Jess Kirkman returns to the North Carolina mountain town of his boyhood to tend to his ailing mother, and clean out his deceased father's workroom. What he discovers there leads himand the readeron an unforgettable journey through the secret life of Jess's father, Joe Robert, which culminates in a moment of profound mystery and comedy.
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Time has no secrets. You can match a clock all day and never learn a thing. Fugio
My mother possessed a bristling armory of useful talents, but a gift for dying was not among them. I recalled the duties she had undertaken over the years, the offices she had fulfilled in regard to the jester's motley of business enterprises my father initiated. She had served as handmaid and general manager, as field laborer and nurse, as accountant and secretary, as critic and counselor, as gofer and governess, and their lives and happiness throve. Sometimes she had complained of her burdens, for they were weighty, but mostly she had performed those multifarious tasks cheerfully. My parents adored each other, even though the expression of that adoration was shadowed by a dark mordancy of temperament on her side and by a vigilant teasing playfulness on his.
He was Joe Robert Kirkman and she was his beloved Cora, his mainstay and counterpart but not his mirror image. Where his nature gleamed with streaks of fantasy and sparkled with uninhibited impulse, hers was rooted in the clinging clay of pragmatism and patched here and there with fatalistic gloomings. My mother was rather less gay than my father, maybe a little less generous, but she was equally brimful of life; it was only a quieter kind of life than his. Yet her fullness of life ebbed quickly from the brim when my father died, hammered to the floor of their living room by a massive heart attack. He had been watching the great spectacle on the television sethe called, in one of his futuristic waggeries, his "visiscreen." It was an almost brand-new twenty-one-inch-screen Zenith. The date was July 20, 1969, only hours before one man ventured a small step and mankind made a giant leap. All during the 1950s, my father had predicted that Americansmen and women togetherwould rocket to the moon. His prediction was dismissed by our neighbors and even by his admiring cronies as being only another example of his plentiful eccentricities. But I believed him. When I was a teenager, I sometimes imagined that he might be the first man to fly to the moon.
Maybe he was.
My mother never recovered from the loss of her husband. Oh, she made it through the necessary rituals well enough; her usual valiant courage was equal to those ordeals. She managed to complete some of the most urgent of the business demands: tax forms, will probate, debt arrangements, deed searches, and so forth. But then her body began to weaken as her spirit crumbled and her strength of will deserted her little by little, like a cone of sand leaking away to the bottom of an hourglass. She claimed in these days that she could wish for nothing more ardently than to lie in the earth alongside Joe Robert Kirkman, her Ariel, her Puck, and her Prospero all in one.
This wish is a common, an honorable, and an ancient desire. I remembered how Roman Ovid had given it warm incarnation in his Metamorphoses with the story of Baucis and Philemon. They were an elderly couple who had loved each other always, who had lived in peace and amity since their first hours together. When benevolent deities in human disguise made it possible for their secret hopes to be granted, the husband begged only that neither of them would have to experience the loss of the other. The wish was granted; Zeus changed Baucis, the woman, into a linden tree and her husband into an oak. Their branches intertwined and together they formed an everduring arch. When my mother voiced her wish to join my father, a few scraps of Ovid's verses murmured in my head.
And yet when death did approach, when my mother's heart fluttered and threatened to cease its pumping, she drew back by force of an undesired strength. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was yet too powerful. She suffered from congestive heart failure, a disease that filled her lungs with fluid and her mind with terror. Extinction drew nigh upon her, but then a glimpse into the unresonant abyss would send her soul scurrying, like a terrified lapdog, back to the warmth of the world, back to the treachery of living. After a while, she made a kind of peace, accepting the necessity of having to die in the good Lord's own good time and not according to a schedule of her own devising. But she bowed to it with an air of deep regret, as if she was disappointed in herself.
Then there came periods when she was bedridden. Now she would study her worldly affairs and think of duties undone, tasks that my sister, Mitzi, and I were to carry out. Some of these were merely trivial, but she would brook no argument, and we, ever mindful of her failing health, could offer none. When Mitzi and I conferred about some of these minor concerns, we would complain in good-humored mock-gloomy terms. "Trapped!" we would exclaim. "She's got us exactly where she wants us. We're caught like mice in a trap!"
Some of the things she wanted were of middling importance. The first of these was the burial arrangement. If she could not join my father immediately, as she so expressly prayed to do, she wanted to make certain that when she did die, she would be supine by his side. The second item of urgency was my father's last remaining hideaway workshop; it had been left untouched since his demise, and she wanted it cleaned out, sorted out, and set in order. There were other chores, too, but they were of less moment.
How could we deny her? There she lay in the bed she detested in the new-smelling infirmary she abhorred in the retirement community she was not reconciled to, and she issued Mitzi and me our orders in no uncertain terms. When she spoke to me, she tried to straighten herself, scooting back against two propped pillows at the headboard. She may have thought this taller posture lent her commands more authority.
It twisted my heart to look at her. Her face was gray and peeled-looking, her eyes watery. Painful arthritis had wrenched her hands into bony knots. Her hair had always been thin and was now so sparse that she had gathered it into a wispy topknot and secured it with a pink ribbon tied in a bow; this style resulted in a Kewpie-doll look that made her crushing sadness appear a little ridiculous. I couldn't help remembering how bright she used to look, her pert intelligence animating her features. That was the way she was supposed to look, I thought, and the way she looked now was like an ill-chosen frock; it simply was not her.
This room was too small for me to sit beside her. I had to heave a ponderous armchair, upholstered in squeaky lime green plastic, to the foot of the bed and lean forward toward the footboard bars as she laid out her plans. I expected to agree to her every demand, even to the ones that made no sense to me.
"You want to make sure Jeff Halsted finishes paying off his loan," she said, "and you need to send a gift for his daughter's high school graduation."
"All right," I said.
"What will you send?"
"I don't know. What do you suggest?"
She flapped a hand in listless impatience. "I'm all finished with those kinds of concerns now. You'll have to decide things like this from now on for yourself."
"I'll ask Mitzi. This is her specialty."
"You can't rely on your sister for everything, Jess. You've made a bad habit of that."
"And there's an awkward patch of ground by the corner of the Lindsay pasture that we never got resurveyed. You'll have to get that done if you want to sell or build there."
"Have you heard any word about Aunt Bessie Scott? They say the doctors can't do a thing for her."
"I haven't heard."
She would think of more things to do or to inquire about, then stop. "Are you sure you'll remember all this?" she demanded. "Maybe you'd better get a pencil and write it down."
"We're all set," I told her. "Mitzi has a list all written out. Everything you've mentioned so far is on her list."
"Yes." She nodded sagely. "Yes, of course. Jess, I don't see why you can't be more like your sister. She knows how to get things organized so she doesn't waste time and energy. You" Now she shook her head as if perplexed. "You're too much like your father, always trying to do a hundred things at once and never getting a one of them done."
"I wish I had Mitzi's skills," I said, but my contrite admission did not mollify her. She had already locked into her familiar routine of describing to me my character flaws and wouldn't be satisfied until she had tallied all she could think of. She began with the obviousmy excessive drinking and total lack of social graceand went on to details of my slovenly appearance, then finished with a topic she knew would irk me sorely, the obscurity of my literary expression. I had the feeling that she was going to make me submit my shoe shine and the hinder surfaces of my ears for inspection.
Now she shifted back to the topics at hand. "But you understand how important it is to get the burial arrangements straight. And you know we've got to clean out Joe Robert's personal workshop."
"Well, I think Mitzi and I have about got the burial arrangements completedand I came all the way up from Greensboro just to look into that workshop."
"That's the only reason you came?"
"And to have a cheerful visit or two with you, of course. We take that for granted."
Her expression was one of mildly sardonic amusement, but part of my sentence was true. I had come up to take care of the workshop, but the burial arrangements were far from complete. That matter weighed darkly upon me.
As soon as the spring semester had ended and I'd filled in the necessary paperwork and lugged it to the proper administrative pigeonholes, I'd left the neo-Georgian buildings of the campus and driven 250 miles west to the mountains of North Carolina to try to take care of family matters. Since I was likely to be gone at least a week, Susan stayed behind. Our garden would claim most of her attention, she said, but I pictured her grooming our cats, Chloe and Marty, reading the complete works of Margaret Maron, and eating nothingrepeat: nothingbut praline caramel ice cream. When I got back home, we would celebrate what I hoped would be my triumphant return. I would take her out to Valencia, a nifty Spanish restaurant on grubby Tate Street, where she would fall upon a mountainous green salad and a lamb chop like a ravenous animal, an unlikely hybrid of bison and tigress. But my return would hardly be triumphant unless Mitzi and I could get the business of my mother's burial straightened out. Unforeseen complications had arisen in that regard.
"You shouldn't rely so much on Mitzi," my mother said. "She has a busy schedule, an important career. You shouldn't go running to her about every little detail."
"Come now. I'm not entirely helpless," I said, feeling, as always, painfully vulnerable in the face of her criticism. "I manage to move about the world without continually falling on my face."
"Yesbecause your wife props you up. Without her, you'd be facedown most hours of the day."
"I'm not such a hopeless case, am I?"
"You're a dreamer. Head in the clouds. Nose in a book. Pointless schemes. If Susan didn't look after you, I shudder to picture the condition your affairs would be in. Making footnotes. Writing poetry nobody can understand."
"Well, maybe I am a hopeless case. But you've had time enough to come to terms with it by now."
"What was the name of that book you wrote?"
"River was the first one." It was the hundredth weary time I'd said so. She knew the title and knew I knew she knew.
"And what was that strange name you signed to it?"
"My pen name is Fred Chappell. If I signed those books 'Jess Kirkman,' you'd have a conniption fit. Some dark family secrets are aired in those poems."
"I don't see how it could make any difference what name you put to it. I never heard of anybody who read your River."
"Whatnobody? Not a single living soul?"
"Well ... I did talk a couple of my friends into trying it, but they didn't understand it any better than I did."
"Maybe they're not used to reading poetry. Or maybe they just don't care for it."
"They're not dumbbells.... If you're going to write books, why don't you write what people want to read?"
"All right, next time I'll write a novel. It'll be a detective thriller. I'll put in a secret treasure and episodes of nail-chewing suspense and a flock of mysterious ladies. Plenty of women with possibly naughty ways about them. I'll sign it 'Jess Kirkman' in bright neon letters. How do you think you'll like that?"
"No, you won't," she stated firmly. "You won't ever write anything but more poetry. That's all you ever think about."
But my dear and cranky mother was mistaken. Just a year ago, I had actually begun a novel, a tale of intrigue, betrayal, sabotage, and lugubrious peril. My story took place in a university that resembled to a suspicious degree the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where I taught gum-chewing sophomores and intensely political graduate students the arcanities of literature. My plotline involved a married chairman of a Romance languages department who was carrying on a weird affair with a junior colleague, a brash young woman who schemed to push him into divorce and snare him in remarriage by getting pregnant with his child. Her plans were complicated but not ruined by the fact that this à clef chairman (Professor L. J. Moreau in what we may guardedly term "real life") was the cautious but proud possessor of a vasectomy. Yet his paramour was not foiled. She got herself artificially inseminated at Duke University Medical Center, and then ...
... And then my novel collapsed like a punctured soufflé. The observations of character transformed to smart-ass remarks, the "incisive wit" devolved into slapstick, and the satiric tone degenerated into spiteful gossip, and I found myself not describing telling incidents at all, but paying off ancient grudges and unforgiven slights. I had decided, ruefully but not reluctantly, that Jess Kirkman was not born to write novels. I was condemned to poetry. I was a dreamer: nose in a book, head in the clouds. Whoever it was who had brought these charges against me had told nothing but the flat-footed truth.
When I looked at her, my mother wore an expression that convinced me she knew exactly what I was thinking at this moment. I hated that. "I have an idea how to make some money from my writing."
"Dante," I said, trying to sound confident and sensible.
"What about him?"
"I'm working on a translation of The Divine Comedy. It will sell pretty well, I think. People are always reading Dante."
She gave me a narrow look. "How's your Italian?"
"Not wonderful," I admitted. "But I've got learned friends I can go to when I run into trouble."
"Have you got a contract from a publisher?"
"Not yet. I thought I'd better try it out before I got in over my head."
"How's it going?"
She nodded. "Poetry again. That's all you ever think about."
"Unfair," I complained. "Not true at all. I think about lots of things. I think about you. How are they treating you in this place?"
This was my unsubtle ploy to steer the conversation away from my shortcomings into the broad fields of her displeasure with her situation. She was bedridden, emotionally fatigued, frightened, and heartsick, and her complaints reflected these qualities of her illness. She took the bait and began to expostulate, faulting every doorknob, coffee cup, thumbtack, toilet seat, television set, and mattress in the building. As I listened to this plenary bill of grievance, a freshet of relief welled up in me. Her querulous moods usually signaled that some measure of strength was returning. As her energy remounted, she became restless, and this exacerbated her bitterness.
I had heard these same complaints a number of times. My attention wandered and I looked out the window into trees glowing emerald in the steady June sunlight. Her room on the third floor gave my mother a view of the tops of the trees bordering the grounds, which were set against the darker green background of Slater Mountain. The warren of streets and houses that comprised the little village of Graceful Days Retirement Community cozied up to the base of Slater, and footpaths, neatly graded and pruned, led into the woods for those seniors who enjoyed comfortable hikes.
She saw where I was looking, and her gaze, too, was drawn to the window. The treetops swayed, flashing green and silver, and then we watched a flock of goldfinches flutter down like October beech leaves from the limbs of a red oak to the ground. She fell silent, pursed her lips, and I could sense the sadness of some fond recollection suffuse her mind. In a few minutes, she said, "Whenever I see that flock of birds, I think of Joe Robert, how much he liked to study nature and think about birds and stars and things. If your father were here right now, he would recall something interesting to tell us. I'm sure he knew all about those birds, whatever they are."
"Yes. He would know about them."
"And what he didn't know, he would make up," I said. "His science always contained a fair amount of fable." Allegory, too, I could have added. But that phrase might have brought her attention back around to literature and to what she regarded as the Cimmerian obscurity of my output. I planned to avoid that thicket of accusation.
"Yes," she said, "he might well improvise his facts." She launched into a story about a European tour they had enjoyed. In the town of Roussillon in Provence, they were provided with a bus driver, but the tour guide didn't show. My father decided to serve as cicerone and devised colorful chronicles to match points of interest in the landscape that rolled past the bus windows. His conception of history rested on perfidious princes, bloody revenges, daggers and crossbows and mutual poisonings, and he was warmly partial to accounts of naked ladies on horseback à la Godiva. The peaceful fields of lavender, he made out to be corpse-strewn battlefields; the gray castles surmounting the brushy hills still contained dungeons, and the dungeons still contained the children of the children of figures like Duc Philippe of the Ugly Ankles and the unlucky queen, Matilde Who Had No Butt. These tales, my mother averred, had kept the tour bus teary-eyed with laughter.
I didn't believe her. Time after time, I had heard my father attempt to tell stories; time after time, he failed miserably, starting off as suddenly and loudly as an Atlas rocket and almost immediately plunging to piteous human ruin like Icarus, whose waxen wings were inadequate for the grand heights he strove to conquer. My father could shoe horses, build bridges, plumb toilets, and design futuristic aircraft, but whenever he tried to construct a story, he unfailingly banged his thumb with the punch line.
An attendant came in to ready her for lunch. I remembered that I was carefully enjoined not to call her "nurse." My mother was strong on that point: "They're not nurses. They only have one registered nurse on the whole staff, and she never comes around unless she's specifically called for. Can you believe that?" I made no reply, thinking that registered nurses probably were not needed here; an emergency ambulance would be the more necessary service.
"Good morning, Miz Kirkman. How are you this beautiful morning?"
"Unbeautiful ... Lorene, this is my son, Jess, who is not standing up when a lady enters the room. Pay no attention to his lack of manners. He's notoriously harmless."
In fact, I had been trying to rise to meet the thin young blonde with the startlingly white skin but had found my knees wedged against the footboard of the bed. I wrestled free, stood, and bowed. "Pleased to meet you."
"Well, it's good to see you," she declared brightly, "after all the things your mama has told me about you."
"Nothing good, I assume."
"Why, she does nothing but brag about you all the time. You ought to hear the fine things she says about you."
"I'm pretty sure I never will," I replied. "Is she as mean to you as she is to me?"
"She's a perfect angel," Lorene avowed. "Couldn't be sweeter."
"It's only an act. When you get to know her better, you'll understand what I mean."
"What are you bringing me for lunch?" my mother asked her. "Not that gummy macaroni and cheese, I hope."
"Chicken croquettes today. And mashed potatoes. Apple pie for dessert. Do you want tea or coffee?"
Before she could answer, I began to take my leave, squeezing between Lorene and the bedside to give my mother an off-balance kiss on the forehead. I had to lean over so far, I feared I'd topple down on her. The kiss was dry and brief but still gave her time to whisper to me distinctly, "I hate chicken croquettes."
"I'll see you soon," I said. "Is there anything I can bring you from town?"
Her reply was another wan flap of her hand, indicating that the town, along with the rest of the world, was at this moment of no interest to her whatsoever.
"Wellgood-bye, then," I said. "Have a nice lunch." The remark was reflexive; I hadn't desired to rub it in about the croquettes.
Lorene pushed the tiered lunch cart to the door. I sidled around it on my way out and walked down the bland corridor, glancing, despite my wiser intentions, into the open doors I passed. Television sets flittered and muttered in the ceiling corners, flashing messages about detergents to women who would never again wash clothes. Alzheimer patients talked angrily to the walls; in other rooms were supine forms motionless under crisp bedclothes. Scoliotic women sat hunched in wheelchairs, poring over Bibles they could not read, could hardly see. On bedside tables sat weary potted plants, half-full water glasses with litters of pills beside them, sheaves of unopened mail.
I recoiled from these images in dismay, in dark fear. They were too acutely prophetic. My mother hadn't yet advanced to the stages of disrepair I saw here, and I didn't want her to experience them. Yet I was at a loss to think what better state she could come to. The only alternative was death, because her health was not going to improve, except during brief periods that would be followed by fearful relapses. Congestive heart failure saps the system by little and little; so Dr. Amblin had told Mitzi and me. When the end came, it would be peaceful, he said, but the ordeal that faced Mrs. Kirkman was that of nerves. If you thought of it as war, congestive heart failure would be like a siege, he explained, readjusting his gold wire spectacles on his prominent nose. The body resisted until the very end, while the mind grew restless and the patient became irritable and moody. The end was assured, and it was a milder kind of death than many another.
The good doctor had hoped this information would be of some comfort, as much as would be consistent with the truth. He spoke quietly and meticulously, the fluorescent light of the hospital corridor making a silky silver mist of his fine, dry white hair. He was the image of a messenger angel at that moment, but his words brought no solace. Mitzi and I looked at each other sorrowfully, then looked away. I didn't know where to look, but I didn't want to see another human being.
His prognosis was accurate. The disease was carrying our mother away exactly in the way he had described.
I took the stairs down to the first floor and went out into the late-spring day. The smells of grass and trees and newly bulldozed clay and fresh asphalt in the parking lot assailed me and I realized that in the new infirmary building I had been smelling glue, the mastic of the tile floors and the sizing of carpet backing. That structure had been built so recently, it had no characteristic odor of its own. No one had died in it yet, and I wondered if Cora Kirkman would be its first victim.
I knew "victim" was unfair but couldn't help the way I felt.
I found the little dented yellow Toyota my wife had christened "Buttercup" and climbed in. But I didn't crank it. I only sat there in the half-full parking lot, clutching the steering wheel in damp hands. The day sang about me; two butterflies perched on a stalk of mullein near the curb. But I stared through the windshield at nothingness, at figments of dread I couldn't put a name to. This was my state of being after each visit with my mother, a familiar complex of emotion I couldn't get used to. I tried to collect myself but found me uncollectable.
Finally, I turned the ignition key and pulled away toward Asheville, toward the funky maze of hilly streets in the blue-green lap of the Land of the Sky. I was to meet my sister for lunch. We had scheduled a session of dark conspiracy.
Mitzi was a wizard at conspiracy, though she only called it "sensible planning." It was conspiracy nonetheless, because neither of us would dare tell our mother what we said during these meetings. It wasn't that we were selfish in trying to keep her ignorant, only that if she knew all the facts, she would complicate matters so thoroughly that we would never get untangled. So we fed her only enough information to keep her questions to a minimum.
I found the restaurant, the Whirligig Café, a cheery place with white tablecloths, a lace-curtained storefront window, and Matisse posters. I knew Mitzi would be late, so I took my faithful notebook with me. Her schedule was as busy as a stock-market telephone exchange, and I had learned to carry something to occupy myself until she showed.
I was ushered to a table by a young blond waitress whose plentiful freckles suggested yeoman ancestry and candid disposition. I ordered a glass of chardonnay; she delivered it efficiently and cheerfully, then left me to my doleful musings. In a few slow minutes, I could bear to think about my mother no longer and opened my notebook for respite.
Fat and battered, worn gray at every corner, its black leather scratched and scuffed, this notebook was my staunch comrade, my date book, workbook, and silent confidant. It held telephone numbers, titles of books and journal articles, partial notes for lectures, names of those whose faces I could not recall, overheard scraps of conversation, fragments of poems in progress or already abandoned. Unwieldy as it was, it had become a necessary appendage of my organism, and without it, I felt like a quick-draw cowboy with an empty holster.
Some of the notes I could consider important. Here were suggestions for my fourth book of poetry, to be called Earth-sleep. This volume would be centered around the last of the Pythagorean elements I was employing in my scheme. Earth was my theme, and my connective tropes were gardens and graves, intimate engagements with dirt. Two poems were to be about ideal gardens, one that Susan dreamed of, and one I would dream up myself as a utopian proposition for a poet friend, George Garrett. For this latter effort, I had chosen as epigraph a passage from Dante, the Purgatorio, Canto XXX, where he describes the approach of Beatrice, likening it to the first intimations of dawn overtaking the sky.
Then there were notes that concerned my projected translation: "mondiglia = alloy; mi discarno = I am withered; greffo = cliff or bluff." Just now, I was struggling with a passage from a canto of the Purgatorio. Here the poet looks at the steep climb ahead and feels daunted. Conversing with an old friend, the composer Casella, he asks for music to refresh his spirit before he recommences his necessary journey. The composer obliges by singing a setting he had made of a poem by Dante himself, the canzone beginning, "Amor che la mente mi ragione." "Love in my mind his sweet argument pursuing ..." I looked with despair upon my attempts to render the line into English meter and rhyme.
Then there were other jottings, whose purposes I could neither recall nor deduce. Why had I written down terms like courtlax, merle, nympholept, thrasicus, patera, zygia? Why had I written "She moves like the reflection of a cloud on a running stream"? How's that again? Who moves in such an unvisualizable manner?
I snapped the notebook shut. No time to speculate nowMitzi had arrived.
She searched the room for me and I watched as she looked about, seeming to recognize everyone in the room, which by now had become fairly crowded. Probably she did know everyone, including the chefs and the dishwashers. When she spotted me, she smiled and waved and made her way through the tables as graceful as a hoopskirted waltzer. As always, I admired her social presence.
She was attractively but sensibly dressed in a female business suit, a sharp-shouldered dark jacket and medium-narrow skirt, both pinstriped. She had allowed a dollop of lace at the jacket pocket and a modest gold chain at the collar of the pleated white blouse. Small jet earrings peeked from under the curls of her dishwater blond hair. As she came to the table, she smiled and gave some sort of greeting to other tables. It was obvious that she was known and respected and well liked. I felt a flush of pride, family pride, I suppose, on seeing her cross the room.
My mother would delight to see me rise and pull out Mitzi's chair to seat her at the table, but it was only one of those reflex actions that are supposed to distinguish southern gentlemen from the lower animals. But since I am Appalachian by heritage, I don't consider myself a southern gentleman and don't particularly desire to be set apart from animals wild or domestic, which are never so low as to clothe themselves in bedsheets and burn crosses. Appalachia is a different world from the Deep South, though few will allow that it is a better one. We have our own supply of brutes, jerks, louts, thugs, and maniacs. They are only less well organized in our upper latitudes than in the more nearly tropical.
When I sat, Mitzi began talking immediately, as if feeling her time with me was already ticking away. "How is she?"
"Why, I'm doing fairly well, thank you," I answered. "Susan is well, too, and told me to give you all her love. The drive up from Greensboro wasn't bad at all. Traffic was light, and I got into the motel about ten-thirty last night. Slept like a top, though I can't imagine why tops have such a sterling reputation in the matter of slumber."
Mitzi giggled and laid her hand on my forearm. "I'm sorry, Jess. Forgive me. I'm so anxious about Mother that I completely forgot my manners."
"I understand. I'm the same way," I said. "You're forgiven utterly and completely."
"So how is she?"
"She looks pretty good and she may be doing a little better than last week, because she's getting cranky again. I take that as a good sign. When she's too peaceable, it means she's tired."
"So she wasn't peaceable?"
"She probably gave you a rough time."
"I'm tougher than I look," I said. "I can take whatever she can dish outjust as long as she doesn't make me go and cut a hickory switch and bring it back for my own punishment. Do you remember that childhood ordeal?"
"That's one I was spared."
"The switching wasn't the hard part. It was the dread. I always brought back flimsy little switches. Then she'd send me out again for more durable material. So I had to endure my cowardice twice."
When our daisy-fresh waitress appeared, Mitzi ordered a sensible seafood salad and iced tea; I countered with a steak sandwich, feeling in my sister's cool presence that I was every inch the red-ranged predator. I added the auxiliary crimes of ranch fries and a glass of cabernet. The young lady replied with a gesture very close to a curtsy and departed smiling.
"What did she talk about?" Mitzi asked.
"Oh, you know. The burial arrangements, Daddy's workshop. About how we need to get things straightened out. About how no-account I am and how I should model myself after my smart sister. The usual."
She grinned. "Sorry about that."
"I'm used to it .... Well, almost. How are we coming along with the business of the burial, anyhow?"
"It's tricky," she replied. "There is just no space left in Mountain View Cemetery. When they made that mistake twelve years ago and got our family plot mixed up with the Ansons', we were sunk."
"I'm surprised Daddy and Mother didn't notice."
Mitzi nodded solemnly. "I am, toonot at Daddy so much. He just didn't care to think about graveyards and dying and all that. But Mother and Grandmother talked about it."
"Grandmother did, as I remember. But Mother would usually try to turn the talk in a different direction. It's only recently that it's become such a hot topic with her."
"Well, her space in the family plot got occupied. There lie Grandmother and Granddaddy and Daddyand no room for our mother. The graveyard people have apologized, but it's not their fault. This happened under the old management, before the new people came. So there's just no room."
"Could we bury her standing up? Maybe there's room for that."
"Just kidding," I said hastily. "But there is the possibility of cremation."
"All right. I'll let you be the one to tell Mother that she's going to be burnt to ashes and poured into a mason jar."
"Why do we have to tell her? She doesn't really need to know."
"You mean cremate her without telling her beforehand?"
"I can't believe you said that. You are surely not serious. That would bebe something. I don't know what."
"A betrayal," I suggested.
"Yes. It's like we'd be double-crossing her."
"So there's no solution to our little problem. But we're going to have to tell her somethingand pretty soon."
"I know. And I've been thinking. There is one idea I've had, but I don't know if it could work out."
"We don't have any close relatives left alive. But we do have some distant ones, and of course Mother and Daddy had friends, a lot of friends."
"True." I took a meditative sip of cabernet.
"And a number of them still live on their old homestead farms and keep up family graveyards on them."
"You think they might be willing to board our parents?"
"I don't know," Mitzi said. "It's just a thought I had."
I sipped and sipped again. "Might be worth a try."
"They've been well liked, you know that."
"Yes, but folks hereabouts are kind of touchous when it comes to their real estate. And now we're talking about the most personal sort."
"These would be long-term leases, too. From here to eternity, as the fellow said."
"Yes. So what do you think?"
"I can't say. I've been absent from the mountains for twenty-one years and have lost touch with just about everybody. You know better about the possibilities than I could."
"It's worth a try," she said. "There just might be someone willing and able to take Mother and Daddy in."
"It would be a right neighborly thing to do."
She gave me a sharpish look. "That sounds condescending."
"No, no, excuse me. I wasn't making mock. It's only that when I return to my old haunts, my old way of talking comes back to me in spurts. I begin to sound like I almost belong here."
"Don't you?" she asked.
"I've been away for two decades." I felt slow-witted, desperate. "What would you say to Evercare?"
"That big new cemetery down by the interstate?" she asked. "Where they use those flat metal things for headstones, those things that look like manhole covers?"
But we looked at each other and shook our heads in profound rejection and fell at last to our food. Mitzi nibbled in ladylike fashion, but caveman Jess took up his sandwich and gnawed like it was the thigh of a particularly juicy mastodon. A session with my mother always left me ravenous, even with a talk with Mitzi as a buffer. I signaled for another cabernet.
"Let me ask around," she said. "We might find some charitable souls. The location isn't too important, right? It wouldn't have to be in Harwood County, just as long as Mother and Daddy are together."
"Just as long as they're side by side, mingling their mortal remains under the cool green coverlid of Mother Gaia, we'll all be happy, you and I and our devoted parents."
"I can't promise anything," she said.
"I know you'll try your best," I said. "Now about this other matter"
"Yes," I said. "I don't see what makes it such a major concern. It's not the only private workshop he maintained. He always used to set up some little hideaway where he could go to take naps or repair tools or work out plans for construction projects or whatever. There was never anything in them but toolboxes and blueprints and busted furniture and old how-to manuals and so forth. He had six or seven places like that over the years, and they were always the same."
"This one is supposed to be different. He installed it a long long time ago, and nobody knew about it for years. Mother found it by accident one day when she spotted his parked truck. But he wouldn't allow her in. He said it was Dr. Electro's secret laboratory, no visitors admitted. He teased us with it. One day, he told Mother, a project he was working on would make a big hit."
"He was kidding."
"How do you know?"
"He loved to tease."
"Yes, but lots of times when you thought he was kidding, he was actually serious. Things I thought were teases turned out to be true. Stories I took for gospel turned out to be fairy tales he made up on the spot."
"He was your classic folklore trickster. I don't know why people put up with it. If I tried to get away with some of the pranks he played, it would be Judge Lynch for me and a mooring cable for a noose."
"They liked him. They trusted him to be mischievous but not mean. They knew him for who he was."
"Or thought they did," I replied, for I didn't believe that anyone had really known my father. They had recognized the goodness of his heart, the charm of his glance, his waggish temperament. They must have understood something of the trust he put in old-fashioned ideas of science, progress, the advancement of knowledge, the betterment of humankind through education and biological and cultural evolution. To my generation, these concepts seemed so quaint and outdated, they didn't deserve the title of "concepts"; to many of his generation and the one preceding, they were still dangerous irreligious modes of thought, snares Satan set for the vanity of fools .... I exaggerate now in order to show how he sometimes felt put-upon by certain members of the community, whom he termed "the benighted" or, in jollier moods, "our local medievals."
Yet even those whose notions he held in sorrowful scorn had respected him. They had wanted him to change his wicked modern ideas so that they could enjoy his company in the harp-plucking afterlife.
"Or they only thought they knew him," Mitzi agreed.
"Well," I asked, "what do you think Dr. Electro's great final secret revelation will be?"
She smiled. "Nothing amazing. It is probably just one more big tease. But, what with one problem and another, we haven't got out there in ten long years to inspect the workshop. Mother wanted to make sure the job fell to you. She thinks there might be something there that only you would understand ....You know where it is, don't you?"
When I said I wasn't certain, she gave detailed directions about striking old Highway 23 and then described the building I was to look for. She pulled out a large ring of keys and handed it to me. It was this weight that had given her purse such an authoritative thump when she dropped it into the chair.
She rose and I rose with her. "Which one of these opens the door?" I asked.
"That's one of Professor Electro's secrets," she said. "You'll have to puzzle that one out."
She leaned to give me a farewell air kiss and, on her way out of the Whirligig, stopped to exchange brief wordage at no fewer than six tables.
I sat down to ponder, hefting the keys thoughtfully before laying them on the table. There were an even dozenno, wait; one more made thirteenand merely to look at them made me apprehensive. I signaled the waitress and ordered coffee and cognac. If the coffee didn't aid my deliberations, maybe the cognac would solace my spirit.
Table of Contents
THE MOON BEHIND THE CLOUDS,
Chapter 1: Trapped!,
Chapter 2: The Tipton Tornado,
Chapter 3: Dr. Electro's Secret Laboratory,
Chapter 4: At the Grave of Virgil Campbell,
Chapter 5: Backward in Time!,
ON THE FOGGY MOUNTAINTOP,
Chapter 6: Clues of the Secret Map,
Chapter 7: On the Track of the Fox,
Chapter 8: Old Times There Are Not Forgotten,
Chapter 9: Into the Unknown!,
Chapter 10: "Perhaps You Are Wondering Why I Called You All Here Together —",
THE MOON GONE AWAY,
Books by Fred Chappell,