Recently I was asked, “When ya gonna write somethin' positive?”
Answer: When I get sick and tired of watching reruns of the black and white episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and Shameless. Shameless is a Showtime series about a contemporary south side Chicago Irish family in which the father is (surprise spoiler alert!) a raging alcoholic. That stereotype aside Shameless is a mixture of farce, mayhem, and tragedy that comes eerily close to life's real dysfunctions. If you loved William H. Macy in Fargo or anything else you're going to want to have him locked up and at the same time split a gut laughing while you watch him in Shameless. There is no way to truly prepare a potential viewer for this show, other than to say that if you don't watch it at some point, may the sewers of Rangoon back up into your breakfast cereal.
Speaking of shameless plugs, here's one closer to home. Each year the Writers of the Mendocino Coast (a branch of the California Writers Club, allegedly founded by Jack London among others) publish an anthology of Mendocino Coast poets, memoirists, and prose-y folk. This year's anthology is entitled Mixed Waters, which pretty much allows the authors to scribble about any subject matter they want. The original title for 2015's edition was Thermals, so, yes, we're talking potential wind-baggery here, but ya get what you pay for. Of course that leads us to how much the WMC (I hate abbrev. almost as much as acronyms) is gonna clip ya for this (non-hardcover) book. Right now, your guess is as good as mine, but the dang thing should be available at some of the usual suspects (No, not the Kevin Spacey movie – though it does have two great character names: Keyser Soze and Verbal, who turn out to be... oops, better save that spoiler alert): Gallery Bookshop, Four-Eyed Frog Books, The Bookstore and Vinyl Cafe, and as they say, wherever books that haven't been burned are still available.If your local bookstore doesn't have it within the month, please don't resort to violence, simply try a little gentle cajoling like, “I'll never shop here again if you don't get the Writers of the Mendocino Coast Anthology Mixed Waters.” See, the calm, levelheaded approach always works best.
While I'm trying to find out the exact price these down to earth, Mendo Lib, radical, reactionary writers are tryin' to chisel ya for, I've been given unauthorized approval by a recent past president (of something) to unload one of their diatribes on y'all for freakin' free. Whether ya like it or not is plain up to you.
Supposedly this piece is entitled “No Knees Kelley,” but I couldn't worm the author's name out of the sons-a-guns running the WMC, so ain't nothin' for it but to buy the whole damn book if you wanta find out that miniscule fact.
“No Knees Kelley”
By the summer of 1915, after much supervised practice, I was finally granted permission to drive the family automobile over to the Kelley sheep ranch to pick up my brother Orrie for Sunday dinner. After church I got the vehicle started and ready to go. Pa ambled alongside and said, “Good lesson in responsibility. See that you’re there and back on time.”
Ma’s hands dug into her hips. “If you want to get yourself killed in some motor car that’s already accident prone, that’s fine, just don’t come crying home to me.”
I drove slow and steady across the sand hill roads. I liked riding in a vehicle with no roof; zephyrs of independence tickled my ears and whistled by. At the top of the first rise the sky beamed a clear path for hundreds of miles to an endless horizon. What a thing it would be to drive on and on and see the whole darn country.
I also heard Pa saying, “Responsibility,” so I drove no further than No Knees Kelley’s yard, arriving precisely at the appointed time. Orrie sat skinny bone naked in Kelley’s trough, trying to scrub off the odor of ovine.
No Knees Kelley sneaked out of his barn, picked a two-fisted boulder from the ground, and tossed it into the trough. Orrie leapt and half the water splashed out with him.
No Knees waddled toward me and the motor car. Orrie stuck his dusty feet back in the water while No Knees shook his head. “You can never bathe in the same stream twice. An old Greek named Herodotus said that.”
“To you?” Orrie asked.
No Knees’ chubby cheeks wobbled back and forth at Orrie’s ignorance. Kelley stood a bit less than six feet tall, though he weighed well over two hundred fifty pounds. A thick, droopy brown moustache forested his upper lip; brown eyes squinted in the bright sunshine, but his most obvious feature was the fact that he had no nose; a good half inch less than Pug Bates down to the North Platte auction yard. Whatever had caused No Knees Kelley to lose almost all of his nostrils had made a clean cut, no discernible scar. His nose just started and ended in the same place.
I felt a bit awkward asking, but I wanted to know how he came to be called No Knees. He grinned at the question.
“Oh, he loves tellin’ this one.” Orrie grabbed a towel from a fence post.
“Eighteen and ninety, it was.” For a man with no nose, No Knees Kelley emitted only a muted wheeze. “Ridin’ the overland stage, four masked pistoleers stopped us on the open plain.”
“Robbed you?” I asked.
“Ordered everybody off the coach and down on their knees.” Kelley ran his tongue over his lower lip like a man savoring sweets. “Well, I stood my ground and one of those robbers hollered, ‘Down on your knees, ya son-of-a-bitch.’”
“Wait for it,” Orrie said.
No Knees kept right on talking. “It was Ol’ Death Himself, the Scourge of the Plains.”
“Ken Ozburn.” Now, he had my full attention.
“Yes indeed,” No Knees Kelley replied. “Oz bellowed at me again, ‘Get down on your knees,’ most inhospitably.” Kelley paused to shake his head at the memory. “And I said to Oz, ‘Do not believe I shall.’ One of his compadres cocked the hammer on his pistol. I grabbed the stage driver’s shotgun. A blast whistled by me, hit the rim of a wheel, ricocheted off an’ knocked two teeth outta one of their horses. I took level aim with that shotgun and… Two barrels later, one dead bandit, one writhin’ in the sage, two more scattered, on the run. Damn shame, Ol’ Death Himself got away.”
Orrie tugged his boots on. “Ask him the name of the dead bandit.”
Kelley did not wait for me to inquire. “Horse Butcher. I killed the horse butcher; German or Hungarian renegade name of Horst Buchwalder or some such, known thereabouts as the Horse Butcher.”
In the Model T, heading back to Echo Valley, I said to Orrie, “They call him No Knees ‘cause he wouldn’t get down on ‘em… Then, why….”
I had my right foot to the floor. Orrie held his new Stetson down against the wind. His hair had already started to recede at sixteen. “First off, his name didn’t have the extra E originally. It was K-E-L-L-Y, Neil Kelly. Newspaper account of the stage holdup spelled it with an extra vowel. Papers gave him the nickname, too, of course. He took both as a compliment an adopted ‘em from then on.”
We slowed to watch a young antelope bound across the road, then Orrie continued Kelley’s history. “After No Knees settled here and prospered with his sheep he set about lookin’ for a wife, but there were darn few eligibles that passed his muster.”
I asked, “Is Mrs. Kelley a mail order bride?”
“Stick to cheatin’ at cards, brother, ‘cause you ain’t no mind reader.” Orrie tired of holding his hat and set it in his lap; nobody to notice his windblown hairline but me while we bumped along the sandy plain at speeds up to twenty-five.
“No Knees placed an advert in several papers. Sarah, the future Mrs. Kelley, was then the ninth wife of some Mormon elder. When Utah went for statehood they had to make some show of ending… what ya call..?”
“Right. So, Sarah and some other extry wives got wagon rides to the state line where they were dropped off the Latter Day Saint train.”
“Didn’t know Mrs. Kelley was a Mormon?”
“Well, she ain’t no more.”
“So, you’re sayin’ she read No Knees’ ad in the papers?
“Nope. No Knees took a pleasure trip to Kansas City, went to a Wild West show there. Sarah was billed as a ‘Knife Thrower Extraordinaire.’ She called for volunteers from the audience; tossed knives between their legs, passed their ears and such. Well, No Knees, smitten by Sarah’s sweet face, volunteered to have a lit cigar clipped from his lips by a Bowie knife… Sliced two inches off, No Knees tells it. Miss Sarah says, ‘He never flinched, even with most of his nostrils lying in the sawdust. How can you not love a man like that?’”
“They do get along good.”
“He doesn’t snore a lick, she says.”
“I bet he don’t.”
“Of course, it’d be awkward to call him No Nose, with him already havin’ the other nickname established.”
We continued to discuss No Knees Kelley and his chopped off nose, how Sarah migrated from Mormon wife to knife thrower, then the war in Europe. We motored over the last hill and started down into Echo Valley toward home when Orrie said, “Slow down.” He put his hat back on and held it with one hand.
The day shone so clear that far in the distance I swear I could see the tops of the Rockies, whose alluvial sands had, eons before, washed down to cover the Great Plains with loamy soil. And now in the blaze of summer the mighty mountains held the last snow caps to their bald, jagged peaks. I wondered if the whole darn country hid scars and bitter cold truths, and what good there was to shining a light on any of it when it might do just as well to let them lie in their majesty.
* Well, there's your free tale. Price for the whole shootin' match of an anthology 'pears to be $14.95. Anyone interested in more information about the WMC should take a gander at www.writersmendocinocoast.org