by rawlins mckinney
This story was born as an assignment for the late Fred Bonnie’s fiction workshop at UAB over 20 years ago. Fred was a master of the short story and the most effective teacher of the craft of fiction writing that I have ever known. Fred loved the story and urged me to polish a bit and get out to the markets. Unfortunately I was swimming with the sharks in the Birmingham, Alabama, business community and was unable to spend much quality time with my creative writing. When I was finally able to retire to the Redneck Riviera of northwest Florida three years ago, I began to work on the manuscripts I had accumulated over a twenty-five year period.
“The Gully School” was the first one I pulled out of the box.
In the fall of 2000, our local writers’ group, The Paradise Writers’ Society (Our motto: “Writing like Hell in Paradise”), sponsored a workshop led by Bill Cobb, former writer-in-residence at the University of Montevallo. “The Gully School” was my contribution to the table. After the workshop I did the fifth and final rewrite and entered it in the 2001 SFWP Contest.
The gullies in the story are real. They are west of the southeast Alabama town of Dothan, where I grew up. In the story, Smyrna is the fictional Dothan. The characters are invented although some do have a few of the personality traits of my childhood friends. The story is totally fiction. Nothing like it ever happened in Dothan.
The Gully School
A Story By
On a Saturday late in August, three deaths ended our summer of 1951. A murder, an execution and a suicide. Duck, Jud Chapman and Benjie.
Before that Saturday, summer was lazing to an end. June and July had been beach months. The lethargic dog days of August had supplanted these happy, active months. That was when our families closed up the cottages on the sugar sands of the Gulf of Mexico, retreating from the dog flies, seaweed and suffocating humidity that always invaded our coastal Avalons in late summer.
The specter of the new school year, although a month away, was enough to blanket the Filthy Five with the doldrums. As Jamie Brownloe’s big brother, Benjie, put it, we had the mullies.
The Wednesday after the coming-home weekend, our gang, christened the Filthy Five by Benjie, mustered in the playroom above the Brownloes’ garage. Tim Thorndike and Duck Fowler were loading their BB guns. Jamie, Sammy Cohen and I were leafing through a stack of comic books, each of us keeping a wary eye on Tim and Duck. Those two with BB guns called for alertness.
“Now tell me again what we can shoot, Tim. I forgot.”
“Damn, Duck. Listen this time. Sparrows, jaybirds and squirrels. Nothing else. Think you can remember that?”
“What about chipmunks?”
Tim dropped his BB pouch on the linoleum floor and the shot rattled off in all four directions.
“Shit, see what you made me do. No! No chipmunks! Sparrows, jaybirds and squirrels. That’s all. No redbirds. No mocking birds. And no goddam chipmunks! Now help me pick up my ammo.”
Duck’s face turned as red as his hair. He stretched his big lips over his buckteeth and began pinching the BB’s off the floor, one at a time.
Tim got two pieces of typing paper off the roll top desk against the wall. He handed Duck one of the sheets and said, “Here, you’ll be all day doing it that way. Watch me.” Tim swept some errant shot into the cone he had made out of the paper. He then poured the BB’s into his Red Ryder Daisy. Duck got a few into his cone and immediately spilled them again.
“I thought I smelled something up here. Bunch of skunks in my playroom.”
“Benjie!” Duck hollered.
“In person.” He came in the open door and saw Tim and Duck on the floor. “This a new game? Like Fifty-two Pickup, only with BB’s instead of cards? I guess that’s one way to get rid of the mullies.”
“Naw,” said Tim. “Duck just spilled ’em. We still got the mullies.”
“Yeah,” groaned Sammy. “We got ’em bad.”
“Poor little critters. Two months of sorriness at the beach ruined all of you. Tell you what. Get your butts in the car.”
“Aw right, Benjie,” I said. “Where we going?”
“I thought I’d take you little heathens to the library.”
“The library?” Sammy squawked.
“Yeah. School’s starting in a few weeks. I think it would be a good idea for y’all to get a head start on your classmates. I’m sure Miss Merle has the fifth grade outside reading list put together by now.”
“Come on, Benjie,” Sammy whined. “We want to do something fun.”
Jamie laughed. “He’s just teasing us. Aren’t you, Benjie?”
Benjie frowned as he looked at his little brother.
“Aren’t you?” Jamie repeated. “You’re teasing?”
Benjie’s dark eyes betrayed him, twinkling through his stern fa’ade.
Tim piped in, “Yep. He’s kidding. How do you feel today, Benjie?”
We all knew why Tim asked this question.
At twenty-five, Benjie was a good fifteen years older than any of the Filthy Five. He had dropped out of the University halfway through his junior year and had never worked a day in his life. Although his income since he turned twenty-one was ample because of a trust set up by Grandpa Benjamin Brownloe and he could well afford his own house or apartment, he preferred living at home with his parents and Jamie. He had inherited his father’s love of booze and made nightly rounds of Smyrna’s watering holes. He would start out at the Smyrna Country Club bar and end the night carousing in one of the seedy establishments on the other end of the social spectrum. Sometimes he would even end up in Baptist Bottom, the colored section of town. His family had a tenant who ran a popular juke joint in the heart of the Bottom. He knew to call Benjie whenever a bluesman or jazz group hit town for a gig. Despite the Jim Crow laws that forbade whites and Negroes to assemble under the same roof, Benjie and his friends would always have a reserved table next to the band.
His day personality was avuncular. Indeed, because of the age difference between him and Jamie, he was more like an eccentric and playful uncle instead of a brother. He really loved being with his little brother and his friends.
Benjie would emerge from his room any time from 9:45 to as late as ten thirty. We knew to be in the vicinity once he was stirring. We would pile into Benjie’s big Packard with Jamie in the shotgun seat and the rest of us settled comfortably in the ample back seat. The severity of Benjie’s hangover dictated our speed and destination. On Saturdays, if he were really in bad shape, he would drop us off at the picture show for the Saturday morning double feature. He always paid for our tickets and even gave us a quarter each for popcorn and Coke. After parking the car in the alley between the rear exit of the movie house and the side of the county jail, Benjie would stretch out in the back seat and sleep. After the movie he would drop us at our respective houses and head for one of his favorite juke joints to pick up where he had left off the night before.
As much as we liked the Saturday morning shoot-em-up, we liked it even better when Benjie was not so hung over and led us on various outings himself. Depending on the weather and the season, we would fish, hunt or swim at Kelly Springs. The best treat was driving out to the gullies at the family farm about five miles west of town. The gullies, which covered about two acres, were a useless appendage to the Brownloes and their tenant farmers. To our gang they were South Alabama’s answer to the Grand Canyon. The labyrinth of red clay was a work of art to us. Our battles between Yankees and Confederates, Americans and Communist Chinese and moonshiners and revenuers would have been interminable had not Benjie threatened to crank up the car and leave us there by ourselves. That always got us moving; for as much as we loved the gullies, there was a trace of fear about the place. It added to the excitement of our play as long as Benjie was there, but none of us were brave enough to face it without our mentor.
We all jumped up as soon as we heard Benjie’s reply to Tim. “Why, I feel as frisky as a puppy dog, Tim. No mullies for old Benjie today.”
“The gullies! Let’s go to the gullies, Benjie.”
“Yeah, ain’t no better cure for the mullies than a trip to the gullies.” We all groaned at Jamie’s attempt at poetry.
Benjie hesitated and said, “Last one in the car has to open the gate. Tim, Duck, leave those damn guns here.”
Duck hopped out of the car and swung the gate open. As soon as the Packard cleared the cattle gap Duck shut the gate and hopped on the rear bumper. Benjie drove slowly through the main pasture to the awaiting gullies at the far side.
It wasn’t long before we discovered a new game. We were taking a break in one of the shady overhangs when Duck saw what he thought was a balloon by his foot. He picked it up and said, “I never saw a balloon this color before. And why’s the neck so big?”
Benjie blanched and slapped the object out of Duck’s hand. Sammy howled and pointed a derisive finger at the befuddled Duck. “Oh you dumb Duck. That ain’t no balloon. Don’t you know a properlaptic when you see one? Balloon! That’s a good one.”
I had no idea what Sammy was talking about but like the rest (except Benjie) I joined in the hooting at poor Duck. We all grew quiet when we noticed that Benjie was not even smiling. Tears were on the verge of spilling from Duck’s green eyes.
Sternly Benjie said to Sammy, “Well, Mr. Cohen, instead of making fun of your friend, why don’t you enlighten him? Go ahead, tell him, indeed, tell all of us what this ‘properlaptic’ is.”
“Why, it—it’s a a… It’s a properlaptic, that’s what it is,” stammered Sammy.
“The word is prophylactic. That’s what you call it. We want you to tell us what it is.”
“Well, I know what it is. Smokey Thompson had one in his
billfold and he showed it to me and told me it was a pro— properlaptic and.. .”
“But you have no idea what you do with it,” interrupted Benjie.
“Of course I know what you do with it. You… you, aw, hell, Benjie, I don’t know what it is.”
Benjie smiled and said, “OK, all you little peckerwoods gather around and listen carefully. I assume you all know what a penis is.”
Everyone except Duck snickered. Tim looked at Duck and said, “It’s a fancy word for tally whacker.”
We all laughed but then Benjie said, “OK, this isn’t the Comedy Hour. It’s not a fancy word, it’s the correct word. And that’s what we’re going to use from here out. Now, some of you may have heard the vulgar expression for the area between a woman’s legs.”
“Pussy!” interrupted Sammy.
“We’re using the correct word. It’s a vagina.”
“I knew that.”
“Well. I figured you did, Sammy. Just like you knew what a prophylactic was. And we’re going to use an easier word for that. It’s also called a rubber. Now, before I go any further, I want to know just how much you burrheads know about sex. Would anybody like to tell me what a rubber has to do with a vagina and penis?”
Even Sammy was silent.
“O. K. let’s get a little more basic. Where do babies come from?”
Duck responded quickly. “I know that. The stork brings them.”
Benjie interrupted our laughter, “That’s enough. Tim, do you know?”
Tim rubbed his head nervously. “I think so. I asked Old George the last time Dad and me went down to Wewa.” Old George was a guide at one of our favorite fishing destinations, Dead Lakes, in Wewahitchka, Florida.
Benjie rolled his eyes. “Old George. What did that old fart tell you?”
“Well, you kiss three times under a quarter moon, rub your butts together, and then the wife swallows five watermelon seeds.”
Even Duck laughed at that one.
Benjie turned to me. “Joe, your uncle’s a doctor. I’ll bet you’ve sneaked a few peeks in the good parts of his medical library.”
I blushed. Benjie had it on the money. I mumbled something about how the man inserted his penis in the woman’s vagina.
“Yuck,” Jamie said with a grimace.
That was my reaction also. Sex sounded pretty nasty to me and I couldn’t imagine anyone doing it any more often than necessary; there were three kids in my family and I assumed that my parents had had intercourse three times. Surely they couldn’t have enjoyed it.
“All right, Joe Boy. You’re on the right track. The woman has an egg that has to be fertilized by a sperm that comes from the man. The sperm gets there through the penis when it’s in the woman’s vagina. That whole procedure is what’s known as sexual intercourse. Everybody with me so far?”
“Now, here’s where the rubber comes in. It’s a birth control method. Birth control is what keeps the world from being overrun with critters like you. The rubber fits over the penis and keeps the sperm from getting inside the vagina. So a man and woman can partake of the pleasures of sexual intercourse without worrying about her getting pregnant.”
Jamie looked puzzled. “Why in the world would anyone want to do sexual intercourse unless they were trying to make a baby?”
“Because it may be the most pleasurable thing in the world, little brother. You’ve all heard the song about cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women. Let me tell, you, as much as I love my cigarettes and whiskey, they don’t even come close to wild, wild women.”
Benjie then told us that he had done it many times, often right here in the gullies, for pleasure. But much to our consternation, the partners in his dalliances remained anonymous no matter how hard we begged. He said, “I haven’t done it for love yet and probably won’t since that involves marriage. No decent girl would ever want to get hooked up with me on a permanent basis.” He grew pensive at this point.
Duck protested, saying that “a woman would be crazy not to marry you if she had the chance.” Benjie laughed and said, “Let’s take a break. Now, go play.”
It was an Easter egg hunt in the middle of summer but the objects of our hunt were those funny balloons instead of eggs. Tim found the first one and Sammy wasn’t far behind. Each slipped his trophy on the end of a stick and began chasing the three of us who were rubberless. Thus a new version of tag was invented. After we had worn ourselves out with our new game we plopped down in a shady spot. We bombarded Benjie with questions and he answered them patiently. Toward the end of the lesson we noticed that Sammy was getting one of his shit-eating grins. “Benjie, today isn’t the first day you’ve been out to the gullies this week, is it?”
Benjie matched Sammy’s shit-eating grin. “Yes, you little fart, today is the first day that I’ve been out here this week.”
Sammy was too sharp to miss his inflection. “But you were out here one night, weren’t you?”
Benjie didn’t deny it. We all begged him to tell us who it was but he refused. We kept badgering him so he finally said, “Well, I’d like to tell you but I just can’t take the chance of one of you letting it slip. I expect her husband would really be pissed off if he found out about us.”
That silenced us. As unworldly as we were, we knew that Benjie had committed a killing offense by messing with another man’s wife.
The next Saturday Benjie was suffering from an especially swollen head. He and a few of his cronies had stayed up until three Saturday morning, which was not really unusual in itself. What had really hit them was that they had forsaken their normal elixir of bourbon and water for a couple of jugs of Slim Whitney’s shine. Now sometimes Slim’s product was as smooth and as pure as the best bonded whiskey you could buy in the state store. But more often than not the old moonshiner would get a little impatient with nature’s process. He would speed it up with additives like dead rats, skunks or any other creatures that were handy. Apparently Benjie and his buddies had tangled with one of these batches. He staggered to the car and mumbled, “Slim doctored his goddam concoction with dog turds because I can still taste them.”
Then we knew that it was the Saturday morning picture show for us. Benjie parked the car in the alley and was lying down moaning in the back seat by the time we got in the ticket line.
He was sound asleep when we returned to the car after the show. We finally roused him and he sluggishly crawled out of the back and opened the front door. Before he could get in behind the wheel, he was stopped by a voice so fearsome that it froze all of us.
“Hey, you Brownloe bastard! I got something to talk to you about. Get your ass over here.”
The voice came from the jail courtyard. An ugly yellow brick wall surrounded the yard. Three small barred windows faced the alley. Peering out of one of these windows was the meanest looking human any of us had ever seen. He had a week’s stubble of black beard and his eyes seemed to be burning through his bushy hair and brows. Benjie didn’t make a move other than to motion us to get inside the car. None of us budged.
“I said get your ass over here, Brownloe. Now!”
“We don’t have anything to talk about,” Benjie replied weakly. He made a tentative effort to get into the car. Once again be was arrested in his track by the malevolent voice. “The hell we don’t,” it spat at him. “Yo’ family may own half this county but I guarantee you there’s one little piece of real estate that ain’t yours. That didn’t stop you from trespassing on it, did it? Answer me, you sumbitch!”
Benjie again motioned for us to get into the car. We were glued to the ground. He shook his head and turned back toward the jail. “Now, Jud,” he drawled in a soothing but shaky voice. “You just aren’t making any sense at all. Why——”
“Godammit, Brownloe! If I could climb this wall I’d make some sense for you. When I got through with you you’d never fuck my wife again, or anybody else’s either. Just remember, I ain’t going to be in here forever. And when I get out, I’m coming after—”
The billy stick appeared out of nowhere and struck the top of Jud’s head. A silly grin formed on his face, his tongue slipped out and his eyes rolled upward as he slowly crumpled out of sight.
His face was replaced by Red Howard’s. The jailer gave us a rotten tooth smile and tipped his hat. “Sorry for all the commotion, boys. This buzzard is a mean ‘un. Mr. Benjie, I think it ‘ud be best if you got those young’uns in the car and out of here. They sho’ don’t need to be exposed to the likes of trash like Jud Chapman.”
Benjie nodded and faced us a third time. This time we slowly climbed into the Packard. There was silence as Benjie headed the car out of the downtown area toward the westside where we all lived. It was Duck who finally asked, “Who was that man, B-Benjie?”
“Nothing but the scum of the earth, Duck. Now, tell me about the picture show. Who was playing this week, Johnny Mack Brown? Lash LaRue?”
Sammy ignored his attempt to change the subject. “Have you really been, uh, you know… with his wife? Is that who you had out at the gullies?”
Benjie’s silence told us that it was. None of us spoke the rest of the way to the Brownloe house. Nor did we speak as we got out of the car and made our separate ways home.
Monday it was business as usual. We returned to the gullies and resumed our games. Benjie continued our sex education but he was careful to keep his lectures clinical. None of us pushed him to reveal his paramours, not even Sammy.
The Saturday before school started we made our last trip to the gullies. It was extra hot that day so our games were less animated than usual. Benjie had brought his big Coleman cooler and had it stocked with Cokes for us and a few beers for himself. We were sprawled in a shady recess in one of the gully walls and just being “sorry” as Benjie put it. The conversation drifted to a discussion of the upcoming football season.
The talk soon lagged. Benjie had finished his second beer and was nodding off to sleep. Soon all was quiet except for the low hum of the sawmill about a mile away at Brown’s Crossroads.
To this day I don’t know whether the roar from the pistol or the red clay that was sprayed on us by the bullet itself scared me more. The slug struck the wall of the gully about six inches above my head. All six of us scrambled to our feet. Benjie came to his senses first and commanded us to freeze. We all then realized that Jud Chapman blocked our only exit out of the gully nook. He was dressed in the dull gray county prison uniform. He had a two-handed grip on the big police revolver aimed at Benjie’s head.
“Well, Mister Brownloe, it appears I done got you in a position where there ain’t no brick wall or two-bit jailer to protect you.” Jud’s hands were steady but his eyes darted about, jerking his twitching head with them. A wail of sirens drifted in from the direction of town. Jud laughed and said, “I really got ’em stirred up down there, don’t I? They ain’t near as stirred up as they gonna be, though. Shit, what’s a dead jailer compared to a Brownloe with his balls shot off?” With this he laughed louder but to us it was not laughter but a hideous sound that we would hear the rest of our lives. Duck couldn’t stand it any longer. He screamed and tried to climb the vertical clay bank behind us. Jud shot him in the spine. He was dead before he hit the floor of the gully.
Jud turned and took aim at Benjie but before he could pull the trigger Tim charged and clipped him behind his knees. The gun roared but the bullet missed. Moving like a cat, Benjie grabbed Jud’s wrist and gave it a quick jerk. The gun fell to the red clay at Sammy’s feet. Benjie kneed Jud in the crotch. Jud fell forward, cussing between agonized inhalations. Benjie took the gun from Sammy’s trembling hands. Keeping a steady aim at Jud, he carefully backed over to Duck. With his free hand, he felt our friend’s neck.
He looked at us, shook his head and headed towards Jud. Jud had recovered his breath but was still sitting on the ground. He grinned and said, “Well, Brownloe, I reckon you win this time. I sho am sorry about that kid over yonder.” He cackled, “He was a damned ugly one, weren’t he?”
Sammy screamed, “You’re going to think ugly when they put you in that electric chair!”
Benjie said in a quiet voice, “Y’all go back to the highway and see if you can stop a car.”
“Now. Go now. And run.”
We made it as far as Benjie’s car when Sammy said, “Wait. There’s no sense in all us going. Jamie, you’re the fastest. You go to the road and the rest of us can stay close by. Just in case Benjie needs help.”
“Help?” I said. “What can we do to help? Besides, he told all us to go.”
“Look, we can sneak back and peek over the edge. Just keep watch on the situation.”
Tim said, “Yeah, just keep watch. I think we need to do that.”
I reluctantly agreed. Jamie took off down the pasture trail to the highway. Sammy, Tim and I crept to the edge of the gully looked down on Benjie and Jud.
“Yeah, Brownloe, I reckon old Yellow Mama’s waitin’ on me with open arms.” “Yellow Mama” was the nickname of Alabama’s electric chair.
“Jud, that’s one date you’ll never keep. You don’t have to worry about the electric chair.”
“What you mean, man. They gonna fry me for sure. Killing a cop and that ugly kid. Haw! He may be ugly but I know his folks must be pretty high falutin’ if he hangs out with a Brownloe. Yep, I’m gonna be executed, you can bet on it.”
“Now that I won’t argue with.”
A puzzled look replaced Jud’s grin. “You ain’t making any sense. You just said I didn’t have to worry about the electric chair.”
“And you don’t. You don’t have to worry about the grand jury, the trial and all that time you’re waiting on death row for your appeals to run their course. No, Jud, you don’t have to worry about any of that.”
Jud realized what was about to happen the same time we did. We were frozen but Jud was doing a crab scramble in the clay dust. It was too late. Benjie shot him between the eyes.
We still did not move. Benjie sat down next to Duck. He rubbed the rusty down on Duck’s head, placed the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Registered users, you can send a private message to Rawlins.