Mule Skinner Blues
James Edlund
after a song by The Fenderman

"If you ever want to get to the core of the crime and ill-doings in a town, just find yourself the pawnshop," Manny's dad remarked after a man-sized swig from his styrofoam coffee cup.

"Ya, well, Clem gets a lot of good stuff down there, and at damn good prices," the outboard mechanic, Kurt, offered back.

Ken, the local garbage man, rolled a cigarette from a pack of Bugler tobacco, and wetted it with his lips, sealing the fold. "I got me one of those video tape players down there . Got it for a hundred of them movie machines...beta they call it."

Kurt refilled his coffee and wiped off his forehead with a half-used oil rag. "What the hell you gonna do with a video tape machine?"

Ken took a drag off his cigarette, "You know tape television, I guess."

"What the hell for? Once you seen something you ain't gonna watch it again. Hell, they got one in the church basement for showing them religious movies. What're gonna watch religious movies, Ken?"

Ken kicked a bolt across the concrete floor and remarked, "Fuck no. I ain't watching that, dumbass. I leave that to you and your crazy, ass-backwards Anderson brood."

Manny's father took his turn, "Well then, Ken, what are you gonna do with a video tape machine?"

"I'll...I'll tape me some of them Westerns on Saturday night. I miss 'em at the bar. I'll have the old lady tape 'em for me to watch on Sunday after the football game. Good ones...Liberty Valiance, Sons of Katie Elder, you know. "

"Hell of a deal," Kurt barked, lifting a 15 horse Evinrude onto a mechanic's mount.

Manny's dad tidied up his work area, putting sockets, wrenches and plugs away. "See you on Monday, Kurt," Manny's dad yelled to the back room. A voice echoed back be between bursts of clanking metal and the sound of a winch, "Don't take any wooden nickels."

Manny's father spent his drive home thinking about his son's approaching birthday and what he'd get him for a present. Manny was good about doing his chores and keeping the horse barn clean. "Yes," he thought to himself, "it's got to be something real special."

As he pulled into the driveway he saw Manny in the south pasture breaking up bales for the two horses, Apache and Steve. He had let Manny name the appaloosa, and he had come up with Steve. Everyone thought that Steve was a funny name for a horse, but Manny was steadfast in his decision—this was "Steve the Horse."

"Come inside, kid!" Manny's dad yelled from the truck window as he drove alongside the barn, "and get washed up." Manny ran through the pasture gate and up to the house. The screendoor flapped in the wind and three or four cats huddled around Manny's feet as he scraped the horseshit off his boots on the corner of the concrete slab porch.

After he had washed up, and Manny's father had kissed his wife, they all sat down to dinner. Manny looked down at his meal—pork chop, apple sauce, baked potato and bread and butter. His mother knew how to cook, although it could've been sandwiches, Manny wasn't fussy. He lifted up his fork. "Wait there, kid," spoke his father, with one eyebrow lifted. "You forgot about saying Grace." Manny started to open his mouth, and for a second he couldn't remember a single prayer. Words raced through his head...Our Father...Now I lay me down to, that wasn't right. Manny's father held his right hand to his forehead with his head bowed like those paintings of the old man and the bread that reminded him of the guy from the wine commercials...we shall sell no wine before its time...or whatever that was. Manny couldn't figure out why his father prayed like that - it was more like a salute to your shoes or the way you shield your eyes from the sun when the visor in a car doesn't do the job.

Manny's father spoke, "Lord, bless this table and this family, in Jesus' name, we pray." He lifted his hand away from his head and picked up his can of Schmidt beer.

"Manny," he spoke, setting his beer down, "I'm not working tomorrow and I figured since it's your birthday we could drive into town and find you a present."

Manny smiled. Manny's mother passed the salt and pepper to his father and adjusted her blouse. "We're going to have birthday cake with your grandmom tomorrow, too." She hesitated a second before she added, "And grandmom wants to know what kind of cake you'd like."

Manny thought awhile, responding, "How 'bout carrot cake with white frosting?"

Manny's dad laughed and shook his head, "You know Manny, you've got some weird tastes. . .carrot cake? Why most kids like chocolate."

"Well dad, I learned that chocolate comes from the rainforest down in South America. I thought it came from the chocolate labs like you said...and now I don't know if I like it anymore."

"I was just kiddin', Manny. Chocolate labs are dogs, not a place where they make chocolate."

They all laughed. Manny's dad then got up, excused himself and went out to the garage to get another beer.

Early the next morning Manny woke to the sound of someone making a racket in the garage below his room. He looked at his alarm clock. "It's not even 7:00," he thought to himself, "what's he doin' down there?"

Manny got dressed and went out to the garage for a look. His father was on fire—he was running between boxes of garage sale items his mother stored in the attic and old chests he had kept in basement. "What're doin', dad?" Manny asked.

"Looking for something," he mumbled, holding up a raccoon trap, "that ain't it," he spoke as if he was looking for a lost, winning lottery ticket. He closed the two chests and walked over behind the beer fridge - "I knew that's where I put it!" he exclaimed, grabbing the long, brown leather case.

"What's that?," Manny inquired.

"This, right here, was your granddad's shotgun," Manny's dad fired back.

"Well, whatcha gonna do with it?"

"We're gonna pawn it, kid, get you that special birthday present."

Manny's dad took the leather case and the eight-track machine he had salvaged from the garage sale box and put them behind the seat in the cab of the pick-up. He slammed the door and propped the hood of the 65 Ford up, reaching for the dipstick, "You better go inside and have some breakfast," he ordered, "we've got a big day ahead of us." Manny smiled at his father, kicking the gravel in the driveway around with his foot. Manny's father pointed at his son with a pretend hand-revolver, "Bang-bang. Get to it...We ain't got all day."

Manny went inside and sat down to a bowl of oatmeal his mother had prepared. He hurried through the hot paste, as if the fate of the world depended on it. He washed it down with some of his mom's homemade apple cider and ran to the front door, his shoelaces flailing in all directions. "You guys stay out of trouble," his mom yelled. "You take care of Manny, now. That means no bars, John!"

Manny liked when his mother used his father's name. It made him feel like they were closer than it sometimes seemed. Manny wondered sometimes why his father didn't use her name, why he insisted on calling her "Patootie" instead of Bev. But Manny knew his mother's concern was more play than a warning. He knew today would be more than cokes and pinball while his dad played whist and drank Pabst in the Sportsman's bar. Today was gonna be special.

Manny climbed up into the dark blue pickup and threw a handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth. "Ready?" his father asked. "Yep," Manny replied.

Manny's father stepped on the gas, sending the engine into a baritone fury, and the gravel under the wheels airborne.

Manny and his father spent the next half an hour driving past old, country churches and duck sloughs. They drove by where the Mennonite people lived, where road signs showed silhouettes of buggies and slow moving vehicle designations. Manny wondered how they lived and what they did without phones or electricity. He had heard at school that some of them were retarded and died during the winter because they wouldn't use doctors either. There was something Manny liked about the idea of living away from people, though not from television, away from lights and cameras and action.

His father was listening to a cassette tape of his favorite rockabilly band, The Fendermen. His dad's favorite song in the whole world was "Mule Skinner Blues" and when he was in an especially chipper mood would sing along, making strange faces and gestures with his eyes and mouth. Today was no exception. Manny's father belted out the verse, "I'm an ol' Mule Skinner, hell you are, out on the 'ol Mule Train."

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