Book Two in the Appalachian Mountain Mysteries Series
The Roads to Damascus
“Della, open up. I’m in a mess of trouble.”
Jake was whining at the screen door, as happy to see me as I was him. While I was whispering what a good boy he was, I could hear Della in her office talking on the phone, so I figured she didn’t hear us carrying on.
I couldn’t talk too loud, since I didn’t want Mama or Daddy to know I was back in Laurel Falls. At first when I went off to school about four year ago, I’d come home most weekends. (The school was a ways up the road in Boone, N.C.) But as I got to liking what the school offered, I rarely came home more than oncet a month.
I’d’ve visited more if I could’ve just hung out with Della Kincaid (who owned the store next door to my family’s house), but I had to stay with Mama and Daddy. Mama fussed over me and worried about what I was getting up to in the “big city,” and Daddy still ignored me. Not so much out of disgust, more like habit.
“Della!” I said as loud as I felt was safe. “It’s me, Abit.”
She came into the living room all smiles, her arms wide open, ready for a big hug after she unlocked the screen door. “Hey, honey,” she said, throwing her arms round me. “I was on the phone with Alex. He had to go back to D.C. to meet with one of his editors. What brings you here at this hour?”
“I guess you didn’t hear me. I got thrown out of school, and I need your help.”
My troubles started about four months earlier when a girl came skipping over the mountainside where I was tending the cows. She’d put some violets in her long blond hair, and they matched the flowers on her gauzy dress. Truth be told, I thought I was seeing something from the spirit world. I blinked a time or two, not believing my eyes, but she was still there.
I was at the Hickson School of American Studies in a work/study program, something they offered folks like me who had a “learning disability”—a couple of words they drilled into us instead of stupid or retard. The school was part of the university in Boone and named after someone who’d given it a bunch of money. Too bad about his name. The way things like that went, the school’s long name kept getting shortened until it was known as simply The Hicks.
For one of my jobs, I tended the cows that were in season at the school dairy. They liked to graze on a grassy slope that faced west toward Beech Mountain, and every Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I kept check on them. I wasn’t sure what was the prettiest—the view of the mountains or them Jersey cows with their dreamy brown eyes and long lashes. Mama had a cow for a while, but it was a Holstein, and while they’re a fine-looking breed, they aren’t gorgeous like these girls. I’d sit among them, not shepherding or anything like that, just keeping an eye out to make sure they were safe. I’d found a good place to sit, where the rocks formed a natural backrest, and I’d lose myself in the gentle lowing from the herd.
So that day, a particularly warm spring day, I was in a kind of daze when that girl appeared. She settled down next to me like an apple blossom fluttering to the ground.
“Hello! I’m Clarice. Who are you?”
“Uh, hi.” I felt all tongue-tied, but pretty girls did that to me. I hadn’t really had a girlfriend yet—no one back home would give me the time of day, and at The Hicks, there weren’t that many girls. Besides, I couldn’t imagine anyone would say yes if I asked her out, and I just wasn’t up for more rejection.
“I said, who are you?”
I nearabouts said Abit, but caught myself. “V.J.”
I got that nickname Abit because Daddy told everyone, “He’s a bit slow.” That made him feel better, letting the world know that he knew he had a retard (his word). Turns out I’m not the sharpest saw in the tool chest, but not the dullest, neither. My teachers have showed me lots of things and helped me appreciate other qualities I have. I just needed someone—make that several someones—to believe in me.
Thing was, that school was everything I’d hoped it would be. I hadn’t done so well in public school back in Laurel Falls, so again, to make himself feel better, Daddy took me out of school when I was twelve. But after that summer of 1985, Alex Covington (Della’s ex-husband and later her boyfriend) and Della’s best friend Cleva Hall pulled some strings and got me in The Hicks. Alex had even written a book about the place—more like one of them coffee table books with lots of pictures and some stories. (Thank heavens it ended up not featuring me, the way he’d threatened.)
“V.J. what?” she asked, snuggling kinda close-like.
“Do you mean what does V.J. stand for or what’s my last name?”
That was a relief because I didn’t have to tell her V.J. stood for Vester Junior. I hated Daddy’s name, and I didn’t even want to say it out loud. “Bradshaw. V.J. Bradshaw. What’s yours?”
She frowned at me. “Clarice, as I said earlier.” I guessed she was just so, well, different lookin’, I’d been studying her rather than paying attention to what she’d said. “Ledbetter. Clarice Ledbetter,” she added.
We started in talking and oncet we got warmed up, we carried on like old friends. I couldn’t believe how much we had in common. When I told her I liked her blond hair, she said she liked my red hair. When she shared how much she loved dogs, I raved about them, too. But when I asked if she’d come for the Dance Week starting tomorrow—I could already see her dancing in that beautiful dress—her pretty face changed in a flash.
No, she said, her chin quivering, she was here because her mother was dying and the school had been nice enough to rent them the Gate House for the duration. Seemed her mama grew up round the school and wanted to die nearby. Clarice told me all about what medical things were happening to her mama (in more detail, to be honest, than I cared to hear). It was one of the saddest stories I’d heard in some time. No longer killing time out front of Della’s store meant I didn’t hear all the tales of woe from my fellow bench-sitters.
I wrestled with the fact that Clarice was living with so much sorrow, while I was feeling so happy that such a pretty girl was paying attention to me (even though I figured she just needed someone to talk to). And I liked the idea that she wouldn’t be leaving after Dance Week (not unless her mama took a quick turn for the worse). Too often people I enjoyed left after only a week or two; they came for just a short time to learn some of the art and music of the mountains. Way back, the school had started as a settlement school to teach mountain people the ways of the world. Then about thirty year ago, it turned into a place for city folks to come learn our ways.
Before long, the sun had slipped behind a mountain. Sunset came early there, the mountains stealing a good couple of hours from our days. Even the swallows were fooled, swooping and soaring as though it were time for their bedtime snack. As much as I wanted to stay (and not because of that sunset), I had to get down to the school kitchen to help the cooks, Lurline and Eva. “Do you take any of your meals with us at the school?” I asked. “I also work in the kitchen, and I could get you some extra helpings.” I felt silly as soon as those words were out of my mouth. Even I knew I was groveling. But she smiled and seemed to take it in the right way.
“Thanks, but we can’t afford the school’s meal plan. I do most of our cooking now.”
“Gosh, I’m sorry. I bet I could wrap up some leftovers for you, from time to time. We usually have a lot extra. Lurline and Eva always cook too much, just in case more people show than they expected. And it’s a shame for it to just go to the pigs.”
“That’s real sweet of you, but I wouldn’t want to deprive the pigs!” I was about to explain myself when she smiled and kissed me on the cheek. Just then one of them Jerseys let out a big fart, and we both started laughing. I don’t know when I’ve appreciated a fart more, because otherwise, I’d have been sitting there like a fool, dumbstruck by her kiss.
We both stood up, and she brushed some leaves and stuff off her skirt—and my behind! She sure looked good standing there, the breeze catching her hair and rippling that gauzy skirt. “I knew what you meant, V.J., but you don’t have to do us any favors. I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”
“Oh, you couldn’t get me in trouble,” I said. “Besides, I’m sure everyone wants to help you out. We take care of our own.”
“But we’re outsiders.”
“Yeah, but you said your mama was from the area. So that’s good enough for me.” She smiled again, and I paused for a moment before adding, “I gotta get going. You comin’?”
“No, that dark old cottage depresses me. I believe I’ll sit here a while longer and drink all this in,” she said, sweeping her hand in the most graceful way.
I loped off, wishing I didn’t have to leave. But it would be too obvious to suddenly say Oh, I don’t need to go, after all.
I met a fair number of people who struck me that way—folks I’d like to know better—but most times they didn’t want to know me. Like when I’d call someone and leave a message, but they’d never call back. Sometimes I’d check to see if there’d been an electrical storm that’d turned off my answering machine. Or I’d think maybe the tape had run out. Most times, it hadn’t even started.
Other times, I’d see all these folks with big groups of friends, laughing and carrying on, piling into a car to go to the movies or a music gig. They’d wave at me, and I’d wave back, acting like I was real happy for them, heading off to have fun. And I guess I was. I just couldn’t figure out why I was only good enough to wave at.
I always saw friendship—like me and Della had—as about the finest thing in the world, and I wanted as much of that as I could get. Maybe I was trying too hard, I’d tell myself when things didn’t work out. Or, maybe I said something wrong.
No wonder, then, I was tickled that Clarice had taken a liking to me. After that first time, I saw her a bunch more at school. We hung out sometimes and had meals together, especially when her brother, Clayne, weren’t round. They took turns taking care of their mama back at the cottage and, like Clarice had told me, cooked their own meals, most times. Later on, Clarice worked out some kind of deal doing odd jobs for the school in trade for some meals. “I just have to get out of that cottage, sometimes,” she whispered oncet when we was sitting next to each other at dinner.
Even though Alex had warned me that Lurline and Eva weren’t as good cooks as Mama, I loved those meals. Chicken and dumplings. Macaroni and cheese. Pork chops that weren’t cooked to shoe leather. And with Clarice sitting with me, I felt like somebody. Out of all them guys, she chose me. Not that the competition was that stiff. Some of the guys were kinda scruffy and some were too shy to even look at her. But for a while, I felt like the luckiest guy at the school.
Well, Mister, I hate to break up this lovefest, but it’s getting late,” Della said, carrying in a tray of cold chicken sandwiches, potato salad, and coconut cake. She set it on the coffee table.
Jake and I had been tussling on the floor on an oval braided rug she’d added since I was there last. Whenever I came home from The Hicks for a weekend, I tried to spend plenty of time with Jake. I’d trained him to dance on his hind legs and speak for treats, and we’d go for long walks into the woods. Whenever I’d see him after a spell of being away, I noticed how my heart felt fuller when we were together. It felt good, and I found myself wondering what happened to all them feelings when I wasn’t with Jake. Were they in there, kinda dormant, like them noisy cicadas that wait seventeen years before they come back? Did the feelings build up between visits and come roaring out when we were reunited? I didn’t know the answer, but I wanted them to come out more, even when Jake weren’t round.
I sat up, tucked my legs under the coffee table, and started chowing down. I could’ve eaten every one of them sandwiches, I was so hungry. Della kinda nibbled on one, but she’d probably had her dinner earlier. She let me eat for a while before asking more about what’d happened at the school. I thought for a minute about how to answer her. There were things I wanted to share, and some I just couldn’t tell her. Not yet, anyways.
“It started when some people came to the school—a mother, son, and daughter,” I said with my mouth full, but Della didn’t seem to mind. “The mother was dying, and the two kids were looking after her. They’d moved to the school because they were evicted from somewhere in Virginia ‘cause she was too sick to work, and what her son earned wasn’t enough to live on.” I stopped to eat for a minute, and then added, “She’d growed up nearby our school and wanted to die as close to her family’s home place as she could. I remember how tore up we all were listening to her story. A bunch of us had gathered on the front porch of Gate House, where she sat, talking and taking in that heavenly mountain view. It was like she was looking into her future.”
While she listened to my story, Della didn’t look all that sad. “Let me guess,” she said after a while. “They got you to part with some of your hard-earned savings.”
“Aw, come on, Della. It wasn’t that obvious. You had to be there.”
“Okay, you’re right. It just pisses me off that they took advantage of you.”
“It wasn’t just me,” I said through another mouthful—this time her homemade coconut cake. “A bunch of us were taken in. But that wasn’t the half of it. Most people at the school don’t even know what else happened. At least not about them stealing so much money. We all lost some, but old man Henson, the director of the school, lost a lot, and the money wasn’t just his. It was the school’s, too. At least that’s the story goin’ round. When someone said we should call the cops, he piped up that it wasn’t worth it—crooks like them are next to impossible to catch. Besides, he said he didn’t want to shame the school. I think he just didn’t want people to know how stupid he’d been with the school’s money.”
“So, why are you in trouble, Abit?”
“Because before they left, they put $2,000 into my savings account! I know that sounds even weirder, but it’s a long story.” I don’t know if it was because of the food or the time of night or the fact that I was unloading this burden on my best friend, but I suddenly felt so tired I could hardly finish my cake. I yawned real big, and Della noticed.
“You can tell me more tomorrow. For now, hop into bed in the guest room. It’s all made up for you.” She hugged me and said goodnight. She closed her bedroom door but then came right back out. “You’ll need to clear out by noon tomorrow. I don’t want to be sneaking behind Mildred and Vester’s backs. You can go home and make it look as though you just walked from the bus station.”
“What will I tell them?”
“We’ll figure that out in the morning.”
Della woke me up with breakfast in bed. I had no idea what that was like, though I’d seen it on TV. (And I sure was glad she’d left off the rose in a vase.) At first I felt like a fool with a tray in my lap, but I had to admit, I got accustomed real fast. She helped me get the pillows right behind my back and arranged the tray just so before pulling up a chair nearby. “I called Alex, and he wants to see you.”
“OK, when’s he coming back? I’ve got all the time in the world.”
“He can’t get away. He wants you to come to D.C.”
I couldn’t speak, and not because I’d just taken a big bite of one of Mrs. Parker’s cinnamon rolls. I gulped it down, took a swallow of coffee, but I still couldn’t get a word out. I’d never been out of North Carolina, let alone to the nation’s capital.
Della chuckled. “Jake and I were already heading up that way in a couple of weeks. I checked with Billie, and she can keep the store sooner, rather than later. We can leave Monday.”
“How will we go?”
“I’ll drive us up there. Now that I traded in my truck for a bigger vehicle, we can all fit. You can have your lovefest with Jake the whole way up.”
I nearabouts started crying. Having friends help you out and a trip to Washington, D.C. bordered on a miracle. But then I thought about what a sight that would be—me with this tray in my lap and flowerdy pillowcases behind me, bawling my eyes out. That made me start chuckling. Della looked puzzled as she stood up to leave. Then she turned and added, “I don’t feel good about tricking your mother. Can you tell her what’s going on?”
“No!” I said, nearly upending the tray. “Really, let me have a couple of weeks or so. They won’t miss me. I need to figure more of this out before I tell them anything. They’d be so ashamed of me.” She nodded and let me be.
I went back to eating my breakfast. Damn, Della was a good cook. Mama worried about germs and such, so she cooked her eggs dry, but Della’s were creamy and her bacon weren’t burnt to a crisp. (Mama had a thing about pork and needing to cook it so she didn’t give us ptomaine poisoning or something like that beginning with a T.) Just as I was thinking about that, Della stuck her head back round the door.
“They will—do—miss you, but I see what you mean. You’ve been gone a month before. But you have to go home now and spend a weekend with them. And kiss them goodbye!”
I was dreading that weekend with the folks, so I ate real slow (something I never did). I dawdled over getting dressed, too. It was well after noon when Della practically pushed me out the door.