Soon after his fortieth birthday, Macon “Toots” Henslee left his home, his job, and his marriage to live in a tree house. Lots of people—his wife especially—thought that he had lost his mind, but from his perch atop a Tennessee riverbank, Toots could see plainly the insanity of his old life. He had become a man who said and did the opposite of what he wanted to say and do—what could be crazier than that?
Nine years later, Toots is out fishing one morning when he catches sight of a nervous young woman hiding behind a sycamore. Sally Ann Shaw is an aspiring country singer in trouble—the kind of trouble that comes with a briefcase full of stolen drug money and a pair of hired thugs in hot pursuit. A hermit’s tree house is the perfect hiding place, but in such close quarters, Toots and Sally Ann have more than gangsters to fear. For a man who gave up everything to start life over again and a woman in desperate need of a hero, love may be the most dangerous game of all.
Hailed by the New York Times as “a tale written with zest and read with pleasure,” Toots in Solitude is a novel as eccentric, endearing, and irresistible as its unforgettable main character.
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Toots in Solitude
By John Yount
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 John Yount
All rights reserved.
An hour and a half earlier, in total darkness, the crowing of roosters had raked the dreams of the sleeping and shouted down all the lesser choruses of the night, until, when the roosters ceased at last, every creature was subdued and hushed, and the night was mute and black as ether between the stars. But now the eastern horizon had begun to pale so that the river and the alluvial fields of stock corn to the east and the wooded bluffs to the west were beginning to assume shape and proportion, if not yet color. Increasingly, birds made small remarks from places unseen, and the river began to throw off its coverlet of fog.
A raccoon bumbled along the eastern shore, rump higher than his withers, looking for one last crayfish or wounded minnow, until, through the varnished odor of the river, he caught a whiff of man, lifted his bandit's head, and paused a moment. Twenty feet from shore a wooden johnboat dallied slowly at the end of a rope. A third of a cinder block tied to the other end had been flung over a willow, which, like many others along the shore, leaned out over the river, dripping its leaves into the smoking water. The raccoon puzzled, bumbled on a few feet, stopped and tested the wind again, but, able to divine neither the threat of danger nor the promise of food, went on while the johnboat sawed gently in the current.
The body of a man lay on the bottom of the boat in two inches of bilge water, his hands folded over his chest in a perfect parody of death were it not that his feet, in high-top black tennis shoes, were crossed at the ankles as well, and the damp tendrils of his mustache stirred slightly with deep, even breaths. He had a full beard; hair to his shoulders; and a vicious, if long since healed, wound across his face that had taken a divot of bone from his temple and the bridge of his nose, as well as the eye in between. He wore a Band-Aid over his empty eye socket that snuggled nicely in the runnels where the outside edge of his eye socket and the bridge of his nose ought to have been. The remaining bottom two-thirds of his nose was aquiline, somehow even more like the beak of an eagle than it otherwise might have been, and somehow, peculiarly dignified. Perhaps because there weren't many mosquitoes, perhaps because lying in the cold bilge had cooled his flesh so much they had trouble finding him, only a few were drinking his blood, most of them arranged on the knuckles of his hands, two on his face; but they bothered him not at all.
Thirty feet or so up the bank a barred owl swooped at the raccoon and popped her bill menacingly as she passed over his head, but he was accustomed to such attentions, although usually only when he had been eating eggs or nestlings and usually from smaller antagonists. She wheeled and dived and popped her bill at him again and again until he was a satisfactory distance from the tree hollow where her downy owlets jostled, tipped like drunkards, and blinked at one another. The man lying in the bottom of the boat didn't stir at the ruckus she made, and even the raccoon seemed largely to ignore her except to put a stubborn bow in his back as he ambled on up the riverbank.
Downstream something better than a mile, two early fishermen backed their boat trailer into the water, and the faint confabulation of their directions to each other, the car doors slamming, a paddle clattering against the duckboards of the boat, and at last the guttural snarl of their outboard engine—all these sounds—traveled up the surface of the river as though it were a telephone wire. Sometime later, chased by the silver vee of their wake, they passed the johnboat. They saw it tethered in its odd spot but not its owner asleep in the bottom. Still, neither the din of their passing, nor the later undulations of their wake, caused the sleeping man to stir. Indeed the sun was well up and the birds were feeding in the mulberry tree arching high over his head before he roused. Even then it was a mulberry, pecked and rejected, hitting him square in the middle of the forehead, that popped his blue eye open. It was the only movement he made, but it seemed violent, fierce, and alert, at least for the few seconds he stared straight up at the dappled, bird-fluttered tree. But then he groaned, and blinked, and his blue eye turned mild as a cornflower. He tried to rise and found himself all but paralyzed with stiffness and pain, and so, lay still again as though considering the bleak aspect of resurrection. At last he began to search his pockets with swollen-knuckled, mosquito-bitten hands until he found and withdrew a few damp bills and some change. Except for a split-bottomed chair with its legs cut off just below the rungs, there were no seats in the boat; nevertheless, he seemed to know it was behind him and blindly pawed the air in back of his head with his fist of money until he found the seat of the chair, released the damp bills and coins, and let his arm fall again across his chest. He sighed, gathered resolution, and rolled over the side of the johnboat into the river like a turtle slipping off a log. The boat was so broad-beamed and heavy it scarcely tipped, and for nearly a minute after, the man's groans rose in bubbles to the surface.CHAPTER 2
Even after the river had loosened his stiff joints and sore muscles and altogether washed away the itch of his mosquito bites, Macon "Toots" Henslee hung on the side of the johnboat and lay back, trying to recollect just how he had come to spend the night in his boat. He'd sold his fish at Hobb's and sat down to have a few beers, but then had gone off to the rodeo at the fairgrounds because Duncan, one of the worst old sots at Hobb's, had worked up a fixation on the subject. Duncan had his wife's car and meant to drive out to the rodeo, even though he could scarcely navigate from his bar stool to the rest room. Toots remembered that three or four of them, having failed to argue Duncan out of his notion, had gone along to make sure Duncan didn't drive, or otherwise get himself into some godawful trouble. But Duncan had gotten under the steering wheel in spite of them and somehow managed not to wreck or get picked up, although everyone in the car was giving him advice, directions, cursing him for a fool, and even snatching at the keys in the ignition. Toots remembered all that pretty clearly despite the little alcohol-burning motor in the center of his brain that had started up even before he'd left Hobb's, purring away, muzzy, warm, and ridiculously content with any circumstance. After he'd gotten to the fairground and bought a pint of corn whiskey from an unlikely pipsqueak of a boy in a pickup truck, the evening got a little disconnected in his memory. He recalled snatches of bronco riding, calf roping, and the practiced Texas twang of the announcer over the loudspeakers. He recollected a Brahman bull somehow getting out of the temporary, hastily thrown-up stock pens and trotting about the parking lot among cars and pickup trucks, causing kids to spill their cold drinks and popcorn, men to laugh and hoot, and women to scream. He remembered the alert, fierce look of the beast, how much lighter and quicker it seemed to be on its feet than the cutting ponies the cowboys rode, but he didn't remember it seriously charging anyone, or even how the matter was ever resolved. And he remembered Louise, his former wife. He hadn't seen her in half a dozen years, but that hadn't kept her from telling him what a bastard he was; how he had ruined her second marriage by making her a joke and a laughingstock to her second husband, whom he hadn't even met for Christ's sake; and on and on.
What he didn't recollect was how he'd ever come to be in Louise's company. Had he spoken to her? He doubted it, but who could tell what sort of silly thing a fellow might do when he'd had a little to drink and was out to have a good time? If he'd spoken to her first, he was certain he'd been pleasant. He was nothing if not a pleasant son of a bitch. But he suspected she had merely seen him among the crowd and swarmed him like a hive of bees. Had she been drinking too? He wasn't sure how much she might have changed in all the years since they'd been married. Naw, hell, Louise was never one to take a drink. She didn't have to; she could get more unreasonable than any drunk just by catching a whiff of alcohol close to her. God forbid she should ever drink it. Did he recall her threatening him with the boyfriend she'd had in tow? He had a vision of a big, meaty-faced fellow wearing a leisure suit and a befuddled, wry grin; had a vague memory of the two of them exchanging pleasantries while she harangued them both. Like the business with the bull, he had no firm memory of how the encounter had ended; but, except for the affliction of sleeping in his boat and that deceitful little motor in his head that could purr while he was drinking and then seize up with such pain while he slept, he had suffered no damage, so Louise probably hadn't been able to sic her beau. How he'd gotten back to Riverside Drive, however, mystified him. Some good soul had driven him, but he had no memory of it. Obviously he'd been able to get in his boat and start home and, no doubt, decided to stop and take a little nap along the way. Oh well, he thought, another little piece of his life mislaid; it wasn't as though he was the sort of fellow who had to keep strict account.
He lay in the water, his beard bouyant, his hair floating in a fan about his shoulders, wanting to feel good, wanting to feel he was doing all right; and, a little at a time, a comfortable sense of his freedom, his possibilities, his relative youth came to him like conjured spirits, a bit amorphous, a little worn, but with no apparent sense of their own ridiculousness. Macon "Toots" Henslee couldn't really quite fathom his age, which was a few weeks short of forty-nine. He would have guessed Hobb—a small, soft, pasty-faced man who always wore a white butcher's apron and a paper hat advertising a local bakery—to be in his sixties, although he and Hobb were exactly the same age. Duncan, who was five years younger, he would have guessed to be far older than himself. Yet it was not vanity but an odd humility and optimism that deluded him: a belief in the wisdom that came with age but had not yet come to him, and a strong faith that one or more new lives awaited him. Indeed, it seemed to him that he had lived a number of lives already, and each new beginning had brought a kind of that one or more new lives awaited him. Indeed, it seemed to him that he had lived a number of lives already, and each new beginning had brought a kind of youth.
When he was ten years old, his father had died, none too well off, and his mother had farmed out her three children to relatives since she was not able to support them herself. So his second new life had begun when he was ten and had arrived by bus in Springdale, a little town fifteen miles from where he presently lived. He'd had a tag around his neck with his name and destination on it, a metal suitcase packed with all his possessions, and a head of hair newly cut, carefully combed, and smelling sweetly of tonic when his uncle came to collect him at the bus depot. His second life had been untroubled, secure, and on occasions, rare and good. It had ended in Korea in the first few minutes of a mortar attack when he'd had part of his head blown away. The first man to him hadn't any doubt he was dead, and the next fellow took the word of the first. They could look right into his skull, after all, so it wasn't surprising. What frail life remained in his body had given no sign, just would not signify. And once they'd tied a tag to his toe, slipped him into a body bag, and set him alongside his tagged and bagged fellows, his reputation for being dead would soon have been fact if he hadn't managed to scare hell out of two men in the quartermaster corps who were heaving bodies into a truck like so many bags of wetwash when he said in a strong, clear voice: "Get your filthy, fucking finger out of my eye!"
The story followed him from aid station to hospital to rehabilitation center like his name, rank, and serial number, but he had no memory of it. In fact his memory was faulty for quite a while after that, and so he had a little trouble isolating just when his third life had started to compose itself. He'd come home with decorations, one eye, and a disability pension. He'd been a terrific pitcher in high school, the best anywhere around, and he'd always thought he'd make his living playing baseball; but, with only one eye, he'd lost his depth perception. He couldn't hit or field very well; and, although his arm was stronger than ever, he'd lost just enough control to make him no better than a thousand other guys. Still, he wasn't the sort to grow bitter. He never could hold a grudge, not about anything. And on the bright side, he had a lifetime disability pension and no longer saw double when he drank too much.
But somehow or other when he was first home and just getting accustomed to being neither in the army nor in a hospital, Louise had snuck up on him. He'd dated her only three or four times in high school and never had anything going with her. How was it that she began to make him feel those few dates were so important? She'd always known he'd come back from the war safe and sound and she'd be able to see him again, she told him. At first he wasn't sure just what to make of such talk and had the constant impulse to look around to see if she weren't talking to some other fellow just behind him. Once or twice he'd gone so far as to suggest that she must have had him mixed up with someone else. But that kind of behavior made her unhappy, and he soon learned not to question the sentiments she claimed to have no matter how unlikely they might seem to him. He found himself feeling guilty, forgetful, insensitive, and hardhearted for not having similar sentiments himself. Somewhere along the line he'd gotten so confused about it all he'd felt obliged to do things to demonstrate the deep regard and affection for her she rightly, and sometimes tearfully, claimed he didn't have. Marrying her was his most desperate effort to prove her wrong. Sometimes he wondered if there was ever another man in the world who had backed himself into such a fix. Louise had claimed he was crazy when he left her; indeed, he feared for a while that she might actually be able to get him committed, since in his heart he suspected she might be right again. But leaving her, for Jesus Christ's sake, wasn't the proof of it. If he was crazy, he'd been crazy for years. What else could you call a fellow who had gotten into the habit of saying and doing just the opposite of what he wanted to say and do? He'd come home from work and find a new rug on the living room floor and Louise already talking before he'd even crossed the threshold. "Oh, I know you'll hate it," she'd say, "and I know we can't afford it." Well, of course he was crazy, since the more he hated it and the more impossible it might be to pay for, the more he'd find himself assuring her it looked real nice and they could manage the payments just fine.
In the years they were married they'd lived in three different houses, each a little larger and more expensive. The first one he'd rather liked. It was a small white frame house, a little tired and sagging maybe, but it had two huge maples towering over it; a big shady porch that ran around three sides; a dilapidated toolshed out back full of rusty nails in jars, spiders, and the damp sweet smell of earth; and a wonderful vegetable garden behind the toolshed. The next one, which she just had to show him but knew he wouldn't like, was a ranch house with aluminum siding, a mimosa tree, and a couple of spindly rosebushes trying to reach the fan-shaped trellises propped on either side of the garage. The third was a large ranch in a new development. It was incredibly hot in the summer and cold in the winter; had four nursery trees, supported by wires and stakes, that never got any higher than his head because they always died and had to be replaced; a cement birdbath in the backyard on which he had not once seen a bird; and a fireplace in the family room that never had anything in it hotter than a dried flower arrangement.
Excerpted from Toots in Solitude by John Yount. Copyright © 1984 John Yount. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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