Going home to the town from which he escaped under threats of death two decades before involves him in uncovering a brutal secret his father had kept since David's childhood, a time when the earliest days of the Civil Rights Movement began to expose the hatreds and ancient bigotries that were still seething beneath the bucolic crust of Blossom, like some malevolent force focused on David Early, who as a young student was the first white person in the town to march with blacks in protest.
Blossom was just another of those junk-cluttered, ramshackle, un-consciously ugly, roadside hamlets lost deep within the evergreen forests of southern Arkansas like atolls in a great green sea, islands in the pines, one of those curious, mysterious southern towns that appear and disappear around curves in washboard roads like dead skunks in ditches. But it is only there that David can find redemption for mistakes he never knew he made.
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By Donigan Merritt
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Donigan Merritt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHenry David Early Jr. returned to Blossom on the 11th of June, 1985, just short of twenty years after being run out of town. He entered Evergreen County on a narrow, shoulder-less, cracked and buckled highway through the border town of Springhill and its massive wood pulp paper mill; a continual rotten egg stink, an odor so foul and sulfurous that it could make a hog butcher vomit.
There was nothing between the state border and Blossom except occasional swatches of tar-papered shotgun shacks, leaning this way and that way, set just back from the road on bare, iron red patches of dirt, and scattered among the tall, regal, evergreen trees like crusty scabs on chlorophyll skin: Psoriasis of the earth. People living out there in the woods maybe had a little piece of earth to work, or maybe drove a truck for some logging outfit, or maybe cleaned houses and did laundry, or maybe just made do with that little bit the welfare doled out. Occasionally those shanties had rusting old tub washers on warped plank porches, but more than a few of the often rotund colored women who ruled those shacks still laundered in black iron caldrons in the yard, using stirring poles like a canoe paddle, swamp witches of the laundry. A poverty so abject it seemed a fabrication, a theme park: the Disneyland of degradation.
When he was eight years old, riding along the same road with his father in a trembling old Ford pickup truck, and passing those shacks, Henry David Early Sr. said in response to a curiosity from his son, "That's how the coloreds choose to live, Davy." David would occupy himself for quite a while with the mystery of such a choice, wondering what secret there was in the lives of colored people choosing to live that way. He had in those days come to believe that it was impossible to choose bad over good if you knew the difference; you chose something because you knew it's good, so choosing bad was simply a mistake of judgment or evaluation. It didn't make sense the other way, to choose something that was bad for you on purpose. If someone chose to live in a fallen down old shack out in the boondocks, then there must be something good about it, some reason they wanted to choose that way of life. Maybe the true value could be seen in how effectively they kept the goodness of their choice a secret. He outgrew that theory.
When the settlement of shacks began to peter out, there was again nothing but forest; Blossom appeared suddenly from it. After a sharp curve, the northbound highway straightened out at a Quonset hut cabinet maker's shop with a faded red slide-top Coca Cola machine by the front door and heaps of wood scraps piled out back, like an anticipatory funeral pyre. A scrawny and splotched old white man wearing coveralls without a shirt, sat in a cane chair and leaned against the wall by the door with a soft drink bottle in his hand. Across the road, a flaking green and white stucco DX gasoline station crumbled with neglect. After that, a row of cracking clapboard houses, some upgraded a decade ago with aluminum siding after a pretty good door-to-door salesman passed that way, were still just one or two steps up from the destitute shanties pockmarking the highway into town. Another house, clearly once something of a mansion, now displayed a sign advertising night crawlers for sale. Some yards were little more than junk dumps, with old cars and other mechanical relics strewn about. A paint-peeling, pea-green, vinyl-shingled shack had a sign painted broadly on one wall offering for sale smoked Buffalo River catfish. A billboard listed the churches and service clubs in red letters across a big white magnolia flower. Across the highway, another billboard directed any passersby to Boll Weevil Western Wear on the courthouse square. When the road straightened out of the long curve, pines began sharing the landscape with oak, birch, walnut, pecan, mimosa, and sycamore. Within just another block or two the houses were brick and sprouted bright long lawns, many two story, a few with columns on the porticoes in that old southern way of antebellum pretense.
It wouldn't take long to drive all the way through town, around the square, past the brown brick Ben Franklin store, concrete banks with imitation marble facades, two doughnut bakeries, both with curved Formica counters and cracked red leatherette stools, ramshackle auto repair and muffler shops, aluminum sided burger joints with intermittent neon signs, a few hopeful yet forlorn motels, half a dozen cinderblock gas stations, about one every two blocks, and then out the other side, moving on past the cemetery where David Early's father was recently buried, finally back into the pines, heading on toward the next county, where beer and liquor could at last be purchased, because Evergreen was a dry county and had been since before the war.
David Early drove directly to the cemetery.
Winston Caviness watched the car pull in from a dirt-specked window in the caretaker's shack. He had worked there for decades. David remembered the old guy from when his grandmother died in 1951. He was seven, his first funeral. Now Caviness had to be in his eighties, his paltry white skin sagging like a hound dog.
The old man stayed put until David parked and got out of the car, then he sauntered into the sunlight, acting like he only intended to inspect the graveyard, a stone farmer. He surveyed a moment, then sat down on a ragged woven cane chair and propped his mud caked timber boots on a rusting five gallon Esso oil can. Small darting wasps worked on a dirt dabber nest at a corner of the roof.
Deigning finally to take notice of the visitor, Caviness acknowledged David's approach with a nod, his eyes squinting, waiting.
"I'm looking for Hank Early's grave. Henry David Early."
"Yep," Caviness said. "Y'all see that there live oak?"
David looked in the direction indicated by the old man's gaze.
"Yonder," he emphasized, raising and dropping his arm in a slow orchestral motion.
More than anything else, and there were many competing odors coming from his body, Winston Caviness smelled like the Red Man chew puffing out his right cheek and staining the corners of his lips. When he leaned over and spat, the wad clumped up on the sun-baked, cracked, red dirt like a hot marble.
"Thanks," David said, and started off.
"Hey, y'all Hank's boy, taint ya?"
"Yes, sir, I am." David turned around.
"I never seen y'all to the funeral."
He eyed David. Like firing off a hex.
"I didn't know until it was already over." "Yeah, uh huh. They weren't too many what showed up, no. Ten or a dozen, not a counting the diggers and the driver from old Parker's parlor. I seen some buried out cheer with a hundurt to watch."
"Well...." What could he say?
"Ever body liked your old man, though. I ain't saying different."
"Yes sir. I know."
"Just go to show. It do. People is like that. When you up, they all loves you. When you down, they suddenly got bizness to tend to. Your pap deserved more than he ended up his earthly days with."
Caviness grunted and backed up a couple of steps like a slow-motion sand crab, then turned around and scuttled back into the dank sanctuary of the shed.
Early-summer sun cooked the lime green grass. A breeze, hot and heavy from the south, rose and fell like air urged from an erratic fan. David walked over the grave before noticing it. There was no headstone, just one of those small, free, Veterans Administration plaques stuck into the ground, the grass still brown and dying from the damage of digging six months ago. He had to squat down to read the inscription: Henry David Early, Sr., Corporal, US Army, WW II, August 10, 1922-December 15, 1984. David was surprised that his father had not left money for a headstone.
It was sudden. Like throwing up beer. He began to cry for the first time over the father he had not seen or heard from even once in twenty years. Tears fresh and odd and brand new. One dropped to the back of his hand and rested there like a sun-lit dew drop on a dry leaf. If the reconciliatory letter David sent from his home in Costa Rica a few months ago had not been returned with DECEASED: RETURN TO SENDER stamped on the envelope in cracked, red block print, David wouldn't even know that his father was dead.
David walked away from the grave and straight out of the cemetery to the car, embarrassed that old man Caviness might have seen him break down.
Chapter TwoHenry David Early and Thelma Jean Craft Early adopted their son, naming him after his new father, in August, six months after his birth at the Little Rock Baptist Hospital in 1944, one week after Hank, now Hank Sr., turned twenty-two years old, and his wife of three years turned twenty-one.
Hank was in the army then, and had spent nearly all the three years of his married life stationed at Camp Robinson in Little Rock, where he was a motor pool mechanic. After Hank made corporal and could live off base, Thelma moved up from Blossom and took a job clerking at Walgreen's, where she got to wear a pale green uniform with white wing collars that flattered her pale skin. They had an airy two-room garage apartment just three blocks from the base, where, in spite of the desperate days of World War II, they lived a rather routine and not unpleasant life. Thelma changed the drab window curtains with yellow flowered cloth ones she got on the employee discount. The small kitchen had a brand new toaster, a gift from the 1st National Bank when they opened a savings account; Thelma learned to decorate toast with a variety of foods, especially eggs, when they could get them, but more often a gravy mush with small chunks of hamburger meat that Hank called SOS: shit on a shingle.
Hank Early had the stocky build of a football tackle, which he had been in high school. He had to quit high school in his senior year to take a job at the ice plant, after his father was killed in a timber accident. Hauling blocks of ice gave him an almost bear-like appearance, accentuated by coal black hair matted across his whiskey barrel chest.
Thelma Jean Craft, a year younger than her future husband, picked him out as the man for her when she was sixteen years old and she happened to catch a surprising glimpse of him coming from the shower in the boys gym, where she had gone looking for her father, the school custodian. Hank was the first full grown naked male who was not kin she had ever seen, real or depicted, and in her embarrassed shyness, she believed that obligated them to marry.
Thelma, two inches taller than the new object of her previously unfocused desires, was a slim, lanky, pretty girl, all arms and legs like a spider, which became her nickname in school, came from the farming village of Waldorf, population one-hundred-forty-something, six miles up the road northeast of the metropolis of Blossom, population some few thousands by 1937.
Her pursuit of Hank Early was not insignificant, but also quite unnecessary. Hank was smitten with her at first sight; she made sure of it by letting that first consequential glimpse be up her dress, all the way to the white triangular paradise of her panties.
They married on Labor Day in September of 1941, waiting long enough for Thelma to pass her eighteenth birthday, and moved in first with Hank's widowed mother. The Friday before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hank's mother gave him the money from her husband's insurance settlement to buy a small brick house on North Street, where he would have settled with his bride to make their life together, had he not gone into the army, Christmas week of 1941.
Thelma got pregnant on Christmas Eve of 1943, on their way home to the garage apartment after attending a holiday party across town with some of Hank's platoon from the motor pool-they were company B, and Thelma sometimes called Hank her boogie woogie bugle boy from company B. Filled with youth, spirit, and gin, in the taxi home Thelma plopped herself onto Hank's lap, opened his zipper and pulled out his coming attraction, then inserted it with some urgency into the space available, while holding aside the elastic leg band of her white panties.
It was such a wild and brave thing to do that she knew Hank's sperm and her egg must have found unification at that moment.
She guessed he was pregnant by the second week of February, but at the same time began suffering terrible gas pains in her stomach. Maybe it was an ulcer, she thought. The base doctor, an osteopath, told her to have a glass of alka-seltzer before bed, and lay off the barbeque chicken. Thelma followed his directions faithfully, and stopped drinking gin for a while, as well.
A week after that, standing at the sink washing the dinner dishes, with Hank in his undershorts settled on the long vinyl sofa with the Stars and Stripes, Thelma grabbed her abdomen with both hands, cried out sharply once, and fainted dead away. An ambulance from the base took her to the Baptist Hospital, where Thelma went into emergency surgery to save her life from the internal bleeding caused by a burst fallopian tube, where the fetus had made the fatal choice to take root and grow.
As a result of the usual incompetence of ignorance, Thelma, who had just miscarried, was placed in a four-bed room that included a very pregnant teenager about to give birth. Sally, the only name she offered, had just turned fifteen years old, and the father of her baby, her eighteen-year-old next door neighbor in nearby North Little Rock, was killed during the battle of Tarawa at the end of last November, and by then Sally was showing. Thelma thought the story was heart-breaking, the poor kid. She didn't know which was worse, losing a baby but keeping your man, or losing your man and keeping the baby.
"You gonna keep it?" Thelma wondered.
Sally said she thought the cramps were starting up again. "I ain't gonna keep it," she answered. "My momma and my daddy done said no, no way, not never, and if I want it I can just move out and don't show my face around there no more."
"What's gonna happen to it, then?" Thelma asked.
"He's ah gonna ... he's ah he ... he's ah gonna go down to the Baptist Orphan Home by Monticello."
"Y'all think you gonna see him?"
"Don't know. Maybe yes, maybe no. It ain't for me to say. If I is awake after, maybe. But I think I'd just as soon be asleep, you know? Since because ah how it feels already."
"I'd be curious myself," Thelma said. "I mean, anyway."
"Ain't it funny, though," Sally turned her head to see Thelma on the next bed, "I mean, how yours go out ah the world and mine's ah coming in at the very same time." "Yeah, that is funny."
"I didn't mean funny that way, I hope you know."
"I know what you mean. Like it's odd or strange."
"What y'all think about souls?" Sally asked.
"Souls? What you mean souls?"
"You know. Souls, like we all got a soul, what God give us that when we die it go up to heaven and lives with God and all the angels."
"I know what a soul is."
"I think about things like that sometimes, when I'm on my own with myself. I mean. Okay, I know souls come from heaven, but is there ah know'd number? Does God make souls to send down when he needs one? Or maybe ... I have wondered about this when I'm on my own ... there is just some certain number of souls available, and when a person dies and his soul goes up, is that soul used again in a new person? I just wondered what you think of that? 'Cause I heard they's some religions believing something like that."
"Well, the truth is, I never have thought much about such a thing. What do y'all think?"
"I think this baby is starting to want to come out and get his soul."
Sally's face contorted and she started moaning. Thelma called out for the nurse.
While the nurse checked Sally's dilation and pronounced her baby was not ready to come out yet, Sally turned toward Thelma, tears in her eyes.
"You got nobody here to be with you?" Thelma asked.
Sally shook her head. She was full on crying now.
"Well, yes you do. 'Cause my husband Hank is due here directly, when he finishes at the base ... about now. He's gonna be with you, right here by your bed, until you have that baby. So don't you worry about being alone in here."
"You do that for me? Your own husband?"
"Well, you know, it's not like he's the father, I hope." Thelma laughed heartily, hoping it would stop Sally's crying. "He's just gonna be here, and he can talk to you. Hank's a good talker when he's in the mood for it. Now I admit he ain't often in the mood for talking, but I'll be here in this bed, too. So, Sally, you ain't gonna be alone for this."
Excerpted from Blossom by Donigan Merritt Copyright © 2011 by Donigan Merritt. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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