It Was After Shelby Foote Died (A 21st Century Novel)by Kevin Winchester
When I first saw Rayber Cline, he was in front of Starbucks trying to coax a Shetland pony across the sidewalk and into a horse trailer. Actually, coax is not the right word, not the right word at all. Rayber had planted his feet, facing the pony, with one end of the braided rope cinched around his waist and the other tied to the pony’s neck. He was leaning back at a forty-five degree angle, straining. The only part of it remotely close to “coaxing” was Rayber mumbling under his breath.
Now the pony, he was having nothing of it. He’d locked his front knees with his head reared back, showing nearly all of his teeth in a kind of vicious, Dali Pony on Acid, snarl. To make matters worse, the pony had an erection that was disgusting in a slightly erotic sort of way, embarrassing in an embarrassing sort of way, and freakishly, disproportionately large considering the overall size of the pony.
“Appears that one likes it rough,” I said. Rayber chanced a glance at me.
“In the back of my truck,” he tilted his head toward the red Ford. “There’s two bricks. Show ‘em to Enos, and after he sees ‘em, make like you’re gonna walk around behind him.”
It didn’t sound like a question so I got the bricks. “Enos is the horse, right?”
“Pony. Hurry up fore I slip a disc.”
I waved the bricks in front of the Shetland and he immediately lowered to his haunches. When I moved to go around him, Rayber dropped his end of the rope and the pony sauntered into the horse trailer. After closing the gate Rayber shoved his hand toward me. “Names Cline,” he said, “Rayber Cline. Much obliged—if I’da let go for the bricks, he’d been inside for sure. What’ll I owe you?”
I shook his hand. “Lyle Baucom,” I told him, “But you might know me as Tiger Storm.”
I waited for the recognition. And waited. It grew slightly uncomfortable.
“From Inside 48, the TV show,” I told him.
“I got a TV. Talks, but it don’t show. Been that way since New Year’s Eve of ’99. I figured it must be the millennium. Don’t bother to cut it on any more ‘cept to listen to Jeopardy.”
This had promise. I’d lived in South Carolina until I was seven, so I had some idea of what I was looking for. Of course, my ideas weren’t completely in line with Sal and Chauncey’s, but it was a start. I took their list and combined them with my notes and came up with a legal page outline that defined The Last True Southern Gentleman. One page. Written in permanent Sharpie. Efficient.
Rayber Cline met a few of the requirements: Number Seven—smart enough to represent the New South, but not too bright. The TV comment nailed that. Number Twelve—had to own a pick-up truck, preferably with a trailer. Check. Number Fourteen—have a way with animals. Yeah, sort of, but not a lock. Still, it was better than anything else I’d run across.
I’d been searching for three weeks and I’d not even come close. I was beginning to think Sal and Chauncey sent me down here just to avoid giving me an on air assignment. One I was long overdue. Time was running out, I was closer to forty than thirty. A lot closer. After forty, you could sell the distinguished look, but you needed a rep before it carried any weight. A name. A persona. I had to make this work. My lack of progress up the career ladder was beginning to have an effect on everything around me. Score the on-air time and my whole life would slide right into place. Nope, Rayber Cline wasn’t my guy, not according to my list, but I had a good feeling he probably knew the guy that knew my guy. Set the hook.
“Different network,” I told him. “That’s okay, though, I’ve not really had much face time, yet. I’d been in the South since right after Shelby Foote died. Working on this expose. My editors think he may have been the last example of what has been referred to as a Southern Gentleman. That’s what I’m here for, to find one. Or not.”
“Un-huh.” Rayber reached through the slats of the trailer and scratched the Shetland’s ears. The pony’s erection had finally subsided.
“You seem like a well-connected fellow, and that’s what I’ve been missing. Would you be interested in helping with the project, acting like a tour guide, so to speak? You may even get a credit when the show airs.”
“Like I said, we ain’t much for TV. Would this be something for listening, you know, like Jeopardy? Cause Jeopardy you can follow without the picture, mostly.”
“I suppose. It’ll show how the South once was, the chivalry, all the glories and mannerisms, how those sentiments might be preserved still, even carried forward through this example of a Southern Gentleman. I see it as having a redeeming effect.”
Almost there. Wide angle shot for the big finish: “Remember the Ken Burns Civil War documentary? Well, if you saw—excuse me, heard, that on PBS, you heard Mr. Shelby Foote. He was a consultant, more or less, but his persona really came through during the interviews. That’s the type I’m looking for, just with a little more flair. A modern day knight in shining, Confederate armor, so to speak, but not battle flags and slavery, advertisers get a bit squeamish with those; something more moss-draped and mint juleps. Gotta keep it up-beat, positive. Think: a contemporary Rhett Butler, but only the good traits.”
To be honest, I had doubts about that existence. I didn’t recall anything resembling their Southern Gentleman from my days in the South, but Sal and Chauncey decided this was the next hot topic, and I had to admit they were usually right. All the signs were there. First, Oprah announced three Faulkner books for her summer book club readings. And Oprah’s a lock, you know, so Sal and Chauncey immediately started looking for ways to cash in. Shelby Foote died next and generated some nice bounce in the press.
That nailed it. The working title was “Summer of the South,” and the goal was to have the expose finished and on the air come fall. I played up the fact that Southerners were clannish and I worked the angle that, being from the South, they’d open up to me quicker. Of course, I thanked the day my mother decided to move us out of there, and had never considered going back, but I convinced Sal, who convinced Chauncey, that I could handle it. I landed the assignment with the warning that everything went through them and there’d be an eye on me start to finish. Rayber didn’t need to know any of that, no sense giving him any room for doubt.
“I don’t know about all that,” he says, “but I ain’t got too much on my plate right now. If you was to lay out exactly what it is you’re looking for, me and Enos might could throw in with you.”
“Enos?” I’d almost forgotten. I had no clue how the pony could possibly be the deciding factor, but there it was. I could make this work. Of course it helped that I’d taken a Southern Lit class in college. And I even re-read a Southern novel from the sixties called The Last Gentleman. It didn’t have much to offer, but with the way things were shaping up with Rayber, I thought I had a pretty clear picture in my mind.
“I know it’s not much of a first impression. He gets free of the pasture sometimes, I can’t figure how, and he always comes to town. It’s the coffee. The smell of the beans makes him horny. Our coffee at home, it’s Folgers, Dunkin Donuts, Fast Fare—got no effect on him at all. Only Starbucks. The first time, he actually got inside the shop, tried to mount those bins where they keep the beans. It does smell good in there. Outside of that, he’s smarter than you think. I’m not sure the vet’s folks are headed in the right direction, yet.”
“Fine. Good. I’ll make some calls, get you a second opinion for… Enos, right? It’s settled, then. Is there some place we can go and talk? I’ll get you up to speed and we can get started. I’ll need a place to stay. Is there anything here in town?”
“Derwin’s Funeral Home, it’s a bed and breakfast now. Long as you don’t mind that, it being a funeral home before, and all. We’ll put Enos back in the barn, first. You need to get to know him in a better light anyway. We can talk on the way, then I’ll carry you over to Dane and Kyle’s: they run the bed and breakfast. You want I should call you Lyle? Or Tiger, like the golfer?”
It was supposed to be Tiger like Wolf, Wolf Blitzer, but we could straighten that out later.
* * *
Okay, I had my contact and over the next few days my plan began to take shape. I understood that, considering commercials, the hour-long show breaks down to forty-eight minutes, so I needed to stay focused, no extraneous stuff. Nothing about how Rayber Cline’s ancestors were so fully committed to the secession they converted all their money—stocks, bonds, savings, everything, into Confederate currency and were then swindled in the exchange after the war. Or that they were gradually forced into selling off the two thousand acres until all that was left were the thirty unfertile acres where Rayber now lived.
Or how they used a large portion of the money from the land sales to build the small, tenant houses for the freed slaves that wanted to stay, or how, later, when the home place burned and the new brick house was built, his grandfather would not allow the crew to install the knotty pine paneling because two black men, Big Boy and Roe, worked on the crew and he did not want what he still considered field help inside his house, even though he had known both men all his life. Or how that same grandfather cashed in an insurance policy when Roe’s wife, Magdalene, needed the heart operation. Maybe that’ll show up in the outtakes.
None of that was pertinent to the story, that’s what Sal and Chauncey would say, and once they pointed it out, I could usually see what they meant. The fact that Rayber’s Mexican wife was named Yaquina and their three adopted children were from Bangladesh, Bosnia, and China—well, it was cute and heart-warming, but, as my editors reminded me, it had absolutely nothing to do with the Last Southern Gentleman and the significance of his existence, or not, in the New South.
And further, Sal and Chauncey kept telling me it’s all about plot. I needed to hook the audience and keep them locked in and the only way to accomplish that was for the events, or the scenes, to unfold in their naturally occurring order with escalating drama along the way. Plus, I needed to hone in on a few cliffhanger type lines or shots to run as commercials, a “best of” preview, if you will. John Q. Public has a short attention span, they said, and by all means, don’t get involved with the people in stories; they’re only the product. John Q. doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the people; they only need a constant supply of that “better him than me” feeling streaming into their living rooms for validation. It’s the advertising dollars, plain and simple. Sell it so they linger over the commercial.
That’s what Sal and Chauncey said I should remember if I wanted to move into features. That’s how I’d get my camera time. That’s all that matters, they said, forget anything else. And, with the Big Four-O looming, I decided it was best.
I still had some doubts, though. Like I said, I was beginning to feel time slipping out for me, so I came up with a couple of back up plans, just in case. I mean, I’m a pretty sharp guy, you know? I figured maybe to give Sal and Chauncey bits and pieces until I saw how it was going to all pan out. I had the idea, if they shorted me, I could turn this Southern Gentleman thing into some sort of reality TV show, pitch it to Fox, they’d run anything. And I knew a couple of literary types around town. The word was that memoirs, creative non-fiction, were the hot ticket in books. That gave me the notion to organize my trip notes by chapter. If everything else bombed, I’d publish the memoir and then parlay that into a movie deal. But, Plans B and C didn’t involve any face time, though, and if you’re not on TV, well, forget it.
So, I couldn’t include this next part, Chapter One. Don’t tell Sal and Chauncey you’ve seen it. Actually, it’s probably best; safest given what the Texas Trio in DC has done to the Constitution lately, if you disregard the next section altogether. Maybe skip ahead to Chapter Two.
As soon as we were in the truck, Rayber handed me a beer and I realized asking him to help was absolutely the right decision. Consider it: I’m in a pickup truck, pulling a horse trailer that Rayber actually backed up, by himself, before turning it around. I’m sweating in the humidity with the windows down because the A/C doesn’t work, drinking an ice cold Miller (yes, a domestic) that Rayber fished from the cooler on the seat—if that wasn’t Larry Brown’s South, I defy you to show me a better example.
After that thought settled in, I started thinking about Enos and his erection and tried to put that whole scene into context, already developing my story angles, but, as I mentioned, knowing all the while this part would never make it into the script, nor the treatment, not even the notes I gave to Sal and Chauncey, and knowing equally well the Enos and Rayber scene had absolutely nothing to do with the story I was after, I ultimately failed to uncover any justifiable context within the scope of the show for the scene. I could hear Chauncey whining: “but how does that further the action, the plot? The essence of the pony is irrelevant. Cut it, cut it, snip, snip;” and I could see Sal banging his fingertips against his forehead, emphasizing each word: “think damn it, think. Listen to Chaunce, the horny horsey, his brute of a master, you’re picking fly shit out of black pepper. I can’t sell fly shit, move on.”
So, I tried to move on but Rayber started telling me stories about Enos while the fence post and pines clicked past the open window and the heat waves simmered from the black top. Yes, I was having trouble concentrating; maybe because I’d nearly finished my second beer (they slid down so easily for domestics), wait, my third, and I skipped lunch. Maybe it was because it was only two in the afternoon, but the heat, well, it simply can’t be described, can’t really be measured, only experienced, only endured. Or maybe it was because my brain was trying to assimilate the information about Enos’ favorite turn-ons and the only thing I could dredge up that remotely signified was my friend Jack’s Dalmatian.
The dog was famously stupid. Jack bought it after 9-11 as some sort of honorary tribute to the New York City firemen, his words, not mine, and predictably, if you went to Jack’s apartment the dog would hump your leg at some point. It was a non-discriminatory dog. If you were there and the dog didn’t start with you—well, don’t be offended and don’t be relieved. Everybody got a turn. Ramone swore the dog was a socialist and once, after we’d been drinking absinthe, he called the Homeland Security Hotline and spent fifteen minutes ranting about suspicious activities before letting on exactly what those activities were or that the suspect in question was canine. “But technically,” he argued before they hung up, “a canine is a foreigner, and I feel very threatened by his actions. I demand to speak to W.”
But, it wasn’t all bad: In keeping with the political climate, Jack developed some ingenious and entertaining ways of acting unaware of what was going on and if you said anything about his amorous, yet misguided dog, Jack would either blame it on something preposterous and utterly unrelated, or proceed to delineate for you very quickly who lived there, who was visiting, and your options for relief. You were either with him or against him. Jack, not the dog.
You’ve got to know this about Jack. He always meant well. The guy would do anything in the world for you, for strangers even, but sometimes he had trouble seeing the big picture. See, he named the dog Tragedy (Fire Department, 9-11, remember? 9-11, remember?). And although he named the dog long before it reached puberty and its sexual proclivities became obvious, he refused to change the dog’s name even after our commands for him to cease with the leg action grew to an exasperated level of theatrics. It wasn’t like the dog ever learned its name anyway. Or anything else for that matter. Finally, Ramone (he wore short pants year round as a fashion statement. Needless to say, Ramone went to great lengths to avoid Tragedy), Ramone grew so tired of hearing the standard command in all its dramatic variations that he had bumper stickers printed for everyone that read “STOP TRAGEDY” in black letters on a pink background. That put an end to it. From then on, we all ignored the dog’s antics. STOP TRAGEDY had become a slogan and it just didn’t have the same punch anymore.
At the time, I didn’t see it, but the whole situation with Tragedy was like a sign for me. You go along with something long enough, no matter how much it bothers you, and you’ll eventually accept it as routine. I don’t know. Maybe it was more like those shows on public access, the religious ones, where people say they heard the voice of God or some saint or something. Could be the only thing keeping them from major network prime time is that the voices really are there, just nobody else bothers to listen.
Either way, I had a hard time getting it all to jive with the project. I attempted to explain the significance, the connection of the two, of Tragedy and Enos, to Rayber. He listened intently and I could tell by the look on his face that he was trying, really trying. After I finished, he took an extended drink of his beer and held it in his mouth where he could think about it for a second longer.
“Things are funny that way,” he says. “It gets so I don’t notice, either. Enos won’t have nothing to do with a girl pony, I’ve taken him everywhere. Alenida—she’s the pet psychologist over at Doc Armstrong’s, Alenida says Enos is showing latent homosexual tendencies, but I think that’s a little extreme.”
He took another swallow, this time quicker. “She can channel an animal’s emotions and thoughts, even. Enos has been in regressive therapy for about a year now and Alenida says he was traumatized and humiliated by his parents, they’re completely to blame, for everything, and until he learns to refrain from internalizing those thoughts and deals with his issues openly, he’ll keep running away. She says Enos is showing progress, but if we don’t have a breakthrough soon, she’ll start him on pony Prozac. I’m still studying on that one.”
Rayber dropped his empty through the sliding back glass and it clanged against the others. “I think Enos’s confused, is all,” he continued. “He’s not learned how to handle his own intelligence. Reach me one more Miller, would you? And you said the tragic dog was stupid, right?”
Rayber didn’t get it, didn’t get it at all. And there was certainly no point even trying with Sal and Chauncey. It had come to this: I was a Journalism major in college, Lit minor. Three credits short of any degree, but that was beside the point. I kept thinking about the Southern Lit class, all the authors. Faulkner, Dickey, Walker Percy, O’Connor, and now Shelby Foote; all gone. All the way back to Poe, who wasn’t really a Southern writer, but he was the first one we studied, the first to make an impression with me. And lately: Larry Brown this year, Tim McLauren earlier still. I was beginning to feel something else had died with them, that my Cliff-Noted South had vanished, and I had visions of my on-air career getting suffocated by the kudzu.
I felt a wave of despair wash over me. I thought of Poe. I thought of the word melancholy. I mouthed the word melancholy, just to see how it felt, how it rolled around my tongue, cascaded across my lips, but I didn’t say it out loud. I didn’t want Rayber to hear and I believed at that moment, if I gave voice to the word, it would render the word impotent.
Slowly: mel-an-choly. Quietly. Melancholy.
I thought of Poe; longed to be home, to see Jack again, let Tragedy have a go at my leg. I thought of Poe and drained my beer. It would be good to hear Sal and Chauncey ripping me a new one, in person. I thought of Poe. And opium. I thought about Ramone’s wife, thought about going by and asking if she had any of the Russian heroin that killed him still lying around. He wasn’t gonna need it. Maybe I’d give it a go, see what the appeal was.
But mostly I thought about Poe. Poe and the word melancholy. I had rolled the word around so many times, both in my head and my mouth, it no longer felt real; and so it was easily replaced by the words printed on the approaching highway sign: DANGEROUS CURVES - BLIND DRIVEWAYS NEXT MILE. Bullet holes pierced the sign between the R and the V and the V and E like an unearned cliché. I leaned out the window, arced my empty Miller toward the sign. It shattered between the two D’s, glass spraying everywhere, the metallic ca-whack sound bouncing against the truck, echoing into the trees, dying amongst the kudzu. I faced the windshield and smiled.
“Nice shot,” Rayber was handing me another beer.
“That was for Poe,” I told him. I don’t think he got it.
* * *
I decided I could hold on a bit longer. Three weeks stretched into four, then five. Yeah, I’d spent almost forty years spinning my wheels, but I sensed I could finally get some traction here. A couple of weeks more wouldn’t hurt, especially since I’d met Rayber Cline. He was the best option I’d run across. The fellow was easy to steer and it seemed he was tied close enough to the locals that he’d save me some time. Making him understand what I was after would be a chore, but you work with what’s put before you.
The Last Southern Gentleman; I was close. I could feel it. I’d have something for Sal and Chauncey. Face time was coming. No, wait, wait a minute. How about this: A storm is coming, Tiger Storm? Hmm, that’s a helluva catch phrase, I had to write that down. This thing went big, there was my commercial tag line. Oh-oh-oh, I could use it to sign off, too: …and that, ladies and gentlemen, is all for tonight. Have a safe evening. The Storm has passed. I’ll tighten it up. Yeah.
Naturally, At This Point, Chapter Two Would Follow
But Rayber and I were having no luck at all in finding the Last Southern Gentleman, so there’s really no point in going through everything that happened in Chapter Two.
Besides, it was everything you’d expect. I will say this: Thank God, Darwin, Bill Gates, Allah, Captain Kirk, or the asshole Verizon guy, whoever is responsible for voice mail and caller ID on cell phones, because Sal and Chauncey were calling non-stop. The first round of credit card bills had made it back (the bed and breakfast was a bit pricey, not necessarily so by New York standards, but it was quite a bit higher than the thirty-nine ninety-five we’ll leave the light on for you hotel bills from the first few weeks. I thought it was justified; Dane and Kyle were extremely gracious hosts. They didn’t have anywhere near the edge of the NYC gays I knew. Genteel, I think is the word. You’d never guess it, but Dane plays guitar in this seventies southern rock cover band. Kyle does their hair, which they have plenty of, still, and he’s also a damn fine Harley mechanic. They’re just good people all the way around, you don’t get that smug, East Coast—Big City attitude you have in the city. Extra kudos because they’ve got great weed, too).
Anyway, emails were so much easier than a phone call, as far as me dealing with Sal and Chauncey, but their tone was growing nastier as well. Lot’s of CAPS. As I’m sure most of the voice mails would scream if I had listened before pressing delete, “get the damn story and get on with it,” so I suppose I should continue. Things move slower here, I’d noticed. Decided to remind Sal and Chauncey of that in that night’s update. Sal had me reporting in every other day, notes on how things were developing, time frames, story lines. I had to be creative.
Chapter Two did introduce a certain mythical, fairy tale quality that pervaded throughout. At least you could make a case for it; it’s no big deal really. Fairy tale, quest, call it what you like, there are rules, and for the most part, everybody in Chapter Two colored within the lines. I’ll give you a trailer. Here goes.
After three days of going over all the requirements, conferring with Yaquina, hashing things through with Charlie Wrenn, the guy who lived on the adjacent property, and phoning some guy called VZ, Rayber identified three (hint: see fairy tale requirements) very likely candidates. Yaquina then proposed devising a form, sort of a questionnaire, to speed the process along, which the three of us accomplished over the next two days (during which time I learned to eat grits). The form was then sent up and down the chain that had developed, Charlie and VZ obviously needing to sign off on everything before we proceeded. Questions were deleted for being either too vague, or as leading and therefore unfair.
Still others were added as new topics developed during the course of our deliberations, which led to a revamping of the overall criteria. Others were modified in one form or another until we reached consensus. Somewhere during the process, something from another college class I had resurfaced. It dawned on me, after analyzing Charlie Wrenn’s numerous changes to the questionnaire, that he was deconstructionist enough to make that Derrida fellow proud (but, I don’t recall Derrida having a TV show, so what was the commotion? I hate to say it, but lets face it. This day and time, if you’re not on TV, well, as they say around here, you ain’t she-it). We narrowed it down to ten all-encompassing questions we could either ask the candidates directly or determine on our own. All in all, it was pretty close to the original list.
When it was done, Rayber asked, “You need to run this by that Sal and Chauncey fellow before we move on?”
“I’m running the show down here,” I told him. “They’ll rubber stamp it as long as I say.”
In reality, I was having a slight dilemma. During the process, the requirements for being declared a true Southern Gentleman, and more importantly, the last of the breed, had mutated somewhat from the list originally provided by Sal and Chauncey. But, a mention of the questionnaire would only complicate things in New York, so I ultimately decided against notification. Emails were just too clinical for something like this. No connotation, all denotation.
Chapter Two continued in an orderly fashion for a while longer. Use your imagination. Three pages, fourteen pages if you like minutiae, details and detritus. Suit yourself. Love affairs, murders, heartbreak, it’s still going on. Something as simple as being late for an appointment, burning dinner, all there, present and accounted for, sirs, bubbling just below the surface. Yep, just like it used to, once upon a time, in a land far, far away. These people have lives you know. They eat, they crap, they take a lot of medication because the man comes on the TV during dinner and by God tells them they should.
But we can’t get attached; they have nothing, nothing at all to do with the story. We need to stay focused here. Sal and Chauncey, while being out of the loop on the whole questionnaire development, still held the finally say-so on this project. Judge, jury, prosecutor, defender, defendant. Editor. Publisher. Power. Career makers, career breakers. Focus, focus. Chapter Two goes on in an orderly fashion, Sal and Chauncey be damned.
Word spread, crowds gathered.
I couldn’t have a meal in the diner without half a dozen locals coming up, lobbing for their third cousin once removed, or their momma’s sister’s fourth husband. Seems everybody wanted their fifteen minutes.
Notoriety grew, secrecy waned.
I’ll admit, I played it up some. If they wanted to think I was a big time producer, I was gonna let them. Problem was, everybody was talking about our search and I got word that this Siohban Lamar character was stirring up some opposition, telling people to boycott, claiming we were out to vilify the South, glorify the racism and misogyny. Mostly the misogyny. I hadn’t met her, but I figured she just needed a date, you know?
Candidates prepared, authenticity suffered.
I saw guys on tractors and guys in trucks. Men in overalls and men in seersucker suits. I was plied with home-brew and Rebel Yell. I learned about Civil War heroes and even the fellow that supposedly killed the last black bear in the area some forty years back, hanging from the lowest limb of a sycamore tree and slashing the bear’s throat with his Old Timer’s pocket knife when it roared beneath the branch, just to impress this girl from two farms over. It was all too much to believe.
I thought of storyboards and network pitches; lights and cameras and action. I tried to remember plot, ever increasing drama. Advertising possibilities and market share were weighed and considered from all angles. I made notes for Sal and Chauncey, developed contests for the reality show, scribbled paragraphs for the memoir. When I reviewed Chapter Two and realized how desperate and deluded some of the locals were—something hit me.
The paragraph about the guy slaying the bear, for a girl no less—I’m telling you, it moved me. After all the years, the old fellow really believed he’d done it, you could see it in his eyes. It was poetic. When I read that part, hell, I wept. Well, almost. A sniffle, maybe. Allergies.
Unfortunately, it was the high point of Chapter Two. And there was no way to substantiated his claim, so it was never gonna make it into the show.
Regardless of all the folks angling to be included, Rayber pointed out that, in order to maintain some sense of journalistic integrity; we could not randomly choose three candidates. Sal and Chauncey would see through it in a minute. If I’d learned one thing during my years as a fact checker with Inside 48, it was that any stone left unturned usually hid something that would inevitably bite you square on the ass. So, officially, we had to go public, make the obligatory cattle call, and once again suffer through the dregs of the community.
We went to Kinkos and printed some distinguished looking flyers with my number at the B&B and a summarized list of the requirements. Our questionnaire followed my original list for the most part, with the alterations everyone involved had agreed upon. Four generations in the South, had to own a truck, of course. A house with a proper veranda was a plus. A penchant for the occasional noon whiskey and hunting dogs was a must. Plenty of extended family and relatives nearby. And granted, being a direct descendant of a Civil War veteran scored extra points simply because it made for good TV. Knowing and exhibiting some sense of noblesse oblige would get you moved to the top of the list. But preferably no criminal history, although Rayber informed me that in the past “cause he needed killing, Judge” was sometimes considered a valid defense, and therefore couldn’t unilaterally be reason for exclusion.
It wasn’t all bad. I got to experience a bit more local color. No luck on the Last Gentleman, though. Run-of-the-mill trailer trash and rednecks, beaner banditos and wannabe transplants, kooks and screwballs, most of them smelling a quick buck. Couple of old fellows teetered up near the end of the first day and threatened me, called me an instigator, a rabble- rouser, whatever that is. Told me I-77 had a North bound lane and if I didn’t like the way things were done around here, I was free to use it. Took me a bit, but I got it.
Once we went public, the crowds were smaller than I expected. I suppose the shine had worn off after me turning all the earlier crackpots down. Rayber had become enamored with the whole project and was actually quite a help, though. He kept apologizing for the low turnout.
“The locals, the natives, they’ve kinda dwindled of late,” he told me. “Most folks out in the subdivisions, they get home and roll down the garage door, you never see them. They don’t come out for this sort of thing.”
“It’s okay,” I told him. “I don’t imagine any of them would fit the bill anyway.” Rayber hung his head. “You’re probably right on your first three choices,” I offered. “We just needed to go through the process to make sure, you know?”
Rayber still looked concerned.
“About that,” he said, and I could feel the whole second chapter starting to crumble, “I’m not sure I understand exactly what it is we’re after. I know the Last Southern Gentleman and all, but after listening to you interview all these folks today… well, the picture’s fuzzy for me now, is all.”
“Look, don’t bail on me now,” I scrambled. “You got to trust me. You do trust me, right Rayber?”
“Well. Yeah. I reckon.”
“It’s one of those things…I’ll know it when I see it. Let’s get a couple of beers. Relax. That’ll clear your head.” I’d never been much of a beer drinker before, but the past couple of days I’d noticed myself thinking about the taste of a cold one as the afternoon dwindled. I thought Rayber was coming around after the first Miller, but he wasn’t finished talking things through.
“Well,” he said, “these three folks I have in mind, they’re good suspects, likely candidates and all, but getting them to agree to talk might be a problem.”
“How so?” I asked. The entire foundation had eroded by this point and Chapter Two was propped up as precariously as a deck of cards.
“I’m not that sharp, but it seems our whole premise begs the question, our main question. It seems, just thinking out loud here now, but it seems that by talking about the traits, by proposing or admitting that you, or anyone, our candidates, have those traits… well Lyle, I don’t know, you’re the expert and all, but I just think to be a true southern gentleman… saying you are one just seems like bragging to me and I can’t see a southern gentleman doing such as that. You get what I’m saying?”
Well, that was it for Chapter Two, but the interesting thing was, for Rayber, his response seemed out of character. This was exactly what killed me with Sal and Chauncey, every time. I had a tendency to get wrapped up in things, the people, and I’d forget the story. “Character development is an archaic literary device,” Sal would say, “Christ, it’s the twenty-first century. This is TV, damn it.” But how could I focus on plot when this whole new dimension to Rayber was unfolding? I’m not saying it was anything prolific, and it may have been a fluke, but I had noticed these moments with Rayber, these simplistic flashes of clarity that, brief and infrequent as they were, would give me pause. It just wasn’t the kind of thing I expected from, well, you know—a good old boy. Reminded me of Andy Griffith. Remember? Opie and Aunt Bea and the Fun Girls from Mt. Pilot? Now that’s a syndication run.
“Just trust me, Rayber,” I reassured him, “it’ll be fine.”
“We’ll need some help, is all. Approach the candidates one at a time, devise a plan, let things come to us. Enos is the key, I figure. Our angle.”
And the psychotic Shetland pony mysteriously reappears. I decided right then to not drink another cup of Starbuck’s coffee. I’d not drink any coffee. I was officially caffeine free. The plot thickened. I went to sleep that night and dreamed Joseph Heller and Milo Minderbender had filled millions of little pink paper panties with Starbuck’s coffee beans and were dropping them from Milo’s plane down on Rayber’s pasture. Enos was sitting in a rocking chair on Rayber’s porch, wearing dark, RayBan sunglasses and chain-smoking Camels, watching the coffee bean panties float to the Earth, grinning. It must’ve been the caffeine withdrawal.
Chapter Three is a Necessary Detour
But the only thing of any relevance in the chapter; what you really need to know, is that I was finally confronted by Siohban Lamar and, according to her, Belle Isle was once the most productive plantation in Feliciana Parrish, in nearly all of Louisiana, and seven prior generations of the Lamar family had culled their riches from the black soil, and the family name, like the plantation itself, was once held in the highest esteem in Southern aristocratic circles; and she, being the last remaining bearer of that fine name, was uniquely qualified regarding the subject of Southern Gentlemen.
“This spectacle is absurd.” She announced upon entering the diner and spotting me in my usual booth. She was waving one of our fliers like I imagined a tent preacher would wave his Bible. I assumed her comment was more for the smattering of patrons than me. What followed was less than a religious experience.
Regardless of her entrance theatrics, I felt compelled to stand up when she reached my table, offer her a seat. “I’m Lyle Baucom,” I told her, “But you might know me as Tiger Storm, from Inside 48.” I gave her a wink and flashed my smile.
“Tiger Storm my ass,” she smirked. “Next I suppose you’ll try and convince me you’re a distant relation to the Unionville Baucom’s and researching your family history is what instigated this farce. Let me give you a piece of history, Dick Tracy.”
She hit me with that just as Jenny brought my lettuce and tomato sandwich (on toast) and iced tea. It was a little embarrassing, but Jenny didn’t seem to notice. Siohban slid in the booth and I could tell she’d been saving up whatever it was she was about to deliver, had probably rehearsed it a dozen times. “Would you like a glass of tea first? It’s decaf,” I told her.
She waved Jenny off and unleashed the hounds.
After what seemed like hours had passed, I had been informed that by the early seventies Belle Isle was essentially abandoned save for the elderly black couple that lived in one of the frame sharecropper houses. Lancelot Lamar, the sole heir and Siohban’s father, spent the sixties casually supporting various liberal causes before growing disillusioned to the point that he returned from Texas to claim his legacy. He brought with him his second wife, who immediately set about restoring the old mansion to its former glory while Lance dabbled at law.
To me, it sounded like old Lance was more concerned with extending the appearances of a Southern gentleman into the twenty-first century (hence, our interest in the man) than practicing law, which meant walking the moss-draped streets in his linen suit each morning and having his first bourbon at noon. I figured he imagined himself equal parts Atticus Finch and Robert E. Lee, doling out bits of patriarchal wisdom to the locals at the coffee shop each day.
You could tell Siohban had placed her old man pretty high on the pedestal, regardless of the fact that about every third sentence she reminded me how much she hated everything he stood for, and how my project only served to perpetuate that myth. It was going to take her a while to warm up to me, I spotted that right off, but the information about her father helped me to clarify for Rayber exactly what we were in search of. The Lance guy definitely sounded like our Southern Gentleman. It would have been nice, but…nope. Died several years ago. We agreed he would serve as our model in absentia.
Adding an element of tragedy, Lance’s fortune changed in one short year. His wife, Margot, became involved with an ill-fated film project that was quickly trying to meet deadline by filming the final scenes at Belle Isle. More on that in a moment. Simultaneously, and quite by accident, Lance learned that Siohban, eight at the time, was in fact not his daughter at all. Her blood type was an impossible result of his and Margot’s union (luscious irony, no?). Probably had a lot to do with Siohban’s misplaced anger, I decided.
Anyway, after his discovery there was a seemingly tragic explosion and fire at Belle Isle, which conveniently coincided with landfall of the year’s worst hurricane, during which Margot and the film crew all perished, although Lance (also in the house with Margot and the crew at the time) somehow managed to escaped with minor burns on his hands and lower arms. He spent the next year resting in a local facility. Some coincidence, huh?
During the year Lancelot Lamar spent resting he conceived a New World, one rising from a Third Revolution, wherein all of society would be propagated with True Southern Gentlemen. He envisioned starting this society in the hills of Virginia (Virginia: virginial: fresh: unspoiled: not defiled, get it?) in tandem with the girl resting in the next room, who was encamped in the facility because she had been gang raped and as a result, no longer spoke. But, as Lance imagined, she had devised an ingenious method of communication and had in fact agreed to set forth with him upon their release. They planned to take Siohban with them. The next generation and all. He called the girl in the next room Eve (so he wasn’t the most original fellow, he was still a good example).
Siohban, in keeping with the current styles, and as kids these days are prone to do, with or without therapy, eventually felt robbed of her childhood and her youth by her father and his archaic theories. As Lance slid into dementia, ranting for days at Siohban about the necessity of continuing his work, of instigating this Third Revolution, she in turn became convinced that the Third Revolution and especially a true Southern Gentleman, were figments, by-products of delirium tremors, no doubt, and not only would never be actualized again, but should never come to fruition in any form. She vowed, as she watched her father by default draw his last breaths, that her life would be spent attempting to demonstrate that the myth of the Southern Gentleman was just that, a myth. A racist, misogynistic, whore-mongering, hypocritical myth.
My mind drifted during her speech and I was wishing the tea were caffeinated.
“Are you just going to sit there? See, that’s my point. The Southern Male continues to marginalize women.”
“Oh, no,no,” I answered. “I was listening, every word. I was just thinking, that’s all. Besides,” I gave her another wink for good measure, “I’m not actually from the South. See, I live—“
She huffed out of the diner before I could finish, leaving me to sum things up on my own. On top of everything else, I could tell her perspective was decidedly feminist. To the extreme. The focal point of all her philosophies rested in the premise that Love, at least in the traditional sense, you know: man as gallant protector and provider, woman as nurturer and homemaker, was no longer one of the basic human needs, and in fact, Society, through evolution, selection, and/or apathy, had rendered the entire concept of Love useless by the mid nineties. I agreed with most of what she said, in theory, and especially the Love part, but it was hardly a story in and of itself, and further, her position was in direct opposition to our goals. So it seemed.
Obviously, she was not in favor of our little project. But, if it helps—she’s five foot seven, red hair, fair complexion. Right handed, smokes Djarum cigarettes and prefers Johnny Walker scotch. She’s a switch hitting, plays for both teams, kinda girl, but lately had been leaning in favor of the hetero route solely as an avenue to further emasculate the male species. But, boys will be boys, and to use the vernacular: she was hot. And the fact that she went both ways made her even hotter. Provided some much needed sexual tension, which already had been suggested by Sal and Chauncey in several emails. Rhett needed a Scarlett, in their opinion. A damsel in distress for our Last Southern Gentleman to sweep off her feet. I didn’t exactly see Siohban playing that role, but sex sells, any way you slice it. Even gives the Conservative Christians something to get energized about when they see it on the TV. Click the damn remote, I say. Opposable thumbs, what a concept (but don’t let Sal and Chauncey know I said it. Advertising opportunities, you know.).
That should cover Chapter Three. Wait. In this chapter we also met Hiruto and Jenny Yagamishi, the Japanese couple that evidently bought the local diner from Peggy ten years ago and are best friends with Rayber and Yaquina. Minor characters, but the diner is where I had my first bowl of grits. My first Cheerwine, too. They weren’t involved in our search in any fashion, but they were over at Rayber’s quite a lot, so I suppose they should be mentioned. Okay, now that covers it.
Chapters Four thru Twenty
The usual occurrences occur as you would expect them to occur in Chapters Four through Twenty. I realize this “chapter” talk might be confusing, but it helps keep things orderly in my mind. Besides, each chapter would eventually be converted into individual storyboards and arranged in a Power Point presentation. Chapters, I suppose, are technically dead given that TV is the art form, so maybe they’re not chapters in the truest sense of the word, episodes maybe, but you get the gist. I hope so because I need to hit the high spots, summarize. Let’s move on.
In Chapter Five, Rayber and I met his first candidate. This guy’s name was LeRoy Busaunt. He lived several miles out of town and he’d contrived a series of fences and gates we had to pass through before arriving at his trailer.
He scored an eighty-seven on the questionnaire and things looked promising. Clean him up, new clothes, he’d pass. We’d need another location for the shoot, though, the trailer was covered in rust and the yard looked like a Sanford and Son re-run. Initially, I was a little unsure of his viability when he volunteered to show us his grow operation in one of the sheds out back. Turned out he was supplying Dane and Kyle over at the B&B. Mr. Busant and Rayber argued that technically, since he’d not been caught, there was no criminal record, and it was only pot, as Mr. Busaunt reiterated. Like I said, I was beginning to feel the pressure to produce from the office, so I let it slide.
Then, just before we started the ancestry portion of the interview, he introduced us to his wife. She, Mrs. Busaunt, trotted out the photo albums to aid in keeping relations straight for our notes. A huge argument ensued when she revealed that her and LeRoy were some relation before their marriage. This was a direct violation of Condition Number Two of the Ancestry and Relative section of our questionnaire, and Rayber and I were in the middle of delineating exactly how closely they were related in hopes of working around the requirement. We could have, too, had LeRoy not punched her at that point, causing Mrs. Busaunt to produce a pair of gardening shears from under the cabinet. Things deteriorated pretty quickly after that.
“Wrong guy,” I told Rayber when we reached his truck. “Too risky.”
LeRoy yelled, “you better close my damn gates, all of ‘em,” as he bounded out his front door and around the corner of the house. Mrs. Busaunt was twenty yards behind. She still had the clippers and had picked up a gas can along the way. When we pulled out, LeRoy had made the woods behind their house, but Mrs. Busaunt had closed the gap. Five yards give or take. I did think the gas can was an interesting choice.
* * *
By Chapter Six I was much more comfortable around town. Dane had been doing my laundry, but he and Kyle were visiting friends in Savannah for the week. Having the run of the B&B was nice, but I needed clean clothes, so I struck out for the Laundromat. That’s where I met Crystal.
When you first see her, she’s holding a plastic sand bucket, a blue one. Inside the container—and you will remember this very vividly, every detail; inside there’s a pack of unopened Dentyne gum resting vertically against a Barlow pocketknife, the blade only slightly opened. You will notice it is one of the older styles with the wooden handles, and you will also see, nestled in the simple, blue bucket, one dozen country ham biscuits wrapped in a red and white-checkered cloth. She moves toward you and the sunlight is behind her, streaming through the doors and windows of the Laundromat, and you see the silhouette of her slender body beneath the pale linen dress, the curve, the firmness of her legs, her thighs. You glance quickly at the outline of her cotton panties, wanting to linger, but you’re afraid and as she takes another step the light changes and her eyes are the only thing you can distinguish. One step closer and you feel the air, the oxygen rushing past you, away from you, but you’re not alarmed. You no longer feel as if you need such trivial things for sustenance.
Then, she tells you she has a message and the message is for, not you, even though you are instantly, secretly, desperately hoping that it is, but for Runt Gibson. She hugs the pail to her chest and in one continuous breath she whispers: “You see Runt Gibson tell him I run over his pot belly pig on the way into town this morning and that I’m sorry about it as I can be but there weren’t a thing in the world I could do as the pig startled me of a sudden coming out of the bushes like that and into the road and he, Runt that is, not the pig, ought keep a better eye on that pig it being a pet and all or at least used to be and would you be sure to tell him I left him a salted ham out in his woodshed,” and her voice washes over you like a slow, smooth running waterfall. You want to tilt your face straight up into those words and gulp each one down, knowing if you could only do that, you’d never thirst again, but you can’t because the sheer weight of her voice, even though it seems to be drifting softly on the currents and tumbling gently over the cliff in bubbling, gurgling, cascades of shimmering silver and emerald light, it’s pocked with drop-offs and undercurrents and deep swirling pools that you won’t know how to navigate and you’re afraid if you open your mouth to speak, to drink, even a sip, the weight of her words will overwhelm you. The slightest parting of your lips and you’ll drown.
That was Crystal.
* * *
Chapter Eight was the failure of candidate number two to measure up. He lived in a nice enough house just outside of town. We knocked on the door and it soon swung open. “Hurry. Inside,” a voice urged. “Close the door, quick.” Fastened to the doorknob was a length of bailing twine and it stretched across the foyer, into the dark living room, and ended tied to a magazine rack by a chair. We followed it in. It felt hotter inside the house than out. Cleavon Ramsuer was hunched in the recliner and the recliner was centered in a configuration of cardboard boxes that formed a sort of cave around him. He was wearing a knit toboggan, dark green. Every shade in the room was drawn. Cleavon stood to shake hands, then settled back in his chair and motioned us toward the seventies vintage couch. I found it odd that the inside walls of the cardboard cave were covered in Polaroid snapshots, but I didn’t ask.
“You’uns see Mary Ellen?” Cleavon leaned forward once we were seated.
“Well,” I glanced at Rayber. He shook his head. “No, Mr. Cleavon, we didn’t.”
“Then I’m much obliged your coming, but it’s for nought.” He leaned back and kicked out the footrest.
“But we’d like to ask you some questions. Rayber thought…”
“I been knowing Rayber there near ‘bout all my life. Knowed his Daddy, too. Used to coon hunt with him over by Twelve Mile Creek. That don’t mean I’m talking without Mary Ellen.”
“That’s right, Cleavon. But Mary…” Rayber was interrupted.
“Obliged your coming. Be mighty obliged your closing my door on the way out.” He snatched the twine and the front door swung open. Cleavon grabbed the stocking cap and pulled it down past his eyes, snugged it around his nose. “I ain’t feeling gentlemanly, last or not,” he mumbled. “Git on, now.”
Rayber led me outside. I was thinking about people being rather peculiar about us closing their gates and doors when Rayber spoke. “I’m sorry. He’s gone down a bunch since I last saw him,” he said.
“Who’s Mary Ellen?”
“Wife. She died fourteen years back. He’d uh been the one, though Lyle. Fifteen years earlier, he’d been the one.”
Oh well. We talked to Cleavon’s kids, though. After his wife died he developed a phobia of open places. Well, any place other than the inside of his house. There’s a name for that; I looked it up once while I was fact checking for one of Morton’s pieces, but it escapes me. The guy was just a mess. Couldn’t really take care of himself, but wouldn’t go to a Home. The kids took turns seeing after him, bringing groceries and keeping up the lawn, and they seemed oblivious to the burden he’d placed on them, the way their lives were dictated and controlled. Not their own. The only way I can describe their reaction when I asked why they didn’t have him committed is with the word “incredulous.” Maybe offended, I couldn’t be sure.
Rayber was sinking by this point. He was really committed to the project, you could tell. It was like he needed to show me, to prove something he couldn’t put into words. He had a lot of pride, more than I gave him credit for, and he was beginning to take these failures personally. He seemed depressed. Most nights in this chapter, when we sat on his porch, he only drank one beer. Left me to finish off the six-pack. I’d switched from Miller Lite to Miller Genuine Draft, by the way. I picked up Budweiser one night and Rayber lectured me on the finer points of NASCAR, how Budweiser was Dale Jr., and how Miller was Rusty, as if I knew these people on a first name basis. He talked me into listening to the race on his TV one Sunday, hoping that would clear things up for me.
I failed to see the attraction of guys turning left all afternoon, but I was distracted. Rayber’s emotional state was beginning to weigh on me, and worse, the very fact that it was brought too many things from my own situation to light. For Rayber, our expedition had turned into his Holy Grail, the lack of success his Windmill to slay. But he was committed to it, completely. Me, well, I’d read once that the Buddhist or the Chinese or some group that seemed wise felt that a man’s forty-fifth year was the pivotal year in his life. The time when he should have garnered enough wisdom to know his path and have both the resources and the where-with-all to be firmly following that path. With forty looming, forty-five would be on me in no time. I was nowhere close. I’d never committed to anything, not really, and here was Rayber, seemingly making the finding of The Last Southern Gentleman his life’s ambition. I, instead, was convinced that becoming a talking head was the answer to all my, my…angst? A thought began to recur that maybe I wasn’t looking for the Last Southern Gentleman at all, not really. Maybe I was missing something. Maybe there was something to those boys driving fast and turning left that I didn’t get. But this chance at face time, getting myself on the sharp end of the camera, it was still my best shot. I still had time; everything would fall in line after that.
Regardless of my existential meanderings, the high point in Chapter Eight had to be when I told Rayber that, while Dale Jr. was good, he wasn’t his Daddy and I didn’t think he ever would be and therefore there’d be no more Bud. And while Rusty was getting on up there, he was a stand up guy, the last of the old school, and I was happy to stick with Miller in deference. I also told him I thought it was a damn shame NASCAR didn’t run at North Wilkesboro anymore, that it just wasn’t right. I wasn’t sure what I meant, but I’d read a couple of letters to the editor in the local saying the same thing.
It seemed to lift Rayber’s spirits a bit. I wondered if Rusty Wallace could possibly be a candidate for the Last True Southern Gentleman, given what I’d learned, but eventually I decided that him being a personality already, in his own right, I’d have trouble getting it past Sal and Chauncey.
Hiruto and Jenny, the couple that owned the diner, kept popping up during this chapter and they were beginning to get on my nerves. Business was off and they were worried about going under. The only reason I bring it up at all is because they were getting a bit needy about the whole thing, coming to Rayber and Yaquina for advice, and Rayber had this tendency of wanting to help people. It was cutting into his time spent on my project. By then it was mid-August and I had to have something for Sal and Chauncey soon. Plus, I knew my tab was running pretty high and since Inside 48 was footing the bill, whatever I took them better be strong enough to leverage some serious advertising bucks. Granted, I didn’t need to generate Super Bowl commercial prices, but certainly something heftier than a syndication run.
* * *
The significance of that first meeting with Crystal dawned on me in Chapter Nine. That kind of thing just will not happen in New York City, at least I haven’t seen it. Sure, you’ve got plenty of characters, odd balls, weirdos, freaks walking around every day. But you see them in the city, and they have no effect on you, it’s like you don’t even notice. I don’t know. Mom moved us to the city when I was seven, I’d lived there longer than I did in South Carolina, so I was used to the whole attitude. But Crystal had some effect on me that was just odd. She had this presence. Whatever it was, it scared the hell out of me. I liked it, though. Not like she was a weirdo or a freak or anything, don’t get me wrong. Normal people, normal New York people…it was just different, take my word for it. Maybe it’s just me…
* * *
The fairy tale –quest motif was rolling full swing by Chapter Eleven. I’d pinned my last hopes on Candidate Number Three and I was more than a little worried he’d be a repeat of our previous options. I kept reminding myself that, if the fairy tale-quest thing held true, the third candidate would provide some revelation. And if that was the case, well, as the boys back home say: it was all tits and coke from there. Brace yourself for the Storm. Tiger Storm. Inside 48 anchor. Yeah.
Rayber was still down about the project at this point, really dejected. He tried to talk me out of going to see the last guy. “I was wrong,” he said. “Now that I have a better picture, I don’t think he’ll fit the bill.” I worked on him for a couple of days and he finally made the call. Turned out, in order to interview the third (and final) candidate, we had to drive Enos over to the guy’s house and lead him around with the fellow’s grand kids on his back. It was part of the deal, the only way he’d agree. Enos was indignant, and rightly so, but I explained to him that if you were going to be a talisman, if you were going to utilize your supernatural powers in any functional way within the confines and constraints of the myth-fairy tale-quest motif, then there was an unavoidable burden of responsibility that was not only implied, but required. He relented, but only after we promised to drive him by Starbucks afterwards.
The girl that answered the door was olive skinned and striking in a quaint sort of way. She led us into the cavernous house and across the Corian floors, past what appeared to be a trophy room full of deer heads and stuffed birds, and paused in a mahogany-paneled library graced with books by Rush Limbaugh and the like. On the near shelf I spotted several Civil War and Robert E. Lee titles, including three Shelby Footes. My hopes rose. “Meester Turner ees outside,” she said, and opened the French doors leading to a poolside patio. “He’s there,” she pointed.
Laddie Turner was seated in a plastic deck chair with an umbrella attached for shade, wearing a straw Panama hat, Hawaiian print shirt, tan dress slacks and no shoes. He held an enormous, unlit cigar in his teeth and a fishing rod in his hands. The line ran into the pool, where the cork floated undisturbed. Mr. Turner was a big man and didn’t make an effort to stand when we approached.
“Rayber. Lyle. I see you found the place.” He rolled the cigar to the other side of his mouth. “Bring that pony?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Turner. He’s in the trailer. Ready to ride,” I added.
“Good, good,” he grinned. “That’ll just tickle the duck shit outta them grand kids. Keep ‘em outta my hair for a while. They ought be here any minute. Pull up a chair, boys. Tell me what can I do you for? And call me Laddie.”
Before I could launch my pitch, he interrupted.
“You boys want to try your luck while we talk?” He nodded at the pool. “I got more rods. Bait, too. Got her stocked with trout.”
“No thanks,” we both told him.
“Just as well,” he said. “Bastards quit biting a month ago. I don’t soon catch me one, I’m gone blast ‘em with dynamite. Scoop the fuckers out and use ‘em as fertilizer. I’m stocking with bass next time. Ain’t as moody.” He reeled in the line, checked his bait and recast before settling back in the chair.
I laid things out for him and then told him I’d like to start with the questionnaire, see if he qualified.
“No need,” he told me. “Already studied it. You left a copy over at Busaunt’s. I’m planning on buying his spread, you know. Been talking to WalMart about a Super Center on that piece. Keep that to yourself, though.” He reeled in his line and cast again. “Picked up your little sheet when I was there last. Forget all them questions, I’m your man. Ask anybody.”
I didn’t know what to think. He had all the appearances, at least at first glance. Obviously well off. Owned property, had the extended family. There was a big Ford dually parked out front and it was a safe bet Laddie Turner would take a noon drink of bourbon without much arm twisting. Judging from the library, he had some sense of Southern history. Something just didn’t feel right, though. I looked to Rayber, but he was staring across the pampas grass toward the trees.
“Yes, but I’ve got to answer to my people back in New York. The questionnaire’s a necessary formality with them.”
“You let me handle your Yankee boss. They ain’t met the likes of me. What it is we need to negotiate is the contract. Royalties and such.”
“Now I don’t need the money. Made a killing lately, buying up dirt and flipping it to developers. But this TV thing, what with residuals and all, well that’s mailbox income, long term. Way I see it, I’m helping you out, you helping me out. It’s how we do things down here, son. Just bidness, is all.” He winked at me. “If you cain’t negotiate, if you ain’t authorized, then you get somebody down here what can and let’s get this thing rolling.”
Four boys and a freckled little girl rounded the far corner of the house before I could answer. They each looked soft and doughy and were screaming about riding the pony as they waddled toward us. I instantly felt bad for Enos. Laddie pried himself up and out of the chair, greeted the kids by pulling a five out of his shirt pocket for each of them. The little girl’s face flushed and she demurely folded the bill into her Wiggles fanny pack before smiling thank-you to her grandfather. Laddie bent his mass toward her in a clumsy bow, lifted her hand and kissed her knuckles, saying: “you’re most welcome, Princess,” as he straightened. The boys each turned their backs to the other and snuck the bills into their pockets and then immediately became concerned with latching onto whatever appendage of their grandfather’s they could reach. Laddie soon had one on each leg and arm, squealing for the pony as he dragged them all toward the house. Watching the scene was at once uncomfortable in an accidentally seeing your grandmother on the toilet sort of way; nauseating in a Hallmark commercial sort of way; and yet reasonably photogenic in terms of a possible closing scene for the show.
Rayber and I took turns walking Enos around the yard with the kids straddled across his back. I felt for the animal, I really did. He had a baleful look on his face that was as hopeless as a public service announcement airing at three in the morning, but he hung in there. Rayber wasn’t too pleased either; he didn’t string more than one or two sentences together the entire time. Laddie refused to answer any questions in front the kids, but I watched him pretty closely all afternoon. The way he carried on with the kids was a plus, eased some of my earlier feelings, but I was having trouble with the issue of him avoiding the interview. Left too many holes, too many blanks to fill in. Sal and Chauncey’d spot it in a minute, blame it on me. When the kids finally tired, he followed us to the trailer and leaned against the gate, fanning himself with his straw hat as we loaded Enos.
“So look here,” he started once we’d closed the trailer. “These real estate deals I’ve put together. You see, you got to play a part to do that, kinda like an actor. You got to tell people what they want to hear, but just enough they don’t catch on. So I know I can do this.”
“You don’t understand, Laddie. I appreciate that, but this is supposed to be a documentary type production. It’s not acting.”
“Hell, son. Everything’s acting. Tell you what, I done talked to this theater teacher over in Charlotte. She’s in, you just get me a copy of the script. She’s agreed to coach me into the character you boys need. Deal?”
He did have a point. And who would know—really? Documentary, reality TV; fiction, creative nonfiction; all the lines are blurred. Either way, most people, if they see it on TV, well that’s the truth right there, end of discussion. All I wanted was the face time. The truth, at least beyond some semblance of accuracy; well, let’s just say Sal and Chauncey never mentioned anything concerning the truth, and with time getting short, I didn’t see much point in pressing the matter. “Tell you what,” I told him as me and Rayber climbed in the truck. “Let me talk to my people and get back with you, see what we can work out.”
“Good enough.” He pounded the truck’s door twice. “It’ll be slicker than duck shit, son. You watch old Laddie, you might learn something about a Southern Gentleman after all.”
Rayber didn’t say a thing on the ride back to town. By the time the B&B came in sight, I’d convinced myself that Laddie Turner had a point. Yeah, maybe I was a little desperate, reaching, but I was out of options. I could tell Rayber wasn’t so sure, though. It wasn’t like him not to comment. Whatever was bothering him, I didn’t intend to let the chance unravel, not now. No, whatever it was with Rayber, misdirected sentimentality, an old beef with Turner, was irrelevant, it wasn’t about him; this was my future we were dealing with. Priorities, you know? Like Laddie said, it was business.
When Rayber stopped, he wouldn’t look at me.
“Want a cold one?” I asked.
“You’re gonna take him up on it, aren’t you?” He was staring straight ahead.
“It’s the best we’ve got, Rayber. Look it, I’m under a lot of pressure here. A lot.”
“You give it more time, we’ll find the right guy. I know Turner was one of my candidates, but that was early on. I might’ve been trying to impress you, or something.” He rubbed the back of his neck, still wouldn’t face me. “He ain’t the one.”
“I’m out of time, I can make this work. He’s not so bad.”
“Those real estate deals he was talking about, lot of folks don’t think too highly of Laddie Turner. Some say he’s taking advantage. It ain’t…he ain’t… It just don’t fit. He ain’t a… a southern gentleman. What’ll the rest of the country think, they see him?”
“Jesus, Rayber. After all this time, all the work, and you still don’t get it. It’s TV, for Christ sakes. Actors, ratings. Commercials. I can turn this into an anchor spot. Be on air all the time. Tiger Storm, remember? A household name, that’s what I’m after.”
Rayber turned toward me, slowly. “I’m starting to think it’s you that don’t get it,” he said and started the truck. I didn’t have any choice but to get out.
I turned to walk away but stopped when I remembered Yaquina had invited Crystal over for dinner that night. I’d made it a point to run into her, Crystal, on occasion. Nothing serious, not even a real date or anything, but Yaquina was trying to help things along. I leaned back in the window. “Listen, Rayber,” I told him, “pick me up for dinner. Me and you and Crystal and Yaquina, it’ll be nice. Take a little break from all this. Then we can figure things out, okay?”
“I don’t think we’ll be having supper tonight.”
“Come on Ray,” I told him, “don’t be that guy.”
“If you get it, you call me.”
“But —” But he was already pulling away. Enos’ tail swished at me once from the back of the trailer as they turned on Franklin Street. I realized we’d forgotten about taking him by Starbucks, but Rayber was headed in the wrong direction now.
I didn’t see Rayber for several days, and I stayed busy trying to pull together notes for the show. At this point, I knew things were bordering on impossible, well past unlikely, anyhow. The more I thought about it, the more Laddie Turner worried me. Rayber had been a big help, and I could sort of see his point. If the stuff about the real estate deals were true, and it came out, well, put it this way, outside of Andy Griffith and Jed Clampett, TV didn’t have a great record of casting Southerners in the best light. And, when I thought about it, most of the people I’d met since I started the project, even the nut cases, they all had a certain quality about them. They all treated me nice but it seemed they all shared something, knew something, and they were keeping it from me. But it wasn’t something I could hold against them. Dane and Kyle at the bed and breakfast, Yaquina, LeRoy Busaunt, Cleavon Ramseur, even Siohban. And Crystal. Especially Crystal. They were just good people, they all had a story worth telling. They each had that, that thing I couldn’t name.
I know, I know. Don’t get involved with the people; they’re only the product. I kept reminding myself as the deadline grew nearer. I wanted the face time. Needed the face time. It needed to be accurate; I wanted to get it right, I really did. But, I had no other choice. Laddie Turner would have to do.
* * *
Oh, there’s something I forgot from Chapter Seven. Actually, you probably picked up on this from Chapter Three. Siohban knew we were conducting interviews and she tried her best to disrupt them in any way possible. A friend of Rayber’s brought him a flier she was handing out around town. Nothing much to it, propaganda mostly. Centered on the page were the words: TV Perpetuates the Stereotype—Boycott the Last Southern Gentleman. The handouts didn’t have much effect, and the next time I saw Siohban I explained why. “You say you’re against the Southern Gentleman persona,” I told her, “ but this sounds more like you want to protect the mystique from embarrassment.” She couldn’t argue the point. “Besides,” I offered, “TV’s a powerful medium. It’s a chance to provide an accurate portrayal. You should join up with us.” She obviously declined, but we didn’t see any more of the fliers. It was easy to tell I’d given her something to think about. We were at least civil toward each other after that, almost friendly. I heard she’d started dating someone in town. Figured that was her problem all along.
Rayber saw something in the flier he thought we could use to our benefit. In small script at the bottom of the page, she, Siohban, had included a William Faulkner quote. It was an attempt at…well, we weren’t able to decipher her point. But Rayber said the quote itself held some significance in our Last Southern Gentleman story. Try as he might, he never sold me on the idea, but he just wouldn’t let it go.
We compromised. You know in novels, the first few pages, how the story proper doesn’t start but there are sometimes quotes and sayings intended to give insight to the novel itself? Rayber convinced me that was what needed to happen with the Faulkner piece in relation to the show. So, I inserted an additional storyboard (I’ve got to call it that because just the quote’s not really a chapter, and besides, it comes before everything starts) and did a little editing. It might make the cut; I can probably use it as a backdrop while the actor’s names roll. It pretty much reads like this:
…the young man or woman writing today…He labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands. -William Faulkner
To make it work, since it was TV, I took out the first writing altogether and changed the other two writes to thinks. It made more sense, I thought. Rayber protested, but I reminded him of creative license.
* * *
VZ, you remember him—one of the guys that helped with the original questionnaire, he thought it was a nice touch. I found it strange that I never actually met this guy VZ. When we were working up the questionnaire, his copy always came back with plenty of notes and comments in the margins. He had excellent penmanship. Slanted all his “l’s” to the right just a fraction.
* * *
Let’s see, what else happens between Chapters Four and Twenty? Rayber’s oldest child, the Chinese kid, they called him Zang, but that’s probably not how its spelled, he tested gifted and was selected to attend this arts type school in Charlotte. Yaquina and Rayber struggled with that situation over several chapters. It was a lot of money, the distance, plus it would take him away from his friends.
That about covers all the extraneous stuff from the earlier chapters. In the meantime, I tried to sort out the option with Laddie Turner, mesh that with Rayber’s reaction. Using Turner was asking for trouble; he had that loose cannon air. Plus, I felt that once he was in, once he met Sal and Chauncey, he’d figure some way to cut me out of the deal altogether. You know the type: always angling to get over on somebody, get an edge for themselves. Instead, I managed to piece together a composite of our Southern Gentleman by combining traits from all three of Rayber’s candidates, LeRoy Busaunt, Cleavon Ramseur and Laddie Turner. It was the best I had.
Over the course of a hundred and fifty, two hundred pages, another picture did develop. I realized Rayber should act as the composite. When reviewing all my notes, it dawned on me that the guy on the page was probably closer to Rayber than anything or anyone I’d seen. Forest for the trees, huh? That was it—I got it. Rayber wanted the spot all along, it was right in front of me. Of course, it would still be a fictionalized account, which I knew was going out on a limb, both for me to write it and to sell it, but it seemed reasonable. I called Rayber to tell him what I’d decided. He’d worked really hard and I felt for the guy, you know? Yaquina answered and said he was busy, couldn’t come to the phone. I told her instead, told her there’d be a check, and assured her it would be enough to solve the money problems for Zang’s school. “He’s not interested,” she said. “And it’s not about the money with Zang. It’s important for him not to be apart from us, from his friends.” And then she ‘had to go.’ I’d tried to smooth things over with Crystal, too, but that didn’t go so well. Didn’t go at all, actually—she hung up on me soon as I said “hello.” I decided not to push either issue; nothing was resolved but it did make up most of Chapter Eighteen. Laddie Turner was essentially right anyway: I didn’t need Rayber (or Laddie), there were probably a thousand actors, or more, busing tables in New York, willing to fake a Southern accent, and they’d work cheap.
It was time to head back to the City with what I had. For some reason, I didn’t really want to leave, even though by late August it was so hot and humid you couldn’t think. I’d not heard a word from Crystal, or Rayber and Yaquina. No TV, but they obviously had caller ID. Not that it mattered, once I was back in New York, everything would be fine. Besides, the last email from Sal and Chauncey was pretty direct, and they were livid about several things, accusing me of bastardizing their idea, running too close to deadline, drifting off task. And the expense account, whew… I managed to reveal enough show information, without revealing that I actually had no real information, to keep everybody at bay a day or two longer.
There were plenty of other things taking place over the last few chapters, but none really pertinent to the story. Situations and opportunities were developing, others petering out. As I mentioned, there was the thing with Crystal, which now didn’t look like it was gonna work out. Siohban and I actually got along okay by the time I was ready to leave. Oh yeah, The Fourth of July Parade in Prospect was nice. Homespun, but nice. The week before meeting Laddie Turner, I’d pitched in with Rayber, helping his son’s Boy Scout Troop with their float. They let Enos ride with them. Made me feel kinda satisfied when it rolled past. I had North Carolina barbecue after the Parade and yes, there is a difference, even within the state, Eastern and Western. Mustard or vinegar based sauce, they told me.
Other things weren’t so nice, I suppose. Our second candidate, Cleavon Ramseur, his second oldest child, a daughter, Eleanor, was killed in a car wreck. They found the old man a few weeks after the funeral. He’d gone out behind his house, out into the field and hung himself from an old dogwood tree. Left every door and window in his house open before he did it. He should have been in a Home, but you know, it was what he wanted, so who’s to say?
Back in New York, I did some serious shadow dancing and managed to get the project slated for the September pitch meeting. I knew that would push the show’s airing out past the first of the year, yet I didn’t see that as a problem. I was a little nervous, but I’d sat through the meetings before, knew how it worked. A fact checker was sort of a go-to guy while the talking heads pitched their show ideas. If one of the top editors, Sal or Chauncey, an investor, or an advertising guy had questions concerning details, the fact checker stepped up and salvaged serious ass. The talking heads were big picture guys, they sold the sizzle, the steak was somebody else’s job.
When I first returned to the City, I had some difficulties with re-entry; I had trouble getting up to speed. It didn’t help that Jack had hooked up with Ramone’s wife and the two of them were moving to L.A. They left the day after I arrived. It also seems they decided to sample the last of Ramone’s Russian smack as a means of final farewell. Or a tribute to him, as Jack put it. Jack never did very well with boundaries, saw everything as a dare. I wouldn’t say they were strung out, not yet, but I didn’t see a made-for-TV Lifetime Channel happy ending, either. They stuck me with Tragedy, Jack’s horny, idiot dog.
Only a week or two had passed when I saw Ramone’s wife on a late night commercial. It had to have been shot while they were still in New York, but neither of them mentioned it to me. She looked good. A little heavy. She also gave me her Edgar Allen Poe collection before she left. Said it was to remember that night, the one when Ramone passed out on my couch and she was afraid to go back to their apartment. How could I forget? She did tell me there was something strange about the dealer who sold Ramone the heroin. There was a voice mail a few weeks after Ramone died, insinuating he may have been involved in some sort of terrorist activity and it was possibly related to his death. She believed it, Jack didn’t. It wasn’t the dealer, I think it was some of W or Rummy’s boys getting even for Ramone reporting Tragedy as a leg-humping, security threatening socialist. Those guys have no sense of humor.
With the two of them gone, and Ramone of course dead, I had a lot of time on my hands to think about the pitch meeting. I didn’t, though. I kept meaning to take Tragedy and drop him off at the pound or humane society and just never got around to it. I felt—I don’t know, weightless. I’d never been what you would call a social animal. Ramone and his wife, Jack, they were friends, but everyone I knew beyond that was more in the vein of acquaintances. I was hardly close to anybody from work. And I was never wrapped up in the whole family thing, either. Never really knew my father, don’t remember him being around, and when Mom moved us North she was working all the time, so I was comfortable being alone. Like most sons, I’d only talked to her every couple of weeks since college (all right, usually it was more than a couple between calls), even if we were in the same City. There was never much to say. I thought I’d made my peace, but when I’d try to concentrate on preparing for the pitch meeting, my mind would drift. One afternoon I put the leash on Tragedy and we made the hike down to Ground Zero, you know, the Trade Center, thinking that had something to do with my being so disconnected. Sure, I’d been there hundreds of times, in passing, but that afternoon I stood at the fence and thought about my mother, imagined what she might have thought as it all came down. But that day, of all the times I’d considered what she might have thought in those last minutes, was the first time I wondered: Did she think of me?
I stayed ten or fifteen minutes but it didn’t solve anything, I still couldn’t concentrate when I returned to the apartment.
* * *
I’m sorry, got kind of Hallmark myself there for a minute, huh? So, where are we? Chapter Twenty-one: the pitch meeting. No, wait. In Chapter Twenty, the Yagamishi’s, with the diner, they changed the menu. You remember, their business had dropped off. Well, they cut out all the “home cooked” items, the grits, collards and so forth, and went authentic Japanese, complete with sushi. They were packed. It worked out well for everybody; another place opened about the same time called Roscoe’s Soul Food. Spiro Thanatos ran it, but it was the same food: grits, collards, and you could get anything fried, even Twinkies, just like before at Yagamishi’s. The name must’ve helped cause they stayed busy too. The only reason I mention it at all is because, after the falling out with Rayber, I had all my meals at the diner. Plus, I knew they were friends with Rayber and Yaquina, and I thought I might find out what was going on with them. Didn’t work. Like I said from the start, these people are clannish. All I could get out of Hiruto or Jenny was that the menu change had been Rayber and Yaquina’s idea.
* * *
Chapter Twenty-One is the pitch meeting, and as you might guess, it didn’t go well. I was more nervous than I thought, probably should have focused on my delivery instead of daydreaming. The pitch itself, that fell apart, too. Not technically, one of the girls in A-V had arranged the Power Point stuff. That looked slick, plenty of flash, but the committee had my outline for a full week prior to the actual meeting. Way too much time. Of all things, I didn’t have my facts lined up and the investment committee came in loaded for bear. They’d had one of the other fact checking guys, Randall the Ass Kissing King of Overtime; follow up in a few areas. Brought to ruin by one of my own—there is no justice, huh? Anyway, the staff saw right through the whole thing and then went completely ballistic over my expenses on top of everything else. I had to hand it to Sal, though; he covered me as long as he could. Of course, in retrospect, he was the one that convinced Chauncey and the rest of them to let me have the shot, so I guess it was more an act of saving his own ass. Didn’t matter, what cover there was didn’t last long. “Facts are irrelevant,” he said. “Run the frames, see what he’s got.” The he turned toward me. “If there’s anything at all there, we can spin the facts. Let’s not take the chance of seeing this thing on Oprah next month.” He smiled. “Of course, you wouldn’t think of taking it to her, would you, Lyle? And I’ve spoken to the folks at Fox. I don’t think they’re going to be interested in something as foolish as a reality show of this nature.” I heard the sound of my safety blanket hitting the floor. “Run the frames,” Sal ordered.
Something was nagging me throughout the presentation, though, something I can’t really explain. You know that déjà vu feeling you get? Things are happening, unfolding in front of you and it feels like it’s all happened before? It was like that, but it wasn’t. Here’s the kicker: I was watching the presentation, my presentation. I wasn’t pitching or anything, it was like I was seeing the thing for the first time. I felt as if I was seeing something that I knew, or should know, or at least recognize, that I’d not noticed before. Weird.
By the time the Power Point bit was over, the room felt smaller, I felt heavier. Someone turned on the lights. I looked around the room but didn’t recognize anyone. Sal and Chauncey, even, they didn’t look the same and I thought my eyes were not yet adjusted to the lights, so I closed them. As soon as I did, I saw my mother. She looked tired, older than I remembered. I heard Sal complaining, but it took what seemed like several minutes before I could understand him.
“A glorified character study,” he was saying. “There’s nothing. No plot, no punch. Meandering. As your hillbillies would surely say: I might as well try and sell pig shit to a hog farmer.”
I smiled. It had gone past TV—this was Caddyshack quality. The proverbial turd was out of the pool and now lying on the tablecloth next to the sterling gravy boat. And I knew, if you mixed in everything from the forty years of my life, baked it into a huge, cholesterol-laden casserole and swallowed it down, there would not be one nutritious calorie found. It all came to nothing; every single thing had passed through unused, unnoticed, unfettered, finally consolidating into this excremental offering lying on the dining table before these...guests. And there was no longer any denying that it had emerged from my ass and my ass only. Nothing left to do but scoop it up and flush. Flush the career, the fame, the recognition. Flush the fulfillment, the future, the possibilities—hell, I’ll just say it; flush Tiger Storm, down the toilet.
I stood up. I smiled at Sal. I smiled at Chauncey and the rest of the committee. I smiled at the girl from A-V and Randall the Ass Kissing, Fact Checking, King of Overtime. I even smiled at the lady in the brown uniform that had just walked in with the coffee pot and tray of bagels and muffins.
“I quit. Keep the script, the notes. Do whatever you want. I’m out. Hell, let Randall have a go at it.”
Well, it didn’t get the reaction I’d hoped for. I was thinking of something more cinematic, a grand exit. I wanted a Scarlett O’Hara swoon. You know, theatrics. Everybody just sat there. Eventually a few of the committee members started shuffling their papers, filing them back in their manila folders. The A-V girl shut down the laptop and turned off the projector. I stood there, waiting until the room and its silence achieved just the right degree of discomfort before I left. I picked up a muffin on my way out. Blueberry.
Outside, the air was cool, a hint of autumn, and I knew somewhere the sun was shining. That even though the day was cloudy and overcast, that ball of heat and light was still up there blazing away, and that it would keep on doing what it does, regardless of whether it was shining on me or anyone else. It could have been worse, at least it wasn’t raining.
* * *
The story might have ended there easily enough. I felt a sense of catharsis after quitting, so that’s something, right? But catharsis doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t answer anything, not unless you can make some sense of it, otherwise it simply means something ended.
I tried. The best I could come up with was my fortieth birthday. It had to be a classic mid-life crisis, but since I was recently unemployed, I couldn’t exactly go out and buy a Harley; and likewise, since I had no portfolio, no persona (Tiger Storm was no longer even a cloud on the horizon), was slightly overweight, thinning hair, wardrobe reminiscent of 1979, didn’t own an Ipod, listened to classic rock stations (I had no idea who Death Cab for Cutie or the Black-Eyed Peas were), and not to mention the fact that I’d always been inept at the whole dating thing (limiting my sexual experience to friend’s wives or girlfriends, one night stands who bought into the Tiger Storm deal, or, I’ll admit it, the occasional rented date), well, let’s just say I didn’t see a hot affair with a twenty year old model wannabe as a possibility. I was failing at my mid-life crisis.
I had a couple of bad days once that sunk in. Spent a weekend going through three bottles of Absolut. At one point, I think during the second bottle, suicide crossed my mind. But, by the time I’d finished the bottle I decided that, taking everything into consideration, there was a high probability that I’d screw that up as well. I didn’t think that kind of embarrassment would be healthy, either, so I called it a victory and opened the third bottle to celebrate. Finishing that bottle gave me a new sense of clarity. It wasn’t age, it wasn’t turning forty, it was Time itself.
How do you deal with the passage of time? It’s always a question, right? How about this: Time, even the very concept of time, is a constraint invented and designed by Man in a vain and futile attempt to assuage His hidden fears that refuse to subside; and in reality, Time, the measuring, the dividing, the constant monitoring and tracking, and every other concept we, Man, have assigned to Time, simply does not exist other than in our imaginations.
No, it’s more than that. Time is a fluid concept, extending both backward and forward. Backward, before the continents separated, before the first obstinate fish hauled himself out of the sea, before the oceans cooled, before the explosion, before…anything. And forward, after the mountains have once again crumbled, after We have invented and committed what sins are left to commit, after it all implodes again into…nothing. All we can do is try to make some sense of our place in the chain of unavoidable events, and maybe, possibly, we’ll get just a glimpse of our own connection to a Time before we knew, and sense a promise of that connection stretching on beyond us. Without that glimpse, there’s no way to know where we are.
Well, I got you started, you’re on your own from here. Good luck with that.
(Which should probably be called the Epilogue, but I like even numbers. They have a certain roundness, not all straight edges and angles like the odd numbers.)
* * *
It was just after three when Siohban walked in the diner. She’d ask me to meet her at two-thirty, but I had the afternoon free, so her being a little late was not a problem. She was carrying a Priority Mail envelope and dropped it on the table between us as she slid in the booth.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“This came yesterday.” She nudged the envelope toward me. “I know it’s been a while, but I thought you might get a kick out of it.”
I looked at the envelope. The return address was Alabama. “What is it?”
Siohban pulled a stapled stack of pages out and pointed toward the bottom. “Read this,” she said.
The Southern? The Southerner started out a skeptical Jeffersonian and became a crooked Christian. That is to say, he is approaching and has almost reached his essence, which is to be more crooked and Christian than ever before. Do you want a portrait of the New Southerner? He is Billy Graham on Sunday and Richard Nixon the rest of the week.
I paused. “What is it?” I asked again.
“Read the rest of it.”
He calls on Jesus and steals, he’s in business, he’s in politics. Everybody in Louisiana steals from everybody else. That is why the Mafia moved South: because the Mafia is happier with stealing than pornography.
“Okay, so what is it?”
“It came yesterday. A priest, one who was in Feliciana Parrish, sent it to me. He was a friend of my father, the one that visited with him the year he was in the, uh, hospital.”
“Hate I never met your dad.”
“You’dve liked him. These are the notes the priest took during counseling. The part you read was taken directly from Lance, my father. I think you and him were looking for the same thing. The Southern Gentleman thing.”
“That?” I read the passage again, quickly. “Yeah, maybe.” I scooped the papers back into the envelope and handed it to her. “Hadn’t given any of that a second thought in a long time. It’s been years now.”
“Me either, but it came to me last night, going over his notes. I think he saw it eroding way back then, beginning to disappear. He knew people were using the Southern thing, even then, and it made him angry.”
“Hmm. The Southern thing. You know, Siohban, I quit trying to define it. It doesn’t matter.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. But I want you to have these, borrow them, anyway. It might give you some perspective, you know, if you still wonder about all that. It helped clear up a lot for me.”
“And you’ll read them?”
She kissed my forehead before leaving. People do strange things, you know? I sat a few minutes longer, spinning the envelope around on the laminate tabletop, watching Siohban cross the street and disappear into Starbucks. I borrowed a pen from Jenny and scribbled my own note on the outside of the envelope: Thanks anyway, I appreciate the thought. Outside, I found her Volvo and tossed the envelope through the open window.
* * *
That night, after supper, Rayber and I were drinking beer on my back deck, watching his kids chasing the last few lightning bugs of the season as they rose from the grass. Yaquina and Crystal were still inside; Yaquina was probably offering to hold either Shelby or Walker so Crystal could get the other ready for bed, Crystal, proud and stubborn as ever, refusing.
The sky was streaked purple in the dying light and the air felt clean and honest. The leaves were just beginning to turn and I knew we’d soon have our first frost. Charlie Wrenn had cut hay from the field next to us, and the sweet smell of it drifted on the breeze. It was the kind of evening that didn’t need conversation.
Rayber was worrying the Miller label on his bottle and once he’d peeled it free, he held it above his head and surveyed it for a second. “Labels,” he grunted, “Huh.” Then he wadded it and tossed it toward the empties growing in the trashcan.
“Go figure,” I told him.
He handed me another beer and settled back in his chair, took a long pull from his bottle. “You know the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee?” he asked me.
“I guess you’re gonna tell me.”
“A Yankee lives north of the Mason Dixon and visits the South.” He took another swallow. “A damn Yankee don’t go back.”
“You got that right.”
Rayber grinned and shook his head.
“What?” I asked him, “I was born in South Carolina, remember.”
“Being born here don’t necessarily make you a Southerner, you know.”
“You got that exactly right.” I tipped my Miller in his direction. He smiled and did the same.
* * *
The sun dropped quickly through the trees soon after Rayber and Yaquina left, as if it had been buoyed aloft by the squeals of their kids. Now, the quiet offered no resistance. Crystal came out with a twin on each hip and leaned toward me. I took Shelby and fashioned her in my lap. She looked up and smiled a smile as pure as fire. I could hear Walker gurgling to Crystal, telling her exactly what was on his mind. Both of the twins fed, happy, and obstinate, wanting just a little more out of this day before giving in to the night and a thousand dreams of everything they were and would be.
We finally got Shelby and Walker down. Crystal said we should sit on the deck a while longer since winter was coming on soon and the opportunity would be gone for several months. I whispered I’d be out in a minute as she left. I lingered to watch the rise and fall of our kid’s chests. I wondered how they would remember me, what part of me they would clutch to when they grew old, when I was no more than a wisp of memory, a ghost among the pines.
When I joined Crystal she was thumbing through my copy of Foote’s The Civil War. She’d given me the complete set for my forty-fifth birthday and I’d been re-reading the second volume. I joined her on the swing. She closed the book and nestled in close to me and sighed. Suddenly, she raised her head and studied my face for a moment. “Do you miss Tragedy?” she asked.
I guess I forgot to mention that. After I came back and made up with Rayber, I let Tragedy stay at his place since he had plenty of room, and I had no idea where I might settle, or how Crystal would react to my proposal, or what was going to happen next. I didn’t exactly have all the details worked out. Him taking the dog turned out fine: Tragedy and Enos were best buddies after an hour or so, and Rayber’s kids were crazy over the dog. That settled it for the most part. Tragedy really never felt much like mine anyhow, even though he was the last thread tying me to New York.
You know, that dog never once tried to hump anybody’s leg after that. Enos didn’t get out anymore, either. Anyway, we had to put him down a few days ago. Cancer. To tell the truth, Enos misses him more than anybody. They were tight. Enos got out of the pasture the day after Rayber and I carried Tragedy to Doc Armstrong’s. We found him lying in front of Starbucks, erection-less. “Now that’s melancholy,” I told Rayber.
The moonless night had settled in and a shooting star streaked white across the blue-amethyst sky on cue. Crystal and I both followed its path, our heads leaning against one another, tracing the arc after it flamed out. I grinned and for an instant thought of Ramone and the old gang, of hanging out at Jack’s apartment.
“Tragedy will always be with us,” I said, still grinning, trying to sound prophetic, “at least in spirit.”
“You do miss him,” Crystal murmured.
I closed my eyes and hugged her. “No,” I told her, “I don’t miss him at all.”
That sure was a stupid dog. Famously stupid.