Love Letter to New York | by Andrea Avery
Snapshot of Christ | by Joe Esser
The Beginnings of an Animal Rescuer | by Randy Grim
From Way Down Here to Way Up There | by Chris King
The Gift | by Christian Saller
High on Jesus | by Rob Thurman
Cemeteries | photos by Jane Linders, Katherine Bish, and Andrea Avery
Robert Keyes | by Aaron Belz
In Appreciation: The Pruitt-Igoe Nature Preserve | by Thomas Crone
As Grandmother Neared Death | by Lindsey Durway
Say Hello to Papa Legba | by Franklin Jennings
Jackrabbit Stew | by Patrick Landewe
From Out of Nowhere | by K. Curtis Lyle
Oh Ye Of Little Faith | by Andrea Noble
Variations on a Rag for William S. Burroughs | by Randall Roberts
Torn Map Home | by Stefene Russell
As a Means to Love Him More Dearly | by Eric Erfan Vickers
Thank Christ for Easier to Argue | by James Weber
Southern Spine | by James Weber
Andrea Avery, Jenna Bauer, Andrea Day, Thomas Crone, Caroline Huth, Jane Linders, Carmelita Nuñez, Kerry Zimmerman
The Gift | by Christian Saller
To the little kids on Washington Avenue, Mr. Harwell resembled a dictionary depiction of a crabby old man. His bloodless face had a harsh, crumpled appearance, as if someone huge had crushed it like a ball of paper and Harwell had recently smoothed it out the best he could. None of us ever knew exactly what color his eyes were. They were close together, small and dark, their piercing quality accentuated by a sternly furrowed brow and slit mouth tugged into a permanent frown, like an upside down horseshoe. He moved with bony, arthritic caution and the only suggestion of vitality was his thick head of hair. It was almost solidly black, or at least a very dark brown, slicked back and parted jaggedly on the side, as if it resisted the comb’s intervention. We referred to him as “old man Harwell”, though never in his hearing. He was probably in his sixties, but my friends and I were all between 5 and 10, so he might as well have been 100.
Old man Harwell became our embodiment of evil and mystery. We heard there had been a Mrs. Harwell, but that she had died a long time ago, at least before any of us were even born. No one ever seemed to come to his house and he could often be seen on his screened front porch, simply staring fiercely or reading. We would dare each other to ride our bikes down the sidewalk in front of his house in the summer evenings, when lightning bugs winked over lawns and the sound of cicadas vibrated in the warm air. Braver kids would ride by slowly, even stopping for a second or two in plain view of old man Harwell, though none dared to speak to or even look directly at him. His back yard contained an old brick barbecue that Harwell never seemed to use. Our parents had modern gas grills in their yards, so its presence added a quaint dimension to the old man’s sinister rep. Kevin Reilly told us that old man Harwell roasted Mrs. Harwell in his brick barbecue “during the silver war”. Reilly also said that old man Harwell was in charge of the spit bugs who lived around his property and that if you made him mad, he’d whistle them up to attack your family. “His garage is full of ‘em and if one gets on you, you’ll die,” he told our horrified group. “Mizz Collins who lived on Westgate died from a spit bug. My brother Terry-in-Vietnam is even scared of spit bugs.” As we absorbed this appalling information, he added, “They bite.”
One night as I was going to bed, I asked my mother if she was afraid of old man Harwell. She gave me a puzzled look and laughed. “I don’t really know him, but why would I be afraid of him?” “Kevin says he’s in charge of spit bugs,” I replied, “and he roasted Mrs. Harwell in his yard. His brother Terry-in-Vietnam saw it.” “That’s a terrible thing for Kevin to say!” said my mother, “and it isn’t true. Mrs. Harwell passed away so Mr. Harwell is sad, that’s all. He doesn’t seem to have anyone else and he’s lonesome.” Thinking of old man Harwell’s grim face, I doubted my mother had given much hard thought as to whether he was as evil as all the kids suspected. “But is he a granddaddy?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she answered. “Go to sleep now. Don’t say or repeat any more mean things about Mr. Harwell. He’s just lonely and sad. And don’t call him old man Harwell.” After she left my room I lay in the dark with covers pulled up to my ears, listening to familiar old house sounds around me. I tried to picture old man Harwell in St. Roch’s church looking soft and sad by his wife’s coffin while a kindly priest patted his shoulder sympathetically, but the image dissolved into one in which he jubilantly surveyed vast spit bug regiments in front of his wicked brick barbecue, giving them orders and the names of people who had made him mad.
Old man Harwell’s back yard contained an apple tree in front of its garage. Apparently no one ate the fruit but squirrels and the half-eaten remains littered the yard, drawing bees and imparting a cloying, sweetly rotten smell to the summer air. Johnny Chris Reilly solemnly held out a hard green apple to the smaller kids one day, swearing that he had climbed old man Harwell’s fence and picked it off the tree. “Did he see you?” I asked, marveling at his courage. “No,” said Johnny Chris, “but I’m still scared he knows. My brother says that old man Harwell knows anytime anyone comes in his yard, night or day. He does witchy stuff in his yard at night.” “A man who’s a witch is a warlock,” specified Bart Mueller. Johnny Chris produced a pocket knife and unfolded its small blade. “I’m gonna eat it,” he said, looking at the apple. “Don’t!” I gasped, “you’ll die!” Johnny Chris sliced a chunk of apple and popped it into his mouth, chewing extravagantly and grinning. The smaller kids darted back and scattered, as if the apple was a hand grenade with the pin pulled. Little TJ Gidionsen started crying.
A breeze blew, cut through with a temperature cooler than the June air we’d been breathing all day. I lay in the dark behind old man Harwell’s back fence, staring through the boards at his apple tree, its branches partly screening the big, dark house behind it. I couldn’t remember ever being up so late before, much less out of my house at this hour. The heavy silence was uncomfortable and the occasional rattling of leaves in old man Harwell’s apple tree seemed impossibly loud. A snapping noise like a stick breaking made me jump. The yard was suddenly filled with a feeble, buttery light and clicking metal noises came from the stoop. I felt a chill as old man Harwell appeared on the small porch. Hands on hips, he surveyed his yard silently before climbing down the steps and walking to his brick barbecue. He carried a heavy cane with a round, silver head on it but he wasn’t using it to walk or lean. Standing in front of the blackened brick barbecue, he prodded and poked the grass and dirt at his feet, almost as if he was digging. The cane made a grating noise as he gouged the ground and struck crisscrossing lines in it. His jaw was clamped and his face in profile seemed fiercer than ever in the soft light from the porch. His movements acquired a flourishing, fluid quality and he wielded the silver-headed stick almost like a guy I’d once seen on TV conducting an orchestra. I felt a rumble underneath my stomach and panicked for a second, thinking a car was coming down the alley in back of me, but there were no lights and no car. The rumble came from the middle of old man Harwell’s yard, thirty feet in front of me. It stopped for a couple of seconds, just long enough to hear the old man’s labored breathing. It resumed, sounding like an earthquake. Leaves on old man Harwell’s tree vibrated to a blur and the outline of his house shook as if it would collapse. I stared as a stream of animals erupted from the pit of old man Harwell’s barbecue and swirled like a gigantic garland of smoke over his head and all around the perimeter of his yard. The animals were reptilian and undulating, all unwinged and varying in size, swirling silently around old man Harwell, who now leaned on his cane, still breathing audibly and, strangely, not even looking at the infernal zoo he had procured from the earth.
I walked up to the Reilly’s one Saturday afternoon to see if Kevin wanted to go bike riding. Mr. Reilly sat slumped in a chair on the porch, his heavy glasses crooked on his face. We stared, but he still didn’t seem to see me standing at his screen door. His eyes and face were red and shiny and I wondered if he was sick. A bottle stood on the table in front of him and he held a dirty glass in his lap. “Can Kevin play?” I finally asked, pressing my nose against the screen. “I dunno,” he said in a loud, thick voice, shrugging his shoulders. “I...dunno.” He hiccoughed violently. His eyes suddenly focused on me, the way a person looks at you from a pillow when you abruptly shake him awake. “What?” he suddenly yelled at me. “What?!” I stepped back from the door, confused, afraid to run from a grown up barking a question, afraid of Mr. Reilly as he unsteadily gained his feet. “God damn it!” he growled as the glass fell and broke. Kevin appeared in the porch doorway, barefoot, just as his father fell heavily onto all fours and began picking up scattered shards, his glasses clamped angrily in his mouth. “Watch the glass, you little bastard!” he hollered at Kevin, who cringed and turned to look at me. “Terry’s dead!” he blurted, his face dissolving. “Terry’s dead! H-he g-got k-k-killed...” Mr. Reilly leaped to his feet and bellowed, “Get back in the house, Kevin, and keep your trap shut!” Kevin fled. “It isn’t any of his damned business!” He turned to me. “It isn’t any of your God damned business! Mind your own God damned business!” Mrs. Reilly stumbled onto the porch. Kevin was clinging awkwardly to her leg, his sobbing face pressed against her hip. She stood over her husband. “Francis! Who are you yelling at?” She turned and saw me at the screen door. Like Mr. Reilly’s, her eyes were puffy and red. Her voice quavered, “Honey, our boy died in Vietnam. He’s dead. He’s dead. He died.” The three of them were crying. Kevin’s sister Eileen, a pretty teenager who babysat for kids around the neighborhood, came out on the porch in tears and began sweeping up broken glass. I tore myself away, ran across their lawn and down the street like a shot. I wondered if Johnny Chris was home and if he knew. Halfway down the block I could still hear Mr. Reilly tearfully yelling at his family to be quiet and get back in the God damned house.
I hadn’t told any of the other kids about what I’d seen in old man Harwell’s back yard. He was on his porch every evening and I kept my distance more than usual. I couldn’t stop thinking about the little green apple I’d seen Johnny Chris eat, wanting to believe that he was just having the little kids on and that the apple wasn’t even from old man Harwell’s tree. As news of Terry Reilly’s death spread on our block, old man Harwell’s capacity to scare all the kids was strangely diminished. I was sorry for them, but couldn’t think of anything to say to Kevin and Johnny Chris and they seemed to be staying home most of the time anyway. Their new proximity to death fascinated me. I vaguely remembered Terry as a towering young man in football gear, nearly a grown up with a deep voice, throwing a ball around the front yard with his younger brothers, who followed him everywhere. He never paid much attention to me. I wondered if he’d cried or had time to know that he was going to die. I wondered exactly what happened to him, somehow deciding he had been hit by a cannon ball. Where was he now? Mrs. Reilly said he was with God. I had an image of Terry in an ethereal mist, still wearing football duds, a dreamy expression on his face, the glow of God casting him in soft light. I couldn’t imagine who else was there with him and wondered if he would be lonely by himself.
I played with Matchbox cars on the brick wall by our house every afternoon. The wall was about three feet high and I ranged cars atop it in parking formations, racing others in adventures I’d make up as I went along. Hippies from Washington University passed by occasionally, singing, playing guitars and stopping to sit on our wall. One day I was racing my ambulance to a four-car crack-up when I ran straight into old man Harwell. I stumbled backward, dropping the ambulance on the sidewalk. He wore a dark suit with a bright red carnation in its lapel and a gray trilby covered the sleek tangle of thick, dark hair on his head. His hands were clasped behind his back. The cruel line of his mouth crinkled almost imperceptibly toward a smile, like the very first movement in a pot of water beginning to boil. I was too frightened to move. His carnation made me think of Simon Bar Sinister’s evil henchman who battled Underdog in last Saturday morning’s cartoon; the flower in his lapel had anesthetized Polly Purebred. Old man Harwell squatted slowly down in front of me until we were eye level. I still cannot say what color his eyes were, though they never left mine and the memory of his face still remains sharp. His right hand moved forward, clasping the silver-headed cane. He rapped the ferrule sharply on the pavement under our feet as he leaned slightly forward, crooked fingers caressing the ornate, round handle. His left hand came slowly toward me from behind his back and I took two jerky steps backward. The palm opened, revealing a dull green apple with withered leaves on its stem. His eyes glittered.
Christian Saller is a now a resident of the Tower Grove East neighborhood, but spent early childhood years as a member of the Washington Avenue community.