In No Shovel, No Bacon, Blind Henry and Yamaha, two men with a lot of self-inflicted scars from their pasts, sit around and talk about the dogs they’ve known and loved, family lore, and how to make the best clam chowder.
About the Author
Jeff Knight is an Austin writer of stories, poems, and songs. He likes campfires, dogs, guitars, and yes, homemade clam chowder like his Day-Day used to make. Jeff’s work has appeared in Rattle, The Museum of Americana, and Stirring: A Literary Collection, among other places. His e-book novella, Lunchbox Love Letters, is available through Amazon.
You can enjoy more of Jeff’s work at his website: jeffsnextpage.com
Or on his YouTube channel, also named Jeff’s Next Page.
No Shovel, No Bacon by Jeff Knight
One minute ago they were talking about dogs, but now the old man has gotten sidetracked. He sets down his coffee mug and scratches the head of his rust-colored mutt, Leia. Leia is pretty happy to hang out on the back porch while Blind Henry holds forth.
“When my Daddy was fixing to make some clam chowder, step one wasn’t ‘get out the soup pot,’ or ‘start chopping onions,’ or anything like that. Step one for making some clam chowder was ‘go get the shovel,’ because we lived pretty near the coast so we could go dig clams. So that association runs pretty deep. ‘Go get the shovel’ has, you know, some correlation and whatnot with, ‘gonna make some chowder.’”
Blind Henry is just a nickname; he can see just fine. He’s talking to his friend Yamaha, who is a good kid. Kid in relative terms, since Yamaha's in his early forties. He’s good company, for a white guy. Doesn’t talk too much. They knew each other back when Yamaha was Austin’s dope dealer to the stars, and Blind Henry was making custom guitars for the slightly famous. These days, they’re also AA buddies, and they've become close friends. Family, really, at this point. They get together like this most Saturdays at Blind Henry's place in Way-South Austin. The old man got gentrified out of the house he’d been in for years, just a little off of South Congress, but hey, he turned a crazy profit on the sale. He likes this new place fine. The two friends are sitting on the patio, front door open. They’re enjoying cool air and sunshine, talking about life, watching some squirrels do their thing. Blind Henry finds his thread.
“So, I’m like nine or ten, maybe, 'bout the age your sister's boy is now, and Betty Sue, this old dog we had—so fun, so smart, so good-hearted—she died. Just old age. Napping in her favorite spot in the yard, on a crisp, sunny day about like today. And I find her there, dead, and I’m all torn up about it. Oh, man, we all believed that dog was the greatest dog in the whole damn history of dogs, up till the next dog we got, who we pretty quickly came to believe was the greatest dog in the whole damn history of dogs.”
Leia looks up, ears raised, head cocked, in a way that makes both men smile.
He’s a natural storyteller, Blind Henry is, and a good man. He used to be a mean drunk, but all that is twenty-some years behind him now. Yamaha is an earlier chapter in a similar tale. Some backsliding. Some false starts. Re-set the clock, he gets a little steadier each episode. Day at a time, and it adds up to two years today. His life is looking a lot less like a hand grenade just went off in the middle of it. A long way from perfect, but he’s gainfully employed. Most days you’d give him a B+ on hygiene, which is an improvement. He’s a work in progress.
There’s like a fifty percent chance that Blind Henry has told Yamaha this exact story before, but neither of them cares. Blind Henry doesn’t care because, hey, if the story was good enough to tell once . . . Yamaha doesn’t care because what he gets out of Blind Henry’s stories is less narrative, more state-of-mind. Does him some good just to hear the old man’s habitual rhythms of speech. It’s more ontological. Yamaha reads a lot of philosophy. He likes to say words like ontological. Blind Henry carries on.
“But anyhow, I go tell Daddy what happened with the dog, and he sheds a tear and hugs me. He could be sweet like that sometimes, once in a while, and he decides that first we’ll bury her together then go gather the family, and we’ll all say goodbye to Betty Sue. Send her on to whatever’s next, and it’ll be a moment we’re all having together, you know?”
Sure, Yamaha knows. He nods. He’s buried a beloved dog or two in his life. Thinks about that a second. Blind Henry continues.
“But Daddy don’t say, ‘let’s go bury Betty Sue over by the rose bush,’ or anything like that. I’m all crying and sniffling, and really sad about the dog, and what he says is, heh heh heh, take a guess . . .”
The light bulb comes on, and now Yamaha starts laughing too, knowing where the story is going, and Yamaha says, “Ha ha ha, oh, man! Your dad says—”
“Go get the shovel! And man, I am horrified, like are we really going to dig clams and just ignore the fact that the beloved dog has passed on or, worse, Jesus, I mean way worse, is my old man thinking about making some Betty Sue chowder?”
“Ha ha ha, holy crap, you’re killing me!”
“So Daddy sees it in my face, that I’m upset, and then it dawns on him what I’m maybe thinking, and he did have a mischief streak, so he adds, ‘and get out the soup pot,’ and winks at me, and it’s the funniest joke we’ve ever shared. We are ‘bout to pee our goddamn pants laughing now, the way it happens when you’re already emotional, right? And the laughter is such a relief, but then, worst timing it could be, Mama comes in the room and asks ‘Hey, what are y’all laughing about?’ And I instantly realize that any explanation has to start with telling her that Betty Sue died, which she does not yet know, and is certainly going to be upset about, and the ridiculousness of this chowder thing that has us laughing. It’s just impossible to convey in that moment, which makes the laughter even more uncontrollable, and then the comic relief gets kind of spent, and my laughing quits even being really laughter, and the tears come back, and my chest is heaving, and Daddy gets it together and says real succinct to Mama, ‘The dog died; the boy’s upset. We’re gonna go bury her.’ And Mama comes and hugs me, and she cries some, too, and off Daddy goes to get started. And neither he nor I ever explained to her that she hadn’t mistaken crying for laughing, that we really had been laughing, and what it was that had struck us so funny in that sad moment. We had that moment, he and I did, and it was just ours.”
Blind Henry takes a sip of his coffee.
Yamaha has been laughing and listening and thinking. Then he queries, “New England or Manhattan?”
“New England, man! We weren’t savages. Clams are best with some cream. Manhattan my ass. What is wrong with you?”
“I see I have hit upon a sensitive issue.”
“You have. Anyhow. I make it same as Daddy made it, except we don’t live near the coast, so I have to make do with frozen clams, and I don’t use bacon. The flavor it adds is nice, but I don’t like those damn rubbery pieces of soggy bacon in my soup.”
Yamaha has heard Blind Henry before on the subject of soggy bacon being unappealing in soup. He nods.
“Anyhow, kid, thought I’d make some clam chowder today. No shovel, no bacon. For sure no damn tomato sauce. Wanna learn how to do this thing right?”
Yamaha is thinking about dogs and friends and about belonging. He can remember a time when no one was happy to see him, when he, literally, did not have a friend. And for good reason. Everything right now feels the way it is supposed to feel around food, around family. Just exactly right. He breathes in; he breathes out. They head into the kitchen and start chopping things.
About the Story
No Shovel, No Bacon was written by Jeff Knight and is a story about new beginnings. It’s also about some of the ways people can become family to each other, like shared stories, time spent together, and food, just to name a few.
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