The Named and the Nameless
Burl N. Corbett was awarded an Honorable Mention in Fiction in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.
The Named and the Nameless
The second butchered deer of the morning lay on a long wooden table in Jerry’s basement. Another one hung from the rafters, and two more lay outside in the grass. It was the third day of doe season and the kills kept piling up. After Jerry dismembered the carcasses, skillfully pulling the loins and deboning the hind quarters, he tossed the ribs and shoulders and sections of spines to me and Fred and Dan to trim into burger. We could reduce a deer into winter meat in an hour, hour and a half if we took too many drinking breaks. Sitting like a loyal hound at the end of the old table that had been hewn 80 years before from the last of the American chestnuts was a gallon jug of sour cherry wine glowing with an inner fire first kindled by the July sun of 2 summers past. Perched on a workbench next to the meat grinder, sat a quart jar of “boilo,” a spiced concoction of boiled-together honey, lemons, and moonshine. Regarded as a sovereign remedy for colds, sore throats, and the general blahs, it was also a 120 proof pick-you-up guaranteed to eventually put you down. As we worked, laughing and joking, we occasionally tendered it the sort of affectionate glances bestowed upon a beloved child.
Someone knocked on the basement door; we looked up in surprise. Jerry never locked it, not even at night, and his friends just opened it and walked in, perhaps after shouting a loud “Yo!” for fair warning.
“Uh-oh, it’s the warden!” Fred joked. Although the deer wore the required ear tags, they weren’t necessarily those of the hunters who killed them. But the local warden no longer dropped in after Jerry’s brother—a legendary poacher tired of hiring lawyers and paying fines—and put out his spotlight for good.
“C’mon in and have a drink!” Jerry shouted, launching a spurt of tobacco juice in the general direction of the floor drain.
“It’s me, Vince! Come out here for a minute. I need to talk to you.”
“Vince?” I wondered aloud. “Why doesn’t he just come in?”
Jerry laid down his knife and wiped his hands on a rag. “He probably has Tony with him. Tony gets upset seeing deer in pieces. He prefers ’em put together, running around the goddamn fields.”
“Well, there’s two laying out there now, deader than hell,” Dan noted, reaching for the wine. “What’ll he think about that?”
“Hell, maybe he’ll think they’re sleeping. Who knows or cares? He’s crazier than hell anyway,” Fred observed.
“Man, don’t let Vince hear talk like that,” Jerry warned. “Don’t even joke about that kinda shit.” He walked outside, closing the door behind him.
We stopped to pass around the jug, each pouring himself a small glassful. Examined against the ceiling light, the wine was translucent, alive; it went down smoothly, with a warm finish. Through the closed door, we heard Vince and Jerry’s indistinct voices. When I cracked the door to let the cigarette smoke out, I saw Vince’s profoundly handicapped son regarding dumbly a pile of severed hooves, his thick lower lip wet with spittle. I stepped back, afraid he might think I had cut off his friends’ feet. I reached for the boilo, thought better of it, and poured another wine instead.
“Hell, no!” Jerry shouted. “You gotta be nuts! If you want to do that kinda shit, use your own grinder!”
Vince called to Tony, and when Jerry came in the door, I saw them rounding the corner, Tony lagging behind to stare at the dead carcasses in the grass.
“What was that all about?” asked Fred, passing Jerry the jug.
Jerry took a long pull, then shook his head in disbelief. “He wanted me to grind up some skunks for fox trapping bait!” He shook his head again and pretended to ask the jug, “Did you ever hear of anything so goddamn ignorant?”
After a good laugh, we returned to work. Jerry related how Vince and his brother-in-law, Sam, had been so poor during the Depression years that they shared a pair of rubber knee boots to check their respective traplines. Sam ran his line first, then gave the boots to Vince afterwards.
“I heard they practically lived on muskrat and coon meat,” Dan said.
“Hell, they ate plenty of groundhog and possum, too. Times were tough back then, no welfare checks or food stamps.”
Fred tossed the cleaned neck into a trash barrel beside the cold wood stove. “Not to change the subject, but when did Vince’s wife die?”
“Viola died from rheumatic heart disease when Tony was only two,” Jerry replied. “Dad always claimed that the shock of giving birth to a mongoloid son helped kill her.”
I pointed out that the term ‘mongoloid’ was out of favor. “They’re called victims of Down’s syndrome now.”
He shrugged. “People can call ’em what they want, but Dad said she went downhill fast after Tony was born.” All that remained of the deer was its head, and Jerry tossed it outside with the hooves. Then he began to skin the one hanging from the rafters.
“How come they didn’t put him in a home?” Fred wondered. “I mean, it ain’t like he’s a little slow. Hell, it’s a wonder he can even talk.”
“Tony was their only child. Viola was damn near 50 and never expected to get pregnant.” He glanced at Fred, then began to sharpen his knife. “You and Betty don’t have kids yet. You don’t know how it is. Your first child is special.”
“Even ones like Tony?”
Jerry put down the whetstone and stropped the blade on his wallet. “Yep. Especially them.”
We worked in silence for awhile, each pondering how he might have felt if Tony were his son, how he may have reacted, each wanting to believe that he would have done as Vince had done: stoically assume the incredible hardship of raising a severely impaired child alone. But some matters resist speculation and are too unimaginable to contemplate. So we toiled on, nipping at the wine and talking of other things. Three hours later, we were ready for the boilo.
Jerry and I had put the spitted pig on the fire at 4am. The outing didn’t begin until 11, but the early birds had been flitting in since 9. Of that flock, Vince and Tony were the earliest, sitting at a picnic table under the pavilion where Tony could greet each arrival. 150 tickets had been sold, and there were always those who pled one excuse or another and were admitted ticketless at 20 bucks a head. After icing down the beer kegs, Fred tapped the first pitcher. Between occasional bastings of the turning pig, Jerry and I sat next to Vince and Tony, watching the sun rise above the trees. It promised to be a scorcher, and we sipped beer against the coming heat.
Tony watched the parking lot. Every time a car door slammed, he announced in his odd voice, with its syllable-by-syllable, rising and falling inflection, “Here. Comes. Some. New. Pee. Pul.” As the men and women hurried across the grass carrying empty mugs and decks of cards and purses fat with extra packs of cigarettes, Tony put two names to them all—nicknames thrown in for free. He didn’t miss a soul, not one. I was 20 years older than Tony—51 that summer—and I could not have named more than a few dozen people at best, and many of them by only their first names. Amazingly, Tony not only knew their full names, but the names of their parents and children, too! It was a feat of genealogical reckoning that would have impressed even the British snobs who liked to trace the lineage of every American genius, artist, or president back to his or her’s humble English ancestors, probably to assuage the lingering indignity of our nation’s historical revolt.
“My God!” I exclaimed as Jerry and I threw charcoal on the fire. “Tony’s what is known as an ‘idiot savant’!”
“What the hell is that?” he asked, brushing barbeque sauce on the revolving pig.
“They’re handicapped people with an inborn genius for something. Some of them can multiply large numbers in their head or memorize a phone book.”
Jerry wiped sweat from his forehead. “I doubt like hell if Vince cares about shit like that. It’s kinda hard to see any genius in an overgrown kid who’s been known to rip doors off their hinges when he doesn’t take his meds.”
“Christ! I didn’t know he gets violent.”
“Shit, he’s blackened Vince’s eye more than once. ‘Course, with the new drugs they got today, it’s a lot easier to control him.”
Jerry lowered the hinged roaster cover and we started back to our table. Midway through the crowded pavilion we were short stopped at the beer stand by friends. Through the knots of happy people, I saw Tony still greeting the late arrivals. If any were by chance strangers, they were soon entered into Tony’s memory, permanently enrolled in his all-inclusive social registry.
I had never known Vince very well. He was of my father’s generation, and during the 60s and 70s that was reason enough for me to maintain a respectful distance. But he lived barely a mile from me, and I always waved when I drove past his house. I mainly knew him as a local character renowned for his powerful “dago red” wine and his potent home brewed beer. And, of course, as the father of Tony.
When Tony was a small child, Vince’s sister, Marie, babysat him when Vince was working. But by the time Vince took an early retirement, she could no longer handle his tantrums. For some reason, possibly because he had barely known his mother, he distrusted women, underscoring his antipathy with a sullen stubbornness that would shame a mule.
Several of Vince’s buddies tried and failed to control him; they too were wary of his hair-trigger temper and erratic behavior. And of course there was the fact of Tony’s strength, his uncommon strength. Like many, I had often wondered why the mentally handicapped often possessed a physical power in inverse proportion to their intelligence. Then I met a man in a bar whose brother was so afflicted, and for the price of a beer offered his opinion.
“I’ve read all kinds of theories,” he explained, “and heard a bunch of crackpot notions, but then one day I just realized that my brother isn’t any stronger than the rest of us, he just has no sense of moderation. He uses all his strength, all the time, and when he gets upset, it’s intensified. He’s like one of those kung fu masters who can focus their minds and break concrete blocks with their noggins.” He paused for a moment, took a long pull of his beer, and grinned. “All I can say is thank God and science for tranquilizers!”
However, Vince was growing old and occasionally forgot to take his own medications, not to mention giving Tony his. Those were the days the furniture got broken or windows smashed. Or worse.
Vince’s older brother, Angelo, lived a few hundred yards away and no longer drove. He had lost one leg to diabetes, with the other soon to follow. Angelo’s wife, Rose, didn’t drive either, so Vince had to drive Angelo to the liquor store or the beer distributor, or places that his married daughter refused to take him. More than once I had gotten caught behind Vince’s old pickup as it slowly putted along a narrow country road, weaving from lane to lane as through the cab window I saw the brothers talking excitedly, their waving hands shaping their arguments. Maintaining a prudent distance between our vehicles, I marvelled that they hadn’t been killed years before in a head-on collision.
During these brief excursions, Rose reluctantly minded Tony, but when Angelo finally died at the age of 82, minus both legs but still drinking heavily and smoking 2 packs a day of unfiltered Camels, she declined to watch him anymore, citing her age as an excuse. Fortunately, an old friend of Vince’s nicknamed Stubby volunteered to watch Tony when necessary.
Stubby had once been a next door neighbor, and now he was a member of Vince’s hunting camp in the mountains. Not too many members liked him, but since he had been one of the founding members, there was really no way to vote him out. Nearly 60, short and brash, and loudly opinionated, he was contemptuous of newspapers and rarely watched the evening news on television. His opinions were molded from the raw clay of barroom beer talk and uninformed gossip. These half-baked bricks were then mortared together with unfounded rumor and prejudice to set shoddy conclusions upon shaky foundations of sheer ignorance. He bored or offended nearly everyone, but he wasn’t a drunk or a doper, and Tony seemed to like him, and that was good enough for Vince.
Two years after Vince had asked Jerry to grind up the skunks, we were butchering deer again. Joe and Windy had replaced Fred and Dan, but it was the same routine with different deer, fueled by newer vintages of wine and boilo. We had almost finished when someone knocked on the door.
“That ain’t the secret knock!” Jerry shouted. “Try again!”
The door cracked open and Vince peered in. “I need to talk with you in private,” he told Jerry. Behind Vince, I saw Tony standing by a large rabbit hutch outside the garage.
“I’m not grinding up any skunks, if that’s what you want. C’mon in and have yourself a short one.”
“Not right now. We gotta talk first.”
Jerry put down his knife and picked up the jug. “All right, but I’m bringing my buddy along.” He went out, shutting the door behind him.
We trimmed the last of the burger, and began to clean up, scrubbing down the table and floor, washing the knives and saws. Doe season was nearly over, and we had only processed two deer.
I drank a short jolt of boilo, then carried my empty wine glass outside, looking for the jug. Jerry and Vince stood talking quietly at the far edge of the lawn, where the woods began. Tony was still at the hutch, atop of which sat the jug.
“Do you like rabbits, Tony?” I asked, reaching for the wine.
“I. Like. Them,” he replied, glancing at me as if to confirm that it was me and not the rabbit talking. “They. Lay. Eggs. For. My. Eas. Ter. Bas. Ket.” 10 words, 12 syllables, and each one spoken at a different pitch. Listening to him talk was as jarring as hearing one of Schönberg’s atonal works.
As I mulled that over, he went on. “Why. Don’t. She. Lay. One. Now?” His wide face loomed above the frightened creature and it sat as if frozen, quivering slightly, its large red eyes fixed on Tony’s thick, splayed fingers grasping the wire of its cage.
“She saves them up until Easter,” I answered. It was the best I could manage.
“Oh. O. K. Sean. Dad. Dy. Will. Bring. Me. Here. At. Eas. Ter.”
Vince and Jerry came across the lawn, not talking. Vince had aged a great deal since the last time I had seen him. He moved slowly, favoring his right leg. He appeared heavier, more compact, as if the burden of caring for his son had compressed him with its terrible weight. They shared a resemblance, this unhappy father and unfortunate son; they had assumed a likeness in the manner in which longtime spouses occasionally do. They were wed, Tony and Vince, and only by death would they part.
Vince nodded curtly as he passed. Tony reluctantly turned from the hutch and followed his father to the truck. “Good. Bye. Sean. Good. Bye. Jer. Ry. Good. Bye. Rab. Bit,” he intoned before he shuffled away.
Jerry lifted the jug on his elbow and swigged deeply. He started to speak, then shook his head and frowned. We heard Vince’s truck start, then the crunch of tires on gravel.
“That visit wasn’t about a skunk, I gather.” I accepted the proffered jug and poured myself a glass.
“No, but I wish to hell it was. He wants me to adopt Tony. He offered to leave me everything he owns when he dies.”
“Jesus! His house, too?”
“Everything. His property, his truck, the whole damn schmear. All I have to do is promise never to put Tony in a home, watch him until one of us dies.”
We both knew what that involved. It was comparable to selling your soul for earthly riches, except you’d pay the price while you lived, rather than afterward.
“What did you tell him?” As if I couldn’t guess.
“I turned him down. I told him that taking care of Tony was a full time job and I already had one, plus my own family to worry about. I said that I was sorry, but I just couldn’t do it.”
As we watched the rabbit nibble its salt block, Windy and Joe came out the basement door, wiping dry their hands, looking for the wine.
“How did Vince take it?” I asked. “Was he pissed?”
“He wasn’t exactly happy, but what the hell does he expect? He knows what an endless job it is watching Tony.” He took another swig, then passed the jug to Windy.
“He started to bawl, Sean. That’s why we were down by the woods so long. He needed time to pull himself together.” Jerry stared down at the ground and toed a spilled pellet of rabbit food.
“Were you crying too?”
He lifted his head, his eyes glistening with suppressed tears.
The following May, Jerry and I went to his mountain hunting camp for the opening of spring turkey season. Hunting hours ended at noon, and we usually spent the rest of the afternoon fishing or drinking, or both. There were three nearby camps owned by members from our home area, and we liked to visit them all to catch up on the latest gossip, or as we preferred to call it, “the news.” When we stopped at Vince’s camp, we saw Stubby and Tony sitting on an outside bench.
Without bothering to say hello, Jerry asked where Vince was.
Stubby gave us a sour look. “Back home. He’s been feelin’ poorly the last few weeks.” He held a beer, but offered us none.
“Sean. Jer. Ry. Hel. Lo,” said Tony, plucking compulsively at his shirt buttons.
“Hi, Tony,” I said with a smile.
“What’s up?” asked Jerry, giving him a thumbs up.
Tom, another camp member, walked out the door. “Jerry! Sean! Get your sorry asses inside and I’ll buy you a drink,” he announced, shooting Stubby a dirty look. “Hell, maybe I’ll buy you a couple—I’m celebrating!”
“Celebrating what?” I asked as I followed him inside.
“Shit, I dunno,” he grinned. “Pick something.”
We sat at a long trestle table in front of the wood stove and proceeded to swap the latest “news.” The rest of the camp’s members were upstairs napping or out fishing, or downtown supporting the local bars. Tom kept our glasses filled as we laughed and joked. Then in a low voice he told us that Vince had an inoperable brain tumor. “The doctors only give him five or six months.” He shook his head and looked away.
“Oh, Jesus!” Jerry winced. “Is he in pain?”
“I don’t know, but the doctor has him loaded up with drugs, from what I hear. Marie drops in every morning, but she’s pretty old herself. I think she hired a visiting nurse to check on him a few times a day.”
“Who’s watching Tony?” I asked, as if I couldn’t guess.
Tom frowned. “You just passed him coming in. Can you believe Vince signed over everything he owns to that sawed-off prick?” He rose to get a bottle of whiskey from a shelf. “It’s enough to make you puke.”
Jerry looked out the window with an odd expression. “Well, someone has to watch Tony. Vince doesn’t want him put in a home.”
“Shit!” Tom exclaimed slamming the bottle down with a loud thunk. “Just what the hell do you think Stubby will do? He’ll have Tony put away before the goddamn grass on Vince’s grave is high enough to mow! I’d bet the ranch on that!”
“I don’t think so,” Jerry said without conviction. “Vince offered me the same deal, but told me I’d have to sign a contract not to put Tony away.”
“For Christ’s sake, man!” Tom exploded. “If one lawyer can draw up a contract, what makes you think another lawyer can’t find a goddamn loophole to void it? You know how the bastards operate.”
We did, and let the subject drop.
On the next-to-the-last day of his life, Vince donned his best suit and shoes, then crawled to the living room couch to await his death. It hadn’t arrived by the time the nurse came, and she shooed him back to bed, minus his shoes. He agreed to loosen his tie a bit, but refused to take off his pants or coat. When Stubby brought Tony for his daily visit, Vince was asleep. As Tony sat on the bed, talking nonsense, Stubby explored the house, tallying his new possessions. After a bit, Vince awoke, pulling Tony, his only child, down next to him. There they lay in each others’ arms, two grown men, Tony babbling about the deer that used to feed under the backyard apple trees. Tony admitted to his weeping father how the deer’s glowing eyes had scared him at first, but not now. He confided that although they had no names, he loved them anyway, and recalled them fondly. Vince remembered them, too, and he also remembered his wife, Viola. There in the darkened sickroom, they lay together, hugging each other fiercely and remembering those who were gone, the named and the nameless, until Stubby returned.
“Tell Daddy goodbye, Tony,” he ordered, tugging him from the bed. “We’ll come back again tomorrow.”
Tony stood over his silent father, wondering why he didn’t stand up. “Good. Bye. Dad. Dy,” he intoned, gazing vacantly around the room.
Dad. Dy. could no longer speak, only mumble phrases no one understood. He heard Tony telling Stubby about the deer, but Stub. By. wasn’t interested.
The nurse removed Vince’s shoes again that evening, but during the night he managed to slip them on, untied. The next morning, Marie found her brother dressed in style to meet his wife.
At the viewing the night before the funeral, Marie and Tony and Stubby stood by Vince’s casket, receiving the many mourners. Tony greeted each one by name and assured them that his father would wake up in heaven to live forever with his mommy and Jesus. The men shook his hand and patted his back; the women hugged him and tried not to cry. Stubby was afforded the benefit of the doubt; appearances were maintained.
During the next-day services, Tony nervously plucked the buttons of his jacket, looking anxiously around the packed room as if he were expecting the imminent arrival of Christ himself.
After the eulogy, I waited outside with Jerry while the immediate family paid their final respects. Then we heard Tony’s anguished bellow and knew that the coffin had been closed.
At the cemetery, Marie and Tony sat on folding chairs before the bier. Stubby stood behind them at first, then thought better of it and sat next to Tony, awkwardly putting an arm around Tony’s shoulders. He reconsidered that, and simply placed his hands upon his own knees, which jiggled impatiently. Nearly everyone had worried that Tony might create a scene, but he remained oddly calm. Out of sight, out of mind, I mused. God has tempered his pain by granting him a deficiency of imagination coupled with the compassionate gift of obliviousness.
“He’ll be expecting Vince to show up every day for the rest of his life,” Jerry whispered.
Tony stared blankly at the flower-bedecked coffin, fiddling with his tie.
“That’s OK. It’ll give him something to look forward to.”
Stubby lifted his cuff and glanced at his watch.
“How long do you give him before Stubby sticks him in a home?” Jerry asked. “What with all of the insurance Vince had, it won’t cost him a goddamn cent.”
I looked to the sky for an omen, perhaps a wheeling hawk or even just a passing crow, but there was none. “Hell, I don’t know. How long does it take to probate a will?”
The minister finished his short homily; we dutifully recited the Lord’s Prayer. Tony’s staccato voice rose above the rest, rising and falling and finally stopping with a two-beats-out-of-sync “A. Men.” As we walked to our cars, I saw Marie and Tony collecting single roses from a bouquet atop the coffin. Stubby stared into the distance, bored silly.
A few months after Vince died, Stubby relinquished his membership at his hunting camp. As a founding member, he received a share of the property’s equity. Then, a month later, a realtor placed a “For Sale” sign in the front yard of Vince’s old home. Stubby explained to those bold enough to ask that he wanted to buy a house closer to town, claiming it would be beneficial for Tony.
For a time, Stubby continued to take Tony to all of the places Vince had. They attended the Sunday morning breakfasts at the fire company and went to the occasional outing. At every function, Tony sat at the entrance to greet each attendee by name, regarding them with a dull amazement, as if they were a sort of friendly phenomena that miraculously reappeared week after week. If he ever missed the phenomenon he once knew as Dad. Dy., he never showed it. Stubby preferred to sit at the bar, holding court with his newfound pals whom he had bought a beer and a shot at a time. But they never stayed long, he and Tony, and as the months passed, their visits grew infrequent, then ceased.
One September morning I drove past Vince’s old house and saw a “Sold” sticker on the realtor sign. I stopped to see Marie, and she told me that Stubby and Tony had moved to Florida. She seemed resigned to the possibility of never seeing her nephew again. After all, she admitted, he had never seemed to like her much anyway.
Down in Florida’s “Panhandle,” a strip of land sometimes called “The Redneck Riviera,” there is an institution for the severely handicapped. Situated in the country at the end of a private drive, secluded and quiet, it is Tony’s new home. True, it lies in alligator territory, but the few that inhabit the lake at the rear of the home are mostly nocturnal. Remembering the hooves piled in Jerry’s backyard, Tony worries that the alligators might bite off the feet of the deer that come out of the woods every evening to drink. When the deer warily emerge at dusk, Tony cries loudly from the porch, “Watch. Out. Deers. For. The. Al. Li. Ga. Tors.”
Tony is beloved by all of the nurses and orderlies, and they give him photographs of their children and grandchildren. Tony knows all of their names, and is considered a part of their families. During the day, if it is not too hot, he sits by the front door and greets each visitor, asking their names. Soon they are his friends, too, and thus Tony’s family grows larger day by day. And, best of all, everyone remembers his name.
As for Stubby, he lives 50 miles away in a condominium not too far from the beach. He visits the local casinos now and then, but only plays the quarter slots. He believes in moderation, and never drinks more than he can handle. When he feels like splurging, he buys fancy drinks for fancy ladies. When he doesn’t, he buys unfancy women shots and beers. He has many acquaintances, does Stubby, but no friends. And except for the many people up north who detest him, nobody remembers his name.