FOOTPRINT OF A GHOST

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Chapter 6

Tyler Nathan Thomas, or TNT as they called him, whoever they were, trained young men to fight with their hands, to box and win prizes, and he raised little chickens, called Bantams; at least he did after he was released from the federal penitentiary in Kansas. He claimed once to have been in possession of a Malaysian Serama Bantam but that cannot really be verified... or disproven for that matter. He ran for state representative several cash anemic years after the Great Depression, when unemployment was still near twenty percent, and had a business card printed that sported the graphic in silhouette of a man sitting on a toilet centered below his name: “Tyler Thomas”, and above his campaign slogan, “The Candidate who knows what he is doing.” His run for office would be an abject failure and not long after, needing gainful employment, or at least loot, he became involved with a national car theft ring which would earn him “3 hots and a cot” at Leavenworth for a decade.

“FBI agents walked shoulder to shoulder poking the ground with spikes on the end of poles to find the license plates that your Uncle Tyler and his gang had taken off the cars they stole and buried out behind that house he lived in down by the Pecan Bayou.”

It’s one of those stories that my father frequently recounted about our family- like the two brothers who were hung for stealing horses and related to President John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States, and the first President to become president after the president before him died- President William Henry Harrison.

I don’t know if it’s true or not that my family was related to the tenth POTUS, I sort of doubt it, or if there were horse thief’s in his family... maybe. But John Tyler was the 10th President of the United States, of that much I am certain. He had no political affiliation when he was actually elected president. His predecessor, Harrison, was famous for a battle he’d fought and won against the Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh near the Tippecanoe River. So ergo, Harrison became known as “Old Tippecanoe”, and ergo when he ran for President with Tyler as his Vice POTUS running mate, the famous slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was ginned up. And ergo again I suppose, when ol’ “TNT”, Tyler Nathanael Thomas would have his own political aspirations, he would need a slogan too... and business cards.

What I also know for sure is that Tyler Thomas would be found dead in his home about eight days after he’d expired. The smell of human decomposition coming from the house would offend the olfactory receptors of a census worker who in turn would notify the police who would then consequently discover ol’ TNT sprawled halfway off his couch, clad in a wife beater tee shirt and a pair of badly stained boxer shorts; his bowels had involuntarily evacuated of course. There was a bottle of Kentucky rye with a few ounces left lying on its side on the floor next to a single moccasin style house shoe; the other shoe oddly, was never recovered if I have my facts straight. The house already smelling of rotten eggs and empty whiskey bottles and tin cans that had been once filled with food but should’ve long since been discarded- in a word- ‘stank’ prior to my deceased great uncle’s contribution to the terrible stench- but had also, according to my father, once been a place of great marvel as well. There were political pins from numerous elections over decades and brochures and magazines and guns from the Civil War and several compete chicken skeletons mounted and standing upright on the fireplace mantel as if they were miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Museum of Natural History and a staircase that promised to ascend to even more treasures and wonders... but ultimately just led to a corpse.

I know also that my father always spoke fondly of ol’ TNT- a nickname I never really understood because Tyler was an even tempered man from what I remember and not given to emotional outbursts. I think because my father’s father died when my father was so young and Tyler was my father’s brother and Tyler was around... etc., etc. and something of a colorful, almost epic, character etc., etc. that my father psychologically or emotionally or whatever transferred a lot of the feelings that he had and the need that he’d had for a dad, to Tyler.

The tenth POTUS, John Tyler, was dubbed “His Ascendency” by his political detractors and hence the public did as well because of the way he’d inherited the office. My great uncle Tyler, ol’ TNT was sort of like that with my father, sort of ascended, by default, into the position of being my dad’s dad.

“You’ve heard of the Bird Man of Alcatraz... ” My father would tell me once.

I knew there was a movie by that name starring Burt Lancaster but I had not actually seen the movie because it hadn’t been released on television yet. And I was aware, for some reason, that the motion picture was based on a real life person- but the significance of that was probably wasted on me at that age.

“Well, your uncle TNT was the Chicken Man of Leavenworth.” My father would go on to say with a glint in his eyes and a slightly crooked grin. “They knew each other you know, Robert Stroud, the real Bird Man and your uncle Tyler when they were both at Leavenworth, before Stroud got transferred to Alcatraz.”

My great Uncle Tyler often spoke of his time at Leavenworth with something akin to “pride” in his voice. He almost made it sound as if he it was a lengthy stay at a Four Star Hotel instead and not a prison sentence in a federal penitentiary.

“It’s actually how Stroud got interested in canaries, your uncle’s fascination with Bantam roosters.” My father would continue. Apparently they had chickens at Leavenworth, programs in animal husbandry and farming and such.

“Ol’ TNT didn’t like canaries. They chirped too much and their eggs weren’t big enough for anybody to eat except maybe the Chinese, they’ll eat just about any kind of bird,” my father said. “And their nests too! Yep, your Uncle Tyler Nate Thomas taught the Bird Man everything he knew!”

Another one of these family stories... I suspect, with a grain of truth in it... or perhaps to be taken with a grain of salt. I guess it was no surprise that when my father lost his job, that Friday after my mother refused him sex all night and I saw the ghost of the ten year old girl walking through the hallway in her underwear, that my father would decide that building a chicken coop in the backyard and raising Bantams was somehow the key to his salvation.

“I just can’t keep you on, JT,” George Chapman would say to my father. “

“I need the work.”

“I know.”

“I just relocated here and I’ve got a family to feed.”

“You’re not the only man out here with a family to feed, JT,” George C said, “and not the only one I’m cutting loose today.”

“But you’re keeping others aren’t you?” my father said.

George C did not answer but did not look away.

“Why am I not one of the ones that you’re keeping? I work hard don’t I?”

“You do.”

“And I do a good job don’t I?”

“As good as any.” George C said plainly.

“Then why?”

“You talk to yourself a lot, JT,” George C said matter of fact.

“I talk to myself?” my father said, taken completely by surprise by that comment, I think. “Everybody talks to themselves, don’t they?”

“Not everybody,” George C said. “And not like you?”

“What do you mean, not like me?!”

“Who’s Hank?”

“Hank?” my father asked. “What do you mean, who’s Hank? You know full well who Hank is?”

“No I don’t, JT. And neither do any of the other men around here?”

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