East of Broad Street*

Broad Street runs straight as a Creek Indian’s arrow, south to north and directly through the heart of Marbleton.  Travelers have passed this way for 150 years, first on foot, then by mule or horseback, and much later on bicycles, motor cars and buses.  On a clear day you can stand in front of the Baptist church with the stained-glass depictions of the life of Jesus and see all the way past the storefronts, on past the city government buildings and the old depot, all the way to the high school and the football field before the road bends eastward around the city park.  Broad is the street that everyone in town and the surrounding countryside knows — the avenue where the citizens of Marbleton worship and trade and mark the events that accumulate into the sums of their lives.

For one traveler on this March day, it is a street of what might have been.

His girls might have shopped in the Five and Ten and the Dianne Dress Shoppe on Broad.  They might have attended high school and gone across to the soda fountain at the drug store afterward each day and bought a cherry coke with their friends.  They might have marched with the band in the homecoming parade, or went to one of those churches on South Broad, or watched movies at the old Martin Theater.  They might have even gotten married and settled in their own homes in Marbleton.  By now, he might have even had grandchildren to spoil.

But none of these things happened.

The traveler and his dog turn right just past the big church onto a side street that leads to a hilltop cemetery, the oldest one in town.  They pass through the wrought iron gate, on past markers with names and dates long-forgotten and into the last section of newer graves, the most recent now two decades since interment, bones of the occupants rendered chalky and brittle with the rise and fall of the water table within a single stratum of red clay.  They pass by smooth marble and weathered granite headstones, all lined-up facing east. Cold stone pages of an old register, the silent remaining testament to those awaiting the final blast of a trumpet and a shout.  A life-size statue of the Savior occupies a place among the markers here, kneeling in frozen supplication and anguish on His final night in a far-away garden, marble pupil-less eyes fixed upward as if He too awaits a whispered answer from the deafening silence of the leaden sky.

The old man stops and sits on a stone bench, his body stiff and cold from the journey.  The dog spins in circle three times and settles at his feet, also weary from the long walk into an unfamiliar place.

The town is quiet, her residents mostly indoors since the storm.  A warm south wind blows, and in this late afternoon hour water drips from melting ice that clings to every surface and structure.  The dripping from trees and monuments alike is as soft as a morning rain, collecting and forming rivulets that run almost imperceptibly toward Broad.

The two travelers remain motionless for the better part of an hour, the man simply looking at the small headstone, no longer pondering or questioning the events that have led to this time and place. The pistol lies on the bench beside him – eight in the clip but only two required.  He will not leave the dog to suffer that which he has endured.

He hears the rusted squeal of the gate and looks up to see the cab pull away toward Broad.  He watches her as she passes down the rows of markers, her eyes searching the stones.  He slips the gun back into his coat pocket, not wishing to frighten the stranger.

She moves through the stones with a deliberate intent, and to the old man she appears to be so focused as to be unaware of his presence.  She stops only momentarily, gazing at the markers as if mentally assembling the pieces of an abstract jigsaw puzzle.

She comes slowly but methodically onward, until she stops at the marker directly in front of him.  She stands in the quiet for an eternity, then turns and focuses on his face, as if noticing his presence for the first time.

Their eyes meet for what seems a long time.  Both are expressionless.  She breaks the muted silence.

“Hey Daddy.”

“Hey Sarah.”

She sits beside him for the next hour until the coming of the night bids them go.  No more words are spoken in the gathering dusk.  The dripping of the water from the melting ice is reminiscent of the ticking of an old mantel clock from a lifetime ago.

Dear reader, if you ever find yourself near the old city cemetery just off Broad Street in Marbleton, you might take the time to seek out a small headstone near the statue of Jesus in Gethsemane.  The marble slab has a carving of a lamb across its top, and the scrolled inscription below it reads “And His sheep know His voice.”  Underneath, this the chronology of the brief life of a little girl:

Jannette Lynne Nelson

Born:  March 31, 1962

Died:  March 13, 1968

*Part of a series beginning with “Night Things.”

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Hurricane: A Blast from the Past

In honor of Isaac, a re-post of a hurricane memory.

Hurricane Ida and TWC

Hurricane Ida is approaching—and I’m sure the folks at the Weather Channel are absolutely giddy.  Cantore is probably stationed on the beach somewhere around Pensacola or Mobile, grim-faced and braced against the howling winds and stinging rain.Surely decked-out in his official Weather Channel slicker, goggles on, feet slightly wider than shoulder width to withstand hurricane force wind.There will be impressive graphics and updates all through the evening, with intense dialogue like this:

Alexis:“Now we go to our storm expert Jim Cantore, live on the beach at Pensacola.How’s it going, Jim?”

Jim:“Well, it’s definitely getting rougher out here.I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hold up before I have to take shelter in the Holiday Inn.It’s really coming down.” (camera pans around Jim—just looks dark).

Alexis:“It looks really bad.Was that a garbage can lid I just saw blow by?”

Jim:“Yes Ally, it was.This is really a situation we have here.I wish more people would have heeded my advice to secure their lids.But now we’ll just have to wait and see how many cans are lid-less when the sun comes up tomorrow morning.”

Alexis:“How about the surf?Is it bad?”

Jim:“Yes.The waves are really getting frothy.Kind of reminds me of the sudsy surf we had in Destin in 2002.”

You’ll have to let me know about all this.I quit watching The Weather Channel about four years ago when I felt they went off the deep end with their coverage.Before that, I was a Weather Channel junkie—so much so that family and friends made fun of me about it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not minimizing hurricanes–they are serious business.We went through one here in central Alabama (Opal) in 1995.It rained a foot before the winds hit.Opal blew down about a million trees, seventeen of which were in my yard.The worst part was that she hit during the night.The power went first, followed by howling wind and terrible crashing noises in the blackness.I was doing what I normally do during the night, sleeping, when the Redhead suggested that I join her, our kids, and an old bird dog we had at the time in the hall of our house.I knew immediately that she was really scared—that dog had never been allowed inside before.

It was a long night.Our only contact with the outside world was a local country radio station, which reported crucial information like “I think our station’s garbage can just blew away.”

I hope that Ida is not too bad and people won’t get hurt.I also hope that the Weather Channel folks have a good time, and I’m sure they won’t miss me.I’ve gone back to getting my weather like my daddy did—I just walk outside.If I get wet, I know it’s raining.

Fire and Ice

On March 15th, Ed Nelson sat on the back porch in his shirt sleeves.  The weather had been warm with clear skies for the last three weeks.  The trees in the orchard were beginning to break bud, and behind the house the Bahia grass, remnant of the pasture that once comprised so much of his daddy’s farm, was greening-up.  Red buds and maples blossomed purple and pink on the lower slope of Flagg Mountain.

But a day can make a world of difference.

A north wind blew down the mountain on the 16th, and the temperature  dropped.  By mid-morning, the sky darkened and rain began to fall.  Not a hard rain, but a slow and steady spattering rhythm, the kind that his daddy had long-ago prayed for in summers when the corn was tasseling and the watermelons were no bigger than a man’s fist.

By nightfall the temperature fell into the low-thirties, and the rain turned to ice.  The change was gradual but audible, a clinking on the tin roof and a sound in the tree limbs faintly reminiscent of tinkling glass.

Ed’s dog, a mongrel mix of bluetick hound and God only knew what, pawed the back door for his supper at sunset.  Ed was surprised when he ran past him into the parlor.  In the seven years since he had appeared on his back porch, Ed had never been able to coax him past the threshold.  Tonight he went straight to a spot by the wood stove, shook himself, and lay down.

The electricity blinked off at 7:00.  Ed lit his two kerosene lanterns and put more cord wood in the stove.  The ticking of the clock on the mantle and an occasional crash from an ice-leaden tree were the only sounds that reverberated through the blackness of the night.

He had seen ice storms only three times in his sixty-three years.  They were a destructive force, bending and breaking trees, bursting water lines, and closing roads until the temperature warmed and revealed the true nature of the damage.  Everything in the country would be shut down until the thaw.  Even some of the roads in Marbleton might close.

The last storm had been thirty years ago, a week after he lost his daughters —  one to the city cemetery in Marbleton — the other taken away by her mother.  The separation from each was complete.

The storm was a sign.  His sentence was nearly served.  Only one stop to make before his freedom.

At daylight he put on two pairs of wool socks and his old army coat.  He slid  the .45 into his hip pocket and retrieved the walking stick and shuffled out onto the back porch.  The dog reluctantly followed, looking at him with an inquisitive yawn.

There were two full gas cans in what was left of the barn.  He hoisted one and  made his way back across the ice-sheeted yard to the house.  He soaked the beds and the couch and poured the rest around the baseboards in each room, finishing with a liquid trail down the hall and onto the porch.  He renegotiated the treacherous back steps and sloshed the remainder of the five gallon can onto them.  He soaked everything in the barn with the gas in the other can and poured a trail through the yard and back to the steps of the back porch.

He paused for only a second, struck the match, and stepped back.

There was a brief flash, and a twin whoosh as flames licked up hundred year old heart pine walls.  A hot blast hit him from both sides, but he was already turning toward Marbleton.  It would be a slow, treacherous walk.  His hip already hurt, but there would be peace was at the end.

“Come on if you’re coming” he told the dog.

They set out toward town.

On Such a Winter’s Day (Part 2)*

I am half way across the freshly plowed field before Granddaddy sees me coming.  He shuts off the tractor and jumps down.  I am crying now, and my skinned knee is starting to hurt.

“What’s wrong, jellybean?  Is Jan O.K.?”  He calls me ’jellybean’ sometimes instead of Sarah.

“Granddaddy, I think Sam got bit by a snake.  You got to come see about him.”

“Where is he?”

“He was following me, but I guess he stopped.  Please come on granddaddy.”

“O.K., darling.  Calm down now.  It’s gone be alright.  Where’s your sister?  Did y’all get close to the snake?”

“No, Granddaddy.  Jan’s at the house.  Please come help Sam.”

“Alright.  Climb on up here and stand on this running board and let’s go.  You hold on right here.  Hold on tight now.  If you was to fall off and get hurt, your momma would skin me alive.”

Granddaddy starts up the tractor and we bump across the furrows.  It’s hard to hold on, and he steers the tractor with one hand and holds the back of my shirt with the other.  I’m getting more worried now ‘cause we still ain’t seen Sam.  I thought he was following me, but I guess I was running so fast I left him behind.

We come through a gap in the tree line and into the pasture.  I see Sam up ahead, laying on his side.  I start to cry harder.

Granddaddy pulls up beside him and shuts off the motor.  “Hush now,” he says.  “Let me see about him.”

Sam stands up and wags his tail when he hears Granddaddy’s voice.

His head is all swollen on one side, and he is panting like he’s thirsty.

“He’ll be alright,” Granddaddy says.  “He’s gone be a little sick for a while, but he’ll be just fine.  Come on, let’s take him up to the barn and get him some water.  I’ve got some drawing salve I can put on that bite – get some of the poison out.  Can you walk the rest of the way?  I’ll carry him back in my lap on the tractor, but I can’t hold him and you too.”

“I’m alright,” I say.  “You sure he’s gonna be alright?”

“He’ll be right as rain in a few days.  Come on now.”

We head back toward the barn.  Granddaddy has to go slow, because Sam keeps trying to get off his lap.  I’m not crying anymore, but my knee hurts and I’m thirsty.

We pass the pond and cross the rest of the pasture to the barn.  Granddaddy gets off the tractor and carries Sam inside.  He puts him in the stall next to Silas on some hay.

“Go check on your sister while I find that tube of salve.”

“Oh,” I say.  “We was playing hide-and-seek.  I bet she got tired of hiding and went to the house.”

“Jan!” I yell.  “You win.  Come out-come out-wherever-you are!”

I go to the house.

“Jan!  Don’t be a big baby.  I had to go get granddaddy.  Sam got snake bit.  Come to the barn and see.”

But she don’t answer.

Granddaddy is carrying a big bucket of water into the barn when I get back.

“Where’s your sister?”

“I don’t know.  She won’t answer me.  I guess she’s mad that I didn’t find her.”

“Jan!”

“Jannette!” granddaddy yells.  He calls her that when she’s not minding him, so I know he’s getting mad.

“Maybe she’s still hiding,” I say.

“Jan, are you in this barn like you’re not ‘posed to be?”

Granddaddy pulls his handkerchief out of his overhauls and wipes his face.  He looks tired.

“Where does she like to hide?” he asks.

“Well, she likes to climb up in the apple tree, but I already looked there.  She hides in Granny’s old Plymouth sometimes, or behind them old washing machines.  Sometimes she gets in the ‘frigerator”

“What?” he says.

“In the ‘frigerator,” I say.  “You know, that old ice box.”

“Lord Jesus,” granddaddy says.  He starts to kind of run toward the icebox.  It’s kind of funny, because he’s old and I’ve never seen him run before.

“Sweet Jesus,” he says, over and over.  “Oh, sweet Jesus please no Lord Jesus please please please.”

He puts his hand on the old rusted handle and pulls.  The door opens just a crack.  Jan’s arm falls out.  Her hand is bloody ‘cause her knuckles are all skint-up.

“Oh no Lord Jesus. No no no no no.”

Grandaddy sits down hard with his back to the door.

“Sarah, go to the house and call the High Sheriff.  The number’s on the front of the book under the phone.  Tell him to come out here fast.”

“What’s wrong, Granddaddy?”

“Sarah, go now!”

I run to the house.  I hear Granddaddy yell “OH LORD JESUS OH LORD JESUS.  SHE’S SO LITTLE LORD.  NO LORD NO LORD NO NOOOOOO”

I’m crying again now ’cause I’m scared.  I don’t know what’s happening to my granddaddy.

I dial the number and a lady answers.  “This is Sarah Nelson and my granddaddy says to send the High Sheriff out here now.  His dog got snake bit and my sister hurt her hand and something’s wrong with my granddaddy ‘cause he’s crying and talking to Jesus can you please help us oh please send him now…”

The lady says “Hang on Miss Nelson.  Slow down now and stop crying so I can understand you.”

“Ms. Nelson.”

“Ms. Nelson.”

“Ms. Nelson!”

“What?  Huh? What is it?”

“Class is over Ms. Nelson.”

It’s Brenda Sharp.  She’s the quiet, intelligent girl that sits on the front row of my fifth period American Lit class.  One of my best students.

“Class is over, Ms. Nelson.  Everybody left.  You fell asleep while we were working on our essays.”

Oh God.

My sister.  My only sister.

**A continuation of a story that includes “Night Things,” “Junk Farm,” “That Lucky Old Sun,” “Someone’s Daddy,” and “On Such a Winter’s Day (Part I).”

On Such A Winter’s Day*

It is Wednesday morning, and I’m sitting on the couch in granddaddy’s parlor.  It’s about my favorite room in the whole-wide world.  There’s this couch and two chairs, one for just sitting and one for rocking, and a big old radio on the table by the window.  Granddaddy’s t.v. is in the corner, but it don’t work no more since the lightning run in on it in a thunderstorm last Spring.  There’s a picture of him and my granny the day they got married.

 Granny died nine years ago, a year before I was born, so I never really knew her, but granddaddy said I would have liked her a lot.  He says I look  like her when she was young.  Sometimes he gets out his old picture books and we see the way she looked way back then.  He’s even got a few old brownish-colored pictures of her when she was just a girl.  Granny holding a kitty cat.  Granny sitting on somebody’s porch steps.  Granny dressed up for Easter Sunday with a pretty dress and a bonnet on.  I guess I do look a little like her.  Her name was Sarah Elizabeth.  That’s my name too, because my momma and daddy named me after her.

 The parlor’s my favorite room because it’s cool and quiet and the big couch is a good place to read. There isn’t much sound in here but the tick-tick-tick of granddaddy’s old clock that sits on the mantle above the fireplace.  He has to wind it up with a little key every night before he goes to bed.  I asked him why he don’t get a regular clock like we have at home – one that just plugs into the wall – but he just smiles.  He says that clock is older than he is.  That’s pretty old.  It goes “bong, bong, bong” and keeps bonging until it counts out the time every hour.  It just bongs once when it’s thirty minutes past.  Sometimes it wakes me up in the night.  I wake up and everything’s quiet except for the tick-tick-tick of that clock and granddaddy in his room snoring. 

 I like to read just about more than anything else I can think of.  Nancy Drew books are my favorite, because she always has such great adventures.  I like stories about animals, too.  But today I’m reading a book called Tom Sawyer.  My daddy is making me read it this week because he liked reading it when he was a boy and because he said I’ll have to read it for school sometime soon anyway.  I’ve read two chapters this morning, but I’d rather be reading Nancy.  I don’t know why daddy is making me read a school book.  We’re off all week for Spring Vacation.  That’s why we’re staying at Granddaddy’s house.  My momma and daddy fussed about it.  My momma says a farm ain’t a safe place for two little girls, but my daddy just laughed at her.  He said it never hurt him none growing up here, and that we needed to spend some time with granddaddy while we still could.  I don’t know what that means, but here we are.

 My little sister Jan is out on the front porch swing.  Granddaddy’s old dog Sam is out there too, sleeping in a sunny spot.  Jan’s singing like a fool, Three Blind Mice – over and over again.  I’ve told her to hush three times, but she just sings louder every time I do.  She’s only six, and she doesn’t like school and reading and stuff like that.  My daddy says she’s a “tom boy.”  I think that’s because she likes to do the kind of things boys like to do.  She likes to play ball and she can climb a tree like a monkey.  She rides her spider-bike all over the sidewalks on Hickory Street where we live in Marbleton.  Every time we stay with granddaddy she always bugs me – she wants me  to play all the time.  It’s hard for me to get any reading done with her around.

 Granddaddy’s down in the field by the creek, plowing his corn patch so it will be ready to plant on Good Friday.  I can’t see him from the house, but I can hear the tractor running.  He told me he’d be there until lunch time, and that me and Jan should stay around the house.  Told me to keep Jan out of the barn, because he knows she likes to play in there.  Silas the mule is penned-up in the stall because he stepped on a rock and cut his foot.  I’m  scared of Silas anyway, ‘cause he’s mean even when he feels good.  Jan’s not.  She’ll climb right up on his back.  I think that’s why granddaddy don’t want us playing in there.  Silas kicked granddaddy one time and near about broke his leg.

 The singing stops, so I know what’s coming.

 “Can we play now?” she whines.

 “Play what?”

 “Hide-n-seek.”

“I guess.”

 I don’t know why she wants to play that again.  I always win.  She hides in the same dumb places.  After you’ve played a few times in the same area, you run out of good places to hide.

 “Granddaddy said to stay out of the barn.”

 “Aw, that’s not fair.  That’s where I was gonna hide.”

 “Well, you’ll just have to hide somewhere else.  He’ll be back at lunch, and maybe he’ll let us play in there this afternoon while he’s here.”

 “O.K.” 

I can tell she’s not happy.

 “You count, and I’ll go first.  No cheating, now.  Count right.”

 “Go!” I say as I cover my eyes.  “One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi.”

 I count to Ten-Mississippi.  “Ready or not, here I come!”

 I start in the orchard.  It’s one of her favorite spots.  She thinks I don’t know that she’s good at climbing trees.  The apple tree is her favorite.  I figure that this round’s about to be over quick, but she’s not there.

 I head to the barn.  Sometimes she don’t mind very good — even momma when she tells her to clean up her room.  I stop at the big double doors.

 “Jan, you better not be in there.  I’ll tell momma Saturday when they come pick us up.  She’ll whup you for sure.”

 Nothing.

 It’s then that I hear a commotion.  Sam is barking in a funny way down by the pond.  I run around behind the barn where I can see him.  He’s down by the edge of the water, barking and jumping.  He looks like he’s trying to bite something.  He barks and lunges, then jumps back.

 I head that way, walking first, then running when I hear him yelp and see him shake his head.

 I fall down twice crossing the pasture to the pond.  I skinned my knee, but I’m not going to cry over that.  Sam is still barking, but his bark sound higher now.  What’s he got?

 It’s a big black snake up in a bush.  He’s all coiled-up with his head up and his mouth open.  Sam is still barking, but he’s not snapping and lunging now.

“Sam!” I yell.  “Leave that snake alone.”

 But he never even looks at me.  He begins to growl, and it sounds like it’s coming from way down deep in his belly.

 Daddy told me never to bother a snake, because some of them are poisonous.  I’ve read about the poisonous ones that live in Alabama in a book I got for Christmas last year.  I know that water moccasins are black like this snake.  Their bites are  poison and they can make you real sick.  Sometimes they can even kill you.

 I’m starting to get scared.  I’m afraid Sam’s bit.  I can still hear the tractor running, but I can’t leave him to go get granddaddy.  He won’t back down, and I’m afraid he’ll just get bit again.

 I start looking for a rock or a stick or something.  I can’t find anything.  Then I see a pile of rocks in the corner by the pond dam.  Grandaddy stacked them there to get them out of the pasture where he wouldn’t run over them with the tractor.

 Sam is still growling, but it’s starting to sound more like a whine than a growl.  The snake’s not moving, but he’s still all coiled up.

 I run around the pond to the rock pile.  They’re all too big to throw.  I get one that’s about the size of a softball.  It’s gray and heavy.  I have to stop and catch my breath two times before I make it back.

Sam and the snake are still in the same spot.  Sam’s not growling now.  He’s kind of crouched down on his belly.  He never takes his eyes off the snake.  I come up as close as I think I ought and lift the rock up over my head and throw it as hard as I can.

I miss the snake, but hit the alder bush right below him.  It knocks him loose, and he plops down in the water.

 Sam stands up to follow, but I grab him by the collar.

He has a bite mark on his face.  The whole side of his head is starting to swell up.  

 “Come on Sam.”  I start to run again.  I got to go get granddaddy.

*To follow the story, start at “Night Things.”

The Skinny on Obesity

There’s a new Center for Disease Control (CDC)  study on obesity rates in the U.S.  It appears that they’ve shifted their focus away from preparing for a zombie apocalypse to spending our tax dollars on a research project that yielded results we already know:  the country is getting fatter.  According to the CDC, 35% of our citizens now qualify as obese.

The study has some serious flaws.  Let me preach on it.

First, it seriously underestimates the true obesity percentage in America.  I know this because they collected the data by a telephone survey.

I imagine the survey went something like this:

“Hi, I’m with the CDC in Atlanta.  May I ask you a few questions?”

“Well sure, but let me say that I am ready for the Zombie Apocalypse.  I bought some bottled water and flashlight batteries like you said.”

“Uh, no sir.  We’ve moved on from that one.  What we need to know now is, uh, are you fat?”

“Pardon?”

“Are you, you know, fat?”

Long pause.  “Well, no.  I suppose I could stand to lose about ten pounds, but I really don’t think I’m that fat.  At least not compared to this guy who lives across the street from me.  Now he’s fat.  You should see him when he gets out and cuts grass without his shirt on.  Disgusting.”

Maybe they should have asked some follow-up questions.   Like “have you eaten a McDonald’s Bacon Sundae more than twice in the last week?” or “when was the last time you saw your feet?”

What I did find interesting was the ranking of obesity by state.  Six of the top ten states with largest percentage of people who are considered obese are in the South (the study says eight, but I don’t recognize Oklahoma and West Virginia as “Southern” states).

It kind of reminded me of the final rankings in college football every year.

The fattest state is Mississippi (34.9%).  The thinnest is Colorado (20.2%).

Now the CDC will draw all sorts of conclusions from these results.  They’ll look to factors such as racial composition, poverty rates, educational levels, recreational opportunities, etc.

I’ve visited both states.  Let me give you the bottom line.

Mississippi has better food.

Next time you visit Mississippi stop at a little diner in any small town.  You’ll find all manner of culinary delights:  fried chicken, pork chops, roast beef, catfish, and about 20 different kinds of vegetable dishes.  Hot biscuits or corn bread to sop with.  Big ‘ol tomato slices as a “relish.”  And the deserts?  They’re worth skipping the meal all together.  You ever had any homemade peach cobbler or banana pudding?

I stopped in a little country store in Mississippi once.  They had home made fried apple pies.  They were on a plate covered with wax paper next to the register.  And they were three for a dollar.  My, my.

I went to Colorado once.  Now it’s a beautiful state, I’ll agree, but what’s a fellow supposed to eat there?

I drove from one end of that place to the other.  I saw a lot of pretty mountains, but nothing to eat.  Nothing being prepared to be eaten.  No chicken houses.  No hog pens.  Not even a beeve with muscular legs.

We got off the plane in Denver and took a cab to Coors Field to watch the Rockies play.  It was lunch time, so we stopped at a little restaurant down the street before the game.

I asked for “sweet tea.”

By the look on the lady’s face, you’d have thought I ordered a glass of rat poison.

“Sir,” she smirked, “I’ll bring you some tea, but the sweeteners are on the table.”

Well pardon me, darling, but didn’t you take chemistry in high school?  Remember the part about solutions?  Sugar doesn’t dissolve in cold liquids.  I can put some sugar in this cold tea, but all it’s going to amount to is some unsweet tea with about a half-inch of sugar at the bottom of the glass.  Both me and your dishwasher are going to be unhappy with that situation.

A man could starve out there.  And don’t even get me started on the month I spent in Wisconsin one week.  Cheese and cranberries everywhere — not a biscuit in the whole state.

By the way, you can live in the South and eat all this good food and not get fat.  You just need to exercise.  Look at me, for example.

Well, uh, I might could stand to lose about ten pounds.

Home Territory

I live in Opelika, Alabama.  It’s a sister-city to Auburn, home of Auburn University.  There are about 60,000 people here normally, and about 160,000 on some Saturdays in the fall.  It’s a decent place to live if you have to live in a town.  The Redhead and I raised two boys who turned out to be fine young men here, and it’s a hometown to them.

It’s changed a little over the years — check it out here:  OLD DAYS.

The cars probably aren’t as good as they were in those old days, but the coeds are just as pretty.  Chewacla is still a popular hang-out.  My oldest and his fiance’ had their first date there.

By the way, I understand there’s some confusion on my last few posts.  It’s a little story.  You have to read it in order to follow along.  Try it like this:

Night Things, Junk Farm, That Lucky Old Sun, and Somebody’s Daddy.

Short fiction “on the fly.”  We’ll both know where it’s going when we get there.

Someone’s Daddy

The old farm house has seen its better days.  Like the overgrown pastures now choked with blackberry, sumac and sweetgum, it too is a habitation for life that goes unnoticed.  Field mice nest in shredded yellowed newsprint, their secret habitations constructed with forgotten local history now lost forever between board and batten.  Bull bats hang from heart-pine rafters under the dried blood-colored rust of the tin roof – left to their comings and goings at dusk and dawn through a rotted hole in the high gable near the roof’s peak.  A chicken snake outstretched in the musty dampness under the raised back porch, the ground smoothly-packed red clay last touched by boots some one hundred years ago.  Her movements are marked only by the fine powdered wood dust that filters down through the heavy air from termites in the joists above.

He is awakened by a slamming on the screen door.  The sun is setting, and his dog paws the door to remind him that it’s time to be fed.

Ed is only sixty, five years on disability since a fall at the plant. He and the house are mirrors of atrophy, dual reflections foreordained by thirty years of abject neglect.

He sleeps mostly during the daylight hours, short intervals of not-quite unconsciousness interrupted by electric currents of pain in his shattered hip.  He shuffles between chair and couch, moving only when required.

The dog is his only responsibility now.  A home-nurse comes by to check on him once each week.

He tries to stay awake at night.  Night is when the dreams come, apparitions of times now long past that still seem as current as today’s mail.  He doesn’t wonder why they only occur when he falls asleep at night.  It is intuitive.  Spirits walk the hills and hollows, moon-streaked and shimmering through the heavy tree canopy, floating on the cool downdrafts that settle into the valley from Flagg Mountain.  His daddy had told him about revenants when he was just a boy, and he has grown to understand them in the last thirty years of solitude.

But for the dog, he is alone.

Left in solitude by an inconsolable and unforgiving wife, wild in sorrow, she resolutely holding onto blame with two clinched fists to cope with a tragedy not even a theologian can explain.  His first-born, red-eyed and sedated, not even looking at him as the car pulled away.  He left standing in the front yard, already realizing in that singular defining moment that all was lost in a single afternoon — wife, daughters and elderly father.

A single sentence had escaped in despair, one once uttered that could never be retracted:  “I told you to look out for her.”

That Lucky Old Sun*

On day 65, Sarah Wilson accepted the basic premise that she would wake every night at exactly 3:13 a.m..  She stopped looking at the alarm clock.  Stopped taking the sleeping pills.  Stopped drinking a glass of warm milk before bed.  Stopped all the long walks when she got home and the warms baths and the reading and all the other remedies that had been suggested by her well-meaning friends.

She simply stopped it all — and got up.

There are only so many things a thirty-eight year old single woman can do in Eupora, Mississippi between 3:13 and 7:00 a.m.  Sarah figured she’d covered about 90% of the possibilities.  She wasn’t desperate enough yet to try to figure out what the other 10% were.

Television had gotten boring after a few nights.  Infomercials, television evangelist, and dated sitcoms ruled the cable offerings in Eupora.  The local radio stations were a bore after a few days because they didn’t bother to change their playlists, although she did sometimes listen to the farm report at 5:00 a.m.  It reminded her of her late grandfather and the old farm back in Alabama, and the times she had spent visiting him during breaks from school.

Eventually she adjusted her schedule to fit the early mornings.  She prepared her lesson plans and graded essays written by her ninth grade English class.

Every morning she sat on her patio and drank a cup of coffee, watching the sun amble over from west Alabama.  Sometimes in those moments, when the woods behind her house began to come alive with birds and squirrels, she felt uneasy.  It was not a feeling that she could have put into words — more of a physical sensation than an emotion.  It was a slight chill on the back of her neck, soft as a whisper.

Her biggest problem at the moment was the tiredness she experienced each day.  By noon, she felt as if she was sleep-walking.  She was afraid that her students were beginning to notice.  Two of her coworkers had asked if she was o.k.

Summer break was two months away.  If she could make it until then, she’d go over to Jackson to a doctor that specialized in sleeping disorders.

It could be worse, she told herself.  It could always be worse.

*A continuation of “Night Moves” and “Junk Farm.”

Junk Farm

For “Part I” of the story, read “Night Things” here.

Ed Wilson sat on the steps of the listing back porch and watched the sun inch silently below the timberline on the crest of Flagg Mountain.

In the twilight, the overgrown pasture leading down to the pond looked even more forlorn and neglected than during the full light of day.  Thrashers and jays darted and dipped into their nests in the head-high wall of brush, a furious and frantic blur of wings among the foliage.

The old orchard stood off to the left of the house, a living monument now in tenuous defiance of thirty years of neglect.  His daddy had always called it  “the orchard,” even though in reality it consisted of only twenty trees:  Granny Smith apples, peaches, sand pears, crabapples, and two fig bushes.  In its day, it was the one ordered and tended feature of an otherwise cluttered and worn-out farm.  The old man took great pride in his little grove, and Ed thought he would be disappointed to see its present condition.  But it mattered little now.  His daddy had been dead for twenty-five years, and five years in the nursing home up in Marbleton before that.  Five long years of sunrises and sunsets lying in that dark, musty room, a place that alternately reeked of Lysol or stale urine.  In those solemn years after the stroke he had never mentioned the farm — had never uttered a word of any kind, in fact.  Eyes always open in fixed contemplation of the yellowed ceiling tiles.  His face expressionless and devoid of any recognizable emotion.

Ed figured that a ruined orchard mattered little in the grand scheme of things.  Let the birds and the deer have it.

The truth was that this place had never really been much of a farm to begin with.  Just a small wood-frame house, weathered barn, and stock pond.  Nothing more than a little pasture interspersed with woods.  Although it was good land for the Coosa Valley, his daddy had never had much luck farming.  He’d spent most of his working life pulpwooding to make ends meet.

To the odd stranger passing through on Miller Road back in those days it must have appeared that the John Wilson’s little farm grew junk.

Ed’s daddy had been a boy during the Depression, and like so many others in his generation he never threw anything away.  The area around the house and barn was cluttered with old tires, worn-out vehicles up on blocks, farm implements rusting away in the Alabama heat and humidity.  Old appliances, unrepairable — a washing machine with a scrub board stood beside a 1923 Kelvinator refrigerator that his daddy always called an “icebox.”  Old road signs commingled with rusting wheel-less bicycles.  Push mowers with slung rods lay askew beside iron bed frames and rocking chairs with missing rungs.  A riotous assortment of cast-offs and refuse, most of which his daddy had retrieved a piece at a time from along the county roads and in clandestine roadside dumps.

It did no good to raise the issue back in the day.  “You never know when you might need a part off something” was the standard reply.

Ed had come back to the home place about a year after the stroke.  The truth was he didn’t have anyplace else to go.

He had done very little to maintain the farm in his tenure.  He made a half-hearted effort for the first few years, not out of any sense of duty or family pride, but more or less just to stay occupied.  His few neighbors speculated that Ed just didn’t have the time to keep the place up, since everyone knew he did shift-work at the plant in Marbeleton.  But the truth was that he simply cared less with each passing year.

He had done one thing, though.  Within his first week there he’d hired a fellow from town with a big track excavator.  All the years of accumulated junk went into the dug pit, revenants of years past condemned to an anonymous mass grave.

Thirty years later, you’d never know it had been there.