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There was a place where the rugged beauty of the land soaked through the souls of those who walked upon it. There was a place where cautious introductions gave way to an unfaltering depth of caring. There was a place where handshakes were firm, smiles were honest, and a friend meant your very life. It was a place of hills and valleys. And it was a place that understood life like the land was made of both. People from outside the place called it clannish and even backward. They did not understand it, though they were certain they did. But their perceptions failed to change the nature of the place. Its truth had always weathered perception.
Ben Bellamy knew this place, not in his mind or even in his heart, but deep down beyond the location where words gather and emotions are born. Ben knew this place in his soul. And to him, the best part about this place was that it was real. It was a real live place. The place was called East Tennessee, and he had never lived in another place. He didn't see a reason to. This was the place, and though it was September of the year 2000, it might as well had been forever.
"Dad! Dad! Telephone ... Dad!"
"Down here, Puckett."
At the sound of Ben's voice, the little boy took off like a shot. Clunking down the porch steps in his blue canvas cowboy boots, he skidded momentarily across the gravel driveway before finding his balance. "Dad?"
"Down here, buddy. I'm down here."
Ben watched Puckett scan the fence row for the shape of his body. He lay next to a wild blackberry bush tangled in a swarm of barbed-wire and eventually Puckett's eyes lit upon his calamity. The little boy hurried down to help.
"Oh nothing. I was just running a little wire and got tangled up. This stuff comes off the roll ready to bite you."
"Oh it's nothing. I'll be all right in a minute. Why don't you hand me those fencing pliers lying on the post up there. I can't hardly get up to reach them."
Puckett stretched his three foot frame mightily, but just couldn't get a grasp.
"Try shaking the post buddy," Ben suggested.
With a thin-armed shove, the boy rocked the post just slightly. But it was enough. The fencing pliers teetered on the rounded edge and then fell. Bouncing off the fence's top strand, the metal tool accelerated downward and struck Ben heavily above the right eyebrow. Ben felt the beginnings of a good-sized egg pushing down toward his eyelid and he knew from a wealth of experience the spot would soon be turning an ugly yellowish purple.
"I'm sorry, Dad."
"Oh it's not your fault, buddy," Ben said smiling through the soft throbbing over his eye. "I shouldn't have been looking up at the post like that. It's nothing anyway. I'll be all right in a minute. Here we go. That's it." He cut the wire away from his tattered, blood soaked jeans only to reveal that his ankles were shredded and his left knee sported a three inch gash. "Free," he said as he stood. "Good as new."
Puckett eyed him honestly, "I don't think so Dad. You look like you've been in a fight."
"That's what we'll tell your mama--a terrible fight with a wild pig."
"She won't believe you, Dad."
"Hey, when did you start with all this Dad business? What happened to Daddy?"
"I'm getting big, Dad."
"I know you are. Who is on the phone?"
"I don't know. They didn't say."
"Well, let's go see if they've given up on us yet." Ben removed his leather glove, reached down to take his son's hand and the two walked back to the small planked house without much hurry.
Benjamin Alvin Bellamy was born a mixed blessing. A tall, sturdily built man; he combined an enormously high tolerance for pain with an uncanny aptitude for injury. It had always been that way. Growing up Ben was never awkward or clumsy, far from it. He thought of himself as always being at least functionally athletic. But there was something about the way he walked through the world. It was as if pain liked to take a shot at him just because he was so hard to hurt. Ben's neighbor, Joe Shelton, told him that mixed blessings made for enlightening Greek tragedies and good country music songs, but that it was an awful tough way to make a harmony in real life. Ben shrugged it all off. It was what it was. And in the end, when it was all added up, it was pretty darn good. Still, as he walked along with Puckett's hand in his, he was glad mixed blessings weren't hereditary.
The phone line in the kitchen was dead, no big surprise. It had taken a good ten minutes to cut loose from the wire.
"Didn't say who it was huh?"
"No sir, just that he needed to speak to you right now."
"Yes sir, right now."
"That's kindly rude don't you think?"
"Yes sir, I think."
The phone rang, startling them both. "Well, maybe he's back."
"Yes, this is Ben Bellamy."
The voice was smooth, not sweet smooth, salesman smooth. There was also an amused quality about it, not joyful amused, condescending amused. Ben recognized it right off.
"Let me suggest something to you, son. Don't let a child answer the telephone. I called earlier and was waiting for thirty minutes after that child of yours answered the phone."
"Who is this?" Ben said smiling down at Puckett.
"This is Pastor Lumpkin."
"Well hello, Pastor. It wasn't Puckett's fault. It was mine. I got myself mixed up with some barbed wire, and..."
"Spare the rod and spoil the child. That's all I have to say on the matter. Spare the rod and spoil the child." The pastor released a soft chuckle.
"Why are you calling?"
Eloise Bellamy entered the kitchen with the first-aid kit as Ben felt a flash of frustration rise through his countenance. It took a lot to raise Ben's ire, something even pushy telemarketers almost never did. Eloise gave him a quick peck on the cheek and then, while he talked, examined his wounded face.
"I need you to do something for me, Ben."
"What would that be, Pastor Lumpkin?"
At the name, Eloise gave Ben a quizzical look and began cleaning the abrasion which sat atop the purple mountain now closing his right eye. At her touch, Ben's whole body softened, and his voice gathered its naturally kind tone.
"I need outreach at First Communion. We are called to be fishers of men, and I need someone with a boat. Do you get my meaning, Ben?"
"All I've got is that ten-foot john boat out back," Ben's grin broke broadly toward his wife and son. "But you know I'd be happy to let you borrow it any time."
"I'm not talking about a boat, son. I'm talking in a parable, like Jesus. I guess I'll have to explain it, like you were my disciple."
"Oh no. That's okay, Pastor. I think I get your meaning. The church needs someone to do some outreach work."
"No. No. I need someone to head an outreach committee. And you're the one who is going do it."
Ben gave a long pause and looked at Eloise. His wife was beautiful. He worried because she stayed so thin, but that did nothing to mute his attraction for her. Her long red hair and green eyes made him sigh. She'd grown up in First Communion, and he ought not turn from an opportunity to serve the church.
"I'll tell you what, Pastor. Let me talk to Eloise, and I'll call you back in the morning."
"Don't let me down, son."
"Yes sir. Goodbye now." Ben cradled the phone softly.
"You know, you really need to go see a doctor about this. I'm serious this time." Eloise lifted Ben's leg, forcing him to sit down on the pine bench next to the breakfast table. Rubbing-alcohol in hand, she began cleaning the cuts around his ankles. "What did the pastor have to say?"
Letting the doctor comment pass, Ben attended to the question instead. "Oh, he wants me to head up some kind of outreach committee over at the church."
"Are you going to do it?"
Ben let this question lay as he surveyed his kitchen. It was his Grandmother Catherine's kitchen, actually. She'd left the house and farm to him; there was no other family, so he got it all. The room was polished pine, with a full grain and an occasional knot. Catherine had been raised in Valdosta, Georgia, and she'd loved the pines. Her one complaint about East Tennessee had been that there were too many hardwoods.
"I wonder why Granny Catherine never went back to Valdosta."
"I don't know, Sweetheart." Eloise finished what she could and said, "You're gonna have to take off these boots and then your pants. You might as well toss those jeans out. They're in ribbons." Turning to Puckett she said, "You go on and get a bath, baby. Soon as you get out, we'll have our supper."
"Yes ma'am. Can I take my army men?"
"Yes you can. But get them out of the tub when you're done. I just hate it when I sit down on one of those things."
"I will," Puckett promised and then clunked off to wage a clean war.
"I guess I'm going to do it." Ben stripped down to his boxers.
"I thought you might."
"Lumpkin won't be one bit of help."
"Shush now, Ben. It's not like you to bad-talk anybody. And besides, you're speaking of the Pastor."
"I know Eloise, but the man can't even throw a baseball. Have you ever seen him? He doesn't even know that he's doing it wrong or has no shame one. The man throws like a girl."
"I'm glad Granny Catherine's not around to hear you talk like that."
"Well, I guess you're right. It'd be better to say that he throws like most girls."
"I'm not sure why that matters anyway."
"I'm not sure either."
Ben removed his shirt without prompting, allowing Eloise to examine his back for wounds. "You look all right back here, nothing but that old scar," she said, referring to a relic from the only real fight Ben had ever had. "I'm done with you. Go jump in the tub with Puckett before he runs all the hot water out."
"Can I take my army men?"
"Go on," she said shooing him with a smile. "I've got supper to fix."
Catherine Bellamy had built the two-bedroom farmhouse in Mount Carmel, Tennessee with her husband, Earl. The two met at a Christian missionary convention in Atlanta. Neither one had ever been out of the country. Neither were even officially missionaries, but they felt oddly called to attend the convention. One accidental meeting later, and they both knew why. That was the story anyway.
Catherine had a big family, so the wedding was in Valdosta. But Earl's work and a forty-acre piece of land were back in Mount Carmel. So they'd come home, and tragedy soon joined them. Their first daughter died of meningitis at four years old. Their second daughter died at seventeen giving birth to Ben. It was too much for Earl. Grief took him later that same year. And though she must have yearned for it, Catherine didn't die. It seemed she just decided not to. Ben's biological father was thirty-two and already married with three children when he'd convinced Ben's sixteen-year-old mother that he loved her. He moved his wife and family to Knoxville at the first hint of her pregnancy. Ben had nobody else worth mentioning. For the boy to have a chance at life, Catherine couldn't die. That seemed to be enough to make her live, at least for a while. And while she lived, it was with a vigor. More than Ben was blessed by her existence, and more than Ben missed her badly when she decided that it was finally okay to pass on.
Supper was eaten at a leisurely pace. There was a lot of food, but Eloise's boys cleaned their plates. After the dishes were washed and put away, Puckett fed the dogs while Ben went to lock down the barn. The two met back up by the creek where Puckett liked to listen to the bullfrogs.
"They sound a little sore throated this evening."
"Yes sir, they do. Hey Dad, I've been thinking."
"Thinking is a good thing."
"Well, I've been thinking. And I think I'm about ready for a little brother."
"Is that right?" Ben didn't try to conceal his grin.
"I'm serious, Dad. Don't you think it's about the right time?"
"Well Puckett, I'm still practicing being a dad on you. I never had one of my own so I don't quite know how to go about it."
"Ahhh, you're doing just fine, Dad."
"Well all the same, I'd like a little more practice before I go on and get ahead of myself."
"Well, think about it."
"I'll do that."
Ben had thought about it. And though he fretted over his own aptitude as a father, it wasn't the only reason for his reluctance. Puckett's birth had been rough on Eloise, and Ben couldn't bear the thought of his own mother's story coming full circle while trying to have a second child. One child with two parents was fine for now. Maybe later, God willing, things might even up.
Even on a good evening, bullfrogs could only hold an audience for so long. Ben and Puckett meandered back to the house, stopping here and there to wrestle a little. Along the way, an errant tree stump made acquaintance with Ben's right shin. He toppled heavily into a black walnut tree, jamming his shoulder before sliding down its trunk. Gathering himself, he jumped up quickly.
"You okay, Dad?"
"I'll be all right in a minute. No problem at all."
Ben brushed himself off and then squatted to eye-level with Puckett. "Do me a favor, buddy. Don't tell your mama."
They found Eloise rocking on the front porch swing. Ben eased down beside her, finding the swing's cadence without breaking the silence. "We are so blessed," Eloise whispered over the soft creak of their motion.
The September sun sank behind the hills and color burned in muted tones across the East Tennessee sky. Eloise spread a cotton blanket over her legs and laid her head upon Ben's shoulder. He smelled her hair and felt the peace of a good marriage. They watched their son running with the two chocolate lab mixes that were more trouble than they were good. The bath with the army men was long past being useful, and little boy laughter bounced off the outbuildings, on toward the hills, and up, up, to heaven.
"Yes we are," Ben said softly. "We are truly blessed."