The Crossroads Cafeby Deborah Smith
The world's most beautiful movie star is scarred in a firey car accident. Her career over and her self-esteem in shreds, she hides in the magnificent home her grandmother left her in the mountains of North Carolina. But her motherly cousin refuses to let her become a recluse, and a handsome neighbor with painful dilemmas of his own is lured into the mix. Romance,… See more details below
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The world's most beautiful movie star is scarred in a firey car accident. Her career over and her self-esteem in shreds, she hides in the magnificent home her grandmother left her in the mountains of North Carolina. But her motherly cousin refuses to let her become a recluse, and a handsome neighbor with painful dilemmas of his own is lured into the mix. Romance, family life, drama, humor and secrets.
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Read an Excerpt
The Day of the Accident
It was never a good thing when I woke up at sunset on a Saturday in the back of my pickup truck in the café's graveled parking lot. I had a fierce hangover, and I'd spent all day snoring in a sleeping bag in the truck's rusty bed. Not long after settling in the Crossroads I'd proudly rescued the truck--a sixty-year-old Chevrolet--from a mountain junkyard. I was an architect, not a mechanic, but since my specialty had always been preservation I couldn't resist the challenge.
Admittedly, my rusty but classic Chevy deserved better than to spend its weekend nights under the café's giant oak trees. The trees housed a large clan of bad-ass squirrels who crapped on the truck and on me. They were now cheerfully showering the truck, and me, with rotten acorn shells as they did their spring housecleaning.
When shell fragments bounced off my forehead I opened my bleary eyes. I nearly gagged when I recognized the musky, ballsy, bad-feta-cheese scent that filled my nose. Squinting, I stared up into the face of a small, white goat. He stood beside my head, placidly chewing. Bits of black plastic fell from his lips. Like a dog enjoying a bone, he was demolishing my new cell phone.
"There goes another one," I grunted. I brushed acorns and cell phone pieces out of my beard. "Tell the concierge I have some complaints about the wake-up calls in this hotel. If the maid service doesn't improve I'll have to remove myself to the comfort of my cabin when I drink. Can't a man sleep all day in his truck without being disturbed?"
Crack. Banger, thegoat, looked at me innocently as the last section of my phone disintegrated between his teeth. Fragments of the casing dribbled from his hairy white lips. I sighed. "I didn't want that phone, anyway."
If my brother would just stop sending me replacements, Banger might switch to something more nutritious, like hubcaps. John, up in Chicago, was determined to keep me from becoming a full-fledged Luddite. As long as I owned a cell phone, he thought there was a chance I might not end up writing crazed manifestos by lantern light in my cabin. Or shooting myself.
I was confident I wouldn't do the former.
Stretching carefully, I gave every body part plenty of warning that we were about to move as a team. Sour stomach, greasy eyes, aching head, stiff back. The rest of me was only thirty-eight, but after a few hours in the truck, my back always qualified for the senior-citizen discount.
A rumble filled my ears. I looked up, squinting, as a big, late-model SUV rolled past, heading for the café's last available parking space. Well-dressed children gaped and pointed at me from behind the SUV's windows. Mom, what's that scary-looking man doing in that scary-looking truck with that goat? A woman pivoted in the passenger seat and stared at me, then mouthed something to the kids. Don't stare. It's not polite to stare at wildly bearded mountain men who sleep with livestock. We don't want to provoke him.
Whatever she really said, it made her brood sit back quickly and look away from me. I lifted a jaunty hand and waved. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
My personal cache of beauty could all be found here, at The Crossroads, a small cove high in the remote mountains of western North Carolina, where an old paved road known as the Asheville Trace and an even older, unpaved road called Ruby Creek Trail intersected in front of a cluster of buildings--a former farmhouse, an old log cabin, a string of whitewashed sheds, and a pair of gas pumps under a tin awning. Grocery, gas station, post office, thrift store, diner, and more. All of it known by one name that summed up the spirit, the sustenance, and the turning points of the lives that met there.
The Crossroads Café.
I was not necessarily an upstanding citizen of the Crossroads, but I had earned the respect of the people who mattered there. Or, at least, their tolerance.
I suddenly realized my long, brown beard was wet. And also my head, and my ponytail, and my face, and, when I lifted my beard, the front of my vintage New York Giants jersey. Soaked. Someone had doused the legacy of Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor. Sacrilege.
That's when I noticed the note tied to Banger's collar. Written in black marker on a piece of torn cardboard with a Dixie Crystals logo still visible on one edge, it said:
You get your behind into my kitchen by 6:30. Cathryn is on TV then. Your sore eyes need the sight. Don't make me come back with more water.
Cathryn Deen. I'd never met her, but of course, I knew who she was. Everyone knew who she was. A bonafide, glamorous movie star. Not much of an actress, but what difference did that make these days? She was drop-dead gorgeous and adorably perky, her movies made fortunes, photos of her appeared every week on the covers of major magazines, she'd recently married some swaggering mogul, and now she was launching her own cosmetics line. Pygmies in the Amazon and Mongolian yak herders living in straw huts on the Russian tundra knew who she was. Even in the Crossroads, one of the most secluded mountain communities on the Eastern seaboard, people could tell you Cathyrn Deen's favorite color (emerald green, like her eyes,) her favorite hobby (shopping in Paris,) and what kind of flowers (white roses flecked with 24-carat gold,) had decked the gazebo at her very expensive, very private Hawaiian wedding.
What people in the Crossroads couldn't tell you was why she never visited the farm she'd inherited from her grandmother, north of the Cove, or why she never replied to the cheerful, friendly birthday and Christmas cards sent to her by her devoted, distant cousin, Delta, owner of the café and unofficial mayor of the Crossroads. To me and everyone else who lived in the secluded mountain valley, Delta was a queen. To Cathyrn Deen, Delta was obviously nobody.
I didn't appreciate her attitude.
Wincing, I eased out of the truck and stood up. After a polite glance in all directions, I stepped between the truck and the oak, pulled up my water-dampened jersey, unzipped my jeans, and urinated on the oak's protruding roots. "Take that," I said to the squirrels and Cathyrn Deen.
Banger dropped my ruined phone and hopped down from the truck. He affectionately stomped one hard, cloven hoof on the toe of my running shoe and butted my left knee, hooking one horn through a hole in the denim and into the tender center of my kneecap. I saw stars for a minute.
When my head cleared, I scrubbed a hand over his floppy ears. "If there is a God," I told the goat, "He appointed you to be my conscience."
Carrying a fresh Giants jersey and clean briefs--when you regularly wake up in public, it's a good idea to keep a change of clothes in your truck--I limped from under the tree. The fine, crusher-run gravel of the parking lot was a delicate material, as granite goes, yet it still managed to make ear-splitting sounds.
I tried to tiptoe, but it didn't help.
A cathedral of sky and mountain opened over my head. I took a couple of reviving breaths. Evening light cloaked the Cove in soft blue shadows; the Ten Sisters Mountains, circling the Cove like the thick rim of a bread bowl, glowed gold and mint-green above filaments of silver mist. I made my way to an old church pew that served as a garden bench beside the paved road. Sinking gratefully onto the weathered chestnut wood, I exhaled. The Trace meandered past, its aged gray surface cracked and pockmarked, its fraying edges gently disappearing into low green clumps of thrift sprinkled with tiny lavender flowers.
The Asheville Trace hinted that modern horsepower could get you to Crossroads and back to civilization without packing a lunch. Coming from its namesake, Asheville, of course, the Trace wandered out of the Ten Sisters along their foothills, curled through the grassy Cove, then yawned past the café before its intersection with Ruby Creek Trail. Finally the Trace headed west to the county seat. During rush hour, we locals might see, oh, a car every ten minutes.
Which suited me just fine.
I leaned back on the old pew and inhaled the air and the view. Almost every spring evening the Ten Sisters filled with white fog, disappearing like islands in a soft, white sea. There was a reason pioneers named the Appalachians of western North Carolina the Smokies.
The air and the view could almost clear up a hangover. Almost.
"Thomas! Are you still out here goofing off?" Delta's squeaky drawl stabbed my eardrums. Wincing, I pivoted toward it. She leaned over the rail of the café's front veranda, a motherly, plump, angel of food under the whitewashed halo of a farmhouse-cum-restaurant porch, surrounded by a cluster of half-barrel flower pots and rump-sprung rocking chairs.
Like everything else at the Crossroads, Delta Whittlespoon seemed to have grown out of a perfect combination of need and want and comfort. Her chef's apron hung askew over a sweaty, pink t-shirt emblazoned Southern Gals Say: The Lard Cooks In Mysterious Ways. An oven mitt protruded from the back pocket of her flour-dusted jeans. As I watched, a squirrel careened down the porch rails, landed right by her thick-soled hiking sandals, and grabbed a peanut that had fallen from one of the porch bird feeders. A purple finch zipped past her head to perch on the scuppernong vine twining up a post.
The woman drew wildlife and lost souls. She was a dark-haired, freckled, middle-aged, chubby, loving, tough, famous-cooking, business-managing matriarch of all she surveyed, including me. She was determined to keep me alive.
"Are you coming inside, or do I have to take a hickory switch to your Yankee behind?" Delta called.
"I'm meditating," I called. "Banger and I are working on the meaning of existence. So far, we think it involves butting things with your head."
"Spare me your ill-tempered notions. Come on, you're gonna miss Cathryn on TV! She's having a press conference for her makeup company! They're gonna interview her, live!"
Delta clearly believed a glimpse of her movie-star kin was always good for my jaded soul. And I always politely avoided telling her the only thing I wanted from Cathryn Deen was a hard-on and the deed to her grandmother's abandoned farm.
"If I come in, will you give me a hot biscuit?"
"Git! In! Here!" She jabbed a finger at the double front doors, where a small sign said, The Crossroads Café. Good Food and Then Some. "I haven't got time to sweet-talk you anymore! See all those SUV's and minivans in the parking lot? I got a restaurant full of family reunioners from Asheville in here. I'm volunteering you to work as a busboy!" I gave her a thumbs-up. She went back inside.
"Don't wait up for me, honey," I told Banger, who was eating a cigar butt I'd dropped.
I walked slowly toward the café, already tired of being awake and sober. All right, I'd go inside and watch Cathryn Deen be beautiful.
I could use the fantasy.
Beverly Hills, California
The Face of Flawless, said the posters scattered around the Four Seasons' penthouse suite, beneath a smoky, film-noir close-up of my face. I loved that picture of me. Classic. Yet innocent. Yet come-hitherish. A dark-haired Grace Kelly for the 21st Century. The princess next door who wears thong panties. Timeless beauty. Ageless perfection. From actress Cathryn Deen. Because every woman can be flawless.
Yes. Like me. Perfect.
The hype sometimes made me blush a little. Or pretend to, at least. A Southern beauty queen is trained from birth to be charmingly self-deprecating so people will give her the benefit of the doubt and not throttle her when she sucks up all the attention in a room. Fake humility? You bet. It came in handy during interviews and when signing autographs. We super-glam movie stars are just like everyone else, you know. We don't think of ourselves as special or better than other people.
Oh, okay, I admit it: I was conceited, pampered, annoyingly coy, and way too fond of myself to be likable. But let's be real here: I was the most beautiful woman in the world. People magazine said so. And Vanity Fair. And even Rolling Stone and Esquire, those cynical, sex-obsessed boys.
I had been praised and petted since the time I was old enough to gurgle adorably as my father wheeled me around Atlanta's finest ballrooms and boardrooms in an emerald-green stroller custom-designed to match my eyes. Everyone loved me. The box-office reports proved it. I'd be paid twenty-five million dollars for my next film, a remake of Giant, co-starring me in the Elizabeth Taylor role, Heath Ledger in the James Dean part, and Hugh Jackman in the role Rock Hudson played.
I'm the new Liz Taylor, I thought, gazing at myself happily in a huge, lighted mirror while my personal stylists worked on me as if I were a life-sized Barbie doll. Take that, Julia and Angelina and Jennifer and Reese. Top my paycheck, if you can.
"We make fifteen-year-old girls look twenty-five and thirty-five-year-old women look twenty-five," Judi, my hair girl, was saying to the others as she fluffed a long strand of my mocha-black mane. "So our pornographic culture will want to fuck us."
"Our pornographic culture?" I said, smiling as I watched them primp me. "It's just human nature for girls to flirt and boys to appreciate it."
Randy, my makeup boy, chuckled wryly. "Not my nature, sweetie. But if a boy wants to flirt with me, that's different." His soft sable brush flicked across my forehead. His dark-skinned hand moved like an artist's. A poof of Flawless Ivory Cream Foundation Powder floated before us. Randy waved his brush at Judi. "Personally, I've got nothing against looking pornographic. Or younger."
Judi grunted at him. "You're a guy. It's not the same for you. Men are still considered desirable even after they turn into fat, wrinkled prunes with penises. When you're a crusty old queen you'll still get a lot of action."
"I do hope so!"
"The porno culture?" said Luce, my wardrobe girl. "Let me tell you about the time I managed wardrobe for a triple-X producer. It was all leather corsets and high heels. And that was just for the livestock in the cast." She hooted as she tugged a silky silver dress over my plunging silver bra. I slid my arms into lacy shoulder straps and Luce smoothed the bodice over my boobs, bending down to peer at them. Checking for nipplage, as we called it. "Perky nipple on the left, Boss."
I nodded. Even my boobs were proud of themselves. "Get the Band-Aids. We don't want the press to stare at my headlights when they're supposed to be listening to my brilliant and witty thoughts about my new cosmetics empire."
Randy clucked his tongue. "Boss, you could put on a burka and spray yourself with camel musk and men would still stare at your tits."
"Camel musk? Maybe I should add that to my perfume line. Judi, I'm only thirty-two. What is that in camel years? How long before camels won't whistle at me on the street? Does the porno culture include camels?"
"Oh, Boss, you know what I'm saying," Judi went on. "Women are sex objects. After decades of feminism, that's still all we are. If we're not young and hot, we have no value."
"I plan to be sexy even when I'm a hundred," Luce growled. "As long as there's KY and vodka, I can get laid."
I laughed. Sex appeal was just another of life's lucky gifts, and I'd been gifted more than almost everyone else on the planet. I couldn't imagine being anything but beautiful. Conceited? Me? No way.
My people--I thought of my employees the way old Southerners talk of servants, as if I owned them--my people always liked me. Daddy and all my Southern aunts--those golf-playing, country-clubbing doyennes of the Atlanta social scene--had trained me to be a kind and generous New South plantation mistress. I turned to peer at Judi from under a lock of my hair, which she held out like a glossy chocolate rope as she teased the underside. "Judi, is this discussion going to segue into your 'witches versus engineers theory?'"
"Isn't that a new reality show on Fox?" Randy asked. Luce chortled.
Judi scowled. "Laugh if you want to. But there are jerks out there who say women are witches--I mean wiccans, not bitches--and men are engineers. That women represent emotion and sex--the dark arts--versus men representing logic and intellect--the progressive sciences. That women have no purpose other than breeding. And thus, that it's women's job to stay desirable until they hit menopause. After that, women are supposed to just fade away."
I wagged a finger at her. "Not me. I refuse to fade. And I refuse to get old. I'm stopping my biological clock right now." I snapped my fingers. "There. Done. I'm not aging anymore. Not ever going to get wrinkly, saggy, liver-spotted, or sun-damaged. I'll never have neck jowls. I won't even get pimples from PMS."
Everyone smiled. They gathered around me, their faces around mine in the mirror, as if I were the center of a flower. Judi sighed. "Boss," she said, "You will never be ugly. I can't even picture it. You'll never be a mere mortal like the rest of us."
A wistful knot formed around my heart, a fluid squeeze of loneliness. Being special also meant being isolated. I never quite fit in. Men gawked at me nervously, and women were jealous of me. I had no close female friends, and no close male friends who weren't gay. I was always 'the face,' first, not a person. Someday, despite all my bluster, my face would fade. And then I'd be no one. Don't think about it.
I trained my attention on an elegant hotel platter of raw fruit and fat-free yogurt among the makeup kits, curling irons and other clutter. My no-frills diet reflected colorfully in the mirror. I was always hungry and always starving myself. I stared grimly at the food's reflection. I hate eating like a rabbit trapped in a health spa. Suddenly the reflection vanished. Instead I saw my grandmother holding out a blue-willow china plate filled with her biscuits. Covered in gravy. Cream gravy. With flecks of pure pork sausage in it. Heaven.
I don't mean I thought about my Granny Nettie and her biscuits. I mean I saw her, in the mirror. A vision. The irony of a life spent looking in mirrors that sometimes looked back. Like now. People who believe in psychic powers call it scrying. Granny Nettie claimed she could do it by gazing into any shiny surface. Mirrors, ponds, windows. She told me I could do it, too, when I was a child. I went home from that visit and reported that I'd seen my dead mother's face in a bedroom window of Granny's house. That the mother who'd died when I was a baby smiled as if welcoming me home. This was my room, she whispered in my thoughts. It can be your room now. Daddy told me only crazy people saw things in mirrors, and he never let me visit Granny Nettie again. I missed her and her odd little farm desperately.
I'd only seen a few images in mirrors since then--once, when a former boyfriend was killed in a speedboat accident, and a couple that portended the deaths of my aunts, Daddy's sisters. My last vision, a couple of years earlier, had been terrifying. While checking my hair in a makeup booth backstage at the Oscars, I'd seen Daddy's face.
It replaced mine for just a second. Peaceful, handsome, classic, sternly loving, silver-haired. The father who had been my biggest fan and toughest critic. The traditional Southern daddy I adored. I was so startled by his image in the mirror I flubbed one of my lines a few minutes later, as I read the Best Actress nominees on camera. Millions of people watching, worldwide, and I said Merle Step instead of Meryl Streep. "Do I look like a male country-western singer?" Meryl teased later.
When I walked off stage one of my assistants ran up to me. "There's an emergency call from Atlanta. It's about your dad."
He had died of a heart attack during his Oscar-night party at the club. Barnard Deen threw parties just to watch me give awards to other people. He was so demanding, yet so proud of me. He never believed in Granny Nettie's visions, so I never told him I'd continued to see visions of my own. Now, gazing at my grandmother, who gazed back, I made myself breathe calmly while a shiver ran up my spine. Go away. Nothing good happens when I see things in mirrors.
She remained there stubbornly, as vivid as life. Her green eyes were almost frightening in their passions. Her gray-black hair flowed from beneath a tractor cap that seemed as exotic to me as the turban of a sultaness. She had died when I was twelve, not long after my last visit. Her mountain farm in North Carolina had been a world as different from my Atlanta life as any foreign country. My mother didn't live long enough to raise me, and Granny Nettie didn't live to see me grown. The two most important women in my life had died without telling me how to deal with reflections.
I blinked, feeling dizzy. The vision vanished. "Boss, are you all right?" Judi asked. "Do you want something to eat? You're staring at the kiwi and broccoli as if they might bite back."
I took a deep breath, laughed, and fluttered a hand to my heart. "Why, I don't dare eat before a press conference. If I gain so much as one ounce, the porno culture will revoke my membership card."
More laughter. I took another breath. I'm just hungry, that's all. Just imagining what I'd really like to eat. Sometimes, a biscuit is just a biscuit.
A pair of double doors burst open. Six-foot-three-inches of elegant California business mogul strode in, dressed in gray Armani.
My husband, Gerald Barnes Merritt (never just "Gerald Merritt," that was too plain) was thirteen years older than me, rugged, brilliant, rich, and yes, wildly sexy in his own right. He had Donald Trump's flair for showmanship. We'd been married for less than a year, during which time Gerald bragged often to the media about his two beautiful ex-wives, his three beautiful grown daughters, and his successful ventures in real estate, computer technology, marketing, and now, me. Now, thanks to him, I would head my own cosmetics empire. Flawless, by Cathryn Deen. Actually, Gerald ran everything. He was the CEO. But hey, I was the face.
"Ready to announce your new business venture to the press, my gorgeous girl?" Gerald boomed, scattering my entourage like a rottweiller in a rabbit pen.
I preened in the mirror and avoided looking toward the mystical food platter again. "Oh, I don't know. Can you see anything about me that could be any more perfect?"
He slid his arms around me from behind, angling his head to look at me in the mirror, but careful not to muss mounds of hair and the unblemished masterpiece of my Flawless face. I felt the ridge of his penis lightly teasing me.
"You couldn't be more beautiful. I am married," he said softly, "to the girl every man wants."
Another strange little shiver went through me. Beauty is fleeting, but biscuits are forever. I smiled and shook off the silly thought.
I was the most beautiful woman in the world. Surely, I always would be.
On a small portable television hanging from the café's beadboard ceiling among the pots and pans, the world's most beautiful movie star, Cathryn Deen, charmed me in ways so ephemeral, so classic that--like the faceless reporters asking her polite questions--I hardly realized she held me in the palm of her hand. Whether I liked her or not.
Dressed in a streamlined silver sheath, Cathryn sat on a chair in front of a poster of herself under the word, Flawless. Her voice was a husky come-on flavored with the honey of a wealthy Southern upbringing and just enough of a droll lilt to hint at self-awareness and maybe even true smarts. She tilted her face just so, and smiled just so, and a long strand of her dark hair fell just so along the perfect angle of her cheek. The expression in her deep-green eyes said she had never had a doubtful moment in her life, and, given a chance to kiss you with her luscious mouth, she'd make you forget any doubts you'd ever had, too.
Hypnotized, I stood in the café's cheerful fire-trap of a kitchen while a herd of Delta's immediate family, wearing the café's signature uniform of jeans and The Lard Cooks In Mysterious Ways t-shirts, hustled around me.
"The Lord is my shepherd," growled Delta's sister-in-law, Cleo McKellan, slapping a Jesus Loves You sticker on the sleeve of my jersey as she passed by with platters of collard greens, squash casserole and pear-mayo-cheese salad perched on one arm, "but if He doesn't lead you outta this high-traffic lane I'm goin' to smite you." Her husband, Bubba, hooted as he chopped onions into a pan of meatloaf. I shifted to an untraveled spot. She blew me a chaste kiss and disappeared through swinging doors to the dining rooms.
"Now, Thomas, that's a beautiful young woman," Delta said proudly, gazing up at Cathryn on the television. "She's my cousin's husband's cousin's daughter." Delta repeated this information and the background story at every opportunity. I nodded vaguely.
There are reasons why some people catch our attention, why their charisma makes us think that knowing them, or even simply looking at them, will elevate us to a higher plane of existence. There are reasons why women send marriage proposals to famous killers in prison and men spend a month's salary on a dugout-level seat at a stadium. We want to share the aura of fame, any kind of fame, to catch the tip end of that rainbow, as if it makes us special, too.
The allure isn't the fame itself; it's the promise that we aren't just anonymous specks of life on a small rock in an obscure universe. Anyone famous--for any reason, even a bad one--has been fingered by a mysterious fate that seems to have ignored us. Someone so naturally awe-inspiring must be blessed. God has smiled on this person, and if we earn so much as a glance from that sacred source, then God meant to bless us, too. The 'lightning in the bottle' we talk about? That chemistry? Secretly we believe it's not just random chance, not just good luck. It's destiny.
Cathryn Deen had it. It. The surreal quality that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary. I'd seen some of her movies; my wife had been a fan of hers. The films ranged from pure fluff to serious melodrama, but one factor always made them shine. Her. She wasn't a great actress, but she really did have what publicists and gossip hacks call a megawatt smile. Her luminous green eyes, filled with humor, intelligence and a tinge of self-aware vulnerability, made the whole package infinitely sexual. I can hurt you, but you can hurt me, too, she told us.
"Look at those eyes," Delta was saying even now, standing beside me with a pan of biscuits in her chubby hands. "You know, Thomas, all the great actors and actresses have that look. Kind of a little sad, like they know this won't last forever and the joke's on them. You know what I think? As wonderful as it would be to be so beautiful or so handsome, they wake up every day knowing they're one day closer to getting saggy and ordinary, like the rest of us. It's kind of a curse, being special just for how you look." She sighed, brightened and held up the biscuits like an offering. "'Beauty is fleeting but biscuits are forever.' That's what Cathryn's grandma, Mary Eve Nettie, used to tell me. She was a wild woman. Kept her maiden name, slept around without hiding it, voted liberal. People named the ridge after her. Wild Woman Ridge."
I nodded again, gazing up at the television in a rare moment of peaceful arousal. Cathryn Deen was sex and mystery and sweetness and fantasy and ... magic. She was classic architecture in a world obsessed with tearing down icons. Put a fence around her; protect her from grim reality.
Delta elbowed me. "She favors me around the eyes, don't you think?"
I came out of my trance. "Definitely. But I bet she's too nice to dump water on innocent men who sleep under her oak tree."
Delta frapped me with a dish cloth. I took the frapping like a man, picked up a bus pan and headed for the dining room. Even a volunteer bus boy with a hangover has his dignity.
Laughing, I led my entourage through one of the Four Seasons' highly discreet exits, designed especially for VIP's. The hotel is one of the most famous celebrity hideaways in the world. Frank Sinatra sang by the piano in the main bar on his eightieth birthday. Renée Zellweger was mistaken for a cocktail waitress there, and good-naturedly took bar orders from a table full of businessmen. The front-desk staff speak a mysterious dialect of English, one with vaguely euro-Asian accents, as if imported from some elegant little country especially to serve celebrities. On any given day you can glimpse a number of famous bodies being massaged in private cabanas around the pool. The lobby bars are a swoon-fest of Hollywood sightings, and also are rumored to be where the most expensive hookers hang out.
A pair of valets ran to get my car, nearly tripping over their feet when they saw me. Ah, the power of a clingy, white angora sweater, black leggings, and knee-high Louis Vuitton boots with stiletto heels. I looked like a wholesome dominatrix.
"You wowed everyone at your press conference today, Ms. Deen," one of the valets gushed. "You looked great."
"Why, bless your heart."
"Quit drooling and get Ms. Deen's car," a bodyguard ordered. The valet bolted.
I was trailed by two private security men, five publicists, two assistants, and one assistant to an assistant of Gerald's. Everyone but me had a phone attached to his or her ear, and they were all talking, but not to me or each other. I laughed as I signed autographs for the bellmen. My entourage chattered on without me, as perky as parakeets on cocaine.
"Yes, the press conference was huge. Fabulous. Cathryn's doing lunch with Vogue next week. Cover photos are under negotiation. Pencil us in for Tuesday, in New York."
"Marty? Book Cathryn with Larry King for the twelfth."
"No, Cathryn can't do Oprah on that schedule. She'll be in England to film a couple of last-minute scenes for The Pirate Bride. Sophia Coppola insists."
"Hello, I'm calling for Cathryn Deen. Ms. Deen wants you to find her a great, authentic voice coach to work with her on Giant. Yes, I know she can naturally do a Southern accent, but Ms. Deen says a Texas drawl is very different from an Atlanta accent. She wants a coach from Dallas. No, not the old TV show. The city. Ms. Deen requires a city-Southern-Texas-rich accent for the film. She's meeting with her producers and director this weekend..."
"Women like you ruin other women's lives, bitch!"
The voice rang out as I was about to step into the open door of my Trans Am. The car was a mint condition 1977 T-top, black and gold. I halted with one high-heel on the door rim. Several scruffy young women darted from behind the hotel's glorious palms, waving homemade signs.
"You're telling women to hate themselves for having ordinary faces and bodies," one of the protestors yelled. "But you're the freak, not us!"
My publicists formed a circle around me, like pioneers trying to ward off a band of angry Sioux. The protestors bobbed and weaved as the guards chased them. I was open-mouthed with amazement. "Why didn't anyone tell me these girls were out here?" I demanded. "I could have invited them to the press conference. Listened to their concerns. Offered them a makeover--"
"Never negotiate with terrorists," one of the publicists said. Seriously.
"Terrorists? Oh, come on. They're just sorority girls with bad hair. They're probably sophomores at Berkeley. Maybe I'm their class protest project." I called to the guards. "Bring them over here and let me talk to them!"
My publicists did a group pirouette to stare at me in horror. "Those girls could be carrying mace or pepper spray," one said.
"Or a hidden bomb," a second added.
I laughed. "Or iPods filled with horrifying Ashlee Simpson songs, or hair brushes with really sharp bristles, or..."
"Please, Cathryn. The hotel's still full of photographers. If the press catches wind of this, these protestors will make the news and that's all people will remember about the launch of Flawless Cosmetics."
That got me. Gerald's put so much work and money into this venture. I can't ruin this day for him. I blew out a breath. "All right, y'all win." They hustled me into the Trans Am. One of the publicists, a young man, put a hand to his heart as he shut my door. "Ms. Deen, I'm so sorry about this. If I ran the world, all the ugly chicks with big mouths would be sent to an island somewhere."
I stared at him. I'd never thought of myself as the poster girl for men who thought women should keep quiet and look pretty. As I drove out of the Four Seasons' elegant, palm-endowed shadow, the girls glared at me from behind the phalanx of security people. They raised their hands and flipped me the bird.
I didn't know how to deal with people who weren't in awe of me.
So in return I gave them a polite but completely inadequate beauty-queen wave.
Just after dark, East Coast time.
Smoke break. Again I lounged on the weathered church pew at the edge of the café's parking lot. "If Cathryn Deen ever comes here and gives us any attitude," I told Banger, "I'll hold her down while you eat her cell phone."
He twitched his white tail in anticipation.
I lit a crumpled cigar butt I found in my jeans' front pocket. Hand-rolled local tobacco--a North Carolina heritage--was a smooth smoke but hard on an empty stomach. I sniffed burning hair. A fleck of tobacco smoldered in my beard. A few quick slaps, and the beard was saved. I wouldn't have to drop out of the ZZ Top lookalike contest.
More deep breaths. I inhaled the good smell of wood in nearby chimneys, the clean, springtime fragrance of earth, and the wafting aromas of dinner from Delta's kitchen. The mountains curled a breeze through Delta's cooking and carried it all over the Cove. Even out at my cabin I sometimes swore I smelled her famous biscuits.
"Hey, Mitternich," Jeb Whittlespoon yelled from the café's side door. "Poker at nine. Right after the dining room closes."
I gave him a thumbs-up.
Poker at nine, drunk by midnight, sleeping with goats by dawn.
A typical Saturday night.
Around eight, I was bussing tables covered in red-checkered oil-cloth under old tin ceiling lamps that cast warm pools of light. The café was Mayberry, a Norman Rockwell painting, and a rerun of The Waltons all rolled into one. Ordinarily the atmosphere soothed me, but that night I felt edgy--not just the usual blue-black mood that came on as the sun set, but something worse.
The café was full of happy, wholesome families. They came to the Cove and nearby Turtleville for the views, the campgrounds, the trout streams and the hiking. Many drove up from Asheville but others came from as far away as Georgia and Tennessee. All of them shared one common goal during their visits: To dine at the famous Crossroads Café on huge plates of the best Southern home cooking anywhere, adorned with Delta's mouthwatering biscuits.
Cleo, along with Delta's daughter-in-law, Becka, hustled between the tables. Becka elbowed me. "Move your cute butt, Thomas." Becka flirted with me harmlessly, tolerated me endlessly, and bossed me around. Cleo prayed for me. Both she and Becka warned their husbands to keep guns away from me when I was drunk.
I turned around with a pan full of dishes and found a little boy staring up at me. Gaping, mesmerized. He looked like Ethan. Even more than most. Every boy under five reminded me of my son. Every breath I took reminded me. Clouds reminded me. Toys in an ad reminded me. Spatters of fake blood on an episode of CSI reminded me. I wondered if I still had half a bottle of vodka under the truck's front seat.
"Mister, are you a hillbilly?" the boy asked. His voice trembled. He was afraid of me.
The father rushed over. "He didn't mean any harm."
I could only nod. Words stuck in my throat. A glance confirmed that everyone in the diner was staring at me. Six-four and bearded, wrinkled Giants jersey, faded jeans, old running shoes, blood-shot eyes. Topped with a ponytail and a long, wavy brown beard. Go figure.
Delta stepped between me and the worried customers, grinning. "Aw, this is no hillbilly," she announced. "This is just Thomas, a crazy architect from New York City." To me she whispered, "You know we all love you around here, but you've got a strange look in your eyes tonight. You're scaring kids and giving hillbillies a bad name. Take a break."
I nodded again, my throat aching. I carried the bus pan to the kitchen, then walked outside. I went to my truck, climbed in, and fished around under the seat until I found my vodka. The bottle was half-full, hurray. "Never look at a vodka bottle as 'half-empty,'" I said out the window to Banger. "Be an optimist."
The bottle's screw-top made a neat arc to the truck's rusty floorboard as I flicked it with my fingers. I had my rituals. Open a bottle, pull down the visor, then look at the pictures I'd laminated and taped there. Sherryl and Ethan on his first birthday, in Central Park, laughing for me among some flowers. And the other picture, the one from the archives of the New York Times, a picture like dozens of pictures that had been studied, analyzed, and archived.
A picture from the morning of September 11, 2001, when my wife jumped from the North Tower of the World Trade Center with our son in her arms. I touched both pictures with a fingertip, then took my first drink of the night.
"Caaaathryn!" A car full of teenage boys passed me in an open Jeep, waving and honking their horn.
I waved back vaguely, still distracted from the incident at the hotel, I zoomed along California's famous Ventura Highway in heavy traffic, headed northwest out of L.A. Other drivers waved and honked at me--mostly men and boys, putting their hands to their hearts. Tractor-trailer drivers blew their deep air horns as I zoomed past. I continued waving, sometimes smiling and blowing kisses too. I was gorgeous, I was rich, everyone wanted to be me. I was immortal.
The producers of Giant, a husband-wife team, owned a fabulous Arabian horse ranch outside Camarillo, near the coast. I planned to spend the weekend as their houseguest, discussing the script and meeting with the director. Gerald had kissed me goodbye at the hotel on his way to board our Lear jet. He was headed to London to meet with some of our Flawless investors.
My right foot cramped as I pressed the Trans Am's accelerator. High-heeled, skintight ostrich leather boots are not meant for driving a muscle car. I had a garage filled with Mercedes and Jaguars, but I loved my classic, redneck wheels. Clearly, I'd inherited some fast-car genes from my Grandpa Nettie. He died young--murdered in a fight at a mountain roadhouse, but Granny said he'd been a bootlegger and stockcar racer in his youth. Another notorious Nettie legacy my father hadn't liked. Now, as a kind of karmic compensation, I owned the Nettie farm. My business people managed it, per instructions left by Daddy's will. I kept meaning to check on the old place, but I was always too busy. Apparently, if I wouldn't go to Granny's farm, Granny and her farm would come to me. In mirrors. I shivered. Don't think about that vision.
I glanced at the Trans Am's speedometer. Only eighty mph. By California highway standards, I was just coasting. "Hey, Granny Nettie, watch this," I said aloud. I wiggled my foot, pressed harder, and smiled as the needle crept toward ninety-five. The wind curled in through the car's open T-top, whipping my hair. It was a perfect spring day, the temperature in the seventies, the smog just a pretty, lavender-blue mist on the horizon. I crested a hill and grinned at a vista laced with the lime-green outlines of large vegetable fields. Open horizons. I could fly.
Lights flashed in my rear-view mirror. I scowled when I saw a familiar blue mini-van behind me. A hand came out of the van's passenger window, waved gleefully at me, disappeared, then returned clutching a large video camera. A shaggy, gray-blond guy poked his head out and fitted the videocam's viewfinder to one eye.
I knew him. A jerk, even by the aggressive standards of showbiz paparazzi. We had a long acquaintance, most of it annoying to me and profitable to him. He'd videotaped me as I walked through airports all over the world, trailed me on the outskirts of movie sets, hopped out of the bushes around nightclubs and restaurants, and once snapped photos of me sunning topless in Spain, which the world could still view for five dollars per download on the Internet.
And now he intended to tape me driving on the Ventura Highway? It must be a slow week in the celebrity scandals business. Were Inside Edition and Entertainment Tonight that desperate for footage?
I wasn't in the mood. Bitch. Bad role model for girls. Those words kept echoing through my mind.
And biscuits. Granny Nettie's gravy-covered biscuits. Suddenly I could almost taste them again, just as I had in the hotel suite, almost hear her ghost whispering in my ear. Take comfort, now. Rejoice. You'll want to die but you'll be glad you lived.
Strange thoughts. A chill on my skin. I shook it off, glared at the photographer in the rearview mirror, and stomped the Trans Am's accelerator.
For months afterwards, I would try to remember every detail of that moment. To remember every nuance, everything I felt and did, everything I should have done differently. I would be haunted by everything I did wrong in that split-second of eternity, when my life changed forever.
The toe of my boot slipped sideways off the pedal. The boot's long, narrow heel went under the pedal and jammed there. My foot was trapped for maybe two seconds, three at the most. Just enough time for the Trans Am to slow down, just enough time to encourage the clueless driver in the lane to my left. He whipped his small, aged hatchback in front of me. I stared in horror at the car's taillights, which I was about to rear-end.
I jerked my foot free and stomped the brake. The Trans Am hunched down like a horse trying to slide to a stop from a full gallop. The tires screamed. I was still closing in on the hatchback with no hope of not hitting it. I swung into the emergency lane. The Trans Am began sliding sideways, and I couldn't straighten it.
The rear right bumper clipped a guard rail. The car spun full-circle. I couldn't hold onto the steering wheel. The front bumper slammed into the guard rail, plowed it down, and the Trans Am went airborne, riding the guard rail at high-speed, its underbelly ripping open. The roar and shriek of metal filled my ears. So did my screams.
The Trans Am shot off the road near a strawberry field. I didn't see the field's hogwire fence before I plowed through it. I didn't see the shallow irrigation ditch, either. The Trans Am hit it at an angle, tilted, and rolled completely over.
My head slammed into the steering wheel. Thank God for the wheel's padded leather cover. And thank God I was wearing a seatbelt. The car flopped to a halt in the ditch, upright but tilted, with the passenger-side wheels resting on the slope.
Quiet. Everything suddenly went so quiet, and so still. My head throbbed, but otherwise, I was unhurt. Dazed, I managed a few deep, shaky breaths. I heard people yelling, but for some reason, none of them came over to help me. I fumbled for the door handle. It wouldn't work. I shoved. There was no give. The door was jammed. My head began to clear, and I felt a little panicky. What was that scent?
Smoke. That's smoke. And gasoline. Get out of this car. Climb out the T-top.
I scrambled to my knees on the bucket seat. My boot heels snagged on the gear-shift on the center console behind me. I grabbed the window sill with both hands. The metal was warm. Acrid smoke flooded my nose and throat. A coughing fit doubled me over.
"Beautiful," the photographer called. "Beautiful, Cathryn. Work it, Cathryn."
The photographer who'd chased me now stood a few feet away, videotaping me.
"I need help. Help me, you cretin!"
"Come on, Cathryn, you can make it! You're a star, baby! And stars are always happy to perform! Think of the publicity you'll get! 'Wow. Look at Cathyrn Deen, doing her own stunts!'" He crept closer, the camera never wavering. I shoved myself headfirst out the window and tumbled to the ground. "Nice technique!" he called, laughing.
I staggered to my feet, but my left boot heel sank into the soft earth, and I tripped. I landed hard on my right side. Hair, face, right arm, right hip, right leg. Into the wet muck. What was this slick fluid on my hands? This smell? Oh, my God. Gasoline. The ground was soaked with it. And now, on my right side, so was I.
"Hurry, Cathryn! I think your catalytic converter's about to catch the weeds on fire! I want to see you run in that tight sweater and high heels! Raise your head so I can get a good shot of those beautiful eyes. Come on, hustle! Give your fans some jiggling tits to look at, doll!"
I scrambled out of the ditch on all fours. At that point my deepest desire was to reach the guy, wrap my hands around his throat and strangle him.
Behind me I heard a soft, sinister whoosh.
A fireball went up my right side.
Some victims of violent accidents say time seems to slow down. They say they felt disconnected, almost like a spectator. Not me. Imagine sticking your upper body into a hot oven. Imagine plunging your hands into the glowing coals of your backyard grill.
Imagine. That's how it felt.
You're incredible, Cathryn!" the photographer yelled. I would never forget the thrill in his voice.
I wasn't incredible. I was burning alive.
Roll. Get down on the ground and roll. I threw myself face down by the Trans Am, flailing, screaming, rolling. The heat retreated, the flames vanished. I went limp, gasping, peeing on myself, vomiting bile.
Four or five seconds. I was on fire for no more than four, maybe five, seconds, witnesses said later.
Shock began taking hold. Now, yes, I felt weirdly calm, pleasantly detached. It'll take a week of spa treatments to get this smell off me, I thought.
I heard sirens, I heard people still shouting. Some of them were even crying. One of them moaned, "Ohmygod, Ohmygod, look at her. I want to puke." Which struck me as incredibly rude.
I managed to lift my head. The photographer crouched less than an arm's length from my face, breathing hard, excited. I could see him through the smoke, I could hear him gulping for air, like a man about to come. Was he giving off that nauseating scent? It smelled like burned hair, and...?
burned ... meat. He aimed the wide, black eye of his lens directly at my face. I looked into the glassy black mirror of that eye, the world's eye, and saw a grotesque, charred, sickening reflection.
And then I realized it was me.
Daddy and his sisters began entering me in beauty contests when I was old enough to toddle. As upper-class Southerners they generally looked down their noses at beauty competitions, which they considered lowbrow and tacky, but given my spectacular allure, they couldn't resist showing me off. "We're just honoring an old Southern tradition of exhibiting our prize livestock," one of my aunts told her friends. "You just watch. Cathryn will take more blue ribbons than a pretty sow at the state fair."
By the time I was six, I was a veteran with a roomful of trophies and tiaras. By the time I was eighteen, I was crowned Miss Georgia. I would have competed for Miss America, but I got my first movie role and handed the Miss Georgia crown to the runner-up, instead.
You don't spend your childhood on stage, duking it out with other ambitious little girls and their vicious stage parents, without learning to soldier on, no matter what. Once, when my music and costume had been sabotaged, I sang the entire theme song from Annie without accompaniment, wearing a plain black leotard and a skirt made from my aunt's pink cashmere scarf. I won the talent competition, and I won that pageant. I was four years old.
Strong Southern belle and Twenty-First Century steel magnolia, that was me. Coddled, blessed, praised, protected, then launched into the world of movies as a full-fledged glamour girl and sex symbol. Until now.
In the ambulance, I heard the paramedics talking about me.
I can't believe this is Cathryn Deen. Cathryn Deen. Do you know how many times I've jerked off to pictures of her?
Me, too. But not after this, man. Jesus. Look at her. Not anymore.
As my world faded to black, I hoped I'd die.
At night, the Cove and the mountains around the Crossroads turn deep-green, almost black. You can feel the potential for evil in the darkness then, the surveillance of arrogant trees, the deadly lure of the cliffs, the subversive hollows, the drowning charm of the whitewater creeks, the hunger of wild animals slipping through the shadows, just waiting for you to become their next meal.
Around midnight I stretched out on the pew, too drunk to play another round of poker. The yard was lit only by the faintly illuminated café sign beside the Trace. The café's parking lot was empty. A few lights burned in the side dining room, where Delta and her quilting gang were stitching, gossiping and sipping sweet iced tea mixed with good mountain wine. The richest grapes thrive even in the wildest places. I watched the universe sprinkle its streetlights across the sky above Ten Sisters.
Bring it on, I told the evil. I know you're out there.
All those far-away threats, unknown. But here, in the light of the Crossroads, the world was safe and familiar, an old world, an illusion like all safe places, but still. As an architect, I appreciated illusions. Grief steals all the beauty in the world, then gives it back one piece at a time until the house you call your life is built on more hope than sorrow. So far, I'd only reclaimed a window here, a door there, hanging onto those small pieces of faith with my fingernails.
A brilliant, brief sparkle caught my eye.
Drawn down to earth, a star flashed and vanished over the western horizon.
I had fallen in love with Cathyrn Deen's farm on my first day in the Cove, four years earlier. I arrived one rainy summer morning around dawn on a big Harley I bought when I left Manhattan. Just driving, looking for the next place to spend time among strangers who'd leave me alone while I drank and grieved. The North Carolina mountains swayed their hips and seduced me as I rolled down the East Coast intending to spend the summer chugging vodka on the beaches of Florida. I'd never suspected the Blue Ridge Mountains of the South could rival the Adirondacks of upstate New York for sheer, jaw-dropping scenery.
When my brother and I were kids, our old man took us along on his jobs at the Adirondacks' grand old resorts and turn-of-the-century "camps," those rustic log mansions created by gilded-age barons like the Vanderbilts. Our father, a master carpenter, was a tough S.O.B., not given to much sentiment and not all that likable. He bullied John for being overweight and called me a sissy because I had a knack for art as well as architecture. All in all, he did his best to make us spit in his face.
But he loved the memory of our mother, who died too young for me or John to remember, and we never doubted he'd throw himself in front of a runaway train to protect us. He respected his craft. To him, the historic camps of the Adirondacks epitomized it. Love him or hate him, we respected his dedication. He taught us to take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and peckers, and he taught us to create whole worlds with a hammer, a saw, and our bare hands. He only had an eighth-grade education, so he couldn't put his appreciation for fine architecture into the sissy words he claimed to despise, but it showed in his reverence for the old places, his attention to every detail.
When I rolled into the Crossroads Cove that first day and saw the café welcoming me like an outpost in the wilderness, I thought of my old man and felt less alone. Smoke came from the café's chimneys, and cars already filled the parking lot, but I didn't stop for breakfast. Ruby Creek Trail, the old dirt road that crosses the Trace near the café, led me off the pavement and into the woods that morning.
I was just looking for an isolated place to throw down a sleeping bag. I didn't know it then, but I was following ghosts along a path so old the earliest French explorers had written about it in the 1700's. Before that, the Cherokees had carved its trail markers on rocky outcroppings. The petroglyphs that still remained--on boulders too big to steal--mesmerized me, and before I knew it I was deep in a fairytale hollow full of ferns, riding alongside Ruby Creek.
I parked the bike and hiked up a ridge to get my bearings. When I reached the top I was surprised to find an abandoned pasture. Head-high pine saplings dueled with the tall grasses. Dew gleamed on sagging chestnut fence posts, worn gray by the weather. The pasture vanished around a curve in the forest like a green river going around a bend; I couldn't resist following it.
I walked for a long time before I crested a rise and halted. There, looking back at me at the far end of an alley lined with huge oaks and poplars, shimmering in the opalescent light of the sunrise, among old gray barns and fallen sheds and the faintest hint of flower beds in a forgotten front yard, gleaming pink and gold in the magic light, was a classic Craftsman cottage.
You've seen these bungalows in movies, you've seen versions of them in every neighborhood in America; they're the strong, small, proud children of efficiency and grace. Some are elaborate, and some are not; this one, hidden in the middle of a high-mountain farm, was the crown jewel of its kind.
I ran to it like a deranged lover, plowing through the weedy grass and the small pines. I bounded up wide stone steps and stood, awed, in the curving arch of the deep stone porch. I circled the house a dozen times, admiring the heavy, exposed rafters and their braces, that vaguely Asian touch that makes one think of a friendly pagoda. I caressed the thick stone chimney and foundation and pulled down a long tangle of vines that had climbed all the way to the roof, threatening to cover the wide, gabled dormer above the porch.
I didn't give a damn in anyone caught me trespassing or not. I cupped my hands around my eyes and looked through the windows at the maple floors and wormy chestnut wall boards, the built-in cherry cabinets and columned doorways. I chanted, "Look at that. My God, look at that," as if all the ghosts had followed me off the trail for a house tour.
Finally, dazed with appreciation, I stood back and gazed at the windows themselves. Stained glass bordered each one with intricate, geometric patterns. Sunlight glinted off coarse, pea-sized rubies and sapphires tucked in the soldered intersections. The house wore a necklace of hand-made windows decorated with local gemstones. My old man would have cringed at my artsy descriptions, but he would have appreciated the house as much as I did. It badly needed repairs. A fallen oak limb had gouged a hole in the roof. Several windows were cracked. Termites had ruined several rafters.
The house needed me.
The Nettie place up on Wild Woman Ridge, it was called. I found out when I went to the café and asked for information. A crowd of tourists cringed as I walked in the front door of the main dining room that day. The beard, the hair, the old jeans, the bloodshot eyes, the scarred biker jacket. I looked like trouble, I know. Someone slipped around back and warned Delta that a Hell's Angel had slithered into her dining room.
She came up front to see for herself. This sweet little woman grinned at me, handed me a steaming cup of coffee, and said loudly, so all the timid customers could hear, "Hoss, you look like you've been rode hard and put up wet. You better sit down with me and have a biscuit."
I loved her platonically from that moment on.
She sat across from me at a checkered table and answered every question I asked about the abandoned farm and its incredible house. Mary Eve Nettie had been a rebel, a maverick, an early feminist who kept her maiden name even after marriage, a legend. She'd inherited the farm from her parents, who'd made their fortune bootlegging the best homemade rum and bourbon in western North Carolina.
Mary Eve's parents built the farm's showplace home when she was a girl. Even then it was the talk of the mountains. The Netties picked a fancy, modern, Craftsman-cottage blueprint, "The Hollywood," out of a Sears and Roebuck catalog and mailed off a check for five-thousand-two-hundred-and-fifty-two dollars to Sears' Chicago headquarters--an astonishing amount at the time. Their extravagant mail-order purchase made them folk heroes to the entire mountain region, pissing off legions of Internal Revenue agents who couldn't prove the Netties hadn't earned the money panning rubies.
Sears shipped the entire three-bedroom bungalow by train from the company's northern lumber yards. Everything--including floorboards, mantels, cabinets, windows, doors, trimwork, and even the cedar shingles--arrived in North Carolina's Asheville depot in crates and stacks. Franklin Nettie, Mary Eve's father, trucked the materials over fifty miles of terrifying, high-mountain roads to the Crossroads Cove, where everything was transferred onto mule wagons for the rough trip by trail up to the farm on the ridge. Then Franklin and his crew of men assembled the house.
The finished cottage was a marvel of fine workmanship and detail. Mary Eve later embellished it in small, perfect ways, with handmade floor and counter tiles in the kitchen and stained-glass trim for the windows and front door. The bungalow was one of the few unsullied examples of a Sears Craftsman-style kit home. There wasn't another place like it in the country. I couldn't comprehend the neglect. A historic house like that, sitting empty. Uninhabited, ignored, left to rot. Sacrilege.
Clearly, Barnard Deen, the owner, a wealthy lawyer down in Georgia, simply didn't give a damn about his mother-in-law's mountain legacy. I camped out near the café and launched a campaign to buy the farm. I sent a dozen offers to Deen, each one more generous than the last.
Deen rejected all of them. He wouldn't even talk with me. After he died I tried to contact his heir, the famous Cathryn, with no success. Just more letters from attorneys telling me to forget it, and not to contact Ms. Deen again, and not to trespass on her property.
So, naturally, I had been trespassing and doing repairs at the farm, ever since. I'd spent many a night sleeping on the front porch among my hand tools and supplies. I'd watched thunderstorms roll grandly over the western horizon, where Hog Back Mountain, a neighbor of the Ten Sisters, filled the sky. I watched snow fall on the oaks; I'd watched the forest turn red and gold in autumn.
Everyone in the Cove knew the Nettie house and I were having an illicit affair, but they didn't mind. At the Crossroads, man-cottage love is tolerated.
In the meantime, I set up housekeeping next door on thirty acres I won at poker from Delta's brother-in-law, Joe Whittlespoon, aka the pot-farming "Santa" Whittlespoon. The Nettie place occupied one end of Wild Woman Ridge; the newly christened "Mitternich place" occupied the other end. I built a cabin on my land, and when I wasn't drunk, I planted a vineyard. I wasn't a farmer or a winemaker but I had a strong need to make new life take root on that ridge even if, some dark, drunken night, I ended my own.
Gruff and manipulative, Sheriff Pike Whittlespoon wasn't a lovable Andy Taylor of Mayberry, no, but a pragmatic officer of the peace for greater Jefferson County including the Crossroads Cove. He could track a lost kid across the roughest mountainside, sweet-talk an abused wife into testifying against her husband, or break up a meth lab with his bare fists. He and Delta had been married since they were sixteen--nearly thirty-five years--and he quietly worshipped the ground she walked on. He was a friend to his and Delta's sensitive, mullet-haired, ex-military son, Jeb, a fiercely protective grandpa to Jeb and Becka's likable kids, and a resigned defender of his unconventional older bro, Joe, the aforesaid hemp-scented Santa Whittlespoon.
At six-five and two-eighty, Pike outweighed me but couldn't look over my head without craning his. You could say we saw eye to eye on the justice system. He'd never clobbered me when I was drunk, and I'd never given him a reason to.
"Tommy-Son," Pike told me not long after my arrival in the community, christening me with both a paterfamilial relationship and an inferior rank, "if you ever get into that piece-of-shit 'vintage' truck of yours when you're drunk, and you attempt to drive that piece-of-shit 'vintage' truck of yours on my roads, I'll make sure you spend the next twelve months in zebra stripes, shoveling piles of Hereford shit at the county's 'vintage' prison farm."
Which is why I spent a lot of time sleeping in my truck under the café's oak trees.
I was outdoors at my cabin not long after sunrise that Sunday morning, sweating away my bleak Saturday-night mood and a full bottle of vodka. The twin handles of a post-hole digger felt righteous against the calluses of my hands. Blood, sweat, tears. Mother Nature's fertilizer. Blister by blister, I built my vineyard, an homage to the stained-glass windows of Frank Lloyd Wright.
I had just finished setting the last trellis post in the top-right geometric branch of the middle abstract tree in Wright's "Tree of Life" pattern. The original stained-glass window could be seen inside a turn-of-the-century home in Buffalo, New York. My version was six-hundred feet long, four-hundred feet wide, and could be seen by small planes and hang gliders. When I was done building trellises and planting grapevines, the Nazca lines of Peru would pale by comparison.
A rumbling noise crept through the fog in my brain. For a few seconds I ignored it, bending down to measure the precise depth of my newest post hole. When I was communing with the vineyard and fighting a hangover it took a lot to get my attention. But the rumble grew louder, and finally I looked up.
Pike's blue-and-gray patrol car roar out of the woods with the lights flashing. I dropped my tape measure. A fist closed around my chest, and for a moment I smelled terror and saw falling bodies on a Manhattan street. Doctors call this hyper-alert reaction 'post traumatic stress syndrome.' I called it 'smart.'
Pike slid to a stop within spitting distance of my sweat-dappled work boots. I set my post-hole digger aside and straightened my surveyor's tripod, giving myself a few seconds to breathe. "Don't cut me any slack, Pike. Just say it. What's happened to my brother? Or his wife or kids--"
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