An Honorable Mention for the Southern Book Prize
One of Southern Living's "Best New Books Coming Out Summer 2018" and one of Library Journal's "Books to Get Now"
Janie Treeborne lives on an orchard at the edge of Elberta, Alabama, and in time, she has become its keeper. A place where conquistadors once walked, and where the peaches they left behind now grow, Elberta has seen fierce battles, violent storms, and frantic changeand when the town is once again threatened from without, Janie realizes it won’t withstand much more. So she tells the story of its people: of Hugh, her granddaddy, determined to preserve Elberta’s legacy at any cost; of his wife, Maybelle, the postmaster, whose sudden death throws the town into chaos; of her lover, Lee Malone, a black orchardist harvesting from a land where he is less than welcome; of the time when Janie kidnapped her own Hollywood-obsessed aunt and tore the wrong people apart.
As the world closes in on Elberta, Caleb Johnson’s debut novel lifts the veil and offers one last glimpse. Treeborne is a celebration and a reminder: of how the past gets mixed up in thoughts of the future; of how home is a story as much as a place.
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Stories We Tell
The water was coming, but Janie Treeborne would not leave. She'd lived alone in this house perched on the edge of a roadside peach orchard in Elberta, Alabama, ever since Lee Malone sold it to her. Sold maybe not the right word for the price she paid, the price he would take. But it was hers and she would not leave. Rather the water take her too.
She'd been telling her visitor exactly how she came to own the house, which once was Lee's office and, before that, his boyhood home. A complicated matter. To tell how this house and the surrounding property became hers she needed to tell how it became Lee's, and to do that she needed to first tell about a man named Mr. Prince.
"See, back then folks thought Mr. Prince wasn't but a rumor and a last name," she continued. "But he was real. Lived in one of them mansions down on the river. Anyhow, Lee started working at The Peach Pit not long after the storm.
"Worked here for years. Then one day Mr. Prince carried him to lunch out at Woodrow's. The Hills would of been about the only place they could eat together. They ordered and sat down and Mr. Prince said he was selling the orchard, the old cannery, and a little cottage he owned in town for whatever was in Lee's billfold right that moment. Can you imagine? Mr. Prince died not too long after. Most of my growing up, folks still thought Lee wasn't nothing but the orchard manager. Would of got to a certain kind of person. Not him, not to Lee Malone."
Janie Treeborne'd come to own the peach orchard — and the other properties once belonging to Mr. Prince — the same way as Lee Malone. She sat at a greasy tabletop inside Woodrow's Pit Cook Bar-B-Q where, years before, Lee'd counted out of his billfold two-dollar-five-cent and a receipt for a bag of dog food, and she searched for what money she had in the depths of a purse she felt foolish toting around. Lee's heart was weak by then. He had considered turning the land over to Janie for a long long time.
She thought she would of handed everything down to her visitor, this young man sitting with a tape recorder on his lap and a long microphone gripped in his hand. So why'd she not? Janie couldn't remember. Did it matter? He was here, he was home. Had her same big forehead and freckled nose, her granddaddy Hugh's thick black hair and high-cut cheeks. A Treeborne, she thought, through and through, right down to the bone.
"Do you remember how much it was you paid?" he asked.
"Foot yes, I do," she said. "You reckon your grandmomma'd up and forget something like that? It was sixteen dollar and a pack of chewing gum."
"Did you ever regret not paying him more?"
"Regret, foot," she said. No amount would of been sufficient. This place was priceless. But how to explain that? "Lee's body might of blunted," she went on, "but his mind stayed sharp till the end. I always tell that if mine ain't then somebody please shove a gun right here and fire that sucker twice. There's one right yonder in the dresser drawer. I don't give a rip if it sounds morbid! Life's morbid! Love sure enough is.
"Lee Malone taught me everything about the peach-growing business. Everything. Even helped run the fruit stand through his last good summer on earth. Could still sing his head off too. Them trees yonder, we planted them together. Look out thataway you'll see where the house he died in once stood. Wasn't much to the place itself, but it was in Elberta and belonged to him, and there was a time that meant something. See? Other side the road there, just below the water tower Ricky Birdsong fell off of."
"Are there any pictures of Mr. Malone?" the young man asked.
Janie got up from her recliner chair and took one of the dozens of photo albums shelved in the living room and stacked in cardboard boxes pushed against the wall. She opened to a picture of the old Elberta water tower. Pointed, turned the page. Black-and-whites of folks standing by water, with dogs, by log houses and woodpiles, next to pickup trucks and wagons, at school, at church, in decorated cemeteries, along fencelines and unidentifiable roadsides and hedgerows. Somehow not one picture of Lee Malone.
She turned the page again and pointed at a girl with straight black hair touching bony shoulders. "There's me," she said, squinting as if to be sure. "Would of been the year before MawMaw May died — if I'm right."
"Do you still think about it?" the young man asked.
She closed the album. "I try to keep a routine for the sake of my mind, but there's only so much you can do now."
Janie Treeborne first received a notice from The Authority, say, three years ago. Plenty warning. The Hernando de Soto Dam had served its purpose for nearly eighty years. Her granddaddy, Hugh Treeborne, helped build it. Her daddy, Ren Treeborne, an engineer. Janie understood that if The Authority didn't implode the dam then its concrete would give to time and further neglect. A disaster would sure enough occur. The notice claimed there'd be payment for her property, relocation services, the works. Miss Treeborne, the letter called her, just needed to fill out the accompanying forms and mail them back. Janie knew how this story went. She took the notice and she deposited it right in the trash.
"The Fencepost sure does miss its big-talkers and bullshitters," she said. "I still hear their voices rattling around and around ... Air here's always been full of voices to my mind. Pedro agrees and he abets with a daily dose of radio. Lets them dogs that's always running around sleep inside the station if it's cold or raining. When one comes up lame. He feeds them scraps. But, hellfire, I do too when they roam up here. Jon D. used to say one was going to give me rabies. Foot. I told you Pedro started reading out our names on the air. A roll call, I reckon. Lucky that us fourteen remaining can dial him in another day yet. For that much we're blessed. Pedro and me share a sense of humor. Laugh to keep from tears."
The young man wanted to know how Janie spent her days. What it was like living in Elberta now and what all she did.
"Sometimes after breakfast I'll drive out at The Seven and prowl around them woods for a spell — same way me and Crusoe did. You'll have to go by there. A Treeborne ain't lived on them seven hundred acres since Aunt Tammy moved here with me. Used to though, the highway'd be backed up nearly all the way into town with folks come to see what all Granddaddy Hugh — be your great-great — what all he painted and assemblied and left out yonder in them woods. I still call it The Seven instead of whatever the hell they named it. Some of them folks who ran the place treated me like I ought to be put on display alongside all them things he made. Art, not things. That word's always got away from me. Time, they wanted me to give a series of talks on it. On him. This was back in The Seven's heyday — eighties-early-nineties — when some loud awful band put Granddaddy Hugh's art on their record cover. Sold a million copies, they tell. Told them I was too busy to give talks, which was no more than part-truth."
Janie eased back down in her recliner. She fixed the hem of her gown over her liver-spotted legs then patted the arm of the chair two times.
"I'll tell you," she went on, "it's fools who claim the ones you're expecting to go ain't so bad as those you don't. Treebornes never have been long-lived though. Aunt Tammy lasted longest of her siblings. Daddy was the oldest, Uncle Luther, then her. I can't speak for the long-livedness of Malones, but Lee dying was bad on me, buddy. And me in my twenties when it happened. Not bad like MawMaw May, but bad. I was just a fool girl when she died. Like to of ruined us all."
Janie turned her head to better see the young man, gazing as if she'd only then recalled he was in the room. Blinded on one side most of her life, the damaged eye looked like the inside of a grape. The young man was growing used to it, though when Janie leaned forward and clasped his hand he startled.
"There ain't a thing I'd trade," she said. "They tried and they tried and they tried to get me to. Some of our own kin, the government, Authority, different buddies over the years — Jon D. Crews among them. Says he's through begging me. Ain't heard from him in, I reckon, more than a month. Wouldn't trade calling this land home not even to get my eye back. Shit fire, you could say, Janie, we come up with a way to stop all that lakewater from spilling down into the valley, The Peach Pit can stay open for all eternity, but you got to move off from here. No sir. Me and this place — and I don't just mean what you can look out yonder and lay eyes upon — me and this place is just too tangled up. But I reckon you know that, don't you, coming up here with a tape recorder to get a old buzzard's stories."CHAPTER 2
Days Her Missing
Wooten Ragsdale had always been afraid she'd leave — not just him but this entire place. Tammy'd threatened to since the night she saw her first movie, at the Elberta Rampatorium. Fourteen, sitting on a grassy terrace next to a senior named Bobby Davis.
"Oh my lord," she said after the closing credits.
"What is it?" Bobby had dozed off when he realized she wasn't game to fool around.
"I got to go to Hollywood," Tammy said.
"Hell, right now?"
"No you fool. But one day, you watch, I'll be gone."
This realization occurred before Wooten knew Tammy, before the Ragsdales moved to the valley and he ruined his right hand at work. Tammy was, he thought after they met, more than pretty enough to be on the big screen. A face he could cup in his one good hand, bright-green eyes, thick black hair, and a good-size chest. If a Treeborne ever went for Miss Elberta Peach, though none ever did, Wooten liked to brag that it would of been Tammy.
After she graduated school she'd moved down to the Gulf of Mexico. Not quite Hollywood, but still. Wooten was two years behind Tammy at Elberta County High. He remembered hearing she'd moved away, but they ran with different crowds, and it didn't much register with him busy playing football for the Conquistadors and working at his daddy Leland's chickenhouses. About a year later Tammy moved back and started work for the county water department. Everybody figured her adventure to the Gulf Coast would of satisfied her Hollywood dreams. But Tammy kept making threats, even after she and Wooten began dating. It was cute, he thought — at first. But as she aged, and their relationship did too, the threats wore on him. The way Tammy acted was kin to being a grown woman who still pops and plays with her chewing gum. I'll leave this goddamn place tomorrow! she'd say. Wooten didn't know how to handle her outbursts. He was nervous by nature. Sometimes he wanted to just yell back, Well go on then!
One night a few years into their marriage, Tammy ranting and raving about going to Hollywood and becoming a movie star, Wooten dragged a hard blue-plastic suitcase out from the closet and began frantically stuffing it with clothes from their shared chest of drawers.
"What on earth do you think you're doing?" she asked.
"If leaving's what you want, then come on! Let's go." He was a man without much past anyhow. Why not up and leave?
She stood there watching him for a moment, wondering could they actually leave together, then said, "No. Stop it Woot. If I'm going it's got to be by myself."
Despite Tammy saying this, and the next four years of regular threats, Wooten Ragsdale did not decide till the second night of her missing that Tammy'd finally made good on her promise and gone.
He was sitting in a recliner chair eating fried pork skins from a brown paperbag while the new television bled blue light throughout the living room of their singlewide trailer. The embarrassing realization landed on Wooten from above, like bird droppings. His wife had gone to Hollywood, California, and left him here all by hisself. He finished the bag of pork skins then, knowing not what else to do, got in the new used pickup truck he'd bought from Big Connie Ward and drove out into the county.
The pickup was a beautiful thing with wood running boards and white capital lettering across the tailgate. Wooten drove and he drove, trying to believe he'd catch up to his wife if he just kept on. Pull over and she'd hop in. Drive back into town and eat a hamburger all-the-way, large fry, split a chocolate milk shake with whipped cream. The summer air all thick and buggy, they'd get in bed and talk about the house they were building on Tammy's folks' land till one fell asleep in the other's arms. Be like one of those damn movies she was always dragging him to see at the Grand Two ever since the Rampatorium shut down. Tammy had been furious when this happened. She believed there was no better way to see a movie than outdoors underneath the stars. She'd watch anything — westerns, love stories, murder mysteries, even kiddie cartoons if that's all that was playing. She said it felt like her innards were being squeezed by the moving pictures and the light. Something important happening. She told Wooten how, when she was a girl, she used to take frames that the projectionist threw out and bring them home, where she held them to lamplight and made up stories for the people and places she saw. Wooten and Tammy did not fool around during movies, way other couples did. This embarrassed him too. Folks sometimes called the Rampatorium a passion pit. He just knew everybody noticed his and Tammy's public display of celibacy. On occasion he tried to kiss her, tried to unbutton her britches and slip his bad hand underneath her bloomers. "Quit it Woot," she'd hiss, removing his hand like one might a pesky insect. "I don't want to miss what happens next."
When Wooten got back home later that night he tripped over a bowl of dog food on the porch. Dry pellets dropped down between the gapped boards. He cussed then hollered, "Martin, Martin, come on now!" The dog did not come. Odd, he thought, going inside and turning on the television. He tried to find wrestling. Martin was his little buddy. A chubby brown-and-white beagle mix. Wooten thought he might let the dog sleep inside since Tammy wasn't around to fuss about the shedding and the stinking. He grew tired of flipping channels. On-screen a comedian introduced a band that he didn't recognize. The picture dimmed. Wooten got up and smacked the side of the wood console with his bad hand. Still good for clubbing. The screen brightened. He readjusted one of the little ceramic figurines he gave Tammy on birthdays and holidays — this one Hernando de Soto astraddle a horse — then sat down and fell asleep.
Next morning he woke up and drove over at The Seven. He primed his chain saw while waiting for the Crews boy to show up. This alone seemed fishy, folks said when they found out Tammy was missing. But work had always soothed Wooten Ragsdale — even after his hand was mangled by a band saw when he was halving warm chicken carcasses for his daddy. Wooten couldn't say the same for Lyle Crews though. The boy was plumb lazy. All summer Wooten had been waiting for Lyle to quit. Looked like, he thought, tearing open the packaging of a snack cake with his teeth, today was going to be the day.
He checked the foundation that'd been poured the other week. With good weather the concrete would cure and he could start building soon. He grew tired of waiting and began work without Lyle Crews, downing several hardwoods, chaining them to the dozer then dragging them into the pasture alongside the others. He logged through lunch, not noticing Sister and Crusoe missing from atop Tammy's daddy's old artist studio, where his niece and the dirt boy doll she toted had been keeping watch on him every single damn day since he'd started.
Come evening Wooten drove over at Freedom Hills and bought a sack of tamales from Dyar's. The tamales, made of corn and filled with juicy pulled pork and diced red chili peppers and onions, were wrapped in steamed husks that scalded his fingertips as he peeled them. He finished the entire sack before he got home. The dog food remained where he'd spilled it the night before, minus what raccoons had eaten. He hollered, "Here now dog!" Didn't figure Tammy'd take Martin with her. What if something was wrong? Dogs are apt to wander though, he told hisself as he carried a dozen cold beers onto the porch — and Tammy could be spiteful, just like her momma. He sat on the metal glider and drank. The beers tasted all the crisper in the early August heat that would not break, even after the mean orange sun fell beyond the black hills. He drank all twelve beers then started feeling real good and sorry for hisself. Tammy never had qualms letting Wooten know she despised this in him. He despised the inclination too, though he couldn't help it any more than a stone could its stillness.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Treeborne"
Copyright © 2018 Caleb Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Stories We Tell: Today,
Days Her Missing: 1958,
The Peach Pit: 1958,
Peach Days: 1958,
Thicker than Blood: 1958,
What Mine Eye Hath Seen: 1958,
In the Beginning: 1929,
Stories We Tell: Today,
Seven Hundred Acres: 1958,
The Artist at Work: 1929,
To Dirt She Returneth: 1958,
Signs to Show the Way: 1958,
He Was, You Know, Thataway: 1929,
This is How She Survived: 1958,
Here's What Didn't Make the Paper: 1958,
Stories We Tell: Today,
His Masterpiece: 1929–1930,
Bring Her Back to Elberta: 1958,
The Last Last Conquistador: 1958,
She Could of Done Worse: 1958,
Till Death Do They Part: 1930,
The Hole in Lee Malone's Guitar: 1958,
Stories We Tell: Today,
In the Eye of the Looker: 1958,
This Didn't Make the Paper Either: 1958,
Blood's All You Got Left: 1959,
Stories We Tell: Today,
Elberta Dawn: 1958,
About the Author,