered into a wager with her husband and a mutual friend on who could finish a novel in the least amount of time. She won the bet by writing A Family’s Affairs (1962), which is largely autobiographical in nature, requiring her to get her family’s permission to publish the narrative and resulting in her adoption of the pen name Ellen Douglas. The book not only sold well, but it also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award for best new novel and was named as one the year’s ten best books by The New York Times. Her second work, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), a collection of short stories, also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award, and her 1973 novel Apostles of Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other works include The Rock Cried Out (1973) and A Lifetime Burning (1982). Josephine Haxton died in Jackson in 2012.

Though Ayers was not Jewish, her mother-in-law Ellise Blum Haxton was the daughter of Jewish merchant Aaron Blum of Nelms and Blum department store in Greenville, and this recipe may have come from her kitchen. From my (demonstrably non-Jewish) perspective, fried matzos seem like just another variety of hushpuppy, though serving them with catfish—which is decidedly non-kosher—might be a bit rude. These make a great side for any number of meat dishes—baked chicken or fish, beef roast, what have you—but they’re also a great buffet nosh served with a sauce made with one part each grated horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise seasoned with salt and cayenne to taste.

Soak two matzo crackers in water; drain and squeeze dry. Heat 2 tablespoons chicken fat, and sauté ¼ medium onion until golden brown. Add soaked matzos and cook and stir until the mixture “clears” the skillet. Cool. Add a teaspoon chopped parsley, a teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth teaspoon both ground pepper and nutmeg, two lightly beaten eggs and enough matzo meal (about a quarter cup) to make a soft dough. Let stand for several hours to swell. Shape into small balls. Fry in deep fat (assumedly not lard, jly) until golden brown. The balls can be formed and frozen before frying. (This recipe makes about 20 balls.)

Lucretia’s Beans

“I grew up poor! We were so poor! Rupert, tell them!”

“They were so poor they had to piss in a bucket a block away!” Rupert said from the back porch, where he was working on the lawn mower.

“But we were proud!” Lucretia said. “My mother, she was the old Creole blood. She sold the calas on Dauphine, her apron white as an old nun, stiff as a young priest, and she’d go, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!” And all the girls who worked up in their rooms, they’d come down to get Mama Diart’s cakes for their gentlemen who were sleeping it off in the beds like they’d get the strong coffee from Monsoir’s. The bottle they had already.”

“We ate the rouge ser riz, all the time! If we were lucky, Mama would get the ham joint that Hector Monsoir had saved for her because you see he was secretly in love with Mama from a long time ago when she was so beautiful and slender like a dancer with her laughing eyes.”

“They were so poor, she had to share her brassiere with her sisters!” Rupert tried to crank the lawnmower, but failed and he cussed.

“But not like those beans they make now!” Lucretia shouted. “Pah! Those beans they make now they taste like those little wads of dough the Italians boil to put in that red gravy they make. Beans that have no bones, no flesh, no . . . spirit. They use those big long-nosed beans, those . . . what do they call them, yes, them kidney beans, the light-colored ones like a bean the white people in the country use to put on their meal bread.” She made a face like spitting. “And they should be pissed on! No, she used the little red beans she bought from old Helene on Magazine.”

“They were so poor, if her brothers didn’t wake up with bones, they didn’t have anything to play with!” Rupert pulled the cord and the mower cranked, coughing and spitting. He pushed it into the yard and began mowing.

“She would bring the beans home when she sold her cakes, put them in the big pot on the back of the stove with water enough over the joint and start the laundry for the ladies in the Quarter. All afternoon they’d soak, and she’d start the fire. She had the herbs, too, from the market on Decatur, and pepper. When we all got home she made the rice, and we would eat while all around us we could hear music play and see shadows dancing in the pretty rooms where the ladies sprayed perfumes on the pink lampshades.”

Hugh Dean Encounters the Oyster Cracker

Hugh Dean Miller is one of those people who believe that there is a reason for everything, that his life is a juggernaut of nuts, bolts, and steel plates that steams without perturbation across the stormy waters of existence with a ponderous, placid faith in an eventual haven. No wave nor berg, neither Scylla nor Charybdis will interrupt his voyage.

I often find Hugh Dean’s crow’s nest enviable, but then again, he is regularly beset by petty nuisances of meagre impediment that disturb him by their absence on his charts. Such was the case when Hugh Dean and I were shopping, and he stumbled upon oyster crackers.

“Jesse!” he shouted. “Get over here!”

Two aisles over, I abandoned a fruitless search for large curd cottage cheese and came upon Hugh Dean with sacks of Premium oyster crackers in both hands, wiggling them this way and that, watching the little hexagonals tumble in the cellophane.

“Have you ever seen these?” he asked with a look of naked and furious accusation.

“Yes, Hugh Dean, they’re oyster crackers. Some people put them in soups.”

Typically, Hugh Dean wasn’t listening to me. “You can’t put an oyster on these,” he said. “Do they have oysters in them? They don’t even look like an oyster.” Puzzlement was written all over his face.

“Hugh Dean, that’s just what they’re called,” I tried to explain. “That doesn’t mean you eat them with oysters or they’re made of oysters.  They’re really popular in clam chowder.”

Somehow that made a connection. “Well then why in the hell don’t they call them clam crackers? Or chowder crackers? Who decided to call them oyster crackers anyway? Why would anyone make something like this when you can just crumble up a saltine in your soup like normal people do in the first place?”

Hugh Dean sighed, tossed the sacks back on the rack, and struck out towards the beer cooler. “Jesse, let me tell you something,” he said over his shoulder. “There are some things in the world you ought not waste time worrying over. They’ll just keep you from focusing on the Big Things.”

“Hugh Dean,” I said. “That’s probably the smartest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life.”

Faulkner’s Walk on the Wild Side

In 1931, William Faulkner published his first collection of short stories, These 13, which in addition to some of his most acclaimed and frequently anthologized stories—“A Rose for Emily”, “That Evening Sun,” and “Dry September”—included “Divorce in Naples”, Faulkner’s most direct if not overt exploration of  homosexuality.

Faulkner had already broached the theme in the intimacy between Quentin Compson and his Harvard roommate Shreve McCannon in The Sound and the Fury (1929), and Jenny and Patricia as well as the openly gay lesbian Eva Wiseman in Mosquitoes (1927). He’d renew and expand his depiction of Quentin and Shreve and introduce a parallel relationship with Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Faulkner employed the theme in diverse manners in later works, but “Divorce in Naples” stands as his most explicit work on homosexuality.

Simply put, the story depicts the relationship between two sailors, George (“Greek, big and black, a full head taller than Carl”) and the younger Carl (“with his round yellow head and his round eyes, looking like a sophisticated baby”).

‘THEY CAME INTO THE SHIP together at Galveston, George carrying a portable victrola and a small parcel wrapped in paper bearing the imprint of a well-known ten-cent store, and Carl carrying two bulging imitation leather bags that looked like they might weigh forty pounds apiece. George appropriated two berths, one above the other like a Pullman section, cursing Carl in a harsh, concatenant voice a little overburred with v’s and r’s and ordering him about like a nigger, while Carl stowed their effects away with the meticulousness of an old maid, producing from one of the bags a stack of freshly laundered drill serving jackets that must have numbered a dozen. For the next thirty-four days (he was the messboy) he wore a fresh one for each meal in the saloon, and there were always two or three recently washed ones drying under the poop awning. And for thirty-four evenings, after the galley was closed, we watched the two of them in pants and undershirts, dancing to the victrola on the after well deck above a hold full of Texas cotton and Georgia resin. They had only one record for the machine and it had a crack in it, and each time the needle clucked George would stamp on the deck. I don’t think that either one of them was aware that he did it.’

One night Carl disappears and George, frantic, fails to find him. When Carl returns after three days, he reveals that he has been with a woman, and George kicks him out of their berth only to discover later, after their reconciliation, that Carl was too naive to have sexual congress with the woman, and

“ …two weeks later we were watching him and George dancing again in their undershirts after supper on the after well deck while the victrola lifted its fatuous and reiterant ego against the waxing moon and the ship snored and hissed through the long seas off Hatteras.’

Most of Faulkner’s examinations of same-sex desire focus on men; Faulkner had close relations with many homosexual writers and artists, including his townsman and fellow writer Stark Young and his childhood friend Ben Wasson as well as William Alexander Percy and Lyle Saxon. It goes without saying that while living in New Orleans he doubtless knew many others.

The story draws most directly on Faulkner’s experiences with William Spratling, a down-on-his-knees New Orleans fairy, in sailing to Europe on the West Ivis beginning July 7, 1925 and to Genoa on August 2, where after landing they celebrated their arrival by going drinking with the ship’s officers. The drinking bout turned into a brawl with “pimps and prostitutes”, after which Spratling was arrested and thrown into an Italian prison where during the night he had a “homosexual encounter”. Rape is of course implied, but then again we don’t have any evidence that the encounter wasn’t consensual. The event in Genoa provided the kernel for the story, and Faulkner himself was heard to joke at one point that he was jealous of Spratling.

Faulkner’s representations of human sexuality are ambivalent and veiled. “Divorce in Naples” displays sexual activity blended with romantic idealism and sexual innocence if not confusion, but typically for Faulkner leaves the tension between them suspended.

A Preacher’s Kid from Alligator

Jack’s Skillet: Plain Talk and Some Recipes from a Guy in the Kitchen (Algonquin, 1997), is by Jack Butler, who isn’t just some guy, but a poet and novelist. He was born in Alligator, Mississippi, to a son of Delta gentry who sought the cloth. He attended high school in Clinton, Mississippi, was ordained in Missouri, and earned an MFA from UA (Fayetteville)  in 1979.

Butler’s first novel, Jujitsu for Christ (August House, 1986), told the story of a young man who opens a martial arts school in Jackson, Mississippi. His third book, Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock (Knopf, 1993), employs collage, newspaper excerpts, cartoon reprints, and an omniscient narrator who claims to be either the Holy Ghost or a deceased dog. The novel received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote a food column for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (His 1993 short story collection, Hawk Gumbo, is not a cookbook, but it’s good stuff!).

In Jack’s Skillet, Butler writes about food as pleasure, as ritual, as communication, “satisfaction, the giving and receiving of sustenance and delight.”

“I’m a cook, and I can’t help thinking about food. I’m a novelist, and I can’t help telling stories, I’m a poet, and I can’t help singing out from time to time, As a result, you should think of this book as a story, a story with occasional bursts of paean and dithyramb. The story is the story of our lives with food. I say our.”

“Stories have characters, and this one is no exception. I can’t write about food without writing about people. Stories also have settings and backgrounds. I spent roughly the first twenty years of my life in Mississippi, mostly in the cotton-growing Delta. Then I spent twenty-five or so in Arkansas. You are what you eat, and all my life I’ve eaten Southern. But sort of nouvelle Southern, with pluralistic influences. Semi-enlightened good old boy, you might say.”

“I can’t imagine writing about food and not at some point talking about the absolute best breakfast on earth, which is not, I’m sorry to say, garlic-and-cheese grits, or even pork chops, scrambled eggs, and hot biscuits with strawberry preserves, but novy mit a schmeer-a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese and layered with capers, thin slices of smoked Nova Scotia salmon, tomato, and onion.”

Jack’s Skillet includes such pearls as “Tomato Gravy and Biscuits,” “Mosey Froghead’s Barbecue Sauce,” “A Southerner’s First Meal in Heaven,” “A Grace for the Old Man,” and this nugget:

How to Get Rid of Beer

I’m not a heavy-duty beer drinker. I like stout, and I like Alaskan amber. Which, incidentally, as I found out on my last trip to Alaska, is what they now call the beer formerly known as Chinook. I spent half a week in Fairbanks asking after Chinook and not finding it before anybody bothered to straighten me out. Seems somebody decided that reminding the thirsty customer of the smell of dead fish just at the point of purchase wasn’t all that grand a marketing strategy. Maybe not. The beer’s just as good, either way.

I do like a snappingly cold brewski or two after a long hike or a hot game in the summertime, but I will never park in front of the tube and start in on a sixpack.

Nevertheless, we always seem to have extra beer around the house, lots of extra beer. Usually several different brands. Lately it’s been Pearl Light and Miller Ice Draft. I can, by the way, recommend Pearl Light as an excellent swimming-pool beer for those 100° Arkansas or Carolina or even Connecticut July days. Only seventy calories a can, and it tastes pretty good. I mean really, I’m not kidding, it tastes pretty good. For American beer.

Anyway, what happens is that we have a party or have some people over, so we go out and buy some beer, and then the people bring their own beer, and then everybody winds up drinking white wine or gets into my Wild Turkey while I’m not looking.

So then we have a refrigerator full of beer. It stays full for months and months while I try to figure out ways to get rid of it. And that’s our situation right now.

I can manage a can or two a month myself, if I decide to have boilermakers for a change, but that’s about all, especially during the winter. Clearly, then, I am in need of alternatives. Lately I’ve been experimenting with beer batter. I like batter-fried things. The greasier the better. Grease is good for you, after all. _ And it’s fun to play around with different sorts of batter. I grew up on cornmeal batter and egg batter, though mostly when I do steak fingers or catfish or fried chicken nowadays, as I’ve told you, I just salt, pepper, flour, and fry.

Beer batter is completely different.

The recipe I use is simplicity itself. (I want to caution you that there’s nothing official about this recipe. This is not, repeat not, authentic beer batter.) I put white flour in a bowl, the amount depending on how much batter I think I’m going to need. I sprinkle in some salt according to how salty I think I’m going to want the batter to taste. I cut in some butter or margarine in the ratio of roughly a tablespoon to a cup of flour. I add cold beer, stirring until I have a nice thick batter-liquid, but dense and clinging. I drink the rest of the beer.

Beer batter comes out a lot like tempura, which means it isn’t suitable for just anything. I’ve tried it out on all sorts of things recently, even catfish and chicken livers. On the whole, I don’t think I’d recommend it for most meats, though the chicken livers were just fine hot from the skillet. Jayme liked the catfish, but I had some reservations. My thought is that it would work better for extremely firm-fleshed seafoods, like shrimp and, hm, ah, shrimp.

And vegetables. Beer batter is really great for those deep-fried happy-hour veggie-type gnoshes. It works great for mushrooms, which are almost impossible to get any other sort of batter to stick to. It would, I am sure, if you can bear the concept, work great for nuggets of cauliflower or broccoli, or for dill pickles. It is supreme for onion rings, which I dearly love, and of which good ones are mighty hard to get.

What I do is flour my fryees- the rings, the mushrooms, whatever. Just shake them in a bag with flour, dip them in the batter, drop them in hot oil in a deep fryer, get them golden brown all over, and drain them (beer batter holds a lot of oil).

Then you can sit down with your crunchy munchies and tune in to see what the score of the game is, and whether Mike Piazza has hit any more home runs.

And what the hey, maybe even have a cold beer with your meal. It would be appropriate, and you’d be getting rid of two of the cotton-picking things in one evening.

Beer-Batter Onion Rings

1 cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 small onion, cut into 14″-thick rings
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
6 to 8 ounces beer
Cooking oil for deep-frying

Mix flour and salt. Put flour mixture into a paper bag. Throw in onion rings and shake, then set aside. They should be only lightly coated. Transfer flour to a mixing bowl and cut in butter. Add beer gradually, stirring until batter thickens. Heat cooking oil in a deep fryer (a high-walled skillet will do). The oil is hot enough for frying when water dripped onto the oil pops and sizzles. Coat onion rings thoroughly with batter and drop into oil. Fry until golden brown all over, then remove to paper and drain. This batter will also serve as a fine tempura-style batter for a wide range of vegetables.

A Feast of Feathers

This absolute gem of a story by Jeff Weddle, a man of many parts, but a poet at heart, was inspired by true events. It’s the lead item in his brilliant collection, When Giraffes Flew (SYP; Tallahassee, 2015).

You’re ten years old the day the chickens explode. What could possibly prepare you for this? You’re in the living room watching TV, and you hear the bang out in the yard, and you run to the door. A pickup truck is turned over beside a broken elm tree, and there are chicken crates everywhere and chickens all over the yard. Some of the chickens look dead already, but others are screaming and running around flapping their wings. Poochie and Smoke appear from somewhere out back and lay in on the chickens. They bite the heads and sling the bodies, both just the same, as if they had been taught to do this. They kill the birds and eat their fill, then kill more and leave them lying dead on the lawn.

“Mama,” you scream, but she’s not there. She’s visiting her sister in town, and you’re in the house alone-just you and the wrecked truck in the yard and all those chickens. Dead chickens, dying chickens, chickens being murdered by the dogs. The scene is horrible. Poochie and Smoke fight over a small bird. Poochie has it by the head and Smoke has a wing. The wing rips off, and Poochie backs away, growling.

“Mama,” you scream again.

The driver is still in the truck, but you don’t know this. You don’t even think about him. All you can think about is the chickens in your front yard.

You don’t know how long it is before you think to call somebody. You call your mother at your aunt’s house and tell her what’s happening.

“Calm down,” she says. “Talk slow. Tell me what’s the matter.”

Where do you start? What can you tell her?

“Feathers,” you say. “There are all these feathers. The yard is filled with them.”

“Feathers?”

But that’s all you can think to say. After a while, she stops trying to get the story, and says she’s coming right home. You hang up but don’t dare walk back to the door. Instead, you go back and stare at the television. You turn up the sound so you can’t hear what’s going on outside.

The front door opens. There’s a man standing there, a man you don’t know. He’s bloody and feathers are stuck all over him. He looks like a big, awful rooster. He stands there in your front room for a second then dips over and slides against the wall, all the way to the floor. There’s a wide trail of blood where he slides. You realize this isn’t good.

This is the driver. He’s a farmer from out in the county, and he was on his way to sell his chickens in town. Now he’s had a bad experience in your yard, and his chickens are mostly beyond salvage. Now he’s lying on your living room floor bleeding to death, feathers stuck all over his body. Now you have to deal with him.

But of course you can’t. There’s nothing to do but sit where you are and wait. The noise outside has quieted to the din of a few dozen chickens clucking and squawking. The dogs have followed the man into the house. This is the biggest chicken of them all, and they each know they must have him. Smoke wises up and latches onto his head, just above the cheek, and locks her jaw tight. Poochie has a shoulder. They try their best to sling him around and kill him, but he weighs too much. They growl and jerk, but it’s no good.

You run over and kick the dogs away, but they are crazed with blood. For a moment it looks like they’re going to jump on you, but they don’t; they want the big chicken and nothing is going to keep them from having it.

By the time your mother arrives it’s all over. The man’s face and arm are chewed to pieces. He’s on the floor, dead-blood and feathers stuck all over the floor and walls.

Your mother doesn’t know what to make of any of this. You think she’ll scream or faint, but what she does is scoop you up and run into the bathroom and lock the door.

“Are you okay?” she yells at you. “Are you okay?”

There is no way to answer this question. You sit on her lap and shake your head back and forth, but you don’t know what you’re doing.

A week later, things are mostly back to normal. The truck has been towed away and most of the feathers are gone from the yard. The front room is immaculate. The broken elm tree has been removed. A man from the sheriff’s office has come and taken Smoke and Poochie away. You cried over the dogs.

When the deputy came for them, you tried to keep him away, but you’ve learned now, there’s no fighting a man with a badge and a gun.

Your mother hasn’t left your side in seven days.

“Mama,” you tell her, the chicken man can’t hurt us anymore.”

She smiles the tiniest bit, but you know she believes something different. From now on, every so often, the yard will yield a host of bones.

If there is anything in the world you miss more than your dogs, you don’t want to think of it. At night, now, you wonder about all that road out there. There must be more trucks heading your way, and maybe chickens aren’t the worst of it. It’s hard to imagine this might be true, but something tells you to believe it.

A Dog Named Rex

Consider Gus Levy:

“. . . a nice guy. He was also a regular fellow. He had friends among promoters and trainers and coaches and managers across the country. At any arena or stadium or track Gus Levy could count on knowing at least one person connected with the place. He knew owners and ticket sellers and players. He even got a Christmas card every year from a peanut vendor who worked the parking lot across from Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. He was very well liked. (A Confederacy of Dunces, p. 202)

Levy was also the owner of Levy Pants, of late the workplace of Our Hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, where he had made himself at home among the filing cabinets, posting a a hand-lettered sign saying “Department of Research and Reference: I. J. Reilly” (97). Gus Levy met Ignatius after a fracas in the office left Ignatius and his co-worker, Miss Trixie in a heap on the floor. Intent on making a positive impression, Ignatius had announced to Levy that he has taken an interest in his business and will help him with innovations. But Ignatius quite to the contrary, responds to a letter from a client, Abelman’s Dry Goods, with extensive insults and addresses Abelman as “Mongoloid, Esq.” (105). Abelman, obviously not to be intimidated, responds with a threat of legal action.

After discovering his company is on the brink of bankruptcy because of the bungling machinations of a cloistered, anachronistic crusader, Gus Levy, after convoluted campaign, finally reaches the home of his antagonist on Constantinople Street in a declining neighborhood among

(31) a block of houses built in the 1880s and 90s, wooden Gothic and Gilded Age relics that dripped carving and scrollwork, Boss Tweed suburban stereotypes separated by alleys so narrow that a yardstick could almost bridge them and fenced in by iron pikes and low walls of crumbling brick. The larger houses had become impromptu apartment buildings, their porches converted into additional rooms. In some of the front yards there were aluminum carports, and bright aluminum awnings had been installed on one or two of the buildings. It was a neighborhood that had degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a block that had moved into the twentieth century carelessly and uncaringly—and with very limited funds.

 The address . . . was the tiniest structure on the block, aside from the carports, a Lilliput of the eighties. A frozen banana tree, brown and stricken, languished against the front of the porch, the tree preparing to collapse as the iron fence had done long ago. Near the dead tree there was a slight mound of earth and a leaning Celtic cross cut from plywood.

(307) Mr. Levy climbed the steps and read the “Peace at Any Price” sign tacked to one of the porch posts and the “Peace to Men of Good Will” sign tacked to the front of the house. This was the place all right. Inside a telephone was ringing.

 “They not home!” a woman screamed from behind a shutter next door. “They telephone’s been ringing all morning.”

 The front shutters of the adjoining house opened and a harried

 (308) looking woman came out on the porch and rested her red elbows on her porch rail.

 “Do you know where Mr. Reilly is?” Mr. Levy asked her.

 “All I know is he’s all over this morning’s paper. Where he oughta be is in a asylum. My nerves is shot to hell. When I moved next door to them people, I was signing my death warrant.”

 “Does he live here alone? A woman answered the phone once when I called.”

 “‘That musta been his momma. Her nerves is shot, too. She musta went to get him out the hospital or wherever they got him.”

 “Do you know Mr. Reilly well?”

 “Ever since he was a kid. His momma was sure proud of him. All the sisters at school loved him he was so precious. Look how he ended up, laying in a gutter. Well, they better start thinking about moving off my block. I can’t take it no more. They’ll really be arguing now.”

 “Let me ask you something. You know Mr. Reilly well. Do you think he’s very irresponsible or maybe even dangerous?”

 “What you want with him?” Miss Annie’s bleary eyes narrowed. “He’s in some other kinda trouble?”

 “I’m Gus Levy. He used to work for me.”

 “Yeah? You don’t say. That crazy Idnatius was sure proud of that job he had at that place. I useta hear him telling his momma how he was really making good. Yeah, he made good. A few weeks and he was fired. Well, if he worked for you, you really know him good.”

 Had that poor Reilly kook really been proud of Levy Pants? He had always said that he was. That was one good sign of his insanity.

 “Tell me. Hasn’t he been in trouble with the police. Doesn’t he have some kind of police record?”

 “His momma had a policeman coming around her. A regular undercover agent. But not that Idnatius. For one thing his momma likes her little nip. I don’t see her drunk much lately, but for a while there she was really going good. One day I look out in the backyard and she had herself all tangled up in a wet sheet hanging off the line. Mister, it’s already took ten years off my life living next to them people. Noise! Banjos and trumpets and screaming and hollering and the TV. Them Reillys oughta go move out in the country somewheres on a farm. Every day I gotta take six, seven aspirin.” Miss Annie reached inside the neckline of her housedress to find some strap that had slipped from (309) her shoulder. “Lemme tell you something. I gotta be fair. That Idnatius was okay until that big dog of his died. He had this big dog useta bark right under my window. That’s when my nerves first started to go. Then the dog dies. Well, I think, now maybe I’ll get me some peace and quiet. But no. Idnatius is got the dog laid out in his momma’s front parlor with some flowers stuck in its paw. That’s when him and his momma first started all that fighting. To tell you the truth, I think that’s when she started drinking. So Idnatius goes over to the priest and ax him to come say something over the dog. Idnatius was planning on some kinda funeral. You know? The priest says no, of course, and I think that’s when Idnatius left the Church. So big Idnatius puts on his own funeral. A big fat high school boy oughta know better. You see that cross?” Mr. Levy looked hopelessly at the rotting Celtic cross in the frontyard. “That where it all happened. He had about two dozen little kids standing around in that yard watching him. And Idnatius had on a big cape like Superman and they was candles burning all over. The whole time his momma was screaming out the front door for him to throw the dog in the garbage can and get in the house. Well, that’s when things started going bad around here.”

 While Levy was absorbing this information, Ignatius and his mother came wheeling to the curb before the house, and were promptly engaged in an imbroglio over Inez’s engagement to the gentle, well-meaning Claude Robichaux. Gus Levy stood, transfixed by the absurd tableaux.

 (311) (Irene) had fallen to her knees and was asking the sky, “What I done wrong, God? Tell me, Lord. I been good.”

 “You’re kneeling on Rex’s grave!” Ignatius shouted.

We can all understand how powerful the death of a beloved pet can affect anyone, particularly a boy such as Ignatius who was overweight (a “big fat high school boy”) and assuredly precocious, neither trait likely to endear him to others his age. Perhaps we could reason that, for Ignatius, the dog Rex was the only creature who loved him wholeheartedly and without reserve. For that love to be negated by his Church and scorned by his mother (“throw the dog in the garbage can”) amounted to an apocalypse for Ignatius, for whom that love had almost if not actual divine connotations. Seeing his mother not only kneeling on Rex’s grave, but praying, triggers such an outrage in Ignatius, as if she were committing some sort of profound blasphemy. Perhaps we can find sufficient theological implications in these passages to suggest that the death of Rex (“the king”) is for Ignatius nothing less than the death of God.

Perhaps. Yet, bearing in mind that A Confederacy of Dunces is nothing if not a work of genius employing absurdity, slapstick, and a winsome affection to tell the story of a modern-day crusader, we shouldn’t expect Toole to craft an—albeit offstage—character with anything approaching unrelenting gravity. Indeed, we find a generous dose of camp/Rebalaisian comedy earlier in the novel.

Ignatius and Irene have been at it again, and Ignatius has bolted to his room for refuge. Again, note the theological language in the passage:

(26) Ignatius pulled his flannel nightshirt up and looked at his bloated stomach. He often bloated while lying in bed in the morning contemplating the unfortunate turn that events hd taken since the reformation. Doris Day and Greyhound Senicruisers, whenever they came to mind, created an even more rapid expansion of his central region. But since the attempted arrest and the accident, he had been bloating for (27-28) almost no reason at all, his pyloric valve snapping shut indiscriminately and filling his stomach with trapped gas, gas which had character and being and resented its confinement. He wondered whether his pyloric valve might be trying, Cassandralike, to tell him something. As a medievalist Ignatius believed in the rota Fortunae, or wheel of fortune, a central concept in De Consolatione Philosophiae, the philosophical work which had laid the foundation for medieval thought. Boethius, the late Roman who had written the Consolatione while unjustly imprisoned by the emperor, had said that a blind goddess spins us on a wheel, that our luck comes in cycles. Was the ludicrous attempt to arrest him the beginning of a bad cycle? Was his wheel rapidly spinning downward? The accident was also a bad sign. Ignatius was worried. For all his philosophy, Boethius had still been tortured and killed. Then Ignatius’ valve closed again, and he rolled over on his left side to press the valve open.

 “Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,” Ignatius belched. “Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.”

 “What you mumbling about in there, boy?” his mother asked through the closed door.

 “I am praying,” Ignatius answered angrily.

 “Patrolman Mancuso’s coming today to see me about the accident. You better say a little Hail Mary for me, honey.

 “Oh, my God,” Ignatius muttered.

 “I think it’s wonderful you praying, babe. I been wondering what you do locked up in there all the time.”

 “Please go away!” Ignatius screamed. “You’re shattering my religious ecstasy.”

 Bouncing up and down on his side vigorously, Ignatius sensed a belch rising in his throat, but when he expectantly opened his mouth, he omitted only a small burp. Still, the bouncing had some physiological effect. Ignatius touched the small erection that was pointing downward into the sheet, held it, and lay still trying to decide what to do. In this position, with the red flannel nightshirt around his chest and his massive stomach sagging into the mattress, he thought somewhat sadly that after eighteen years with his hobby it had become merely a mechanical physical act stripped of the flights of fancy and invention that he had once been able to bring to it. At one time he had almost developed it into an art form, practicing the hobby with the skill and fervor of an artist and philosopher, a scholar and gentleman. There were still hidden in his room several accessories which he had once used, a rubber glove, a piece of fabric from a silk umbrella, a jar of Noxema (sic). Putting them away again after it was all over had eventually grown too depressing.

 Ignatius manipulated and concentrated. At last, a vision appeared, the familiar figure of the large and devoted collie that had been his pet when he was in high school. “Woof!” Ignatius almost heard Rex say, once again. “Woof! Woof! Arf!” Rex looked so lifelike. One ear dropped. He panted. The apparition jumped over a fence and chased a stick that somehow landed in the middle of Ignatius’ quilt. As the tan and white fur grew closer, Ignatius’ eyes dilated, crossed, and closed, and he lay wanly back among his four pillows, hoping that he had some Kleenex in his room.

St. Teresa envisioned an angel carrying a long, golden spear with a fiery tip. ‘[He] plunged it into my deepest inward. When he drew it out, I thought my entrails would be drawn out too and when he left me. I glowed in the hot fire of love for God.” I’d be among the many who might present this passage as a precedent for religious eroticism.

But let’s remember where we are—in a world rife with absurd, comic scenarios—and who we’re dealing with—delusional, immature Ignatius J. Reilly, whose “hobby”, however stripped of the “flights of fancy and invention” retained the “vision” of the large and devoted collie,” Rex, chasing a stick that had somehow landed in his lap. This is nothing less than fierce, grubby auto-eroticism juxtaposed with an embracive sweep of western spirituality, another brilliant stroke to Toole’s portrait of Ignatius.

Nipping the Bud

The afternoon had been long, impeded by discoveries of even more cracks to caulk, more questions to quell, more smoke, more smiling. Now the sun was slatted on the wall, and he heard Mazie closing her office. She came through his door minutes later, a sheaf of files in her hand.

“This is the last of them,” she said. “Do you want me to take them to the bank?”

“No,” Clayton said. “I’ve got to go see Eddie later, just leave them here.” Mazie hesitated.

“Just leave them here,” Clayton repeated. “I’ll take care of them. And Mazie, you should know that I’ve decided to let you have that free time you’ve always wanted.”

“Free time?”

“Yes,” Clayton said. “Now that Jack is gone, I’ve decided to make some changes, and one of them is rewarding you for your service to the firm. You and Bud will be able to take those long fishing trips you’ve always wanted.”

Mazie looked at him steadily. “You’re firing me.”

“I’ll give you a nice severance check, and you have the retirement account Jack set up for you,” Clayton said. “Things are changing, and we need someone who knows all these new gadgets we’re using better than you do.”

“You won’t get away with it. I know things,” Mazie said.

“I know things, too,” Clayton said. “I know lots of things, Mazie. Like I know that Jack kept Bud out of prison fifteen years ago, and I know why. There’s no statute of limitation on murder, you know. I have the evidence.”

“It was an accident,” Mazie said, too quickly. She knew that Clayton would have the facts that Bud fired the shots that ended the woman’s life, and shots fired with malice and deliberation. Jack, only Jack, could have kept Bud out of prison, and he did somehow, before Clayton had joined the firm. Mazie didn’t even know that Clayton knew about it, but now that he did, and now that he intended to use it to keep Mazie at home and silent, she set her mouth.

“Then I’ll go,” she said. “You’re a bastard, Clayton Isley, a shit-splattered son-of-a-bitch. Your buddy Ward Mason is in the conference room. He said you told him to come in the back door. If Jack were here . . .”

Clayton pounded his fist on the desk. “Jack is NOT here! Jack is DEAD! I’m in charge now, and things are going to be different around here.” He sat back in his chair, breathing heavily and loosened his tie. “Go home, Mazie. And don’t forget what I said about Bud.”

Mazie left, her face set in fury and resignation. Clayton took the files she had been holding, the last of Jack Delancy’s records, and tossed them into the smoldering incinerator out back as he had done the rest of them.

He walked down the hall to the conference room. At the end of the table sat a wiry muscular man dressed in a threadbare jacket and a badly-pressed shirt. His watery blue eyes were set in a long face topped with thinning blond hair. His hands held a cigarette that wobbled slightly over the ashtray.

“Hey, Clayton!” the man said. His smile was wide, and his teeth were large, long and bright.

Clayton walked to a cabinet against the wall and poured a generous shot of whiskey into a glass. He sat the drink and bottle on the table next to the man and watched as he gulped down the drink, wiped his mouth with a hairy hand and poured another.

“How’ve you been, Ward?”

“Great! Great!  I got a new car last week, found a place down on Hooper Road, and I’m going to start fixing up the cabins on the lake, run the snakes out, do some rewiring, fix the plumbing, you know.”

“That’s just fine,” Clayton said. “You know, Ward, since Jack died . . . “

“Loved Jack!” Ward said. “He knew that boy was all about a bunch of lies, sayin’ I did all those things. Hell, I got kids of my own, you know. Love kids.”

Clayton looked at him. “Well, I believe that, Ward, I really do. You know, Frances has been a total mess since Jack died.”

“I can see why,” Ward said, nodding. “Losing a husband like that and them both in the prime of life.”

“She’s been having a lot of problems,” Clayton said. “We’ve had to keep her under a lot of sedation. I talked to a psychiatrist in Birmingham and he said it’s best that she goes to a place where she can get some rest, a private hospital he runs up in Gardendale. My wife and I are going to take care of the little girl, but the boy, well, he needs attention, and that’s why I asked you here.”

Ward’s smile faltered. “What do you mean, Clayton?”

“Well, a boy his age, he’ll be fourteen next week, a boy his age needs a man in his life, and I just don’t have the time,” Clayton said. “Now, I’ve arranged for him to be sent away to school, to a school up in North Carolina, not really a military academy, just an all-boys school that stresses discipline. But I think it would be a good idea for him to get to the country for a while before he goes, and I think you ought to take him with you up to the lake. Take him fishing, get some good fresh air. It’ll only be for a month or so.”

Ward licked his lips. “Clayton, you know, that boy in Jackson who got me into trouble . . .”

“I know all about the boy in Jackson,” Clayton said. He also knew about the boy in Mobile, the boy in Greenwood and the one in Memphis. He had seen the photographs Ward had taken, the looks in the boys’ eyes, and he knew that if it weren’t for Jack, Ward would probably be dead; either shot by a father or killed in prison.

“But Frances . . .”

“Frances doesn’t need to know,” Clayton said. “Nobody needs to know but you and me. I’ll bring him to you myself next Friday to stay with you at the lake. You can go fishing, take the boat out, skinny-dippin’ . . . He’s a good-looking kid. You two should have a good time together. I’ll pick him up in six weeks, in time for school.”

“Nobody’s gonna know?” Ward asked.

“Nope,” Clayton said. “I’ll pay you, of course. Cash. I’ll arrange for you to pick it up at the bait shop on Cane Creek.” He took out a manila envelope and pushed it across the table.
“Here’s some photos of him at the swimming pool.”

Ward opened the envelope. A smile flickered at the corners of his mouth. He replaced the photos and put the money in his jacket pocket. “Wonder if he’s a real redhead?”

Clayton looked at him. “I’m sure you’ll find out, Ward. Now you’d better go. Did you park at the supermarket like I told you?”

“Yeah, and I came down the alley.”

“Okay, I’ll see you Friday,” Clayton said. “Now get the hell out of here.”

Ward left. It was dusk. Clayton drew a cigar from his shirt pocket, lit it and leaned back in his chair. Sometimes, he thought, it isn’t enough just to kill a man.