Post Road Magazine #27

Winter House

Chris Staudinger

The nightclub felt like it was at the edge of a city, the kind of place you find near small used car lots. It had the dampness of sweat and beer that accumulates after a long night. There were bent pictures stapled to the walls, smoke, and a strand of gold party tinsel catching the light. There was a low stage. The singer was drunk or had a lazy eye. She smiled and danced arthritically. Her thin blonde hair curled around her skull, and you could see the whiteness of her scalp.

The music began fading and falling out of tune. The crowd around the stage swayed and groped one another and staggered dangerously. They laughed and smiled, full of teeth, and I felt the need to leave.

But then the music grew louder, more electric and synthesized, and everyone straightened up and turned to the stage. The small blonde singer dissolved, and another woman, a long-legged, light-skinned black woman wearing a red skirt suit full of shoulder pads, walked up the stairs from the left of the stage. She danced only from her shoulders, letting them roll back and forth at half tempo. She sang into the ceiling with a long arched neck.

The bodies in the bar quickened and looked less likely to stumble. The music and the bodies pulsed. The night grew younger. The people grew younger. The light brightened.

Then there was a bang. Like the snap of a wooden beam or a pistol. Everyone was about to run. They were about to scream and shove each other. But first, their faces, the singer's face, everyone's faces, lengthened with terror.


Then I woke. I didn't breathe. I lay on my mattress, in my tent. I listened. The sound seemed to come from above my head, stage left. I heard nothing.

James rustled in his tent at the far end of the bar room, and I let out some breath. My hat had slipped off in the night, and my face was cold. The little knife was on the floor, covered by the piles of extra blankets that sloughed off of my bed.

A knife, I knew, would not protect against the spirits that walked the old bar room in our minds. But it could protect me from James.

The blond wood of the bar still stretched the length of the room, without bar stools. Behind it was a line of mirrors, streaked and smudged. Above it, a hand-painted marquee encouraged the empty room to "PARTY ON THE EDGE."

"It was the redneck hangout," people in town would say.

They would laugh a little or look away, saying, "I used to go there..."

Mr. Harris, a man with large teeth who has owned the laundromat across the street from since 1950, told us: "They used to get wild down there."

He nodded slowly with wide eyes. Two, three, four times.

"Wild."

Steep and narrow stairs dropped from the street to the bar and the Sunflower River below, and people fell down them regularly. The riverbank made a good dark place to brawl. There was still so much glass in the dirt that it picked up the sunlight when the sun fell over the cypress trees in the river.

A jealous lover once pushed a man's truck into the water. It was parked at the top of the hill, near the street. The sound of the splash must have sounded jarring and terrifying and electric in his ears. In a newspaper photo, a tractor lurched on the bank as it pulled up a car, sopping with mud, that a woman had driven into the river.

"Is it still dark in there?" Mr. Harris asked, "It was so dark."

Under my sheets, my toes still tapped to the music of the dream.


On the second night of our friendship, James and I fought over salt in a stew, severely and quietly with only our eyes. One month later, we nearly died, almost as quietly, in the Mississippi River.

There was churning water, raked by red dented steel, surging forward slowly. The barge plowed against the power of the river, and the river, in gymnastic fits, plowed against the metal prows of the barges. The man in the pilothouse watched somewhere from above, behind slits of windows darkened like a bunker's. The rumble of its diesel engines grew louder and louder, deafening. Water gurgled and sloshed. My heart seethed.

Back at the shop where we worked and lived, at the edge of the Sunflower River, I told James in a shaky voice that we could have died. He tilted his head and smiled. I threw a log as hard as I could against the building's brick wall, and it went ping. His hands stayed crossed over his chest, and he smiled.

"I know you're hiding behind that smile. It's a front. I see through it, and you're scared shitless." And his smile flinched.

"We shouldn't have been out there in the first place. You should never have been in the stern of that boat," I said, and his face broke.

"You're just like my Grandmother," he said, shaking his head furiously, "You make me feel so stupid." Two tears fell from his left eye, and he didn't wipe them off.


When our canoes crossed paths with towboats, we seldom saw people walking their decks. When there was one, with legs and a head and a life jacket, we stared at him staring at us as the distance between the boats grew and the engines hummed. The only humans for twenty or fifty miles around, we passed each other in a bewildering silence.

When kids came to see the Mississippi River, they would get giddy staring up at these giant beings, bigger than trucks or trains—buildings that float on the water. With bent elbows, the kids would chug their hands in the air, pulling an imaginary horn string and begging the man behind the dark windows to blow his horn.

They yelled, "C'mon, mister. C'mon!" in tiny, flightless voices that were utterly devoured by the rumble of the engines.

The boat would usually pass, heaving itself against the river, and the cadence of the kids' "C'mon's" would slow to a trickle: "C'mon."

"C'mon."

There were a few times that the man behind the window did blow his horn. The sound was a roar, so harsh and so unimaginably loud that the children's laughing, smiling faces would transform, in a split-second somersault, into a grimace. Then they would smile and giggle and laugh and clap, satisfied.


On a walk one night, James told me, "My ignorance is greater than your knowledge." It was July and steamy, not long after I had arrived in town. We stood on the Martin Luther King Bridge above the Sunflower River and talked about gangs.

"The GD's started out as God's Disciples." He threw his arms and hands around like he was giving a lecture.

"But now, they're the Gangster Disciples. I feel like tellin' them, 'What's that six point that you throw up? What's that six point mean?'" He twisted his fingers into a bunch of sharp angles and held it up for me to see. He waited and watched my face.

"The Star of David." He had a tall, round forehead and a sharp chin. His face was long and flat, but he opened his eyes so wide that they protruded. He pointed at me and smiled, pleased at what he had made me see. And he nodded slowly. The Sunflower barely crawled beneath us. Five months later, it would suck somebody down and trap his body beneath a tangle of cypress branches for two months. We would take turns combing the winter river in canoes.

"Now it's petty. This shit's petty. Neighborhood versus neighborhood. He talked to my girl. He wore that color on my block, woopety, woopety, woo. But they shooting each other over it. I'm like, really? Really? Really?...Y'all ain't hard."

He had spent the previous two winters in jail. Something had happened there that made him never want to go back.

In the water beneath us, a crowd of turtles and garfish circled in the lamplight. I spit and it splatted on the surface of the water. The shadows of the fish shuddered and disappeared.


I tried seven times to root a willow from a Mississippi River island. When James would watch me bent over the dirt or watering the feeble stalks, he grinned and shook his head. All of the cuttings eventually dried up and turned the color of yellowed brown, and then charcoal, like the grasses and other trees around the river.

When the winter comes, alligators dig themselves into the mud and enter a state of semi-sleep called brumation. We thought we would live out the winter patiently as well, but we didn't know how much cold and wakeful dreaminess can hurt.

We decided to install a wood-burning stove. Crimped wire and duct tape held the mismatched flue pipes together, and like a tin nose, it sagged its way out of the window and up to the side of the building.

But columns of wind came shooting down the Sunflower River and pushed the smoke back inside. It rose from the stove and collected in a fog against the chipped black paint of the ceiling. We coughed and felt defeated.

The air also slipped through a crack in the windowpane and made it moan and shudder. James' response to the winter was to sit on a couch near the windows and stare, legs spread, hands on his knees, brumating. He read Robert Frost first, then the Bible, and then nothing. He stared from under his hood towards the wall of windows and said nothing. Sometimes, the silence was interrupted by a fit of laughter, and sometimes he grinned like a skeleton. He watched the sun set over the river and lit no lamps when the inside filled with darkness.

Later, in three different places on the blue-gray wall, he wrote the phrase, "Luke 21: 5-38" in an angular, boyish handwriting.

There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.

That same penmanship in that same black marker was scrawled on the silver bark of the sycamore tree. "What are you afraid of? Just jump!" In the spring and the summer, James spent hours at a time in the tree, even when high winds made the entire tree shake like a single leaf.

Two months before I arrived, the owner of the canoe shop found him in that tree. James' grandmother had just put him out of her house, and he had been staying along the river in a beat up tent. The owner offered him a job on the spot, as well as a place to stay in the old bar room, where I would join him two months later.

A few days after he wrote the bible verse on the wall, he stood up and came towards me. I tensed. He spread out his arms and hugged me. He grinned and said nothing. I could smell him on me afterwards, the smell of sleep, grease, hair and dried sweat.


Before all of this happened, a man with a wandering eye told me, "Mississippi, because of the river, has all the time been a hotbed of paranormal, alternate realities." We were camping on the bright white sand of Prairie Point Towhead, an island just north of Helena, Arkansas. He said that it comes from everything coming together, things from far away, carried by water, combining, and his thick fingers kneaded an imaginary thing together in front of his chest.

"The ancient Mississippian cultures, the slaves, some of their masters, the blues, the tales, the witchcraft..."


As the Mississippi River slides down the continent, it sometimes races and sometimes pools. It spreads and it squeezes, hisses and whispers. Just south of Memphis, past an abandoned drive-in movie theater where tools and clothes are sold on folding tables, the land flattens and the river's valley widens into a flood plain. It stretches from the center of the state of Mississippi well into Arkansas. For thousands of years, the river has given birth to thousands of other little rivers in this land they call The Delta, where the arm of the river spreads its hands through the land and runs its long fingers through the thick, black soil as it pulses with spring floodwaters like a heartbeat.

Clarksdale is about fifteen miles inland, one of the mud-piles that the river gathered up as it mixed around the sand and soil. The Choctaws lived on its subtle knolls, next to the small bayou we now call the Sunflower. It was much larger, wilder, and hungrier when they were here, before it was severed from the Mississippi by a levee. The Mississippi itself once took a hairpin turn right at the northern corner of downtown Clarksdale, and you can still see the easy slope where water once covered the land, covered in bermuda grass, blacktop, and houses, as you leave town.

A man from Clarksdale told me, "This is an old place. The mud is thick here. Who knows what it hides."

When I found a piece of driftwood shaped like a chicken foot out on the big river, I took it back to base, wrapped one end in dried river weeds, and hung it from an old tree branch in the bar room. I told James that it was my juju.

He paused and looked at me intently. "You do Voodoo?"

I should have said, "I've really only tried it once, with a backslidden Baptist friend, who read about it in college and carries a plastic chicken foot on her Honda Civic keychain."

But instead, I said, "Yes."

We talked about the driftwood chicken foot over cards one night with Rod and Martin, who drove trucks for the company. Martin's wife giggled and took a skinny joint out of a pill bottle. Years ago, Rod nearly cut off three fingers while cleaning a deer. All three — the middle, ring, and pinkie — were saved and sewn back into place, but they no longer bend, and they constantly stick out. When he smokes a cigarette, he holds it in the normal place, between his first two fingers, but all the fingers stay extended as well, so the accidental pageantry is constant.

He smoked his cigarette and told us about "the pork chop" spell, in which a woman charms her man by wearing a pork chop under her skirts for a week. At the end of the week, she serves it to her man, and he is under her spell forever.

He pointed across the table with the cigarette in his hand and said, "You don't never eat their 'sghettis until you know you're gonna get married."

I asked why not, and everyone in the smoky living room laughed. "C'mon," Rod said, tilting his head, "Think about it."


At the end, James was convinced that I had joined a rival gang. Before, he would make subtle slip-ups when talking about gangs, using "us" instead of "them."

"Oops," he would say obtusely, and grin.

Then one night, in our tiny kitchen, he said with wide, burning eyes, "I don't know who you're with, but I'm a gangsta ass mothafuckin' Crypt."

The kitchen tended to be warmer than the rest of the place. He would hold plates of food to his chin, take a bite, cock his fist back like he was going to punch me, and say, "This is so damn good, I oughta hit you."

One Sunday in the wood shop, as we set out the skeleton of a new boat, our boss asked James to hold a nail steady.

"I don't want to," he said. From under his gray eyebrows, our boss looked at him and said nothing. James walked out.

That afternoon, he was singing and making lasagna in the little kitchen.

Later, he said, "Do you know what I was trying to do in there with that lasagna? I was figurin' out if I was gonna kill you."

I got in my car and drove away.

James packed a bag and walked down the street to join the military.

When I got back, I pulled the lasagna out of the refrigerator. I stared at it on the counter. I cut a slice out of the dish, and I ate it.


The spider that lived in the corner of the bathroom, or his offspring, might still be there today. I had never known the dance of a spider and his prey until James caught me trying to clean the cobwebs from the building. He didn't think we should destroy their homes, especially since they weren't poisonous and they trapped mosquitos. I thought that the cobwebs made the bar room feel dingy, like the snipped wires that hung from the ceiling.

But one day, when I came out of the bathroom stall, he stood under the lightbulbs and stared up at the cobweb. He said, "Watch this," and he smiled. His hand was folded into a fist around a fly. He shook it back and forth like dice.

"You wanna to disorient 'em. But not kill 'em. Because they need to be alive."

He tossed the fly up into the corner, where it stuck and writhed. Immediately, the motionless spider moved towards it, inspected it, and kissed it. It began spinning more silk, suspending the fly from a strand. Then, with one of its legs, it swiped the fly into pirouettes, like a child spinning a globe, until the fly was surrounded in silk, still writhing, only more slowly. Then the spider would eat, or rest, or trim away old food.

Sometimes, I fed the spider after James left.

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