Monday, March 02, 2009

Part Four -Heading Out

(This is about halfway through, now. Comments and questions are welcome.)

Part Four

Before I go on I should say a few words about Sharkey. He was more my father than Papa. Not that Papa wasn’t a good man. He was. But he was gone more than he was home and he never spent much time with me. And both my parents were mild people who had no idea what to do with the little hellion they’d spawned. The first time I started a fight at school (started, mind, not got into) Papa simply sat me down and asked me why. What he should have done was what Sharkey did when the same thing happened: turned me over his knee, gave me two hard swats, and then set me down for a severe talking-to.
“We don’t start fights,” He told me firmly. “We finish ‘em but we don’t start them. You hear me, Edna Jean?”

I never started a fight again.
No, I didn’t start that fight at the Saddleback. Jeremiah did that when he beat my dog so bad I had to put ‘im down. Toby was so old at the time he was half blind and arthritic as hell, but that don’t matter one whit. You don’t do that and get away with it, not with me around.
Sharkey was waiting for me on the porch when I got home, but he wasn’t angry. Nope. He had his last bottle of good whiskey beside him and two glasses. That was the first time I ever got drunk.

Sharkey’s family had lived on that farm for at least three generations. But Shakry didn’t want to be a farmer. No, he wanted to be –of all things –a vet. But college was expensive and his family didn’t have the money. Scholarships were hard to get and wasn’t a good enough ball player to go that way. The only other way to do it was to go so deep into hock he’d never have seen the light of day. Sharkey, being Sharkey, took the only other route available: he joined up. I don’t know if he was ever infected with the kind of hyper-patriotism that a lot of those in our area had, or if it was sheer practicality, but he went and joined the marines after high school. A lot of kids did that.

It turned out that Sharkey was good at being a marine and he actually liked it. But war makes you question a lot of things and Sharkey did a lot of thinkin’ in the marines. He went in a garden variety Baptist and came out a card-carrying atheist. He joined up to become a vet and came out an entirely different kind of vet. He lost his right foot far from home in a place called Iraq on his third tour of duty there. They drummed him out and he came home to help Mama Jo.
By that time it had become obvious to anyone with eyes to see that there was some serious shit hittin’ the fan in our country and the world. Sharkey could read the writing on the wall and knew that most of the dogs we had weren’t going to hunt much longer. So he sat about changing some things. Mama Jo had always kept a garden. He expanded it and started planting wheat and corn in some of the old fields. He planted an orchard. Then he upgraded all the appliances and insulation in the house, reduced the power load, and converted it all to solar power. I don’t know where he got the money for the last, because that was expensive as all hell, but he did it. Somewhere in those years he married and Mary Ellen and Jane were born. His wife Kelsey died of cancer the year before the fever and his sister (Robert Earl’s mama) was in New York when it happened and we never heard from her again.

Sharkey being Sharkey, he quickly realized helping himself get through hard times wasn’t gonna be enough if his neighbors were hurting. They would come to him for help and he would either have to help them (and he would; he was a teddy bear inside) or be an asshole. So he started helping people around town do things to help themselves. He helped Grandpappy and several others plant orchards or even single trees. He helped insulate a lot of houses. And so on and so forth. He also bought a buttload of shortwave radios with solar batteries in case things ever got really bad. Sharkey was not exactly a survivalist; we’d one of those around, before the fever. Jed Hudson was his name. He lived in a bunker and expected world war three to happen any day, but it was the fever that killed him. Sharkey was just practical and determined to keep going no matter what happened.

After the fever it was Sharkey and a few others who got us organized and kept things together. Sharkey was elected Mayor of Elvis. It hardly mattered that he lived outside of town. His father and grandfather had both been mayor at one point or another. It was easier to get things done when it became obvious things weren’t going back the way they had been. Someone came up with the idea of apprenticing kids to the doc and the midwife –Widow Harrison I think –and Sharkey seized on it, then expanded it to include just about anyone with any kind of practical knowledge. He even convinced the Amish to take some of the boys on as apprentices. When we started having trouble with drifters and bandits he formed the militia. Things like that.
Sharkey taught me just about everything I know. I’m not just talking about practical things like how to kill a deer or use a compass. He taught me the really important things: honor, justice, ethics. The kind of things more of us should have. He treated all of his adopted kids and his nephew like blood, and we grew up thinking of ourselves as one big family. Which is why we all hung together even after we were grown.

In the evening of the fourth day I walked up to see Sharkey. It was a perfect summer evening. The heat of the day had passed and there were fireflies twinkling everywhere. He was sitting on the back porch sipping a glass of ice tea. He didn’t yet have the strength to do much more than hobble back and forth from his room to the porch or the hammock. I leaned against the porch railing and pillowed my head on my arms. “How you doin’ tonight?”

“Better’n I was. I’d be better still if those two mother hens would leave me alone for a hour.”

I smiled. Mary Ellen and Jane fussed over their father constantly. “At least you haven’t spent half the day hoeing corn and the other half trying to figure out the guts of a washer.”

“There is that.”

We were silent for a while. “I reckon I need to go after the boys.”

“Ah reckon so. Someone has to. I can’t. Jim’s too young, Amanda’s with child and Todd doesn’t have the sense.”

Todd was a good man. But he was also a very big nerd, and the first time he saw some interesting doohickey he liked he’d forget all about the boys in his haste to get it home and get it working. Even as Sharkey and me were talking most of the family was inside watching a movie on an old VHS machine he’d fixed up.

“When you fixin’ to leave?” Sharkey asked after sipping some more tea.

“First light.”

“Things are bad out there.”

“I know.”

“There’s worse things in this world than death, Edna Jean, and if you go out there’s a bigger chance of them happenin’.”

“I know. Sir. They could happen to the boys too. Family takes care of family.”

Sharkey nodded. “You scared, girl?”


“Good. Fear’ll keep you alive out there. What are you planning to take?”

We sat and talked for a long while. When I left he asked me to stop back by on my way out. It was nearly midnight when I headed back to our house. Most of the family was sleeping on the back porch so I slipped in the front way. I stayed up late packing and when I finally lay down I couldn’t get to sleep.

A couple of hours before dawn I finally gave up. I dressed and had breakfast before preparing to head to Sharkey’s. I’d said my goodbyes to everyone before I went up there the night before. But to my surprise Maria appeared in the kitchen just before I stepped out the door.

“You leave now?” She asked. I nodded.

“Come with me first,” She said and beckoned.

Maria was Catholic, like most of the migrants from down south. Or at least she said she was. I never heard her praying to Jesus or his father, much less the Holy Ghost. She did an awful lot of praying to the Virgin Mary, though. Day and night. She wore a Virgin of Guadaloupe pendant that her mother had given her when she was a girl. It never left her neck. She clutched that pendant now as she led me through the house to a small room at the back. It was too big to be a closet and too small to be much of anything else, and Maria and her girls had converted it into a shrine to Mary. The walls were lined with purple velvet, there was a nice rug on the floor, and there was an altar with a large statute of Mary taken from some defunct church or other. Some of Maria’s homemade incense was burning on the altar. The cat lay next to the statute, giving me one of those looks cats can give, the kind that make your hair stand on end.

“I pray to her,” Maria told me as she looked at the statute. “I pray to her all night to bring you and the boys home safe. And she say –she say,” Maria clutched at the pendant. “She say I should give you this. It will keep you safe, she says.”

Before I had time to realize what she was about, she took the pendant off and fastened it around my neck. “Maria, I can’t-”

“Hush,” she said and patted the pendant. “See you soon.” She hugged me.

Oh great. What if I didn’t make it back?

I managed to get out of the house before anyone else was up but as I walked off I heard the baby crying. The dogs followed me all the way to the property line and then Sharkey’s dogs took over as my informal escort. When I got to Sharkey’s it was still dark. There was a light on in his study. That alone was unusual. We tried not to use the electric lights. They drained the batteries too much. Sharkey’s study had once been his father’s and his grandfather’s before that, and their imprint was still all over everything. Civil War crap filled half the room. Books, statutes, flags, even the uniforms his ancestors had worn in the war. One for the North and one for the South.

Sharkey’s family never did anything by halves.

His imprint was all over the study too, course. He had solar power blueprints tacked on the walls and detailed maps of the entire area. Memorabilia from the marines was scattered about here and there. He looked up and grunted when I slipped in. “’Bout time you got here.”

“Maria wanted to pray over me.”

“She think Jesus is going to keep you safe?”

“Not Jesus. Mary.”

Suddenly Sharkey grinned. “A mother is more likely to do that, isn’t she? Have a seat. I got some things for you.”

I took a seat across from the old man. He wasn’t looking too good. He was nearly gaunt. What was wrong with him? And why hadn’t the Doc been to see him? He gave me a bunch of things, mostly trade goods. There were several bottles of liquor, including the one Tulu had given him. We’d both agreed that one was too valuable to drink. There were a carton of old smokes and some old jewelry. He also gave me a thick roll of greenbacks and some gold and silver coins.
“Lord only knows what they’re usin’ for money out there, but hopefully these will help. Take these too.” He handed me one of the two pairs of night-vision goggles we had. “They’ll be more use out there than here. And I want you to have this.”

It was then that he gave me his prized knife, a real Jim Bowie type that had never to my knowledge left his side. I stared at it. “Sharkey-”

“It’s yours now. I don’t want it back. I was gonna give it to one of mine but they clearly don’t want it. And as far as I am concerned you ARE one of mine.”

Wordlessly I slipped the sheath onto my belt. Sharkey looked at me for a long moment. “You’ve grown up, Edna Jean. I’m proud of you. You should know that.”

I felt my ears burn. “Thank you. Sir.”

“Don’t ‘sir’ me anymore. You’re not a child, now.” He was a silent for a long moment. “You know something may have all ready happened to those idiot boys.”
“And it might not be an accident.”
“I know that, too.”
“There won’t be any proper way to bring the ones who done it to justice if that happens. What do you plan to do?”
“Take care of it.”
Sharkey nodded. “Good.”

I tucked the last of the trade goods into my backpack. “That it?”
“Except for one more thing. Be careful. I’d kind of like to see you again.”
I grinned. “What makes you think I wanna see you again, you old coot?”
“I’m not a coot, you nitwit.”
“Then you’re a codger instead.”
He grinned. “You better make it back. I’ll miss you.”

To my surprise most of the family was waiting outside when I came out. Mary Ellen put her hands on her hips and glared at me. “You didn’t think we’d let you sneak off like the boys did you?” Before I could reply she threw her arms about me and kissed my cheek. “Be careful,” She told me. “I want y’all back safe. Okay?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“You better. Todd wanted to go too but he doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose. You do.”
My ears burned again.

Finally I got away, with Sharkey’s help. I headed north by northwest, cutting cross-country to reach the road that eventually would hit old highway 64. The road turned southwest to meet the highway. The boys would have reached Huntsville by now if nothing had happened. By the crow’s route that was only fifty miles or so away, but I wasn’t following the crow. I was following two idiot boys who couldn’t read a compass if their lives depended on it and I had to follow their tracks if I had any hope of finding them. Anything could have happened to them in between here and there.

Tim and Bobby Earl had planned the simplest route. They cut across familiar country to the old road and highway 64, then skirting Fayetteville (more ‘cause it was out of the way than anything, I was sure) by going down 275 ‘til it met up with 231, and taking that south to Huntsville, where they could join the interstate. I was sure they were walking on the road, too, instead of paralleling it, which is what I did.

It was another hot day and we had still had no rain. I drank as little water as I could and only stopped twice. Mary Ellen and Maria had given me some of their bread and cornbread, respectively, and I ate a piece each of that by lunch. In the late afternoon I found their first campsite, sited just off the road. It showed all the signs of being built by someone who’d had their training in fire prevention and was in the right spot. The boys were taking their time, walking leisurely on their little vacation, while what I was doing was more of a forced march. It started raining towards evening, a light sprinkling that nevertheless made sleeping outside an unpleasant prospect, so I holed up in an old pharmacy at a crossroads on the highway. All day I had been watching but had seen no one. The few tiny towns I had passed through had been deserted and I had seen no sign of the boys.

The pharmacy had been looted, of course. They all had. Some of them by us, of course. But I still took the time to search. All the good drugs were long gone but I found a few bottles of aspirin and some first aid supplies and stuffed them in my pack.

The second day was similar. I found their second campsite in the morning and kept on going. Today I actually ran into some people. There were a few living on farms or old homesteads just off the highway. They were friendly, as long as I kept my distance. One old man swore he had seen the boys. I showed him the most recent polaroid of the two and he confirmed it. I gave him the last of the cornbread as a thank-you and thanked God I’d brought that picture.

Todd’s passion for electronics actually had some use. Who knew?

As it drew near to evening again I came across an old, broken down farmhouse just off the side of the road. There was a large patch of corn growing out back and a fence around what I assumed was a garden. I decided to approach the house and as I got close an old woman came out of the screen door, a shotgun in her hands. A very young boy peeked out behind her.
“That’s far enough, drifter,” she said, leveling the gun at me.

I stopped. “I’m no drifter, ma’am. I’m just passing through.”
“Whatcha want?”
“I’m lookin’ for two idiot boys who up and ran away from home.”
The shotgun lowered just a bit. “Two, you said? What’d they look like?”

“I have a picture.” I took it out of my breast pocket and held it up. The old woman squinted. “I can’t see that. They ‘round sixteen?”
“Hmm, they spent the night with me a few days ago. Had some fool notion about going to the ocean.”
“Yes’m, I reckon they did. I’m on my way to fetch ‘em home.”

“Hmm. Reckon someone needs to before they get hurt. You’ll not get much farther today, boy.” She looked at me closely. “You been washed in the Blood?”
It was perfectly true. Mama Jo wanted me to be baptized, so I did. It made her happy, so what did I care?
She lowered the gun. “Come on in. I’m Etsell.”

“Ed.” She let me come in and have dinner with them. They had plenty, she said. But I still insisted on paying them with some of the smokes. She wouldn’t take any of the liquor and a bit later I found out why. I don’t think she ever realized I was a woman. Which was fine, since I was trying to pass. It wasn’t hard. Not for me. I’m as tall as most men and about as flat-chested and even then I was only a bit more pretty than the average mule.

The boy was two. He was her great-grandson. They’d lived there alone since her granddaughter died in childbirth. The place wasn’t hers. They had found it while wandering after the fever. They made out pretty good, she said, and I wondered how until she showed me the still after her boy was asleep.

“My grandpappy made moonshine durin’ prohibition.” She told me. “Never stopped. His still kept the family fed durin’ the Depression. The first one, that is. He taught me how to run it when I ‘twasn’t much older than my boy and I ‘elped ‘im with it ‘til he died. We were in West Virginia in those days. My Daddy was a coal miner. Then the bastard evil coal company decided to blow up our mountain aways back. ‘Etsell,’ my grandpappy told me. ‘When times get hard, liquor is money. Anyone who can make it is gonna make out just fine. Times have been good since you wer born, but they’ll get bad again. Mark my words. You remember how to make this and you’ll do just fine.’ I never forgot, and when times got hard, I made myself a still. Folks come from as far as Fayetteville for my whiskey.”

It was good whiskey, I had to admit. She let me have a glass. “Haven’t you had any trouble?”
“Oh some. They always let me alone when they try my whiskey. No one wants to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Or even harass her much. I might poison their next jug, after all.” She laughed.

The next morning before I left she looked at me critically. “You mixed, ain’t you, boy?”
There was only one thing that question could mean and there was no sense denying it. “Yes’m. My father was half black.”
“Hmm. Well, yer light enough to pass. It don’t bother me, mind. One of my girls married a colored boy. Nicest of the lot. But you be careful, ya hear? The white sheets are in charge over ‘round Fayetteville and they’ve taken to stringin’ up colored folk. I told your brother too, but I don’t think he believed me.”

That would be just like Tim. It didn’t surprise me that the Klan was back, only that they’d taken so long. I wondered how long it would take them to realize they were outnumbered now that we’d had so many Hispanic refugees from Mexico’s collapse move in.

The old woman and little Neil (after Neil Armstrong, she told me, so that someone would be alive for a while to remember we once went to the moon) hugged me before I left. I went on, trying not to worry about them. Etsell had to be nearly ninety, and the odds of her living until Neil grew up were slim. I’d offered for them to come live with us and she said she’d think about it. It was more mouths to feed, sure, but as she said, liquor is money. Neither of them should be alive, and yet they were.

That’s the thing about survival. You can’t always tell who is going to make it when something goes down. Sharkey told me that for years before the troubles people had been predicting it and some of them took outright glee in predicting all the people who were going to die. Survival of the fittest, and all that. Only to them ‘fittest’ meant ‘strongest’ and they were wrong. Dead wrong.

Oh, they were right about a lot of people. Insulin dependent diabetics, people who’d had organ transplants, others who were drug dependent all started dying as drugs became less and less available. But there were plenty who died who anyone would think should live. A lot of strong young men and others. The fever got some of them but a lot of people just seemed to give up. Something in them snapped, and they laid down and died. Or killed themselves, fast or slow with drink or drugs. Or got themselves killed.

There were also a lot of people who lived who should have died. Like Widow Harrison. When the troubles started she was two hundred pounds overweight and borderline diabetic. After the fever she managed to lose weight and get healthy. In her case it might have been sheer spite and a desire not to miss any gossip.

Or Lucius Hatchett. He was put in a wheelchair by a carnival ride when he was a teenager. His wife died of the fever and they lived so far out no one thought to check on them. Two years later I was hiking over by their farm and stumbled upon him, thin as a rail but alive, dragging himself down the rows of his garden weeding it. Of course, once I found him people started helping out and by the time Tim and Bobby ran off he was not only healthy but remarried to one of the migrants and had two kids.

Sometimes survival just boils down to what Mama Jo would call the soul and I would call the human spirit. How strong you are often has nothing to do with your body. It has to do with your spirit and your no-how, and a bit of luck. We had an advantage down our way much of the country lacked. In the South most of us were only two generations or less off the land. That meant the knowledge of how to do it was still in living memory. It also meant some of us fought the changes tooth and nail for a while, but we got through it.

It was the grannies, mainly. Old southern women who’d been through everything and lived to tell the tale. They’d seen hard times before and when things started getting bad they did what needed to be done. They went out and started or expanded their gardens. When times got worse they expanded them again. They began to organize, first amongst each other and then reaching out. They held canning bees and quilting bees and cooking classes. They roped the grandpas in, and young mothers desperate for any way to feed their kids. Then they reached out to the kids. Grandkids really, their own or someone elses. It’s a lot easier to train a ten year old than a thirty year old. Nothin’ against the older person, but that’s the way it is. It was those old grannies who got a lot of us through.

Mama Jo was one of them. She took care of all of us kids and Sharkey too, though he’d deny it. When the Doc told her she had cancer she looked him in the eye and said “I ain’t got time to die right now. I got kids to feed.” He gave her six months and she lasted nearly three years, and took care of us right up to the end. Etsell was another one. A man might have the luxury of giving up, but as long as there are kids to feed and diapers to change most women will keep on going. Especially the old women. There is something about the quiet strength of an old woman who’s outlived her husband and some of her children that no young man can ever hope to match, no matter how strong his back.



Anonymous murph said...

Still with you on this story. I really like it.

3/02/2009 2:09 PM  
Blogger risa said...

"There is something about the quiet strength of an old woman who’s outlived her husband and some of her children that no young man can ever hope to match, no matter how strong his back."

That's a keeper!

3/04/2009 3:01 PM  

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