Today Luke brings us a piece titled HARD CIDER, originally published for Native Magazine in 2015. Art throughout from fellow Nashville artist, Courtney Spencer.
My parents could have given me an Easy Bake Oven. Maybe that would have changed everything. I don't know. There were nine of us kids. I guess I get it. But maybe if I was perfecting my brownies I'd have steered clear of roadkill. I’d have studied Better Crocker or some shit instead of reading about and perfecting my defleshing process. I would have let a dead animal be instead of always trying to get at its bones. I wouldn't have stalked the hollowed out tree where that raccoon family lived. I wouldn't have wasted so much time and attention, so much affection, waiting around for raccoon babies to die. But I wanted a skull I could balance on the end my finger. It’s like a sugar cube when they’re that small.
If you’re going to do something, you may as well do it right. I got that from my mother. I learned everything I could about gathering and fleshing out animals and whitening their bones. Dilute your bleach. That’s one thing, for example, I learned early on. Severe bleaching causes unnatural effects. The color of the bone passes beyond the white you want and ends up back at that strange yellow-gray.
Once you’ve whitened your bones, either with bleach or by sunlight, which of course takes more time but is more satisfying in a way, lacquer can and should be sprayed or painted on if you plan to keep your skull and/or bones in good, clean condition.
But before all that, though, you have to decide how you want to get rid of the skin and muscle, the meat. It’s easier than you think. Trust me.
A “bug box,” as they call it, is one way. And if you can get your hands on some beetles they’ll handle the flesh faster than any wind or rain or occasional bug. Choose a box that’s just bigger than the animal. A coffee can, a steel drum. You just need something that closes. You want to keep your bugs in.
I liked to use the wire method more often then not. You want to wire your animal off from other animals but not from the elements. You want the elements to do their work. I had an old screen door that I’d dragged to the edge of our property. I used the screen portion to the hold the animals down and then rocks and whatever else I could find to hold the whole thing in place. You always had to prepare for dogs to come by. Dogs would root around and drag off the dead animals. Dogs don’t care one bit about what you’re working on. This screen door method was effective and over the weeks you could watch through the screen as the weather washed the meat away.
Once I got a skull basically to showroom status I hid it in an old Wheaties box — or whatever had been on sale that week that my family had emptied in one sitting — and hid the box deep in the back of my closet. I would take the boxes out sometimes and have a look. I’ve always loved to stand back and look at something I made. Look at this thing I orchestrated.
One of my brothers found one of those boxes after I’d been collecting for a few years. I offered him some lizard bones and a blue jay skull to keep quiet. He took the bones but said something anyway. My mother told my father and he talked to me in the family room when I got home from school.
He said it was basically harmless, Dad did.
If something is dead I don’t see the difference, I said.
Couldn’t we find some other way to spend our time? he said.
Parents always say our when usually they meant your.
What about soccer or piano, Jessie? he said. You’ll be driving soon, how about we get a job?
He didn’t know about the box in the back of the orchard with the dead highway cat or the two-by-two foot section of wire screen holding two ground squirrels in place — the two cute squirrels lying together in their very last bed, defleshing in unison. You can see how quickly this becomes gruesome. You can see how quickly this becomes beautiful. At least I still had the most-hidden part of my collection.
At least it’s not a boy, my dad said to my mom that night. At least she’s not having sex.
I was sitting outside their bedroom door listening. All of us kids did this after we’d gotten in trouble.
Yeah, my mother said. You’re right. But still, it’s abnormal.
Sorry I couldn’t have collected stamps like you, mom.
I’d picked the lesser of two evils. I hadn’t chosen badly per se, but I had chosen strangely. And strange is actually worse sometimes. It’s tough to repent of being strange. So bleaching and boxing up animal bones was better than premarital sex? Okay fine. But then it was better than sex. When everything is better than sex, everything becomes better than sex. See?
So here I am. Hello, thirty-four. Hello, no one. Hello, medium cool haircut and fashionable but not sexy clothing. Hello, memories of boxed bones that come out when I drink. Hello, my life’s highlight reel of thimble-sized bones winding through our family’s apple orchard. Look there, a hummingbird under a screen, a blue jay working on his hawk’s call. Another apple decomposing into the dirt. Hello, apples decomposing into dirt. Here I am, just wanting to be waiting for the blackberry bushes to bloom.
I hate Los Angeles. Everyone is someone here. Everyone is on his way. In Northern California there are places to hide things and be hidden and being hidden and feeling lonely are two different things all together.
I do graphic design. I am a graphic designer. It’s a safe/normal job. A job all people our age seem to do for a while. Jessica J., Graphic Designer. It’s why I came down here, to make connections.
What were we talking about? Sex and bones? To be honest, I can’t actually remember what I wanted when I was kid. I only know what I didn’t have and shouldn’t have done. And with sex, it’s don’t, don’t, don’t and then suddenly, do.
Oh, Los Angeles.
I could use a little of that Northern California in-between where the Pacific is actually pacífico and not always a 45-minute-drive away. Maybe I should just go back home. I miss my regular sadness. Here it comes at a person from all directions. I don’t know. Sometimes I wish I would have tried for bigger bones. Imagine ants eating rhinoceros meat off the bones. It seems like a fairy tale when something that small wins. But I’m done with that, right? It seems to me like aging is just unwanting most things. Sometimes I think that’s what people mean when they talk about “focusing” or “applying yourself.” But any kind of growth or trip home, every version of therapy takes time, which quite obviously I don’t have much more of. Soon it’ll be hello, thirty-five. Hello, more gray. Hello, new Internet. Hello, retirement. Hello, great nieces and nephews and old dogs dying that won’t be replaced. Soon it’ll be hello, sagging skin. Hello, hollow face. Hello, goodbye. Hello, bones.