Winter 2005

R. T. Smith


R. T. Smith R. T. Smith's Messenger (Louisiana State University Press) received the 2002 Library of Virginia Prize for Poetry. His forthcoming books are Brightwood (Louisiana State University Press), The Hollow Log Lounge (University of Illinois Press) and Common Wealth (University of Virginia Press). He is the editor of Shenandoah.
Vixen Christmas    

The night after she saw the mummy, Luanne Skeens had her first climax.

"Glory," was all she could say. "Glory glory."

Her husband Stivers interrupted his steady effort to ask what was wrong, as she had never seemed to mind his brief incursions before.

"What's the matter, sugar?"

"I have had the origasmi."

"The which?"

"The origasmi, when a woman peaks out and blushes like there were red diamonds in her blood. I have felt it from my womb to my eyes and sprockets."

"They Lord!"

"I believe we should try again."

Afterwards, while Stivers smoked a Cuban cigar courtesy of Teddy's Rough Riders and Luanne sipped spout water, they tried to reckon what had been different, but he swore he'd just followed the routine, right down to his antic warm-up dance and the stocking cap with green stripes. It must have been something from earlier in the day. Something new. Then she recollected what she'd seen at the arcade.

All afternoon they'd strolled along the riverside revetment in the drizzle, gaping at the scurrying Christmas shoppers and gawking into store fronts lit up with candles. Little elf dummies offered up gifts with ridiculous prices showing, and somebody on a ladder would dump confetti over the sorry-looking pine saplings every so often. They stopped to hear a derbied street busker sawing his fiddle and flat-footing in front of the Rose Five and Dime. At Waldo's, St. Nick himself was perched on a runnerless sled pulled by two ratty-looking spike bucks.

When they came to the arcade, they saw the new sign overhead:


Inside they studied the rusty pistol in its display case, a pair of bent spurs and a prompt book for Henry V. Booth himself had seen better days, but then who hadn't? In its shabby coffin boat, the body was dark and shriveled in a black suit with a big cravat knot where the Adam's apple would have been in a livelier specimen. The rictus on his face seemed almost inhuman, but he had good cheek bones. The fading signs all around explained how he'd been shot in a tobacco barn, how the infamous Dr. Mudd and his cohorts had almost spirited the fugitive away before the soldiers arrived. On a large swing panel were photographs of Booth in his prime with a cane and gloves and a smirk.

"It's missing the moustache, Stivers."

"I see, but you have to admit he still favors the pictures."

"Somewhat. Maybe."

Luanne had registered a tremble in her heart, and the hairs on the back of her neck felt like electricity.

"They say he was a handsome man and quick. He was a bonafide Romeo on the stage."

"Yes, sugar. Not much like myself."

"Oh, you old bear. I wouldn't have you any other way."

They had eaten honey-sauced ham and smashed potatoes that evening at the Hollow Log Caf� on Beale Street, and the stuffed fox next to the till with a cheroot hanging out of his smile caught Stivers' attention right off.

"Seems like there's dead things everywhichaway you gaze," he said. "I don't believe I care for it."

"Maybe. I don't know. It really doesn't seem to bother me."

After he finished the stoogie and switched off the gas but right before they slipped away to sleep, the couple agreed it was likely her memory of the preserved traitor in his lacquered ebony box that had somehow unclenched her. Awareness of mortality, relief at being alive, sense of fleeting breath and the clock's winged chariot from the poem.

Stivers Skeens spent the next three days trying to figure a way to get into the arcade after closing hours. He scouted the doors and windows, the alley coal chute and the roof without any luck. On Saturday evening he loitered about the door as Mr. Bilbo was locking up, but when he realized the impresario wore no coat or hat and was about to go back into the chamber, Stivers caught his attention.

"Must get pretty eerie in there with that dried up killer of an evening."

"Nossir," Bilbo answered. "I got a hide-cot I bring out and sleep right in the room with him. I spend most of my life studying the war history and tending to his modest needs."

"So you don't leave him alone?"

"Nossir. I got a guard spells me from time to time. Former Pinkerton. Mr. Booth won't be doing any more murders." His laugh was dusty and brief.

When Stivers asked how such a famous body might be obtained, the man smiled, and when he said it was on a Federal license, Stivers knew there was no hope to capture the prize.

The next night Stivers smashed out the back window of the Hollow Log Caf� with a milk crate and crawled through, then slipped from the kitchen to the long hickory dining counter. When he lifted up the animal, he could see in the frail light that the absence of a visible cod bag meant it was a she, but he abducted it anyway and walked home with the creature snugged under his overcoat against the rain.

In the bedroom, he set the fox atop the Edison Victrola under the gaslight where you could see its wedge snout and dingy teeth from the pillow. When he peeled back the quilt and whispered her name, Luanne opened her eyes and smiled at him and at the fox. Everything worked out just fine, while outside, Memphis shivered in the rain.



R. T. Smith: Poetry
Copyright © 2005 The Cortland Review Issue 27The Cortland Review