Ed listened, the other guy said his buddy said she was up a stump

He said his buddy said she was up a stump.

Alone on the coast for weeks and then meeting the story-teller, who was talking: "And my other buddy said: So? And well that got him where it hurt."

So his buddy said: "She's my daughter and she's only fuckin' 16 years old. And she's up a fucking stump!"

The other one repeated: "So?" with increased denigration.

"She started going bad. She'd go out partying and wouldn't come home, and I couldn't control her. And then the other day she comes home late and tells me she's up the goddamn stump." Ed imagined the three of them drinking beer in a greasy kitchen in a back-woods shack, the anxious one spilling words fast, and then faster: a small relieved defiance at the end. There. Finally said. Out loud.

Ed and the story-teller were walking downstream.

And then Ed glanced at the teller, suddenly understanding the stump thing, dimly piecing together a meaning to the vernacular. They were walking down a wide path through the growing-up forest, close by the river. The salmon were running now, and the teller walked beside him with a shotgun loaded with slugs over his shoulder-- protection against bears, he'd said: "Never needed it yet, come close, but never used it yet, except for hunting. First day i don't bring it, there'll be a big fuckin' mean son-of-a-bitch, give me trouble--take a bite out of my ass."

There was a lot of bear sign: there were lots of bears, but in Ed's experience they generally they kept to the bush, away from people. Ed didn't like guns.

The teller kept on his telling:

"So, my buddy says: 'She's my kid and she's only 16 and up a stump. You've got a daughter... what would you think if she came home and was up the fuckin' stump?' "

"So?! At least yours is fucking normal! Mine came home one night last year ,introduced me to her lover... you know who it was?... It was her girlfriend! Mine's never going to get pregnant with her girlfriend. At least yours is normal!"

The teller paused... went on: "sometimes you got to hear it that way, like a slap in the face": he paused again. Waited, then... on in a rush:" like one of those kids that ain't normal, all hunched over in a wheelchair and just a kid and born that way, or maybe playing with flowers and twenty, all fucked up an' always been like that. Or maybe in a bad accident and in a wheelchair from it, can't move nothin', or maybe just an arm, or even both of  'em, no legs. You know, you got to sit yourself down and think of them things. Slap yourself up the side of the head with 'em. Especially when you got kids. You got to remember: at least they're normal. Thank Christ mine are", he stopped talking, drew in a breath as if he meant to start again, held the breath and let it out slowly: said nothing.

The teller's face changed: normal again. He resumed his talking immediately: "and you've got to remember what it was like when you were a kid; the things you did then, and you survived them." Only just survived, sometimes... did some crazy things...." There was a long pause: "Kids do some really crazy things.... Think you'll never die when you're a kid."

Then he had stopped talking again, and Ed said: "Yes, i used to road-race cars. Illegal races, and hard and fast, and i stopped, quit driving cars, took up motorcycles, then stopped driving entirely awhile-- didn't have a car at all." Ed wasn't sure if he was really with the swing and sense of the conversation: he'd never gotten anyone pregnant-- had had a different sort of life, avoiding the responsibility with condoms and sober distance and not much opportunity, but there had been a polite silence and it had seemed it was his turn to speak, and he was liking the teller's forthright bush-bred honesty, if not the implications. And he could understand, and like, the simplicity of the no frills telling: the lack of sophistication that it would be alright to argue with-- within limits, of course.... The limits would be the problem. Redneck limits, down to Earth work-a-day limits. Limits that stopped well short of equality issues and big city liberalisms, probably viewed as immoral or amoral-- no matter, the issue being difference and the morality being righteous assurance for the accustomed-- nevermind the stereotypical, behind-the-barn, Sunday afternoon church-goers' drinking hypocrisies, or the pagan's Christian virtue, which-ever. The issue was "them agin' us." Them: smiling, smug and superior, with clean soft hands. Ed could not be one of them, but nor could he fit as an "us": his egregiousness was usually just somehow... apparent.

... he knew his place here: he was ears to listen to the story, and the source of an occasional quiet grunt which could be assent-- an indication that he was listening, anyway.

Ed continued, feeling a bit long-winded, hurrying a little to finish, but, in for a penny, in for a pound: "One day i asked myself the question that had been building for a long time: do i really want to die in a car crash? And right then i couldn't imagine a stupider death-- by machine-- when there is all this to live for." Ed swept his free hand vaguely around to include the second growth forests, the bears and the fish and the all of it, wishing then, that they weren't in logged country, glad the trees were at least an adolescent age: seventy-five, maybe, and a hundred feet tall or so, and including in his sweep, quietly to himself at least, some people, excluding almost nobody, maybe nobody at all, and he mused about that, quietly, briefly.

His contribution must have been Ok, Ed thought, by the way The Teller carried on:

"Time i was out with my buddies-- i was about twenty, and when you're twenty you ain't never gonna die.... Friend of mine put a 454 in a Dodge Dart and she'd go pretty good, and one night we had a few drinks... no... i must have been about eighteen, seventeen maybe, anyway, we went out on the old I______  Highway, in that straight stretch north of N______, wasn't nothin' there then, and my buddy, he opened her up. She went pretty good. "

"In the early morning, when i came to, we were in a field across a big ditch and i was OK, but, i said that was enough. Never did drink and drive after that. An' i wasn't even driving then." There was a short pause again, but replete with the expectancy of more... and: "It ain't right to drink and drive, you think what it must be like to see your kid there dead, or paralyzed for life or something wrong because of some drunk... no...."

"Another buddy of mine he got in an accident, and he'd had a few, but he wasn't drunk. They got him to the hospital, but he died. He'd been drinking, and i guess the doctors get tired of that-- must have figured he was just another drunk. They checked him over but not good enough. Turned out his spleen was bust and he died in the night-- right there in hospital. Those doctors, they should have checked him over better, and that's not right. But he had been drinking-- he wasn't drunk-- but..." The teller swung his jaw expressively, and stopped talking... even more expressively.

The teller told a story for an audience.

Ed's turn, and he spoke the old aphorism: " you've got to take some responsibility, doctor or patient, drunk or just drinking..." he tapered off, no match in story telling.

And the teller listened to him with attention-- making him a good storyteller.

The teller told about his kids. They were all young.

And then he said, thoughtfully: "I hope my daughter don't ever come home telling me she's pregnant. Hope my son just survives till when he realizes he's not invincible. You know, what you did as a kid comes back to haunt you," he said. "When you were twenty you went out drinking and partying and you were full of piss and vinegar and nothing could touch you.... But you got to sit yourself down and slap yourself sometimes... at least my kids are normal...." The Teller paused.

"Couldn't even look at my daughter when she was born."

Ed looked over, unsure... the teller continued:

"She was born a pound and a half, and I couldn't look at her. She was a premie": the story-teller looked at Ed quickly. "Kind of thought if I didn't look at her it wouldn't hurt. I thought she was dead for sure."

"Doctor said: 'don't you want to look at your daughter?' Is she alive? I asked. I didn't know, you see, she was just a pound and a half. 'She's fine', he said. The doctor said she was fine, but she was only a pound and a half: she was so small"

There was a pause and they walked along together and Ed tried to imagine a baby at a pound and a half, but though he tried repeatedly he just couldn't-- he didn't have any referent except normal sized babies, and they looked small enough.

He didn't ask just how premature she had been. He felt that might make it too personal, as if he were prying or even humoring the teller. And the teller just might want to tell it to take the edge off... make it alright to not want to look at his newborn baby daughter-- make it commonplace, make it told till there was nothing in it to hurt anyone, anymore.

"She was a pound and a half and I've thrown back trout bigger than that": he was a fisherman and maybe a redneck, but he had feelings, he was just a bit embarrassed and unsure, as was Ed at showing that it was OK and that he, Ed, understood that he, The Story-Teller, had them-- feelings-- too, without either of them saying it. Carefully talking around, circling emotions carefully, knowing them for dangerous... not getting too close....

Who/what makes us this mess of unsure nerves, big and strong and full of 'piss and vinegar' on the outside? Ed thought to himself, and he noted with another small increase in respect, that wherever he walked, no matter how careful he, Ed, was at evading it, it was The Story-Teller who also always kept the muzzle of the shotgun pointed safely elsewhere. He took the responsibility for it.

"How old is your daughter now?" Ed asked.

"She's five."

"Maybe i should be glad she was a premie: doctors said she would always be a bit slow, but she turned out OK, and she's just about too fast for me now. She's full of piss and vinegar, and she's normal." Just a slight emphasis.

There was more. The Teller told a lot in just a brief walk. About another buddy whose daughter brought home her boyfriend and how he, the buddy, agonized, knowing what they would be up to-- or what he would have been up to at that age, the instant he, old man now, went to bed. "Playing stinkfinger", was how The Teller's smooth vernacular handled it, and he, this buddy, had, in his perversity of age, and protectiveness of his daughter, not gone to bed at all, but had stayed up, determinedly up, awake, thwarting any "stinkfingering", getting grouchy. No doubt up to a full-blown irascible the day after.

Then he met the Story-Tellers daughter, who was at first shy of his hardness and his beard, but not when she realized they were not there as deterrents to children. Frogs were the topic. He hunted frogs with her. He got quickly engrossed in a child's company, as is so easy when you let the time take you to important places.

* * *

And then writing it-- all these words... having gotten up in the night, from having to piss a bladder-full of drinking lake-water all day, he'd watched the phosphorescence in the ocean as the stream hit, and he'd looked for the seals as vague forms in the dark, noisily groaning, as they sometimes do, high and dry on half-tide rocks after the tide. And then splashing with their tails in the water, making bright, slightly greenish light, so he could see them clearly, especially those swimming-- their outline in the bright water: playing. They were having water fights maybe. And the sound of the splashes was delayed from the impact and the whole was surreal and then came closer, the boat, on the long anchor line, having swung close-in on the tide's chaotic eddies in the lee of the rocks and the islet... in the calm now. And the fog swirled in around the islet too, and suddenly he couldn't see anymore, but the seals kept on, and he heard them till just before dawn, when he slept a while.

But first he listened to the seals as he wrote it all down.

He thought long and hard over including some of the personal bits.

Life is selfish, he thought, individuals are selfish till they have their children. He suddenly thought The Teller would be a good father. His daughter loved him: he, her. He didn't want to betray any confidences to endanger that love.... We live by the graces of good people who pass on their humanity, he thought. That's what keeps people human... what is our redemption.

"Christ i sound like a preacher", he said it softly, and it was absorbed by the wood and the clothes and books strewn about in the boat.

Then he lifted the eraser from the delicacy of the lined words: it would be alright to tell all. If he got it right. Not verbatim, he couldn't do that-- that would be a transcript and without permission it would be a theft-- but if he could write the feel and sense of it all... the humanity.... He could try for that.

And he tried very hard. He wrote it all down just the way he remembered it was. He reread it; he waited months, several times: reread it each time.... He tried to imagine it without The Teller's personality, and it was just a pedestrian story not set in the reality of a man's character... something that not many might want to listen to-- like mundane, banal reportage: the theft of the spirit, its breaking, its diminution, brittle and dry thereafter. The personal bits would stay. They made the story real. Now he was feeling good about it. With them in place he knew it had been an important telling: a revelation... an important listening for him, and he hoped he got it right: it was his responsibility, Ed thought.

He pointed the pencil away from the page, erasing the name on the palimpsest... and it wasn't his story. His was just the writing down of the telling.

He would reread it many times, in many different anchorages over time: to see if it was OK. He changed only typos and punctuation. And nothing else. 

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