Friday, February 20, 2009

Part Two -Elvis

(Here is part two of my ongoing serial. Feel free to post comments, and point out any problems. I'm still editing it.)

Part Two

I slipped into the world quietly in Huntsville, Alabama about the time the first troubles began. Ah, who am I kidding? I’ve always been about as subtle as a forest fire and my birth was no different. My parents had planned a nice, quiet birth at a birthing center across the line in Tennessee. That was before my mother started hemorrhaging one afternoon three weeks before her due date. So I arrived by emergency C-section at the local hospital. Family legend has it that my normally mild, executive father, confronted with this unexpected emergency, completely freaked. Emergencies do that people. They either bring out the best or the worst in everybody. In my father’s case it was probably the best. He picked his wife up –somehow- put her in his sports car, and drove down Highway 53 and Jordan Lane like all the demons of hell were after him. A man who never broke the speed limit suddenly turned into a NASCAR driver.

When they arrived at the hospital they were searched, of course. A bleeding pregnant woman shows up and you search her before letting her into the ER. It wasn’t like they needed to; Huntsville wasn’t Detroit or L.A., or even Atlanta. It was one of those things they did because they could. Things were like that back then. I’m not supposed to know about that, of course, and I wouldn’t if Grandpappy Thompson had not gone on about it every time I saw him until the day he died. He was an old coot, was Grandpappy. True southern born redneck. He didn’t forgive his daughter for marrying a black man (even one who was mixed) until I was born. He served in ‘Nam and to him anyone he didn’t like was a ‘damn commie’. He had more guns than God (not uncommon in our area) and was always worried ‘someone from the gummat’ was going to try and take them. It never happened, and even if it had, the only one of his that was registered was the one he carried in his waistband. He and Grandma had a huge fight in the parking lot of the hospital over whether or not he should leave that gun in the truck. She won, and it was a good thing since they (naturally) were searched too. Grandpappy nearly got arrested for talking back to the cops. I’m not supposed to know that, either.

I was healthy, despite being premature. I guess I was in a hurry to come into the world. My childhood was happy, I suppose. I don’t remember much of it. We were sheltered from most of the dislocations that took place during that time period. My mother was a housewife who worked part-time once I started school but my father was a high-level executive at one of the defense contractors in town. I don’t remember what his title was or which company he worked for, but he traveled a lot. He also made a lot of money, which is what sheltered us as things began to deteriorate. We had a big house in Harvest that was always warm in winter and cool in the summer. I had a giant bedroom and more toys than I could count.

I was a stubborn, strong-willed child who severely tried my parents. I was a tomboy from the time I could walk and resisted any and all efforts to turn me into a lady. I was my mother’s sorrow. Grandma Davis thought it was funny and whenever I would come to her house she let me climb trees and run wild with the neighborhood boys. Grandpappy Thompson was as happy as he could be that he had a grandchild who liked to go fishing and camping with him. He took me fishing for the first time when I was two and camping when I was four. I was seven when he taught me to shoot. Whenever I was on their farm in Elvis I kept Grandma busy patching me up.
All through my childhood there were problems. There was war and rumors of war. The economy got worse and worse, with periods of stability in between dislocations. We were hardly affected but as I got older I couldn’t help but notice them. Shortages started at some point and just kept happening but it never affected us at home. Papa could just pay more for whatever we needed. Including gas, when it started running short. I first noticed the problems at school when more and more kids showed up without some or all of their supplies. Mother would often take bags of school supplies and give them to my teachers and more’n once she rounded up clothing and even shoes for some of the kids who couldn’t afford them or find them. When her part-time job ended (the business folded, I think) she devoted all her efforts to charity.

I was ten when the fever came through. It was the flu, I think. The public health system had been overstrained for years but it completely collapsed when that epidemic began. The stories are that it turned into a full-blown pandemic but I’ve no way of knowing if that’s the case. When it began Papa drove Mother and me up to the farm in Elvis. Grandpappy had died the summer before in a car accident and Papa said Grandma could use the help. Mother was very pregnant with Tim. Papa dropped us off and went back to Huntsville, and to work.

That was the last time I ever saw him. One of his colleagues called when he passed away of the fever.

Mother gave birth to Tim two weeks later and he was about a month old when the fever made it to Elvis. It hit hard. Isolation helped some. When it reached Elvis a lot of people just stayed on their farms or in their homes until it was over. A lot of people did the same in the cities. It made it harder to get the fever but also harder to get treatment. About sixty percent of the people around our parts got the fever, and about half of those who got it died. Most of pneumonia. I’ve no way of knowing if it was that way everywhere or if it was worse in Elvis. We didn’t have much healthcare to speak of and it was impossible to get to the hospital in Fayetteville, much less Huntsville.

I was the first to get sick in our family. While I was recovering Mother got sick and passed away. Grandma didn’t tell me until I was well. Tim never got it. A few days after I was back on my feet Grandma passed away. Not of the fever; she never got sick. Her heart just gave out, I think. It had been bad for years and she’d been off her meds for weeks. The power was out for some reason but I managed to get the emergency radio going. Things were bad. They gave a lot of numbers I didn’t understand and can’t remember. I do remember they said the president had not gotten it and was still in charge. I remember wondering why I should care about someone I didn’t even know when my parents and Grandma were gone forever. For a couple of days I managed okay on my own with Tim. But everything in the fridge went bad, we ran out of formula and diapers, and I didn’t know what to do about Grandma. So finally I bundled us up (it got really cold in winter at times, in those days) and walked down the road to Sharkey’s and Mama Jo’s. They’d always been really good friends with my grandparents but I hadn’t seen them in days. Mama Jo opened the door, took one look at us, and sat about feeding both of us while Sharkey –missing a foot though he was –went and buried Grandma.

The power came back on a few weeks later. Several months after that it went off again and stayed off. Why I don’t know.

But all of that was a long time before Tim decided he wanted to see the ocean.

When Tim didn’t show up early that morning I assumed he and Bobby Earl had gone fishing. We were taking things easy for a few days since the planting was done and I had told him to just be back for evening chores. They even left a note on Sharkey’s table that said that’s where they were so no one would look for them.

I had business in Elvis that day. Part of it was ours and part of it was Sharkey’s. He was feeling poorly and had asked me to go in his stead. He often had me run errands or attend to other business for him. I think he trusted me even more than Todd, who was his son-in-law. I know he had taught me things he never Todd.

Beth and Maria were sitting on the porch drinking tea when I left. It was shortly after dawn. Beth was nursing the baby. Her daughter really had slipped quietly into the world, naturally and without any complications, only two days after Tim told me he wanted to go see the ocean. “Leaving all ready?” She called when I stepped out.

“Have to.” I grunted in reply. My backpack was full of trade goods and I had a basket of eggs tied to my belt. “I want to back by supper.”

“You be careful,” Maria told me firmly. “Bring back some blackberries, no?”

“If there are any.” It was early yet, but you never knew. “You have a gun handy?”

In response, Beth lifted the corner of the afghan on the porch swing next to her enough to reveal the butt of the rifle concealed there. I nodded. It had been some time since we’d had any trouble but I didn’t want to risk anything happening to any of my family.

It was another clear, cloudless day. Nice enough for traveling, but worrisome since this made it a week since we’d had rain. We didn’t need another drought. Elvis was three miles from the farm by the road and two-thirds of that cross-country. Blackberry was northwest of Elvis another five miles up the old road. Our Amish neighbors lived juxtaposed in between the two and slightly further west. I took the road but kept an eye out for trouble.

As I walked I scanned the sky for contrails. It was an old habit of mine, one I still haven’t broken. I suppose my fascination with airplanes is due to Papa. When I was a small child he was always traveling and my mother and I would see him off or pick him up at the airport whenever possible. I always wanted to go somewhere in a plane and never did. Suddenly I understood Tim’s fascination with the ocean a little bit more.

Little did I know he and Bobby Earl were heading southwest at that very moment.

There were several other places on the way from ours to town. Some were occupied and some were not. I passed the Heckert place first. They were on my left. Their winter wheat was doing poorly. It didn’t look like it was going to come to harvest and that was worrisome. Only two other families still grew wheat. Their garden was looking good at least, and they had a trial patch of corn this year. It was a different kind than I had seen before and I made a mental note to ask them where they had gotten the seed. I wondered how they made it on their own. There were only three of them, and they were too proud to ask for help. The McCrays were next. They grew the famous blackberries, some cattle, and lots of sweet potatoes as well as a huge garden. In the old days the big blackberry patch had been a pick-your-own farm and people came from all over, even as far as Huntsville and Chattanooga, to do just that. The entire extended family lived there now –what was left of it –as well as some others they had taken in. The blackberries were not in yet. The last really big plot was the old Smith place. Old man Smith and his wife had both died of the fevere and none of their kids had ever shown up to claim it. The year after some of the Hispanic migrants had moved in. There was trouble over that at first, but Sharkey had handled it with his usual finesse. They were good neighbors and had brought lots of seed for peppers, corn, and other traditional vegetables. Without them a lot of people might have starved. When the state militia tried to evict them on one of their periodic run throughs the entire town swore they owned the place legitimately and had lived there for two generations. It had been years since that militia came through, and no one missed them much. The town militia handled trouble just fine, thank you very much.

Elvis had never been a big town. It had once had another name, before the King’s time, but whatever it was I never found out or have long since forgotten. Suburbanization had never reached it from either Huntsville or Chattanooga, much less Nashville. There had been about five hundred people in the town when the flu came through, and now there were less than three. There might have been a thousand people in the whole region when all this happened. It may sound like a lot but there were more in the subdivision I lived in during my childhood.
My first stop was the medical clinic. Elvis had never rated more than a single doctor’s office, but now it was basically a clinic. It was one of the few buildings that still had any power. Most of the solar panels we had scrounged up went to ensure that. Doctor ‘the Doc’ Hatcher used to practice up near Winchester way but now kept closer to home. His wife had once been a chemistry prof but now she spent her time testing water and helping her husband make what few medicines we head.

Shekina, one of the apprentices, poked her dark head out of the clinic door as I neared.

“I thought that was you, Ms. Davis! How are you?”

“It’s Eddie, Shekina, I’ve told you.” I replied, laughing.

“My momma says to respect my elders, and that it’s Miss, Missus, and Mister when it’s not sir or ma’am.”

“You’re eighteen now, ‘Kina. That means you’re an adult. Call me Ed or Eddie.”

“Long as you won’t tell my momma.”

“Deal.” I entered the clinic as she held the door open for me. It was noticeably cooler inside. The building was brick, with a full basement and the best insulation in town. “The doc in?”

“Nah, Rory Cratchett broke his leg in a bad way and he and Bobby Joe went to fetch him. He asked me to stay in case anyone else came in. What do you need? Has your brother done something stupid again?”

“Not that I know of. I just came to deliver these.” I had a sack of sweet potatoes and assorted salad veggies slung over my shoulder. She accepted them graciously. The Doc always needed food. They didn’t have time to grow or raise much of their own.

Shekina insisted I have a cold glass of water before I left. “Why didn’t you radio ahead on the shortwave? I would have made you breakfast. I’m sure you haven’t eaten yet.”

“I didn’t want to waste the power. And I had some grits and eggs before I left.” I took my leave shortly after that before she had a chance to really start talking. Shekina could talk your ears off.
There were a lot of empty buildings in Elvis in those days. Some people had combined housing to make things easier. Others simply belonged to those who had passed away or left. One old building had been converted into the schoolhouse that was now closed for the summer. Widow Harrison was sitting on her front porch as I passed by, fanning herself and looking for gossip.

Some things never change.

“Mornin’ Ms. Davis! How are you?” She called.

“Good, Mrs. Harrison. And you?”

“I’m good. You found yourself a man yet?”

“No ma’am.”

“My boy’s still single.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, ma’am.”

“You’re not getting any younger, you know.”

“I know.”

“You have time to sit and talk?”

“’Fraid not today, ma’am.”

“Pity.”

I moved on, trying not to mutter to myself in her sight. She was the biggest gossip in town. I dared not tell her I had no intention of ever ‘finding myself a man’. Now if I had been a man myself, and Mary Ellen had not married Todd –I pushed the thought away. Such things might have been possible once but not now. Things had changed.

Mary and her husband Jim Bo ran the grocery and dry goods store. Their old big box store had long been shut down but they operated out of an old convenience store next door. They had enough power for some refrigeration cases and a couple of fans. They sold all kinds of things out of their store, and the old one had been converted into a warehouse that held even more. You could buy just about anything you wanted if you had the credit but some things –papers, ink pens, ammo –had to be requested.

Jim Bo was behind the counter when I came in and greeted me enthusiastically. “What can I do for you, Ed?”

“You can give me a beer to start with, you old codger, and don’t bug me about the credits. You know I’m good for it.”

The old man laughed. “You’re the only woman I’ve ever known who likes a good brew.”

“I’m not an ordinary woman, Jim.”

“True.” Jim Bo took a beer out of the case behind him, unscrewed the cap, and handed it to me. It was an old twenty-ounce soda bottle. The once red label had long since faded, but some of the letters were still visible. I took a long swig and let it go easy down my throat. “Good stuff. How does Mike do it?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care, as long as he keeps doing it.”
We both laughed. “Where’s Mary today?”

“Out and about. She went to see several friends. Said she reckoned I could handle the store on my own for one morning.”

“I reckon she’s right.”
“Hope so, otherwise she’ll be right pissed off. What can I do for you?”

“Eggs, to begin with.” I set the egg basket on the counter. Jim Bo counted and examined the eggs with the eye of an expert. “Twenty-four, eh? That’s quite a lot.”

“We’ve got a lot of hens now. They’re all fresh.”

“I believe you. These are nice. This’ll get you twelve credits.”

“Done. I also have some of Maria’s homemade cornbread.”

Jim Bo perked up and he gazed longingly at the parcel I pulled from my backpack. “That’ll get you six more. But I’m not going to sell that. I don’t know how she does it.”
“The jalapenos, I think.”

“Hmm. Gary’s still not remarried. Tell her that, would you? I wouldn’t mind having her for a daughter-in-law. Anything else?”

“No, but I have a list.”

“Hmm. Thought so.”

We bargained through it. Mary was a stickler on prices but Jim Bo liked to barter as much as I did. We had good credit, so a baby brush and some bottles was no problem. There were a few other things, including some butter, and when we were done we still had plenty of credits left. Jim Bo tallied up the purchases and marked them in the book. “Pick them up on your way out?”

“Sure. I got things to do.” While I was nursing my beer and looking around the store I couldn’t help but notice some pretty red ribbon he had on a shelf. Jim Bo noticed my gaze. “You should get that for her. She likes red.”

“Who?” I asked innocently.

“You know.”

“’Fraid not.”

He gave me a look. “Half the town knows, Eddie. And most don’t care. Those that do ain’t gonna say anything. Not to you.”

“Oh shut up.”

I bought the ribbon.

Pastor Smith was entering the shop as I left. He gave me a semi-dirty look. I returned it. “Haven’t seen you at church lately, Edna Jean.”

“Nope.”

“We gonna see you soon?”

“Nope.”

“Mama Jo would like you to come to church.”

“Mama Jo is dead.”

“She’s in heaven with Jesus. Don’t you want ta join her one day?”

“Not any time soon.”

“Jesus loves you too.”

“If you say so, Pastor.”

Pastor Joe was the only pastor left in Elvis in those days. There had once been three. He was annoying as all hell. Not as annoying as the Mormon missionaries who came through from time to time, but still. The last time the latter showed up I nearly ran them off at gunpoint. I still haven’t decided which annoys me more: dead guys comin’ back to life or salamanders holdin’ the keys to heaven.

Both are about equally likely.

The Saddleback was my next stop. The bar was still under the same old bar keep. Sallie had never shut down for long, even during the flu. When the trucks stopped coming she just bought moonshine. Every Saturday some of the locals played and people gathered to dance and drink.
The bar was as much a general hangout as anything in those days. It was bright enough in the day with all the windows open and at night there were lanterns. There was a town militia meeting there that day. Sharkey was Captain and I was his chief deputy. The militia was formed a few years after the fever to help keep order. It had been Sharkey’s idea, of course. Well, him and some others who had military experience. Service was about as voluntary as you could get but most of the men and quite a few of the women were in it. I joined as soon as I could, on my sixteenth birthday. It was a loose structure, more along the lines of the old National Guard than regular service. We communicated by shortwave most of the time and got together once a month to exchange reports.

The meeting was short. All had been quiet lately. Even Jeremiah had been lying low, and that worried me some. The people of Blackberry didn’t like him anymore than we did but they weren’t as well organized and if he decided to take full control over there he could.

“He’s too busy trading that rot gut and pot to cause any trouble right now,” Joe Cratchett, Rory’s son, said.

“Trading where?” I asked.

Joe shrugged. “Outside the area, somewhere.”

“What is he trading it for?” I pressed him.

“Does it matter?”
“If it’s ammo and guns, then yeah, I’d say it matters.”

Joe grinned. “Eddie, from all we can tell he’s trading it for food. Lazy sum a bitch won’t grow ‘is own!”

There was general laughter at that. The meeting over, we all had a beer. As I was leaving Joe caught up to me and whispered in my ear. “Thought you’d like to know, ole Tulu is back.”

“He is?”

“Yep. Saw ‘im yesterday. We traded for some spices. He had some cinnamon from somewhere or other.”

“Same spot as usual?”

“Yep. Thought you’d like to know.”

“Thanks.” I had other things to do, but this couldn’t be put off. If Tulu was here, then I needed to see him right away. I put my backpack on and headed down to the creek.

1 Comments:

Anonymous murph said...

Ras,

Nice story development. Keep it up.

2/20/2009 11:03 AM  

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