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Mr. Winterman Beder blotted the page of his legal pad with pleasing script and admired his baritone as he read forth from his work amid the creaking music of cedar floorboards. The trees outside — the cypresses, pines, and pin oaks — screened from the road all but the wavering edges of the cabin and masked in the window Mr. Beder’s hunched and haggard form, as a thing in mourning might conceal itself ― stone-faced, eyes lowered ― from the scrutiny of a crowd.
Mr. Beder capped his pen and laid it aside. He heard above a rustling sound, a thump, thump, thump that could have only come from the attic. He ignored it and focused on his work.
Good, he said. Very good. The Tapping of the Nail. The Tapping.
He repeated the title until the words rolled easily from his tongue and intruded upon the cabin’s stillness as an incitement to further work. Not that Mr. Beder needed encouragement to continue writing: indeed, the suddenness of his cousin’s death, of Mac Jameson’s unexpected passing last November, had spurred Mr. Beder to a radical obsession with this literary project.
He examined on his wall the pen-and-ink drawings that he had had framed in those hard, bitter weeks after the funeral of his cousin. He skimmed their titles ― When Time Picked Up & Walked Away; Phelps Gate #2; Eglise Anglicane ― and he imagined, however irrationally, that Mac Jameson had smuggled into the nooks and crannies of these pictures some strange coded message of solidarity, the keys to the creative act, an artisan’s providential tip, sincere guidance.
Mr. Beder stroked his stubbled chin and noticed again that raucous, thudding hubbub in the attic ― thump, thump, thump. He was a squat wrestler of a man ― balding after the stress of this year ― with Walgreens glasses, belted khakis, and a tucked-in polo instead of a T-shirt, which gave him the stodgy paint-by-numbers appearance of a notary public or a middle school history teacher. In reality, Mr. Beder had parlayed a Millsaps English degree into an accounts clerk career at Lake Dubois State Park, although he considered the position superfluous: the job a mere means to an end, to the completion of his book, to the tracing of this thread through the maze of his life — The Tapping of the Nail and Other Tales through his thirty-some-odd years.
Thump, thump, thump, he heard again. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
He discerned the creature’s squeaks, its pattering of feet upon the floorboards above, and he recognized it finally for what it only could be, for its true nature. It was a possum on the roof.
I should’ve guessed it, Mr. Beder said. A durn possum all this time. I should’ve known.
He recalled a starless evening three months back in the swampy wetness of April’s rains, of rousing himself to apprehend the scratch, scratch on his bedroom ceiling and the whimperings of what Mr. Beder accepted tonight as a possum clawing its way into the bowels of the cabin.
Mac Jameson? Mr. Beder had whispered amid the cacophonous rustlings and that murmuring growl which had so unkindly awakened him. Mac Jameson? Mac? Mac Jameson?
He left the room. In the kitchen Mr. Beder poured Côtes du Rhône and toasted for himself a piece of Ezekial rye. He sipped his drink and bit into his toast and withstood an onslaught of imagery which shook him like a thunderclap. He fished in his pocket for his Olympus recording device, found it, switched it on, thumbed its red button, held it to his face, and began to speak:
He awaits us on his alabaster throne, sees us, hears us, judges us fairly, comforts us . . . .
He broke it off. Unable to disentangle these knots in his mind, Mr. Beder pocketed his Olympus and gripped his drink and scurried back into his bedroom. His palms sweated as he riffled through manuscripts and notes and settled in front of his computer and steeled himself for the final push, for the outrageous finale of The Tapping of the Nail, for Mac Jameson’s last scene.
All right, here we go, Mr. Beder said. Let’s let it commence, for I’m starting.
He typed and used his notes and his Olympus as a reference:
Mac Jameson, Hierophant of Flowing Robes, and the Eunuch — oh, the Eunuch! — oh!
He paused as if exhausted from his typing and dipped into the earliest parts of his book.
It’s ridiculous, Mac Jameson said to him. Don’t you see that? Can’t you see it? You can’t?
Mac Jameson sat on the couch in his Yale sweatshirt ― his hair cropped, his face clean-shaven ― and his dark skinny jeans seemed somehow out of place in the country, as did his affect and his unaccented speech. He had a LaGuardia sticker on his duffle bag and a German Bundeswehr jacket; and he punctuated his conversation with reminders of his Fulbright travels along the Rhône and the Saône and the Rhine. He apologized and handed Mr. Beder his latest pen-and-ink sketch ― he was close, so close to a precise realization, he admitted, but not quite.
He pointed up with one finger at a textbook upon the highest of the shelves: Dr. Lowery’s Mammals of Louisiana and Its Adjacent Waters, with cover facsimile of the possum and its mate.
My favorite, said Mac Jameson. But is it yours?
Thump, thump, thump, came the sound again. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
Mac Jameson, please, enough, said Mr. Beder. I can’t be disturbed like this. I must finish!
He drank down the last of his Côtes du Rhône, rose from his chair, entered the hall outside of his bedroom, and sought the attic door. He found it above him and, bolstered like a beast on the hunt, jerked its hanging string to unfold a wooden ladder assisting him into the dark.
Here, possum, possum, possum, Mr. Beder said. Where are you?
He employed a flashlight from his closet as he ascended the ladder’s steps into a mustiness redolent of roaches, dust-encaked books, damp cardboard, and moth-infested clothes. As he climbed, he detected again the thump, thump, thump, as well as the scuttling of small feet and the abrupt shuffling sounds of flight into the farthest ends of the space. He flicked his wrist and touched with his flashlight beams the bins of Easter decorations and unlabeled boxes; and, straining into the darkness to apprehend the possum, Mr. Beder peered into the obscurity of his surroundings, but ascertained nothing. He stopped and braced himself against a wooden support.
Scratch, scratch, scratch, came the sound, as loud as ever. Thump, thump, thump.
Well, possum, I guess it’s just you and me up here, said Mr. Beder. But where are you?
He was frightened by a clattering havoc of glass crashing as twin mirrors fell and a set of bound books tumbled into a pile. Mr. Beder jumped and hurried to the source of the disturbance, but saw nothing of the possum except for a quick glimpse of white fur and a bald pinkish tail.
Ugh! exclaimed Mr. Beder, and he retched at the sight. Disgusting!
He felt an itch, and, in the beams of his flashlight, he inspected his legs for bites. He pinched a flea from his ankle; it writhed in his fingers, sprang loose. He tried it again: picked off the flea, snapped it between his nails, tapped it on a banister, and then flicked it away like dirt.
From behind him came a noise, quiet at first, but then:
Thump, thump, thump. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
Stop it! yelled Mr. Beder. Stop interrupting me! I must finish my work! I must finish . . . .
He slipped his hands into his pockets and plumbed their depths in a quest for his Olympus, but he had left it downstairs with his pen and his legal pad, and could not retrieve it. He felt pressure in his head: Lord of the White, Mac Jameson, my liege, the Eunuch, Eunuch, oh!
A pen! A pen! Mr. Beder couldn’t help but shout. I need one right now! I must have one!
He flung himself upon the attic floor amid piles of books and skidded through musty hardbacks, ripped paperbacks, and university anthologies of literature and art. He snatched up the only pen he could find ― a gimmicky one, a gift from Mac Jameson ― a retractable ballpoint in the shape of a .30-06 rifle. Its sliding mechanism, its bolt-action procedure, extended the pen’s nib with a click; and Mr. Beder applied it, now, and locked it securely in its place. He grabbed from a nearby box what could only have been a high school yearbook from decades past; and, among clumped signatures on the inside cover of the book, he scrawled all the snippets that had invaded his consciousness since last November: the message of a life, that incessant tap, tap, tap.
Hierophant of Flowing Robes, and the Eunuch — oh, Eunuch, oh! — Mac Jameson . . . .
He labored over his lines, crossed out paragraphs and revised them, and then recast the texts like clay molds and allowed them to solidify. He was assembling this thing, piece by piece, a grand amalgam of being and nothingness. It batted its eyes like a china doll, and it awakened.
From somewhere, from nowhere, he heard the voice of the thing that he had summoned:
Winterman, Winterman, are you listening still? Winterman, do you know me? You do?
He appeared a stranger in these parts, a country boy gone rootless, Louisianian no more; and, as he spoke, Mr. Beder heard only a flattened whisper that was swabbed clean of its history.
Of course, said Mr. Beder. Of course, how could I forget my cousin? My best friend?
But when are you coming? Mac Jameson asked him. It is late, you know? It’s awfully late.
He lifted to judgment a framed pen-and-ink drawing entitled Le Sens (Self Portrait); but, although Mr. Beder strained his eyes for scrutiny, he saw nothing in this sketch, for it was empty.
What happened? Mr. Beder asked his dear friend. Did you not finish it?
Mac Jameson laughed a long time, a bitter, mocking chuckle.
Oh, Beder, he said. Beder, Beder, Beder . . . oh, Winterman . . . .
Again, Mr. Beder detected flea bites and watched drifting tufts of white fur afloat in the attic. He listened to the murmuring growl behind him, to soft, mournful squeaks, to a whimper.
I guess it’s just us here for a little bit longer, said Mr. Beder. You and me. Nobody else.
He waited for the response to his words, and he got one ― for now.
Thump, thump, thump. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
John Cody Bennett is an English and World History teacher at the Birch Wathen Lenox School in New York City, a graduate of Sewanee: the University of the South, and a Fulbright scholar from Louisiana. He has published work in Across the Margin, The Bookends Review, Twelve Winters Journal, and others.
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