Family Owned

family-owned

Chapter One: Preacher Hank

For about as long as I can remember my daddy wasn’t right in the head. I’m told at one time he was but I was so young and it’s been so long, I have little recollection. I used to have a brother named Kyle who was fifteen years older than me. He died. All that’s left is a glossy photo of him in his Army uniform hanging over the fireplace. We don’t speak much of Kyle. Momma won’t allow it. Kyle looked a lot like my dad, but everyone says I favor Mom with my blondish/red hair and ridiculous freckled face. Kyle had more of a chiseled face with high cheekbones and a square chin, favoring Dads half Choctaw lineage. Mom guesses she’s Irish based on her fair skin and red hair, but as an orphan, her chain was broken, meaning that a huge portion of my chain is also broken. Since we’re all direct descendants of Adam and Eve, according to the good Preacher Hank, I suppose we’re all somehow related anyway. I used to make things up, like saying Davy Crockett was my Great, Great Uncle when in actuality, Mom was found in a cardboard box on the front steps of city hall one morning by the janitor Mr. Henry. Mr. Henry was a nice old guy who always kept suckers in his pockets. You had to be with one of your parents to get one, otherwise, city hall would have been on every kids’ daily route.

We lived in an unpainted wood farmhouse on ten acres. Daddy wasn’t much help when it came to things like feeding the chickens or collecting eggs, he mostly sat in his wooden rocker on our splintered front porch and whittled branches into toothpicks. He used to play the harmonica now and then, but he quit doing even that after a while. He rarely spoke or ever noticed I was around. I suppose the war claimed both Kyle and him, the only difference being Dad was still breathing. Either way, neither one survived. Had Kyle made it home okay, we probably would have moved out West. When Daddy still talked, he would tell me about the old copper mining towns in Arizona and of the deserts and mountains. He had a genuine spirit of adventure back then. I just know we would have gone.

Outside of my regular daily chores, I pretty much did whatever I wanted. Dad was damaged because of Kyle. Mom was damaged because of Dad, and Kyle, so the comings and goings of some country bumpkin kid, related or not, were of little significance to either. Money was a rare commodity. We were as poor as the dirt covering our acreage which at one time grew a lush array of highly prized vegetables. In the far distant past, Daddy had a vegetable stand and was widely acclaimed as having the greenest thumbs in the county. We were still poor, just not to the level of dirt. Daddy got real sick when Kyle got killed. The mountain of a man he had at one time been was replaced by a thin man with a stoop, white balding hair and a nervous twitch. Never making allowances for his reduction in size, his clothing hung as if on a rag doll. Because of his disability, he received a small monthly government check which mainly served to support his whiskey habit. He wasn’t a mean drunk or anything, he was just a hopeless one.

Sometimes Daddy would go to the “Bucket of Blood” Saloon. Momma, being a respectable Baptist lady and all, would never go with him. We lived so far out in the country all the roads were dirt so you were allowed to drive as drunk as you wanted. Daddy’s old Pontiac had lots of unaccounted for dents, and he slept in the front yard on more than one occasion, not quite making it to the house. Even if Momma saw him out there she would leave him be until morning. Mom wasn’t all that much better off than he was, she was just better at hiding things and didn’t feel the need of covering up her emotions with Satan’s venomous alcohol. “You do realize you are going straight to hell don’t you?” I heard her tell/ask Dad one time. With a blank stare, he quietly replied, “Yep.” I suppose she never inquired again.

Momma was a diehard lady of the Baptist cross, not to be confused with the pagan Lutherans or God forbid, those hoity-toity Methodists. She was a prayer warrior of the worst type: The ones who find redemption later in life and feel the need to make up for all the years they lost out on. She was way past fanatical. She was possessed by the Holy Spirit and was God’s willing and overly zealous vessel. She quoted scripture with pinpoint accurateness, although as far as I knew she might have been making it up as she went. I never bothered to validate her utterances. Momma used to write things furiously in her bible with a ball point pen. When she wasn’t feeding dad and me or cleaning up around the house, which she rarely did, she was deeply engrossed in the biblical world she resided in. She WAS NOT going to Hades. Even though she against my will would occasionally drag me to a service, Dad and I were pretty much on our own. She was busy saving her own self. Momma was a King James kind of gal.

Preacher Hank was a short stubby balding man with a giant red bulbous nose that looked like it had at one time been used for a pin cushion. His sparse comb-over was glued to his blotchy pink skinned head and would flap up and down when he started intensely jumping around waving his tattered oversized bible at the terrified congregation. He believed that to truly love God, one must wholeheartedly fear Him. He also taught it is easier to fit through the eye of a needle than it is to get into heaven, which never made much sense to me. If this was indeed the case, why bother? His mousy wife would sit in the seat expressly reserved for her on the front pew where as if on cue she would holler “amen” at the precise moment. When the preacher’s wife is moved by the spirit, so goes the congregation. Her role was an important one. They were a well-rehearsed team. The more Hank’s hair got to flapping, the louder she would yell, working the crowd into a frenzy of palm raising and mumbling weird languages known only to them. It was quite the sight. They sent more than one first time visitor running out the front doors never to return.

Now and again Preacher Hank would come around our place for a visit. He never gave advanced notice, he relished in the element of surprise. He poked around hoping to eye witness one of his flock engaged in some un-sanctimonious act so he could hold it over their heads. He would preach about that person the following Sunday just to make an example. “I’m a shocked by what was a going on at Sister Louise’s house,” he would whisper to a silenced room. Then, BOOM. With a mighty roar: “What say ye, Sister Louise!” I loved moments like that, it’s what made it all worthwhile. When he showed up at our house he would march right past Daddy, not daring tempt Satan to a match he knew he would lose. “Thelma, you in there?” “Why Preacher Hank, what a nice surprise indeed!” She, unlike most others, welcomed his visits like a secret agent anxiously awaiting her next assignment. She was a soldier of God and Hank was her earthly first sergeant. “Agent Thelma, I think, dear Sister Beatrice is hitting the sauce again. See what you can find out and report back to me at once.” I could always tell when he was running low on sermons and needed a few morsels of inspiration. Since Mamma was his inside contact and all, he came around fairly regularly. One time Daddy made a rare daytime appearance in the living room and spotted the two disciples snuggled up side by side on the sofa. They were reciting scripture from a Bible in the preacher man’s lap, but I’m sure Daddy took note their legs were touching.

Momma was not an unattractive woman, at least she didn’t have to be. She wore her uncut gray hair in a tall tight bun. It stuck up like a radar tower awaiting heavenly signals. Prior to my brother’s death, her blue eyes had sparkled. Her skin was fair and as pale as white china. She wore one piece long sleeved dresses which hung between her knees and ankles. It was unholy for a woman of God to show her knees or her armpits. Hank swore it was in the book somewhere, but always drew a blank if confronted with the topic. But then again, few people questioned the right hand of God almighty. One thing I did know for certain was that Momma was a Victoria Secret model compared to Hank’s wife, Violet. The woman weighed no more than eighty pounds and flitted everywhere in a hurried fashion, always staring at the ground as she rapidly transported herself from spot to spot. “Quick, step aside, here comes Violet.” She ran smack into the back of “Big Jimbo” Thigpen one Sunday morning. He didn’t budge, but Violet came to an abrupt halt like she had rammed head on into closed sliding glass door. After she caught her breath one of the Deacons helped the visibly shaken Miss Violet to her feet as she quickly darted off. I ran outside and busted a gut.

I had just finished washing chicken crap from the coop one Saturday afternoon and was making my way through the back screened door leading to the kitchen when I heard unusual sounds coming from the direction of the living room. Investigating, I was greeted by Hank’s full-moon hairy butt cheeks flapping in rhythmic fashion on top of Momma whose dress was yanked up around her neck. He was worshiping God on high. “Oh, God!” “Jesus!” Horrified, yet finding the entire episode comically enlightening, I let out with a “Howdy, Preacher Hank!” I had never seen a short stubby munchkin like man move with such lightning speed. It was one swift motion as he bounced off the flattened sofa cushions and lunged at me. I side stepped his airborne tactics as the wall welcomed the top of his head with a resounding thud. “What’s going on in there?” shouted Daddy. To which I cleverly responded, “Nothing Daddy, just saying hello to the preacher.” Momma never mentioned a word, and as the grand prize, I started sleeping in on Sunday morning, which I am certain was okay with Hank. I really didn’t care about what they had been doing, especially since Dad and Mamma rarely acknowledged the other one existed anyway, but I did relish in now having the upper hand and used it to my every advantage.

Chapter Two: The Fire

“Ricky, what are ‘ya doing?” My best friend Ben lived about a mile down the dirt road and he was almost as poor as I was even though his Dad worked now and then, as opposed to mine. Ben’s Dad did odd jobs, meaning he wasn’t qualified for much and would take whatever he could get. He claimed he was a self-made kind of man. “Hey, Ben. Nothing much, what do you wanna do?” “I dunno, wanna go down to the bridge?” The bridge ran over a river which was in actuality more of a wide creek except it got deep in some spots, like where the bridge was. There are lots of rivers that aren’t really rivers running all through South Carolina. Kids would jump off the narrow bridge into the lazy muddy water below. It was only about a six-foot jump but the water was cool and the sun was hot and there wasn’t much else to do. There were a dozen or so kids within a bicycle ride distance from the old wooden bridge, so it served as one of the very few gathering places for the young and the restless.

Hoping he wouldn’t spot us, we cut a path through old man Wilson’s property. Old man Wilson kept his double barreled shotgun loaded with rock salt and he despised trespassers, age irrelevant. We had been under attack on more than one occasion. Fortunately, Mr. Wilson was blind as a bat. He shot his old milking cow square sin the butt one time. Just for the record, cows get ear deafening loud when struck in the hind quarters with tiny pellets of salt traveling at high velocity. Luck was on our side this day as we pedaled across the war-torn battlefield. We zoomed past Johnson’s Grocery store which was the one and only grocery store for miles around and steered onto the dirt path leading to “our spot” on the creek bank. Ben and I had discovered and claimed this spot as ours. We had built a cool fort out of dead limbs and scraps of lumber and camped there once in a while. We had a good view of the bridge from our vantage point and saw there were no other kids around. Just then: Splash! We heard the distinct sound of splashing water followed up with girlish giggles, but the sound was coming from the opposite direction of the bridge. Leaving our bicycles behind, we headed out on foot to investigate. We quietly crept and maneuvered our way to the source of our inquisitiveness. Peering through the underbrush we focused in on clothing strewn along the bank. Continuing our scan we focused with even deeper intensity on the three young ladies enjoying the coolness of the water, au naturel. Older women! They had to be at least sixteen. “That’s Jolene,” I panted. Jolene Foster was the sister of another friend, Lincoln Foster, or Abe as everyone called him. We quickly recognized the other two stunning non-bathing suit wearing beauties as Linda Sue Benton and Amy Lynn Godwin. We were spellbound. Our eyes could not be diverted. Especially when they swam to the riverbank. I was physically trembling and rapidly losing control of all bodily functions. Ben was a puddle. He simply melted. I was shaking so violently I failed to remain aware of my surroundings. Snap went the twig beneath my dancing foot. Snap went the three girl’s necks as they quickly spun around. Ben and I immediately hauled our twelve-year-old asses back to our home base and took refuge in our fort, hauling our bikes in with us. We silently remained under the cover of safety for what seemed like forever, until we saw the girls appear on the bridge. Not wanting to be conspicuous we waited until a few other kids showed up before boldly surfacing. We even risked cutting back across old man Wilson’s field so we could ride in on the road like we had just got there.

Luke and a couple of the older guys were there. I was leaning on the rail watching the muddy water roll by when I heard, “Hey, little Ricky.” “Uh…uh, hey Jolene,” I stammered as my stupid pale skin began to ripen to a radiant day glow red. Then came the inquisition. “You and Ben just gettin’ here?” “Yeah, how…how come?” My face was becoming blotchy and my scalp was starting to gush streams of sweat down my forehead. Very coyly she smirked, “Getting’ a bit warm are ya’, little Ricky?” Thinking as quickly as my frying mind would allow me to I hurled myself over the rail into the not really a river. I needed time to think. A couple of twelve-year-old boys seeing totally naked sixteen-year-old girls in the early 1960’s, especially in the holy roller deep south, was a monumental achievement worthy of praise and honor which could just as rapidly turn into a vile and disgusting act of indignation and perversion if they got caught. I walked slowly back to the bridge willing to accept my impending doom like a man. I had been to the mountaintop and was prepared to be tossed off the other side with as much dignity as I could muster. To my great surprise, Jolene never mentioned a word, even though I knew she knew. And she knew I knew, she knew. She found great sadistic pleasure at being the cause of my perpetual raspberry facial blotches and from that day forward would wink and grin at me every time she saw me. Now and then she would blast me with a “He-e-e-y little Ricky,” in a sing-song voice. My glowing face would literally blink in perfect time with the palpitations of my wildly pulsating heart. She quit after a couple of months, figuring I’d learned a valuable lesson. She also knew she was ruining my health and didn’t want to be held liable.

It was getting towards evening so Ben and I headed back down the dirt road, mentally recording this day in the historical caverns of our minds. As I approached my house I immediately took notice it was dark except for one dim front porch lamp where Daddy was motionlessly sitting. “Your Mamma ain’t here no more,” he whispered in a low monotone voice. Not knowing what to say I silently waited for him to continue. “I throw“d her and that red nose preacher man out.” For the second time in one day, I began to shake. “They was doin’ things they shouldn’ a been doin’.” The stench of stale cheap whiskey permeated the air.  “Damn near killed the son of a bitch, and I will I ever see him ‘round here again.” The living room was a disaster. What little furniture we owned had been recklessly strewn about the room. The couch was tipped over and the wooden end table my granddaddy made when he was a kid had been smashed to splinters against the wall. There was a dust-free 8 X 10 spot over the fireplace where my Brother Kyle’s photo had once hung. I ran to my parent’s bedroom. All of Mammas Jesus clothes were gone. Panic set in. Not being in full possession of my thoughts I did the only thing I considered feasible. I was getting my mom back. Why I even cared I didn’t know. I suppose normality is normality whether it’s good or bad, so being creatures of habit people are reluctant to change the status-quo. Daddy didn’t even appear to notice me as I clumsily tripped down the three porch steps and mounted my bike. Unlike my house, all of the lights were shining intensely from inside Preacher Hank’s house. Still in panic mode, I dismounted my bike without even applying the brakes, letting it crash into a nearby row of shrubs, as I began pounding like a kid possessed on Hank and Violet’s front door. The door swung open just as my fist was about to slam against it, causing me to lose my balance and fall directly into the hysterical Mini Mouse of a woman, Miss Violet. “Where’s my mama?” I shouted. “They gone, Ricky,” she sobbed. Followed up with, “God took my man away.” Technically it wasn’t God who took her stubby muffin. “Where’d they go,” I naturally inquired. All she kept repeating was, “They ain’t never comin’ back.” Heartbroken and stunned I had no other recourse than to return home and check on Daddy, knowing neither one of us really cared if he was doing Okay or not.

“Who the hell are you, get off my porch,” Daddy said as I walked up the steps. “It’s me, Daddy.” “Go away!” “Daddy, it’s me, Ricky.” “I said get the hell outta here!” The alcohol was having an evil effect, he was acting delirious. I jumped back on my bike and started peddling as fast as I could, not knowing where my final destination might be and not really caring. My crummy life had just taken a terrible and unexpected turn for the worse.

I cut through old man Wilson’s lot figuring the safety of the darkness would shield me from his sight, but not really caring if I had to bob and weave rock salt or not. I was relieved to see his lights were not even on. The woods along the creek bank are frightening at night, especially for a twelve-year-old boy with an overactive imagination. As I laid quietly in the fort I could hear every single sound from every single creature of the night, including the ones I made up in my frightened head. I wondered how long I could survive on my own. I could fish and set some squirrel traps and I could always sneak back around to the house and steal some eggs. Daddy would never know. That was of course if I didn’t get devoured by a werewolf in the interim, which in all likelihood could happen. Though I had never personally encountered one, I was told they were plentiful in South Carolina. That’s when I smelled it. The smell of a campfire came drifting between the open spaces in the walls of the fort.Terrified I was not alone and fearing some ax murderer might stumble upon me, I exited the fort and followed the ashy aroma. Hobo’s camped along the bank sometimes and they could mean trouble. The entire area was filling with smoke and I realized if it was a campfire, it must have gotten out of control and was going to burn the woods down around me. I left my bike and ran to the tree line to get a better view. Even in the nighttime sky I could see large clouds billowing skyward off in the distance. I heard sirens. The blood drained from my face as I came to the realization it was coming from the direction of my house.

There was nothing but a huge pile of smoldering ashes where my shanty of a house once stood. Two men were transporting the covered remains of my father to the awaiting ambulance. They were in no hurry. Everything was gone and I was truly alone for the first time in my life. My father’s parents had been killed in a train derailment when I was real little and he had been an only child, and since my mother had been an orphan, her link-less chain was of no benefit. All I could do was stand there in my numbness, lost and afraid. “Ricky I’m sorry, but you’ll need to come with me,” said a booming voice behind me. It was Sheriff Henley. I was destined to become a ward of the state, pending finding my long gone mother.

Chapter Three: The Institution

I was like a fish out of water in Charleston. Mamma could not be located so I was left with no other option than to settle into dormitory accommodations, compliments of the state of South Carolina. At twelve years old I didn’t stand a fighting chance of finding a new home, but I wasn’t planning on staying there any longer than I had to anyway so it didn’t really matter. Everyone who adopted a kid wanted a shiny smelly butt baby, they preferred the joy of house training them themselves. “We don’t want no twelve-year-old, we’ll only get five or six good years out him, tops.” When the school year started we didn’t attend publicly like normal kids. I had never seen a real live Nun before and it was kind of scary the first day Sister Maloney walked in to teach the class. It was cheaper to import volunteer Nuns than to hire real honest to goodness educated teachers, so the state obviously felt this to be a better and more viable expenditure of the good people’s tax money. We were a burden and we knew it.

“Ricky, you have a visitor in the office,” said one of the counselors as I was laying on my bunk thinking about how I was going to one day escape this horrid place. It was Sheriff Hensley. “We ain’t been able to find out who did this yet but I wanted to make sure you was getting along Okay.” It was kind of nice to know someone cared enough to drive an hour and a half just to ask. None of the states paid workers had ever bothered to inquire if I was doing alright. I was a paycheck to them. “That’s your bunk, the other kids will tell what time we eat. Don’t act up.” This was my indoctrination. The first time I had ever even heard a counselor speak was when I was informed of the sheriff’s visit. I may have escaped the leaping flames of the house fire, but I was slowly dying inside. Not that my previous life had ever provided any direction or guidance, but at least it gave the resemblance of normality to those who didn’t know what really went on inside.

Because I was one the older non-adoptable degenerated kids, I was kind of a ringleader, and on top of that, a very bad influence. The dormitory area was housed on the second floor of an old wooden building with a handy-dandy fire escape. The door leading to the escape route had a special lock that bolted from the inside so if you went out and the door slammed, you couldn’t get back in and had to go down the ladder and through the front door of the building. This was not recommended. It happened to Tommy Turner one time. Because nobody liked this bully, none of the other kids would let him back in, forcing him to face his punishment. Tommy spent three days and nights in solitary confinement in a room without windows. He never picked on another kid again and was always on his best behavior. Nobody knew the extent of what happened in that room, but the scare tactic motivation kept everyone in line, at least until I came along. Tommy had been threatened to never speak of his punishment, and he willfully obeyed.

I would lead some of the older kids down the fire escape late at night, leaving one behind to open the door when we returned. A designated detainee if you will. I was accustomed to going and coming as I pleased and was not about to let this state-run institution alter my lifestyle. Odd how it was referred to as an institution, and even though our only crime was not having a family, we were inmates, or, institutionalized. We didn’t do much during our nightly adventures except enjoy the freedom of roaming about at our own free will. The institution kept us far too confined, not wanting their merchandise to become damaged.

It was sickening when potential adoptive parents would enter our private upstairs domain. The “warden” would make us all line up in order of our ages. Boys on one side, girls on the other. Each line began with the cribs. Like trying to find just the right size bolt at a hardware store, prospective parents would carefully look us up and down. “Turn around for me,” they would sometimes ask. Then in analytical terms, they would say, “Uh-huh, Okay, he might work.” The babies were snatched up pretty quickly. “Get ‘em while they young, they easier to train that-a-way.” After all, who wants to buy something that’s half used up? Not that I received much attention during these human flesh parades, but if I did happen to, I would start hacking and coughing. Worked every time. I didn’t want to be adopted. I was breaking out. Gonna be my own man like Ben’s pop, and nothing like my own. One time just for a change of pace I farted real loud and then started laughing uncontrollably. With an evil eye from the headmaster, I was excused from the line-up. Not wanting to experience solitary confinement, I politely replied, “Sorry Sir, couldn’t be helped, I’m nervous.” But that didn’t stop the rest of the line-up from busting their stitches. My friend Stevie’s face was about to explode. His cheeks kept getting bigger and bigger, and redder and redder before he could no longer hold it back. The spit went flying everywhere, but more particularly straight into the face of what may have been his potential new mother’s heavily made up face. We laughed about it for months and no children were adopted that day.

Sheriff Hensley still showed up on occasion but not nearly as often as he used to. I suppose the new wears off everyone’s crystal chandelier sooner or later, and I was becoming yesterday’s news. One Saturday morning I was called to the main office to speak with him. “Ricky, I want you to think real hard for me,” he said. “When was the last time you saw old man Wilson?” I didn’t recall ever seeing him very much. “Last time I rode past his house was the night of the fire, and his lights were all off,” I let him know. “He’s been missing for a while. He lives alone so nobody noticed until Mr. Johnson at the store realized he hadn’t seen him for too long and got worried.” It took a couple of months for anyone to even realize the old man was missing, and a couple of more months had already slipped by with nary a sight of him. “Okay, thanks, Ricky. You doing alright?” Just peachy sheriff, just peachy. I am told the mystery was never solved and Mr. Wilsons whereabouts were never determined. Could have been a werewolf.

Chapter Four: The First Kiss

“Happy birthday, Ricky.” It was my thirteenth birthday and I had been granted a one-day pass to freedom, provided I remained in the custody of Sheriff Hensley who took me to celebrate with my old friend Ben. Since Ben’s run down house did not meet the sheriff’s impeccable standards of a habitable dwelling, the now emotionally recovered Violet thought it a splendid gesture to offer her home. “My Hank running off was a blessing from God almighty,” she would boast to anyone who would listen. When Hank ran off with my momma Violet felt an eye for an eye was a better choice than turning the other cheek, so doing what most people do by choosing which verse better suits their needs, she went man hunting. Granted, Hubert Jeffries was no tuna of the sea, but in a country county full of minnows he was considered a prize catch. So what if he was of them Lutherans. She could make the easy adjustment, and besides that, the speculating hen gabbing Baptist ladies were blaming her for not being able to hold on to such a fine man as Preacher Hank. “The bible clearly states to obey your man’s desires,” they would whisper behind her back in the loudest of fashion. Hubert did happen to own the feed store which granted him a bit of local prestige. Most people thought he was “funny” because he never married, but this sure as heck proved them wrong.

“So what’s it like over there in Charleston,” Ben asked. “It sucks,” was about all I could think of to reply with. “Ya ever think about runnin’ off?” “Just all the time.” Ben had visions. He had done a lot of pondering in the time I had been gone. There were older and younger kids in the area but hardly any our age, so he had lots of time on his hands. There was Caleb McElroy, but he picked his nose and cried a lot. He cried when he was scared. He cried when something was funny. He would shove his finger so far up his nose his knuckle would disappear like magic. We had always avoided any contact with Caleb. “We sneak out sometimes at night, but all we do is walk around and stuff,” I told Ben, revealing the details of my less than exciting life. “I ain’t got no reason to stick around this hell hole no more,” Ben eloquently stated in the best of Southern grammar. “Daddies worthless as tits on a boar hog and all ma does is sit around all day stuffin’ government cheese in her fat pie hole.” Thinking about my own destiny, I replied, “I ain’t gonna have nowhere to go when I turn eighteen and the state kicks my ragged butt out in the street, and I ain’t goin’ in no Army like Kyle did.” Every plan has a beginning. We made a solemn pinky swear we would one day in the not too distant future, become dictators of our own destiny.

Ben and I had no desire to hold out another five years waiting on the not old enough to buy alcohol but old enough to die for your country age of eighteen. Ben’s birthday was only a month after mine. We set a timeline for one year and would map out our strategy via the U.S. snail mail. The South Carolina state home for all alone kids allowed us two postage stamps a month in case anyone wanted to send a letter to one of the many relatives they didn’t have. The first order of business was in selecting a proper location. There was a library on the first floor of the home and we were encouraged to spend as much time there as we wanted. The books were covered with cobwebs. I didn’t want to go up North because I had heard they thought Southerners were stupid because we didn’t talk right, but neither Ben nor I wanted to stay in the South either. Go West young man. That’s what Daddy used to say. I furiously penned out a letter to Ben letting him know the location of our future hideaway. Arizona. We could take up residence in one of the many abandoned copper mines. We could eat rattlesnakes. Nobody would ever find us.

I was on my best behavior and due notice was taken of my new library hangout. “There might be hope for that one.” Because of my newly acquired role model status, and the fact it was cheaper to pay some snot nose brats than to hire a real worker from the outside, I was given a job cleaning up the offices and downstairs bathrooms three times a week. The entire job took about two hours and I was paid three bucks a week. I discovered that educated men of success cannot aim their streams of urine any better than poor nonreading dirt farmers. Sloppy urination practices transcend all boundaries. Those things get away from you now and then. The lady’s bathroom was way less grotesque and even had fake plastic roses on the counter by the sink. The roses were sitting inside of a ceramic cowboy boot. I found a half-pint bottle of liquor inside the boot when I was cleaning one day but thought better about bringing the matter up. I was just in this for the money anyway.

“Ricky, here’s a letter for you,” the headmaster said, handing me an envelope with Ben’s recognizable lack of decent penmanship scribbled on the front. Operation Tonto, as we called our skillfully created escape plan, was all systems go, woo-woo-woo being our password should we ever have need of one. I was already tasting buffalo meat. Since life in the 1960’s was not lived via the world-wide-web, the possibility of an instant amber alert manhunt for two fugitive runaway boys being heavily posted and shared on social networks was not an issue. Truth be known, we doubted we would even be missed. When the time came we would hitch our way to the land of sagebrush and cacti.

Over the next several months our plan slowly developed. I was using up my two stamps a month as Ben and I kept a steady stream of correspondence going. We would be heading straight into Apache territory. That’s when I received a HUGE break. “Ricky, I’ll need you to follow me to the office,” said Fat Martha, one of the volunteer aides. Martha sported a rather hefty mustache and had an ever so slight personal dainty issue. Since aides were never made privy to what these particular visit requests might entail, I took a deep breath and reluctantly followed her down the stairs. I was startled to see Violet and Hubert sitting on the wooden bench outside of the main office. Had they somehow discovered our escape plans and tortured Ben into submission? I was ushered straight into the office and was not allowed to approach the plaintiffs. “Sit down, Ricky,” commanded the headmaster. “This nice couple, the Jefferies, want to adopt you and make you theirs.” The process was simple, being as how the state would be saving money and all. The standard mandated questioned were asked and I had to check a box by each one as a way of swearing I understood what was happening, but inside I was rejoicing knowing I would be in closer proximity to my partner in crime while the other part of me was contemplating life with Violet and Hubert. Violet was now a Lutheran so maybe she’d learned to let her hair down a bit. I didn’t old docile Hubert as being much of a problem. Ben and I were still heading out west when the time came.

“You are so going to love your new home Ricky, especially you being an orphan now and all,” said my substitute mother. She was turned around facing me from the front seat of their shiny new station wagon. A station wagon fully represented the All-American family, and since they were now in a childlike way, Hubert traded in his pickup on the way to the orphanage. They were “representing!” So, me being an “orphan and all,” I settled into what proved to be a much nicer existence then what I had left. They weren’t quite as liberal with my comings and goings as my parents had been, but having bedrooms on the opposite end of the house had its advantages. I was informed to never disturb them at night, no matter the reason, so it was pretty simple slipping out of my bedroom window. I think Hubert had aspirations of running for a councilman position so I was just a token kid anyway. Ben’s parents were like mine had been so he pretty much did whatever he wanted to do. We spent lots of late nights at our fort. It was summertime so I hadn’t started back at my old school yet.

Old man Wilson’s place was boarded up and wild vines were growing up the splintered outside walls. We took our time cutting through his field knowing he was gone. “What do ‘ya think happened to the old guy,” I asked Ben. Of course, he replied, “I think he was abducted by aliens.” I didn’t feel the need for further pursuing my line of questioning. It was a Thursday night and I had permission to camp. Hubert and Violet being newlyweds and all didn’t mind when I was gone for the night as long as they gave the okay first. It was dusk and we were gathering twigs to start a campfire when we heard sounds from the other side of the not so much of a river. About fifty yards down the bank we spotted a dozen or so people. They had a roaring fire and some of them were dancing around it while a few others played guitars as another guy was beating the living daylights out of some kind of big drum. There were men, women, and even some kids. We quietly sneaked over the bridge to try and get a better look. We were two shadows in the rapidly approaching darkness of the night. Just after the line of trees was a small dirt road made by truck tires from people fishing or swimming from the bank. The road ended right where these strange invaders were having a grand old time. On the opposite side of the dirt trail was an open field. As we crept closer we saw a number of old cars and trucks with small camper trailers attached. They were drawn together in a circle just like the old wagon trains of the western frontier, and they were all of the painted with bright designs. We continued our cavalry scout tactics and slowly turned towards the bank for an up close gander.

There were several women with flowing dark hair and long skirts gyrating and dancing around the flames, as the wood popped, sending bright flaming sparks high up in the air. They were shaking tambourines in time to the guitars and drum. Most of the guys had long hair and were attired in loose fitting clothing. “You guys gettin’ a good eyeful?” Ben and I simultaneously had the air sucked from our youthful lungs. “You guys don’t have to spy on us, you’re welcome to join us,” said a dark haired, dark eyed young girl whom I figured to be around thirteen. “We… we… we…, was just camping across the river and heard the noise,” I stammered, just like  I had done when busted by Joleen. “I’m Sophie. Come on, follow me,” she said as we allowed her to lead us into temptation. We took a seat on a blanket beside Sophie and observed the strange ritual before us. None of the grownups seemed to mind, or even notice, us being there. Attempting to make conversation I asked, “Where are ya’ll from?” Ben was maintaining silence. “We’re from everywhere,” came her vague reply. Not wanting to sound naïve but still demanding a more suitable explanation, I asked, “So, what school do ya’ go to?” “This one.” It was becoming quite clear I was getting no closer to a sensible answer. Sophie began to laugh in a most appealing manner. It was soft and subtle. “We live how we choose. We go where we choose. We do what we want.” That sounded pretty darn good to me. They were Gypsies on the edge of the Hippie movement. Sophie said they were actually “Romanies”, but it was just easier to say they were Gypsies. Most of them had lived this way all of their lives while others had been attracted to the freeness of the lifestyle and had joined up along the way to nowhere in particular. “Show me your camp,” she excitedly asked.

Our fort was dark without a fire, so using a flashlight we finished gathering wood, stoked it up, and got it blazing in no time flat. “Have you always been a Gypsy?” “I was born in our home,” she said. My obvious follow-up was, “I thought you didn’t have a home.” “I have a home, it just has wheels.” “So you were born in a camper trailer?” “I was born in my home.” So ended conversation one. “I brought something for us,” she coyly said as she extracted a bottle of homemade dandelion wine from somewhere within the ruffles of her skirt. I was wondering what else she might have hidden in there. The communal wine at the Baptist church had been non-fermented Welch’s grape juice so I was no wine connoisseur, but I liked the warming sensation as the highly fermented liquid conquered my blood stream and found its way to my rapidly numbing head.  Ben followed suit and soon after broke his silence. “Imma put ‘nother branch in the fire,” he mumbled as best he could, the wine taking its toll. I discovered Ben had a very low alcohol tolerance. “I don’t get to meet many other kids, especially boys,” Sophie confessed. She was the essence of beauty with her almost waist-length dark wavy hair, coal colored eyes, and tan skin. Even her teeth radiated. Sophie and I brushed the ashes out of our hair from where Ben had clumsily thrown the oversized branch on top of the fire which didn’t really need it, before he mumbled something incoherently and stumbled into the fort, abruptly passing out. He had held on to the bottle a bit more tightly than Sophie and I had. She asked me, “What’s it like living in one place all the time.” “I wouldn’t know,” I said as I briefly detailed my sorry life thus far. We talked about her life and mine for about an hour before she gently leaned towards me and tenderly delivered my first ever real live kiss.

We kissed for what seemed like forever. Time stood still. She smelled like fresh wildflowers and despite the wine, her breath was sweet like candy. She made soft whimpering noises. I fell helplessly and hopelessly in love with this free-spirited Gypsy girl. We finally surfaced for air and held hands as we silently gazed into the flames. Leaving Ben to his drunken dreams, Sophie and I continued holding hands as I escorted her back to her rolling place of birth. Our destinies would somehow, someday, become entwined. She had cast her spell.

Chapter 5: Reality Happens

I saw Sophie in my sleep. We kissed, laughed, traveled life, grew old and were even buried side by side in a sloping hillside cemetery. It was as though my dreams had taken the place of reality. They were vivid. I swear I smelled a trace of wildflowers on my pillowcase one morning. I buried my face in the coolness of the soft cotton case until the smell dissipated. This was not a passing puppy love. Dreams of Sophie continued throughout the entire year that followed.

Life with Hubert and Violet was interesting, to say the least. Hubert was elected as a councilman, so my importance had dwindled since he was already in office. Ben and I were getting real close to making our move. I received a fifty cents a week allowance and had been putting it back. Ben had been cashing in empty soda bottles and picking up trash around the local grocery store every Saturday morning, so collectively we were as financially sound as any two kids about to run head long into the great unknown could possibly be. We camped as often as we could and it was once again summertime so we camped a lot. We stored supplies in plastic bags and hid them in the woods for safe keeping.

We had just arrived at our spot in the woods one night when we again heard voices from the other side of the bank. Sophie! On wobbly legs, I hurried across the bridge, Ben close in tow. As we got closer I realized there was no music this time, only deep male voices. There were no brightly painted trailers or women swirling in circles. Their campfire was dim, but we could make out sleeping bags and a couple of small tents. The men were passing what looked like a whiskey bottle. Hobos would on occasion sleep by the river, and from what we had been taught, they could be dangerous and not to be trusted. We observed the two men as best as we could. “Ricky isn’t that……..never mind.” Not knowing what he was talking about, and not wanting to have anything further to do with these outlaws, we headed back to our own camp with Ben hurriedly leading the way. We decided against lighting a fire that night for fear of being spotted. I could tell Ben had something on his mind, but I didn’t push him.  The following morning the men were gone as though they had never even been there. Not a trace. They had drowned their fire with river water so it wasn’t even smoldering.

Jolene caught up with us around 11 a.m. the next day as we were jumping off the bridge. She was driving her Dad’s old rusted out Ford truck. “Ben, you need to get home now,” she said in all seriousness. Jolene didn’t even acknowledge my presence. “There’s been an accident.”

Ben’s poor old odd-job working dad barely felt a thing. At least that’s what they told Ben. It had been a windy South Carolina kind of night and a giant gust was enough to snap the huge rotted limb that hung over the wooden porch where Ben’s Dad had been napping in a stoppered state. His Mom had been sitting on the front steps listening to the crickets and enjoying the fact he was asleep. The porch roof came crashing down with the huge dead branch using his Dad’s skull as a landing pad. Ben’s Mom escaped with her life, but just by a mere fraction. The remainder of the house was unharmed.

A couple of weeks went by without hearing anything from Ben. Finally one evening he pulled up to my bedroom window on his bike and handed me a bag. “What’s this?” I asked. “It’s all the money I had saved up, I figured you might could maybe use it when you take off.” Dumbfounded I responded with, “What do you mean when I take off. You’re still coming aren’t you?” “I gotta help take care of Ma, she ain’t got no one else and needs me help out with things.” My face turned pale white as I came to the realization I was now completely on my own. I would enter my new world with no family, and now, no friends. This being the case, I saw no reason to delay my bidding adios to this portion of my life. Surely the next portion had to get better.

I accepted the money from Ben, combined it with my own stash of loot and went to uncover some of the supplies we had hidden in the woods. I passed Old Man Wilson’s dilapidated house and was making my way through the tree line when I spotted a lone figure hanging around outside of our fort. I braked hard and ditched my bike so I could approach quietly on foot. As I inched closer I spotted the long dark silky hair plummeting down her back. “Sophie, what are you doing here,” I gasped. “I ran away Ricky, I came looking for you.” “You said you were going to run off so maybe we could just run off together,” she cried. “Where’s Ben?” I explained what had happened, and she explained to me what had happened to her. “They wanted to give me away,” she blurted out. “They said I was old enough and I had to take up with Levi and be his from now on.” I naturally asked, “Who is Levi?” “They don’t want us taking up with outsiders so they tell us who we have to be with when we get old enough.” No guy named Levi was moving in on my woman. I now had a new travel partner. Dreams meet reality. Reality meet my dreams. We are one.

Chapter 6: The Escape

It was Sunday morning and Violet and Hubert were socializing at the Lutheran church, and I, as usual, was not. They always took Hubert’s Ford Dually to church, leaving Violet’s old ratty Pinto in the driveway. Grand theft auto. Had a ring to it. The good Councilman would not report the vehicle as stolen by his adopted son for fear of tarnishing his good name and reputation, and they certainly would not want to reveal I had run away. I didn’t know what kind of lie they would make up about me, and I really didn’t care. “The boy just wasn’t right after all that stuff happening to his Mom and Dad and all so we took him back to the orphanage where he would be happiest”.  As if I came with a return guarantee.

I snatched the keys from the nail by the back door, making extra certain the coast was clear and brought the stallion to life as a huge white cloud of smoke billowed from its butt. Come on, baby. There ‘ya go.” The door to the backyard shed swung open and Sophie gingerly strolled to her awaiting chariot. I learned Sophie never set priorities and didn’t hurry for anything. That is of course with the exception of hurrying away from a life with this fella Levi.

The most beautiful sight I had ever seen was the big blue “Welcome to Georgia” sign. The second most beautiful sight was seeing “Welcome to South Carolina,” in the Pinto’s rear view. To a kid who had only been as far away as Charleston, we had just entered a new galaxy. I wondered if the people looked different. Because neither Sophie nor I were in possession of a valid driver’s license we stuck to the back roads she was all too familiar with. Of course, we kept a keen eye out for “her people.” Sophie’s wildflower aroma cut through the stench of the engines burning oil better than one of those cardboard pine trees dangling from a rear view mirror.

We were about a half hour outside of Athens when I spotted a handwritten sign with an arrow pointing down a dirt country road through a wooded area. The sign read: “BROTHER HANKS ‘TRAVLIN’ SALVATION SHOW. BE HEALED.” I slammed on the brakes, causing Sophie’s forehead to meet the acquaintance of the glove compartment, and cut the steering wheel hard to the right. Dust flying, I forced the exhausted Pinto into submission and made her give me all she had. There were roughly three dozen cars parked outside of the big blue tent. This type of entertainment was huge in these parts. Exiting the car, we nervously approached the canvass house of God almighty. The sounds of mass hysteria were coming from within. “Hallelujah.” “Praise the Lord.” Then we heard: “Who’s next?” Not wanting to be seen we peaked under an outside flap in the tent. Mr. Short Stubby Momma Stealing Preacher Hank was taking hold of some poor inbred looking blind guy in dirty denim overalls and slapping his stubby-fingered hand into the guy’s forehead. “And the blind shall see!” The man suddenly fell backward into the arms of some big bruiser before standing back upright and yelling, “I can see!” The crowd went wild. Flapping his arms over his head, he ran down the aisle and out the front doors of the tent. People inside were doing the Jitterbug. Before he could spot us we ducked behind some nearby trees and observed as he walked around to the back of the tent and lit a cigarette. It had been an Oscar winning performance. I hadn’t spotted Momma, but I was pretty sure she was around. Soon another figure appeared from one of the two camper trailers parked in the field out back and walked to the where the man with perfect vision was smoking. Mom was looking a bit road worn and no longer dressed like a holy woman. I gasped when she wrapped her arms around the star of the show and planted a big one right on his nasty lips. I threw up a little as one of his hands cupped one of her butt cheeks.

Knowing the show was far from being over and that Hank would be busy for a while, Momma followed “Pig-Pen” into one of the camper trailers. It was payback time for yours truly. Finding just the right size stick, Sophie and I crept up to the bouncing trailer. We shoved the stick through the front door hinge where a padlock would usually go, rendering in impossible to open from the inside. They would eventually be able to kick it open, but it would take some doing. I placed an old ball cap Mamma had given me on the metal fold down step where she would find it. I wanted her to know who the culprit was. Sophie started on one side of the tent as I started on the other as we began yanking the tent stakes out of the ground as fast as we could. The center pole began to wobble. The nitwits inside, probably considering this the rapture, started whooping and hollering even louder as they became enshrouded in a cocoon of the smelly canvas. Yelling and kicking coming from inside the trailer, which was no longer rocking by the way. Sophie and I jumped back in the Pinto and sped back down the dirt road in a cloud of dust and smoke. Amen.

I couldn’t decide if I felt better or worse now that I had been blessed with the sweet taste of revenge, but at least I knew what had become of dear old child abandoning mom and her squat of a God-man.

Chapter 7: The Flood

We had to use caution as we camped our way across the southern states. Sophie’s band of misfits primarily wandered this turf and she had no idea if they were searching for her or if she had been shunned for her disobedience. We soon found our answer.

“Did you hear that?” Sophie whispered. From all of her years of sleeping in woods and fields, Sophie had the hearing of a Coyote. She didn’t miss anything. “Snap.” There it was again. All we could see were shadows in the glow of our small campfire, but we knew something was out there in the darkness. One of the shadows came to life as it rushed at us, lunging at Sophie. I jumped on the man’s back and started punching him in the head with all my might but he was too strong and I was tossed aside like a scrap of paper. Sophie was screaming. “Dammit Levi, get the hell off of me!” Levi! She kneed him in the groin causing him to momentarily roll off of her, clutching his wounded and aching gonads. Using her free time wisely, Sophie jumped to her feet and started kicking her assailant in the skull. He grabbed her ankle and back down she went. The rest is a blur. The only thing I recall vividly is what it feels like to ram a six-inch hunting knife into a man’s back and then watch him gulp his last breath of life. We stood silently and motionlessly for what seemed like an eternity before Sophie finally broke the silence. “We need to bury him.” It became apparent the rest of her long lost tribe did not follow Levi in his pursuit of his community appointed future bride. We figured he must have been trailing us for a while waiting for the right moment to strike.

Dead men are heavy and they don’t cooperate. We could barely budge him. We decided to extinguish our fire and dig a hole where it had been burning so the ashes would be overturned, leaving no trace of our having been there. We were forced to complete our task under the shroud of complete darkness, outside of the assistance of a full moon. Not having a shovel at our disposal we gouged at the earth with rocks until the shallow grave was plenty deep enough for our liking. Plop. In went Levi. Covering him with dirt and then spreading leaves over that, we made a hasty departure. My pumping adrenaline had not slowed enough for me to come to the full realization I had just killed a man. I was growing up quickly.

“Don’t let it haunt ya’,” Sophie consoled. Considering murder was just added to grand theft auto, I was beginning to feel like a modern day Jesse James. “It was self-defense,” she pleaded with me. Yeah right, tell that to the hanging judge and his jury of recessive gene cousins. “I love you, Ricky.” Those words will make you forget you just iced someone. “I love you too, Sophie.” We had driven a couple of hours to distance ourselves from the crime scene before making a new camp and hiding the car in some thick underbrush. The new camp was a spot on a river bank Sophie was aware of. “We need to wash our clothes and get ourselves clean,” Sophie said as she led me to the calm slow moving water. In an instant, she was naked, illuminated only by the full moon’s radiance. I swear she had angel’s wings. Up until now Sophie and I had only kissed and snuggled but I knew there was much more to follow as I nervously disrobed. Taking my hand, she led me into the baptismal waters of adulthood.

That night was chock full of irony. I had killed my first man, and my swimmers had fertilized their first egg. The circle of life. Of course, it would be a couple of months before we realized the magic of procreation had taken place.

“Ricky, we gotta get were going,” Sophie said to me the next morning. The sooner we could distance ourselves from non-breathing Levi and the chance of being discovered by her Romani family of gypsy’s, the easier it would be to relax.

We stopped at a gas station and as the attendant was pumping, two cop cars pulled in the parking lot. “Sophie, stay in the car,” I nervously said. I sat in the driver’s seat and kept my head turned the opposite direction so they wouldn’t spot my youthful face and become suspicious. I couldn’t do anything about the out of state tags.  “I got this,” said Sophie, jumping out of the car. The cops were by the gas station’s front door speaking with some Goober looking guy in grease-stained overalls. “Howdy fellas,” she coyly said. “Well little lady, what we can do for a pretty thing like you today,” asked one of the extremely beer-bellied officers of the local law. She was buying time. “I figured you guys being local and all could tell me a good place to get some breakfast. We’re starved.” “Who ya’ got there in the car with ya’, honey,” one of them asked. Thinking quickly she replied, “Oh that’s just my older brother Teddy. He just got out of Army and wants to travel around a little before he gets all settled down and stuff.” “Down the road about a mile is “Eats and Treats,” tell ‘em we sent ya’, and tell your brother thanks for what he done.” Sure thing, Bubba. By the time Sophie got back to the car the tank was full and we were ready to shove off. She was good. I pulled back on the country road and we drove straight past Atlanta to the Alabama state line.

“What if someone finds the body and they come looking for us,” I asked Sophie. “He ain’t from around there so no one’s gonna know who he is even if they do find him,” she replied. Followed up with, “Besides that, ain’t no one gonna be lookin’ for him.” In some small way, her words gave me comfort. Still, I had killed a man. A worthless good for nothing man, but a man just the same. I wondered if Ben had made the smarter choice by staying in South Carolina.

We made camp in a wooded area not far across the state line and cooked some hamburger meat we had picked up in a Piggly Wiggly along the way. Our money was holding out since Sophie had surprised me with a sizable wad of loot she had “borrowed” from her ex-communicated parents. “I figure they owe me,” was all she would offer up about the subject. She kept the money in a jar tucked in an inner compartment of her backpack. Before the night was over we ended up sleeping in the car due to monsoon-like rainstorms. We drove through the rain the entire next day until we reached the Apalachicola River where Sophie was familiar with a good spot to stay the night. It was dark when I turned down a muddy potholed road which led to an open area where we parked and immediately, tossed back our heads and closed our tired eyes. We awakened at dawn and it appeared the rain had subsided. But as we soon discovered, that is not all the rain had done. The river she was a risin’. Half way up the car’s tires kind of rising. It was hauling ass as we observed trees and miscellaneous debris frolicking in the raging rivers turbulent current. Having no radio in the car we had not been warned of the impending flood. A nearby bridge was already covered with rising muddy water and was already impossible to cross. Not that the bridge mattered anyway, we were stuck and the backend of the car was beginning to do a swan dance to the rhythm of the accumulating rain. Knowing we had to vacate the car quickly, I grabbed Sophie’s arm and yanked her out of the driver’s side door. By now the water was at waist level and we were struggling with all our might to reach the safety of any dry land we could find. We heard the sound of metal being twisted and smashed as the car gave way and wrapped around a tree as the tangled mess quickly disappeared over the horizon. Being a foot taller than Sophie I had the advantage of gaining a stronger foothold. She clutched to me as tightly as she could as I became both our strength. Then she was gone. She never made a sound as she was swept away.

Reaching some quickly disappearing land I turned and took one last glance but it was hopeless, and I knew I had to move on if I was going to survive. Alone and trembling, I hiked roughly three hundred yards to a spot where I appeared to be safe for a while and fell to the wet ground, tears of sadness and desperation staining my face. I was literally alone. I had no one. My heart ached for Sophie.

The water never rose to where I was so I had remained safe, but very hungry. I walked about a mile along the side of the same road we had arrived on, to a small store I remembered seeing. Knowing the building had escaped the flood waters, I figured they would be open and I had a rubber-banded wad of saturated dollars in my pocket. Due to a lack of essential electricity, the little country store was not open. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Glancing around, there was nobody in sight. What the heck, I was already guilty of grand theft auto and that silly little insignificant murder. Picking up a huge rock I hurled it through the front window. Without power here of course was no alarm, but I still needed to be quick. I found a large sack of flour, emptied it, and filled the empty sack with as much food as I could possibly carry. One last bit of business remained. I pushed the open drawer button on the old relic of a manual cash register and found the cash the owner had neglected to remove in his hurry to vacate the premises. What’s a guy to do?

Hiding in the thick of some trees I camped and waited for the floodwaters to be swallowed by mother earth, restoring harmony to a devastated landscape. I walked along the river bank fearing what I may find. I never located Sophie, but I did locate the mangled stolen vehicle. The car had been brought to an abrupt halt by several huge oak trees growing side by side, refusing to surrender to the massive weight of their unwelcomed guest. I peered at the wreckage trying to determine if any of the original contents remained, and to my utter astonishment saw Sophie’s backpack. Reaching my arm through the sharp metal shards I was able to grasp one of the straps and free it from the wreckage. The glass jar containing the money had shattered, but the dollar bills remained firmly inside the pack. I didn’t find much belonging to me outside of a couple of pair of jeans and a few shirts, but I badly needed to change clothes so counted this as a blessing. I dunked the clothes in the rivers muddy water making an attempt to wash off the caked on dirt and debris. This would have to do for now.

I knew there was no reason to delay my departure now that the water had almost returned to its rightful level, so I strapped on the backpack and started walking toward the highway, without the girl of my dreams by my side. I felt totally lost without her. Before sticking out my thumb and hoping for a ride, I allowed my freshly not so clean clothing to dry in the sun, along with the soggy money. I was just starting to repack everything into one bag when I heard a rustling noise coming from nearby. I spun quickly around. “You couldn’t even wait on me, could you?” Sophie had the most peculiar way of just showing up when not expected. She was bruised and walking with a slight limp, but she was breathing. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. “All I remember was tripping and falling in the water. Next thing I remember is waking up and the water was gone.” She had a pretty nice sized gash on her forehead. Knowing we would never figure out why fate had been so kind, I pulled her to me and hugged her like I had never hugged anyone else in my entire life. I put Sophie’s clothes and a few other items I had discarded back in the pack, along with my few remaining garments, and then stuffed in as much of the stolen food as I could. For the first time in my life, God had kicked a field goal.

Chapter 8: Mushrooms and an Indian

Even looking as scraggly as we did, truckers cannot resist rescuing a damsel in distress despite her being accompanied by a runt of a male. But as long as we were making miles, I could deal with their gross flirtatious mannerisms to a point. It was the truck stop diner farts that were slowly killing me. Chili Dogs only smell good when eaten. “Ain’t you a….phweeeet….cutie pie?” Despite the inconveniences, we were making great time and were already crossing the Texas border where the wild-west officially begins.

We had showered at a truck stop in Mississippi and washed our clothes in the sink, so outside of being incredibly tired, we were feeling pretty good about things. Because our latest chauffeur had to hang a hard right to Arkansas we were abruptly deposited smack dab in the center of no-mans-land, Texas.” There were cattle fields to the left of us. Cattle fields to the right of us. Outside of that, the landscape was as barren as barren could possibly get.

“Follow me,” said Sophie as she grabbed a wooden fence pole and catapulted herself into one of the grazing pastures. Before I allowed myself time to contemplate my actions, I followed suit. She was searching the ground and I had no earthly idea what she was hoping to find. “What are you looking for,” I of course asked. “Shit,” she answered. Concerned, I immediately asked, “What’s wrong?” “No, I mean we are looking for shit.” She had observed her Romani parental units doing this many times but was told she was too young to participate. “There are a couple of piles right over there,” I said, pointing to what looked like oversized hockey pucks with straws of hay sticking out in various places. Sophie skipped straight over to the first one she came to and nudged it over with her foot. “Nope,” she said. On to the next! She repeated the process four or five times as I watched with a dumbfounded expression, mouth open, head tilted slightly off kilter. “Woo-Hoo,” she excitedly yelled. The cows heard her also. All eyes were on her as she stooped over and gingerly dug in the dirt with her bare hands. When she stood back upright she had a handful of something dark. “Magic mushrooms,” she gleefully expressed. “Here, eat this,” she said, thrusting one of the dirty cow crap smelling spores in my hand. Reluctantly, I obeyed.

“You’re full of it,” I said to Sophie about forty-five minutes after choking down the mystical and magical shroom.  She told me all the adults in her tribe used to eat magic mushrooms once in a while. They would dance, sing and act like morons. Children were prohibited from participating until achieving the age of eighteen. Laughing, Sophie picked up a small rock and gently tossed it at me. “Oh man, did you see that?” The stone had a trail, followed by another trail, followed by yet another trail… I shook the obvious illusion from my mind as I patiently waited for the mushroom to kick in. Over the following four hours, I saw more shooting stars than I had ever seen. Even the herd was enjoying the show because I could hear every last one of them from the distant opposite end of the field. They were loud. Not knowing one constellation from the next I created my own. I saw my father riding a huge white stallion while Sophie danced in the bright moonlights silvery glow. The grazing pasture was dancing with her as the ground gently rolled and swayed. I felt like the wisest person in the universe as my mind conjured up philosophies relating to human existence. Thoughts I had never had before were catapulting through my brain. I chose to ignore the opium-smoking caterpillar beckoning me while perched atop a giant golden colored mushroom. As the magical spell began to dissipate Sophie and I tightly embraced, resting from what seemed like a very long trip.

“Let’s do some more mushroom hunting,” I said to Sophie as the sun began casting its first light upon our still tired bodies. We knew we had to do this quickly before whoever owned these future beef patties showed up and began asking questions we knew would be better left unanswered. We would let him try and surmise why his field was full of overturned cow chips. Feeling satisfied with our psilocybin harvest, we continued our westward journey, thumbs praising the sky above.

Traffic was slow in the remote bushland of Texas, but eventually, a farm truck locked its brakes, fishtailed and backed up to retrieve two strangers on the side of the road, one of much more interest than the other. “Howdy little lady, looks like you might need some riding… err… a ride,” said the young dip-spitting ten-gallon hat wearing toothy-grinned cowpoke behind the steering wheel. “Go buck your bronco,” Sophie replied back in her most earnest and sincere wise ass fashion. She seldom said anything she didn’t mean. “You ought not talk to me that a way pretty girl,” he said, never losing his tobacco stained grin. “I seen y’all in that field last night, you was havin’ quite the time. Yes sir, quite the time.” He was relentless in his verbal assault. “Seein’ as y’all is so young and all, and being way out here, I figure the Sheriff might have some questions for y’all. Unless that is, you want to cooperate with me instead.” The outcome of this was not looking favorable. Just then we heard the sound of rapidly approaching tires in the distance. We looked up the road and saw a newer model pickup zeroing in on our location. The cavalry had arrived! To our relieved surprise, the truck, driven by a robust pig color skin girl, stopped directly in back of Wyatt Earp’s truck. The woman bounced out causing the ground to shudder below our already shaking feet. “Vern, where the hell was you last night?” The closer she got, the more brilliant her pinkish hue became. She was snorting. Replying faster than his tumbleweed brain could think, he blindly spouted, “I got drunk and passed out at Luke’s place, ask him.” “I already did.” His face turned purer than the innocent whiteness of a snowflake. Turning to us Ms. Piggy said, “I know you kids is needing to get somewhere, but this cowboy here ain’t givin’ nobody a ride nowhere today.” Which when loosely translated meant: Sophie won’t be giving him a ride, or, bucking his bronco, if you will.

Not wanting to go into any major city our next long distance trucker ride dropped us off outside of Santa Fe. Outside of enlightening us to the wonders of nature’s mushroom bounty, Texas could shove it up its rodeo chapped ass. Being down to a couple of Slim-Jims, a half-eaten box of Cracker Jacks and a semi-crushed Moon Pie, we stopped in at a small roadside diner for a real meal. We claimed a booth with ancient red vinyl seats expertly repaired with silver duct tape. Just for kicks, and keeping in line with our devil may care newfound attitudes, we had dined on an appetizer of magic mushrooms and were awaiting further transport to an unknown galaxy. We figured it best to get something into our systems prior to taking off. A waitress with a huge red plastic name tag saying Mabel came to take our order and was eyeing us suspiciously. “Y’all ain’t from around here are ya”,” she inquisitively asked. “We are from wherever we happen to be at the time,” Sophie replied, recalling her Romani upbringing and philosophy. Mabel short-circuited and took our order without further interrogation. We ravished our meal and exited the diner just in time to witness Aurora Borealis in all its colorful glory, illuminating the New Mexico horizon. It’s a rare occurrence in those parts.

Beautiful, isn’t it?” We looked in the direction of the unrecognizable voice to see a guy who looked to be in his early twenties. He had brownish yellow skin and long black hair pulled in a ponytail. “I know you see it,” he stated. Followed by, “Tawa is pleased with the day, you must give thanks. Masauwu shall not be victorious.” On top of where our minds were already traveling, we followed Mabel’s lead and also started short circuiting. “My name is John, I’m from the Hopi tribe.” John???? What kind of Indian name was that? John!! Actually, John was his pale face name, given for the benefit of blending more easily with the murderous oppressors who had unrightfully claimed the majority of his tribe’s sacred land, centuries ago. Howling Coyote was his given Hopi name. We stuck with calling him John. “Tawa only reveals such a spectacle to open spirits in search of enlightenment,” he told us. “You would not be staring at the sky’s blank slate, most people are seeing if you were not in a state of receptiveness such as I am.” Man, this guy was smart, whatever he was talking about. “Look at the distance again, and see it as near,” he somewhat lovingly demanded. Sophie and I did as he requested and as we turned our focus back towards him, he had simply vanished without a trace. In my immature wisdom, I began to realize how life vanishes every day, and how the finish line is closer than we think it is.. Even the large glass of sweetened ice tea I had with my meal was about to vanish forever. I had to pee.

Chapter 9: Johns World

New Mexico is a long way from South Carolina. Especially for two kids barely on the brink of busting out of their youthful shell. John thought about the two wayward travelers throughout his sleepless night. Not that sleepless nights were a rarity for him. In fact, he slept very little. Generally only when the moon was but a sliver and generated the least amount of cosmic energy. Though he could go long periods without sleep, he had not as yet achieved the finely honed spiritual art of willful starvation, and as a result was famished. John would not kill, nor would he allow anything that at one time had eyes with which to view the wonders of life, to enter his holy temple of a body. He even believed plants had souls, but since they couldn’t see anything and a guy has to eat… Prickly Pear Cactus was his main source of nutrition. Though he could prepare it in numerous ways, he did not eat for the pleasurable arousal of his taste buds. He ate to live. He preferred to eat nature in its natural state without further disgracing its death by scorching it with flames. There was but one exception to his honorable digestive habits. He loved Cracker Jacks, and he always kept the toys in their unopened packages. He considered them his trinkets.

The Hopi tribe live within the Navajo reservation even though the two tribes are totally unrelated. The Hopi’s have always enjoyed the rightful title of “The Peaceful People,” or, “Peaceful Little Ones.” They are closely related to the Aztecs of ancient Mexico and as such are a very spiritual people. John’s grandfather had been a sacred priest. It was his duty to assure rainfall and an abundant harvest. He would heal the sick with his tremendous spiritual power. He was a man of great importance. John’s father played a much lesser role in the clan and had a hankering for whiskey, straight up if you please. His dad’s liver could no longer withstand the strain and exploded into a thousand points of light, leaving John alone and orphaned. His mother could not care for him because he was not supposed to know who his mother was but did. He inherited his features from his Dad, but there had been a white woman in the wood shed which was strictly forbidden by tribal law, and no one was ever to speak of it. But John knew. This is why he hung around the diner so much.

Mabel had vacated the area during her pregnancy, claiming her grandmother in Idaho needed assistance with an incontinence issue. Not being of any means to care for a child, but knowing the tribe would, she snuck back into town with her not so joyful bundle and thrust baby Howling Wolf into the not so receptive hands of the sperm donor, John’s father. John’s dad, though barely capable of thinking on his feet, devised a plan. He took the child to his father, the priest, claiming he had stumbled upon this swaddled infant at the base of a mesa where he had obviously been deserted by someone with little to no parenting skills. Of course, his story was not believed, but wanting to save face with the rest of the clan, the grandfather placed the burden of raising the child with John’s dad, who he knew in actuality was the father. From that day forth, the grandfather had nothing to do with either one of them.

Though bestowed an official welcome into the clan, John was never fully accepted, largely because of his unknown origin, and the fact his facial features wore the markings of what they thought to be another tribe but couldn’t quite recognize. Either way, they knew he was not pure blooded Hopi. His dad wasn’t much of a father, but when he met his self-inflicted fate, John felt like even more of a loner, so he did what he thought to be his best option by walking into the Navajo desert and pitching a tent. Welcome home. Tapping into his Native American gene pool, he vowed to become one with the universe. John developed tremendous spiritual skills and enlightenment. He developed his own rituals, sometimes involving peyote buttons for a better third eye awaking experience while the Marijuana that grew wild on the range was better for seeing inside one’s self.

Still, something about those two travelers weighed heavily on his mind. Perhaps it was the innocence they had not yet lost. Perhaps it was their naïve view of the world that had not as yet crushed their spirits into oblivion. Perhaps it was that these kids were discovering life through their traveling adventures while he was attempting to understand the meaning of life from a stationary perspective. John was waiting for life to come to him while they were progressing forward, already experiencing it. John’s world was in his mind while their world was beneath their feet. Granted, the spirits and the god’s of his half people, had taught him much in his quest for wisdom, but how could this wisdom be of benefit to anyone, including himself, living in solitude in the middle of a Navajo reservation. Who was he trying to impress? Himself? It had been fairly easy to notice these kids were tripping on something the way they had been blankly staring into space. He was more than familiar with that stare. Knowing they were visiting the land of the surreal just as he often did, created an immediate bonding of kindred spirits, at least in his confused mind.

At first light, John’s inner forces compelled him to locate the young followers of nothing. He knew they would not be far, figuring they had “holed up” for the night somewhere close by. His compulsion was the result of a profound visionary dream. There appeared a large horse and rider, shaped by stars. The horse reared back as if in battle as the unrecognizable rider pointed one long finger toward earth. Following the direction of his point were two fearful shadows attached to the trembling figures of the two trance induced star gazers from outside of the diner. The interpretation alluded him, but meaning did not matter. It would come in time.

Chapter 10: Life at the Diner

“Sophie, wake up,” I whispered, gently shaking her. What do you want, I’m sleeping,” she mumbled. “I see someone coming.” Startled, Sophie shot straight up as we watched a rapidly approaching silhouette develop into a real live person. “Our destiny’s cross again,” greeted John. I told him we were going to talk with him more last night be he somehow vanished before we had a chance. “I was obstructing your guided vision, so I faded from your reality,” was his perplexing explanation. No longer being “shroom powered,” he wasn’t making a bit of sense. Still, he seemed like an Okay guy, and he was the first real Indian I had met so we invited him to grab a piece of ground.

“Where is your trail leading?” asked John. Being a quick learner, I surmised he was asking where we were heading. “We’re going to Arizona,” I told him. Playing a game of twenty questions, he then inquired, “And what awaits you?” Uh…well…we don’t rightly know, was what quickly popped into my mind. My mouth, however, popped out the words, “I guess we will know when we get there.”

Howling Coyote extended an invitation to come visit his tent, so clearing our busy calendar we decided it might be good to rest up at a safe place for a while, especially after all we had experienced in such a relatively short time-frame. I was a little hungry so I grabbed the last few remaining Slim Jims and offered one to John. He disdainfully declined my peace offering. Finely ground undefinable meat by-products, shoved into manmade edible tubes, were not a part of his dietary regimen. “More for me I guess,” I very stupidly said. I was trying to grow up, but part of me wouldn’t let me.

Half expecting a wigwam, I was disappointed to find he lived in a four man, green canvass U.S. Army issue tent. So much for my westward ho the wagons false illusions. Inside, the tent was very sparse. A couple of brightly colored striped woven blankets comprised his designated sleeping quarters. There were some herbs hanging outside of the tent which he told us was sage. It was used for cleansing spirits. There was a painted adobe bowl containing what appeared to be miniature green pumpkins. A couple of them had flowers growing out of their tops. “Those are peyote buttons. They hold the answers too many secrets” he told us. Beside the bowl were some of the biggest marijuana buds known to mankind. Some of the older kids back in South Carolina used to smoke pot so I knew what it looked like even though I had never tried it. All of that was about to change.

We smoked the peace pipe again and again spending most of the day higher than Uranus and munching on desert plant life. I discovered why those kids back home liked this stuff so much. John claimed pot opened the door to one’s inner spirit. I didn’t know about all of that, but I was thinking about lots of stuff I never thought of before, and, I was in a constant state of arousal which I was hoping would not display itself. Sophie and I made camp a short distance from John’s tent, not wanting to interfere with whatever he did at night, and not wanting him to interfere with what I was hoping to do that night.

Listening to the sounds of living things that can eat you does not make for a restful night. Still, after spending the bulk of the day in a comatose state, our bodies and minds received some well-needed sleep, but not what I had been lustfully dreaming of throughout the day. I did on occasion hear a crunching sound echoing through the night air from the direction of John’s tent but thought better than to inquire in case he had been performing some ancient and secret ritual.

Awaking with a bottomless hunger, Sophie and I needed way more than the current topography was capable of offering. After all, we were just novice pale faces passing through. We let John sleep in if he was even his tent at all.

“You two still here?” asked a surprised Mabel. “We camped down the road from here,” I explained. Not certain what to make of all this, and having fully recovered from her previous short circuitry, she cautiously asked, “So, do you two have a home somewhere?” Sophie, being Sophie, chimed in with, “Our home is here.” Mabel was far more astute than her fixed glassy-eyed gaze insinuated. “Well, if y’all are home, I could use some help around here. Interested?” This first offer of gainful employment for either of us came as quite a shocker. “I got a shed out back of my trailer. Ain’t much in it and it’s got electric. It beats sleeping on the ground. Y’all are welcome to it as long as you’re working here.”  The pay was squat, but we ate for free and had better accommodations than we had ever had in our short life together.

Sophie was taking a breakfast order as I was perfecting the artistry of frying a sunny side up egg when in walked a guy with a shiny star on his shirt. With deliberation, he claimed the furthest booth and took his reserved seat where he drank coffee and ate the exact same thing every morning. “Well, darling, where’d you come from?” he asked Sophie, with a wide toothy grin. His head was topped with long hair from the side of his head, carefully combed over his pinkish bald scalp. Mabel, once again in her astuteness of any given situation, came to the rescue. “Mornin’ Dex, this here is my nephew Ricky and my niece Sophie. They came all the way down from Idaho to spend some time with their dear old Aunt Mabel.” Then she whispered to him, way too loudly: “Poor things. Their Mamma’s in heaven and my no good brother just can’t look after them right now.” “Yeah, that’s rough. You’re a good woman, Mabel,” replied Dex. If Dex only knew……

A few weeks went by and we were now staying in the trailer with Mabel because she thought it would raise less suspicion concerning our short sordid past which she still hadn’t the slightest idea about. Mabel viewed people by the character she saw in them. She had too many skeletons rattling in her own closet to judge anyone else. For the sake of personal sanity, she resided in the now. On one of the shelves was a gold framed picture of a Native American man who looked vaguely familiar. The photo was old and yellowed, but I could see he was holding an infant child in his arms. One night, after closing, the diner and retreating to Mabel’s tin can palace Sophie finally asked, “Who’s the Indian man in the picture”? Mabel hesitated, contemplating her awaited answer for an extended length of time. “A man nobody else understood,” was her initial reply. “I knew him in ways he would not reveal to others, and he meant everything to me,” she continued. “I watched his life disintegrate before my very eyes when his world would not accept his choices.” On a roll, Sophie asked without further hesitation, “Who is the baby?” Mabel, eyes turning red, simply replied, “That’s another story for another time. Goodnight y’all, sleep well”.

Chapter 11: Moving On

I was awakened early the next morning to the sound of Sophie barfing in a plastic garbage pail. “Ohhhh……I feel like crap,” she moaned. I immediately considered the two-week-old pork chop from the diner’s freezer as being the culprit of her illness, but then realized I had eaten the same thing and I was feeling chipper. “Sophie, you OK?” came Mabel’s voice from the other side of the closed bedroom door. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her Mabel, come on in,” I gladly invited. Wiping the sweat from Sophie’s forehead, Mabel led her to the kitchen and fed her some bread to calm her stomach. After about ten minutes she was feeling surprisingly fine so we all cleaned up and headed to the diner to open for breakfast. Sophie was relieved to be feeling better. Mabel was concerned but kept it to herself. Time would tell.

Of course, neither Sophie nor I had any notion of a career in the country diner business and planned on forging ahead once we added a little extra change to our dwindling cash flow. Still, we liked where we were and had no complaints about sleeping in a real bed at Mabel’s. The Sheriff continued scrutinizing our sudden appearance. “Mabel, they don’t sound like they from Idaho.” “It’s a long story,” is all she would reply.

On this particular morning, the Sheriff was not scrutinizing, he was delivering devastating news. The ingestion of peyote buttons causes hallucinogenic visions. Proclaiming their use to be of ritualistic importance, and the only viable roadway for seeking intelligent conversation with the gods, John choked them down with regularity. The semi-trucks headlights appeared as terrestrial crafts sent from the realm beyond as John embraced their presence, arms open wide. Rest well, Howling Wolf.

Mabel’s knees buckled as she turned ghostly pale just prior to crashing to the cold linoleum floor in a drenched heap of tears. As the Sheriff exited the diner I locked the door and flipped the sign in the window to say closed. A stabbing pain of compassion, such as I had never felt, sliced through my heart when she quietly whispered, “My son, he was all I had.” The photo on her mantle suddenly made sense.

Later that same day with Mabel feeling an inner need to reveal the secrets she had been forced to tightly lock within her mind, she confided her life story in two kids she knew little about, and we reciprocated.

“It was especially bad back then, even worse than it is now,” she told us. “John’s father would have been lynched for planting his seed within a white woman, and John would never have been accepted had the truth been known.” “Our love was hidden behind walls.” She looked past John’s dad’s drinking habits to his inner soul and the reasoning associated with his addictive escape route from a haunted life. He had been kind to her. John was never to know for fear it would taint his own full acceptance of who he was.

Sophie and I shared every sordid detail of our past, both together and pre-us. None of us slept that night, and by the time the sun peeked its sleepy eyelids over the desert’s horizon, we were kindred spirits. One for one and all for all. We became family, with a stronger bond than the type God forces on people. We were all any of us had.

The diner remained closed for the remainder of the week with no projection of a re-opening date. There was no formal funeral for John. He would not have wanted a white man’s unfulfilling ceremony, and his tribe just shrugged their shoulders, having known it was only a matter of time for him anyway. They felt their holy tribe had been purged. Besides, the truck was doing eighty miles per hour so John’s body was but a stain on the Peterbilt’s grill. John was simply, no more. It was a difficult notion to wrestle.

Two weeks passed when Mabel, still walking bent over from overpowering grief, entered the front door of the trailer and announced, “I’ve sold the diner and the trailer. I have no reason to stay here any longer.” Shocked by her statement I quickly asked, “What are you going to do? Where are going to go?”  She answered my questions with questions. “Where do you want to go? What do you want to do?” Not clearly understanding the implication of her interrogation, I sat silently and stared at her, awaiting further explanation. “I’m leaving and I want you two to come with me. Besides, it’ll be easier for both of you if you’re seen with an adult. Start calling me mom.” “Where are we going?” “Where do you want to go?” This series of questions without answers continued for a short while, before I decided to go with our original travel destination, and said, “Arizona where my dad used to talk about” It was decided that as far as anyone else would know, we were going to one potato, two potato, Idaho, but in actuality, Arizona it was.

Chapter 12: The Howling Wolf Diner

Without hesitation, we were dust in the western bound wind. Mabel appreciated my suggestion of exploring Arizona since she had no earthly idea of what to do next or where to do it at. With an adventurous spirit, we stuck to small county highways, stopping in just about every little town we came to. Mabel yearned to experience all the things she had missed for so many years. She even let me drive a good portion of the time. Sophie and Mabel had a nice long chat concerning Sophie’s continuing “bad stomach,” which led Mabel to reveal the only logical explanation. “Honey, you got a youngun’ inside of you.” Both Sophie and I realized we would have to grow up quickly as we continued our journeys, we just failed to realize how quickly.

With all of our stops, it took us about a week to finally arrive at our destination in Bisbee, Arizona. It was just as I had imagined with its wild west looking downtown, rolling desert hills, deserted copper mines and dirt lined streets, and I could not have been more elated.

With the cash Mabel had received from the sale of the diner and trailer we were able to find a two-bedroom adobe house just on the outskirts of town. Mabel decided this would be a fine place to open a new diner and started scouting out a suitable location. First the first time in quite some time, we all felt free and content with the future awaiting us.

Sophie was starting to reveal her motherly condition more and more and she secretly enjoyed being pampered by Mabel and me. Mabel considered this child her grandchild. Mabel found the perfect location for the diner so she and I were busy getting the place prepared for business. It was right in the heart of town on the main street. Things could not be any better.

About a week after “Howling Wolfs Diner” opened its doors for business we had already developed a regular breakfast and lunch crowd. We decided there was no need to stay open for dinner, and besides, we wanted as much free time together as we could get. One morning as the main breakfast crowd was clearing out, a man walked in and grabbed a stool at the counter. I didn’t think much about him until I meandered his way to see what I could get for him. As he looked up from his menu I was suddenly stunned. “Dad,” I blurted out. Equally as shocked the man just stared in disbelief. “Ricky?”

Looking as if I had literally just seen a ghost I stammered “How can this be, you died in the fire.” “Ricky, I don’t know what you’re doing way out here, but I can explain. I’m very much alive as you can see.”

Mabel, obviously seeing my distress, told me to grab a table and she would bring coffee. I was trembling as we sat down. “I wasn’t any good to anyone Ricky, and I knew you would somehow get taken care of better than I could do it so I disappeared.” “Then who died in the fire,” I asked. “Nobody died in the fire,” came his reply. “I was walking past old man Wilson’s place and found him lying face down in one of his fields, dead as a door nail,” he began. “I covered him with branches and waited until night time then went and fetched his body.” My eyes were wide. “I dragged him to the house and set the place on fire figuring by the time anyone got there he would be so burnt up nobody would know it wasn’t me.” “I was living my life in a bottle and knew I had to get out of that place or I was going to die anyway.” I sat there with my mouth agape as he continued. “I ain’t had a drop of whiskey since leaving that place. I’m sorry Ricky and I love you son.”

Chapter 13: The Family

As things would have it, I forgave my father seeing all he had been through, and he really was a changed man with a new outlook on life. He and Mabel took a shine to one another and started spending more time together which was just fine with me. Sophie gave birth to a beautiful little girl we appropriately named Sunshine.

Sophie and I eventually moved into our own home as a family, and as fate would have it, Dad moved in with Mabel. We all take part in running the diner now, including Dad, and we proudly display a sign that reads: Family Owned.

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