The last sip is sometimes a bad sip. And this might freak you out, but you cannot always just buy more of everything. An artist dies, the art created in the artist's life hopefully remains, but at the moment of his death there is no longer a chance of any more art coming from that particular artist. No, you can't get any more art out of a dead body. Not unless they did some art when they were still alive and it's been stashed away somewhere and hidden. Not unless nobody ever really knew about its existence and it only reached a very small audience at its very beginning. Not unless it gets discovered. By me. Because that's what I do. Because that's what I've been doing. Discovering shit for you guys like it's my goddamn job.
So, I'm always harping on Breece D'J Pancake, right? Because he was this great writer and he grew up in the same place I grew up. And because he killed himself when he was real young and how fucking romantic and blah blah, right? I even went to his goddamn grave last year and made a big act of it all like I was an adolescent with smallish tits on a pilgrimage to cry at the tomb of Mr. Stephen fucking Morrissey. I've probably overdone it. I have overdone it. I will take none of it back. In fact, here's more.
This story was omitted from the only collection of short stories we have from Breece D'J Pancake. I kind of have to say that I can understand why. He's not really flexing in this piece, he doesn't seem sure of himself, and I almost feel bad showing it to you because he probably wouldn't want anyone to see it if he were still alive (a lot of great writers would like to have everyone believe that they were always great). But this story is something that you should see as a testament to what the practice of writing can do. Pancake is at his youngest here, his beginnings, and it feels fucking amazing to witness how quickly his talent grew, eventually culminating in “Trilobites” (his best, in my opinion).
It's like something major went down in this kid's head and he just learned the shit out of how to do what he wanted to do: Write. You can see what he dropped and what he kept and what he stuck with and what he didn't. Honestly (and why act in any other way?), there are only a couple of shining moments in here. But do yourself a favor and read "Rat Boy" and then read "Trilobites" and see what you think. It's encouraging, yes? You can tell both stories are from the same man, but a man who found his way around his shortcomings in talent and broke through to being able to create truly beautiful shit by just going at it and learning how.
This one time, Robert Frost told a fellow poet that the fellow's poems felt like he maybe worked on them a half an hour too long. Haha. Classic. What an asshole, right? But what a great way to say what he was trying to say! He's not really talking about actual passing time. He's more talking about the amount of effort left displayed in the final product. He'd shown off too much. Or he hadn't hidden the effort well enough. I guess it takes a lot of practice to be able to write a great short story, but you also have to know when something is done (and when it's not done). They say Pancake wrote "Rat Boy" his senior year of high school (not bad at all) but never tried to publish it until years later. They say that it's the second story he ever tried to publish. Around that time, there was this like Appalachian literary guru named Jesse Stuart who helped "worthy" fledgling writers from the area. Breece sent Mr. Stuart "Rat Boy" to see what he thought. He sent him back kind of a nasty, discouraging letter. That's fine. Good. Happens all the time. Gives the writer strength if they're a real writer. But Pancake took this letter that Jesse Stuart wrote to him and attached it to the same story to be sent to The Atlantic with a little note of his own. It's attached below. Thank you, Breece, for that FUCK YOU that we all now have before us to admire. The Atlantic did not publish "Rat Boy" and Jesse Stuart didn't like it either. But who in the fuck thinks of The Atlantic anymore when they think of fiction? And no one thinks of Jesse Stuart. Nobody even knows who that guy was.
"Rat Boy," by Breece D'J Pancake
In the cool darkness of basement shadows, Jamey kneeled, watching the old mother rat select another of her litter for her next meal. Without evidence of malice she bit the chosen one in the tender area behind the neck, dragged it to the corner of the cage and dropped the blind, hairless baby in the sawdust. The tiny mite of life squirmed with pain not understanding the flashing attack of her yellow teeth and not knowing where to turn for refuge when the protector became the killer; it died a fleshy mass of pink stabs. The old rat doubled up over the carcass, holding it, almost cradling it with loving paws as she ripped away bits of flesh with her fore-jaws and paused to look quizzically at Jamey as she chewed.
But Jamey's face was indifferent. As interesting as he found the scene, he was not touched, for nothing had died but a tiny rat that knew nothing of life, nor was he repulsed as his mother had been when he mentioned a previous cannibalism at the supper table last night. He was only a casual observer to these strange rites of devouring. Perhaps they always ate two of each litter as fertility insurance.
A muffled four-syllable shout seeped through the cracks in the foundation. As the source grew nearer, the shouts became identifiable as his mother's accusing beckon. "Jamey Dillon!" She always called him by his full name when she was angry and the way he had it figured she would shout, "Jamey Dillon, how dare you!" if he dropped dead.
Through experience he had learned an escape might be accomplished via the basement window, and if he was quiet about it he could make it to his tree house without further disturbance. But her nearing footsteps told him he had hestitated a second too long.
"Jamey Dillon," she shouted down the stairwell, "I thought I told you to straighten up those bricks around my flower garden!"
"No, Maw," he lied, trying to sound innocent.
"Don't you lie to me." He was captured without a battle as his mother made short, quick steps down into the basement, her heels clicking a tune to her anger. Jamey stood up and brushed the knees of his jeans. he would catch hell now, he thought. He always caught hell when she towered over him and rested her hands on her hips.
"That all you got to do?" she scolded, waving her hand at the rat cage on the floor. "I swear, I've worked ten years of my life to watch you turn into a rat boy! You don't do a damn thing but watch them rats kill each other--why, it ain't Christian. This better stop, Jamey. You'd better start doing what I say or you'll taste your Paw's belt!"
Jamey tried to imagine what his Paw's belt would taste like. Salty and brown, he thought, like old steak. His father was a good man; it was to his credit that Jamey had the rats and he could not envision his father as the horrible sadist his mother tried to make him imagine. There were certain things a boy could be sure of, that his father was good, for instance, or that his mother hated him, but then she hated both of them and Jamey was not sure why she stayed.
"Now you get out there and stack them bricks and if it ain't done by suppertime, you'll go to bed hungry!"
He contorted his face in order to hold back the laughter as he took the stairs two at a bound. He knew he would not go to bed hungry--his father had hidden cookies in the hall closet as a precaution. His mother's threats were senseless ravings that would only continue if he failed to obey her demands. For the sake of his ears he complied.
Outside, the summer sun was obscured by foreboding clouds, birds darted madly in search of shelter and the hills and distant trees were shrouded in an overcast that looked like the last remnants of lingering smoke. Yet there was no wind, no leaf stirred, only wriggling waves of heat writhed upon the tin roof of a distant barn.
As he restacked the bricks, Jamey selected fat, white grubs for tomorrow's fishing trip and deposited them with some moist earth in an empty peanut butter jar, pausing from his work to watch them bury themselves in the glassed-up soil. Their cumbersome twistings seemed to hinder more than help them in their attempt to escape and Jamey thought it strange that a creature so enamored with digging should be so incapable of fulfillment. As he watched the grubs, he felt as if he himself were being watched by heated eyes from above--the constantly accusing eyes he always felt when he dawdled in his labors. Looking up, he saw his mother's face shadowed by the screen in the kitchen window. Apprehension and embarrassment collided like thunderheads, raining the sweat of guilt on Jamey's brow and he returned to his work for shelter.
"Hurry up, Jamey," she shouted from the window. "Your Paw's due home in five minutes."
Jamey whistled a made-up tune, its cadence rising and falling with every brick he stacked. His father would be home soon. There would be no brick stacking or lawn mowing then and the evening would be filled with baseball and long talks. The man with the answers would ease Jamey's mind.
But the man with the answers was four hours late.
Having no sympathy, the sun deserted Jamey's world, taking the already dim light from the basement and leaving him alone with his rats in the cool void. Above him, the screen door cried out and slammed shut. Jamey waited to hear the hollow sounds of his mother's footsteps but the tone was deeper and carried authority like the drum-beat of victorious warlords. Jamey closed the lid on the rat cage and hurried up the stairs to greet his father who was frantically pacing the floor as if searching for some lost memento. When he saw Jamey, a smile crossed his face and Jamey hugged the man's legs. He wanted to be like this towering man; a man who was strong, full of love in the face of hate and who held the answer to every question. His father set his lunch bucket on the kitchen counter and lifted Jamey to a seat beside it so they would be eye to eye and, drawing his face nearer he whispered in mock secrecy: "Hey boy, where's your Maw?"
"She went lookin' for you, Paw," he said, bowing his head in regret.
His father lifted him again with his hairy hands.
"What's the matter, son? She been bitchin' at you again?"
Jamey did not answer; there was no need to.
"Well, what time did she leave?"
"After supper. She put me to bed but I didn't stay. Gawd Almighty, Paw, a body can't sleep when the sun's up. It ain't natural."
"You're right, son. You're absolutely right. Did she say anything to you--'bout where she's gone, I mean."
"Nope. Paw, I swear she's crazy; she made me stack them bricks around them darn flowers in the back yard. Now them bricks ain't so pretty an' they sure don't make them flowers grow no better…"
"Your Maw ain't crazy, son, she's sorta strange that's all…"
"Why'd you marry her, Paw? She don't love us an' we don't love ehr. Why'd you marry her?" He looked down to Jamey for understanding and begged to be questioned no further. But it was in this exchange that the man noticed trouble in the child's eyes; a trouble that he sought to vanquish with a caress and a kind word. "Don't you worry, son, everything's gonna be okay. You an' me got some fishin' to do tomorrow--you dig them grubs like I asked?" The boy nodded while he formed the next question.
"Why's the momma rat eat her babies, Paw?"
The man wondered how Jamey came to such questions. the boy was constantly asking questions too puzzling to answer, yet he formed a tentative answer in his mind that might satisfy the child's curiosity for the moment.
"You're full of 'em tonight, ain't you?" he laughed. "Well, son, there's a lot of things that happen in this world that there just ain't no reason for."
Jamey was about to say he did not understand when the screen moaned on its spring hinges and his mother came into the kitchen as it slapped shut. Her disheveled hair hung low on her brow and barely hid the tiny beads of sweat on her skin. Her mouth was pursed tightly making her the picture of rage tempered in hate. The kitchen smelled of hate and burned potatoes Jamey had for supper.
"Go to bed, Jamey." his mother's voice was calm but the falseness of her tone told him she was saving her rage.
"Mind your Maw, Jamey. It's dark now and you'll sleep, alright. I'll be up to tuck you in. Remember, we're goin' fishin' tomorrow an' we gotta be up early." The man lifted his son from his perch and eased him to the floor. Before leaving the kitchen, the boy turned to his mother, took her hand and said, "Maw, I'm sorry I lied." her tension seemed to ease for a moment and she bent to kiss the boy, then waved him toward the stairs.
Knowing the fight would not start until they knew he was in bed, Jamey hurried up to his room, stripped, and plunged between the sheets. He waited for his father to tuck him in, he waited patiently as his age and energy would permit. When his father did not come he put his jeans on and slipped down the stairs, taking care not to step on the creaky ones. By hiding in the darkened stairwell, Jamey could plainly hear every word fired from the kitchen, although he was confused as to the precise subject of the argument. He had missed the preliminaries so he would have to listen closely to atone for his late coming. His mother was crying and his father was shouting in whispers.
"She's a helluva sight better to me than you! She don't bitch an' moan about nothin'…an' she's better in bed, too!"
"God's truth! You ain't been nothion' but a bitch since the boy come along. Always sayin' you don't feel like it--'Go to sleep, John, I don't feel like it!' Well, you sure to hell felt like it before we was married--you was a godamned rabbit!"
There was an inexplicable pause in the argument and Jamey was about to pronounce his father the winner and retire to dream of fishing when his mother's sad voice broke the silence.
"I guess you hate the boy, too."
"No," raged his father, "But if I gonna take you with him then I'll just chuck the whole works."
"Just like that?"
"Just goddamned like it."
When his mother started crying again, Jamey went up the stairs to his room. Boards creaked and moaned beneath his feet but he no longer cared. He went to bed and out of sickness fell asleep.
He awoke slowly at first, in the cool of sunrise, then sat up erect, remembering the night before. He dressed quickly, taking little care to get the buttons straight and ran to his parents' bedroom. The bed was smoothed and unused. As he dashed down the stairs he slipped, caught himself and cursed his carelessness. He found his mother sitting at the kitchen table with her head resting in her folded arms. She was still crying.
"Maw, where's Paw? What happened?"
"I'll tell you when you get older, Jamey," she sobbed, lifting her head. Her eyes were bloodshot and damp from a night of crying, her hair, a tangled mess.
Jamey went quietly into the basement. The old rats had eaten all of their young and only small pieces of the litter were strewn about the cage. he took them both up in his hands and made his awkward way up the steps and out the door. The morning dew was cold and slimy on his bare feet and held no promise.
When he came to a patch of weeds at the edge of the yard, he placed the two rats on the ground and walked away into the silent morning. He would turn the grubs loose, too; nobody was going fishing today.
("Rat Boy" was first published in 1991 in Appalachian Journal. Thank you to Eleanor Gould for her generous, generous help in attaining this piece.)