Tayo Basquiat

The Hole

Snorky made the buy as we waited behind the Dugout Bar. Chuck had been feeling low since he’d been dumped by his girl. We’d worked a long day harvesting in the August heat. I hoped a night of drinking and swimming would do us both good. “Where you boys headed?” Snorky asked, putting the beer and whiskey in the truck bed.The Hole

“Load Road.”

“You taking any girls or you homos just getting it on together?” Chuck’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. I wasn’t in the mood for a fight.

“Lay off, Snorky. You don’t have to be a prick every day of your life.” Snorky’s face went dark. He slapped his hands on the roof and backed away.

“You assholes want a buyer again, you look to someone else. And you get caught with that, remember . . . .”

“Yeah, yeah, we don’t know you. Sheriff never gives it a second look, Snorky, don’t you worry that empty little head of yours.”

“Yep, just a couple of peckerheads. Get the fuck outta here before I call the sheriff on ya myself.”

“Real smart, Snorky. Who you think will be in jail longer, you or us?” Snorky started back toward the truck but Chuck had had enough and hit the gas, kicking up gravel and dust with spinning tires.

We stopped by the Dairy Queen for footlong dawgs with barbeque and the works. Angela was working and she whipped up two freebie chocolate shakes without us even asking. We wolfed down the chow while we flirted with a carload of girls from Vesleyville. They told us there’d be a party at the old boxcar, that we should come by, and we said we just might, knowing we wouldn’t.

Load Road was a seldom-used gravel road that disappeared down a coulee before coming to a dead end at an abandoned farmstead a mile on the other side. The road had a bridge straddling the small stream running through the bottom of the coulee. Kids had been damming it for years, creating a swimming hole sometimes deep enough to where we could jump off the bridge and not break our necks.

We had the place to ourselves. I slammed another beer and listened to the sounds of grasshoppers, flies, birds, and frogs. I’d seen the movie The Karate Kid at the Lyric Theater in Park River last Friday with my girlfriend. I didn’t give a shit about karate and kinda thought the kid was a douchebag, but living by the ocean and partying on the beach looked pretty swell. Our swimming hole, full of skeeters and leeches, was no ocean, not by a long shot. I had been here hundreds of times. It was starting to feel small.

Chuck was already in the water. I stripped down and waded in.

“Where do you wanna go after graduation?” I asked.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I like it right here.”

“What are you going to do here?”

“Same stuff I’m doing now. Work a shitty job, drink, fuck.”

“You could do all that somewhere else,” I said.

“Why would I go someplace else?”

“How ‘bout for new girls?”

“I’m gonna get her back, man.”

“Dude, she’s done. She’s probably going to marry Travis. You need to let her go.”

“I can’t. It’s her. She’s the one.” We got out and lay shivering on the grass. We each took another pull from the bottle.

“I’m going to California,” I said. “You should come with me.”

“What the fuck’s so great about California?”

“Nothing. Everything. Shit, I don’t care, pick somewhere. I just want to go somewhere new for a while. How about Montana?”

“Everyone I’ve met from Montana is a dickhead. Cham-peen, world class dickhead.”

“Takes one to know one.” His mood was wearing on me. I pulled on my jeans and t-shirt, grabbed another beer. I looked at Chuck as he lay naked, eyes closed, silent. He’d be the next Snorky, buying booze for minors, going nowhere.

The mud at the edge of the hole grabbed my toes, then sucked my feet in deeper. Small minnows darted beneath shadows of water bugs.

“Why don’t you stay here with me?” he said.

The sounds of night thickened, a prairie with so much to say. His question seemed unanswerable.

What We’re Made Of

I play with the old green toy loader Grandma keeps in the dark nook between the wall and arm of the fusty couch. Its tires rumble a little against the linoleum, my lips putter like an engine. Mom shushes me. I pick up the loader and crawl under the plastic draped wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor so heat stays in the sitting room where Grandma sleeps on a sofa bed, eats meals on a tv tray, and watches her soaps and religious programming morning to night. She’s watching “General Hospital” right now. We’ve come at a bad time.

Grandma’s 1913 farmhouse was built by Great Grandpa and his two sons. It has two stories, an attic and a stone wall cellar with a dirt floor. They’d left the east fjords of Iceland in 1876 and landed on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. They spent two years there, lost seven children to smallpox and pneumonia and just being too little for the world, and then my great grandparents and their five remaining children walked the 160 miles to Dakota Territory in 1878 to try to prove up 160 acres near the Icelandic settlement of present day Mountain, North Dakota. They were given just one year to do it and they did. They started with a sod house, then a saltbox that eventually burned to the ground, and finally this house. Three generations lived here at the same time. My great grandpa died upstairs at 101 years of age, blind and bedridden for the last five, and now my grandma haunts it with her hollow cheeks and rotting teeth, a woman that’s never been to a doctor or dentist, a woman who after grandpa moved her here from her birthplace six miles away, never traveled farther than the neighboring towns. She was forty-two years younger than him. He’s been dead a long time.

I walk, carrying the loader, through the kitchen, the pantry, and dining room until I bump into the plastic sheets covering the other side of the sitting room. “Don’t mess with that,” Mom says. Grandma looks blurry through the plastic, like her face is melting. I return to the kitchen and sit by the woodstove to play. The windows have plastic tacked on the outside frames, but my nose runs from cold and I can’t feel my feet. I smell old bacon grease, smoke and ash, and musty cellar air. Cracks run along the plaster walls. Big white spiders make nests and babies in corners of the ceiling. There’s a closed door hiding steps to the cellar, and there’s a flight of steps leading up to another closed door. One night after many beers, Mom took me on her lap and started talking. How she loved her Aunt Polly with the thick, distorted glasses, who put Mom to bed with Icelandic tales of sea horses that drown bad children, who cared for my mom and her four brothers because my grandma just “wasn’t made for mothering.”  How her “funny” uncle had a stroke and moaned continually from his bed upstairs. I was scared then because she was crying and slurring and squeezing me too hard. At Grandma’s house I’m not to open closed doors.

Mom calls from the sitting room, “Tayo, put the toy away now and say goodbye to Grandma.” I scoot across the floor on my butt back under the plastic, park the loader in the darkness by the couch and say “goodbye, Grandma.” No one hugs or touches Grandma. I sit next to my mom to put on my boots and she puts her hand on my knee. “What’s that?” she asks, rubbing my knee through my jeans. I don’t know what she means. “How long has that been there, Tayo?” I still don’t know what she means. She pulls up my pant leg and rubs a big lump on the side of my knee. After a visit to the doctor, I learn I have a tumor that will have to be removed once school is out and I’ll have crutches for six weeks. I am excited about the crutches. I think they will make me look tough. I tell everyone that I got a tumor at Grandma’s house. Mom doesn’t correct me. Hard things have been known to happen in that house.

Tayo Basquiat is from the northern plains of North Dakota but currently resides in Laramie, WY where he is a candidate in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Wyoming. He teaches philosophy and religion classes for Bismarck State College, is an avid adventurer, and a champion of public humanities programming. His work has appeared in On Second Thought, Northern Plains Ethics Journal, and as producer for Wyoming Public Media’s “Spoken Words” podcast.