Read an Excerpt The Front Porch Prophet
By Raymond L. Atkins
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Raymond L. Atkins
All right reserved.
Chapter One I'm dead, and I can still whip your ass. -Excerpt of posthumous letter from Eugene Purdue to Hollis Battey
To the east of Sequoyah lies Fox Mountain, also known as Eugene's Mountain in honor of its owner and sole inhabitant, Eugene Purdue. The elevation came into the possession of the Purdue family soon after the conclusion of the Great War of Northern Aggression, also called the Civil War by certain scholars and historians. Upon his return from that conflict, Eugene's great-great-great grandfather, Clayton, acquired the tract during a game of chance with Charles Fox, the last surviving member of the Fox family. Clayton Purdue was a rascal who claimed gambling as his vocation. Charles Fox was a drunkard and a fool, inalienable rights at that time of the sons of the gentry. The game was Five Card Stud, and the betting on the final hand was heavy. When Charles Fox drew his fourth jack with his fifth card, he wagered the mountain. Clayton Purdue had a great deal of money on the whiskey barrel and was bluffing a busted royal flush. Ever the sportsman, he drew his trusty Navy Colt and called the bet with finality. The dealer and only witness, Spartan Cook, swore under oath at the inquest that Clayton had acted in self-defense when he shot Charles Fox. In return for this middling perjury he received five-hundred dollars and subsequently relocated to the Oklahoma Territories to practice law. The judge at the hearing, Clayton's cousin Samuel, ruled that the demise of Charles Fox was lamentable but unavoidable. He then awarded the mountain to Clayton after first advising him to refrain from attempting to draw inside to a straight. Both the mountain and the Navy Colt have remained in the Purdue family to this day.
A.J. Longstreet arrived at the foot of Eugene's Mountain after driving the dirt road that wound eight miles from the state highway. It was noon on a Saturday. He parked his old pickup under the hanging-tree near the trail that snaked up the mountain to Eugene's cabin. The trail had once been a road, but due to a bitter family disagreement, Eugene no longer had access to his father's bulldozer and thus was unable to keep the roadway in good repair. The falling-out had occurred when Eugene inherited the mountain from his grandfather, A.R. Purdue. The inheritance had passed over Eugene's father and on to Eugene because of a difference of opinion regarding a choice of brides.
When Eugene's father, Johnny Mack, returned from the Big War back in 1946, he had in tow a beautiful French woman, Angelique, and her young son, Jacques. A.R. Purdue was charmed by Angelique and took right to little Jackie-Jacques was a bit too European for his taste-but all hell broke loose when he discovered that both newcomers bore the Purdue surname. He had been under the mistaken impression Angelique was a souvenir of sorts, along the lines of a Luger or a bayonet, but prettier.
"Did you think I just walked around France till I found one I wanted?" Johnny Mack asked, amazed at his father's crystalline stupidity.
"What about that boy?" A.R. demanded, pointing at the child like he was a sack of meal. "Is he yours?"
"He is now," Johnny Mack replied, looking at his father with disdain.
So Johnny Mack and Angelique set up housekeeping in the face of significant opposition. A.R. continued to rant and rave and pitch a general fit over the audacity his son had exhibited by marrying a damn foreigner, and a Catholic damn foreigner at that. These ongoing tirades caused Johnny Mack's mother to take to her bed with a case of nerves destined to last for years. The newlyweds ignored the histrionics and plowed ahead undaunted, and Johnny Mack figured that sooner or later A.R. would come the long way around to reason. He was quite surprised at the eventual reading of the will to discover the old man never had.
Regarding the relationship between Johnny Mack and his younger son, Eugene, the inheritance of the mountain was almost the straw that broke the camel's back. Almost, but not quite. They had not gotten along for some time and took opposing views on most issues. Johnny Mack was stern and pious, and had imposed harsh discipline throughout Eugene's formative years. Eugene, on the other hand, held nothing sacred, and he took particular delight in antagonizing his father. Still, they eventually might have struck an uneasy truce for the sake of Angel, formerly known as Angelique, whom they both loved. They might have, but the week after Eugene inherited the mountain, his cannabis harvest was found curing up in the rafters of the well house of the Hog Liver Road Primitive Baptist Church. Johnny Mack was a deacon out at the church, and the incident proved to be a religious liability to him.
"What in hell were you thinking?" Johnny Mack growled around the unlit cigar clamped in his jaw. He had given up smoking and cussing as a younger man after accepting the Almighty into his bosom, but the well house incident had caused him to backslide. "You were raised up better than this!" he continued. "W.P. is running around like a damn fool telling everyone that he has been touched by the hand of the Holy Spirit!" He was referring to W.P. Poteet, unpaid janitor and unofficial watchman at the church. W.P. had discovered Eugene's marijuana when he went into the well house to get his lawn mower, with which he intended to touch up a few graves. The unfortunate combination of W.P.'s agricultural background, poor eyesight, and lack of mental acuity had led him to assume some local farmer was drying a cash crop of burley up in the rafters. Since he had not enjoyed a good fresh smoke in about forty years, he tamped his pipe and fired up. Sweet Baby Jesus had revealed Himself shortly thereafter.
"I can't help it if W.P. is a damn fool," Eugene had replied coolly. "And what raising I got was Angel's doing, not yours. Before you get too holy, I know about that half gallon of bourbon you have stashed in the stove. It would be a damn shame if the brethren found out about it!" The threat was clear. He was referring to the church's potbellied wood heater, used for warmth on cold mornings and as a liquor cabinet by Johnny Mack during more temperate weather. Johnny Mack kept the sour mash around in case of pleurisy. A cautious man, he stored an additional half gallon under the tractor seat at home and even took the occasional preventive dose to be on the safe side.
Eugene knew all of this but was overcome with emotion and had spoken rashly. In his defense, his entire harvest of homegrown had just drifted up in smoke during the Evils of Satan bonfire and picnic held at the church the day after the well house discovery. Also destroyed were two Rolling Stones albums, a Hustler magazine, a hula hoop, and any hope of reconciliation between Johnny Mack and his wayward, errant son. There was some fireside discussion concerning the hula hoop, and many of the less zealous parishioners voiced doubts about its inclusion. But Myrtle Ellsbury was adamant, having apparently been drawn into mortal sin by one when she was a young girl, and Rabbit Brown finally chunked the foul instrument onto the pyre so Myrtle would hush.
Myrtle has long since gone to claim her reward for vigilance, Johnny Mack eventually overcame the stigma of having a spawn of Lucifer for a son, and the following year Eugene grew more dope. But Eugene and Johnny Mack never spoke again, and the road suffered greatly as a result.
A.J. got out of his truck and stretched for a moment. Then he reached behind the seat for his old Louisville Slugger, which he would need for his long walk up to the cabin. His intent was not to play baseball. He was there because Eugene's ex-wife, Diane, had delivered an invitation from Eugene. The bat was for snakes, of which he had a lifelong terror. And for Rufus, should the need arise.
A.J. had encountered Diane down at Billy's Chevron, where she was pumping gas into the tank of her 1977 Ford LTD. It was long, yellow, and arguably the worst-looking vehicle south of the Mason-Dixon Line. She had taken to driving the relic after her divorce from Eugene. In the settlement, she had received child support, a small but nice house in town, and a nearly new Buick, which later turned up missing, until it was discovered at the bottom of Lake Echota by some scuba-diving Eagle Scouts from Atlanta. So Diane's father fixed up the old LTD and gave it to her until she could see a little better.
Actually, her eyesight was fine, but her salary down at the glove mill wasn't, and Eugene was always behind with his child support payments so Diane had to be careful with her budget. Her lawyer had twice threatened Eugene with garnishment, but these were empty gestures, since most of his income was unreported and stemmed from his brokerage of alcoholic beverages in a county where the enterprise was officially frowned upon.
Eugene's slow payments to Diane were not the result of a problem with cash flow, since large quantities of it flowed right into the house down by the county line where he conducted business. Rather, it was to him a matter of principle to be late. He did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. He resembled Johnny Mack in that respect but did not like to have the similarity pointed out.
Diane informed A.J. of Eugene's request for a visit as she was finishing pumping her gas. She then cast him a questioning glance and asked if he intended to visit the shit head, a term of endearment she used when referring to her ex-husband. Eugene and A.J. had not seen each other for quite some time since exchanging hard words one bleak evening after Eugene accused A.J. of having the hots for Diane. This was not unusual behavior for Eugene, because he was a jealous man and Diane was an attractive woman.
To be honest, Diane and A.J. had been somewhat attracted to each other in high school, where they had once attempted to consummate their relationship. Technically speaking, both had still been virgins afterward thanks to the high state of excitement achieved by A.J. during the short foreplay period, and a rematch had never been attempted.
"What do you suppose Eugene wants?" A.J. asked, leaning on the fender of Diane's car. It was a calm, cool autumn day. He needed to be heading on to work but had no great urge to do so. He hated his job only slightly less than he would hate watching his children starve. He was not politically astute in the workplace, and the lack of diplomatic acumen had not had an enhancing effect on his career. He was relegated to the nether realms and occupied the position of permanent night shift supervisor at the sawmill.
"He wouldn't say what he wanted," Diane replied. "You know how he is. He just said to tell you that he really needed to talk to you." She leaned up against the LTD beside A.J., sipping on a cold Coke. She was a little over five feet tall and was ten pounds to the right of slim. She was pretty, not beautiful, with the coal-black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and high cheekbones that were common traits in the area. The high valley was once Cherokee land, until Old Hickory himself-Andrew Jackson-had decided the proud mountain and forest tribe would be happier romping on a government reservation in the Oklahoma Territory, which was where he sent them. They left behind their names, their genes, and some of the prettiest country ever stolen by the white eyes.
"Anyway, what are you doing talking to Eugene?" A.J. asked. "Did hell freeze over?" At the divorce hearing, Diane had specified that date as the next time she would willingly lay eyes on Eugene. She had then gone out to his Jeep parked in front of the courthouse and shot out all four tires plus the spare to finalize the arrangement. The incident caused a stir, but Eugene declined to press charges and the judge admired a spirited woman, so no legalities ensued. Diane had not seen Eugene since. His intermittent child support payments arrived courtesy of the U.S. Mail, in a manner of speaking. Eugene would periodically drive down to the highway and hand over an envelope full of cash to the town's ancient postman, Ogden Abney. Ogden would personally deliver the envelope to Diane later in the day after first removing one dollar for postage.
"No, it didn't freeze, but I could have waited," she said with a ghost of a smile. "The boys wanted to see him." Diane had loved Eugene when they married, but fifteen years of life with him had laid that love in an unmarked grave. She had endured the marriage for the sake of the children until the day Eugene's occasional verbal abuse turned physical and he slammed his fist into the wall beside her head, breaking three knuckles and creating a fairly large hole in the wall. Then he had stormed out of the house.
He had returned three days later feeling sheepish, a feeling that intensified exponentially upon his discovery of a totally empty house. Diane and the boys were gone, as was the furniture, the carpets off the floor, and the light bulbs from the fixtures. Eugene contemplated the sorry state of affairs while consuming a fifth of bourbon and arrived at the conclusion that it was no longer possible to find a good woman, one who would stick by a man. Then he burned the house down. When Diane heard the news, she was surprised to discover that she really didn't care. Her life with Eugene was over. It had ended during the fight when she saw Eugene's fist change trajectory ever so slightly right before it whizzed past her left ear. His gaze at that instant was lethal, as if his eyes were made of cobalt.
"How did the visit go?" A.J. asked Diane. "You didn't shoot out his tires again, did you? I loved that." He smiled and punched her softly on the shoulder.
"No, I didn't have to shoot anything," she replied. "He behaved himself all day. We rode up there last Saturday on Jackie's horses. The boys were really excited about seeing their father."
"I don't guess you were all that excited," A.J commented. He looked up and noted a small flock of geese tacking across the azure sky.
"You know for a fact I didn't want to go up there," she replied, shrugging. "But I can't keep the boys away from him forever. It was a strange day. He actually spoke to me a little, and he was good with the boys the whole time. They went fishing down in the canyon, and later on he showed them how to shoot. Do you remember his matched pair of shotguns? The ones he bought in Memphis? He gave one to each of the boys. Later, when we got to the bottom of the mountain, Cody handed me an envelope. He said his daddy told him to give it to me after we were down." She looked over at A.J. "There was five thousand dollars in that envelope and a note telling me to make sure the boys had a real good Christmas." She shook her head. Her long hair blew gently in the breeze.
"You're sure you were at Eugene's place?" A.J. asked. "Maybe you went up the wrong mountain." A.J. thought it was unlikely, but so was the Big Bang, and it had certainly received its share of the press.
"No, it was him," she replied. "I know the face. He looked bad, though, like maybe he's been sick." They were quiet for a moment. Then she spoke again. "I'm just not used to him acting nice. It hasn't come up that often."
"Maybe he's trying to win you back," A.J. suggested. "A girl could do worse than a nice cabin, two custom shotguns, and envelopes full of money lying around everywhere."
"The cabin is not that nice, there are not enough envelopes in the world, and I'd end up using both shotguns on him. No thanks." She seemed adamant.
"Well, I guess that's your choice," A.J. said dubiously. He shrugged. "So, what did you do all day while Eugene played with the boys?"
"I sat on the porch and read my book. Rufus sat and watched." The book in question was Diane's dog-eared copy of The Happy Hooker, a cult classic she had been reading for about fourteen years. A.J. once saw her finish the saga, shut the book for a moment, then open it back up to page one and begin again. Out of curiosity, he had also read the book, and although it contained some compelling passages, he was relieved to discover he had no compulsive urge to reread the tome for eternity.
"Rufus was there?" A.J. asked. He disliked Rufus and had heard he was dead. He was disappointed to hear it wasn't so. "You're lucky that dog didn't drag off one of the horses."
"I don't know why you don't like Rufus," Diane replied, opening the car door and climbing in. "He's really a pretty good dog."
"Call me sensitive," A.J. said, shutting the door for her. "I don't like him because every time I see him he tries to kill me." It was true. Rufus had been the scourge of the food chain up on Eugene's Mountain for a long, long time, but the only human he ever bothered was A.J. Small children could ride the dog like a pony, but he transformed into the Hound of the Baskervilles if he ever caught A.J.'s scent.
Excerpted from The Front Porch Prophet by Raymond L. Atkins Copyright © 2008 by Raymond L. Atkins. Excerpted by permission.
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