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by Jardonn Smith
Category: Gay Fiction/Erotica
Description: In 1938, people had no fears of ghosts. This was the Great Depression. Fear was empty pockets and empty stomachs, but for the men of Jardonn Smith's Green River, working a Highway 66 project in the WPA meant a full-time job and steady wages. Sure, there's a disgruntled spirit living under the river bridge near their camp, but the only question they have is, "Whose willie will he go for next?" This story is part of the anthology "Past Shadows"
eBook Publisher: MLR Press, LLC/MLR Press, LLC,
eBookwise Release Date: August 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [125 KB]
Reading time: 74-104 min.
"Come sit over here, boy, and I'll tell you a story."
"Great-grandpa Ernest, I'm not a boy. I'm twenty-two years old."
"That may be, but in my head you're still a boy. And I ain't your grandpa, great or otherwise."
"I know, you're our great uncle, but we've always called you..."
"Yes, yes, your ma and pa feel sorry for me because I never had any kids of my own, so I put up with it. Uncle Ernie would've been much more fun. Don't you think?"
"Doesn't matter now. Just sit there and listen. Record me on your digital do-hickie if you want. Put it in your thespians."
"It's a thesis."
"That was a joke, son. You will be hearing about a thespian of sorts before I'm finished."
"Good, and just so you know, back in my day a man's penis was called a pecker, a willy, a johnson, or a woody. We would at times use the word dick or cock, but only if we were drunk and talking nasty. Those two were nasty words back then. And another thing. Most people believed the dead liked to come out and wander around from time to time. Some folks were scared of it, but most just thought it was a natural thing. Listen to the songs from back in olden times and you'll know what I'm talking about. Got it?"
"Now, let me get in my waxing-poetic frame of mind so I can make you a pretty picture. And don't interrupt me!"
* * * *
Part One -- Snakes
The Gasconade is a gentle, spring-fed river. It flows from south to north, kind of a rarity for U.S. rivers. Beginning at its headwaters near Hartville in south-central Missouri, it twists and turns for nearly three hundred land miles, even though the total distance, if taken in a straight line through the air, is about half that. After meandering its way up from southern Missouri, the Gasconade contributes its sparkling color of emerald green into the muddy Missouri River near the center of its namesake state. It is a river ideal for floating, for swimming, for basking, and for touching. It's where Cecil Babcock and I first touched one another in places below the waterline, although there is some argument as to who touched who first.
Yes, the Gasconade River is where Cecil Babcock and Ernest Surbaugh progressed from simple touching to mutual hand jobs, to reciprocal blow jobs, to, well, you know where this leads. We were young, post-teenaged men. Still unsure of ourselves. I was twenty-two, Cecil twenty-one, and it took some rather monumental events in order for us to get where we got.
In very particular order they are: The Great Depression -- a severe economic collapse in the 1930's that at one point in 1933 saw the unemployment rate reach twenty-five percent. The Dust Bowl -- a massive erosion of farmland brought on by years of overuse and drought. Centered in Oklahoma, Kansas and eastern Colorado. This disaster just happened to coincide with and worsen the economic depression. The Works Progress Administration -- a government-funded program that put men to work for salary, mostly upgrading the country's infrastructure of streets, highways, bridges and water systems.
The WPA camp near the Gasconade River is where Cecil, myself, and about forty other men of our work crew were housed into four-man cabins. Our project was the U.S. Highway 66 Bridge over that river, the repair work on the bridge our reason for being there, plus widening and patching or resurfacing the highway for twenty-five miles in both directions, either side of the bridge.
I arrived at the work camp in early June, 1938, along with my Uncle Jack Surbaugh and my brother Raymond, who was three years older than I. Cecil came a day later and was assigned the fourth and final cot in our cabin. The place had once been a resort where folks stayed to fish and float the river, but had gone bust along with countless other businesses after the crash of 1929. The WPA bought the grounds, refurbished the cabins, built a dining lodge and a community shower house, complete with sinks and toilets. Also added was a fence and gate at the entry drive, closed but never locked, a garage for storing and maintaining the work vehicles and equipment, plus a small stage for end of the month, Saturday night dances.
This was the only time outsiders, including females, were allowed in the camp. A small orchestra was brought in for the event, paid for by townspeople who showed up to purchase a fifty-cent ticket allowing them entry to listen, mingle and dance. Finger foods and drinks were also provided, but no alcohol was allowed inside the camp.
Fifteen cabins separated by single-auto parking spaces were laid out in a semi-circle facing the river. Two cottages were nearest the river, along with a concrete boat-launch ramp and a roped off area in the water for swimming. The space cleared for our camp was surrounded by woods lush and green. Tall elms, oaks, sycamores and black walnut trees shaded every building, while dots of old-growth trees were left standing within the complex as well.
Locals had done the new construction work beginning early spring of that year, and many stayed in the program for the highway and bridge work. We Surbaughs were not locals. Neither was Cecil, and I'm sure that's why Cecil was assigned to our cabin. Highway work began the Monday after Cecil arrived. At six a.m. breakfast was served in the lodge, after which we piled into trucks and were taken west on Highway 66 to just east of a town called Lebanon. We spent the day patching holes, constructing new or leveling existing shoulders, and widening or resurfacing the highway. At two p.m. we loaded up for the trip back to camp, and after supper in the lodge some of the men headed for the river to soak and relax, including Cecil and myself.
The camp and its access to the Gasconade was about a mile down-river and geographically north of the highway bridge, and because Cecil and I got tired of the local hillbillies trying to scare us with supposed snake sightings in the water, he and I swam up-river toward the bridge to get away. Unlike those goofballs who swam in trousers, Cecil and I went naked like genuine hillbillies should.
"Cecil, you got any snakes over there in Kansas?"
"Not anymore. They all dried up and blowed away like the rest of creation."
We found us a nice spot north and west of the middle pier, one of three made of concrete, middle one in the river, two on the banks. With a current slow and relaxed, the water's surface was about chest-high, bed underneath soft and sandy, and water temperature cool enough to prevent a man's willy from showing much excitement. The sun had long ago disappeared behind the bluffs to our west, but enough daylight lingered so Cecil and I could barely see our underwater parts in blurs.
"Yeah, well, we've got plenty in Joplin."
"Any with poison, Ernest? Like rattlers?"
"Cecil, there's only one snake to be concerned with in the Missouri Ozarks. That's the Copperhead, and he don't like to swim much. There's a timber rattler, but he's a scaredy-cat and you hardly ever see him. Cottonmouths like the water, but they're mostly in the southeast part of the state. See? I know my snakes. These yokels from around here must think we're big-city sophisticates or something."
"Not me. I'm just a Kansas dirt farmer, but the dirt's all gone."
"And I'm just a Missouri factory worker, but the factory's closed."
We separated and swam for awhile as final glimmers of daylight faded to bluish-grey shadows. An occasional vehicle rumbled east or west across the bridge, rubber tires double-thumping when crossing its metal expansion joints. Our swimming hole was about one-eighth of a mile north of the bridge, its five-hundred-twenty-five feet of length nearly two hundred feet above us.
"So, Cecil, who did you leave behind back in Pittsburg, Kansas?"
"My entire family. They're on the farm about ten miles from town. Ma, my three brothers and two sisters. I'm the oldest."
"Is your pa in the WPA somewhere else?"
"No, he died last year."
"He was clearing brush. Hoped to plant wheat into some new earth. Tried to drag a log up a grade and the tractor tipped over on him. Crushed him like an ant underfoot, but at least he died quick."
"Sorry about that, Cecil."
His silence worried me, like maybe he was getting depressed, but then he playfully splashed my face with a slap of water. "Aw, he's better off. Sometimes I wonder if he didn't halfway do it on purpose."
"Why do you say that?"
"It wears on a man. Putting in a crop year after year, waiting for rain that'll never come, watching his little sprouts wither and blow away. I could see its effect on him, Ernest. Watched it happen day by day, sucking the life right out of him. Hell, a man can't even show his face in public when the only money coming in is from his wife's dressmaking."
"So, his dying made you head of the household?"
"Yep. After that year's crop burnt up, I told my brothers we'd try one more. That was this past spring, and it's going to waste like always. Can already see it."
"How come the WPA sent you all the way over here?"
"It's all they had open anywhere near me. Guess I waited too long seeing if the crop had a chance."
"You got the last slot. Did Mr. Morgan tell you that?"
"Sure did. The WPA man in Pittsburg told me the same thing. Said they were needing another man here who knew how to work on engines."
"Tractors and trucks?"
"Right. I can do it, so the agent called up Mr. Morgan and told him I was coming. Ma used what she had saved to purchase me a train ticket, but she was twenty cents short. The railroad agent loaned her the amount we needed."
"Yep. His wife wears some of ma's dresses. I suspect she'll get one for free out of the deal."
Hard to believe this Monday-night swim was our first real chance at getting acquainted. Not because of any disinterest. We'd simply been too busy.
Cecil's physique was plenty exciting, although at the time I merely thought him a striking man. Didn't recognize any sorts of sexual attraction toward him, and would not have known what to do about it if I had. Such ideas were not part of my thinking process, not yet, but I was a bit jealous of his stocky frame, his height of five feet and ten inches, the abundant black hair on his legs and the small patch of it on his chest. His blue eyes were brighter than the sky itself, made even more brilliant by the healthy black hair atop his head.
I guess a man tends to admire what he himself doesn't have. A complete contrast to Cecil, my height at the time extended past six feet by one-quarter of an inch, head hair brown, body hair tan in color and sparse, while my frame was thin, and musculature sinewy. My eyes, also blue but of the slate-grey variety, rarely got noticed because of my nose. Hasn't changed much since then. Long, sharp and thin with its end almost at the same level as my upper lip, the tip of my nose curves toward me, and from the side view looks like a beak. I've been called hawk, eagle and buzzard by friends who know me, and by foes who think I give a shit. I always figured my compensation is the other body part similar to my nose, one that's equally long and majestic, and that's the pecker hanging between my legs.
That nose of mine is a good judge of character. Men who stare at it or keep darting their eyes away from it during face-to-face conversations are usually counterfeit. Got worries about their own faults, and are looking for some reason to bring me down to their level. Men who look once and let it go are usually men I can trust. Men I'll like. Cecil never paid any mind to my nose when we were handshaking our introductions in the cabin. Never lost his patience with my brother Raymond, either, like most men do.
The camp director, one Harold Morgan, a bright-eyed and kindly man approaching fifty years brought Cecil to our cabin on Sunday. We'd arrived and settled in the day before.
"Gentleman," Mr. Morgan rapped his knuckles on our open door, his bushy white brows raised high, his rosy red cheekbones protruding. "This is Cecil Babcock, from Pittsburg, Kansas, or thereabouts." They entered to our friendly hello's, as our director told us the obvious. "Mr. Babcock will be your cabin-mate."
After setting his suitcase and duffel bag on the floor, Cecil followed Mr. Morgan toward my uncle.
"Hello, Cecil. I'm Jack Surbaugh," he smiled with hand extended. "From Joplin, Missouri."
"Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Surbaugh. My train passed through Joplin sometime this morning."
"Yes, Pittsburg's not far from where we live."
"Another fifty miles west and you'd be living in Kansas instead. Isn't that right?"
"Or Oklahoma if we headed a bit south." Both men simultaneously released their grips and rested hands on their hips, as my uncle took charge. "I'm sorry to tell you, but you'll be surrounded by Surbaughs. These two are my nephews, Raymond and Ernest."
Turning toward Raymond, Cecil grabbed the hand waiting for him. "Hello, Raymond. I look forward to working with you."
After five seconds of silence, my uncle jumped in to explain. "Now, Cecil, you'll have to go slow with Raymond. Sometimes his words get lost in traveling from his head to his lips, so give him time. Raymond, say hello to Cecil."
With the reminder, Raymond used up another ten seconds and finally repeated, "Hello, Cecil. Welcome."
"Thank you, Raymond. This certainly is a beautiful spot."
Next came me, and like I said, Cecil passed my nose test. He settled into the final cot, and after Mr. Morgan took him on a tour of the camp's facilities, Cecil was ready for a nap. Hours on a train followed by a fifteen-mile car ride from the station where Mr. Morgan picked him up had Cecil worn out. He awoke at supper-time, walked with us to the lodge. Took a shower afterward, and by then all of us were ready for bed and our first day of work Monday morning.
Finally, our Monday-night swim allowed us to relax and converse. "Ernest, how did you Surbaughs get to the camp?"
"Uncle Jack's pickup truck."
"What kind of factory were you in?"
"It was Uncle Jack's factory. We made large blocks of formed concrete, specifically-designed for the construction of grain elevators. Curved slabs so heavy they had to be lifted onto rail cars by a crane."
"Wow! That was quite an operation. So, what happened?"
"Same thing that happened to you farmers. Not even Uncle Jack could have foreseen a drought like this. His clients were right in the center of the Dust Bowl, eastern Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. No grain. No need for new grain elevators. Banks cut off his loans, and he finally shut down the factory in March of this year."
"Is that when you signed up for the WPA?"
"Soon after. Uncle Jack had already been in contact with the agent. Like in your county, there wasn't anything open locally, but because of our knowing about concrete, Jack was able to get me and him set up for this project here."
"And your brother?"
"Right." Our conversation moved along quickly, which was a good thing. Helped me get through what I had to say. "Uncle Jack's always taken care of my ma and us since our pa was killed in the Great War."
"Was he your uncle's brother?"
"Yes, a couple of years older. Uncle Jack treats us like we're his boys. He lost both his wife and baby daughter to the flu epidemic a few months after ma got word about our pa being dead over in Europe.."
"The flu of 1918?"
"That's the one. Had us three funerals real close together. One of my earliest memories."
A shout interrupted any chance of me getting all sad. Came twanging from a hundred feet down-river. "Hey, you two! We just seen a giant black snake headed your way. Nearly ten feet long. You better watch it. Thing'll take your head plumb off. Take you under and drown ya."
"Virgil, is that you?" I'd met him at supper two nights prior. Virgil Shank, leader of the local clan. Real friendly until I told him we came from Joplin.
"Yep. I'm tellin' truth, now. Y'all better head for the banks, 'cause he's a-comin'."
"Virgil? You ever been to Joplin, Missouri?"
"No, I ain't."
"Well, we got black snakes there, too. Some of 'em thirty feet long."
"Naw, you don't neither."
Cecil made no effort to hide his chuckling, as I turned the tables on trouble-making Virgil. "I'm telling you true. Had me one as a pet when I was a boy. He bit me once, but didn't like the taste. Didn't hurt me much, either, so I figure I can handle any of the puny snakes you got around these parts."
"You're a liar, Ernest Surbaugh."
"So are you, Virgil Shank, so just get on back to your relatives and leave me be."
"Mister, you got a real smart mouth. I ought ta come up there and..."
"Mister, in case it's too dark for you to see, I can tell you that I ain't running. If you want some, come on up here and try me."
We waited, but heard nothing. "Can you see him?" Cecil whispered while I kept my eye on the dark speck of Virgil's head I'd pinpointed when the shouting began.
"Looks like he's going back down-river, Cecil. Guess he's not in the mood for it."
"He's probably fixing to fetch his buddies."
"Whatever. He and I are going to have it out sooner or later. Might as well be sooner."
"You can't take all of them on, and right now I can barely see you. They could sneak up on us, easy."
"They ain't coming up here. They know they'll get kicked right out of the program, and then where will they be? There ain't any other jobs around here."
"I think you're giving them too much credit for brains. We better go. If we're in a brawl we'll get kicked out, too."
"You go back to the cabin, Cecil. This is my problem. Virgil and I are coming to fisticuffs, if not over this, then over something else. He'll pick his spot."
"And his reason, as soon as he knows what will set you off. Right, Ernest?"
That would be my brother, Raymond, whose speech peculiarity made people think he was retarded, and therefore prime material for taunting. "You already figured that out, did you?"
"I will do what I have to do when it comes to protecting Raymond."
"I know. Don't worry, Ernest. I'm staying right here."
"This is nothing to worry about, but I appreciate you... Hey! Damn, Cecil. What're you doing?"
"Uh, standing over here. Why?"
"That felt pretty good. Want me to do yours?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Squeezing on my pecker."
"I never touched your pecker."
"Sure you are. Here, let me return the favor."
"Ernest! I'm not even close enough to touch you or your pecker."
Putting the sound of his voice together with logic, I realized Cecil was telling truth. Too far away. "Well, who the hell's in the water yanking on me?" I reached down and grabbed my johnson expecting to feel a hand other than mine, but nothing was there. "What the...?"
"Damn it, Ernest. I done told you it isn't me, so there's no favors to be, um, well, I've got to admit that feels pretty good."
"Cecil, I'm at least five feet away from you."
I doubt if any two men ever exited water as quickly as Cecil and I did. My feet seemed to be treading in the sand, so I swam for it, and as Cecil and I climbed onto the bank-side, we reached for each other's hands and clasped on.
"What the hell was that, Ernest?"
"I don't know. You reckon it's coming after us?"
"Hope so. I kinda liked it."
At that moment, there was no doubt in my mind Cecil Babcock and Ernest Surbaugh would become the greatest of friends. We both burst into laughter and fearlessly returned to the river for play, dunking one another, wrestling each other, and touching.
"Guess the fish here think our peckers are big old worms, eh, Ernest?"
"Maybe it was a snake biting on us."
"Yeah, an old one that's lost his teeth." Cecil grabbed hold my woody, and I clutched his. Told him he could call me Ernie, if he liked. He did like, and we both enjoyed floating in the total darkness of the Gasconade River while jacking each other off. Twice.