Anatomy of a Storyteller: … and Southern Nights

              About two out of three summers Glen and his family traveled south so Gram and Grandad could also spend some time with their grandkids.   The south was hot in the summer.  Glen often thought of it as a steam bath and would point to the steam that appeared to rise from the pavement as proof.  He did not mind the steam bath, though it was hard when he was young, in the days before air conditioning.  Back then there was no escape.

              One thing that was certain about that small town in the south, Glen was always considered a tourist.  It did not matter how much family he had in town, he was an outsider.  He came from the outside and soon enough would return to the outside, and there was a touch of jealousy or some unnamed emotion that went into the stares he got.  Glen ignored all that.

              When Glen was fifteen he had a chance to stay in the south for a while when his family went up north to the club without him.  He didn’t mind because his uncle was into digging up the past.  The area had been settled for almost 2000 years, and Glen’s Uncle had some of it and had found a great deal more.  Of course, it all got written up in fancy journals and such, but Glen did not care about that so much.  He loved the artifacts, and he loved finding them.

              Glen understood that the digging was a slow and laborious process.  As has been said, it was about as interesting as watching grass grow.  What Glen did not realize was the work that had to go into preparing a site for the dig.  He spent most of the week with a scythe in his hands chopping weeds and grass and bushes and sweating and trying hard not to step on any adders or rattlesnakes.  It was brutal in the southern, summer sun.  But he would chop all day with his future cousin-in-law beside him and then go home to the air conditioning and the television where he stayed up far too late watching the Republican National Convention.  He saw the one four years earlier – the one with Goldwater, Mister AU H2O, though he did not understand all of it.  He saw the one where LBJ got the nod, and the one that nominated Humphry around so much violence.  Now it was Richard Nixon’s turn.  He still did not understand all of it, but found it fascinating all the same.

              The site was a mound built against a small cliff that continued above the cliff in a small hill.  It was the end of the week when Glen swung at a hanging vine, he thought he might bang his scythe on the cliff face but curiously banged only air.  As the vine fell, he found a cave.  He was alone at that point, his future cousin-in-law having gone to town for lunch and something cold to drink.

              Glen did not know what to do.  The cave was not big, though perhaps big enough for him to stand in the entrance.  And it was dark, like it was covered up for so long it looked reluctant to let go of the darkness.  Glen imagined between the trees and vines and the bushes, prickers and briars that hemmed it in, no one had looked into the cave for years, perhaps decades.  Maybe no one alive even knew it was there.  He was tempted briefly to do the foolish thing, but then he thought the snakes probably knew the cave was there.  He imagined the bats and spiders that might also know about it.  Still, he thought one shout would not hurt.

              “Hello!”

              His heart skipped a beat when he heard a response.

              “Hello?”

              The steam came.  It surrounded him quicker than his panic could make him turn and run.  It smelled of sulfur and smoke, made his eyes tear until he could not see, and left him to stagger toward the fresh air.  After a short way he had to sit down.  His eyes closed and teared terribly, but his lungs were grateful.  Meanwhile, his ears picked up a strange sound of squeaky wheels, stomping hooves and rattling planks.  It amplified when he heard his future cousin-in-law say “woah.”  Then he heard a ratchet sound like a brake and just had to peek through his tears.

              “Come on, Glen.  That’s enough for today.  Time to go get cleaned up for the dance tonight.”

              “Dance?”   Glen looked.  The young man was driving a horse and wagon.  Glen did not understand.  What happened to the pick-up?

              “At the high school.  Debbie will be there.  Don’t you want to see Debbie all cleaned up?”

              “Dance,” Glen said more firmly.  As his eyes cleared from the smoke he got up and gathered his scythe and shovel.  He remembered a Debbie.  He met her once earlier in the week.  She was fourteen, like him, but a year behind in school.  He really never talked to her, though, because his cousin had to go and dragged him off with her.

              “So what happened to you?”  Glen’s future cousin-in-law asked.

              “That cave I found.  When I uncovered it, it spewed out some sort of sulfur-like smoke.”  Glen pointed but there was no cave to be seen.  The vines and bushes were all back in place.  “Huh!”  He was startled, and his companion had the kindness not to say, “What cave?”

              Glen’s grandmother dressed Glen in a shirt with a stiff collar, black pants and suspenders.  She said he looked very nice.  With the black tie boots, Glen imagined he looked like somebody named Clem.

              “Don’t stay out late.  At least not too late,” his Grandad said with a broad smile on his face.

              “Yes, sir.”  Glen responded in the way he felt was expected.  Then he was not sure what to do.  He had no idea where the high school was, but he saw a couple of kids dressed like him walking along so he thought to follow.

              Glen had been quiet all afternoon, ever since his wagon ride back from the digs.  He saw many men on horseback and most looked like farmers, but a few looked like cowboys complete with chaps and guns.  He also examined the wagons they passes.  Most were loaded with hay, corn, cotton, tobacco and peaches.  There were tons of peaches.

              Glen finagled the year out of his future cousin-in-law.  It was 1868, one hundred years earlier than he began that morning.  Curiously, he was not surprised or shocked or especially upset at his transition in time.  It felt like he had done that sort of thing before, though it also felt like he should be a different person in 1868, and his future cousin-in-law and his grandparents should not have been there.

              “Glen!”  One of the boys saw him and waved and Glen knew he was trapped.  He jogged to catch up and then had to struggle to figure out the names of the boys.

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