NILES REDDICK: A Gandy Dancer Named Spoon Saved My Life But I Lost My Middle Finger

Flash Fiction by Niles Reddick 

Gandy Dancer

for Gene

A Gandy dancer named Spoon saved my life, but I lost my middle right finger. My daddy got me the job on the railroad in 1943, even though he lied about me being sixteen that summer, and I’d hoped to save some money for college. That morning, the mist hung low in the Appalachian Mountains, and we slipped our way up the dewy trail to the tracks. The honeysuckle made the air smell sweet in spots, and I shivered a bit, but knew the rising sun would warm me.

We were straightening rails and replacing cross ties at the beginning of a tunnel and inside it, and the Gandy dancer caller chanted, “I got a girl in every town, huh.” On the cue of “huh”, the dancers would two-step, use the iron tools to hit the iron track in unison to straighten the track until the next cue when the Gandy dancer finished the chant: “I’ll go see her when the sun goes down, huh.” They were named Gandy dancers after the Gandy manufacturer of railroad tools.

When they had originally bored through the mountain to make the tunnel, they’d also hollowed out rock in the tunnel near the tracks in case someone was caught in there when the train came. I hadn’t noticed that at all because of the dark, so when my hand got caught between the rail and cross tie and I heard the whistle and felt the vibration of the train coming up the hill, I called out for help. Two or three of the Gandy dancers tried to pull me loose, but my hand wouldn’t give. I was praying, imagining my mama cooking supper and listening to the Carters on her old Victrola and my daddy saying, “What in Sam Hill did you do, son?” My heart was beating as if it was trying to out run the train, and I wasn’t even moving.

Spoon said, “Boy, I’m gonna grab hold of you. You keep your head turned flat and don’t look. Don’t you move one bit.”

Spoon pulled me as flat as he could, and my arm stung and hurt when that train came through the tunnel. It felt like hundreds of wasp stings. Spoon laid across my legs and feet in that hollow, and when the train was gone and the wind stopped, Spoon said, “Boy, don’t you look at it. We gonna get you some help.”

I didn’t look at it, and he wrapped his own plaid shirt around my hand to slow the blood flow, and he carried me down the mountain. While he was moving, he said, “You feel all right?” I lied to him I did. My arm and hand were burning, and while I didn’t cry, tears dropped from my eyes.

He said, “You know why they call me spoon?” I told him I didn’t know.

“Cause I like to eat,” and we both chuckled.

One of the railroad bosses in the trailer at the bottom of the mountain drove me to the town doctor. The nurse turned my head and held it in place, so I couldn’t see and told me it’d be all right. I only lost one finger, the middle one, and the other two were broke. The doctor wrapped them in splints, said he’d seen worse, gave me a shot to prevent infection, gave me a potion to drink to stave off the pain, and told me to come back in a couple of weeks. The nurse gave me a handful of small cloth bandages and said to tell my mama to clean the wound, put Mercurochrome and salve on it and dress it every night. While I never would’ve wished to lose a finger, life was all right without it and sometimes, it seemed like it was still there.

I went back to work on the railroad in a week and showed Spoon and the others my stub of a finger, and the foreman let me lead the Gandy dancers with chants. They enjoyed my first one: “I know a boy who lost his finger, huh.” When they’d two-stepped and straightened the track, I finished with: “When the train’s a-comin’ you better not linger, huh.” 

Previously published in Southern Roots Magazine, 2019 

Mrs. Butterworth 

Tonya looked like Mrs. Butterworth to me and Jack. She was frumpy in her apron with her stringy hair pinned and bound up in a net, and she washed the dishes we brought to her in dingy gray plastic bus box on a matching cart. Mrs. Butterworth loaded the dishes on a tray with rungs, rinsed, and sent them into the scalding metal dishwasher. When she finished, she lifted the handle pulled the tray out and sent another in, steam filling the room and an attic fan sucking the steam up through the roof and out into the cold air outside, creating frost on the red metal roof. 

Occasionally, Tonya wiped her face with her Mrs. Butterworth apron, and the makeup that came off from the steam matched the amber color of the syrup bottle. When her makeup came off, her face matched the pale color of her neck and arms. Mrs. Butterworth’s voice wasn’t the sophisticated and syrupy sweet voice of Mrs. Butterworth on the commercial. Our Mrs. Butterworth had more of a potty mouth, with sugar alcohol. “What the hell you boys looking at?” she said.

Sometimes, me and Jack would say, “We just waiting on the next load of clean dishes to put up.” The smell of all the food mixed together with coffee, tea, Coke, and water was the worst part of our job, but the second worst part was getting Mrs. Butterworth’s fresh-out-of-the-dishwasher hot plates and silverware to stack on the counter for the cooks.

If Jack and I didn’t respond, she’d add, “I know what you want. Same thing all boys want. I’m too much for y’all to handle.” She giggled and never missed a beat in her dishwashing process.

When Mrs. Butterworth wrapped a ham in her apron, and the cashier noticed it when she left to catch her ride, the manager fired her. She pleaded with him not to, that she’d pay him back, she had little ones to feed, but he said, “Past performance predicts future behavior.” When she went outside and smoked and waited on a ride, Jack and I even said we’d pay for the ham because we knew we knew she probably couldn’t afford her own ham, but the manager wouldn’t hear of it and hired another dishwasher who didn’t look like anyone from tv.

Jack’s family got a PCS from the Air Force in a few months and moved, and I got out of high school and went to college. The restaurant closed when they built the new interstate about a mile away, and I never saw the restaurant employees again. Once I saw a thinner, shrunken version of someone I thought was Mrs. Butterworth in K-Mart, but if it was her, she didn’t recognize me.  

Niles Reddick is author of a novel Drifting too far from the Shore, two collections Reading the Coffee Grounds and Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and a novella Lead Me Home. His work has been featured in seventeen anthologies, twenty-one countries, and in over three hundred publications including The Saturday Evening Post, PIF, New Reader Magazine, Forth Magazine, Citron Review, and The Boston Literary Magazine.  

Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela. All rights revert to the author.

Published by poetrybay

George Wallace is a poet, professor and freelance editor living and working in NYC. Writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace since 2011, he is author of over 3 dozen books of poetry and editor/co-editor of such fine literary publications as Poetrybay, Great Weather for Media, Polarity, Flash Boulevard, Long Island Quarterly and Walt's Corner. George travels internationally to perform his poetry, and his many honors include the Naim Frasheri Prize (Tetova Poetry Festival), Orpheus Prize (Plovdiv Poetry Festival), National Beat Laureate (Beat Poetry Festival), Suffolk County Poet Laureate, CW Post Poetry Prize; and the Alexander Medal, from UNESCO/Greece, for his contribution to the arts.

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