In this next chapter of the backwoods novella BAT IN A WHIRLWIND, Ben spends a long and trying day at work in the café, which he accepts as penance for his “impure touches.” The excerpt is a peaceful lull in the afternoon, something of the calm before a storm.

To read BAT IN A WHIRLWIND, Chapter 4.  PENANCE, right click here and select “Open,” or to download as a free pdf file to read at home, select “Save Target (or Link) As.”


Excerpt from Chapter 4. – Penance

Only a few folks came in for coffee, and then our regular trucker customer Vince, a pleasant older guy with a long white mustache. I cooked him a hamburger steak just the way he liked it with cream gravy.

Bringing Vince’s order out, I noticed through the window some boys getting out of a car, the boys from Frog Level, a village off west of the Cossatot River. They always seemed so nice, and I smiled at them as they came in and sat in number four, all giggling and talking. While drawing them water from the fountain on the Coke machine, I recalled folks around Lockjaw whispering about the Frog Level boys being strange or something, but I had no idea what they meant. The boys all looked too handsome to be weird, and I never noticed anything unusual except a while back when two of them were holding hands under the table.

They ordered the usual Cokes and fries, and two got up to play the juke box. One of the two left in the booth, whose name I knew was Sammy, changed his order to onion rings and smiled at me with big dimples and bright blue eyes.

After cooking up the boys’ fries and onion rings and serving them, I felt like a real fifth wheel and ruefully retired to the penance of dishwasher duty. We’d accumulated an entire rack of glasses and most of one of plates. So I turned on the monster machine, its roar drowning out the squawky country song one of the guys played on the juke box, and listlessly jerking the rack back and forth, wondered what it would be like to have a crowd of friends like that. To let the glasses cool, I went out front to find Vince ready to pay his check.

Then one of the boys came up to pay theirs too. Boy, was I surprised when three of them left, and Sammy was still sitting in the booth. While I cleared off their dishes, he said, “They’re going off to DeQueen and buy a carburetor, but I don’t wanna.”

“You want something else?” I asked, always the good waiter.

“Nah,” Sammy replied with a shake of the head. “I’ll just hang out.” His lazy grin made the dimples enormous.

“Well, if you do, just give a shout.”

He sat back and looked out through the venetian blinds. Dutifully, I went back to the hideous dishwasher and ran the load of plates without a customer one coming in. Just when I got to drying my least favorite, the hot silverware, Sammy came around from out front.

“I guess you know Iris Barker?” he casually asked. “She says she knows you real good.”

“Sure do,” I said and finished up the steaming spoons. “We went to junior high together up in Lockjaw.”

He sat up on the ice cream freezer where I could admire his lean legs and his proudly arched nose. The knife handles were still so hot I had to hold them the other way around to dry. Not without a certain personal pride, I added, “She and I were just chosen as 4-H County Champion Boy and Girl.”

“Wow!” Sammy exclaimed. “Congratulations, pal. What did you do?”

I admitted with considerable chagrin, “Raised a blue-ribbon shoat.”

Flashing his dimples, Sammy asked, “So, Mr. Champion, what’s Iris like really?”

“Well, I guess you could say she’s pretty cute and seems to be a sweet girl.”

“I know that,” he said with an impatient snort through his delicate nose. “I mean, does she like to, you know, go out with guys?”

“I think she goes on dates, but as to whether she likes to, I don’t know.”

Sammy laughed out loud, hopped off the freezer, stood right in front of me, and asked, “Think she’d like to go out with me?”

I too laughed out loud, “Like asking if the sun’ll come up tomorrow.” He was so handsome any girl would flip her wig.

The dishes all done, I longed to remove us from the presence of that ugly machine, so I suggested we go play pinballs. I opened up the Ace of Hearts machine with the key and clicked up several games. Sammy was delighted, and I leaned up against the Las Vegas machine to watch him play. Not a single customer came in for the longest, and we talked about all kinds of things while he flapped the flippers.

I couldn’t remember what we said but kept thinking what a perfect brother he’d be. It was odd how I felt almost the same strange love for him as for Danny, those mysterious, intense connections of friendship, that almost hunger. With my arm over his shoulder, I watched the ball suddenly shoot down between the flippers. There was a racket of car doors slamming outside, so I left Sammy struggling with the game and went to fetch waters.


[Forgive me, but I can’t resist adding a brief selection, if only for its magical character.]


By the time I’d fed the zoo, evening was setting in, and I took off down the hill out back for some fishing of my own. Barefoot with a cane pole on my shoulder, I felt like Huck Finn. Okay, so I did have me a nice mother and a pretty place to live in, but just like Huck, I sure as shooting had a mean ol’ pap. And if I had me a raft, I’d jump on it right now and float away down the Mississippi. All I needed was a great Negro friend like that Jim.

Our pond was a ways out in the woods, straight down past the white oak, and then you’d come out on the rise above the water. Along with perch and blue-gills, the man who built Piney Hill stocked the pond with goldfish that went wild. When you’d come out of the woods onto the bank, the greenish surface of the water was usually spotted with golden flowers of fish. Toss a rock, and they’d dive, the golden flowers disappearing.

I leaned back against a post oak, the pole propped across my arm. There were ripples of bugs on the surface and footprints of the breeze in the middle. My cork floated in the bright reflection of the sky. The sun snuck low under some clouds, golden, and soon they were aflame with red, a rosy island in the gold sky.

Suddenly my cork went ploop. After a bit of a battle, I pulled out a huge goldfish with a fancy fantail about a foot long. Its round eyes bulged and fins quivered like a strange bird pulled out of the reflected sky. I smoothed out its fins and tails like wet yellow feathers. Surely this was a magic fish like the King of Fishes in that fairytale. Maybe I could wish to be with my Annette, or to keep my soul free from sin, or even to be real famous. Because he was lying there gasping for water, I told this King of Fishes I’d let him go and make my wishes later. He flew away out over the pond like a bird, splashing into the sunset.


To read BAT IN A WHIRLWIND, Chapter 4.  PENANCE, right click here and select “Open,” or to download as a free pdf file to read at home, select “Save Target (or Link) As.”

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