ouis…Louis…wake up, Louis. Can you hear me? LOUIS!”
“Jesus Marie! Raz, is that you? Who, wha… Emma! What are you doing here?
And how did you…?”
“I‟m sorry to startle you, Louis, but I want to take your temperature again
before I leave.”
“Yes, Louis. I was worried about you yesterday. The way you were going on so, I
thought you might have a fever.”
Did she say temperature? Where and with what? Not only that, I hear noises downstairs,
the sound of trash bags being filled.
“Raz thought it was a good idea, so we checked in on you last night,” Emma tells me
matter-of-factly as she opens the blinds in my bedroom. “He‟s the one who picked you up off the
floor and carried you up here.”
“Who do I hear downstairs? Is that Raz?”
“No, Raz couldn‟t stay; he has that big memorial service to get ready for today. Mamie
McGregor and her sister Lucy came over before church to give me a hand cleaning up your
place. Really Louis, you shouldn‟t let things build up for so long. It‟s unsanitary.”
Rolling into the upright position with the loose sheet wrapped around me, I suddenly
realize I‟m naked, and by no choice of my own.
“My God, Emma! You undressed me?”
“Oh, Louis, you act as though I haven‟t seen a naked man before,” Emma says, blushing
a bit as she fluffs up my pillows. “Now I‟ll go down and have a word with the McGregor sisters
while you get showered and dressed. Come down and I‟ll fix you some breakfast.”
Emma doesn‟t stay in the room long enough to hear my response. I know I should be
grateful for such an intimate moment, but once again I feel like the patient, the sick half of this
so-called relationship. I am, of course; but being rescued after an all-night bender seems to be the
only way I‟m able to get Florence Nightingale‟s undivided attention. As the town‟s most
respected widow and a pillar of the local Presbyterian Church, Emma has an image to uphold.
She can‟t be seen cavorting with unsavory characters or tipping a few with the boys down at
Gundersen‟s, although I have invited her to do so many times. So I‟m stuck with playing the role
of the emotional cripple. It‟s unhealthy, I know; but I need her and she needs me to be needy.
I shower and change into something less revealing, although neither disguises the fact
that I‟m still feeling the effects of last night‟s emotionally draining experience. In fact, I feel
light-headed as I descend the modest staircase. Be that as it may though, my mood takes a
heartening turn when I realize it‟s Sunday morning. Coming up the hall on my way to the
kitchen, I hear Emma humming a familiar tune, Be Thou My Vision, which was my mother‟s
favorite hymn; and because of the association with family, it brings back fond memories of my
boyhood home in Charleston. The complementary smell of breakfast cooking and the sight of all
that lemon-fresh sunlight filtering through the white English curtains likewise remind me of
those sweet Sunday mornings on Granville Street. As a kid, I looked forward to the religious
holidays, not because I liked going to the Episcopalian church, but because my mother always
fixed a sumptuous breakfast that included something she called hot cross buns. A sweet spiced
pastry made with currants, finished off with an egg white glaze and topped with a simple cross
made of frosting, this tasty treat was the Holy Grail of desserts. Needless to say, over the years I
have come to associate sticky buns with all things sacred.
“Mail… in the silverware drawer?” Emma queries as I enter the kitchen.
“That‟s the C drawer, Emma. C for correspondence. If you‟re looking for a spatula, it‟s
filed under S,” I say, pointing to the drawer at the far end of the counter.
“My gracious, Louis, you‟re so… organized.”
I can tell Emma is trying not to provoke her patient by challenging his (my) delusion. I
should protest, but all of my professional training can‟t hide the sad fact that I‟m a broken man
with serious defects. Besides, it‟s useless to argue with perfection.
“Okay, so I‟m not a wiz when it comes to filing things,” I whine as I seat myself at the
round oak kitchen table.
“No, I‟m impressed, Louis,” Emma says, using the spatula to fan herself as she stands
over the hot stove.
Emma is wearing a poplin peasant‟s dress and a floral Land‟s End cooking apron, which
accentuates her sleek, Edwardian profile. From the small of her back to the crease where her
derrière meets the upper plane of her thigh, there‟s a ripeness and a definition that makes
Hogarth‟s celebrated line of beauty look like a drunken sailor‟s pathetic scrawl. I can barely keep
my hands from groping my dear friend as she places a small stack of pancakes down in front of
me, but I‟m distracted by three fresh slices of beefsteak tomato on my plate. No sweet buns this
time, but my hunger is appeased.
“This looks and smells delicious, Emma; these tomatoes are incredibly fresh, are they
from your garden?”
“Not from mine,” Emma says, savoring her own serving of the luscious fruit. “I found a
basket of tomatoes sitting on your front porch this morning; the note attached said they came
from the Full Moon Organic Farm. Is that the place over near the bird sanctuary?”
“Yeah, that‟s Ken Clarkson‟s place. Nice fella. He and I talked yesterday over at the
“Ken Clarkson was the young man sitting with you at the picnic table?”
“Yeah, but I must warn you; you‟re eating Communist tomatoes.”
“Mr. Clarkson is a Socialist, Louis? There is a difference, you know.”
“So I‟ve been told.”
Politics aside, having Emma Taylor seated at my breakfast table is a treat of far greater
value than the tomatoes, and I want to relish the moment. Out of the public eye, this morning we
can both be ourselves and talk about our feelings.
“What did you think of the chicken yesterday,” Emma asks, employing the art of polite
conversation, the kind of thing they teach to all the Kentucky Blue belles back in Louisville. It
drives me crazy, wasting time on all this tortured talk about birds and the weather, but I must try
to be patient.
“It was okay; although I didn‟t feel so hot by the time I got home.”
To emphasize the point, I rub my stomach and hold my nose, lest there be any question as
to the severity of my symptoms.
“Oh dear! Do you think it may have been food poisoning?”
“I‟ve never been poisoned before, Emma, so I wouldn‟t know.”
Emma gets up and rinses her plate. I really shouldn‟t toy with her this way, since I know
how seriously she takes the concept of sainthood.
“I really must be going, Louis.” Emma says distractedly, putting her plate in the drain
rack next to the sink. “I‟m supposed to help out at church today.”
She‟s not exactly dressed for church, at least not by Presbyterian standards; but that‟s
beside the point.
“Do you think Jesus will dock you for working on the Sabbath, Emma? You know, for
coming over here and cleaning up my mess?” I ask snidely. But I can‟t stop myself. The old
booze is coursing through my veins and my mood is quickly souring.
“Not if it‟s the Lord‟s work, Louis,” Emma responds, still atoning for my alleged case of
“The sick and the poor, and all that crap, eh?”
I‟m feeling intensely confrontational as I get out of my chair to see Emma to the door; so
much so, that I can‟t seem to keep my mouth shut.
“Gotta make sure you score big points with God, eh?”
“Louis?” It‟s not…”
“So that‟s what I am, a goddamn charity case! Is that what I am, Emma?”
Not the tact I had in mind; but there it is, out in the open. Emma covers her face with her
hands as I try to think of a follow-up, something a bit less crass and uncalled for. Of course, it
doesn‟t help the situation when I trip over a chair and let loose with a string of expletives that
even I find abhorrent. What‟s gotten into me?
“I‟m leaving before we both say something we‟ll regret,” Emma says calmly, foregoing
the customary washing of hands. She‟s not a stomper, so as Emma heads for the front door the
pictures in the hallway don‟t rattle the way they do when Raz is around. Still, as my female
friend reaches the foyer, I feel a cold breeze wafting my way.
“Emma, wait! I‟m sorry!” I follow Ms. Taylor at a respectful distance and stop when she
stops at the threshold. “I didn‟t mean to sound so ungrateful, it‟s just that…”
“It‟s okay, Louis. I understand.”
Stepping out onto the stunted front porch, Emma looks out at the fallow field on the other
side of the highway. She has regained her composure, but I can tell she has no intention of giving
in to my childishness. Having passed over the threshold, the last thing Emma wants is to create a
scene, even if we are a mile from town.
“You don‟t need anyone to care for you, Louis; nor do I, for that matter,” Emma
whispers, returning a carefully folded Kleenex to the side pocket of her purse. “I can get along
perfectly well on my own and have ever since Hank died.”
I, on the other hand, need a team of specialists around the clock to pick up the fucking
fragments of my totally abstracted life.
“Emma, please. I didn‟t really mean what I said.”
My first instinct is to grab for my wallet and offer her money for cleaning my house, but I
realize the gesture will only be misinterpreted.
“I‟m still feeling a little hung over, and sometimes I say things that come out the wrong
way. Please don‟t take any of this to heart. Tell you what; I‟ll stop by later and we can talk.”
“Do as you please, Louis. No one‟s holding a gun to your head,” Emma responds tersely.
The image of firearms and all the other things that have been held to my head over years
is not a good one, but I let it pass.
“I‟ll call you this afternoon,” I say, touching Emma‟s cold shoulder. Even though she
won‟t look at me, I try to be civil; careful not to over-step the strict bounds of our working
Without so much as a wave goodbye, Emma hurries down the narrow flagstone walk
toward the driveway, where her coach – a forest green Land Rover – is waiting. Insurance money
has made Emma Taylor more of an independent sort. She no longer displays the frayed hems and
calloused hands of a farmer‟s wife, but a softer, more elegant demeanor befitting an heiress.
I stand in the front yard and watch Emma back out of the drive, but she ignores me. It‟s
just as well, since I‟ve just discovered that my fly has been hanging open the whole time.
Retreating inside to the safety of my cold, empty fortress, I‟m seized with panic. Did I
just offend the only woman friend I have in this town? Attacking Emma‟s religion is certainly no
way to get to heaven, especially if she decides to tell me to go to hell, which could easily happen
in my case. I admit I have boundary issues, but I feel like a wild beast confined to a cage
whenever I‟m around her. I want to lunge and lick, but I can‟t; I have to maintain my distance
and act like a gentleman, which is not my strong suit.
As frustrating as our relationship is, I must admit that Emma and the McGregor sisters
have performed a miracle: they have transformed my living space into one fit for human
habitation. Walking around in a state of wonderment, I notice that even the pictures on the walls
have been dusted, something the most meticulous of professionals would have missed. With the
grit of neglect so thoroughly removed, I examine the old black and white photographs for what
feels like the first time. Like Luke Dickerson‟s extensive library of leather-bound first editions,
these portraits have been an integral part of the family legacy since before the Civil War. One of
the first images to catch my eye is a photograph of this house, the old Dickerson homeplace.
Scribbled in pencil on the black matting is the date 1905. Scanning the image with eager eyes,
I‟m amazed to see how much grander the house looked back then. The original front porch (built
in 1894, way before the highway was widened) was not the meager add-on it is today, but a
stately double-tiered portico with turned balustrade. Dressed in full-length cotton dresses and
starched white tops, the women look away while the bearded menfolk, looking less dapper in
their dark dusty overcoats, stare sternly at the camera. In stark contrast, the children are casually
dressed. The boys in knickers and the girls in yoked pinafores, they laugh and play, oblivious to
the import of the moment. I acknowledge their familiar happy smiles because I was kid and just
as carefree when my family started coming here in the 1950s. The house seemed huge to me
back then, like a castle, and there were plenty of cool places to explore during the hot and humid
summer months. Spooks or no spooks, I was more than willing to run to the cellar to retrieve a
Mason jar of strawberry jam or green beans whenever my aunt needed it, mainly because it was
the coolest and creepiest place in the whole house.
Pulling myself away from the Dickerson family portrait, I scan the rest of the collection.
How vivid and colorful are the faces of my ancestors, in spite of their black and white world.
Two young sisters lean on a white picket fence and smile for the camera, for future beaus who
someday may come a‟courting. Their playful poses make me think of my own daughter. Is Alex
happy where she is? Has she kept any of the old photographs I‟ve sent her over the years,
particularly the ones I took in 1983 as we embarked on our memorable trip through the
mountains? Of course, given the fact that her mother was a complete bitch about the whole thing
and sought to deny my existence whenever possible, chances are Alex never received anything I
My daughter‟s loss is my gain, but what cause do I have to celebrate? Isn‟t a legacy
supposed to be shared and passed on to subsequent generations? Aren‟t these photographs proof
of that? Reaching the last picture, I can bear no more. Is this the end of the line? Will I be the last
Dickerson family member to see these treasures intact before they‟re sold at the local flea market
and scattered forever? It‟s a sobering thought and one that requires a greater degree of
concentration than I‟m able to muster at the moment. My most recent spat with Emma Taylor
notwithstanding, I‟m delighted to see the basket that Ken Clarkson delivered his fabulous
tomatoes in this morning. It‟s still sitting on the pier table in the hall with Ken‟s friendly note
Stop by the farm sometime. Sundays are best since
we don‟t do much, religious or otherwise. See you soon. KC
My Sunday ritual isn‟t exactly written in stone. Generally, I like to sit out back in my
underwear and listen to the church bells; but Ken Clarkson‟s gracious invitation to visit the Full
Moon Organic Farm is just too good to pass up. Besides, the beautiful late-September weather
begs a drive in the country. Grabbing the white oak basket off the hall table, I step out into the
daylight and begin my journey into the hinterlands. Within minutes, I cross the old suspension
bridge and pass Gundersen‟s Bar & Grill, which is deserted like the rest of the town of Tomason.
Then I make a hard right and follow the Little Kanawha River east toward Glenville on SR 5.
With my window down, I cruise along under the natural arbor of sycamore and allow the Fall-
like air to ripple up the short sleeve of my red guayabera. Once past the Baptist Church grounds,
the road becomes as straight as an airport runway and I give the old Ford a little gas. There‟s
something strong and enduring about the open road, a sense of freedom that no drug can match.
Window down, driving fast and breaking free of the bubble that most people prefer to fill with
factory air, I‟m one with the trees and sky, a native.
When I finally reach the turn-off for Hawks Ridge Road, the sun has warmed the asphalt
sufficiently and the scenic route up and over Short Mountain is lined with Volvos and hawk
watchers with their binoculars pressed to their eyeballs. The mid-day convection current is
beginning to attract the red tails and from my car I can see a few of these stately birds gliding
along at eye level. The sky above is a Febreze-bottle blue and I detect a slight change in the color
of the leaves at this altitude. Fall is coming. But the scene changes quickly as I crest the peak of
the mountain. Turning left at the large wooden sign for the Full Moon Organic Farm, I grip the
steering wheel, holding on for dear life as I descend down a steep eight-percent incline on a road
that was hastily cut into the side of the mountain. At some point in the 1980s, a number of
building sites at this elevation were surveyed by a developer who had hoped to capitalize of the
magnificent view of the Alleghenies. However, when it became apparent that finding water at
this altitude wasn‟t going to be easy, the plan was scraped. That‟s when the state of West
Virginia stepped in and declared the area a wildlife sanctuary; and one can see why.
The further I go, the more rugged the road leading to Ken Clarkson‟s farm becomes. A
few sizeable rocks protrude from the hardpan, and given the narrowness of the rutted road, it‟s
almost impossible to veer left or right to avoid ripping the guts out of my old car‟s rusty
undercarriage. Jesus! I don‟t recall Ken‟s friendly note mentioning anything about visiting the
farm at my own risk! Still, I drive on hoping for improved conditions.
Fortunately, within a quarter mile I reach the farm, an ancient place no doubt carved out
of the mountain by the Appalachian pioneers of long ago. Indeed, situated in the broad swale that
was naturally created during the retreat of glacial ice over thousands of years, there are numerous
out buildings and holding paddocks. An old jack mule, confined to one of the larger pens, cranes
his neck and feeds on the honeysuckle that drips from the rusted guttering of one of the wood
structures. Like everything else in West Virginia, buildings, plants, and animals coexist on land
where only the hardy survive.
Even so, as I get closer to the house, I immediately see that a greater degree of order and
symmetry has been imposed upon the land. Arranged much like the Incan steppes at Machu
Picchu, a series of cultivated terraces, edged in freshly-quarried limestone, draw the eye down
the side of the mountain. Protected by a palisade of deer fencing and open-mesh thermal netting,
the place looks more like an arboretum than a family garden plot.
Finally, I pass through a stone archway and rattle to a stop out in front of the old
farmhouse, where Ken Clarkson is standing on the porch steps, waiting to head off the intruder,
which he no doubt perceives me to be.
“Hey, Ken,” I holler out my passenger side window at the winsome looking, bare-chested
young socialist in the designer denim bell-bottoms.
“Doctor Dickerson! Man, I can‟t believe it!”
“Believe it? I told you I was going to pay you a visit.”
“Yeah, but I can‟t believe you made it all the way down here in your boat. What in the
hell is this thing anyway?”
“A 1974 Ford LTD.”
“Jesus, Doc! Did you hit anything coming in? How‟s your oil pan?”
“So I noticed. Your business card should include a goddamn disclaimer.”
“Sorry,” Ken says rubbing his left hand through his sandy brown locks. “My friends say I
should at least paint the bigger rocks a florescent yellow so they‟ll show up better. The way I see
it though, the rocks are a natural deterrent.”
“I thought the whole idea of being in business was to attract customers, not drive them
“We don‟t do retail, Doc; we take all of our produce to Charleston,” Ken says as he
shakes my hand. “We‟re strictly wholesale.”
Ken leads the way up the front porch steps, but before we can enter the house, the farm‟s
proprietor is required to take a business call on his cell phone. Ken excuses himself and makes a
beeline for the east end of the porch, which no doubt offers the best reception, while I relax on a
rocking chair and take in the view. The old farm house faces northwest, but its Arctic exposure is
mitigated by a windbreak consisting of several rows of Douglas fir trees that have been planted
on the ridgeline above the driveway. Judging from the numerous piles of dung on the hillside
between the ridge and the house, the field was used for pasture during the summer months; but
now the intense green of the nutrient-rich grasses and a variety of late flowering plants are back
to reclaim their turf.
“Sorry, Doc; that was a restaurant client of mine in Charleston,” Ken says apologetically
as he walks toward me and closes his flip phone. “One of my accounts wanted to add something
to his order.”
“So, I take it you work seven days a week?”
“Basically. The restaurant people are always calling me with last minute stuff because
they know I hit the road early on Monday,” Ken says calmly. “You know what they say, Doc; a
man‟s gotta make hay while the sun shines. Anyway, come January I‟ll be wishing I was busy
again. It‟s pretty much feast-or-famine around here.”
Ken holds the screen door for me as we enter house. To my surprise, the place is
immaculate and the walls look as though they‟ve been recently plastered. Much like the layout of
my house, there‟s a simple staircase on the left and a central hall that runs straight through to
what I assume is the kitchen. The hall is likewise flanked by two large rooms: a living room on
the right and parlor on the left. But while I share my space with no one, I see that Ken has
company. Glancing into the living room, I notice a group of young women, all working on
projects of one kind or other. There‟s a fully warped four-harness loom set up over in the far
corner and a quilting frame where the sofa ought to be.
“Are they relatives, employees?” I ask, implying nothing personal.
“No, it‟s kinda like a co-op, Doc. It‟s all pretty informal, but the girls are real good at
crafting stuff, which makes money for them and for the farm.”
Ken introduces me and the women shower me with nods and serious smiles. I am
sufficiently greeted but not granted access to their circle.
“Yeah, we do a lot more than just food here, Doc” explains Ken, lifting up the end of a
wool scarf that one of his girls is knitting. “We make all kinds of wearable clothing, which sells
really well during the winter months.”
As Ken and I continue down the hall though, I can‟t help but get a little personal.
“I see a houseful of beautiful women, but which one is your girlfriend. There‟s got to be
a Ms. Ken?”
Ken Clarkson doesn‟t respond to my friendly poke. In fact, he doesn‟t even crack a smile.
I attribute his stoic expression to his Socialist lifestyle, but even that doesn‟t seem to fit my
young friend‟s idyllic circumstances.
“I‟m sorry, Ken. I know that must have sounded dumb, but…”
“It‟s okay, Doc; I get that a lot. Let‟s face it, I‟m thirty-four years old and unmarried,”
Kens says, finally opening up. “I was in a serious relationship up until about a year ago, one of
those long-distance loves, if you know what I mean. Anyway, it didn‟t work out.”
Offering my condolences, I follow Ken into the kitchen. The place is obviously set up for
production, but it‟s all kept very neat.
“It‟s spotless!” I say, running my hand along the cool galvanized counter tops.
“It has to be, Doc.” Ken says as he pulls a tray of foil-covered goodies from the
commercial-size refrigerator. “The Health Department guys from Charleston inspect us twice a
year, but we never know when they‟re gonna show up.”
Ken lays the large baking tray on the main workstation table and begins rooting through a
variety of products.
“You like cheese, Doc?”
“Love it. Whatdaya got?”
“Shepherds cheese… It‟s made from sheep‟s milk.”
“I spent last winter in England and learned how to make it from an old couple who live in
Lincolnshire. I couldn‟t believe it myself when I tasted it for the first time; it totally blew me
Ken quickly lobs off a small wedge of cheese and hands it to me. I‟m no shepherd, but
my uncle used to raise sheep and, oddly enough, this reminds me of the way his animals smelled.
“Weird, isn‟t it?” Ken says, scrunching up his face, just as I do mine.
“It‟s exotic, but I don‟t think I could make a steady diet of it,” I reply as I take another
tentative bite of the cheese, holding my nose as I do.
Ken places the tray of farm fresh goodies back in the refrigerator and we exit out the back
door. With the sun shining pleasantly above our heads, we pass under an arbor of trumpet vine
and into a lovely English-style herb garden. The plan looks like Hampton Court in miniature and
the aroma of lavender and anis is subtly intoxicating, but there‟s no time to dally; Ken has more
impressive things to show me.
Crossing over a slight knoll that‟s shaded by a single gum tree, we come to the barn. The
building itself is old and dates back to the first half of the 19th century, according to Ken
Clarkson; the interior, however, is cobweb-free and outfitted with all the modern conveniences
that any sheep, goat or pig could ever want.
“I‟ve got a fortune invested in this building,” says Ken, flipping on the lights.
“Everything in here is controlled by computer, so we can cut down on any contamination. This is
mainly where we do the goats.”
“The sheep too?” I ask, disposing of the last of my Shepherds cheese in a nearby trash
“We don‟t raise sheep, Doc; I just get the milk from a friend of mine over near Hurricane.
Besides, I don‟t sell enough of the Shepherd‟s cheese to make it worthwhile. It‟s an acquired
taste, if you know what I mean.”
“I can‟t imagine.”
Exiting the opposite end of the building, we walk cautiously down a steep path that runs
alongside a series of long, narrow terraces that have been carved out of the mountainside. A
steady westerly breeze rises up from the valley below and causes the crowns of several majestic
pin oaks to sing, giving voice to the silent zephyrs.
“This is incredible, Ken,” I say, gasping for each syllable as I try to keep up with my
host. “It reminds me of the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu. Have you been there?”
“No, but I saw them in the National Geographic Magazine once, several years ago.” Ken
has turned left into an area where an expansive bed of leaf lettuce is growing. “The idea stuck in
my head and I had to try it. Anyway, this lettuce won‟t grow anywhere else this time of year but
on this north-facing slope.”
As we walk along the gracefully arcing rows delineated by walls constructed of dry-laid
stone, the view of the valley below is spectacular. In fact, I have difficulty paying attention as
Ken describes to me the amazing array of produce he organically grows here on the farm.
Finally, having inspected the last of the garden terraces, my host invites me to sit at a picnic table
that‟s perched on an outcropping of stone and shaded by a few tall scrub cedars.
“Holy hell, would ya look at that view,” I say, sweeping my hand from north to south.
“This is beautiful, Ken.”
“Yeah, my Dad really loved this spot,” Ken says pulling his Perry Ellis sunglasses down
over his eyes. “In fact, this is where we sprinkled his ashes.”
Neither of us speaks for the next few moments. The sound of the late-September breeze
and the faint growl of a diesel tractor somewhere way off in the distance are the only things
audible at this altitude.
“Sorry about your father, Ken. But I can see why he wanted his remains to be scattered
here. It‟s paradise.” I finally whisper, not wishing to disturb the serenity of our surroundings.
“Reckon hell! Not to mention a house full of beautiful women. Ken, if you ask me you‟ve
got it made, my young fascist friend.”
“Yeah, I know… there‟s a difference.”
We both have a good laugh and shirk off the awkwardness of the moment. However, for
some strange reason I sense that a confession is imminent. Does Ken have someone buried under
his house, some dark secret that he has dared not tell a single soul, especially those with whom
he shares a passion for fresh produce?
“So what‟s up, Ken?” I ask discretely, assuming the role of the professional psychologist.
“I don‟t know, Doc. I should be happy, but I‟m not; at least not all the time.”
“That‟s a mighty great expectation, Ken…to be happy all the time. We all should be so
Sitting across from Ken though, I can see he has something weighing on his mind.
Whatever it is, up close I can tell the problem has been chiseling away at his youthful features
for quite some time.
“It‟s just that I‟m worried about my mother, Doc. She‟s laying over there in Glenville in
the nursing home and I‟m afraid she‟s never gonna see this place again. I feel guilty about that.”
Relieved to know that we‟re talking about someone who is still alive, I see no reason to
call the police. Ken‟s problem is serious, but it‟s not overtly criminal.
“Is she getting good care?” I ask to the top of my friend‟s buried head.
“Yeah, they look after her real good over there. I just wish I could bring her back home
and take care of her here.”
Ken Clarkson lifts his head and grabs a lichen-covered stick of cedar that has fallen down
on the picnic table. A beam of reflected light flashes across the silver frames of his sunglasses as
he turns and tosses the cedar stick down the steep embankment.
“Mom should be here at home, and I should be taking care of her,” Ken says, sounding
disgusted with himself as he buries his head in his arms again.
“Yes, but can you?”
“Not with all the running around I have to do, Doc. Suddenly engaged in the conversation
again, Ken lifts his head up and pushes his sunglasses back up on his forehead. “If the old
farmers market here in Thomason was still open I wouldn‟t have to drive so far, but the market
hasn‟t been used for years; and now they‟re talking about turning that whole block into a parking
“I can‟t imagine how an area can be populated with farmers and not have its own farmers
market. It‟s crazy,” I say, recalling Ken‟s comments of a day ago, made as we dined on barbeque
chicken at the fire hall.
“That‟s just it, Doc; when the big chain supermarkets came to Glenville in the 1940s,
everybody started shopping there. Everything was shipped in from somewhere else, so farmers
around here just gave up on growing crops. Today, farmers don‟t grow food. Oh sure, they may
raise cattle or chickens for the market, but what about real crops like beans and tomatoes? People
need vegetables, Doc.”
I think about my friends Charlie Reese, Fletcher Cardigan and Doodlebug Anderson. As
farmers, they have often hinted as much, but always with an air of class-conscious fatalism. Still,
now isn‟t the time to dwell on global food politics; my immediate concern is Ken Clarkson and
“What about your friends? I ask, fishing for solutions. “Surely you can rely on someone
who works with you to look after her while you‟re out on the road.”
Ken slumps on the leaf-littered picnic table and bears his anguished face to the view
“You have kids, Doc?” he asks,
“Yes, I have a daughter who‟s now an adult and on her own.” I say with some
trepidation, knowing that the truth is far more complex than I‟m willing to reveal.
“When she was younger, did you have to take her to day care and leave her?”
“Alex‟s mother and I were divorced, but yes, I used to hate leaving Alex after a visit.”
“Hard wasn‟t it? I mean, that‟s the way I feel about my Mom everyday; like I dropped
her off and never went back to get her. Your daughter would have been scared to death if you
didn‟t show up to get her, wouldn‟t she have, Doc? My Mom doesn‟t recognize much, but who‟s
to say she isn‟t afraid of being left alone.”
I don‟t know how to respond to Ken‟s not-so-hypothetical question. Carla sometimes
dropped our daughter off at a McDonalds near the interstate and waited out in the parking lot
while I got an hour in with Alex. The McDonalds play area was crawling with kids and their
mothers. I watched as Alex tentatively tried to fit in, to find playmates who would accept her, but
it was hard. Finally, Alex chose to play alone. Going through the motions of being happy, going
down the pink plastic slide with a blank look on her face, she seemed frozen in time. I feigned
complicity as well, trying to smile, holding back the tears until my hour was up. Yes, I hated
leaving Alex at that goddamn McDonalds and I hated the disdainful look on my ex-wife‟s face
whenever we crossed paths in the parking lot. I‟m haunted by the memory of it and all the other
important times in my daughter‟s life when I was conspicuously absent. Goddamn the regret!
“Somehow Ken, you gotta find a way to make it happen,” I say firmly, feeling the
immediacy of my own hunger for anything that resembles companionship. “There must be some
way you can make this work, there has to be!”
“Are you serious, Doc? You really think it‟s possible?”
Ken raises his head. I can tell he has been crying, but I don‟t acknowledge the fact.
“I suppose anything‟s possible, Ken,” I say instinctively, trying to sound sincere, even
though I doubt my own words.
In the proceeding silence I can almost hear the wheels turning in Ken Clarkson‟s hairy
head. His eyes have regained some of their former sparkle and his demeanor has changed from
sullen to sweet again.
“It sure would be nice,” Ken says as he walks me back up to my car. “A person
shouldn‟t be taken from their home and be forced to die among strangers. That‟s my idea of hell,
Doc. That would truly be a bummer.”
“Indeed,” I reply haltingly, as I turn my head and take in the one last breathtaking view of
the Allegheny Mountains.
How can paradise be fraught with such problems? Why does the past always invade the
present, leaving a person debilitated to the point of desperation? Does fate not have the capacity
to forgive and forget?
“Thanks, Doc,” Ken says as I open my car door.
“For coming and talking…”
“This was a social call, my friend. Don‟t worry; you won‟t be getting a bill.”
“Well, it means a lot to me,” Ken says sincerely, kicking the bare earth with his stylish
Adidas tennis shoe.
“Don‟t mention it.”
Dropping my over-fed, past-middle-age frame down on the Ford‟s worn out front seat, I
close the heavy car door and fish for my keys, which are lodged somewhere between my gut and
my right pants pocket.
“Just the same, Doc, I want you to take some more goodies home with you,” Ken says as
he hands me a basket I wasn‟t aware that he‟s been carrying on our walk.
“What is it?”
“Good stuff. That‟s what we do here, Doc.”
“Which reminds me, Ken; I have the basket you left on my doorstep,” I grunt as I reach
behind the driver‟s seat. “The tomatoes were delicious, by the way.”
“Great! We‟ll trade then,” Ken says with a refreshed smile. “Just like the old days, eh,
“Like the old days, Ken,” I reply as I scout out a place to turn around.
“Just pull up and back into where you see that mulch pile,” Ken says, pointing to the
landmark. “You can‟t hurt anything, so don‟t worry about hitting something.”
Exchanging our final goodbyes, Ken walks toward his front porch while I cautiously
guide my car back up the mountain and back home again to the safety of my easy chair.
However, I can‟t avoid thinking about Alex. Her mother was a real stickler when it came to
parenting by the book; but what about the fun things, like chasing down the ice cream man as he
passes through the neighborhood on a hot summer day or eating spring-chilled watermelon at a
family reunion? Once again, I flash back to the time when my hour was up, when Alex and I
parted ways at the McDonalds on the corner of Dix and Hawthorn in Cincinnati. I showered her
with the tears I could no longer contain; Alex, on the other hand, didn‟t cry. She couldn‟t. She
just looked over at her mother with the same blank look on her face, a look I could only interpret
as bewilderment. Is this the way families are supposed to be? Does anything in this life ever last?
Or are we just bumping around in some great big cosmic pinball machine, colliding with each
other only by chance? Needless to say, after my ex-wife and daughter drove away, I sat in my car
and cried like a baby.
Upon reaching the old suspension bridge in town, I confront the sobering realization that
I‟ve been driving on autopilot; a dangerous thing since Route 5 is famous for its tricky turns and
treacherous blind spots. Still, I have no memory of having navigated this deadly stretch of
highway at all. It would be reasonable to assume that my blackouts (I‟ve had more than one) are
a result of alcohol abuse or some other textbook malady; but I believe my body‟s telling me it‟s
time to check out. Like the fat guy, asleep and snoring away in the movie theatre, I‟m just an
unpleasant distraction, a pain in the ass to those around me. The point is I‟ve seen all the sequels
and eaten all the popcorn; so what else is there worth hanging around for? What‟s the point in
going through the motions for another ten to fifteen years? Of course, there‟s also the pain in the
lower part of my body to consider. What are my options if this thing spreads and becomes a
major health issue? Do I let God carry out his divine plan of watching me end my days in agony,
or do I beat him to the punch and deprive the evil bastard of the satisfaction?
Plagued with these dark thoughts and barely able to focus on anything else, by some
miracle I find myself back home, weak and wondering how I got here. The sun has already set
behind Gopher Hill, so technically I can justify fixing myself a drink, which I do without further
deliberation. Laying my tired body down on the couch, I hold the cold glass of bourbon and ice
cubes to my aching forehead and wait for A Prairie Home Companion to start. In the meantime,
my attention is once again drawn to the innumerable artifacts that litter the library‟s hard plaster
walls. For the past six years I have regarded these treasures as mere things, scraps of antiquity
that possess little value. And yet now, as I consider the inescapable fact that all this has been
placed in my hands for safekeeping, I feel weighed down by the awesome responsibility. Why
me? I‟m lucky to own a toothbrush these days! I can‟t be trusted with all of this stuff! After all, a
legacy is meant to live on, and I certainly can‟t guarantee that; not in my condition.
Garrison Keilor introduces his first guest, Ricky Scaggs. The applause is thunderous; in
fact, as I amble back to the kitchen for a refill, the clapping takes on a stereo-like quality. It‟s an
astonishing phenomenon, but very quickly I realize that what I hear coming through the open
kitchen window is not applause, but the sound of horseshoes being thrown and the laughter of
young children. It‟s the commencement of the Baptist church‟s annual Homecoming. My
attention now drawn to the back porch, I stand on the bare limestone and take in the pleasant
hum of humanity at play. The river gives up all sorts of secret smells too, while the swamp oaks
and sycamores sway as the cool night air gathers under their graceful boughs. I enjoy these
observations from a distance and they quell my qualmishness. However, I recall telling Raz
earlier that I would make an appearance at the Baptist church‟s annual event.
Returning to the library and retrieving the bottle of Ancient Age bourbon from the deep
file drawer of Luke Dickerson‟s mahogany partners desk, I consider pouring myself another
drink. The warmth of the whiskey and glow of the room beckon me to remain, to stay and ponder
the demise my own demise and that of the rest of Western Civilization; but I must resist. After
all, if I don‟t show up at the Baptist church, Raz will surely call Emma and the both of them will
track me down. Still, a little whiskey for the road won‟t hurt, I tell myself as I fetch the heirloom
silver flask from the desk drawer.
Resigned to do what‟s right, I don my only good sport coat – a light gray Southwick
hound‟s tooth that‟s been hanging alone on the hall tree for nearly two years – and tuck the flask
safely in the breast pocket. I‟ll need it as I try to muster the enthusiasm that will be needed to
attend the Baptist Church‟s annual function. Emma has invited me to attend things at her church
on a number of occasions, but I refuse to be scrutinized by a bunch of penny-pinching
Presbyterians. The only reason I told Raz I would rub shoulders with the Baptists is because
black people don‟t believe in therapy. It‟s a healthy attitude to have, and better yet, it means I
don‟t have to assume that everyone I talk to is crazy.
My attire up to snuff, I exit the house and close the front door behind me. Fortunately,
the trip to the church is short, and before Ricky Scaggs finishes his second encore number – May
the Circle Be Unbroken – I‟m pulling up along the grassy edge of the churchyard. Parking
behind a sporty new Cadillac with Illinois plates, I‟m immediately struck by the number of cars
parked ahead of me, all with license plates that are foreign and unfamiliar in these parts.
“Evenin,‟ Doc.” Moe Coleman, his wife and daughter Charlotte, pass me as I‟m taking a
good pull on the Dickerson memorial. “Fine evening for a gatherin‟, wouldn‟t ya say?”
“Yes it is,” I say, quickly returning my vice to its rightful place, out of the reach of
children. “Hey Louise, and this must be Charlotte!”
“Yes, sir,” the shy girl says softly as she ducks behind her father‟s leg.
“How old are you now, fifteen?” I bend down for a better look at the child, taking care
that my beverage bottle doesn‟t land at her feet.
“Nooo!” Charlotte twists around like ballerina as her father holds his daughter‟s dainty
“She just turned five this week, Doc.” Moe says. “Hard to believe, isn‟t it?”
I‟m suddenly aware that the Colemans have a dog with them. The pup is being restrained
by a leash, but being deathly afraid of dogs, I back up far enough away so that the thing can‟t
lunge at me.
“Who‟s this little fella?” I say, attempting to modulate my voice enough to mask the fear.
“His name is Fetch,” Mrs. Coleman says. “He‟s very friendly.”
“Yes, I can see, but I shouldn‟t get too close; I am allergic to dog fur,” I say as I hunt for
my imaginary handkerchief.
“We understand, Doc. Come along now, Charlotte. Good seeing you,” Moe Coleman
says as he and his family continue on their way.
“Same here,” I reply belatedly, happy to see Fetch the dog‟s tail end.
Allowing the Coleman family a head start, I follow up the dirt drive at a respectable
distance and veer left into the field where the festivities are taking place under the broad boughs
of an old sugar maple. A line of picnic tables, all covered in oilcloth and piled high with food,
have been arranged in a semi-circle around the trunk of the tree. There‟s also an outer ring of
lawn chairs for the elderly, who seat themselves and park their canes while the younger members
of the church attend to their needs.
“Why, Doctor Dickerson; it‟s so nice to see you again!”
I hear a female voice addressing me from behind, but I‟m preoccupied with putting
turkey and mashed potatoes on my plate.
“Don‟t let me interrupt you, Doctor.”
“No, No, I was just afraid I was going to spill something. Hello!”
As I turn around, I see a face I recognize only vaguely. The woman‟s voice is likewise
familiar, but I still can‟t come up with a name.
“Doris Wiley... I came to see you when I had my third child, Ben,” the well-dressed
woman with leopard skin Gucci bag says, holding out her gloved hand. “You probably don‟t
remember me, but five years ago I was in town visiting my mother when I thought I was going
into labor. It was all in my head, of course, but you helped me through the ordeal.”
“Yes, now I remember,” I say, nodding and smiling. “Everything went okay with the
delivery, I trust.”
“Oh yes. Fortunately, the baby waited until we got back home to Princeton.”
“Princeton… West Virginia?” I ask, assuming Gilmer County‟s close proximity to
“No, Princeton, New Jersey,” says Ms Wiley, without taking offense. “My husband is on
the faculty of the university.”
“Well, I‟m glad I could be of some help,” I say without sounding too surprised.
“Yes, thank you. I needed someone to reassure me that I wasn‟t going out of my mind,
and you did just that. You do have a way with words, Doctor Dickerson.”
Doris Wiley touches my arm as she reaches around and grabs a drumstick off the meat
“Please, don‟t let me interrupt your dinner.”
“Thanks. Nice to see you again,” I say as the woman moves down the line to chat with
other absentee members of the Baptist church.
Standing off to myself, well away from the crowded food tables, I enjoy the crispness of
the turkey skin and the smooth texture of the mashed potatoes. It‟s only September, but the
chestnut dressing and cranberry sauce bring to mind memorable Thanksgivings I have shared
with people in the past. I‟m also reminded of one reunion that has never come to pass: a
memorable Thanksgiving with my daughter Alex. I‟m sure her holidays were as filled with
pleasurable moments as were mine; but we haven‟t shared a meal together since she was seven,
when we split a hamburger at McDonalds for the last time.
Swallowing hard, I manage to clean my plate. I consider sampling the desserts, but as I
begin to do so, I lock eyes with my friend, Raz Irvington, who is standing on the church steps
next to his wife, Iris, and preacher Tom. As I approach though, Raz breaks away from the
conversation and joins me a few steps down.
“Hey, Raz,” I say, genuinely happy to see my friend.
“Doc! Fancy seeing you here.” Raz rolls his eyes, indicating that I must proceed with a
caution, but I‟m not sure why.
“Don‟t you dare say a thing about what I told you, ya hear?” Raz adds in a discreet
“You mean about the dream? Really, Raz, you don‟t think…”
“Reverend Tom, you know Doctor Dickerson,” Iris Irvington interjects as her husband
delivers me to highest level of the church‟s simple portico. To my surprise, as Raz stands quietly
behind the preacher, he makes like he‟s slitting his own throat, which I assume is another
cautionary expression; but I ignore him.
“Of course, Doctor Dickerson; glad you could join us for homecoming,” Preacher Tom
says, not really shaking my hand, but holding it intimately, as though I have just joined his
prayer circle. “For as long as anyone can remember, the extended family of this church has been
meeting here each September to renew its vows before God. Indeed, no matter where folks are or
how far they have to come, they return every year to be with the church family. Don‟t you think
that‟s remarkable, Doctor Dickerson?”
The preacher is still holding my hand. Even though it‟s nightfall, he‟s wearing large wire-
rim sunglasses and his scary Farrakhan-like face is drawn up in a lopsided, half-toothy smile.
“Ah, yeah… hey Doc.” Raz shouts nervously as he pulls me away. “Preacher Tom,
would you excuse Doc and me for a moment? I see a sick friend standing over near the food
table and I want Doc here to check him over.”
“By all means! Far be it for me to stand in the way of a man‟s calling,” the preacher
declares, holding out one arm as if he is about to part the Red Sea. His voice reminds me of an
itchy wool sweater.
“Honey, I‟ll meet you over by the pie stand in about ten minutes,” Raz signals to his wife.
“That‟s fine, dear. Nice to see you, Doctor Dickerson.”
Iris bows and smiles sheepishly. I want to acknowledge her, but I‟m still looking at the
preacher, and I think he‟s still looking at me, although I can‟t really tell. Breaking away from the
group, I go limp as Raz pulls me along like I‟m one of his old lady patients on their way from
dialysis or to a hair appointment.
“Slow up, Raz, for godssake!” I finally protest, pulling my arm back down to my side.
“One of my shoes is about to come loose.”
We‟re standing behind the pie table, which is partially obscured by a group of women
preparing to judge the pie contest, when Raz repeats his dire warning.
“Now listen, Doc, you can‟t say anything to Reverend Tom about that dream.”
“I have no intention of saying anything about the damn dream,” I say, feeling and
sounding slightly annoyed. “The guy‟s obviously crazy, and you‟re crazy too if you believe that
kind of gibberish. I‟m surprised at you, Irvington.”
Raz and I walk under the boughs of the giant sugar maple. In the fading sunlight, the air
is a cool cucumber green and the trunk of the tree is nearly invisible. A number of the older folks
are still glued to their lawn chairs and wheelchairs, while several of the younger people act as
couriers, carrying food to their respected elders.
“Mrs. Snapp, Reverend,” Raz says with a nod and a smile as he greets an elderly couple.
“Beautiful evening, isn‟t it?”
“Raz Irvington, is that you?” Mrs. Snapp inquires from the confines of her wheelchair.
“Raz, it sure is good to see you. Well, we made it here another year,” Reverend Snapp
says proudly. Standing slightly askew in his lightweight herringbone tweed suit, the former
stroke victim shakes Raz‟s hand. “Is Iris with you?”
“Yeah, she‟s helping with the food bank inside. You know Iris; she always gotta be doing
“Feeding the hungry has always been her pet project,” says Mrs. Snapp between coughs.
“By the way, how‟s it going in there?”
“It‟s a sight to behold! They must have a thousand bushel boxes of food and other stuff
all made up and ready to deliver.”
“That‟s wonderful, just wonderful,” Reverend Snapp replies.
I feel like an idiot standing here, so I give Raz a kick in the heel.
“Oh, I‟m sorry. Folks, this here is Doctor Dickerson,” Raz says, taking me by the arm
and presenting me in a clumsy, Vaudeville-like fashion.
“Well, Doctor, are you a Gilmer County native?”
“No, I moved here in 1999.”
“But Doc‟s family is from these parts,” Raz interjects. “He‟s been coming here since he
was a kid; ain‟t that right, Doc?”
“Yes, my father‟s family, the Dickersons, lived just up the way, on the left side of the
highway. That‟s where I live now.
“You mean Ms. Millie Dickerson‟s old place?”
“Yes, sir. She was my great aunt.”
“Well, I‟ll be. Nothing like having roots and coming home to a place you love, don‟t you
agree, Doctor Dickerson? In this day and age, people and families are scattered to the wind. But
somehow, like the geese, we are all programmed to return home, where ever that may be.”
“The reverend and his misses live in Chicago now,” Raz adds.
“That‟s true,” acknowledges the preacher. “In fact, most of the folks here come from
other places. Colin Buell and his wife Jenna, the couple standing over there near the tables, they
live in Cleveland now; and the Carters, standing over there near the playground, they‟re from
“Do you still have family in the area, Doctor Dickerson? Mrs. Snapp asks, folding her
paper napkin discretely, phlegm and all.
“None left around here,” I reply. “I do have a daughter who‟s probably in her late 20s by
“Probably?” Reverend Snapp is holding a paper plate of lemon merangue pie and he
almost drops it, but Raz makes a miraculous save.
“Doc here‟s just kidding, folks. You know how kids grow up so fast,” Raz say as he
hands the pie to preacher Snapp. “Yeah, it‟s hard to keep track of where they are and what
they‟re doing these days, right Doc?”
“Yeah, sure… I see your point…” I stammer, wishing to remove myself from
Seeing an opportunity to excuse myself, I break away and walk out into the open, where a
bonfire is being stoked. The flames are mesmerizing and the warmth is just enough to fend off
the chill. Still, I find it hard to ignore what‟s going on over near the church. Turning my back to
the friendly fire, I observe farmers bringing truckloads of produce to the side door of the
building. The food tables have been amply stocked with enough provisions to satisfy those who
have traveled far to participate in the festivities, but the scale of activity taking place over at the
church looks less like a penny supper and more like a full-scale relief operation. Walking closer,
I sneak behind a produce truck and watch as Iris Irvington and a group of middle-aged men load
box after box into the church‟s secret storehouse. The whole thing reminds of Noah‟s ark, and I
have to wonder if Preacher Tom has convinced his flock that doomsday is coming.
“Quite a sight, isn‟t it?”
I nearly jump out of my skin upon hearing the preacher‟s voice. Indeed, it‟s Preacher
Tom in the flesh, still wearing those god-awful sunglasses and that goofy smile.
“Preacher Tom, for god‟s sake, you scared me!”
“I didn‟t mean to frighten you, Doctor Dickerson. Of course, fear suggests that perhaps
“No, no! I was just looking at…”
“Our operation? Come with me, Doctor. I‟ll prove to you that you have nothing to fear
and that we have nothing to hide.”
Stepping into the basement of the church, I see an assembly line of workers handing off
and stacking boxes in the large rooms just off the kitchen area. Dressed in their Sunday clothes,
their shirtsleeves rolled up and ties loosened, the men and boys shout out the nature and quantity
of the contents in each box. In the kitchen itself, black women dressed in their white cafeteria
coats are preparing more food for the homecoming visitors, as well as for the legion of black
farmers who are faithfully making their contribution to the cause.
“Looks like you‟re stocking up for a catastrophe, reverend,” I say, feeling justified in my
suspicions. “So what am I looking at here, what doomsday scenario have you got folks worked
up over now?”
“Doomsday indeed, Doctor Dickerson!” Preacher Tom says as he picks up an ear of
Silver Queen corn from a bushel basket. “It‟s a different world now, my skeptical friend. Ever
since Hurricane Katrina, when the government stood by while people of color and their
community were annihilated, we have been preparing for this day. No, Doctor Dickerson, no
more will we stand by while the poor starve and the rich get heartburn.”
I‟m waiting for Preacher Tom to make his “I have a dream” speech, but he doesn‟t. It‟s
just as well since I promised Raz I wouldn‟t ask. Still, I linger, hoping to hear more of the Baptist
church‟s diabolical plan to sidestep doomsday.
“So, you plan to distribute these care packages to people on the Gulf Coast?” I ask.
“It‟s too late for that, Doctor. The casinos are coming and the building of Babylon has
already begun. Sadly, the people of the Lower Ninth Ward have been scattered to the wilderness,
never to return. No, Doctor Dickerson, we must take care of our own. The day is coming when
folks will have to rise up once again and fight for what is their God-given right.”
“I wish I had more faith in humanity‟s fighting ability, Reverend,” I admit casually.
“Myself, I just plan to dig a foxhole and wait until the smoke settles.”
“Your turn is coming, my son.” Preacher Tom says, nodding and smiling as his worker
bees continue to store up supplies for the siege they have been told is coming.
“No offense, reverend, but I‟m not much into firearms,” I say snidely. “Hell, I don‟t even
But Preacher Tom isn‟t listening. He raises his voice, as well as his arms, and begins
talking about the book of Jonah, about the whale and all that crazy nonsense about people being
turned into salt.
“None of us can escape it,” Preacher Tom shouts above a chorus on „amen,‟ which his
willing flock provides in unison. “Before the end of days, we will all be tested and our faith
measured against the weight of our transgressions!”
Just when I think I can‟t take the preacher‟s proselytizing anymore and turn to leave, I
hear the squeal of car tires on the road, the yelp of a dog, and the terrifying screams of a young
child. I freeze as my mind tries to visualize the awful scenario. But instead of running out the
door to tend to his endangered flock, Preacher Tom moves closer to me. With his face to my
face, he looks at me and smiles.
“We will all be tested, Doctor Dickerson,” the crazy reverend whispers in my ear.
Freaked out by this, I emerge from bowels of the church in time to see an anxious mob of
people heading for the highway, wailing as they follow the cries of what sounds like a young girl
“What‟s going on?” I ask an old man tagging along behind, forced to rely on his cripple‟s
“I reckon a dog‟s been hit on the road,” the old man says without looking up or stopping.
In the next instant, I see Raz standing head and shoulder above the surging crowd, and
he‟s motioning to me.
“Doc, Doc! Over here!”
When I reach my friend he is out of breath.
“Little Charlotte Coleman‟s dog has been hit by a car. The dog‟s in bad shape, Doc, and
he needs help.”
“But what can I do, Raz? I‟m not a vet. Besides, I don‟t even like dogs.”
Despite my pitiful protestations, my friend leads the way toward the scene of the
“Okay, ya‟ll step aside. Doc‟s here now, so give him some room,” Raz commands over
the crowd‟s gasps and whispers.
“But Raz, I‟m deathly afraid of dogs.”
Before I can escape though, I find myself standing over Little Charlotte and her injured
dog. The girl is crying and petting Fetch as the latter twitches and pants profusely. There‟s no
sign of blood, but the worst is always unseen in cases like this.
“Charlotte?” I say as I slip my jacket off and get down on one knee. “Dear, now let‟s
have a look at Fetch and see how he‟s doing.”
I lift Fetch‟s right hind leg and the dog yelps, feeling the intense pain caused by what
appears to be an internal injury. I jump too, fearing being bitten by the helpless animal. But I
can‟t ignore tiny Charlotte Coleman‟s tears, tears that only come in one size: large. Her face
fraught with desperation, Charlotte‟s tiny body writhes in pain as her father rubs her shoulders
and whispers in his daughter‟s ear. The crowd weeps as they would for the loss of any loved one.
But the only thing I‟m feeling at the moment is humiliation; the kind a five-year-old feels when
he has pissed his pants in public. Looking over my shoulder at the faces hovering over me, I
recognize the anxious look of expectation. It‟s dark now, and some of the men in the crowd are
clutching flashlights, the beams from which cut through the night sky like Star Wars weapons. A
quiet conversation is taking place on the road in front of me, where men pass in and out of the
glare of the suspect vehicle‟s headlights. I hear their consoling words as the driver of the truck
wearily repeats his claim, “He just darted out of nowhere.”
“Okay, okay,” I say as I stand up.
“So whatdaya think, Doc,” Moe Coleman asks, still standing behind his daughter.
“I‟m not sure, Moe. I‟m not a Vet, but I would assume the dog has a broken pelvis.”
My prognosis is met with more moans, and someone in the crowd hollers “shoot it!”
Fortunately, a few of the younger men move through the crowd and attempt to silence the would-
“Can you fix him, Doc?” the old man with the cane asks.
“You don‟t understand. I‟m not a vet.”
“What kind of doctor are ya then, if ya caint…Hell, a leg‟s a leg”
Raz stands over me as I rub my aching knees. A small Toyota pickup has pulled up in
front of the first vehicle. Flashlights assist as the driver pulls a small gurney-like plank from the
bed of the truck.
“This dog needs medical attention,” I solemnly announce, trying to be heard above the
mumbling and the anger. “There really isn‟t much I can do.”
“Maybe we‟d best leave while we still can, Doc,” Raz whispers. But all I can do is stare
at the dying dog and little Charlotte. Fixating on the five-year-old, I think about Alex. She used
to have a dog when she was younger and she talked about it a lot. But she stopped referring to
Buck by the time of our last visit, and I forgot to inquire about the dog. Perhaps, like Charlotte,
Alex too suffered a great loss, and I failed to give her the comfort she so desperately needed.
How could I have been so dense, so insensitive?
“But Raz, we can‟t just leave,” I say, pulling my friend‟s powerful hand off my puny
arm. “Something has to be done here. We can‟t just walk away.”
Bent on leaving the scene though, Raz escorts me past the angry stares and out to the
periphery of the mob, where we are joined by a disinterested passerby.
“Seems a shame that an animal has to suffer, not to mention the child who has lost her
best friend,” Preacher Tom says, having suddenly appeared out of the darkness.
I turn away though when I hear shouts from the men who are placing the dog on the
wood plank. The crowd has begun wailing again, and amid all this I hear Charlotte‟s cries.
“I suppose you‟ve done all you can do, Doctor Dickerson,” Preacher Tom says from
behind his Elton John-size sunglasses. “The next few hours will tell if the dog survives, or if the
little girl‟s grief will be prolonged.”
I look at the Baptist preacher and wonder why he is smiling at me.
“You‟re the preacher here, raise em up from the dead,” I finally say in disgust. “He‟s
your god, so why don‟t you ask him to intercede!”
I feel like punching the old preacher in the face. I‟m going to hell anyway, so why not
have a little last minute fun while I‟m at it. But once again, I‟m distracted by the roar of truck
engines and the wail of the Baptist congregation.
“There‟s nothing we can do, Doc. They gotta ways to go. It‟s in God‟s hands now,” Raz
“Where‟s the damned vet around here anyhow,” I shout at no one in particular.
There isn‟t one, Doc; like I told you.”
Raz is standing with his wife and kids. Billy and Jimbo look terrified, but their mother is
calm and assertive, as per her usual.
“We‟ve prayed on it many times, Doctor Dickerson; I can assure you of that,” says Iris
Irvington. “But these things take time.”
“Indeed, my son; God works in …”
“Mysterious ways, my ass!” I scream at the preacher. “God‟s one slow poking
sonofabitch, if ya ask me!”
“Come on, Doc. We‟d better go,” Raz says quietly but insistently, knowing that I‟m
freaked out and on the verge of a breakdown.
“I‟m sorry, Raz. I don‟t know what came over me.” I hold onto my friend‟s arm tightly as
I‟m led down the hill to my car. “I gotta get home. I just remembered I have a patient coming in
It‟s a lie of course, but a convenient one, considering the fact that I‟m of no use to anyone
at the moment.
“Quit your mumbling, Doc.” Raz says as he opens the front door of my car, “You did
what you could.”
“But that‟s not true, Raz. I didn‟t do what I could. Sure, I‟m afraid of dogs, but I am a
psychologist for chrissake! I could have acted like one; I could have helped that poor little girl in
her time of loss.”
“Fine time to be getting a conscience, Doc,” Raz says as he pushes aside the debris on the
floorboard so I can get to the gas and brake pedals. “You‟ve been feeling sorry for yourself for
so long, I don‟t reckon you‟ll ever change.”
“But I want to change, Raz, I really do; but what about the dog?”
“It‟s a long ride from here to Charleston, Doc. Most never make it. Of course, this isn‟t
the first time this has happened and it sure won‟t be the last.”
Raz closes the car door for me and places his arms where the window would otherwise
be. His broad shoulders and big, nearly bald head block out the glow of the bonfire still blazing
out in the field.
“Why don‟t you go see Emma, Doc? I don‟t like the idea of you going home and drinking
yourself to sleep,” Raz says softly, pausing momentarily to scratch the back of his bare neck.
“I‟d go with you and hang out for awhile, but Iris and the kids want to ride over to Uncle
Marvin‟s place. He‟s doing right poorly himself.”
“No Raz, that‟s fine. I know you have a family and more important things to do,” I reply,
leaning my aching head on the steering wheel. “I‟ll be alright, I promise.”
“Okay, but call me in the morning.” Raz stands up and looks over in the direction of the
church. His sleeveless white shirt has mud on it and his pants look like they‟re twisted around
“Sure Raz. I‟ll give you a holler in the morning.”
Satisfied that my mia culpas have been unconditionally accepted, I drive home. Before
crossing the old suspension bridge though, I take one last look at the bonfire still burning over at
the Baptist Church. From a safe distance, the fire still appears festive, but this frightful evening
will no doubt haunt me forever. Of course, there‟s no doubt in my mind that little Charlotte
Coleman will be scarred for life as well. Still, I‟m ashamed for even making the comparison.
As I reach Main Street, I remember Raz saying something about paying Emma Taylor a
visit. I‟ll admit, love‟s temptation is strong and I contemplate turning back, but I can‟t. My
nerves are too jangled. Besides, there‟s always the chance I might say something offensive, even
blasphemous, and I‟ve done enough damage for one evening.
Home is just a short hop up the road, and once settled in behind locked doors, I head
straight for the refrigerator. Exchanging my flask of warm whisky for a cold beer, I retire to the
library and cue up Jean Sibelius‟ Finlandia again. As I‟ve said, this music is tailor-made for
those of us who prefer to hide our foibles behind a lot of pomp and circumstance. At the same
time though, I can‟t easily hide from what went on tonight. Indeed, the thought of little Fetch –
scared to death, in pain and on his way to an uncertain fate in Charleston – cannot be erased from
my mind. And what of his heartbroken owner? A sleepless night for little Charlotte as well, I
would guess. But the subject I had hoped to avoid most this evening is Alex and her old dog,
Buck. The passing of the latter was of little consequence to me. In fact, I allowed my own
daughter to suffer in silence, without the slightest recognition from me regarding her loss. It‟s a
criminal act worthy of castration. I can only imagine Alex‟s look of resignation, the same look
she wore as a child after being dumped off at McDonalds to spend an hour of fun and games
with her old man. But it wasn‟t fun at all. Like a fragile flower caught in a hailstorm – a home
life punctuated by profanity and petty arguments – Alex was adrift in a world of
incomprehensible grief and disappointment, a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; and I
failed to make the correct diagnosis. And now, because of me, both my daughter and Charlotte
Coleman‟s dog are on the Endangered Species list.
The mental anguish has moved to my heart and I feel its erratic palpitations, which seem
dissonant and at odds with Sibelius‟s Finnish Anthem. In need of further sedation, I get up and
go to fridge again; but before I can down another Heineken, I notice an unopened letter on the
table in the hall. It must have escaped the toaster conflagration, been picked up by one of the
McGregor girls, and thoughtfully placed here for the responsible adult of the house to see.
Turning it face-up, I see the IRS insignia and the words FINAL NOTICE emblazoned in red
below my name and address. The postmark indicates that it was delivered to me more than a
month ago, which is all the more reason to feel a sense of tremendous apprehension as my numb
finger breaks the official seal. Immediately apprised of the letter‟s contents, I see that my days
are indeed numbered.
NOTICE OF SEIZURE
For failure to settle accounts with the Internal Revenue Service.
This must be a clerical error! Surely the Federal Government is resorting to the same old
bullying tactics it has always used with delinquent taxpayers. But I can‟t blame anyone but
myself. Ignoring important mail only invites trouble, and invited or not, Uncle Sam will soon be
knocking on my door to collect on the debt. Faced with the real prospect that the United States
government will be seizing my property within the week, I gasp for breath and spill my beer on
the kitchen counter. Somewhere, the fat lady is singing, and I‟m singing along with her. Raising
my empty beer bottle, I stagger back to the library in a fatalistic stupor, just in time to sing along
with Sibelius‟ final stanza:
Finland arise, and raise towards the highest
thy head now crowned with mighty memory.
Finland arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!
Arise! Arise! As the body of the Finnish patriot is escorted to his grave, I stand with arms
raised and my heart pounding. I will never know what it must have been like to face the Nazi
juggernaut or to resist the forced enslavement imposed upon the citizens of Germany by Hitler,
but I do see now how oppression’s yoke is alive and well today. Land of the free and home of the
brave? More like, land of the rich and home of the slave! Taxation without representation was
the call to arms when this country was first founded, but who is representing me in the halls of
congress today? Surely there are other chicken shits out there, lesser men who would be willing
to fight for my cause, to end taxation and tyranny once and for all; but I‟m not counting on it.
The IRS is Big Brother‟s paymaster and the machine needs cash to continue its corrupt
enterprise. I, on the other hand, have no cash and no currency to rally others to my side. Indeed,
there‟s no fighting it. The end is coming and the only thing I can hope to accomplish at this point
is to find my daughter Alex and make sure she has safe shelter.
Sitting down in Uncle Luke‟s plush leather chair, I place Alex‟s portrait in the middle of
the desk, a central place she has not occupied for some time. Like the IRS, maybe there‟s too
much ill will between us to expect a peaceful reconciliation, but I can‟t let another day go by
without trying to make contact; I must at least try to make amends. In the meantime, I must
gather together the few possessions I treasure (the precious few I feel I can possibly carry) and
depart from this hallowed place. On the way upstairs to my bedroom, I plant one foot on the first
tread and stop once again to look at the family photographs. Stepping back from the closest
picture, I look down the end of my nose at my distant, deceased relatives, at those wholesome
lives framed by happier times. I hadn‟t noticed it before, but I believe I recognize the young
knickered schoolboy posing in the tire swing out behind Aunt Millie‟s old house. It‟s my father!
Indeed, there‟s no mistaking that slanted, slightly epicanthic smile. It‟s a bit spooky to think of
my father playing here in this very hall as a child, same as I would many years later. Stranger
still, it‟s hard to imagine my father as a child… period. As a kid, I saw my Dad as someone who
only existed in the present. Sure, he talked about the future incessantly and prided himself in his
meager contributions to the science; but privately he knew he was just another geeky guy with a
pocket protector and a slide rule, that he would never be the one to step foot on the moon or
discover anything of great importance. Even when we came to visit the Dickerson family
homeplace, Dad seemed out of his element, a stranger in his own skin. But why?
Pulling myself away from the photograph, my heart is heavy with sorrow as I try to
imagine my daughter Alex and all the years she had to grow up without a father. She probably
thinks of me in the same way I think of my father, as someone who only existed in a few rare
instances. “I‟m not like that, I‟m not my father!” I tell myself aloud as if there‟s an audience to
impress; but it doesn‟t matter. I was gone, and for a child, that‟s as gone as it gets.
The awesome weight of these final hours is almost too much to bear, and I wander
around the house, absorbing every detail and savoring the smell of cedar and mothballs. I always
thought Alex would enjoy living here in this house and that one day we would share the common
bond of our family‟s rich heritage. I even had a will drawn up stating that the old house and all
appurtenances thereto connected should transferred to Alex at the time of my death. But now
that the place will soon be under new management by Uncle Sam, I have nothing to give my
daughter. Zip! It would be more fitting if I died a hobo or a hobo-drug addict. At least then Alex
might take pity on me.
Opening a suitcase on my bed, I glumly toss in a few essential items: toothbrush,
toothpaste, and my electric razor. I‟m sure this digital alarm clock will also come in handy, as
will this genuine Dale Chihuly paperweight. But wait a minute! What in the hell am I doing?
What good is a goddamn paperweight going to be if the whole fucking planet explodes? DUMB
ASS! What you need is a token, one memorable artifact that you can pass onto Alex if and when
you survive the end of days. Of course, why hadn‟t it occurred to me before! Propelled by
personal discovery, I run down the main staircase and stand, arms akimbo, in the hall of
memories. Fixating once again on the family portrait in front of me, I run my fingers around the
frame‟s gilded surface. The finish is alligatored with age, dark and dusty from years of
inattention; but the family resemblance is undeniable.
“The IRS may get most of this,” I resolutely inform my kin, “but I know one thing they
Pulling a yellow tape rule from hall table‟s single drawer, I measure each dimension of
the frame and note the figures on the palm of my hand with a ballpoint pen. I then head for the
basement, where Aunt Millie‟s collection of Christmas boxes is stored. Descending the steep
grade, I enter a place I knew well as a child. Constructed of whitewashed limestone, the room is
no bigger than your average size bedroom. I remember the floor being brick at one time, but over
the years the dampness has turned the brick into a powdery mix of clay dust and coal soot.
Below the only window in the whole place is a shelf unit made from slabs of white oak and
dogwood saplings. It‟s filled with canned goods: grit-covered Mason Jars filled with pole beans,
sugar beets, bread and butter pickles; a marvelous array of delicacies that have been gathering
dust down here for the past forty years. But I didn‟t come down here to eat or to reminisce. What
I‟m looking for (and have found) is a on the floor next to the converted coal furnace, which, to
my delight, is still stacked with several generations-worth of Christmas boxes. Running my
finger down the side of one of the stacks, I settle on a corrugated box that appears to be of the
right size and shape. As I slide it carefully out from under the rest, a tiny, gray field mouse
scurries across the floor and disappears through the furnace duct. This time of year, with winter
coming, the little critters of the world wander indoors to enjoy the well-stocked root cellar. Food
is plentiful, but so is the De-Con, thanks to my father.
“Yes, this will do nicely,” I say, dusting the box off with my pants leg.
Back in the hall, I lay the box on top of the pier table; but before I place the picture in the
box, I want to assess the condition of the artifact. Close inspection reveals that the glue that once
held the mitre joints together has given out and the matting is tainted with acidic blooms, but
overall the prognosis is good. Pausing for a moment to also consider the pristine condition of the
naked plaster left behind on the wall, I‟m suddenly struck with a feeling of profound emptiness.
Like the person facing down a raging house fire, who saves lives but is forced to leave
everything else behind, only to see it consumed by the flames; I wonder what I‟ll regret losing
the most. Will I survive the fire, only to spend the rest of my life searching for something to fill
the void? Perhaps, but right now I have no choice. I must act now and act fast. Sliding the framed
photograph into the corrugated box, I seal the contents carefully with 3M packing tape.
Inspecting the tape job for flaws and satisfied that there are none, I prop the bulky box against
Returning to the study, I turn off everything electrical and wait for the last of the charged
particles leave the room. In the vacuous silence, the only thing I hear is the lonely sound of dry
leaves blowing across the deserted highway out in front of the house, and the only thing I see is
the kitchen light reflecting off the engraved brass dial of my great, great grandfather‟s tall case
clock. It‟s already 9:20 p.m. and the day is practically shot, but I must tell Emma of my
intentions, maybe pay Raz a visit as well. It‟s late, I know; but soon it will be too late.
I walk to the kitchen and stand at the window, gazing across the Little Kanawha River at
what‟s left of the Baptist‟s homecoming bonfire. The embers are barely visible, as are the
hardscrabble fishing shacks that dot the banks Tolley‟s Creek. Nearly all the cars are gone,
however, and no human stirs on the grounds of the church. Surely Raz is home by now, or will
be by the time I leave Emma‟s house.
This time of night there‟s little if any traffic on the road, which is nice because when I
come to the stop sign at the junction of State Route 5 and Walker's Ridge Road, I turn off the
headlights and kill the engine. Taking advantage of the lower light pollution levels this far out of
town, I step out onto the rough paved roadbed and angle my gaze upward in order to behold the
rich tapestry of black velvet sky above. The black-on-black silhouette of the Allegheny spine
falls away toward the horizon as it follows the Little Kanawha west to the Ohio River, and the
stars on the horizon shimmer like a late December ice storm. Orion will soon be making his
grand pre-dawn appearance in our hemisphere, signaling the start of winter. The Canadian Geese
will likewise be moving on, and I will be with them. Of course, the geese know where they‟re
going; I, on the other hand, will be flying blind.
Continuing on my journey, I traverse the remaining three miles to Emma Taylor‟s house
in record time. I don‟t want to appear anxious, so I creep down the gravel berm that bleeds into
the red clay farm road. Surrounded by six Shag Bark Hickory trees, the simple white farmhouse
is dwarfed and concealed in the shadows. But even as I approach cautiously, Emma‟s dog – a
Rhodesian Ridgeback named Chip – recognizes my car and begins barking and circling my car.
By now, Emma is aware that she has company. In fact, I can see her standing on the front
porch, her slender sack-skirted form silhouetted against 200 watts of harsh yellow light. Indeed,
as I walk from my car to the porch, I actually have to squint and shield my eyes with my hand.
“Sorry I couldn‟t get here sooner, Emma, “ I say, wondering for the first time if I‟m even
welcome on the Taylor property.
“I don‟t recall that we set a particular time, Louis,” Emma says without mentioning my
“I hope I haven‟t kept you from your dinner.”
“I‟ve eaten my supper, Louis; the question is, have you?”
“It‟s really too late for me, Emma,” I answer cryptically, climbing the first few step so I
can at least gauge my lady friend‟s fickle mood. “But I sure wouldn‟t mind a piece of your pie.”
Emma walks over to the top step and faces me. We‟re on the same level now, even
though she has a good four inches on me.
“The pie‟s not out of the oven yet, Louis; would you care to wait?”
“Not at all,” I say as Emma points me in the direction of the porch swing
Emma, however, remains standing near the front door. She‟s leaning against the trim
with both hands flat against the small of her back. Her eyes dreamily focus on the tips of her
naked toes, but she says nothing.
“What is it, Emma? Are you still mad about this morning?” I ask, holding the swing in a
stationary position with my heels.
“No.” For a brief moment, Emma remains frozen in position, lifting her gaze only
slightly as a pair of headlights wanders by on the main road. “It‟s nothing, really. I‟m just in a
mood, I guess.”
Walking my way, Emma plops herself clumsily down beside me on the swing, like a
gangly thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. It‟s an odd posture for her, but it‟s useful since she is able to
kick her bare heel on the floor and set the swing in motion.
“Well, what is it, Emma? I‟m confused.”
“It‟s nothing, Louis; just a woman thing. You know what I mean.”
But I don‟t know what she means. Is Emma having her period? Is that what she‟s trying
not to tell me? And why should such a thing matter to me since we‟re not exactly on intimate
terms, despite the fact that she has seen me naked.
“Thanks for understanding,” Emma says softly, hitting me gently on the right calf with
her ringed finger.
As quick as she came, Emma is off to the kitchen, leaving me to swing and bob like a
sailboat in her stormy wake. I hear the oven door open and close, the sound of plates and
silverware, and I smell the spicy aroma of a good Pippin apple pie wafting through the open
dining room window. Humming a kind of lullaby, Emma returns to the dining room and delivers
two place settings. I can see her through the sheer curtains, skirting about in her favorite Lands
“Let‟s eat in here,” she says in a quiet, conversational tone, aware that the window is
open and there‟s no need to shout.
“That‟s fine, Emma.”
Indeed, the porch light is beginning to give me a headache and the moths are starting to
set up camp in my pockets. Entering the house, I let the screen door slowly close against my
heels as Emma disappears into the kitchen again. Before taking my place at the table though, I
scan the living room area to the right of the main hall. Unlike the kitchen and dining room, the
living room is dimly lit. A Deco-style floor lamp, situated over near what appears to be an
upholstered Eastlake parlor chair, provides the only light. Still, there‟s no question that the room
is full: a camel back sofa, an assortment of ladder back chairs, a goose neck rocker, and Emma‟s
famous redware crock collection round out the décor. Of course, the walls are also covered with
a myriad of family photos and framed memorabilia.
“It‟s ready!” I hear Emma say as the oven closes with that familiar sound of springs
Back in the dining room, I see that Emma has set our places: me at the head of the table
and she on my right. It‟s an uncomfortable arrangement, but one I realize has been created out of
“Have a seat, Louis. I'll bring it to you,” I hear Emma say over the steam-sucking drip of
the coffeemaker. “Cream, and how many sugars?”
“Two, thank you!”
Instead of sitting at the table though, I linger at the sideboard, over which hangs a portrait
of Emma and her late husband. Hank Taylor was a solid citizen, a farmer‟s farmer who always
dressed the part. Oddly enough though, in the picture Hank is wearing a short sleeve white shirt
and narrow green tie, which looks like it‟s only six inches long. It‟s the only time I have ever
seen the man out of his coveralls, other than at his own funeral.
“I hope this turned out okay,” Emma says, whisking back into the dining room with two
slices of apple pie. “The last time I used this recipe I missed something.”
I pull my attention away from the picture and assume my place at the head of the table.
“Well, sit down Louis. Don‟t let your pie get cold,” Emma says, nodding in the direction
of the head chair as she races back to the kitchen. “Coffee‟s coming!”
Awkwardly, I sit with my hands in my lap, trying to be courteous. But I reach for my fork
before Emma returns, lest she chide me for my lack of initiative. Placing the coffee on the table,
Emma goes to the light switch and dims the lights slightly.
“Better?” she inquires rhetorically, seating herself and unfolding her cloth napkin, all in
the same motion.
“That‟s fine, thank you, Emma. This pie sure smells good.”
We take the first bite in silence, both of us obviously trying to come up with
an opening line. If Emma has something on her mind, I‟m sure she‟ll tell me. In the meantime,
I‟m just happy she isn‟t mad at me.
“So, I hear you're leaving town,” Emma begins, almost matter-of-factly.
“What! How in the hell did you know that?” My second bite of pie wedges itself in my
craw like a stray golf ball and I bray like a spooked horse, the words barely squeezing past the
“Raz told me,” Emma says, her head drawn down into her shoulders. “I probably
shouldn‟t have said anything. Now he‟s going to be mad at me.”
“Raz! How the hell did he know?”
I‟m practically on my feet now, waving my hands in the air. Am I going mad?
“Louis!” Emma says sternly, loudly placing her dessert fork on the edge of her plate.
“I‟m sorry, Emma, but there‟s something strange going on here, and I want to know
Emma takes another bite of pie and brings her napkin to her lips, then to her eyes. Is she
crying? Not again! Not twice in the same day! I‟m going to hell for sure.
“Emma, I‟m sorry. I wanted to tell you myself,” I assure her, touching her strong, tanned
arm. “I still don't know how you knew.”
“I told you, Raz told me this morning,” Emma explains, half laughing and half crying
into her napkin.
“But how did he know?" I ask. My head is almost on the table and I‟m looking up into
Emma‟s glazed gray stone eyes. “Hell, I didn‟t know myself until an hour ago!”
At a loss for words or a suitable explanation for what has just transpired, I fill the void
with Emma‟s famous remedy for everything – food. Still, I wonder how the whole damn town
could possibly know my business. News travels fast in a small town, but this is insane.
“Would you like more pie, Louis?” Emma asks as she excuses herself from the table.
Habitually, she will bring more pie and more coffee, whether I want it or not.
“Emma?” I say calmly, grabbing her gently by the pleat of her cotton dress.
“Emma, please sit down; we have to talk.”
I let go of Emma‟s dress and attempt to press out the wrinkles with my hand. Quite
accidentally, I feel the warmth and firm contour of her thoroughbred-like upper thigh. Turning
loose of the reins, I expect to be ignored; but Emma responds positively to my touch. In fact, she
is eager to talk.
“Yes, Louis, I‟m all ears,” she says, sweeping the dirty dishes out of the way, planting
her elbows on the table and folding her hands under her chin, Hepburn-style. “I know how much
your daughter means to you.”
“My daughter? What about my daughter?”
“But I thought…”
“Well, yes, but how did… never mind.”
“Raz told me. I thought we‟d established that.”
In spite of the oddity of the moment, I tell Emma about my decision and convey in great
detail the pressing nature of my situation, even the fact that Uncle Sam is about to take
possession of my house if I don‟t come up with $6,800.
“Louis! How could you have…”
“Been so delinquent? It‟s a habit of mine, Emma. You of all people should know that.
Jesus, I really screwed up this time.”
“Well, I should say. So what are you going to do?”
“Nothing! My daughter is far more important to me than the Feds or a piece of
“But Louis, it‟s the family, the house your great, great grandfather built!”
“I know, Emma, but right now I have to find Alex. I don‟t know where she is exactly, but
I‟ve got to find her.”
“Damn it, Emma; you know the trouble I‟ve been having lately. I just can‟t do it
anymore. I‟ve been drinking too much, I know that; but it‟s been my only way of escaping.”
“Escaping what, Louis? You have a wonderful life here and so many people have come
to count on you,” Emma says in all sincerity, drawing up her chair closer to mine.
“The past, Emma. Sins of the father and all that crap. I‟m the back door man, home
wrecker par excelance! You don‟t know…”
“Oh Louis, you‟re talking like a jailbird, half crazy. Besides, I know more than you think.
You forget how much you like to talk when you‟re intoxicated.”
Emma pokes me lightly in the ribs and tries to make me smile. It‟s a good time to fess up
to a lot of things, including the pain I‟ve been experiencing on my left side; but I resist because
that would only give Emma a scientific reason to rescue me…again.
“I don‟t know. Maybe I‟m just getting too damn old and senile,” I say in an exhausted
tone of voice as I run my fingers through my thinning hair.
“Nonsense, Louis!” Emma says, leaning her head close to the table, looking up at me.
“Too old for what? You‟re here and this is your home. You don‟t have to give it all up just
“The whole damn county‟s falling apart, Emma,” I mutter, my voice cracking. “In fact,
the whole world‟s going down the toilet! The Baptists know it, Raz Irvington and Ken Clarkson
know it, and now I know it.”
“By the Baptists, you mean Reverend Tom?”
“That man is scary, Emma. There‟s something not right about that guy,” I say, my face
half-buried in the pie crumbs.
“Louis,” Emma says softly. Only now do I realize that she is up on her feet, standing
behind me with her soft hands on my stiff shoulders.
“Come on now,” Emma says, kneading my tired muscles with her experienced farm
fingers “It‟ll turn out for the best. You‟ll see.”
“I wish I could be so sure.”
As I stand up slowly, Emma pulls my chair back. I feel like I‟ve got a slight beer buzz
going, but it‟s not all that unpleasant. Walking arm in arm to the door, Emma and I step out onto
the porch and into the glare of the yellow porch light.
“Goodnight, Louis.” Emma says as she lets go of my hand and opens the screen door
Trapped between the extremes of light and dark, my eyes fail to focus. I can barely see
Emma as she melts back into the pitch-black foyer.
“I came here to say goodbye, Emma, but I‟m not sure…”
“Schhhh, don‟t say anything,” Emma whispers. I hear her, but I still can‟t make out her
face. “You do what you have to do, Louis. I‟ll wait to hear from you; now goodnight.”
I hadn‟t planned on leaving Emma‟s place so abruptly, but as I reach the bottom porch
step, I feel instantly invigorated by the cool night air. My senses now heightened by a sudden
surge of adrenalin, I feel okay about us, Emma and me. No, she didn‟t exactly throw her arms
around me and beg me to spend the night with her so that we might officially consummate our
crazy relationship, but the thigh thing meant something. I just know it.
Walkers Ridge Road is desolate this time of night, so I feel free to use both sides of the
road, as well as my high beams, which help to illuminate the corn crop that is now being
harvested. Of course, the farmers have retired for the night, but the ground hogs and ring neck
pheasants are out in force, rooting through the corn stubble left behind by the machines. And
soon the hunters of the Little Elk will have their shot at it too. That‟s what life is all about when
you‟re one of the links in the rural food chain.
Coming to the old suspension bridge in town, I debate whether I should go straight and
execute my plan to visit the Irvington residence. Being as it is now 10:35 p.m., I feel like I‟m
barging in on Raz and Iris; but if I know Raz, he‟s still trying to get his pack of coon dogs to shut
The road up to the Irvington‟s house is a well-maintained logging road. I could stick to
the main highway and exit further up the river road, but the Forest Service road crosses over
Haystack Mountain and cuts 15-20 minutes from my ETA. Indeed, within minutes I am
descending the steep grade on the northeast slope and can see that the lights are still on at the
As I pull into the lane, which is just a pair tire tracks barely visible through the weeds, I
can immediately hear Razs' prized Blue Tick hounds as they wreak havoc on the solitude. As I
near the house, the porch light pops on and Raz appears at the door wearing what appears to be a
pair of red satin boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. His fat hand is laid across his forehead and he‟s
trying to figure out who could be visiting him at this ungodly hour.
Pulling up behind Raz‟s „72 Chevy pickup, I see that Raz recognizes my car and he
motions for Iris to ditch the shotgun. Still, as I approach, Raz gestures with his finger to his lips.
The kids have been restless tonight and Iris has no doubt spent a better part of her evening
confined to the rocking chair.
“Tell it to your goddamn dogs, Raz,” I say in a voice just above a whisper.
“Wait here, Doc,” Raz tells me before he disappears with a feed bucket in his hand.
From behind the house, I can hear the faint but frightening sound of hungry animals
vying for meat scraps. It‟s an unnerving noise that makes me tremble inside. But the carrion is
devoured quickly, and in a matter of minutes, Raz has returned to the front porch with an empty
bucket and beads of perspiration rolling down his face.
“Sorry, Doc,” he says, shaking his head as he stares at the ground. “They always get a
little high strung this time of year, ya know, with hunting season coming on.”
“It‟s okay, Raz. I don‟t mean to barge in on you this late, but I just came from Emma‟s
house,” I tell my friend, looking him square in the top of his round head.
Raz turns away and fakes a fruity cough as he reels in a non-existent pair of blue jeans
from the clothesline.
“Did you hear me, Raz; I said...”
“Yeah, I heard ya, Doc,” Raz says as he reaches around to scratch the back of his neck.
“And how is Miss Emma this evening?”
“Well, you ought to know, Raz.”
“Know what, Doc?” my friend says with a shit-eating grin on his round, fat face.
“You know damn well what I mean, Raz Irvington,” I holler unrestrained. “You called
Emma this morning, didn't you!”
“Well what?” I counter, circling Raz like a drill sergeant.
“Sorry, Doc. I just figured she ought to know.”
“The question is, Raz, how did you know?”
Both of us are startled when a pair of shoes hits the screen door with a crash. It‟s Iris‟
way of telling her husband that she‟s pissed, so we take the matter under advisement and retreat
to the safety of Raz‟a Chevy truck. For the first time I‟m aware of the crickets. The cool
evenings have sent the rest of the bug population packing and the night air exudes a refreshing
silence. The chirp of the cricket is the only night sound left, and it serves to announce the coming
change of seasons.
“So, Raz… how did you know I was making plans to find my daughter?”
“Like I tried to tell ya, Doc,” Raz says nervously, his arm propped on the side mirror of
the vehicle. “They‟re just some things a man just can‟t control.”
“Like your mouth, eh Raz?” I say, poking my friend in the gut.
“Well, that too, I reckon.”
I‟m waiting for a fuller explanation. It‟s getting late and I‟m not leaving the Irvington
compound until I know what the hell is going on and who‟s behind this practical joke. Not
willing to let bygones be bygones, I stare at Raz until he breaks his silence.
“Okay, Doc; it‟s like this. You‟re going on a trip, right?”
“Okay,” I nod, following my friend‟s ambiguous blend of child‟s play and logic.
“And I'm goin with you.” Raz shrugs and raises his palms as he delivers the punch line.
“There, now you know.”
“You‟re what? Now listen, Raz…”
“I‟ve got to go with you, Doc. Preacher Tom says so. It was in his dream!”
Raz‟s hands are on his hips and his eyes are as big as the buttons on a banker‟s overcoat.
“What does that old coot have to do with any of this?” I ask with some amusement.
“Like I said, Doc; some things you just can‟t…”
“Well, you tell old preacher Tom that he can buy his own goddamn bus ticket. He‟s not
suckering me into joining one of his hair-brained crusades. Is that what this is all about, Raz? He
wants to hitch a free ride to the Southern Baptist Convention in Memphis and boycott the
proceedings? Is that what this is all about?”
It ain‟t nothin‟ like that, Doc,” Raz insists, waving off imaginary voodoo demons with his
arms as he walks away from the truck and back into the porch light.
I follow, interrogating my friend as we climb the porch steps. I can tell Raz is feeling
besieged, but I have to know what I‟m dealing with here. Am I crazy or is he? It‟s a rhetorical
question that need not be asked, and it‟s just as well because Iris Irvington is standing at the
screen door and she has a disgusted „I can‟t sleep‟ look on her face.
“Will the both of you please keep your voices down,” Iris says sternly but quietly.
“You‟ll wake the children, and then I‟ll have to send you both of you boys somewhere you won‟t
“Evening, Iris,” I whisper, fighting the urge to bow. How are you this evening?”
“Never been better,” Iris says as she steps out onto the porch and into the light.
“My condolences.” Now I do bow. Anyone who can justify chaos as a lifestyle choice
deserves a vacation.
Iris is a good eight to ten inches shorter than her husband, but her shadow is gargantuan.
She‟s wearing a flowered tunic and her medium length hair is fashionably styled around her ears.
A Vanderbilt graduate, Iris holds a masters degree in Philosophy.
“Good evening, Doctor Dickerson,” she says in her gentrified Birmingham brogue.
“My apologies again for all the noise,” I say sincerely. If I had a hat I would be holding it
across my heart.
“That‟s quite alright. I realize you two have plans to make,” Iris says, moving closer to
Raz but looking directly at me with an omniscient stare, one that she no doubt perfected while
working for the Martin Luther King foundation in the 1980s. “Well, I hope you find what you‟re
looking for, Doctor Dickerson.”
“What I‟m looking for? Somebody better tell me what‟s going on here or…”
I‟m stopped in mid sentence by the sight of a fresh pair of headlights coming up the
Irvington‟s driveway. It‟s a delivery truck of some kind.
“You expecting a package of some kind, Raz?”
But before Raz can answer, I recognize the truck from the advertisement painted on both
sides of the cargo portion of the vehicle.
“Clarkson? What in the hell is he doing here?” I ask, scratching my head. Raz is
“Man, I thought I recognized your car,” says Ken Clarkson, swinging down from
passenger side of the white delivery truck. “Hey Doc! What‟s up, Raz!”
“You two know each other?”
“Yeah, well, sort of,” Raz says, looking back up at the porch light and his wife‟s long
shadow, which extends well out into the front yard.
“Yeah, Doc. Raz has been looking after my mother ever since she moved in over there at
the assisted living place in Glenville,” says Ken Clarkson, “and I‟m mighty grateful for it.”
“But that‟s fifty miles away, how…?” (I can‟t imagine driving into Tomason sometimes,
let alone the 100-mile round-trip to Glenville)
“Twice a week, Doc. I thought Ms. Clarkson might like to see a friendly face every once
in awhile. Old folks can get mighty lonely sometimes, you know.”
“Yes, I know; but Ken, what are you doing over here this time of night?” I ask, still
baffled that we‟re all together in this one place.
“I saw the light on and thought I drop off a box of fresh cabbage,” Ken grunts as throws
open the back doors of his delivery truck.
“Iris makes a mean boiled ham and cabbage, Doc,” Raz says enthusiastically. “You
should stop by sometime…”
“Now wait a minute here. I‟m not interested in ham and cabbage; I just want to know…”
“Doc here‟s goin‟ on a trip to find his daughter,” Raz tells Ken before I have a chance to
complete my sentence.
“Yeah, now how do you know that, Irvington?” I inquire with obvious suspicion. “The
whole goddamn town seems to know my business. Now, how is that?”
But instead of getting the satisfaction I deserve, I‟m ignored by all parties present.
“You‟re kidding. That‟s great, Doc!” Ken says shaking my hand. “That sounds like an
adventure, but I hope you‟re not planning to take that old rattle trap of yours.”
“Now, hold on, Ken; that car and I have been around the world and back,” I say,
objecting to the slight.
“Yeah, and both of you look like you been around the world and back, several times!”
Raz has a good chuckle with Ken.
The two of them act like couple of ninnies, but I take serious issue with anyone who
insults my car. It‟s my car, and if choose to drive it to hell and back, that‟s my right.
“Well, what do you expect me to do, drive all the way to Charleston and rent a car at the
airport? You know how much that will cost?”
“You‟d be lucky to make it all the way to Charleston in that old heap, Doc,” Ken says as
he pulls a bushel box of cabbage from the back of his truck.
While Ken consults his clipboard, I follow Raz as he walks around my vehicle and makes
snide comments. I want to kick my good friend in the shin or double him over with a well-placed
Karate chop, but I‟m too chicken. Fighting words will have to suffice.
“Wait a minute!” Ken shouts, motioning for us to stop.
Raz and I have been too busy bickering to notice that Ken is talking on his cell phone
over by the trees, but we respectfully curb our sonorous discourse for the moment.
“Are you sure you can handle it?” I hear Ken say in earnest. “Okay, I really appreciate
this, Betty. Thanks!”
Raz and I resume arguing once we realize that Ken is off his cell phone; but Ken has
something else to say, to me in particular.
“Well, Doc, your vehicle problem is solved!” Ken announces confidently.
“What do you mean, Ken? I appreciate your assistance, but I‟m taking my own car on
“But you don‟t have to, Doc!” Ken says, pocketing his cell phone. “We can take mine.”
“Your what? What are you talking about, Ken?”
“My truck, Doc. I have a back-up that‟s due out of the garage tomorrow.”
“Oh no, you don‟t understand, Ken; this is a personal trip. Raz here thinks he‟s going too,
“You have any idea where you‟re going, Doc?” Raz asks. “You think those beer-soaked
road maps on your floor board are gonna get you there and back?”
“Get me where and back?” I say, finally remembering where I put my road maps.
“I have a laptop and GPS,” Ken offers graciously. “I can get you anywhere on the
“You wanna get there don‟t ya, Doc?” Raz speaks in a more sympathetic tone this time,
but his words are still as cutting. “Besides, the way you been drinkin‟ lately, we‟ll be bailing
your sorry ass out of jail somewhere.”
“Yeah, Doc. This is no time to be hitchhiking,” Ken Clarkson says as he raises the bulk
of his sandy blonde mane with both hands. “Believe me; as a longhair, I‟ve had my ass kicked a
few times. It‟s rough out there.”
Double-teamed by a closet beer-drinking Baptist and a Socialist whiz kid; just my luck.
The three of us certainly make for strange bedfellows, but the chicken in me knows I can‟t do
this alone. I have no clue where I‟m going or how to get there. Maybe Raz and Ken are right.
Besides, having two designated drivers will free me up so that I can concentrate on the important
aspects of the trip. I know quaint little roadhouse I once patronized when I was doing my
residency in Wheeling. The Chopping Block, I think it was called. Lots of good memories, which
are the kind of memories I need right now; not the resent-laden, remorse-filled nightmares that
have been creeping into my daydreams lately. Lord knows I need a break from feeling lousy.
Conceding to allow my friends to accompany me on my journey, we shake hands and
exchange manly half-hugs. I‟m relieved, really. Faced with potential failure, I was worried at
first; but now I‟ll have all the help I need when my meltdown finally comes. Indeed, I‟ve been
wrong about women before, but this is family, my own flesh and blood; and like the Ricky
Staggs song says, no one can hurt you like someone you love.
Nevertheless, tomorrow, the ceaseless gears of another workweek will engage the masses
of this tired old town, but I will not be among those unfortunate souls who will be clocking in.
By mid-morning, I intend to be well on my way...east...west…wherever, to see if I can find my
daughter Alex. Wish me luck…