Travis Stephens : Fiction : Nov 2020

My Southern Legitimacy is that I used to work towboats out of exotic ports such as Fouchon and Houma. There I developed a lifelong thirst for sweet tea and gumbo done right. If that isn’t enough legitimacy, I understand. Not everyone can be bona fide Southern.

Three Stories


 We were drilling at the end of the world. Might as well have been. Nothing around.  We set the rig in this little swale away from the village, maybe fifty yards. Scrawny tree around, nothing else. It was a long ways to the first houses but a helluva lot closer than the watering hole. Jimbo set in the cab like always and I set the choke and you’d think we were back in Turlock.

  This whole shebang started with Don Riccoletti and my old man. You see some time back my old man did something for the Shriners, I dunno, maybe donated some money or something. Don Riccoletti is something in the Shriners, Master Poohbah or Grand Shrine Mason or whatever. Now he comes around whenever he wants to hit somebody up. Caught the old man out back by the Chevy rig.

  Riccoletti must have caught him out there on a good day. Next thing we know we got volunteered to drill wells in Africa. 

“Africa! You crazy?” I asked the old man. “What to hell we got to run to Africa for? Got wells that need drilling all over the Central Valley. Vineyards and orchards going in each week. What would we want to take a rig to Africa for?”

 “ It’s the right thing to do,” he says. “People there are dying ‘cause they got no wells. Kids and babies. Besides, the rig is provided out of Ghana. They just need drillers.”

  “Ghana,” I said. “Like you know where that even is.” 

  Long story short. Coupla months and Jimbo and me are flying out of San Francisco. Wasn’t even for the Shriners. Jimbo found out it was for some Christian organization. Shining Path or Shining Light, something like that. Made Jimbo real blue. He said if it was for Shriners that was alright. Shriners know how to have a good time. But Christers, man.

  We flew to New York and then on to Spain and then to Africa. Nothing to it, but long. Oh, and Jimbo had a hard time getting our box of tools over. Had to unlock the thing and spill out the wrenches, chokers and the works so the Spainards could look ‘em over.

  Then we flew into some airfield out in nowhere, I mean nowhere. Got met by a coupla French missionaries who slung us into the back of a beat up Renault. Jimbo just looked at me and rolled his eyes. The drive was just one dusty kidney mash to nowhere. It was like the deserts around Vegas only without the chance of a jackpot. Ugly. Got to the village where we were supposed to work and it was worse.

  I mean I saw National Geographics where people lived out in the bush of Africa. Giraffes and elephants, stuff like that. Herds of cattle and tall grasses where the lions hide. Guess that’s what I expected.

  Not here. These people were just living on dirt. Goats might find enough to survive on and these were skinny goats. Houses were dried, crumbly mud and straw roofs. No doors, no windows. No nothing. 

  Then they showed us the water. It was just a half gone mudhole where the animals drank. Nasty green water and the footprints of camels and birds and goats. Then the people—women, mostly—walk down to the mudhole and dip water out with gourds. Fill these big clay jars and carry ‘em on their heads back to the village.  It was something out of old movies. Jimbo walked down to the water in that hole and wouldn’t even touch it. Slimy and it stank. You can guess what it stunk of after all those animals had been at it. Those people used that water to wash and do laundry, drink and even cook in. Made my belly crawl to think of.

  Took three days for the drilling rig to show up. By then it didn’t matter. Me and Jimbo were so ready to get drilling we’d have used a long spud bar and a hammer. Watching those little kids drink that green water, sores on their legs and bellies puffed out, it was enough to get you. 

  The drill was a two-speed run by a Chinese one-lunger. ‘Bout shook itself to death at slow speeds. But we got it up and going, threaded in some galvie pipe and drilled. The Frenchie hydrologist said it was deep for water but he never drilled in Central Valley highlands. Jimbo and I just looked at each other and we picked the swale right off. Four and half lengths of pipe and we got water. Good artesian water that spouted out of the hole.

  We capped the sonofabitch and bolted on a hand pump. Showed the men how to prime it and how to wet the leathers. No time at all and it pumped clean. You should have seen it. Women lined up and first thing they set the kids in a row. Pumped water and washed them one by one. Laughing kids, all soapy and slick wet, laughing and drinking good water.  Then the women started singing and dancing all in a line. Couldn’t understand a word of it. Of course the kids got in a water fight and Jimbo was soaked. The kids made a circle around him and sang some silly song that made him and all of them laugh and laugh.

  One in a while now we’ll be sitting in the Sportsman having a cold one and the TV will show Iraq or Somalia or somewhere where the dust goes on forever. It will look just like the land all around that village. Same nowhere. Jimbo will catch my eye and just look at me. Yeah, it’s like that.

Childhood, Part Four

“Jesus jumped-up Christ.” That was what my mother said. It was haying time and Billy was helping Mick through the door. Mick is about a head taller than his brother and so Billy was just about collapsed under Mick’s weight. Mick was squeezing his left arm to his belly with his right.

  “Theresa May,” my mother said, “clear the table. We had been canning green beans and there was a heap of snipped bean pods, a cutting board and knife on it. The kitchen counter was stacked with clean jars and one batch of beans was in a water bath on the stove.

  “Micky,” she said, “come here.”

  Billy slid Mick off his shoulder and Mick just slumped. He is blond, like me, and is by now is tanned brown like autumn leaves. Today his eyes were wide and the freckles on his face were showing.

  “The baler got him,” Billy said. He is dark haired, dark eyed like David. It’s funny, the four of us kids and half dark, half fair. “Hay got clogged so we stopped. It was spilling out the front. I took ‘er out of gear. Mick started pulling hay out the chute when—wham– the needles tripped. One got Mick.”

  My stomach woozed. I knew what those needles were. A few days ago I was playing outside and found my brother working on the baler. They were greasing the many bearing and fittings plus re-loading the twine.

  “Eighty-six,” Mick had said to David. “Don’t you forget.”

  “Eighty-six what?” I asked David. He’s my youngest brother, just three years older than me.

  “Eighty-six grease zerks,” Mick answered.

  “Is that a lot?”

  “Here let me show you.” Mick took my hand and led me to the baler. He hunkered down next to me and pointed into the machine. “First you got the pickup, all these little forks. They pick the hay and bring it into the chamber. He pointed to a rectangular box about twice as long as I am high. “The hay get pushed in and—whoomp—” he pointed at a sliding plate, “gets squeezed into bales.” He pointed at a myriad of wheels and shafts that surrounded the chamber. “It’s the twine that needs all the zerks.” David was pumping grease into one. “The twine gets threaded into these needle,” he pointed to scimitar shaped steel rods as long as my thigh. “When the bale is long enough—slam—the needle pokes through and put the twine around the bale. Pretty ingenious.”

  He sounded like my father. Our baler was a John Deere. It was the best, Dad said. The hay mower was a Sperry-New Holland. Ingenious design. Our combine was Massey-Harris. Cleanest combine out there. It was just our tractors that were a motley mix—two Fords, an Oliver and one ancient, spidery Farmall. Dad bought tractors at auction, whatever was cheap.

  I thought of those long, sharp hay baler needles and I wanted to sit down.

  “Micky,” my mother said, “show it to me.”

  He shook his head, grimaced. I imagined a hole through Mick’s arm. Baler twine threaded through and his arm trussed like a turkey. Billy shook Mick’s big shoulder. “Show it to her,” he said. Billy is blind in one eye, born that way. Most of the time one eye watches you and one eye looks south or east. I saw him look at my mother and both of his eyes were locked on hers.

  If Dad is dark haired and dark eyed and Mick and I blond, Mom is somewhere in the middle.  In the black and white wedding photos she is definitely brunette. She had her hair done a few days ago and she is auburn. Not red-headed, she hates redheads. Her eyes are gray.

  She looked angry. That was probably why his eyes were locked on hers. There is a coffee stain on the wall behind me from Mom throwing a pot of coffee at my father. Today she was wearing an apron over a sleeveless blouse. She had recently switched to menthol cigarettes. Her hand took Mick’s hand and turned his arm over. There was a rag wrapped around his arm and when she lifted it blood poured out and onto the floor.

  “Micky!” she cried.

  “There he goes,” said Bill and tried to hold him up. My biggest brother collapsed. I saw his eyes roll back and then the table, a chair and then both Mick and Bill tumbled to the floor. The table landed with a crash and a steel bowl of bean snips rang and rolled away.

  “Theresa, help us,” Mom said. Bill took Mick’s good arm and my mother put an arm around his neck. “Micky,” she said, “Come on. Get up.” I clutched Mick’s belt loop and pulled. Slowly my brother sat upright. Then Bill and my mother helped him rise. I dragged a chair over and he sat in it. 

  The bloody rag had stayed on the floor. Mom set Mick’s arm on the table and used her apron to wipe away the blood. He had his eyes screwed shut. As we watched, she dabbed at the blood to see the rate of bleeding.

  “It’s not bad,” she said. “Did it go in a long way?”

  “I don’t know,” Bill answered. “It was quick.”

  “Theresa May,” she said, “go to the medicine cabinet. Get the tape.”

  “He going to need stitches?” Bill asked.

  “Nah.” She dabbed at the wound. “Missed the bone. Just hit the meat.” Once she had told me that she had wanted to be a mortician. Before she got married.  

  I returned with the white surgical tape. I fetched scissors, a clean white dishcloth. She had me wet another dishcloth and I held it to my brother’s forehead. His head rested against my shoulder and I could smell hay chaff. Sweat. Mom bandaged Mick’s arm and then circled it with white tape. I could feel him breathing fast.

  “He okay?” I asked.

  “Honey, sure. He just fainted, that’s all. Fainted at the sight of blood.”

  Bill chuckled a little. “Okay Micky,” my mother said. “It’s okay.”

  He opened his eyes. His arm was covered with tape. I saw him open and close his hand. “It’s going to hurt,” she told him. “Take it easy on it. You drive the tractor and let Billy stack the bales. Okay?”

  “Okay, Mom.”

  “Good. You big baby, fainting at the sight of blood.”

  “I know.” He shook off me and my wet towel. Climbed to his feet. He towered over my mother and Billy once again. “Goddamn baler,” he said.

  “Goddamn right,” Bill answered. 

  “You boys go ahead,” she said. “I’ll bring out some aspirin for you at lunchtime.”

  “Okay, Mom.” Bill followed Mick out. I began to pick up the spilled bean ends. I saw my mother brush at the blood on her apron. She lit a cigarette. She told me once, years later, that boys are easier to raise than girls. One girl, I reminded her. You raised one girl.


 “Spaghetti,” she said, “plain, dependable.”

  Lately my great aunt has begun to compare men to pasta. She is ninety-three. I carry her canvas bag as she leans into her stroller. This is the newest stroller, the one she named Vegas for its chrome-on-black design. It rolls on silent, large wheels and converts to a seat.

  “Ravioli,” she beams. “He’s loaded.”

  “No, Auntie, no.”

  My mother has joined in, curious. “What is this? What kind of pasta?”

  “Any kind,” Auntie answers.

  “You always liked risotto,” Mother said.

  “Risotto is rice,” Auntie tells her.

  We are standing near a table covered in heads of cabbage. Every Wednesday Auntie comes to the Farmer’s Market. It used to be her and my grandmother, meeting near Gloria’s fruit stand before making their rounds. Roger’s juice oranges. Sissy and her eggs. Cheese from the DeLeval brothers. Now my mother goes with Auntie and she reports that she is not allowed to visit other stands than the ones the sisters have been visiting for years. It’s a Mafia, she says.

 Wednesday at the Farmer’s Market the shoppers are joined by chefs pushing wagons of their choices. A heavy man in loose pants and clogs goes by with two boxes of porcini mushrooms. I imagine a tarte funghi, heavy with cream. The chef wears a loose T-shirt with Jerry Garcia’s image on it.

  Auntie clutches my elbow and squeezes. “Lasagna,” she says. “Big and hearty.” She nods toward the chef.

  “Fattening,” I stage whisper back. 

  The chef spins to look at us, a fierce scowl. I can feel the heat and pick up a cabbage. Auntie pushes her stroller in short stabs.  Mother has one of those folding baskets on wheels. She is carrying the heavy stuff. I have forty minutes left on my break, so maybe twenty-five before I have to start walking back. Today the University announces the bid winners for the new medical center and I imagine the architects in our firm are watching the clock, re-checking their e-mail accounts. 

  “How many kinds of pasta are there?” Mother asks.

  “Dozens,” Auntie answers. She still reads the “Times” every day. “Elbow macaroni, angel hair, linguine, fettucine…”

  “Michael used to make you fettucine,” Mother offers. “The only thing he knew how to cook.”

  “It wasn’t,” I said.

  “What was in it?” she continued,  “butter, cream, lots of cheese. All that’s terrible for you.”

  “He made other things.” I can’t believe I am speaking up for my ex-husband. “Toast, French toast.”

 “Big whoop. He could never be bothered to make anything he didn’t like himself. Not anything difficult.” 

  Almost on cue a tall, slim man steps around us with huge, steady strides. He wears one of the Italian cut suits and it fits him very well. In the crook of one arm he has an eggplant.  I try to see more than his profile but he is looking over the crowd toward the display of strawberries, blackberries.

  “Canneloni,” Auntie said. “I never liked cannelloni as a dessert.”

  “Then there are those awful whole wheat things,” Mother reminds her. “Spinach lasagna with soggy vegetables and bricks of whole wheat noodles. Awful.”

  “Fusilli,” I whisper to Auntie.

  “Sounds like something wicked. Fusilli.” She is looking toward where the tall man with eggplant is standing. His pants have perfect creases down the back that terminate in the bulb of his butt. “What is that pasta that looks like shells?”

  “Conchigli,” Mother said, proud.

  “Very good,” I tell her. “Penne. Cavatelli.  Rigatoni.”

  “Very masculine,” Auntie lowers her voice an octave, “Rig-ah-tony.”

  But I am remembering, vividly, the pasta dish I made for Michael the first time he come to my place for dinner. I had sautéed a panful of sausage and ground veal, seasoned it with basil and garlic enough to fill the apartment with the scent. Then crushed San Marzano tomatoes. Mixed into broken 

pasta and sprinkled with handfuls of cheese. Baked ziti.  An oven dish so I would not have to fuss over the stove when he was there.

I had worn a simple blue dress with yoke collar. My favorite gold hoop earrings. I recalled that when I put the zitti on the table it was shiny, steamy, bubbly. He had smiled and reached for the salt to sprinkle it on before even tasting. As if he knew, at a glance, who is light on seasoning and who is heavy handed. One more thing I remembered now. How he had brought two bottles of wine, red and white, and we had drunk the red before making love. The white he had taken back home with him.

  “Tortellini,” Auntie made a ring with her finger and peeked through at me. “Filled with something yummy.”

  “Oh Auntie,” I said, “my favorite.” I linked her arm with mine and we made our way. “You’re making me hungry.”