The One that Got Away

I know where I am, but I am not sure how I got here.

I am about a half-mile south of Mitchell Dam in Coosa County.  The bridge on Alabama 22 is half again as far away.  Nothing much on that highway but trees on either side.  Forests that would swallow it without a trace in a few years without human intervention.   You break down anywhere on that stretch between Rockford and Verbena and you better pray that you can flag down the occasional log truck, because your cell phone won’t have enough signal to be tracked by the government, let alone make a call.  But I can say that about most of Coosa County.  It is a good place for a person to simply disappear.  Many have.

I have stood on this spot before.  A narrow strip of Bermuda that is outrageously out of place, a little patch of grass that mimics a manicured subdivision lawn.  It is at the river’s edge.  A cabin is perched on the hillside up-slope.  The riverbank on this side of the Coosa is steep but gradual, and a few other cabins squat along the bank back toward the highway.  The one behind me was once a mobile home, but a skillful carpenter framed it in so that it looks like a cabin.  I know this because I tried to sell it for a man once, long ago.  An over-priced cabin with a secret.

The other side of the river is wild and beautiful.  A shear bluff 500 feet down to the waterline.  Limestone outcrops punctuate gnarled and stunted oaks and hickories, their branches heavy with Spanish moss that seems oddly out of place this far from the coast.

The current is swift here. Deceptively so.  The surface is gunmetal gray, but the roiling murky brown water hidden underneath swirls to the surface and then submerges again.

I watch this silently.  Try to read the river like an old manuscript.  In my mind’s eye I can see the Coosa when it ran wild before the dam.  Back when hundred-year floods sent sharecropper’s houses, barns, and livestock rolling past this spot toward the Gulf.

There are fish in this river.  Big fish.  Old men who sit out front of Kelly’s Crossroads store talk about catfish as big as Buicks below the dam, hovering silently in the murky depths.  Big blind yellow-cats that patrol the bottom at depths where no sunlight has ever penetrated.  Some will swear on a stack of Bibles that Alabama Power can’t hire divers to inspect the dam below the surface, because they know what’s down there.  They have heard the old stories of men who went down and never came back up.  About the one who made it back to the surface but spent the rest of his years wide-eyed and silent in a padded room up at the nervous hospital in Tuscaloosa. 

I suddenly realize that I am not alone.  I am standing next to a stranger.  He is casting into the depths with heavy tackle, long stout rod and spinning reel with 100-pound test line, the kind of rig you would see on a charter boat in the Gulf, or fishing for marlin in the Keys.

I watch him silently.  He casts upstream and lets the line run by with the current.  He doesn’t look at me.

“They’re running” he says.

I don’t recognize his accent, but it’s not one from around here.  His weathered face is partially hidden under a faded black Harley Davidson baseball cap.  A skull patch with “Live to Ride – Ride to Live” on the front.  Shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbows exposing tattoos of dark angels in hellish landscapes. 

“You ride?” I ask.  I’m looking for common ground.  “Maybe we can hook-up and ride to…”

He waves me off mid-sentence.

“Today we fish” he says.

In an instant I see something roll up through the surface.  Something big.  Great White shark big.  Flash of white belly in the twilight, the size and color of a beech log.  It is gone in the blink of an eye, slipping back silently below the current.

I wonder if he too saw, but he has turned away from me.  “Pick up that rig and cast upstream.  Let it float with the current.  Let her take it and run, then snatch that pole back with both hands to set the hook.  You best be ready when she hits it.”

I do as he says.  I see the bait plop through the surface and disappear.  I watch the line as it moves with the current and passes where I stand on the bank.  His line is still in the water, but he’s no longer watching it.  His is gaze has turned to me.

I feel the line tug.  Watch all the slack vanish and see the rod tip snap downward.

“Steady… steady… now. Snatch it!”

I feel every muscle in my body tense as I jerk the rod backwards with both hands.  The pull on the line is immovable.  I have hooked something so big that it is pulling me toward the murky water as it moves downstream.  In a millisecond I realize that I am the one who is hooked.  I am the one who is being played.  I am caught.  My mind screams “let go, let go,” but I cannot.

I turn to the man for help, but he is gone.  His voice is a whisper in my ear.  “You want to ride, son?  Let’s ride.  Now taste and see that the Lord is good.”

I begin to scream.

And then I wake up.

The Art of the Deal

ford

Somebody told me this story years ago.  I do not know if it is true, but if it isn’t, it ought to be.

There once was a forester who lived in the little timber-town of Grove Hill, Alabama.  As you might guess, most foresters drive pick-up trucks, and he was no exception.  He had two, one that he used for work in the woods during the week and one that he drove mostly to town on Saturday and to the Grove Hill First Baptist Church on Sunday.

The work truck was kind of beat-up.  Some dents and scratches on the outside and some stains of unknown origin on the upholstery.  This is typical of forester pickups.  Which is why I will mention to you at this point in the story that you should never buy a used pickup from a forester.  They will clean it up real nice inside and out and make it look good, but trust me, they have got about all the ‘goody’ out of it or it would not be for sale.

But I digress.

This other truck, the Sunday-go-to-meeting one, was in pristine condition.  Although it was nearly 20 years old, he had treated it with kid gloves, so much so that he wouldn’t even let his rather large wife Nelda eat her ice cream cone in it on the way home from Sunday dinner at the Dairy Bar, a matter that she still holds ill-feelings towards him to this very day.

Although he loved that truck, his neighbor down the road a piece had recently purchased a brand new ’72 Ford with air conditioning.  It was the first pickup he had ever seen with that feature, and it caused him to covet.  Ironically, the preacher at F.B.C. Grove Hill had preached on not coveting your neighbor’s something or other just that past Sunday.  He could not remember all the details of the sermon, because truthfully, he was half-asleep through most of it.  He just knew that coveting was something he ought not do.

The very next Saturday he drove up the road to the Ford dealership in Thomasville.  And there she sat – the pickup of dreams—an orange F-150 with pearl white side panels.  Air conditioning so cold that he might even consider letting Nelda have that cone on the way home from dinner, even in August.

The dealer put the hard sales pitch on him, but he remained stoic.  He had been up and down the road quite a few times over the course of his career as a forester and he knew how to trade, be it timber or trucks.  He knew he could buy that new truck at the price he wanted to pay, but the problem was that he was not going to get a fair price on his trade-in.  After all, his truck was immaculate.  He was not going to just give it away.

So, he did what all country folk did back in the day.  He parked the truck out in his yard with a “For Sale” sign that he had bought at the Thomasville Western Auto right after he left the dealership.  He did not post a price on the sign, but he knew what he would take — $500 cash money.

Now at this point in the story you may have noticed that the forester has not spoken. There is a reason for that.  He did not talk much because he stuttered.

If I may pause here, let me say that I am quite sure that I just lost a few readers (particularly the young ones) because I just wrote a word that is probably no longer politically correct.  I am sorry about that, I truly am.  But the word “stutter” was still a perfectly good word in 1972, so some newer phrase like “speech impairment” would be out of place in the chronological sense since it did not exist then.   Besides, ‘stutter’ is still a solid word.  A word like that is called “onomatopoeia.”  Look that up, youngsters.

Now as I said, the forester stuttered.  Badly.  It was a condition he was born with, but a kindly second grade schoolteacher, Mrs. Pope, had taught him a technique to deal with it.  Whenever he had to speak (and he tried to keep this at a minimum) he was to take a long pause, look at the person’s eyebrows, and concentrate on the sentence before he attempted to say it.  “Don’t flinch,” she said.  “Stay in control.”

He did not know what the word “flinch” meant because it was not on his second-grade vocabulary list, but he got the gist of it.  “Gist” was on the second-grade vocabulary list at Grove Hill Elementary.

He used this technique for years with great success.  For example, when Nelda was ready to leave the Dairy Bar and go home to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon on the couch watching “Hawaii Five-O” reruns (Jack Lord, now there’s a good-looking man, she’d think), she would say “Horace, let’s go home.”

And he would say “…..Nelda…..Finish…..your…..cone.”

This took a great deal of concentration.  His brow would furrow.  His eyes squint.  His lips thin.  Anyone who did not know him might confuse all that facial contortion for anger or at least agitation, but it was nothing of the sort.  It was, as I have already mentioned, simply a mental device Mrs. Pope had taught him to overcome his affliction.

About a week after he had parked the truck in the yard, gleaming in the south Alabama sunshine, a city fellow from Mobile happened to drive by and see it.  He couldn’t slow his ’69 Mustang down fast enough to stop, so he drove on to the first place he could turn around (which happened to be the driveway to the Johnson place about a half-mile up the road).  He was not French, but he considered himself a connoisseur of Fords of any kind, and he recognized a Sunday-go-to-meeting truck at first glance.

He hurried to the door and knocked.  From somewhere inside he heard a woman shriek “Horace, will you answer the dadgum door.  You know I am right in the middle of my show.  I think this is the one where Steve says ‘Book ‘em, Danno.’

Truth be told she was not going to get up for Horace if Jesus himself was at the door.  She was still aggravated about having to eat her cone faster than she would have liked.

The city-fellow wanted that truck.  A Baptist might even say he ‘coveted it.’  He started nervously yapping before Horace had even stepped off the porch.

“That’s a fairly nice truck to be so old,” he said.  “What will you take for her?”

Horace just looked at him.  He wanted to say $500, but he just stood there, trying to get the words out.

After about 30 seconds of silence, the city fellow decided to make the first parley.  “How about $250?”

Horace just looked at him.  He concentrated.  Stared at his eyebrows just like Mrs. Pope had taught him.  But before he could counter the man said “okay, how about $400.”

Again, silence.

The city fellow was starting to sweat.  To be fair, everyone in Grove Hill, Alabama is either currently sweating or starting to sweat.

“Okay,” he said.  “How about $700.  That’s my final offer.”

Horace said “Suh…suh…suh…sold.”

Now as you may know, most stories are “cautionary tales,” which means they have been written to advise us ‘what to do’ or more likely ‘what not to do’ in any given situation.  As such, there is always a moral of the story.

This is, indeed, that kind of story.

You, dear reader, may be scratching your head at this point.  There are, after all, several possibilities.  Which should you choose?

One is “the first person to name a price always loses in a business transaction.”  This of course is true.

Another is “Be wary of buying a used pickup truck from a forester.”  This one I have already mentioned.  It rings just as true at the end of the story as it did near the beginning.

A third might be, seek out a kindly second grade teacher like Mrs. Pope if you have an affliction.  She may have an answer that will serve you well for a lifetime.  Also valid.

But the real moral of the story, as I see it, is much simpler and will be easier for you to follow as you travel life’s backroads.

It is this: “Never buy a used pickup truck from a stuttering forester on a Sunday afternoon in Grove Hill, Alabama.  You’ll end up getting skinned.”

Consider yourself warned.  Or at least ‘cautioned.’

Meribah*

lightning-3

 

I walk the ridge line, following the well-worn trail past 300-year-old longleaf pines that stand like sentinels before the passage of time.  Other time-worn sojourners are here too:  gnarled black-jack oaks, mountain white oak.  Even the carpet of huckleberry where the sunlight filters through the canopy seem old.  Much older than I am.  Much older than I will ever be.

The tallest of the longleaf has been struck by lightning.  I see the long scar, bark peeled in a smooth strip from the topmost branch down to the ground. The wound is old, but a wound none-the-less, a visible indicator that a jagged bolt can descend from an angry sky and change everything in an instant.  The plight of the tree reminds me that standing tall and proud is not always the best option, for trees or people.

A ground-fire blazed up from the lightning strike.  A momentary conflagration in the great cycle of nature’s binge and purge.  Brief, yes, but intense.  The smaller trees, stunted dogwood and scrub persimmon were scorched before the rain followed the lightning spark and doused the flames.  Such is the nature of summer storms.  Not always the tallest and strongest take the hit and suffer.  Sometimes innocent bystanders have the worse fate.

I pick up a strip of the thin peeled bark and put it in my pocket.  It is a talisman of a sort, a reminder that other bolts will drop from these same heavens, sometimes even before a whisper of a breeze indicates that a storm is on the horizon.  We are not protected from jagged, loose electricity without a wire, high voltage descending through the quiet stillness of heavy air.  Such acts are not random, though they may appear so.  They are predestined, preordained before the beginning of time.  No other way that they could be.  Like the trail worn by the passage of feet and hooves for ages and ages that I walk on this Fall day.  No other place this trail could be.  No other time that it could be walked by me in this way in or this moment.

I cross a ledge where the trail narrows in the ridge line.  It is a thin, rocky place between the broad flat of the hilltops before and behind me.  I imagine from the air above it looks as if God pinched this spot while the bedrock was cooling, like a woman works the edges of a pie crust out of soft white dough.  The soil is eroded and thin.  Nothing grows here for lack of an anchor-hold. I mind my feet on the exposed granite.  This is where the timber-rattler comes to warm on the first few cool days of Fall.

The ledge safely crossed, I follow the trail a few hundred yards until the ridge flattens wide again.  Another trail, faint but still discernible, angles toward the side slope.  A fox squirrel chatters a warning as I step onto this path to make my descent.  Whether this warning is for me or for other squirrels, I cannot know.  Only time and the descent will tell.

I only know that I am headed down, but I have known that in my heart for some time now.  I will go down the steep side-slope to the broad level land in the hollow below.  A creek flows there, although I cannot see it or hear its music yet.

A little spot near that creek is my destination.

 

*Author’s note:  Occasionally I like to write short fiction.  I wrote this short story in 2013, so I expect that not many of you have read it.  It is rather long for a blog format, so I will be publishing it here as it was originally presented, as a “serial.”  This is good and bad.  Good in that you will probably read it if I keep the word-count down so as to keep your attention.  Bad if you somehow read the next installment without understanding that something came before it.