Corey Mesler

 

Butterfly McQueen's Oscar: A Lie

 

"Although little of it remains physically, there is still much to talk about."

--Richard Raichelson

from Beale Street Talks

 

* * *

 

A Necessary Part of the History

 

 

As far as I know, the story of Butterfly McQueen's Oscar has never before been told. Its veracity is dubious as hell, but it's half-baked quality--part raw hyperbole and part overdone mythmaking--make it a necessary part of history. I mean everyone's history, but most especially what we'll deal with here, the convoluted taletelling told of Resole McRey.

Now Resole was a fixture on the Street, as natural a phenomenon as the flood, as common an accessory as dusky bluesmen with too much past and no presence, half-heartedly strumming out of untuned guitars in Handy Park. He was ubiquitous, mercurial, out of step but plugged in, simultaneously an insider and the world's best outsider.

No one knows where he came from and, in the end, no one knows where he went. But that's the end. Let's go chronologically.

Resole was a storyteller. This is a fact. He may be the best damn storyteller these parts or anyone's parts had ever seen or heard. Resole's stories encompassed all stories, they went hither and yon, they yinned and yanged, they yoyoed out to the end of the line and snapped back like a ricocheted comet. They were the discontinuation and the inauguration, amen, and the circle in a circle was maybe born in them and reiterated endlessly since, but that is just the warp and woof and the substance is what I'm gonna tell you now.

The story was only one story.

The story Resole sold was the story of his life--his own precious life. It was the story of Beale Street. No one knows when he started telling it, along about his teen years near as anyone can figure but that is just mathematics and of no real interest. Resole told the story of his own life and he told it in such detail the telling took as long as the living and so you had to attend to the minutest things when you listened. But such is the life of every man. Such are we all.

Believe it or don't.

Resole told about the schooling, about the raising, about the first stirrings in his primordials. He told about eating and singing and whispering and sleeping (though he slept when telling of the sleeping as you can imagine) and the playing and the shitting and the laughing and the crying and the masturbating and the bathing and every sigh and hiccup and blink and every time he changed the part in his hair. He told the waking in the morning, breakfast, newspaper, coffee, shave, perambulation, lunch, nap, telephoning, television, visits, dinner, the long liquid hours between repast and slumber, the silvery evenings, as slippery as memory, as powerful. He told the dreams and the disappointments and the hurt and the seven sins and the lies and the pride and he told the love. He told it with an honesty of Biblical proportions, a fury that holds men in its sway, a supranatural thing.

The telling took as long as the living. Resole told his story endlessly, rain or shine. One day he was there and the telling had begun and it was a force of nature--or it was the devil as some said--but it was as real as the rain and sun and as tireless as the stars.

By the time of this here story Resole had already passed the part of his life where the telling began and by now, as we know, he was telling about the telling and his audiences had dwindled and interest had waned but Resole McRey was still a phenomenon and the wonder of him was undiminished. Some people came back to hear tell about the parts where they first appeared to listen, lo these many years ago. The telling of the telling included all who listened, as must be.

The telling took as long as the living.

Some say Resole was the illegitimate offspring of a furtive coupling between a once respectable white doctor and a young tenebrous conjurewoman, years ago in the dim twilight of the world, in the days before the music died. It was hard to tell from Resole's hue just exactly what race he was--human for sure, yes--due to the weathering of his exterior. He may have indeed been mixed-raced. Who knows?

Besides, some say Butterfly McQueen didn't even win the Oscar, that she died prizeless, bereft. So there you go about what people know.

And Resole stood the same damn spot on Beale Street every day of his life, as constant as the blues, as solid a spectacle as the statue of Mr. Handy itself. Mirabile dictu. It's said he was there in the beginning but we folks with more sober inclinations understand that Resole McRey came from somewhere and when he had gone he went back there, like the tides maybe, like Brigadoon. Resole was the world's foremost storyteller because Resole was the story himself.

Now rightly here is not the place to relate the story Resole told, the story of Resole. (Though the story necessarily encompassed many from here about.) His life is not yet transcribed and maybe never will be. I ain't the man to do it. And I've got other fish to fry.

This is the story of Butterfly McQueen's Oscar.

As I said.

* * *

 

Butterfly McQueen & the Angels of Beale Street

 

Now, Butterfly McQueen you all know from Gone with the Wind and she doesn't figure prominently or at all in the proceedings, except in the form of a piece of her property which she reported missing and which has been one of the foremost mysteries in the cockeyed annals of tinsel-town history--where that thing done gone. Anyway.

The Oscar itself, where did it go? Who spirited it away, and how, children, most pressing of all, did it end up in Mort Smalley's pawn shop on Beale Street in the year in which this story proceedeth? How indeed.

So, Ms. McQueen you know, and we mentioned Mort Smalley, but it was his daughters, his twin daughters, Valerie and Vivian, who we wish to know better, yes. The witchy pale white twins with the radiance of their blond manes the subject of many counties worth of adoration and admiration. The gorgeous twins who were never apart--Siamese at the souls, it's said--the opposite of Superman and Mr. Kent, one person in two bodies, people, those twins.

And it was the twins, the big-hearted twins, the ones who were always bringing in hurt bugs and stray dogs, who befriended the ragman, Freeman Blemish. They found him one afternoon on the east end of the street, bent like a kindergartner over a square of sidewalk, drawing circles with a stub of chalk. They stood over him reverently watching his intensity with an intensity of their own, as he drew loop after loop, circles within circles, his chalk diminishing like ice cream, seemingly eternal until it seemed the shaggy ragman was drawing with only a memory of chalk, the circles pulled from the air.

Finally he looked up, squinting, at the magnificent twins with the bright summer sun behind them, their shapely shapes rising from the earth like plant life, their aforementioned aureoles of hair refracting light like cornsilk, and in short, Freeman Blemish thought he was experiencing a visitation. Yes, he thought, angels stood before him and he was sore afraid.

"Sorry to disturb you," Valerie tinkled.

"Yes, sorry, " Vivian echoed.

"Your circles are quite extraordinary," Valerie said.

"Would you like us to get you some more chalk?"

Freeman just squinted. The angels could speak.

"My name is Valerie and this is my sister Vivian."

Freeman's brain, missing links, connected that there were indeed two beings present, cut from the same supernal raiment. The angels stooped and their faces, though he was resistant to looking directly into them, came perilously close to his. They spoke again, or one of them did.

"Would you like some lunch?"

"Urg," Freeman managed. He was, as always, starved.

"Um, can we buy you a sandwich? Or would you like to come to our house for some of our father's Dogpatch Stew?"

And so the sisters led the befuddled ragman to their humble abode and began a friendship which took the three of them right into the middle of this story.

* * *

The Storyteller's Fans

 

 

Meanwhile the storyteller's story went on and on. A small lunchtime crowd normally attended, sandwiches in hand. A polite burble of commentary and applause awarded every pause, though most pauses were not breaks in the narrative flow but silences for emphasis, silences where there were silences in the history which was being unfolded. Wind in the interstices.

Of course, the big-hearted twins loved Resole McRey. Often it was they who furnished him with meals and a warm place to lay his head (their nearby domicile, the aptly named Betelgeuse). They were his most faithful, his beloved devotees. Sometimes--and this is to go no further for there are minds out there still in their reptilian selfishness, small and unloving--sometimes the girls took care of Resole's other needs. It was the least they could do, they figured, small recompense for the lifetimes of pleasure the indefatigable griot provided. So sometimes at night, in the stillness of Beale Street shadows, the lovely freemartins took Resole's manhood out of his attrited trousers and let it feel the fresh evening air and the nunlike ministrations of their silken palms. And, the beauty of it is, they never interrupted the story. With profound respect, they waited for a period of untelling. Some say there is a small spot in the murky shadowed soil on Beale Street where Resole's seed has been gathering these many years and it will be there that something miraculous is predestined to occur. This is magical speculation, sure, and we file it away as such.

* * *

A Pornographic Outing

Ok, the statuette. It sat at the back of a back shelf at Smalley's Pawn Shop, burnished with age and outside of memory. No one knows how it got there--gypsies some conjecture--sold so long ago not even timeless Mort Smalley remembers from whence it came. Just one more knickknack in an emporium of knicked knickknacks, items which move as if with the winds, coming from there to here, from far away to near at hand, and soon gone again, the transport of the traffic of trade or the trade winds.

And then one day it had to come out. Old Mr. Smalley happened upon it searching for a beatup triton he knew was there somewhere, just what the peculiar, bearded gentleman was asking for. He pulled out the statuette with a short snort, set it aside and produced from the shadows a rusty trowel, turning sheepishly with it in his outstretched hand.

"Thank you, no," the elegant dandy pronounced, spinning on his heels and exiting.

But now Mort Smalley had had his attention drawn away and he hefted the Oscar in his gnarly old hand and brought it back to the counter with him. He was polishing it when his daughters popped in from the luminous perdition of the outdoor world.

"What's that, Pop?" Valerie reported, pulling a yellow Tootsie roll sucker from her perfect mouth.

Vivian just smiled brightly, her tongue rolling around its own orange pop.

"Dunno, girls, found it on a back shelf. Methinks it's some kind of Greek thing. You know, classy. I'm thinking I can shine her up and ask a pretty penny, sell it to one of those tasteful East Memphis dopes," their industrious father answered.

"Sounds good, Father Mine," Valerie said.

Vivian bit down on her sweet mouthful with an abrupt crack.

"What are you two minks up to on this hellishly hot day?" their father asked them as the small statuette began to glow under his manipulation.

"We just took Resole his lunch and now we're thinking about going to the movies," one of the twins said.

"Unless you need us to help you," the other added hastily.

"Nah, nah. You two take the day off. Go see the Pola Negri thing, God I love that Pola Negri."

"Right, Pops," Valerie said, kissing her busy father quickly on his stubbly cheek.

And they blew out the door.

They weren't going to see Pola Negri--hell, they didn't even know who Pola Negri was. No, they were going to the Adult House that just opened a few blocks over. They had been planning it for weeks, ever since they heard about its opening. Curiosity ran in them like bug juice. One of the musicians told them they showed people in full glorious nakedness, doing gloriously naked things. They couldn't even imagine it.

* * *

Love: A Crime

 

So, we know where the Academy Awards statuette resides at this point. And the twins, the comely twins, are warm and snug in the unrenovated, threadbare theatre seats at Al's Adult Cinema on the corner of Third and Madison, watching a large-boned Swedish actress go down on the love muscle of a flat-bellied hustler and drug addict on the fireplace-sized off-white screen. They are happy. And Resole is tale-spinning, what else.

Freeman Blemish, enters, stage right. He is loopy and weatherworn; he smells of canned fish. He squints at the heartless Southern sun. He is waving one loose-jointed arm wildly at the sky and he has one crooked appendage dug down deep in his bemired clothing fiddling with his own controls. Freeman is lost, Freeman is alien. Freeman is in love.

He makes his way across Beale and locates the door to the old man's pawn shop, knowing the way, memorizing the way. Freeman is looking for the angels, the seraphic Siamese. He wants to drown in their cupboard love.

Above his head a small tintinnabulation announces his arrival, the sound of Terpsichore tuning up. The old man at the counter has his back to the door and he turns slowly like in a dream--it is a dream, a dream Freeman has had somewhere in his forgotten past.

"Hello, Ragman," the wizened gnome pronounces.

Freeman stands in the doorway with the sun streaming around him, confounded, composed of glim and dust mote. He is protean. He speaks.

"Love," he says.

"What is it, Freeman? What brings you here?"

The ragman looks wildly around the shop. They are here. He must get past the gatekeeper first. Task number one.

Freeman stalks forward, carried on air. He is in one place and then he is in another. He reaches a hand out (the one from inside his garments) and it hangs in the heightened atmosphere like a sword. It is waiting for the completion of a transmission.

It hangs like a scimitar, like justice.

The hand moves falteringly, sluggishly. It starts for the half-glasses suspended on the face before it, turns slightly, adjusts. It touches, lightly at first, the gleaming tip of a small, golden human-being. It runs along the crown of its small head.

He likes the gentle curve of its pate. It talks to him; it belongs to him.

And then, swift as justice, the hand closes around that head, lifts and strikes. The old man falls. Freeman looks closely at the figure in his grasp, now touched at the tip with a magical drop of blood, which slides down the statue's face, a face reflecting Freeman's own, as if in a circus mirror, so that the blood drop, on its enchanted voyage, appears to be on Freeman's distorted visage. Freeman is hurt. He turns and runs, the twins forgotten now--what had he come for? His heart hurts, he is going to be sick--grasping the trophy like a talisman, out into the sun, straight into the sun.

* * *

Some Harsh Realities

 

Who knew there would be blood spilt in the story? There is always blood spilt.

Who knew there would be sex, there would be the agitated congress of lubricated humans? There is always lubricated congress of agitated humans.

Who knew the story had no destination? There is never a destination.

Who knew no one knew?

No one, children, ever knows.

 

* * *

Ghosts and History Songs

 

Did the shopkeeper die? Are our beautiful twins orphaned, cast on parentless shores?

Sorry to say, yes.

Mortimer Smalley was buried in Elmwood Cemetery, far from the Confederacy but near some heroes of Yellow Fever, on a cool, sunny day, with many in attendance. The twins read a section from Resole's tale (since, we understand, Resole could not be present) which was a particular favorite of their father's, a section about the flood on Beale and the Jewish writer who walked the newborn shores and remembered it all to recreate it later in Biblical prose, for all time, for all time.

Many of the aged dancers and entertainers from the defunct clubs came to pay respects. An old man sang a number about Mississippi and one of the dancers swayed slightly, her arthritic hips deep in recollection.

It was a wake after, the procession leading down Old Beale, past the scene of the murder, closed to business now forever, ghosts skittering into the gutters as the music went by, singing echoing from the heavens, songs about the history. History songs. Mort Smalley laid to rest.

* * *

Someone Was Hurt

 

And the murderer, skulking in doorways, living in shadows, barely aware of his own guilt, but knowing he had done something, some harm, somewhere. Someone was hurt, hurt bad. That was what the singing meant. He huddled under old papers, yellowed with forgotten news. Freeman Blemish was trying to make himself smaller, trying to shrink like a werewolf, trying to disappear. The sunset found him cold and scrawny, a part of the street's debris, waiting for the final horn, waiting for the story to come back around.

* * *

Leonard Gunshy

 

Leonard Gunshy (pronounced gun' shee) had worked the Beale beat for most of his adult life. He was a tired cop and, for the most part, could care less. He could care less about prostitution, illegal gambling, illegal booze, knife fights, murder. Let them kill each other, he could care less. He'd seen it all, he'd lost two wives to divorce and half of his scrotum to a gunshot wound. He was drifting toward retirement like a rudderless craft.

He could care less, even about his own retirement.

But, damnit, Mort Smalley had been a friend, a lifelong friend. He decided after that moving procession down Beale that he cared enough to try and find the scoundrel who had beaten his friend to death with a blunt object. And to find the blunt object. Leonard Gunshy decided he was on the case.

And he was in love with the twins.

 

* * *

Love Again

 

The twins survived the loss of their second and last parent with the kind of resilience they have been noted for--part independent fire and part joie de vivre, a joie de vivre as intense as a delta rainstorm. They were voracious about life, even in the face of death and, it wasn't long after the untimely demise of their poor old progenitor, they were fixtures on the street once again, here feeding the shifting faces of homeless vagabonds, there administering definitive blowjobs to the storied Resole McRey. Resole for his part, deeply chagrinned at the loss of Mort Smalley, was deepening the texture, the weave, the subtext of his telling, casting it in a melancholy framework, keening it into the sunny heavens and into the dusky twilight, in honor of a fine man, whose daughters, well, were his sole delight.

And the bedraggled inspector spent many an afternoon and evening on the corners of Beale Street, watching the beautiful twins go about their business, making notes about them, studying their every movement with a dedication previously uncelebrated in the twisted annals of human heart strings, all under the guise of digging into the case. He was having a hard time getting back on track after years of ennui. He was seriously sidetracked. He could care less.

 

* * *

The Problem of Freeman

 

Meanwhile, though perhaps not at the same time as any of the action related above, Freeman Blemish had taken up semi-permanent residence in a culvert North of downtown, huddled under a mixture of cardboard and stryrofoam packing material, cuddling to his chest his only connection to reality, his lifeline. He held the bloodied Oscar like a baby holds its blanket, like Thor held his hammer. It meant something to him, something profound, maybe even tragic, but he could not remember what. Long afternoons he stared at it, trying to plumb its depths, to unlock the mystery of the statuette. He crooned to it, questioned its sphinxic silence, rubbed it with the alacrity of Aladdin. It answered not.

Freeman emerged from his culvert only to scrounge food from dumpsters. He hurried on these gustatory missions as if he had important business to attend to, or as if he were expecting an important call back at the culvert. To be away from home was anathema to him. What if he missed---what? He couldn't say. But there was something imminent awaiting him and it involved that mysterious statue.

* * *

Back to Betelgeuse

 

 

"Hello, Inspector," Valerie tinkled, but it could just as well have been Vivian.

"Ladies," Leonard Gunshy said, tipping an imaginary hat, awkwardly. He had abandoned his furtive skulking on corners for the forthright approach of talking directly to the young women. But it was like looking into the sun for him and he squinted and shifted under his coat and looked altogether crazed.

"What news brings you, Our wise Inspector?" V or V tittered.

"Please call me Leonard," the Inspector said. No one had ever called him Leonard, not, that is, since seventh grade, when Mrs. Parrish called him that right before she seduced him.

"Leonard," the twins said, in indignant unison.

"I have no news, Ladies. I am doing a pitiful job. I admit, I am as lost as Atlantis. I have no leads."

"What have you done so far?"

"Whom have you questioned?"

Leonard Gunshy looked at his beatup, unfashionable shoes. He shuffled. He took a deep breath.

He looked from beatific face to beatific face.

"So far, " he said, clearing his catarrh. "I have only followed the two of you."

The twins smiled.

Leonard Gunshy continued.

"I am sorry. I have become tangled in my own web. I have been following your every move for weeks."

"And what have you discovered, Leonard?" one of the twins said while the other stood with her cheek fat with her own plump tongue.

"I have seen many things," he said. "I have discovered two saints in our midst, two angels from heaven. Ladies, I have fallen in love."

Here Leonard Gunshy burst into embarrassing tears. They flowed down his cheap raincoat, over his cardboard belt, across his partly jammed fly, over his service revolver. They popped on the dusty leather of his shoes, making a sound like music from a Disney film. He wept for his own uncaring soul, for the loss of his friend Mort Smalley, for his dishonor in front of the two finest women he had ever known.

Of course, the twins took the cheerless policeman to bed in Betelgeuse, their home, and undressed him and bathed him and anointed him with their own sweet musks, cleaning him like a cat her kittens, and in the end, Leonard Gunshy emerged a new man, one committed to action, younger than yesterday, a rededicated constable.

The twins went about their business.

* * *

An Unholy Rain

 

One day it rained an unholy rain on Beale Street, a soaking as sour as death, as deadly as a dogdeep depression. It fell like a final curtain, and the street was dark at noon. It swept through the alleyways with demonic winds, howling up from perdition, a dybbuk rain, a succuba. And the outside world was barren of life, as if indeed the final day had arrived and all were chosen, a cleansing rain then, the waters of abstergence.

It was gray, lowering, Stygian.

The world was empty.

Empty except for one lone soul, one left to witness. The storyteller.

The storyteller, soaked to the bone, to the marrow, to his soul, never missed a lick. The water greased his taletelling machinery; the story took on a watery shine, a slicker, heavier value, a retted legend, wind-whipped and liquid-laden. And in the dim distance, shadowed with the screen of falling rain, outlined like a drawing of death, drawing nearer, came another lone figure, moving inexorably toward Resole as if rolling on rusty wheels. There in the middle of Beale the confrontation grew more imminent second by second, and if there had been anyone to notarize they would have sworn that Resole moved also. But, no. He was as stationery as Old Man Schwab's and all the movement was towards him, as if he were the pole.

It is open to speculation as to whether Resole McRey paused in his telling, or even if he was aware of the stranger coming toward him in the rain. The story went on. As steady as the rain.

But in the closing seconds of the newcomer's arrival, recognition spread in Resole like a virus. He knew the face which now materialized out of the dim. It was the face of the ragman, the face of Freeman Blemish, who stopped just a doorgap from the storyteller's personal space and spoke.

"I killed him," Freeman Blemish said, his words overlapping an account of a gray, nondescript day from the seventies, a day when two foreigners went to the movies in downtown Memphis and saw a movie they didn't understand, and left holding hands. An uneventful day woven deep into the fabric of the narrative, told with relish and elevation.

Was there a pause in the story? Some say so, most say no. It is unknown whether Resole absorbed the confession, understood it for what it was. But he thought of the twins. He wished the twins were here with him.

"I killed him with this," Freeman said, brandishing a small gold human figure.

"I am vengeance, lost vengeance," he further articulated and his sense began to run out as if there were a hole in the bucket of his head. "I am Torn Asunder, the wicked one. I am Golf and Dinner. I am Whiskerweed. Love me for who I am. I am Wisdom. I have been to the foul places and drunk there, Lord, Lord. I am the sleep at the end of the dream; I am the edge of your emptiness. I am Infernal Beeswax. I am Need. Look upon me and be glad. I am Love, I am Love, I am. I am. I, I, I."

And he paused. The rain continued, clattering.

"I am the Storyteller," Resole said.

Freeman threw his arms around Resole and Resole took him in his own arms and the rain and the story went on all around them and the street was deserted except for them and the world and it went this way for a while until Freeman broke off and, without looking back, faltered away into the indistinct day.

* * *

A Message Arrives

 

Leonard Gunshy awoke from a dream about the twins and the sun was coming in like a secondstory man and he shook his stubbly face to try and clear his head. Had he heard a dull noise, a muffled knock, or was that his dream, a heartbeat in his dream? He shuffled to his front door and, squinting like a mole-man, opened the door to the world.

He was blind for a long time and when he could finally see he wished he had remained blind. On his stoop was a small dead bird which had apparently flown into his door. A kamikaze bird.

And stuck in the rubberband of his newspaper was a note, a soiled corner of paper, folded once. A kamikaze, messenger bird? But Leonard doubted the bird had taken the time to place the note underneath the rubberband. His reason was intact.

He picked up the news and unfolded the piece of paper, which felt like a much-circulated dollar bill, soft with handling.

There was a blue scrawl, cramped and shaky.

And it said:

Look for the small gold man.

There is much speculation as to who left the sign. Evidence points to Resole McRey, but this would be an unprecedented form of communication from the man. Leonard Gunshy didn't join in the speculation. He took the note very seriously indeed and he could care less from whence it came. He was sure it was the break he had been waiting for.

After he had showered and dressed he put the message into his jacket pocket and went out with a purpose. He began asking around about the "small gold man." He checked with all his usual sources and they all thought he was mad, moonstricken.

A small gold man, Leonard pondered over his deli sandwich lunch. And after considerable pondering the ideation formed in his pondering that he maybe was searching for a piece of art, a sculpture, a statuette.

He renewed his questioning, formulating his inquiry around the search for a small gold statue. Still he came up empty.

It was at the end of the third day Leonard ended up at Betelgeuse, where he found the twins watching Jeopardy. He sat in an understuffed armchair and put his hand into the popcorn bowl.

"What is Valhalla?" the twins said.

"What is Valhalla?" the TV intoned.

"Who is Kaspar Hauser?" the twins said.

"Who is Kaspar Hauser?" the TV snapped back.

"What is 'Mississippi Lowdown Blues'?" the twins said with particular zest.

And again the echo came.

Leonard Gunshy wanted to contribute but the twins tied his tongue. And they were faster.

"What is Uruguay?" the anxious detective jumped in, startling the women, who grimaced sympathetically.

"What is Paraguay?" the TV admonished.

The twins reached over and patted Leonard on the knee. He sunk into humiliated suppression.

At the next commercial break Leonard emerged from his self-imposed exile and sighed as preface to speaking.

"I have a lead, ladies," he said.

"Ahh," they entwined.

"It is a curious lead, a puzzle in itself," and he gave a deprecating snort. "I believe, though, that if I can solve this riddle I can solve the larger one."

"We are intrigued," one of the women said.

"What is this enigmatic clue, Leo," the other said.

Leonard unfolded the wrinkled note and laid it out on the coffee table next to the popcorn bowl.

The twins leaned over and read the scribbled message.

They bobbed back up, concurrently.

"The Oscar," they said.

* * *

Some Things Become Clearer

 

Leonard Gunshy listened carefully as the twins explained how they had seen the statuette on the dusty, mingle-mangled shelves of their late father's pawn shop. With their usual prescience they glommed onto what it was but thought no further about it. After all, Smalley's Pawn Shop was the final resting place of all manner of remarkable gewgaws and kickshaws. They had bowling pins, snorkels, a parachute, a pitchpipe, scrimshaw, a printer's brayer, a tatting shuttle. They had trusses, dentures, church keys, a pacemaker, a policeman's baton, an S-band steerable antenna from the lunar landing module. They had fanbelts, fan magazines and fans. Also, an oar, a bolo tie, a lorgnette, a pipe tool, a candle snuffer, an icing syringe, a branding iron, an allen wrench and the Pope's own toothbrush. They had a piece of the prototype cross. What was one Oscar more or less, they reasoned, amid all that accumulated abundance. There must be thousands of them, what with costume designers, cinematographers, sound effects nerds, and the special assistant grip's nephew eligible for one. So an academy award ended up in their pop's pawn shop. No big deal.

They could not have known that it once belonged to the exanimate star of Gone With the Wind, though they were of the few who believed she had received one, (history being malleable) along with her more famous cohort, Mammy. They could not have known that its value increased because there were questions about its very existence. With every day it stayed missing another dollar was tacked onto its imagined assessment.

Leonard Gunshy accepted the explanation. He was giddy with gratitude and kissed both girls, impulsively, on their respective cheeks. He leapt into action and out the door.

It did not take him long to locate a bum who knew another bum who had seen another bum with an Oscar under his arm. The skinny was that he lived in a culvert on the Northern side of town. They pinpointed the current address of our befuddled antihero, Freeman Blemish.

Leonard closed in.

 

* * *

The Return of Freeman

 

The return of Freeman Blemish, coming as it does penultimately, will be seen here and elsewhere as some sort of crux. But stories rise and fall, rise and fall, a sign curve, signifying not much, going on their way lonely as a cloud. We try to put order to them, whip them with the lash of our sense and try to pen them, herd them, tame them. They will comply, nodding along, for a while. For a while.

But they can turn on their masters.

So the storyteller's story rambles and rumbles and moves like a river at floodstage, wandering like a plaintive shadow. His story, this one.

It is told: The return of Freeman Blemish came about this way:

The culvert was empty, deserted.

There was evidence of previous inhabitance, candy wrappers, Sprite cans, unmentionables. Leonard Gunshy was like a happy hound, an old dog out on the hunt again.

He learned that Blemish was haunting the Beale Street area again. He had several spottings of him, he had a description.

It was dusk and the tired but energized detective was sitting in Handy Park, humming blues tunes and letting his mind unwind. Some hundred yards or so away the storyteller droned.

As darkness crept slowly over the street the twins appeared with dinner for Resole. Leonard imagined they would lead the griot into the shadows again and perform their ablutions and he was happy about this as if he were witness to the rightness of things, to the natural patterns of a weary world. A third figure appeared from the East, forming an uneven quadrilateral with Resole, the Twins and Leonard Gunshy himself the reference points. This figure moved like a scarecrow come to life, as if he only lacked a brain. It careened, but slowly, crepitatingly.

It was Freeman Blemish, of course. But hold the suspense a moment longer--our heroes know this not.

Vivian and Valerie were unwrapping a meatball sandwich, unscrewing the top of a thermos (with a semi-nostalgic momentary passing thought as to the fate of thermos corks) full of Mountain Dew, and half-listening to the story of a cacodemon and his mate who used to work out of the backroom of Sweeney's a few years back selling homemade hootch. The storyteller, they stopped to muse, was in rare form.

The seemingly drunken tatterdemalion emerged from shadow to light. It was a cartoon of an arrival, the murderer out of Looney Tunes, East of Eden.

Leonard Gunshy got shakily to his feet.

Freeman Blemish stopped in the middle of the street and his head bobbed on the stem of his neck like a car ornament. He brought his slowly focusing eyes to rest on the slowly moving form of Leonard Gunshy. He thought he was the most beautiful man he had ever seen; he fell in love with Leonard Gunshy as quickly as a scalded cat goes through a back window. And, as quickly as he fell in love with him, he knew this: he had to destroy him.

Leonard Gunshy stood frozen in Handy Park, his hands raised in front of him, as if they were playing freeze tag. He stood in the shadow of W.C. Handy's statue and unconsciously mirrored him. The moment was fraught with world-turning drama. The smell of red sauce filled the air.

Vivian and Valerie squinted toward the end of the street, half-smiles stuck awkwardly on their divine faces. They were confused. They were in a story.

Freeman Blemish had both of his hoary hands deep in the pockets of his weather-worn overcoat. In one hand he clutched a grimy pistol he had recovered from a dumpster. In the other the Oscar. His misfiring gray-matter worked on the problem of which to pull out. "A man destroys the thing he loves," he heard his inner voice mutter as if it were drunk and only half-interested. Again: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

He hesitated. His shoulders made preliminary movements which signaled the appearance of one of his hands. Quickly, like a gunslinger, he pulled his left hand from his coat pocket.

Leonard Gunshy reacted with a lifetime's training. His service revolver whisked into the cool evening air swift as a thought. It barked once.

Vivian and Valerie both screamed. "No," they bansheed simultaneously, splitting the air, dislodging rooks and night owls and bats. Resole McRey stopped talking.

Resole McRey stopped talking.

Freeman Blemish hit the ground hard. He fell like a pile of cans. Out of his filthy grasp the Oscar flew, skittering along the pavement like a puck.

Leonard Gunshy dropped to his knees and burst into tears. The flying animals circled once, twice and re-lighted.

* * *

The End of Story, Story Continues

 

Time passed and people came back to Beale Street. People came back to hear Resole McRey. Word got out again. Word persevered.

The crowds grew, sluggishly at first, like the bleeding of one season into another. Resole became popular again, inexplicably perhaps. Why now, why ever? Time passed and the story changed and the people in the crowd recognized the names in the story and once again they became part of it and Resole's fame spread like a whore's legs, pardon me.

"It isn't all skittles and beer," as Leonard Gunshy used to say.

Resole told the legend of Butterfly McQueen's Oscar.

Eventually Resole McRey moved on--like legend, children--gone but to our recollection. But it was not the death of Freeman Blemish which occasioned the change, know that.

Because first the people came back to Beale.

People came back to Beale to hear about the past, about the shop owner felled by a dead Negro actress's disinherited and once-denied Academy Award, to hear about the twins who visited briefly from Zion, about the bravery of a grizzled police veteran, about the swiftness of justice, and the unreliability of renown.

The Oscar went back to the pawn shop's shelves. The pawn shop became a small museum. Valerie and Vivian moved up North--you've heard of them. Leonard Gunshy retired, remarried, died unhappy. Freeman Blemish was buried in Elmwood Cemetery--the twins saw to that--near Mort Smalley. Some forgiveness conquered death.

Resole McRey told on and on, his name written down nowhere, the story unfolding around him like heavenly robes, uncoiling like revelation.

* * *

Corey Mesler is the owner of Burke's Book Store, in Memphis, Tennessee, one of the country's oldest (1875) and best independent bookstores. He has published poetry and fiction in numerous journals including Yellow Silk, Pindeldyboz, Green Egg, Black Dirt, Thema, Mars Hill Review, Poet Lore and others. He has worked in the book business all his adult life, if he has had an adult life. He has also been a book reviewer for The Memphis Commercial Appeal and The Memphis Flyer. He's been a pirate, a pauper, a puppet, a poet, a pawn and a king. A short story of his has been chosen for the 2002 edition of New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, edited by Shannon Ravenel, published by Algonquin Books. He also claims to have written the song "All Along the Watchtower." Talk, his first novel, appeared in 2002. A chapbook of poems, Chin-Chin in Eden, appeared in 2003. Most importantly, he is Toby and Chloe's dad and Cheryl's husband.

"Butterfly McQueen's Oscar: A Lie" copyright 2004 by Corey Mesler.