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Steve Gowin

Something of Asparagus

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When Bud Stump limped away from the Woodward State Hospital, he wore only thin pajamas and canvas slippers. That was mid-November, long after asparagus season.

The Stumps had kept a two-bedroom shack and garden across Pleasant Street from us, but no one had occupied that place for a long long time. On summer nights it smelled of kerosene and lard as if it could burn away at any moment.

At the lot’s corner, after summer rain, dark green asparagus pushed up wild beside a creosote post. My father claimed that when Stumps still lived there, Bud had hunched out every summer’s full moon to eat the stalks raw. The Stumps, he said, knew something of asparagus.

The rest of us remembered the worst. Ignorance. Filth. Incest. We’d never forget Bud’s crooked spine humping up his shoulder and how his forehead slumped low over a mouth of jagged brown teeth. We repeated his birth story, an aunt who’d bore him deformed, back and hip and head, a mooncalf.

Everyone said that “most Stumps’d served time in Fort Madison for deviances one kind or other.” But Dad said, as far as he knew, Bud was harmless, had never committed a crime, although the poor thing did walk by night.

Sometimes in early morning, you’d find him curled up like a sick bat asleep on someone’s porch. And one midnight, Mrs. Lorelei LeBlanc caught him bent over her garbage cans, paws to his mouth raccoon like, scarfing discarded vegetables. Mostly though, he roamed the starlit woods.

They’d finally committed Bud to Woodward “for his own good.” But he did run away occasionally, and as he’d done before, this time, he’d made the thirty miles’ home, and hidden himself well until someone reported a tiny midnight fire, somebody, in the willows, near the river bridge.

Everyone presumed Sheriff Wright would drive out, as usual, lure Bud into the prowler with a sweet or a shiny gewgaw, and take him back North, back to the hospital. Normally, Bud accepted it all quietly, but this time, neither the Sheriff nor his deputies couldn’t locate him. Bud had “gone to ground.”

By mid-December we were suffering a string of break-ins and burglaries. The thief was stealing canned goods mainly, but also cooking utensils and bedding. Old Lady Cutschall reported that “surely Bud Stumps” had robbed her of “every tin of Spam in the house, every single one.”

She also claimed that he’d taken her new flannel nighty. “The fiend’s going as a woman,” she’d proclaimed. But Dad disagreed. The nightgown had been stuffed into a pillowcase. Bud wanted blankets and bedding and had taken nightclothes only by mistake.

Wild stories of the mad hermit spread. The Dooley brothers, Daryl, the slobbery one, and Bill, the slow one, claimed the woodsman had come across them in the oaks where the Rock Island cut around the river bluff.

He’d blindfolded them, walked them to his lair, and given them Hershey bars and Cokes. They said he grew tall green stalks of healing herbs, even in winter, and showed them a library of leather bound secrets in steamer trunks buried in the earth.

They told of a pet raccoon to whom he spoke and who answered in human language, although not in a tongue they understood. But in spite of other kids finding old campfires and burnt out meat tins, no one had really seen Bud Stump; no one had encountered our boogey man.

Meanwhile, the robberies continued. Bud stole newspapers, sleeping bags, instant mashed potatoes, powdered milk, and a little holiday fudge, although he never touched a single Christmas present. John Jungman lost a ten-pound bag of dog food, a 20-gauge shotgun, and a box of Remington shells.

As the weather turned from very cold to bitter cold, the January wind blew away all Yule kindness, and although he’d never been violent, neither had he stolen weapons nor stayed out this long before. Our people remembered anew the hunched back crazy man running amok in winter’s night.

So with half a dozen town fathers from the Methodists and Saint Paul of the Shipwreck, the law organized a series of weekend possess. On the first and second outings, loud, ruddy townsmen canvased the leafless river bottoms with shotguns and cheap whiskey, to no avail.

But late one Sunday afternoon, the third posse, cooled in the chase and sober, did find him. Dad was there. Bud had been hiding North of town at the old Shambaugh place, near the river and only a quarter mile from the new house Shambaugh Jr. built on the old man’s death.

Near the hog sty, Bud sat upright back against the wall on a dirt floored chicken coop barefoot. He’d scattered newsprint everywhere to cut the wind. But even with layers of long johns and overalls, an insulated sweatshirt, and Old Lady Cutschall’s flannel nightgown, winter’d prevailed.

Frostbite had burned Bud’s cheeks and right hand gray and brittle, and gangrene had rotted his three left toes. He’d cradled Jungman’s 20-gauge between his knees, reached down with his left hand, and pulled the trigger.

The shotgun lay on the ground between his legs. Three hundred BBs had ripped through his throat, and Bud’s poor head lolled onto his humped shoulder. While his face had gone completely white, the cold had frozen his blood a dark scarlet even before it reached the hen house floor.

Dallas County cleaned him up and buried him in a pauper’s grave and took the Stump property for back taxes. Eventually they bulldozed the shack and burned it to the ground as an eyesore and public hazard.

These days the lot is only an ashy depression in the earth. But the good asparagus still sprouts by the creosote post. And after a rain, at summer’s full moon, raccoons dance hump backed around it.

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