***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Phillip Lewis
The desk is the same as he left it. The raven or whatever it is on the wall. Wolfe. Poe. Chopin. A first-edition copy of The Stranger, price-clipped, chipped, and cocked. A signed first edition of Look Homeward, Angel that he prized more than any other book. A first edition of Tales of Mystery and Imagination signed by Harry Clarke in blood-red ink. A Bible, King James, black leather cover. Three candles; copious spent wax. A bottle of Hill’s Absinth, empty. Two bottles of vodka, empty. A bottle of Spanish wine, also empty. A book of matches. A lamp, no bulb. Fifty-one journals, handwritten. The title page of an unpublished novel with an annotation in Latin. Nine years of collected dust and a handful of pictures that must have meant something to him. I open The Stranger to read the inscription in my own hand. I turn the page and see the first line of the book: “Mother died today.” I am beginning to understand.
My father was one of only two children born in Old Buckram’s cinderblock hospital in the cold and bitter autumn of 1939. The other child, a young boy who didn’t live long enough to get a name or a soul to be saved, was buried by his mother on a hillside near town when the ground warmed enough to dig him a proper grave. There was no service and no one sang any hymns. The boy’s head- stone, if you could call it that, was a large smooth rock from the creek. He was laid to rest with only his mother’s voiceless prayer to an absent God. She asked that he be forgiven the original sin and kindly allowed into heaven to await the others when, in the Lord’s wisdom, their day should come.
Old Buckram, where this story begins, is an achromatic town high in the belly of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s situated un- easily about as far north and west as you can go and still be inside the surveyed boundaries of North Carolina. In 1799 the population there was 125, and by 1939 this number had swelled to 400. It’s a town where the streets and sidewalks are lonely and seldom traveled. Where the few paltry shops—an aging hardware store, a feed store, a cobbler, a discount clothier, a café, and a headstone maker—scarcely see enough business for a living and close early in the dark days of winter before the snow falls. It's an old railroad town, but the train hasn't gone there in years. It's a town with one-room red-brick churches on the hillsides and in the hollows, a town that believes in a God living but remote, and a town with one funeral home that buries almost all the dead. It's a town of ghosts and superstitions. It has the Devil's Stairs and Serpent's Tongue Rock and Abbadon Creek, which carried a n entire family into oblivion in the flood of 1916. Up behind the creek at the edge of town lay the Barrowfields, where by some mystery nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss which climbs over mounds of rock and petrified stumps that the more credulous locals believe are grave markers from an age before time. Others say a great wind-blow came up over the mountains a thousand years ago and ripped out the trees and carried away all the goodness in the soil so that nothing could ever grow there again. Nearly everyone thinks it's haunted ground. There's never been a picnic on the Barrowfields, of that you can be sure.
If anyone ever knew how my father's family found themselves there, in Old Buckram, their stories have long since been silenced by many steady turns of the imperturbable clock and no record of that enigmatic journey has been left behind. My grandfather, whose given name was Helton, told me once that the family might have migrated there from the far north sometime in the 1700s, down the Great Wagon Road that ran from Pennsylvania to the North Carolina Piedmont. He said our ancestors were probably some of the first settlers on this rugged and unforgiving land. "Goes to show," he told me, "that my and your daddy's folks were none too smart."
The family was damn poor, impossibly poor, like almost every one else in the mountains, but over time through hard work and determination they managed to cultivate a fairly dignified existence. The children were well cared for even if food and clothes were hard to come by. Helton was a laborer who would take what ever work there was a nd do it honestly and diligently without com plaint except for whatever he might have said to God on Sunday mornings during prayer. He worked for several years on the Blue Ridge Parkway as a dynamiter for the WPA and after some time had lost his hearing in one ear and was immune to most conversation that was conducted in his presence. He became somewhat like an old dog that sits quietly in the corner of the room, oblivious to all the goings-on around him.
I know of nothing extraordinary that he did in his life, except that he worked five days a week and remained married to my grandmother, Madeline, despite uncountable bitter winters and un relenting poverty. He accumulated no money and no property of consequence. On the date of his death, he owned nothing of real value other than a middling farmhouse that leaned when the wind blew and a plot of fit-for-nothing land he'd purchased at auction for five dollars an acre. The only book he ever owned or read was the Holy Bible, which came to me when he passed away. On the first blank page of parchment, there is a note from his father-my great grandfather, William-that says in barely legible scrawl: "Read this Bible and govern yourself accordingly." The next page contains a faded reproduction of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane by Heinrich Hofmann. My grandfather signed the Bible and over time wrote into its pages several annotations of unknown provenance, the first of which appears at the beginning of the Book of Genesis. It reads simply "4004 B.C." For him, this is when time began.
Despite living in Old Buckram his entire life, my grandfather appeared in the local newspaper only once. Against his better judgment, he ran for office after being encouraged to do so by the pastor of his church, who regarded Helton as a quiet man with common sense and decency. Confusingly, after a brief political campaign during a frigid autumn, he wound up with only two votes out of the twenty-five that were cast. The newspaper reported only a sentence:
T. VANHOY OF VELLUM's CASKE DEFEATED H. L. ASTER FOR THE OPEN SEAT OF COUNTY COMMISSIONER BY A WIDE MARGIN.
Knowing that he'd voted for himself, he'd only say later that it made him trust both his wife and his preacher a good deal less.
The next day, before he went into town, he took great pains to clean and ready his gun- a fact that was observed with silent concern by everyone in the family. To hear Maddy tell it, he stood from the table and inserted the pistol with significant gravity of movement into his belt. At long last, she said, "Helton, where in tarnation are you going with that gun?" He said, "I figure a man that's got no more friends than I do would be wise to protect him self." Whereupon he closed the door behind him and walked the long road into town. He never ran for another office, and no one ever suggested to him that he should.
As a boy I used to ride with my grandfather in his rusted Ford pickup truck to the Buckram Abattoir north of town some days after school and on some weekends. On the main level, the store sold bacon, sausage, vegetables, and various other subsistence items. Out behind the store was a large cement slab with four crudely cut channels running to a black drain. On the sign in the front was a black and white hog.
At the Buckram Abattoir, everybody knew everybody. My grandfather and I went in one Friday afternoon to buy milk, and a giant man in overalls approached my grandfather and slapped him on the back.
He said, "Helton, what do you know?"
My grandfather said, "What do I know? Hell, I don't even suspect anything."
The man in the overalls smiled and winked at me kindly. Out side, men with no work to do sat on benches for hours and told jokes and picked at their teeth with toothpicks and watched people come and go. Inside, men idled on straight-backed chairs with seats of woven hickory slats and leaned openmouthed over checkerboards, lifting their heads occasionally to look around or spit. They poured plastic sleeves of peanuts into bottles of Coke and drank them, and talked about the weather and how things were changing so fast, even though they weren't. Rows of red and yellow tomatoes with bulging excrescences sat on a display next to wicker baskets of green beans needing to be snapped, and potatoes caked in dusty brown earth rested in paper bags borrowed from the town's grocery store. An antique drink machine with glass bottles of soda you'd pull out horizontally hummed in the corner. The uneven wooden floor creaked as people walked up and down the aisles.
A black man nobody knew came in to pay for a gallon of gas. A quiet came in with him, and left when he left. When he was out the door and headed up the street, one or two old men shook their thick-jowled heads in disbelief. There were few black families in Old Buckram, and with rare exception they lived together in one linear and well-kept neighborhood behind the car lot in town. It was a common, unseemly joke among locals that there were exactly one hundred black people in the whole county-no more, no less. With a lopsided grin, they'd look askance and say that if one more came into town, another one would be politely asked to leave. This usually produced some knee-slapping and guffawing, and pearls of slick mucous getting dislodged from old throats long coated with the fuliginous stains of cigarette tar.
Less than a thousand people, whites and blacks, lived in the town limits during my years there. Nearly everyone else lived in the hills beyond, on dirt and gravel roads that wound endlessly back into the mountains until finally dwindling into nothing. People on these old roads lived in rusted single-wide trailers with slick tires on top to guard against high mountain winds, or in small wooden shacks with wood-burning stoves and asbestos roofing shingles that just barely kept out the rain. Lots of families lived in hollows that would run up a hillside off the public road. In the hollow there'd be a creek, an old house, a few leaning, dilapidated barns where things of no value were stored, and trash.
My grandfather and I left the Buckram Abattoir and headed back into town and then, leaving again, drove out Larvatis Road all the way to his and Maddy's house. Maddy was outside hanging clothes on a line in an increasing wind.
"Y'all are just in time for dinner," she said. "I was fixin' to eat without you."
"You wouldn't have done that," said my grandfather. The heavy truck door, rusted in the hinges, complained loudly as he opened it and shut it again.
"I would have, too," Maddy said. She gave me a suffocating hug in the folds of her apron. "Oh, I have a surprise for you!"
"I sure do. Let's get in out of this wind. It's gettin' cold out here and you don't have a coat on."
"It was warm earlier," I said. An unusually mild October was quickly moving on toward winter. A kaleidoscope of leaves lay in the tall yellowing grass of the yard.
"Son, in the mountains, it always gets cold when the sun goes down. It don't matter whether it's spring, summer, or fall. I know your daddy knows that, too." Maddy always had wisdom for the weather and the seasons. She could tell you better than any meteorologist if it was going to rain or snow, and she knew it before any one when the winter was going to be especially hard. I don't know how she knew, but she always did.
Helton and Maddy lived at the end of a dirt road about four miles out from town in a sharp-cut valley hidden from the sun. A stream ran down the mountainside behind the house and followed a deep weedy gulch all the way out to the highway where there was a one-lane bridge made out of cut logs. A weeping willow drank from the stream, and in its shadow Maddy had put a wooden bench that no one ever sat on. A crab-apple tree stood in the side yard opposite, and rotted apples lay shriveled in piles on the ground beneath it. Inside, there was a woodstove in the kitchen and another one occupied a corner of the living room. When both stoves were going, you almost couldn't stand to be in there. On cold winter days Maddy would get up early and start them roaring and this would drive my grandfather out of bed. He'd go around opening windows and get scolded for it. "You're letting all my heat out," she'd say. And he'd say, ''I'm just trying to keep everything in here from melting."
Maddy made cider with the crab apples she picked up out of the yard. She cooked it on the stove in the kitchen where it would simmer and steam all day long. I could smell it as soon as I got out of the truck. We went in and Maddy poured me a mug to warm me up.
In high school Maddy was a fair student who joined the few clubs that were offered, but otherwise she had an unremarkable academic career. She didn't go to college, so after high school she got a job working as an assistant to the minister at one of Old Buck ram's few Baptist churches and kept the job for almost her entire life through more preachers than you could count.
When she wasn't working, she liked to sit quietly and paint ce amics. She'd filled the entire back porch of the house with porcelain coffee cups, pumpkins, plates, and jars that she had decorated and proudly signed with her initials. She had all kinds of odd, worthless trinkets. There was a fossil of a flower in a wedge of limestone that she'd bought for fifty cents at a street market in Ohio. It sat on the windowsill year after year. It was brown and the petals of the flower had become invisible with time, but of this curiosity she was mighty proud. She'd pick it up, look at it, and put it back down.
She liked to cook but by most sources was not as good at it as you might think. My grandfather used to say it wasn't natural to her. Her mainstays were the cider and a nearly inedible cornbread reminiscent of masonry that had to be dissolved in milk to be eaten. After she got sick and couldn't work anymore, their finances dwin dled, and it was rare that they could afford a meal out of the house. They acquired no luxuries in their lifetimes and they expected none. They only spent what limited money they earned on what they truly needed. They learned to get by and be content with very little.
I sat holding the cider to warm my hands and Maddy stood in the doorway of the kitchen smoking a cigarette. She cracked the door and blew the smoke outside, but the wind brought it right back in again. She coughed until my grandfather took the cigarette from her and helped her into a chair.
"I'm sorry, honey," she said to me. "How's the cider? Is it good?"
"It's good," I said, but it wasn't. It was horribly tart. It drew my eyes in together so much I thought they would touch.
"Do you notice anything different about it?"
I did not, but I didn't say so.
"I put cinnamon in it this time as a special treat." This was my surprise.
"It's delicious," I said.
"Well, drink it before you have to go home." "I will. Are you taking me home?"
My grandfather sometimes took me, but Maddy never would. "No, sir," she said. "I've been there one time and that was enough.
That house reminds me of a mean old vulture just sitting up on the side of that mountain." I had heard this sentiment before.
"That's where I live," I protested.
"I know it is, and better you than me," said Maddy.
My grandfather put his large hands over my ears. I looked up at him and thought his head might touch the ceiling. Maddy got up and threw another piece of wood into the stove, and I sat there stinging from her words and drinking my awful cider that now tasted even worse.
"It wouldn't burn so fast if you didn't get the stove so hot," said my grandfather.
"It's freezing cold in here," said Maddy.
"Do you want to put on your coat? I'll get it."
"So now I have to wear a coat in my own house? I think not." Maddy smiled at me. Her hair, a mixture of gray and black, was held back on the sides by an array of bobby pins. She put on a smear of orange lipstick to replace what she had left on her last cigarette. "If you keep this up," said Helton, pointing to the stove, "there won't be a tree left in any forest in America."
Maddy took out her checkbook and did some figuring. She sat at the small square table in the kitchen where they ate all their meals. The vinyl tablecloth stuck to her elbows and cracked when she lifted them. About ninety percent of the counter space in the kitchen was covered in jars and containers of one sort or another. A clock on the wall showed the same time it had on my last four visits there. I watched it to see if it would move, but it didn't.
"Helton, did you hear that little Ola Hamilton is sick?" Viola Hamilton was, at fifty-two, a young widow whose husband had been killed when a row-crop tractor he was driving rolled over on him several years prior. She hadn't remarried and it was unusual to see her in town anymore.
"No, I sure didn't. What's happened?"
"She can't get out of bed, for one. They say she's got arthritis real bad, and her joints are in flames. It may be time to send in the Balm Squad." This is what they called the group of elderly church ladies who would descend on a sick person's home like a muster of peacocks, carrying food and bread and more pies than one person could eat in a lifetime. A splinter group, the Psalm Squad, would be brought in later if the patient was also ailing in the ways of the Lord.
"Can you take her something for me?"
"I sure will," said Helton.
My grandparents were good, kind people. They picked at each other like folks will do, but they loved each other dearly. And de spite a lack of hanging diplomas, they were plenty smart. You'd never catch either one reading for pleasure, but they were clever in the way that all mountain people are, which comes from learning how to survive unending winters of ice and falling snow, and wind that could take the roof off your house. They started having children as soon as they were married and didn't stop until they'd had five and knew beyond any doubt that a sixth one would starve. With one part self-sacrifice and several parts plain good fortune, they managed to rear all of the children, with some fits and starts, into adulthood. The youngest of the children was my father.