By LaRue Cook
I was in Mississippi working construction thanks to Uncle Rick, who was an avid hunter and a Republican. I was seventeen then and still considered myself a Democrat, even though I couldn’t vote. My daddy had always told me, “If you don’t have no money, ain’t no reason to be a Republican.” I knew that he hadn’t left me and Momma any money, and that she’d taken out loans to pay for the headstone and the casket. So I figured we’d always be Democrats, although these days my people don’t seem to care too much about money, just their guns and keeping the foreigners out. Uncle Rick wasn’t my mother’s brother. He’d married her younger sister, Aunt Regina, who’d had the idea for me to live with Uncle Rick in a Mississippi motel that summer. Aunt Regina said I needed to save for an education that no one in our family ever got, and that I ought to learn how to be a man, something she said my father had never bothered to teach me.
I did learn why folks in the Magnolia State give their dirt a proper name. “Mississippi Mud,” they call it. When that red clay gets wet, it’s unlike any mud I’ve stepped in, before or since. Mississippi Mud was the reason for that hot, wet day in July 2003, back when Dubbya was still after Saddam and I still had a flip phone. It was the day I shot a hole through a plywood cutout of Santa Claus, and then killed a crow. It was the first and last time I ever fired a gun.
We’d been lucky that the rain had held off for most of May and June, cause trying to run the bulldozers and the dump trucks in that mess of mud just created a bigger mess, a minefield of sinkholes we’d spend the day getting stuck in. But the sky finally opened up on a Friday in July, about the time the sun should’ve crept over the tree line. Uncle Rick ran around the landfill, flapping his arms, screaming for us to stop our equipment right where we were. Then he yelled at the boys to get the hell home, cause he didn’t want them rounding up an hour on their time cards.
The rain came down in sheets. I jumped out of the dump truck and hurried to our orange cooler full of drinking water. Uncle Rick grabbed one side and I took the other, our sack lunches swinging from opposite hands. We ducked into the portable supply shed where we kept oilcans and shovels and a couple of spare dump truck tires, which were a little over five feet high, about chest level with me. We left the door open and sat on black five-gallon buckets flipped upside down. Uncle Rick chewed on the hot peppers he ate once a day—“So my insides stay greased,” he’d told me—while I chewed on my pencil and pulled a tiny, black-and-white composition notebook from the back pocket of my jeans. We were quiet for a while, content to watch it pour. By then, we were used to the stench of hot, wet trash, but it was still foul enough to make you vomit if you concentrated on the rotten-egg taste creeping into your throat.
The drops hit hard on the roof of the supply shed for a solid two hours, banging with the insistence of a Jehovah’s Witness. As long as I’d known him, Uncle Rick had always sat in church on Sunday to appease Aunt Regina. But he figured the Lord was about as real as the tits on the cover of the Playboy he started thumbing through between bites of a hot pepper. I could tell he had the itch, the way he was eyeing every female we came across, no matter how many teeth she had in her head. He’d decided to stay cooped up in a motel with me for this job, since it was cheaper to hire locals than bring his crew across the Tennessee line to Walnut, Mississippi, which had been Chickasaw land before he and I were ever thoughts. Uncle Rick told me Tippah County paid damn good money for digging a hole to dump trash in. He also told me that he could use a summer off from my aunt Regina.
I tried to make good use of our downtime, writing in that tiny notebook like I’d promised my girlfriend I would, cause my momma told me not to run the minutes up on her phone bill. My girlfriend then had the sexiest snaggletooth and the cutest nose, round and slightly sloped. I still smile now and again when I think of her. She and I would go on to senior prom together and enroll at the local community college. I’d leave her behind soon enough for four-year college, and I’d always wonder what if, like you do when the world becomes wider and that comfort of going back to all you didn’t know seems more appealing.
“What’re you scribblin?” Uncle Rick asked, wiping the sweat off his forehead.
“Nothin,” I said. “Just movin the pencil around.”
“You don’t need love notes to get laid, son.”
He unscrewed his thermos and stuck it under the push spout of the orange cooler, filling it with water from a natural spring. One of the locals had tipped us off about it, told us how to find it, and filling the orange cooler every morning on our way to the landfill had become one of my many jobs, along with packing our lunches and logging the boys’ dump truck loads and cleaning the tracks on the dozers after quitting time.
Uncle Rick took a long pull from his thermos and sighed. “Come a day when you’ll wish you wouldn’t have settled.” He swigged again and then turned and grinned at me, like he knew I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was.
“You hear what I’m tellin ya, son?”
“Yessir, I hear ya,” I said.
I still miss the way Uncle Rick talked, guttural in his tone, redneck in his diction, but wise in his own way. I looked up to him. He had a belly that pushed through his cotton button-ups, but it suited him. His barrel chest and ham-hock thighs made him look like the man who advertises paper towels, the kind housewives daydream about. He kept his beard and thinning hair trimmed neat, and his belly didn’t get any bigger than it always had been. He embraced it, slapping it often, as if not having one would make him less of a man—although I’ve come to learn that men like Uncle Rick have their insecurities, that whatever they lack in education or opportunity is made up for by how well they use their fists or the size of their dicks.
My father, on the other hand, was about as flimsy as a rake, like you’d expect to pick up another one at the dollar store when he finally snapped. Toward the end, after the hydropower plant let him go due to government layoffs, Daddy stayed in bed most mornings, with his face twisted like a washcloth that had dried out, crusted into the most awful shape. Momma would say, “He’s in there gettin right with the Lord,” or some other nonsense, before she started on her list of houses to clean. My mother was a pretty woman, I understood it then, didn’t need to hear Aunt Regina tell Momma after Daddy passed that any man in town would put his hands around those hips. I believe Momma loved Daddy cause he wasn’t Uncle Rick, a man who measured his life by how many women he’d slept with and how many men he’d punched and how many buck heads hung on his wall. Daddy taught me how to be patient, how to fish for brim, how to appreciate books and the quiet in reading them. Thing was his heart wasn’t ever really in the life he’d been saddled with before he was ready, this son and this woman, this family that every man of his generation was expected to create, whether they wanted it or not.
That’s why my mother wanted me in Mississippi with her brother-in-law for the summer—construction was a manly thing to do, and she worried that if she didn’t fill my life with manly things to do, I might end up just another flimsy rake too.
By the time Uncle Rick was belching from the acid of too many hot peppers and my pencil had run out of words, the sun finally rose, as round as the tits in the Playboy. Uncle Rick said he figured the boys were already too drunk to work and that the mud would take at least a day to harden under the heat. I thought we’d take advantage of the long weekend, head back across the Tennessee line to see Aunt Regina and my mother.
“You ain’t never shot a gun, have ya son?” Uncle Rick flipped his bucket over and wiped the sweat again from his forehead, steamy heat rising from the mud.
“Nosir.” I kept my eyes on my notepad. “I don’t have any use for ’em.”
“A boy your age ought to have already shot a gun.” Hands on his hips, Uncle Rick stared out the shed door into the sun pushing its way through the parting clouds. “And they got plenty of use, son, if a man has his head on straight. Your daddy just never had his head on straight.”
I’d been raised not to talk back. I was too intent on satisfying Uncle Rick, the only man left in my life, too worried then to know that nothing he said or did was gospel, just like nothing my father ever did was worth repeating. I admired the fact that Uncle Rick was up an hour before daylight, and if he wasn’t pouring cement or running a dozer, he was in a duck blind or a tree stand, depending on the seasons. I admired, even then, that he’d raised three boys, my cousins, and turned them all into men, at least the kind Uncle Rick’s generation would have you believe are “real” ones.
So I stayed silent when Uncle Rick took his shot at my daddy. I didn’t have a defense for him anyhow. I just sat and watched Uncle Rick as he made his way to the nearest trash heap, his calf-high steel-toes suctioning in and out of the mud. There was a yard decoration in the shape of Santa, with a red hat and a cotton-ball top, sticking out of the soggy ground. Uncle Rick yanked it up and kicked it clean. Then he set Santa about twenty-five yards away from the shed and walked to his big black SUV, parked at the end of the gravel road that led to the main highway. I didn’t move from the portable supply shed, sitting on my black bucket, studying him. He opened the driver’s side door, hopped in, lifted the console, and slid out with a gun, dull and black. It looked like a toy pistol when he tucked it into his waistband, but the glint off the bullets in his hand told me otherwise. Wading back to the shed, through that mud as doughy as cake, he carefully loaded the magazine.
Uncle Rick clicked off his hearing aids. “Put your plugs in,” he hollered. “This nine’s got some kick.” He’d been three-quarters deaf for the better part of twenty years. “Too many gun shots and days in a dozer,” he’d told me, which is why he made me wear earplugs and our conversations never consisted of more than a sentence or two at a time.
He tugged the gun out of his waistband and pushed the magazine in without a hitch. Then he stepped even with the supply shed and aimed, gripping the 9mm with an assuredness that straightened my shoulders. The thick air shattered into a mist. I squinted at Santa. Uncle Rick had shot him between the eyes. He motioned for me to get off the bucket and extended the pistol, as casual as if it were a beer. I grasped it awkwardly, like it was one of the brim Daddy had caught with its back fin raised.
“Son, concentrate. Just block out this world and squeeze.”
I’m not ashamed to say I was as excited by the gun as I was scared of it—how holding it makes a man consider all the wonderfully awful things he can do. I aimed at Santa with one eye closed, like I’d seen on TV, breathing hard on the inside. Save for the hole between his eyes, Santa still looked jolly, rosy cheeks and squinty eyes. My groin tingled with the pistol between my hands. I curled my index finger. My father must’ve been desperate to want to pull that trigger. I felt the halfway mark, when Daddy would’ve still had time to reconsider. But he kept going and Momma walked in to find him before the bus dropped me off from school. Once, when she was standing over the dryer folding clothes, I heard her whisper, “plum gone,” just to herself, but I never heard her say much else about it.
My veins tensed, then sprang open. I sent one right through Santa’s beard.
“Helluva shot, son.” Uncle Rick patted me on the shoulder. “Sure feels good, don’t it? About like your first snatch.” He slapped my shoulder again. “Click the safety,” he said, “and hand it here, barrel down.”
I did as I was told, and Uncle Rick waded through the mud to his SUV, whistling “Ramblin’ Man.” He laid the 9mm in the front seat and then crunched across the gravel to the back of the truck, out of sight. I heard the hatch open and slam shut.
Uncle Rick reappeared carrying a rifle.
“See that tree line,” he yelled, pointing with the barrel.
I turned to the south end of the landfill and scanned the tall oaks and pines, more than a football field away, protecting the outside world from having to look at mounds and mounds of garbage. The dozers and dump trucks and track hoes sat empty, like abandoned tanks in the bowl-shaped hole we’d been digging. We were alone, just him and Santa and me—and every piece of trash thrown out in North Mississippi. I turned to Uncle Rick.
“I want you to find a crow and kill him,” he said. “Nothing worse than a damned crow. Why you think no state wants to claim it?” He’d stopped to grab a beer out of the cooler that was always behind the driver’s seat, cracked it open with his free hand and took a gulp.
Most days, he finished two before we got back to the motel in Corinth, less than half an hour’s drive from Walnut. Most nights, we’d get cheap Mexican or hamburgers and split a twelve-pack. But some nights, we’d shower and tuck our button-ups into our jeans and go to an upscale restaurant, at least for Corinth, that served crawfish étouffée and sirloin. Uncle Rick made friends with the owner and convinced him it’d be no harm if I drank too. At seventeen, I knew better than to turn down a drink in front of men like Uncle Rick, so I went beer for beer, best I could. But I would’ve been content to watch the backside of the barmaid, who was twenty or so, with pouty lips that spread wide when she smiled. I liked when she flitted her tongue every time she flirted with Uncle Rick and the other men, wishing she’d flirt with me.
“She’s got an ass on her, don’t she?” Uncle Rick had said it like he was whispering, but loud enough that she could hear. Jess, she told us to call her. She winked at Uncle Rick, and he winked back. I shifted my eyes to the large picture behind the bar. It was of a wood duck, its green head and single red eye and yellow beak painted in profile, much more colorful and brighter than the females, Uncle Rick had told me, especially during mating season. It made me uneasy, the exchange between Jess and Uncle Rick, but I wasn’t sure why at that age, unable to tell the difference between a confident hunter and loyal Republican and a man refusing to own up to how unsure he was of himself without a gun in his hands and a seat at the head of the table. I didn’t like it when men like Uncle Rick whispered about how pretty my mother was, the rack she had on her, and I guess I had some sense even then that a woman was more than something to be called and hunted, more than a duck behind the bar.
I heard the distant caw of a crow when Uncle Rick shoved the rifle into my chest and took a gulp of his beer. “That’s a semi-automatic, so you don’t have to do nothin but keep pullin the trigger.” He stared matter of fact at me, like he was about to say something important. “Sure would be nice to hit that Mississippi Powerball, wouldn’t it?”
“Yessir , guess it would be.” I shouldered the rifle, like I had a clue how, and swung it toward the tree line, scanning the branches through the crosshairs of the scope.
“What was that, boy? Don’t have my ears on.”
I let down the rifle and looked straight at him so he could read my lips. “I reckon so.”
“Damn right. What would you do with forty mill? I know what I’d do with forty million.”
“I’d have to think about it.” I stuck my eye back in the scope.
“What do you know, boy?”
I heard Uncle Rick squishing to the supply shed. He set his beer down on the metal floor and squished back and grabbed me from behind, squaring my shoulders, centering the butt of the gun flush into my right one. “Now, keep that son of a bitch tight and aim steady.”
He squished back and plopped down on a five-gallon bucket. “I’ll tell you what I’d do with forty mill .” He took a drink. “I’d hunt year round. I’d travel this world and not come back till I was damn well ready.”
“What about Aunt Regina?”
“Son, your aunt’s a fine woman. But here’s the best advice you’re going to get out of Uncle Rick .” He swigged so hard that his cheeks sucked in. “Wrap up your pecker till you’ve had all you can handle. You understand?”
Uncle Rick had never spoken to me like I was anything more than his sister-in-law’s kid, or just cheap labor. But his voice had an edge to it, like he was challenging me, like maybe he saw my father in me.
“Yessir,” I said. “I believe I do.”
“Then you tell me. What is it I’m sayin?” He crushed the empty can in his hand.
I kept silent, my eye firm in the scope, searching for one damn crow. I was shaky from the humidity and no food. The sun’s heat on my neck meant lunchtime had long since passed.
“Put the Goddamn gun down when I’m talkin to ya.”
I lowered the rifle. Uncle Rick’s cheeks, just above his dark beard, were as rosy as Santa’s, but the veins in his eyes spread like bloody webs.
“You’re old enough,” he said. “You ought to know that’s why your daddy did what he did. You know that, don’t ya, son? Your momma’s a fine one, just like Aunt Regina’s a fine one. But your daddy was stir-crazy. Women will suck you dry, son, and not in the good way.”
Uncle Rick let the can drop to the metal floor of the supply shed and got up from the bucket. The hinge of the shed door squeaked when he pushed it open, ringing over and over in my ears.
“Go on back to that crow, like I told ya,” he said. “I need another.”
I raised the rifle, zeroing in on a pine. I counted every twig. My stomach growled, but the thump of my heart drowned it out. I stared so hard, trying to keep my eyes dry, that my vision doubled, splitting the branches into threes and fours. In my mind, I saw the different pieces Uncle Rick’s head would explode into if I shot him, the way I had Santa. But I’d only used a pistol so far, so I had no real concept then of the damage a rifle could do at close range.
The shed door was still squeaking in my ears, like those springs behind the closed door of my parents’ bedroom. “Just go outside and play,” my mother would say, “while your daddy and me take a nap.” She’d smile, but even as a kid, I could read that her eyes were saying something else. Sometimes I’d pretend I was going outside but would sneak back in, tiptoeing down the hall, listening to the squeak, squeak, squeak, until my father let out a groan.
A black haze settled over my scope. I blinked several times before the silhouette became clear through the crosshairs. At first, it looked like a single tarred feather that had a pair of claws. Not until its head darted this way and that did I realize the crow was staring right back, like he was judging my thoughts.
“Got me one,” I whispered.
Uncle Rick walked as gingerly as he could through the mud. He slurped his beer and I felt his breath on my right ear as he judged the trajectory of my aim. “Just keep him in them crosshairs.”
I transported myself through the scope to the branch next to the crow, with a fleeting wonder about what it was like to be the hunted. The crow flapped its gorgeous wings, absorbing every bit of light in the scope. The black faded into black. I wanted to kill that crow, to know what it was that made a hunter so satisfied. I didn’t want to become Uncle Rick anymore than I did my father, but at least Uncle Rick still seemed to have something worth living for, even if it wasn’t my aunt Regina.
I sent a bullet into the darkness, never expecting it to hit bottom. The butt of the gun jammed into my shoulder blade and the report ricocheted off the tree line. I lowered the rifle to take stock, still gripping the warm metal tight with both hands. I could feel my blood beating through my legs and arms, seeping into the tissue around my right shoulder, with a force that would leave a purplish bruise. I spotted the black bird, spiraling to the ground. My stomach sank at the thump I’m sure it made.
“Goddamn, boy.” Uncle Rick took a gulp, then let out a satisfied sigh. “You might just be a natural.”
The rifle blast had sent a murder of crows fleeing across the tops of the trees, black specks dotting the sky, which had gone gray. I hoisted the rifle and sprayed bullets into the air, never looking into the scope, refusing to stop even as Uncle Rick screamed for me to. The crows never quit flapping, squawking with each thrust of their wings.
That night, after we’d finished our étouffée and were five beers deep, a woman sat down at the bar next to Uncle Rick, who’d gotten over the wasted bullets, but said his guns were off-limits for a while. She ordered a dirty martini, extra olives. She was thin and blonde, with a face slightly worn and green eyes that looked tired, perhaps from a previous marriage. The woman reminded me of my mother. She had on a teal cocktail dress that hit her just right on the thighs, and she sipped her martini with the intent of a man buying her another.
I wished Jess was noticing me like this woman was noticing Uncle Rick, but Jess was leaning over washing the pint glasses, cleavage spilling from her white T-shirt. She slung her black hair to one side and caught me staring. She raised her pencil-thin eyebrows in a teasing way, not with any intention of letting me follow through with what I wanted to do. She darted her dark eyes over at Uncle Rick and the woman in the teal cocktail dress, as if to say that was the real show.
“Go on back, son,” Uncle Rick said, tilting far enough away from the bar to reach into his jeans pocket. “I’ll be in before sunup.” He put the keys to the SUV on the counter and slid them toward me, chatting up the woman next to him. Uncle Rick had always done the drunk driving, but I could tell that he’d made up his mind—that the Playboy wouldn’t be enough to satisfy him for a summer.
I grabbed the keys and sucked down my sixth bottle of beer. Next to me, a man with parted gray hair in a navy tucked-in polo spoke softly into his bottle, something about laying it all out on the table. I looked at the wood duck, the bright red eye looking back at me. I swiveled away from the bar to scan the main tables, filled with heavy-set men sitting alone and pleasantly drunk couples holding hands. One of the couples had put George Jones on the jukebox. But the bar might as well have been silent when I swung back around and yelled what I yelled at Jess. Not even George could drown me out.
“You’ve got the nicest rack I ever seen,” I yelled, slapping the counter. “And your ass too. You’re goddam beautiful.”
I can’t recall how many silent moments passed before everything was set into motion again, or if George ever stopped singing. Jess didn’t wink like she’d winked at Uncle Rick. After a stunned second, she walked to the other end of the bar and turned away from the crowd, embarrassed, as if she’d never had so many eyes on her before.
Uncle Rick grabbed my left shoulder and the gray-headed man grabbed the shoulder with the purplish bruise. It hurt enough and I was drunk enough that I threw a punch at the gray-headed man, but ended up face-first on the floor. My cheek stuck to the spilt beer and whiskey. The smell would’ve made me sick had I not been working in trash for the summer.
“I sure do apologize,” Uncle Rick said, seeming to address the whole place. He yanked me up by the shirt collar. “I don’t know what’s gotten into this damn kid.”
The fall had somewhat sobered me up, and a sense of pleasure came over me, in the shame Uncle Rick was made to feel marching me out of the restaurant, past the open mouths and the wide eyes, the shock on their faces that I’d said what every other man in the place was thinking. The women refused to connect eyes with me, either looking down at the table or over at their husbands to see where their eyes were.
The air outside was so heavy that sweat beaded on my forehead and across my upper lip the second we stepped into the night. The sky was empty. The light from the restaurant windows was barely enough for me to make out Uncle Rick when he grabbed a fistful of my button-up and brought my face to his. I could see drops of sweat around his glassy eyes and the disappointment in them—in me and in the fact that I’d ruined his night with the woman in the teal cocktail dress. He cussed me, spittle splattering onto my nose and dripping onto his beard.
“Fuckin piss ant.” He let go of my shirt, which was now half-tucked and wrinkled. “Don’t move a damn muscle.” He spit and wiped his hand across his beard. “I’m gonna go in there and settle your mess, then I’m gonna figure out what the hell to do with ya. Sorry ass…” He barged back in, as fast as we’d bolted out.
I was holding the keys through the whole thing, so tight they made an indention in my palm. I got the SUV started and out of the lot before Uncle Rick could even watch me go. I rolled down every window and concentrated on all four tires being between the lines, passing a Baptist church in town and houses unlit except for front porch lights.
Once you got beyond the Corinth city limits, the highway to Walnut turned as Southern as any highway could be—creeks and ponds and low-lying cotton fields, rising and falling only slightly with the occasional green hill. But the night depressed the landscape, compared to the crisp light of dawn that I was used to riding in on the way to the landfill. There didn’t seem to be a single road that bisected that highway, making it difficult to find the spot I was searching for. But Uncle Rick and I had driven the route enough that I could feel the bends and the dips, like a blind man does, even better behind the wheel.
So I was sure of myself when I slowed to the shoulder and cut the engine and the high beams. I stayed in the dark for a while before I opened the console and grabbed the 9mm. I removed the nose from its case and fingered the grooves, mashing my index finger against the hole at the end of the barrel. Then I slid the barrel in my mouth and left it there, until my saliva took on a metallic taste, pooling in the pit beneath my tongue. Did my father let the gun linger long enough to taste this taste? Or had he been quick on the trigger, certain that the ticks of the clock just weren’t precious enough to him anymore? I wondered about the last thing my father tasted before putting the gun in his mouth. I don’t remember what we had for breakfast that morning, before I got on the school bus, whether it was oatmeal or fried eggs. I shoved the barrel farther in, until I gagged and my eyes watered.
I inched the gun out of my mouth and into its case, setting it in the console and grabbing the black flashlight with the long handle. Uncle Rick’s white mug was there, stained with coffee grounds in the bottom. I took it too and climbed out of the truck.
The mockingbirds chirped, like they were unsure if night had turned to dawn. I eased into the ditch with the long handle of the flashlight tucked in my armpit. I hadn’t seen a single car pass on the road. I rinsed out the coffee mug, running my fingers over the brown that had settled into the white ceramic, filling it with clear, cold water. I finished the mug in a gulp, trying to clear the last of the cobwebs from the bar. I thought back to our very first drive to the landfill, around five in the morning, when Uncle Rick pulled to the shoulder of the road, in this exact spot, somewhere between Corinth and Walnut, Mississippi.
“Why are we stoppin?” I’d asked.
“Get out. You’ll see.”
He’d gone to the back of the SUV and unloaded the orange cooler, shaped like a cylinder—not until the next day did I learn that it would be my job to fill it every morning. “See that there,” he’d said, pointing. I’d strained until the edges of a white PVC pipe were barely jutting from the hillside. “Water,” he’d said. “Pure as you’ll find.” The townsfolk had dug out a tunnel to set that pipe some years back, Uncle Rick had told me, so they didn’t waste money on plastic bottles. It wasn’t a secret, any more than knowing where to get the best étouffée in town was a secret. But it felt to me like a secret between us, one that would be lost after Uncle Rick sent me back across the Tennessee line to my mother the next morning. He got rid of Aunt Regina, too, later that summer, and I doubt he ever thought much about me again.
But standing there then in that ditch, straddling the small creek that the water from the pipe had created, I thought about what I’d said to Jess. Just like the clear, cold water, it would remain a secret, one that Uncle Rick would never tell my mother or my aunt. Working construction for a summer in Mississippi taught me those were the kinds of things that stayed between two men. A man’s true feelings—the loneliness and the regret and the uncertainty— were never to be discussed with the women, lest we lose our place in the pecking order. But I still didn’t know if I could look my mother and my aunt in the eyes, afraid they might see what I couldn’t yet, that they could see what kind of man I had inside me, whether I might turn out like Uncle Rick or the same as Daddy did.
I bent down and scooped up a handful of that caked red clay, squishing it between my fingers. I washed my hand clean and filled the mug again, gulping down more water as I shined the flashlight over the cotton field that stretched for miles beyond the dull yellow stream, doing my damnedest to stand firm in that creek bed full of Mississippi Mud.
LARUE COOK was a Senior Editor at ESPN The Magazine before returning home to Tennessee, where his new title became Existential Mess. He also drove for Uber and Lyft and put an MFA from Fairfield University to use writing short stories, which have appeared or are forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Noctua Review, and Washington Square Review, among others. He is now a first-year PhD student in Creative Writing at Georgia State in Atlanta, where he also teaches freshman comp. You can follow along at My2ndFirstStep.com.