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“Preparing for the Red Hat Luncheon”

 

Sister insisted:

Tease your hair up

and by all means wear purple

 

I kept my hair down

and wore red

 

Only my panties were purple

(pronounced pay’-yen-tees):

I live a ‘felt’ life, as Henry James so eloquently

puts it

 

If I said, “James, choose:

Sister or me,”

James would say “Me,”

because he has wit

 

And if following up Sister said:

“James, choose: my sister or me,”

James would say “The one

with the purple panties.

I like that one,”

because he has truth

 

And if at the Red Hat Luncheon

James reached his arm out

I would say, “Here!

Here is the gravy boat!”

And he would say,

(and I know this may be silly)

“We shall sail to sea in a sieve,”

Sister would cry and piss herself

 

And not for the first time

No Hairy Pigs Allowed

I’ve been waiting to see a proper pig slaughtering for a good three months, since I first heard how it’s really done. First, you shave the skin. Latin American societies do not, my previous host father tells me over dinner, under any circumstances, shave their pigs before they slaughter them. I don’t ask how he knows this—this culture is an absolute meridian of pig fat. Ancient gurus, swollen from vast wellsprings of knowledge, travel from across the world to learn one of life’s last, preserved secrets. They wait patiently, and watch, as I watch, the sharpened knives gleaming beside the still-damp pit where, when it is finally decided by host father, the pig will suffer a sharp, momentary pain right in the heart. The knife is sure to be exact. I’ve seen him shave a potato, and I’ve seen him slice a fine fish head.

But everything loses momentum all at once. Host father doesn’t wake me the next morning. The rest is lost in translation; all I know is there’s no pig to be slaughtered anymore. I lack the language skills to probe too deeply, and I’m left only with my own frustrated thoughts. Could there be anything more shallow, I ask myself, than wanting to see it all just for the novelty of it? I’m certainly not going to eat the pig fat my host father tells me will finally make me a man. And if I don’t eat the damn thing, then how can I justify watching a perfectly harmless animal be slaughtered, just for the sake of it? I wasn’t the one who fed it; I didn’t make it what it is today. Maybe it’s best, and much more symbolic, I say to myself (although not in such lucid sentences), that the pig just disappeared without warning. I don’t even know its name. Perhaps it’s just time that host father, and myself, admit the fact that I’m not fit to be made a man just yet.

This is how much I love Ukraine: on the second day of my stay at the final site where I’ll be living for two years, the beautiful town of R——, I awake to the sound of crunching pig bones under the weight of a whooping hatchet. Slowly sneaking out my room, my senses tingly from the pure shamelessness of the sound, I find my new host father (a policeman) chopping at pieces of scattered pig in the next room. The room is white, unfinished, and cold, a forgotten renovation. I say “Hi,” and ask if I can be of any help. My new host father looks up from his work and flashes a warm, mildly condescending smile.

When my new host father isn’t working, he’s lying on the divan in the living room with his two children and his wife, cuddled up with a small cat named Rejik (Orange in Russian); he invites me into their warm bundle, and I clumsily tumble in with them, not entirely conscious of where all of my limbs are. We watch Ukrainian television (usually dubbed American movies from the last two decades like Police Academy! or Coming To America). I’ve learned to feel comfortable with these strangers in a very short amount of time, and there’s no sense of jealousy when I accidentally brush up against his wife inappropriately—in fact, no one notices but me.

The next morning I walk to the kitchen for breakfast and there it is, its four legs sticking out on one side of the table. My host mother is scribbling labels and vigorously packing the meat into large plastic freezer bags. Blood, more than I’m accustomed to seeing, makes me nauseous, but I still eat my breakfast. I joke around to cut the tension, introducing myself to the pig and asking if it has a name. It doesn’t. Host mother has a hard time packing the ribs, so she takes a hatchet and cuts them half, straining and smiling at her lack of muscle power, as she calls it. I watch her as she mercilessly stuffs the rest of the pig neatly into the dozens of freezer compartments. They are all, I see, packed full with some sort of meat. I’m not ready, I tell myself, to eat this pig, much less see one slaughtered.

The mystery of pig fat is that even when you taste it, unless you see the animal slaughtered, there’s no way you can really know the amount of work that went into it. The ancient gurus know this; they know the true mystery lies in the entire process and a mindfulness of the whole process as it unfolds, from squealing piglet to clean-shaven skin to shameless hatchet. Are you allowed to love the pig as you feed it? Do you first love and then detach yourself, becoming a mere predator, or are you Stoic from the get-go? These are the fundamental questions we pig fat acolytes all keep flocking back to. The small piglet I end up eating a part of on New Year’s—after sitting five hours, bored, while people around me speak in much more complex syntax than I’m capable of understanding—has already lost all of its imagined exotic flavor. I don’t even think twice about eating it, and it’s only right now that I’ve decided, in my usual fashion, that maybe I’ve betrayed myself by eating it after I said I wouldn’t. After all, I didn’t feed the pig, and I didn’t slaughter it.

All of this makes me feel defenseless and empty. I know that’s not really the case—I have a lot to offer these kids in terms of education and culture. It’s just that every now and again, as is the case with pig fat and its forever forbidden mysteries, you run up against a barrier you didn’t know you had. Up until now, every time I encounter one of these barriers, I say to myself, “Well, it’s time to break it then!” But I don’t think this is one of them. I’m not made to be that kind of “man,” as host father so elegantly put it. The questions I’m faced with are entirely mental, passive in the eyes of people like host fathers. Mine isn’t the active life of slaughtering the pig, but the mental reservation that comes with simply watching the act. I don’t debate about whether or not to get my hands bloody and join host mother in packing the freezer full of guts; I debate about whether or not to eat it after it’s been prepared. And even then, even after I’ve decided on something, finally, I’m able to change my mind on a sudden impulse, and one of pure boredom at that. Oh Hamlet, you’re so much braver than me!

Madame Balzac and Co.

This is Balzacian territory. The truth of this statement hit me once when I was standing in a bazaar waiting to purchase a NY hoodie (wrong colors, faulty zipper, but hey). His obnoxiously French ghost must have swooped in behind me and tickled me under the armpits. At least something goaded me on to push ahead of a babusya and make the purchase that finally landed me a sweet Hallie bag. “Ivan Franko, Onore de Balzac, Moisey Hinzberg: all these people are closely connected with the town,” writes my new host sister, O—–. By “closely connected,” she means he passed though one day on his way back to Western Europe. Most of this was explained to me today in the form of a dramatic play. The teacher performing it appeared to be mourning the loss of a husband, possibly Balzac. She read by candlelight, wearing a fluffy red dress with a little pink flare at the end suggesting fire hazard—a sneaky but somewhat effective attempt at pathos if you could’ve seen how close she really got to the flame. She read Balzac passages made to look like letters and dropped them one by one onto the stage, her head bowed in flamboyant sorrow, as if she were a widow left behind in our little town, ravished and abandoned by the great novelist a few centuries ago. The act must not have been too convincing , though, because the award for best district teacher went to a woman who did a black-and-white tango number with two of her older students. It was a pedagogical beauty pageant and nothing less.

Add to this the fact that there is apparently (so I’ve been told) factual evidence of a Kennedy connection in a book that’s been tossed aside long ago. If anything so much as brushes against the little town of R——-, it’s going to be recorded forever in the long and knotted history our townspeople love to repeat. Poor Balzac was only passing through (a ten minute trip from one end of town to another by foot), and yet somehow R——- now has a permanent claim to this tiny fragment of his biography. I’m a nobody and I’ve been here only a day, but I’ve already had to decline autographs and marriage proposals. Makes me wonder what the next two years will really be like. As for the Kennedy family, they’re just cursed.

The one thing I’m sure I won’t have here is privacy. Right now my host brother
S—- (they’re twins, the two host siblings) is sitting at the edge of my bed taunting me with his middle finger (the Ukrainian index finger). “All I have to do is one thing and you’ll be very angry,” he says, pointing to the power button. Earlier: “I know your password because I saw you type it.” How could you, S—-, really, if you were on the other side of the room practicing your new jazz dance routine? Did I mention he’s also my critic—probably the only serious critic I’ll ever have. He wants me to add the part about the Dark Polish prince, Mikola Radzivil, who founded our town. Probably all the guy really did was stop in for a drink somewhere and got stuck with the title. Anyway, he’s apparently a big figure around here, and I can’t wait to see the play.

On a more relevant note: Christmas in Ukraine doesn’t happen at the same time, in case you’re wondering. I’m pretty sure it’s celebrated on January 7th. On December 25th I think they might light a big Christmas tree in the town center. I tried to ask my teachers what day I’d start working, but it seems the schedule changes every second and there’s a holiday for every day of January. I’m not really sure if the Messiah’s Big B-Day Bash could get any more flexible. One thing’s for sure: at some point I’m gonna teach the students how to sing Christmas carols and watch White Christmas on repeat (thanks Mom!). I can hear it now: “I wanna wash my hands, my face, my hair with snow! I wanna wash my hands, my face, my hair with snow! I wanna—” But now S—-‘s calling me to go watch figure skating with him. I’d better go before he cancels my new book deal.

                                                                      Best seasonal wishes

                                                                      and a special toast to your health,

 

                                                                      HUGO

(American Fish)

The children of 7B are no longer known by such names as Sasha, Oksana, or little Dima. It is a source of pure glee almost as inexhaustible as the swaying HUGO BOSS bags or the half nude, half smiling Hallie Berrie who greets me each morning on my way to school struggling to get out of the cracked and weatherworn hands of an old babusya. Trout, Lamb, Mutton (Lamb’s quiet and awkward little sister), Salmon, and the others now patiently wait their turn for their names to be called so they can begin their endless game of Concentration, in which each of them must first say their new name (imagine it in sing-song), Trout Trout!, and then call out another student’s name, Poultry Poultry! Once the student’s name is called out, he must continue the cycle. The only quirk in the game is that some students are called strictly by their function as food and others refer to an animal itself. For instance, it’s hard not to look at Pig without feeling a little sorry for Pork, who doesn’t seem to care that he’s already been tossed on the same plate as Venison, the kid who’s totally lost with the lesson already. It’s the same with Cow and Beef, the way one kid envisions green pastures for himself and the other must settle for a cold slab in the local market. Meanwhile, Chicken, Salmon, and Shrimp look on and snigger from the back of the room, already well aware that theirs is a double nature, capable of being either animal or food, or both—these are, of course, the smartest kids in the class, and also the most potentially troublesome.

All in all, Ukraine seems to have it right. Although the apocalypse isn’t any less likely to dawn here than it is in America, I can safely say there’s a certain relief that comes from having people you can’t even hold a decent conversation with button your coat every morning. In Ukrainian: “Thank you for working on the coat. I am going to teach a very good lesson today at school. It is interesting. Very interesting. Maybe I will be home to eat at lunchtime, but maybe I will be at the house in the evening. It will be very interesting, I think. It is fine. Goodbye!” I come home somewhere between lunch and dinner to find no one’s home, and I start to write a letter to make myself feel smarter, but this fails too, because I realize I’ve written the Ukrainian letter H (which makes the N sound) instead of the English letter N (sorry for the angry scribbles in your letter Amber). My friend G—— tells me she writes 100 Chinese characters at night and feels smarter, and to this I humbly pop another Goldfish® Baked Cracker into my mouth. I’ll never be as smart as that. “But really, what more do you want?” I always ask the always-judicial stuffed animals surrounding my bedroom (there are 19 pairs of eyes and counting in my host sister N—–’s bedroom). These Ukrainian stuffed animals hate, hate my American Goldfish® crackers. I’m not patient enough to be “smart,” as the ancients say, and as much as I admire a guy like Plato, who would totally disapprove, I’d never be able to make pancakes with him the next morning.

Then there are those few moments when I get to forget about myself. The “Ah-hah!” moment as Tebbetts might say. I’d had a tiny falling out with a teacher on account of the mass scheduling debauchery that is any public school system. When I saw her, she flew to me and offered an apology for acting in a way she thought was inappropriate (it didn’t seem so to me at the time, but I accepted her apology anyway). “I hope you understand I sometimes speak the language of feelings,” she said to me, not realizing the poetry she had just spoken. “I speak two languages: the language of feelings and the language of thought. So please, I am sorry.” At that moment I wanted her to know exactly how profound her statement had been, but all I said was, “Me too. Me too. No, I’m sorry.” And I left the room. But there wasn’t really anything I could have said to let her know how her statement had touched me. If I had to put words to it (and I do), I’d say that her needless apology had been so impressive, so humble and reserved at the same time, and so self-aware, that it had made me feel unworthy to be standing in that school, in Ukraine, at that particular moment in time. Many Ukrainian people, being so collective in nature, are willing to offer genuine displays of humility if you get to know them, and for some reason these displays are shocking.

As for me, I’m starting to believe that “copulation and mirrors are abominable, for they multiply the number of man” (This is from one of my favorite Borges stories). To this I might add the internet, a manmade invention already capable of fragmenting whatever portion of my personality I thought I had under control. I just can’t seem to get across what I want in this blog, and everything I write looks abominable and egocentric. If I’m going to multiply, at least I don’t have to worry about copulation, and mirrors are becoming less and less enticing as I only shower weekly now and am getting fatter on greasy potatoes and the occasional forray into pig fat. But the internet—I used to think that one day maybe I’d wake up to find that, like my parents, I’d be unable to open the internet browser and I’d start yelling, “That crazy mouse is at it again!” But now Mom’s sending regular emails, keeping up with the latest fashion trends, and purchasing electronic products on the internet with a credit card (despite the scary frauds advertised regularly on the news, the succeeding apocalypses slowly extending their antennae). But there’s a lot to be thankful for—the fact that something as idealistic and actually helpful as Peace Corps exists and I’ve somehow managed to find what I’m supposed to be doing right now, and for all of you who’ve actually taken the time to read through this mess.

Until next time,

Hugo Boss, eat your heart out

Flossy!

Flossy

 Taken from page 23 of How To Hang An Elephant:

Well, clearly, the good citizens of Kingsport had found themselves a gun that they believed could do the job. Sparks’ dark thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. Who was that–the sheriff? “Come in,” Sparks said nervously.

The door opened and in walked publicist John Heron. He slumped down in the chair opposite Charlie Sparks.

“How’s the unloading going?” Sparks asked.

“OK, I guess.”

“And Mary?”

“She’s fine, no problem.”

Charlie nearly laughed out loud. “No problem?”

Heron clarified himself. “With her behavior, I mean. Have you figured out what you’re going to do about her yet?”

“No,” Sparks replied. “You’ve heard the rumors, of course?”

“About the lynch mob and the cannon they’re bringing down from Kingsport?”

“And others—they’re buzzing around like flies at the swimming hole.” Sparks thought for a moment, then he said: “You know we’re going to have to do something. In the public interest, I mean.”

“Destroy her.”

creepy doll place

 

Back inside the mansion, Amber and I stare down at the scrapbook. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, the moment when we can get an account from an older citizen, someone at least a little closer to the time of Mary’s death. The rain continues to pour outside, and Martha Erwin’s wrinkled fingers quickly skim through the pages. From what I can tell, there’s no differentiation between her hand and her wrist, not even a plastic band of fat showing signs of joint movement. I can’t take my eyes off the place where the wrist is supposed to be. Then I see another Mary article, one with faded title “Women Weep At Elephant Hanging,” but before Amber and I can get a good look Erwin flips another page.

I want to ask her if what the book says about Mary’s hanging is true, whether or not there were other options available, and why people didn’t just shoot the poor girl. I, like the author of the book, have heard that Mary’s first attempted execution was by 44,000 volts of electricity from the nearby town of Kingsport, and that after they tried shooting her they decided to hang her. There’s even one obscure account saying that the citizens of Erwin discussed tying ropes to her front and backside and then attaching those ropes to two fast-moving train cars going in opposite directions, ripping her in two. But I try not to be overanxious. I let Martha Erwin do all the talking.

”Oh it was an act of mercy,” she says, leaning forward on the desk, her wristhands resting on the article in front of her.

I can see Amber’s head do a little jerk. I look up from Erwin’s folded hands. “An act of mercy?”

Erwin doesn’t hear me. Her eyes roam over something I can’t see. “Sparks loved that elephant like a child. Wanted to stay in business, and he didn’t want to have to electrocute the poor thing.” She talks as if all of this is right in front of her, as if she can draw it all from her own experience. But this woman can’t possibly be ninety-something.

”He ended up asking my grandfather for his rifle. They wanted to try shooting Mary,” she says, again saying this last statement with all seriousness, as if we aren’t any more capable of knowing the use of a rifle then the phenomenon of rain we encountered on our way to the mansion. “He said no because the rifle’s not really big enough to kill it (I cringe at the word ‘it,’ which seems shocking for some reason—am I starting to take this all too seriously?), and—besides—my grandfather was an Episcopalian.”

I nod, not quite sure how to take this. For the first time I actually do need her to explain the obvious.

”—And Episcopalians don’t believe in killing anybody or anything.”

”So what did they do?” I say, losing sight of what I already know. I’m right there with her, seeing it for the first time, again, drawing from some secret store of memory forgotten by the American consciousness, not yet absorbed by sensationalism or pop culture. I look around the room, trying to regain my bearings. A smiling mannequin poses in the corner, tipping a large feathered hat to an invisible audience.

”Well, I think you know that. They hung her up by a wire. The first time she fell was after twenty minutes of struggling. She suffered deeply—” Erwin’s voice trails off, her eyes roaming over the scene in her mind. I remember the three women at Walgreen’s and the way they had also said those words with reverence.

Erwin places her hands on her face, her mouth contorted in some sort of pain. She shifts to another part of the story, clearly avoiding the obvious. ”Red Eldridge, the trainer, he didn’t know how to handle an elephant. You have to think about it. People in those days didn’t know anything about training elephants, especially in America. Kingsport was having a big parade—a free parade. Mary’s job was to toss a ball to the other elephants in line behind her. She was the star,” Erwin says, moving her hands in front of her face as if she’s presenting us with a glowing orb. “That means she was the leader.” She watches us, making sure that we understand the concept. “Mary was using her trunk to pick up an old watermelon rind somebody had dropped on the side of the road, and Eldridge jabbed her in the side with a training spear. This only made her angry. She picked him up with her trunk and slung him around, and when she put him on the ground he was already half dead. Then she smashed his brains in!”

Erwin’s face is ecstatic. As she says her last words, her eyes light up. This is always the rising action, just before the denouement. Everyone loves this last bit from what I can tell. In almost every account, the writer speaks of Mary as bashing in brains the way a melon might look if somebody stomped on it. But how many people have actually seen brains smashed in?

Then there’s another part. One equally as unnerving as the brain smashing, perhaps even more psychologically disturbing. Erwin returns to the scene of the hanging, her eyes darting quickly from Mary’s hanging body. She tells us of a man who could ‘see’ things although he was blind. I remember reading this in one of the articles. Apparently this old man was really good at discovering the hiding places of wild fowl, and he could predict where each hunter would find his game with disturbing accuracy. People of Erwin came to respect him in this capacity, and he became known as a ‘seeing-man.’ On the day Mary was murdered, he had told the citizens of the town that Mary would strike on the day of her death.

”When she collapsed the first time, the wire was too weak, and she charged at the old blind man. She stomped him. Everyone panicked. Then someone ran up her back and attached a stronger wire. The second time they strung her up, she died without a struggle.”

Amber and I wait for Erwin to continue, but she doesn’t. She stands up beside the desk and closes the scrapbook. Then she tells us of the few visits she’s had from interested young people like ourselves anxious to make a play or a documentary out of the whole story. Apparently we’re not the only ones fascinated by Mary’s tale. We leave, taking a few brochures with us, and we pass by the mannequin tipping her hat to us and go out into the rain.

”You really should’ve parked up here. It’s raining.”

We smile, walking down the gravel road, past the fish hatchery, to our car.

”That was amazing! You know what this means, don’t you?” Amber grabs my elbow, pulling me to her.

”What?”

”It means nobody in this whole thing is a villain. Erwin didn’t shoot her, Sparks loved her like a child and only did it because he had to stay afloat, and Eldridge wasn’t even trained to handle an elephant properly. There is no vindication. There’s no need for repentance!”

”You’re probably right,” I say, opening the car door. “But who knows anymore. That old lady might have been crazy.”

Amber gets in beside me, switching off the radio dial before it has a chance to blot out conversation. “Maybe,” she says, unsure.

”But there is one thing that’s certain. We have to find Mary’s grave.”

Next week: Part V – The Burial Grounds. Below is a preview.

building bridge

 

Downtown Erwin

Sorry for the late post, fellow Snouts. I hope you haven’t lost all faith in me. It’s taken a while to get pictures developed, and I’ve been lazy. But I think you’ll find it all worth your time. All of this is 100% true, although I don’t expect you to believe me. I hardly believe it.

The town of Erwin rests in the crook of a foggy mountain, on a flat triangular stretch of land with trees cutting at its corners. Elegant grey houses line the streets just before the downtown area, and then, like a veil lifting, the town stretches out before a large bowler-hat shaped mountain. As you turn past the courthouse, the first thing you see is a painting of a large disembodied hand holding a young pig-tailed girl on a swing, a bible verse splayed out in indecipherable, weathered cursive. Parallel to the buildings, loud and as mobile as ever, the Clinchfield Railroad reverberates over the town. As Amber and I first enter the town, we hear a song on the radio, “Waltz for the Baby Elephant,” a song that immediately puts us on edge but that we pass off as a funny coincidence.

A quick visit to the Unique Hair Boutique tells me that there are three good restaurants in town, that there are seven thousand people, and that everyone, literally everyone, who hears about Erwin hears about the hanging elephant.

The first place Amber and I visit is the library, a quiet, ornate red-bricked building carved out of an old railroad terminal. Amber sits on a large leather couch, poring through old Tennessee encyclopedias. I throw her a look saying we’ve got better things to do and then walk over to the counter to a middle-aged woman with a heavy grey sweater and a tight black bun. I whisper it, hoping no one notices my request. She looks up. There’s a second where we both hesitate, and I look out the wall of windows at the end of the room toward the crisscrossing tracks. When I look back, she’s got a book in her hand: How To Hang An Elephant. The front cover is of a cartoon conductor pointing at a large, foreboding crane. I sit next to Amber and start flipping through the pages. This ‘authoritative’ book is told in the form of a narrative, its sources questionable, all of it based on speculation. Amber hands me two large books with two short articles talking about the Mary incident. They’re not as entertaining as the illustrated narrative, but they’re definitely more accurate.

The first, and more informative article:

1916, Erwin

Big Mary, said by the Sparks Brothers Circus to be the largest elephant in captivity, was executed at the Cincinnati, Clinchfield & Ohio Railroad’s building and repair shops.

Big Mary had in her repertoire 25 tunes that she played on musical horns; she could ‘play baseball,’ with a batting average of .400; and she weighed five tons. But during a performance in Kingsport, she flew into a rage and killed her inexperienced handler. She then turned her attention toward the audience. Several pistol shots rang out, but Big Mary was unharmed. Her regular trainer calmed her down.The next day, Kingsport authorities arrested the pachyderm. Finally, since there was no weapon capable of killing Big Mary, it was decided to hang her.

At 6 P.M., nearly the entire population of Erwin witnessed the event. All the circus’s elephants were driven into the railroad yard, evidently to ‘witness’ Big Mary’s execution and learn an object lesson. About 8 P.M., a steel-rope noose was put around the condemned pachyderm’s ample neck. She was then slowly hoisted up by locomotive crane. Big Mary struggled for five minutes, then the steel rope broke. She fell to the ground dead.

It was afterwards discovered that the elephant had two abscessed teeth, the cause of her misbehavior in Kingsport. She was buried in Erwin, although no one remembers where.

Or so the article says. Amber and I haven’t given up on finding the grave and paying our respects.

We eat at one of the only restaurants downtown: Erwin Burrito. The inside is covered in bumper stickers, band names, and T-shirts. The only band more recent than Black Sabbath is Queens of the Stone Age, a band that somehow always manages to pop up alongside the illustrious Classics. Just before we leave, I see a band I hadn’t noticed earlier. Simple, white letters on a black background: The Swinging Pachyderms. I ask. The woman at the counter smiles widely and tells me they’re really good, that they come to the restaurant at least once a month to perform. Then Amber spots a few of their posters on the walls. On each poster is a backdrop of Hanging Mary, her face covered with big block letters. We leave, feeling somehow that this town might not exist, that such a strange, distorted history might have transformed the whole place into something not wholly real. Here’s a link to the Swinging Pachyderms for your morbid curiosity.

The next place we go is the address of the Hanging Elephant Gift Shop. I’ve already discovered that the place has gone out of business, transformed into a thrift shop for the local Battered Women’s Shelter. This is the same building that has the disembodied hand on its brick face. We walk inside, and Amber finds a really cool Erwin T-shirt, and I manage to find a colorful striped shirt that looks a little too tight on me but that I’m certain I should buy so I don’t feel bad about walking in simply to ask about Mary. At the checkout, I ask, once again in hushed tones, hoping no one notices. I somehow feel greedy; I’m almost certain everyone thinks I must be missing the point, sifting through some old rumor, a disembodied observer, a tourist, detached from the town and its real problems. Already I’ve felt this creeping up on me, threatening to ruin my fun little pilgrimage.

When does my morbid fascination, my Snout-like self, cross the line? When should I stop sniffing out new things just for the sake of interest? I mean, one of the most enjoyable things in my life is finding some sort of bizarre humor in everything. But do the people of Erwin deserve to rest?

The woman tells me that Ruth Piper, the woman who owned the Elephant Gift Shop, went out of business a few years ago, but that she came back in about two months ago to donate some money for the shelter. Apparently she’s now a real estate agent. I ask for a phone book, but I only find one Piper, and she doesn’t answer.

So Amber and I decide to go to the Unicoi County Heritage Museum to see if the ‘curator’ mentioned in one of the articles we read might know more about Hanging Mary. It’s located beside an old fish hatchery, in a plantation house that’s been restored with the help of the good ole taxpayer’s money. We have to walk up the drive, because there are prisoners repairing something on the roof. It’s raining, and the curator, an elderly woman with wiry grey hair and a face that looks consistently shocked, looks down at us disapprovingly.

”You should’ve parked up here,” she says, squinting through the rain. “It’s raining.” She says this matter-of-factly, as if we might not have noticed.

We nod and smile some, and I pull out my camera, a mistake, I can tell, as she squints even harder when she sees it. I ask her if I can take her photograph, and she tells me she’d rather not have her picture taken. I don’t press it any further, but I’m sorely disappointed that I don’t have something to show you fellow Snouts. She looks amazing, rest assured. Just what you’d imagine. We walk inside and she explains to us the history of the house, a history I’ve forgotten already. It has something to do with the fish hatchery. I am here for one reason only, and I can’t concentrate on anything else. She walks upstairs to turn on all of the lights and tells us to have a look around. We can hear her walking upstairs and the sound of the rain reverberates off the old roof. The entire house is covered in railroad signs, old kitchen utensils, random WWII memorabilia, and antique toys. In almost every room is a mannequin posing. Here’s a picture of the first room we see to our left. You should also take a look at this scary doll we saw in the attic.

Amber w/ carriage

After about half an hour, we walk downstairs, and the woman asks us (or quizzes us) about what we’ve seen. We mumble some answers and then she tells us to take some brochures with us. I ask, casually, “What’s this I’ve been hearing about a hanging elephant?”

The old woman motions us into her office and pulls out an old scrapbook. She turns to face us, and for the first time I look at her nametag: Martha Erwin. Sitting down and opening the scrapbook to the first page, a picture of Hanging Mary, she says, “Sit down, and I’ll tell you everything.”

(coming very soon: Part IV: All is Revealed!)

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