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Published: March 2nd 2009
Barreling Through What Once Was
U.S. Highway 70 is now a reality...
Interstate 81 and I go back to my earliest memories of elementary school. It and I would join at Scranton, the corridor that splits the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, a 324-mile straight-shot gutter ball asphalt groove connecting Winchester and Bristol, Virginia. The highway and I have a somnambular relationship. My aunt would zip across the commonwealth from the West Virginia border and out I would go sometimes as far as two-thirds of the way. The running joke for years is that I would travel through Virginia and seldom see any of it. We rarely took on the much more intimidating states west of the Mississippi. Not of driving age, I accepted my sleeping spells as an effective technique to shorten the time in a state that I considered to be endless. “Keep on going, Aunt Pat!” I would chide her well into the evening as she was on her twelfth or thirteenth hour behind the wheel of the converted Ford Custom Wagon. I ignored her scowls and told her she could make it another hundred miles, to which she agreed as long as I stayed up with her. My eyelids often drooped as I concentrated on the windswept snowflakes in
The Old A-Frame
A hair salon? Who would have ever guessed?
the headlights. As a child, miles were rarely the measure of progress on long roads trips; state lines were. This made Virginia the dreaded obstacle. If Virginia were made of three states along I-81, I was certain it would cut down the trip by two hours.
Or so I was told. I never saw much of it.
Though the soldiers did not know it at the time, the Union and Confederacy fought the battle of New Market just off of Exit 264. One time Aunt Pat decided to slice Virginia into more manageable parts, and take her sister and me to the battlefield for a jaunt into American history. My mother, never having dipped below the Mason-Dixon Line, grew increasingly frustrated with the audio-guided visit tainted in a predictable bias and dictated with a Southern drawl. Following the narrator’s diatribes of “If the South had” done this, or if “the Yankees had moved in a different direction”, my mother lost it in the Visitors Center. She tossed the headphones aside and exclaimed, “Who cares what the South would have done??? We won the war!!!” Eyeballs shot venom in our direction. You could have heard a pin drop. “Regis,” my aunt
What Used To Be
Now there's a Mexican cantina at the top of the hill...
calmly approached her and tapped her on the shoulder, “we’re leaving”. And we did just that while navigating through a forest of plaid flannel tops, suspenders, and children in Richard Petty t-shirts. By the time we had gotten back into the van, I had lost count of the stars-and-bars bumper stickers on all of the pickup trucks in the parking lot.
Another obligatory stop before entering Tennessee was a particular gas station just outside of Roanoke. If I learned anything in middle school about the economy of Virginia from its founding to present day, it is that tobacco has always been a major player. Aunt Pat, ready to take advantage of prices nearly half of what she would be charged in New York State, would always load up here. The clerk behind the counter remembered her by the familiar face, out-of-state plates, and the sheer number of cartons she would buy. Most of the time we stopped here when we were headed home. She would neatly stack the newly purchased royal and sky blue Parliament cartons in any open storage crannies underneath the van’s seats. My aunt always got her money’s worth. She was never cheated out of the addiction
No, the lobby of a hair salon...
that caused the emphysema to which she succumbed far too soon.
A dyed-in-the-wool liberal, Aunt Pat never forgot to point out the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. She respected the order of the military, just never how it was deployed. If I paid close enough attention, we could see the cadets in their grey uniforms walking in a regimented manner between buildings from the highway.
One year, my younger brother, no older than four or five, had an accident and violently soiled his pants at a Kentucky Fried Chicken somewhere along the highway. I forget in which direction. I can tell the following story primarily because it did not happen to me. The damage was so widespread and foul that Aunt Pat ordered to me to stay put at a booth as she had no other option but to clean up after him. She gagged, dry heaved, and cried for hours afterwards. My brother was as embarrassed as he was helpless. I, of course, dug into the bucket of Original Recipe, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes oblivious of the smearing and puddles of liquid poop on the bathroom floor. They weren’t hungry, so why should I go without? The story is
No, Zack's front yard...
still told that no Incorvati will set foot in any KFC on I-81 for fear of being recognized even today. The next morning when all bodily functions had returned to normal, Aunt Pat got her retribution, however unintended. I had decided to satisfy a nagging itch on my back with a scrub brush. Upon viewing my digging the brush into my flesh in the rearview mirror, she cracked a smile and burst out laughing to the point of hyperventilation. I am surprised she did not drive off the road into a ditch. She declined to inform me of her tear-filled amusement until I had extinguished every last itch on my back with the rough, synthetic bristles. I had picked up the brush she used to clean up my brother at KFC.
I was never able to perceive Tennessee as a state, rather an idea embodied by the people and property at the end of the day-and-half journey south. Except for daytrips, it began and ended with a three-tier A-frame house and the four pastures of rolling land with livestock behind it. Rural Tennessee was different, but I was too young to understand why. I got to spend a week
Worth The Trip!
Breakfast in Tennessee...
on a farm, a far cry from the burgeoning strip malls in the sprawl of suburban Connecticut. The accent was different. At the age of ten, no one could explain why they did not consider Lincoln’s Birthday an important day off from school. People would instead tell me they’d much prefer any other face on the five dollar bill. Tennessee is where I was first called a Yankee, though I was trained from a much younger age by default to route against the baseball team from New York. Milk on the farm actually came directly from cows, as the result of sitting at a stool and squeezing hairy udders. Who had heard of such a thing? Milk was supposed to be from half-gallon containers at Waldbaum’s.
Opal Davidson lived in a mobile home next door to my Aunt for a short while in Columbia County, New York. As a toddler, she and her family looked after me while my aunt was away with my mother when my brother was born. When we went to visit them back in their native Tennessee, she would send me across to the dry, ramshackle chicken coop to collect the morning’s eggs, an amount always
Zack and Penny
Looking great after all this time...
sufficient to make breakfast for her family, Aunt Pat, my brother, and me. It was my job and I took it seriously. Joe, Opal’s husband taught me that ducks’ eggs were not good to eat because they were leathery; I never forgot that word…leathery. I used to spread chicken feed from a sack I could barely lift. I would spread the feed into troughs for the hens every morning and quickly learned from the sharpness of their beaks not to feed them the mashed kernels with a bare hand.
I’m headed thataway after twenty-five years, but I do not know if Tennessee remains a question of where, who, what, or when.
My quest for the dumpy motor lodge/motel has been fulfilled. Under the guise of signage recognized along Interstates and US Highways all over the nation, too much about this discount accommodation screams “splendidly inadequate, yet still functional.” In line with a trend from coast to coast, the stern, block building is managed by an Indian family. Sometimes these places are managed by Pakistanis, but few people care enough to know the difference and lump them all into the same category. The motel is minimally maintained, and rarely is
Opal and Joe look out from their porch...
anything repaired. That would require money management is unwilling or unable to pay out until the franchise executives receive enough complaints from guests. The interior walls are cold and empty; no one has bothered to even put up a cheap Thomas Kinkade print from the local mega department store. The panels on the heater from the outside flap in the wind, although the unit still pushes warm air into the room. The bathtub easily clogs up with the slightest rush of water from the faded faucet. The stripped molding around the entrance door bends inward, but not quite enough to pose a hazard for children. That will still take a few more months of neglect. The existence of the brownish stains on the otherwise white sheets curtails my curiosity as to their origin or how long they have been there. The bedspread’s universal and boring design of impressionist floral mauve with random streaks of sky blue completes the scene: My room is tired, and no one anytime soon will be injecting it with a new boost of energy.
I love it.
The scant research I conducted revealed an Opal Davidson in Crossville, Tennessee. The search engine spat out
Who's that handsome guy with her?
an address, phone number, and even directions to the home. This wouldn’t be all that hard. The idea of there being two Opal Davidsons in the same county in the same state never crossed my mind. Who, even way back when, would name their daughter Opal anyway? The turn off of Peavine Road is called Shorty Barnes. Due to mix ups, spoonerisms, and some type of Freudian slip, I refer to it as Barney Frank. Peavine I call Peahill or Peacock. Anyway, Barney Frank twists and turns, eventually spilling into Chestnut Hill, as one goes farther into the wooded hinterland. By the time I make it to Davidson Lane, thinking I am on the cusp of the magical discovery of my childhood, I am so far gone into the land of the lost, no wormhole could save me. I am glad not to have complained about the lack of signposts; they are often stolen by idle teens with grits for brains.
Davidson Lane ends at some fields in a cul-de-sac. The silvery steel cylindrical mailbox on the ground reads “Opal Davidson” with a few black decal letters missing. The meager green home is typical of backwoods Tennessee: intact, but heavy
It Started as a Trailer
But has sprouted and is still not finished. Will it ever be?
in age and with a few areas requiring immediate attention. Given the longstanding family business of building upscale homes from foundation to roof, it was the first sign that my quest would not end here. Luckily, I was to pick up some valuable clues.
Two chubby attack dogs mustered up all their energy to sprint (or wobble, depending on your point of view and respect towards animals) at me as soon as I opened my car door. I knelt down to greet them and the vicious beasts devoured all of my digits up to the wrist with their tongues. They rolled over on their backs to expose themselves for a belly rubbing. Once I had totally pacified the first wave of the security system, I made my way to the front porch and wrapped on the flimsy screen door.
She was around the age I expected her to be. After that things got strange and made little sense. A woman with white hair, thin, and the face of wrinkles like that on a face of a walrus answered the door. She peered from behind it to get a good look at me, not in an apprehensive way. She
Meadows Branch at Crab Orchard...
wanted to know if we were familiar to each other first.
“Good Morning. “I’m looking for Opal Davidson.”
No, it’s not. I know it has been a quarter century, but you are not the Opal Davidson of my past. I struggled to think on my feet, uncommon for me. I did not want to argue with her, so I summoned her assistance. “Then perhaps you could help me.”
“What’s this concerning?” she shot back in a sharp and much more unfriendly pose. Her guard was still up, assuming I was there to swindle her with some city-slicker insurance policy from Wall Street.
“It’s personal. I have a few photos. Could you take a look at them for me?”
“Oh, in that case come on in.” Opal, the second wave of security to tackle, did not present as much of an obstacle.
An older man in his seventies, laid stretched out on a recliner with the pedestal sprung up for his legs. He was bare-chested, covered only in a bath towel. Opal made the introduction as I sat on the old couch upholstered in colorless quilts and blankets. “This is my husband, Ed.”
We waved at each other.
It Gets Him Around
Joe's wheels out front...
“Opal, take a look at this photo. I am looking for the Davidson family that once lived in Crossville.” She scanned them and produced instant answers for me, both prolonged and opinionated.
“Yep, there are two Opal Davidsons in Cumberland County!” Go figure. “You want the other one whose husband is Joe, right there in that there picture.” She pointed to a man in a plaid shirt with pork chop sideburns holding a rifle.
“Do you know how I can find them?”
“Well now, let’s see, they live now off of...” And away her mind wandered along non-signposted back roads, some of them unpaved for miles. She made a feeble attempt to get me to the home, but could not recall if it was a left turn and hold hard at a right fork, or a right turn where a combine has stood over this past winter.
“Opal, are you sure that big piece of machinery you just described is sitting out there like you say?”
Her hesitation spoke louder than her words. “Well, it should be there.” There was no way I’d find this place on my own.
“But one of the daughters owns a salon in town. It’s
Looking good at seventy-two...
called The Asylum, right off of one of the exits.”
“Do you know which one?” I started naming the three until she settled on Janet.
I would have left earlier to make my escape, but Opal had a lot on her mind and wanted me up to date on the Davidson clan. For the better part of forty minutes, I was unable to make my way to the door among comments of, “Well, we’re all related way back. They’re my kin eleven times removed by the way of a divorce of a bloodhound and a John Deere tractor.” (Or that’s the way it sounded after a while.) Ed wisely kept silent and maintained a proud pose after having recently suffered a debilitating stroke. I got all the details of his physical recovery including the EMT helicopter ride to Chattanooga where he complained that the engines needed a quick look, and he was willing to inspect them, even in his semi-conscious state.
Opal piped up at one point, “Those are the rich Davidsons, ya know”, implying her part of the clan had fallen on misfortune. Her voice was laced with envy, and that saddened me. Today both Opals share the same physician and supermarket. They speak and are on civil terms, but have never been close. Both get a small but disappointing pleasure in outdoing each other over some insignificant minutiae. This Opal did not know them when I did. They had little money. When Opal and Joe Davidson were in the early years of their marriage, they were no more than migrant workers vagabonding it from state to state in search of a decent wage. By the time they got to Columbia County, New York, they had very little. They were in no way wealthy; they lived in a trailer park. If by chance they were a successful bunch in 2008, it was for one and one reason only: they had worked terribly hard for it and played by the rules. Their legendary work ethic and intolerance for excuses was not about to dissipate after twenty-five years. I seriously doubt the Davidsons I recall, should have much for which to apologize.
I finally forced my way out the door with enough information to get back to the salon where I was confident a more successful encounter would await me. I shook Ed’s right hand, the side of his body that still served him well. On the table next to him was a triangular faux leather case. “Whatchya got there, Ed?”
“Oh, nothin’. Just a pistol. Just in case.”
“Just in case some stranger comes to the door uninvited?”
He cracked a smile that made me instantly like him. “Somethin’ like that.” I made my way back to the car having conquered only two of the Davidson’s three security measures.
As soon as she appeared from around the corner, I knew I had the right place. Yep, that was her. Rather attractive with long dark hair over her shoulders, the years have been seriously kind to her. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have much time for you.” She was trying to be as polite as possible since a customer was waiting in the other room to have her hair done. I did not know it at the time, but Janet thought I had come to sell her some products for her hair salon. It struck me as ridiculous given how many times a day I involuntarily rub my shiny crown or shave it clean every Sunday. I’m the last person anyone would expect to walk into a hair salon. “Also, I can’t get too close. I have hair all over me.” It was hard to see any of the clippings on her black smock.
“It’s OK”, I answered. “I do not want to take up much of your time. Here…” I anxiously placed in front of her a faded color photo of a boy just older than a toddler, on a pony with a girl next to him holding the bridle. How would she react? Would she remember? Would she tell me to leave and not bother her or her family? Any thought of my selling her the latest revitalizing gel from Paul Mitchell quickly vanished. Her jaw dropped as her mind raced back the quarter century or more that was enclosed by the confines of the image’s borders. “Does that picture mean anything to you?”
“Yeah.” she responded confidently, but still with a tone of confusion more than acknowledgement. The lady in the chair would have to wait a bit longer. I had Janet’s full attention.
“Do you know who that girl is?”
“That’s me. But how-” I cut her off.
“And the boy? That’s Pat MacDowell’s nephew, right?”
“Yeah, that’s little Richie.” Well, little Richie has come the better part of 950 miles to show you that photo, girl.
“Right. Janet.” Our eyes met. “That’s me in the photo.”
She let out a scream and threw her arms around a complete stranger and instantly forgot about the hair clippings now smattered from my shoulder to my waist. I did not know what to expect, or if I’d ever find the Davidsons. I had been through enough disappointments in digging up the past when I should have let well enough alone. This was an awfully good start.
“B- But how did you-?”
“It’s long story.” And to retell it would take twenty-five years. The old A-frame house was now the salon in which we were speaking. The surroundings were unrecognizable: the Tennessee Department of Transportation had completely leveled and reshaped the land to where any connection to the past was obliterated. The pond was gone; it’s now a depression in front of the salon parking lot. The barn? A house occupies on which it stood. A state highway runs through the chicken coop where I used to have the palms of my hands pecked at by the hens. Only the tree line struck me as familiar, but I was unsure if I just wanted it to be something I could desperately hold onto. In one swift instant, I let it all go. The ideal rustic setting and a vivid part of my childhood joy had been bulldozed to death by a Donald Trump wannabe. And no one even bothered to call and check with me first.
I am not a Thomas Wolfe fan, but he was right: You can’t go home again. Especially when the ridge you used to look out at every morning with deer feeding in a pasture is now a Mexican Cantina whose survival depends in part on the passing traffic of I-40.
Janet’s pulse had not stopped racing and the sincerity of her smile was arresting. “Look,” I inquired, “I do not want to impose,” Yes I did; I hadn’t come this distance not to impose, “but would it be OK to pay your parents a visit?”
“Are you kidding? Yes! Come back at three o’clock. I’ll be finished by then. Then I’ll take you to them.”
“Sure about that?”
“Absolutely!” She was still jumping up and down.
OK, then. I’ve got plenty to do for the next two hours.” Translation: ideal time to sneak in a nap. “However, Jan, do me a favor, please.”
“Don’t tell them anything. We can make it a surprise, OK?”
By the time I got back to my car, Janet was already on the phone, incapable of keeping the news to herself.
I could never remember a single lunch or dinner I ever ate in Tennessee, but breakfast was a special event. In a family of carpenters living on a farm, the Davidsons didn’t think twice about the effort they put into each fresh biscuit helplessly drowning under each artery-clogging drop of gravy. The eggs, always scrambled, were fluffy. The roasted potatoes, “taters”, had been shaven and remained warm on the skillet. The blackberry jam was next to the salt and peppers shakers as if it were any other condiment, but it came without a label. No Smuckers or Welch’s in this household. Self-service and boarding house reaches reigned supreme at the Davidsons. If you did not get up to take care of yourself, you got what was left for the animals out in the pen, maybe even less.
Opal had invited me for the morning meal and little could excite me more. Zack, her son, had ordered me to be at his house for the ride over by eight. I made sure I was there ten minutes early because no GPS voice would ever be able to find his parents’ place. Tom-Tom would simply fall apart and cry right on screen in the back roads of Cumberland County.
I stared wide-eyed at the kitchen counter’s tasty contents and strategized how I would contrive my first attack. The hot biscuits were still rising right out of the oven. I might have to be restrained. My metabolism has changed over the years. Zack brought a carton of eggs; none would be collected from any henhouse today. Instead of wondering where I could find more eggs to be fried up, I wondered if Opal had a defibrillator in the event anyone’s left ventricle should start to malfunction. Behind me was a full length sofa onto which I could fall and be left in peace to blissfully groan.
“You still like that ‘yellow glob’, Richie?” Opal asked while toiling at the stove. I had not heard that terms since puberty and knew exactly what she meant. She was referring to her creamed corn, an exquisite dish. I answered in the positive.
It’s nice to be back.
“Rich,” Joe piped up, “take you for a ride? I’ll show you ‘round the place.” Not that I would ever have refused, but Joe Davidson does not ask questions in an interrogative tone; they are more like orders.
“Whenever you’re ready.” Joe speaks a lot, and then again he can hold his tongue for a prolonged period of time. The seventy-two-year-old is a Southern caricature of himself. He prefers quick bursts of sharp, sage, and pertinent retorts. He does not waste words, yet when he has something on his mind, he does not hesitate to let loose, either. “Them’er good houses we built over there” or “I’m gonna clear all that over there and get a pond started. It’ll be good for the property. You’ll see more deer that way.” The man rises at an ungodly hour of the morning without the use of an alarm clock and has for decades. By the time I roll out of bed at five, he has already split half a forest and has the wood stacked by hand and ready for delivery. Joe would not have it any other way. He is the master of his land and proudly helps others provided they are like-minded towards the property and its future use. Otherwise he requires very little in return. He values those who invest in what he holds dearly: his family, his work ethic, and a strict adherence to what is right and wrong. “I don’t go to work, Rich” he would exclaim at the breakfast table. “I grab hammer and nails and never work. I say to my family or crew, ‘C’mon, let’s go play.’ We’re just playin’ around here.” He disdains the television in spite the countless channels his dish service makes available to him. “There ain’t nothin’ on anymore. Don’t like watchin’ that thing!” he lashes out dismissively without a prompt. “It’s why I am in bed so early.” Like a shark, if not in motion Joe would cease to function.
“But how do you get up?” The pickup ride had been deferred on account of conversation. Most of the family was still face down in their bacon, eggs, and potatoes. Oddly enough, we had involuntarily separated ourselves by gender. The men were at the counter on stools (closer to the food) while the ladies dined at the table.
Opal interjected with a drawl as stressed as her husband’s. “I tell you he could get up at any hour I need him to. He’s got an internal clock.” Joe lifts his forefinger to his temple as if that’s where the finely crafted Rolex were bolted to other side of his cranium.
The Davidson property is 80+ acres of rolling wooded country within a game reserve. Short of declaring it perfect, it is hard to find anything wrong with it. At first glance it could be the site of a boys’ summer retreat, a base for hunting, fishing, ATV trails, or anything linked with the outdoors. At various points on his land, Joe has constructed a pond with a dock and diving board. He stocks it with fish. Deer stands, similar to lookouts mark the property at points where the forest and a clearing meet. Our bodies sway and jerk to the dips and turns in his late model Dodge pickup. There are spots for grills and picnicking. “Right over there is where the best burgers happen in the summer.” Joe tells me in a voice that demands I remember everything he says. Later on: “In the summer,” Joe waves his hand out the driver-side window and waves at his home and the surrounding area, “we have a few folks over…about a hundred fifty.”
“Ever have any problems?”
“Bah! Sometimes a few get on the drink a bit. Nothin’ serious.”
“Some folks just don’t know when to call it a day?”
“That’s it.” Enough said.
Nothing goes to waste. Joe delivers the cut lumber from the property to nearby farms that process it for building materials.
In his free time, whenever that is, Joe constructs houses for bluebirds out of cedar. In addition to telling me he can put one together in fifteen minutes, he boasts that he has made over two thousand of the hand-held domiciles (most are staked at the top of a tall post) in his lifetime.
“Two thousand?” I repeated in a doubtful pitch.
“Yep.” Joe commands enough credibility that I do not question his figures.
“And they’re just for bluebirds, you say?” In terms that an ornithologist would avoid, he doles out enough information about the bird’s behavior, flight pattern, gestation period until hatchlings arrive, and individual calls. The Audubon Society should hire him as a consultant. He hands one to me. “Your Mom like birds?”
Are you kidding? “She watches them out at the feeders she put up in our back yard. On one of the rails of the porch she keeps a pair of binoculars next to a guide to identify them.” Translation: Yes.
“Then tell her within no time she’ll have bluebirds in her yard.”
Joe did not reply because those would have been wasted words.
Something has always kept me from considering Tennessee as quintessentially Southern, probably because it is not as deep on the map as Alabama or Mississippi. It is not a plantation state. Yet during the running of the Daytona 500, which kicks off the multi-billion dollar industry’s season, it is clear that this is not Passaic, New Jersey. Let me be clear: I do not care for nor do I understand NASCAR. If the circuit ceased to exist, all the better. It would mean more time for ESPN to dedicate to baseball on every SportsCenter. Someone please effectively explain to me the attraction in a “sport” in which men drive at homicidal speeds for several hours and execute nothing but left turns. There is no drama. What’ll happen next? Yes, you in the back with your hand up:
“Another left turn?”
Then another, and another, and…I’d rather watch grass grow because sometimes it will shoot up and veer to the right and hug the framing of a tulip bed. Zack, with whom I have successfully re-bonded best among all the Davidsons is aware of my contempt for NASCAR. He has invited me over to his home for a party to watch the race. Short of the actual Superbowl, people in Tennessee prepare for this event more than any other. University of Tennessee football is an entirely different tragedy altogether, especially if you watched them this past season. Zack and Penny enjoy entertaining guests, just as much as when their children were living with them. Zack was expecting a guest in particular that he wanted me to meet because we’d be polar opposites and hopefully some sparks would fly. One of the contestants in the game of North vs. South he warned me about was a guy named Landon, a heavy-drinking die-hard NASCAR admirer and worshipper of UT football. Zack would make the introduction and let nature run its course, hopefully for his own entertainment and that of the unwitting others.
Landon did not disappoint. We shook hands, exchanged niceties, and sat opposite each other on stools Penny had placed in the living room. I looked across at him and gave him little thought. Instead, I was reliving a morning episode when I was giving Zack a hard time about his choice of morning beverage. Our session, at nine o’clock or so, went on something like the following:
Zack: You want anything to drink, Rich?
Rich: No, I’m good for now. Thanks.
Z: Y’ know, I have just started drinking coffee now. (Quite the admission for a man soon to be forty-eight.)
Z: Before, I could never get into it. Now, I make it just right.
R: How do you take your coffee?
Z: (very proudly) I get a mug, and put in the coffee. Then I add two sugars, a packet of hot cocoa, and then French vanilla creamer.
R: Huh? Did you say hot cocoa? That’s not coffee anymore, Zack.
Z: Really, it’s good. You should try it sometime.
R: (bursting out laughing) No, thanks. (Pause) Do you know what you have just created?
Z: No. What?
R: A redneck lattè. Congratulations!
Good thing he wasn’t drinking any at the time. He would have shot through his nostrils from laughing so hard.
Back to Landon. Around the 65th lap, he fired his first shot. It was random. “So, Connecticut Football, you ain’t got too much to say ‘bout that, do ya?”
I tried the intellectual approach, a waste of time. “What do you mean?”
“Not much of a program is it?”
“Not true. We’ve been playing at the top level for only ten years. The program is amazingly successful.” I then gave him a rundown on how we don’t play William & Mary any more, and have opted for much larger market teams.
“Ain’t like the Vols, though.” I gazed across at a man who could be Larry the Cable Guy, but without the intellectual and linguistic refinement.
“True, but we’ve made a big move. Did you hear?”
“We don’t require players to go to class anymore, kinda like down here.” Landon never attended the University of Tennessee, and according to Zack knows nothing about the institution outside the Coliseum-like Neyland Stadium. He, so I am told, finished high school, and barely at that. The comment flew right over his head. Pointing flood lights at Bambi’s eyes would have elicited a more lively response.
“So, you just think, you Northerners, you…you just come down here and think that UT and the SEC isn’t up to par with your schools.”
Want to shut a guy up or have a fool prove he is one? Agree with him: “Yes.”
Silence, but I wanted to toy with him. “Except Vanderbilt. If you have a degree at Vanderbilt, you’ll keep our attention.” Do I actually believe this one hundred percent? No, but I knew it would piss Landon off. “Let’s compare academics. You pick four schools in the SEC, minus Vanderbilt, and I’ll pick four in the Big East, minus Georgetown just to make it a conversation. And by the way, a fraternity is NOT a program of study.” I added that last line just to be a jerk. Zack in the corner was sitting with a few other folks sipping on a Mountain Dew, another of his preferred morning beverages, loving the exchange.
“So, excuse me for not getting all excited about a psychology degree from Mississippi State. And that’s just the Big East. Do you have any clue how demanding a Big Ten school is? A degree from Northwestern or from Wisconsin-Madison? Forgive us, father”, I called out while looking up to the ceiling with much over-the-top attitude. More stock cars whizzed by on the Zack’s Sony HD flat screen monitor.
Landon pulled down on the black bill of his cap and went back to his Bud Light and lap seventy-four.
Zack invited me to a private small party at a home he took part in building. Now in their forties, he and Penny can do these things at their leisure. Both children whom they had very young are out of the house and married in their early twenties. In the finished basement that doubles for a Karaoke stage, he introduced me to the casual crowd of Bud Light or Corona drinkers in long-sleeved t-shirts and jeans. People asked where I had been or how Zack and I got along so well, but no one knew who I was. “We decided not to talk to each other for a generation”, I quipped at a young couple. “That’s the secret.” The comment without any follow up raised a few eyebrows.
Zack does not touch any sort of wine, beer, or spirit, letting the others get liquored up and act foolishly. I was not interested in giving the local police any reason to pull over an out-of-state vehicle except for the odd-looking faded blue license plate. The women started moving around the stage to a song by Kenney Chesney. They called it dancing. I chose to look away and found that Janet had arrived.
“So, we’ll do this again” she started in.
“Yes. I am sorry about what has happened to your sister.” It was as much as I could get out of Opal at breakfast earlier in the morning. Her youngest daughter’s absence left a gaping hole in me. I felt incomplete. It took much for her mother to tell me about leaving high school, falling in with the wrong crowd, dealing, possession, and the legal impact of her decisions. She still lives while teetering on the edge in North Carolina. No mother enjoys telling of the disappointments and misery of a child gone awry. Yet I respected the family for not sweeping it under the carpet.
Janet helplessly shrugged her shoulders. Zack commented over her shoulder, “You make your own bed, you gotta live in it.”
“Yeah,” I took another swig, “it would have made the whole thing complete. Now it’s open-ended.”
Something about Thomas Wolfe again.
One of the most valuable skills of the semi-professional houseguest is to know when to leave. That time had come very quickly. I could have stretched out the entire week in Crossville and probably moved in. My unannounced intrusion had already produced results far more bountiful than I had ever envisioned. There were no setbacks. Memories evoked smiles. Everyone laughed at my jokes and stories. It would be very hard to ask for more. On an early morning on Zack’s driveway blacktop, I stood and stared around at what used to be land I once rode on horseback. Penny had already left for work at the bakery where she has been employed since high school. Zack came out from the garage and sidestepped his black Infiniti sedan. I offered him my hand, which he returned with much more. There are ideas for the summer, but nothing more than that. Some details in Connecticut still needed to be settled and no one was in any position to make any promises that could not be kept. But one thing was for sure, there would be no gap of twenty-five years. And with that agreed upon, Zack got in his car and sped off to the building site where has was expected in order to put hammer to nail.
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