Stories From ‘Knockemstiff’

Book cover for “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at. This was years ago, back when the outdoor movie experience was still a big deal in southern Ohio. Godzilla was playing, along with some sorry-ass flying saucer movie that showed how pie pans could take over the world.

“It was hotter than a fat lady’s box that evening, and by the time the cartoon began playing on the big plywood screen, the old man was miserable. He kept bitching about the heat, sopping the sweat off his head with a brown paper bag. Ross County hadn’t had any rain in two months. Every morning my mother turned the kitchen radio to KB98 and listened to Miss Sally Flowers pray for a thunderstorm. Then she’d go outside and stare at the empty white sky that hung over the holler like a sheet. Sometimes I still think about her standing in that brittle brown grass, stretching her neck in hopes of seeing just one lousy dark cloud.

“Hey, Vernon, watch this,” she said that night. Ever since we’d parked, she’d been trying to show the old man that she could stick a hotdog down her throat without messing up her shiny lipstick. You’ve got to understand, my mother hadn’t been out of Knockemstiff all summer. Just seeing a couple of red lights had made her all goosey. But every time she gagged on that wiener, the ropy muscles in the back of my old man’s neck twisted a little tighter, made it seem as if his head was going to pop off any second. My older sister, Jeanette, had used her head and played sick all day, then talked them into letting her stay at a neighbor’s house. So there I was, stuck in the backseat by myself, chewing the skin off my fingers, and hoping Mom wouldn’t piss him off too much before Godzilla stomped the guts out of Tokyo.”

So begins the short story “Real Life”from Donald Ray Pollock’s first book, Knockemstiff. I knew I had to gett this book when I heard the title. Knockemstiff was the crossroad near Paint Creek where my grandfather was born. When I heard NPR’s interview with Pollock, I knew he was writing about the same place.

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