Iowa Writes

JOSHUA WHEELER
"Cool Hand Luke"


           You are nine-years-old, stretched out on the couch watching whatever your father wants to watch because he drives you on your paper route at 5am on Sundays when the papers are too heavy for you to lug on your bike; you will sit through a Sunday afternoon Movie of the Week even if he seems to be asleep, snoring through the scene of men in a chain gang, shirtless and digging ditches along a dirt road.  You are not particularly interested because it is 1994 and the film is all the way from 1967.  Your tastes are more contemporary: you particularly enjoy The Lion King.  Your father sits up in his armchair, changes the channel, repositions the wad of tobacco in his lip and looks at you out the corner of his eye, under his glasses with a slight tilt of the head so his lenses catch the overhead light and the glare masks the sidewaysness of his glance but you recognize that tilt: you are under heavy scrutiny.

           You are nine-years-old, stretched out on the couch watching whatever your father wants to watch because he drives you on your paper route at 5am on Sundays when the papers are too heavy for you to lug on your bike; you will sit through a Sunday afternoon Movie of the Week even if he seems to be asleep, snoring through the scene of men in a chain gang, shirtless and digging ditches along a dirt road.  You are not particularly interested because it is 1994 and the film is all the way from 1967.  Your tastes are more contemporary: you particularly enjoy The Lion King.  Your father sits up in his armchair, changes the channel, repositions the wad of tobacco in his lip and looks at you out the corner of his eye, under his glasses with a slight tilt of the head so his lenses catch the overhead light and the glare masks the sidewaysness of his glance but you recognize that tilt: you are under heavy scrutiny.  He fiddles with the remote control: clicks through all the channels—his routine whenever there is mature content on TV, as if scrolling through nine channels (including the Mexican ones and the two religious ones and the one that is mostly static) will wipe your brain clean of graphic images.  But there is no mature content yet which means your father knows this old film, recalls mature content on the horizon and this is a preemptive mind-wipe cycle.  But instead of lingering on an alternate channel for 45 seconds (the average duration of mature content on network television), he completes the cycle and stops again on the Movie of the Week. 
           The guys in the chain gang are distracted.  Anxious.  You can't quite identify their emotional state but they share an excitement, all overtly giddy except Paul Newman who, well, just plays it cool.  Your father tries to play it cool, keeps one eye trained on you and repositions his chew, taps the remote control on the arm of the chair but doesn't click the button.  The two of you watch the shirtless criminals shoveling sweating staring and finally the camera pans to what they are ogling: a woman in a threadbare sundress, young Joy Harmon with white-gold hair and porcelain skin and fullheavy breasts that could knock you out, literally knock you off your feet, and hips and big round ass cheeks like a couple of overstuffed pillows inviting you to rest your face in the soft crack of their stack.  The chain gang sweats and gawks.  A prisoner squints prays whispers: Lucille.  She has a bucket of soapy water and a sponge.  She turns the nozzle on the hose and sprays an old car and sponges and really gets her body and her threadbare dress all soapy wet as she massages the steel, writhes wildly so you know for sure those fullheavy breasts could knock you out cold, could get to swinging and smack you upside the head and knock you straight off your feet.  You laugh.  You grin at your dad because you know you are not mature enough to watch this (mature content).  He repositions his chew.  Nods at the TV so you see it's more than permission he's giving: this is a directive, a father exploring what his son is made of while passing on an indelible truth about survival, a shift toward manhood even if you don't know what is shifting or why or how violently.  You could never accurately discuss what your father has put you up to but you've seen this in movies like The Lion King where the young cub has something to learn from his lion father but when the lesson doesn't stick the whole savannah kingdom falls into disrepair with bloodthirsty hyenas lurking around every boulder.  There is no kingdom for you.  Just your father's armchair and the ratty couch beneath you.  The TV encased in imitation wood.  The '74 Buick Regal in the driveway.  Joy Harmon wrings soap from her sponge and your grin melts to a gape because you know dad's Buick is the kingdom you're meant to inherit and this is a seminal moment in your ascension: fullheavy breasts, soaking wet and slick with soap and suds, fully pressed on the window and the camera inside the car so it seems she is pressing her breasts into you, over and over as she stretches to sponge the roof, the chain gang still gawking from the road and some of the men start to shake like their bodies are expelling demons but even they are not getting this view, the view your father directed you to see, the view from inside the car where the camera has taken you, breasts squished on the glass like they are right there inside the TV, pressing out, ready to burst into your lap and you wonder about the demons inside of you, if you will ever get to shaking too.

more

About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


JOSHUA WHEELER

Josh Wheeler is from Alamogordo, New Mexico.  He currently lives, writes, and washes his truck in Iowa. "Cool Hand Luke" was first published in the Winter 2012 issue of the online literary quarterly, Wag's Revue, as part of the essay Your Sad Heart Foams at the Stern, which was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. This essay can be read at the link provided below.

Wheeler's Your Sad Heart Foams at the Stern

This page was first displayed
on March 27, 2013

Find us on Facebook