Son of a Preacher Man Series – Episode 3

The Old Man and a Lionel Train

Youth fools us into believing in something bigger than ourselves. A future full of hope that only fades with experiences that a young boy of sixteen can not even imagine. Warmth of that late summer day on the edge of fall that had been fresh in a new school year shrank with the cool dusk air that sends a signal of seasons escaping us. Hallelujah Joe made it walking past Highland Park elementary to Meadowbridge Road and once on Laburnum, he started hitch hiking.

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An old man sat in a wingback chair admiring lovingly a small plastic Lionel Train caboose. The inanimate toy was alive with memories. Once again another late summer afternoon aged into chilly fall nights some call martini weather. To the man with the rounded face and thinned hair, it would be better to distill memories of times both bad and good from years past into a warmer more comfortable nostalgia brought on with the sweet taste of hot cocoa or warm apple cider. A warm blanket of memories fits snugly as if squeezing into last years plaid flannel shirt.

Hallelujah Joe had become this old man.

Sounds from a car pulling to a stop in the driveway start the big black dog barking, “Easy,” the man coaxed the animal. “That’s just Little Joe.”

The dog ran tail wagging to the man coming through the unlocked door. With one hand on a suitcase behind him, he stopped to rub the dog’s ears.

“Hey,” the old man said, “Glad you made it.”

“Can’t believe the traffic. Who would have ever thought Mechanicsville would be so populated?”

“Things change.”

“What’s with the train set?”

“Got it out of the attic. Thought you might want to take it home after your mom packed it away all those years go. Been saving it for you.”

“Well,” the younger man said, “Never get too old for a train set.”

Joe Sr. chuckled, “Never thought I’d be old enough to see my boy sprout gray hair. Old dogs and trains remind us of what could have been and what is.”

Parts of the toy set rested along side of the family Bible on the coffee table, “You been reading the Bible?”

“Read it, hell, I wrote it.”

“How’s that?”

“Your grand father thought it would be a good idea to beat that book into me, so as a punishment for something, I don’t remember what, he had me copy word for word everyday after school.”

Little Joe smiled at the thought, “You remember any of it.”

“Never made much sense. When I got to the part about who begat who, all I could think about was there must have been a lot of screwing going on to have all those kids.”

Old Joe could always phrase anything into a joke that made Little Joe laugh.

“I ever tell you what happened when I ran away?”

“Mostly.”

“Well, that day I ran away when I was a teen, I figured I’d hitchhike up to New York and get on Major Bowes radio show. That was the first amateur hour. Some big name like Sinatra got their start on the show. So, I thought why not.”

“Did you get on?”

“No, bunch a people ahead of me and to audition I’d have to stay a week or so. With no money and no place to stay, I headed back south.”

“How’d that work out?”

“Damn near starved. Once I stole a bottle of milk off somebody’s front porch. That was some adventure.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“Funniest thing happened on my way up. I told you about my father’s religion killing me. Well, when I was hitching north, the first guy to pick me up tried to save me and gave me a Bible.”

With a chuckle, “He probably didn’t know you wrote it.”

 

 

The next morning fall weather had a tighter grip. Enough cold air to make breath visible as Little Joe packed a keyboard and sound equipment in the back of a pick up truck. Old Joe came out, “Let’s hit it. Have to be at the lodge early enough to set up before lunch time.”

Since retiring after years at the Post Office, old Joe had taken up his passion to be an entertainer. Senior citizen homes and civic clubs loved his off color jokes and songs that were popular long enough in the past to remember for some in his audience that could not remember breakfast. Little Joe had become his father’s roadie. He’d set up the mic, check it out, be sure the keyboard was plugged in, and the take a seat to watch old Joe do what he did best. Once in a while, some up tight old woman could get offended at the suggestion of something off color and would say, “That’s disgusting.” But, for the majority, they loved it. One of his favorites was Room Full of Roses. He’d say, “Mickey Gilley sang that song once and made a million dollars. I sang it a million times and never made a dime.”

The crowd always loved that and would fill the tip jar. Some old guy in the audience shouts out a heckle he thinks is funny, “That tip jar part of your retirement fund?”

“Nah, every penny goes to the Shriner’s Hospital for Children.”

Every show ends with the song, Brighten the Corner Where You Are.

 

On the way home the truck’s heater breathed on the two as they inched along Brook Road leaving the Westminster Retirement complex behind where most of Joe’s audience would be taking their afternoon naps. The route north targeting Mechanicsville showed scars of times passed when the empty asphalt and concrete lot that used to be Azalea Mall came into view. Once, young Joe’s schoolmates bought Weejun penny loafers and Madras dyed shirts to fit in with those kids from Ginter Park. They strutted the halls of John Marshall High adorned in the multicolored plaid shirts with button down collars and short sleeves that fathers who made more money than a postal employee could afford. Many of those with so much promise were now old enough to be left stripped of their popularity.

“You ever hear from any of your friends from then?”

“Didn’t fit in with the cool kids back them, probably not so much now. I saw some pics on Facebook and they are all old farts now. Funny, how those athletic football players got so fat and lost so much hair.”

They stopped at the traffic light where some brilliant city planners changed the name of the intersecting road from Dumbarton to Azalea Avenue. The right hand turn signal ticked and clicked like an old clock, then died when the turn was made. The corner where Wright’s Town House Chicken in the Rough Restaurant one cooked Sunday meals in a family pack for two-ninety-five. Old Joe mentioned the memory of the to go box shaped like a house with a handle, “Now that was a happy meal long before the fast food guys.”

The corner now has a sign that promotes Coke on sale to get Walgreens customers in the door at the new landmark. Their drive filled with memories goes east past Pony Farm Road where young Joe fell off a pony for the first time when he was a kid and amusement parks were dirt tracks where farmers made a buck or two letting city kids ride a pony. That too is long gone. Cheap Monopoly Board apartments stand where ponies once ruled.

“I remember that,” said Little Joe. Then he asked, “Why do you always close with that song?”

“Which one?”

“Brighten the Corner Where You Are.”

“Well, back when I was a teen going place I’ve never been that seemed really important.”

“You wanted to be a singer?”

“I am a singer. Just didn’t become a star. That’s all.”

“True, but you did follow your passion when you ran away.”

“Let me explain something. Your age thinks passion is all there is. Just got to love what you do. That’s bullshit.”

“How do you mean?”

“First thing, the most important thing, is to find out what you can do that makes money.”

“What if your passion is the thing that makes money?”

“Good for you, I guess. The thing about being hungry and the only thing between you and a meal is two ninety-five, you get a job that pays.”

“Take care of the wallet first and do your passion on the side. That’s not so bad.”

“What’s all that about?” Little Joe asks about a long line of traffic bringing them to a stop.

“Up on the left they have a flea market.”

The traffic light backs up a line of cars at the intersection where Azalea Avenue at one time was a dead end. Times change. With time, the road has been extended. All those thick tall pines and oaks once called ‘the country’ are gone with the scar of new pavement and Azalea Avenue changes names to Carolina Avenue around some curve with no demarcation landmark. The change occurs just past curve with no real reason for a name change.

“Lot of traffic at that flea market.”

The turn signal clicks impatiently as both Joes can do nothing more than observe the crowd meander from one table of junk to another. Some have pitched small square tents. Old Joe chuckles, “Makes me think of Daddy.”

“How’s that?”
“People pitching those tents to sell stuff they don’t want anymore. Old stuff made new again. I can’t tell you how many times I pitched much bigger tents for your Grandfather’s prayer meetings.”

“Harry was a nice old man,” offered Little Joe.

“Yeah, he mellowed a lot when he got older.”

“You two seemed close, as I remember.”

“Your grandfather was raised in a different time. Life was tough and people had to be tougher. People change. It takes time for some. Every once in a while, somebody will have some big ‘aha’ moment that instantly changes their life. Sometimes a pitchfork gets smacked down for no reason.”

The light changes green as they turn onto Richmond Henrico Turnpike, which changes names to Meadowbridge Road for no real reason.

Son of a Preacher Man Series – Episode 2

Hallelujah Joe

The brick building was a simple square box with no steeple so it could be anything. Trees with empty braches hung over a lawn of fallen leaves. Off in the back a few old grave stones implied this was a holy place. Windows were boarded on the sanctuary, but the attached living quarters at the rear of the box offered the only sign of life. Harry and his bride Viola lived there. Harry purchased the church so his brother, Wesley, could become employed as its minister. Wesley had no business sense the way Harry had managed his grocery stores, so his methodology to give away church funds as Christian charity over minor inconveniences such as the oil bill broke the church. It had been many months since the old Estey Organ piped out old time hymns. Sunday mornings the old lady in gingham ran her boney fingers over the keyboard as he bobbing head kept time with songs such as, Blest be the Tie. Members would shout the words, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.”

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That idea of hearts bound together didn’t show as the members would compete to yell the loudest to be sure God would see them as those more saved than the weaker voices. Their noise only echoed the divide that grows in church congregations where the deacons decided they knew more than the preacher. Therein, dissention took root and disheartened Wesley. The church failed. Harry got a new home as Wesley’s flock dissolved.

Viola and Harry had a beautiful daughter named Jesse. When Jesse was nine, Viola gave birth to a boy. Papa Joseph upon seeing his grandson offered, “I have a five dollar gold piece if you name that boy after me.”

“What if I name him Joseph for you and Sherril for his middle name after his daddy?”

“That’ll do.”

For a five dollar gold piece, the son-of-a preacher man was named.

 

All of this gave Harry quite a reputation around town. A reputation teenage boys would love to take advantage of. One Halloween, the boys came around to decorate the grocery store windows.

The next morning, on the entrance window right below the Tetley Tea sign, “Fuck you” was written out in white letters. Harry walked in and the clerk that worked for him was headed to the front with a bucket of water, a bar of lye soap, and rags.

“What are you doing?” asked Harry.

“Clean up that mess those boys left.”

“Leave it up,” said Harry. “I want the parents around here to know what their children are doing and thinking.”

The graffiti stayed up a week or so, long enough for all the lady shoppers to see, then Harry let Billy wash the windows.

 

Screened windows kept the mosquitoes and flies outside during long hot summer nights. The open windows allowed the neighborhood to witness what goes on behind closed doors in Harry’s house. This became a major amusement for the neighborhood boys. They crept up close to the hydrangea hedge and listened. The things they heard made them snicker and slap one another’s shoulder. The noise kept young Joe awake as well, and sometimes he could hear the boys outside rustle the bushes or occasional muffled laugh. The sounds were unlike any other in the neighborhood. There was yelling and lot’s of proclamations about God. Harry’s voice was bold and carried across the open lawns, “Praise God, forgive my sins, and wash me in the blood of Jesus!”

Harry and Viola carried on with such passion. But, it was passion for the nightly prayers, not wild sex acts.

This was not at all foreign to Joe. He heard it every night. Ever since he was five or so, he had spent five-hundred twenty Sunday mornings hearing just about the same thing. Everyone was going to hell, unless they screamed out prayers the loudest.

It was just such a morning after that Joe made his way to school. Boys in the back of the class whispered jokes and giggled at Joe. He felt heat rise and bit his tongue as best he could. That afternoon old lady Poff announced homework reading assignments as the last bell of the day rang out at Chandler Junior High. Joe carried books and quickly left the big front door past the Roman columns and down the granite steps of the three story building with tan bricks shinning in afternoon sun. He began his walk on East Brookland Park Boulevard on his journey to Fourth Avenue. Just over a mile and he’d be home and get ready to work in Harry’s store. Joe looked forward to the hike and on some days he’d stop at the drug store at the corner of Second Avenue to sit at the soda fountain with older teenagers hoping to learn some secret to impress girls.  On the opposite corner across the street an image loomed large through the store windows. Buildings of that size should serve as a fortress or some formidable sanctuary of official responsibility. In fact the vision of Highland Park Elementary meant more to Joe than education.  The mere sight of the place reminded him daily of his first crush on a girl named Janet, but she was above his class and destined to find some college boy to run off with in the future. Joe could recover from such indignities and move on, but some slights would not set with him.

That day along Brookland Park Boulevard before he reached the drug store and the monument to his failing, he arrived at Hotchkiss Field with its baseball diamond and wide patches of green grass where kids with no store to tend would spend days playing. His quick pace stopped when he heard a familiar voice. A neighbor kid born a year earlier and a clear foot taller than Joe shouted, “It’s Hallelujah Joe! Oh save me Jesus … save me!”

His laugh sparked his band of three followers to join in laughing and yelling, “Hallelujah Joe.”

Joe dropped his books. One smacked flat against the concrete sidewalk, the other landed on the corner of its spine and made more of a thud sound as it bounced to lay flat at his feet. Blood flushed to his face, and he felt his heart race as he began his run step by step faster and faster toward his aggressor. The laugher and smirk on the boy’s face dropped, eyes widened, he realized Joe was charging. Within several feet Joe left the ground and all his weight was in that one right fist that landed in the upper lip and nose of the loud mouth boy. The force sent blood flying and the sound of the cartilage breaking in the boy’s nose was as loud as the batter connecting with a home run across the field. Within seconds the boy taller than Joe was on the ground and begged, “Enough! Get him off me!”

One of his pack pulled Joe by his shoulders back and another boy struck at Joe missing his nose but landing against his left eye socket.

Car brakes squealed and mail man driving jumped out, “Knock it off! Stop it!”

The boys mistook the uniform and thinking the cops had arrived, they ran off supporting their wounded leader who was now holding his nose high to stop the bleeding that had now covered the front of his shirt. The postman approached Joe, “You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You live nearby?”

“Fourth avenue.”

“Come on, I’ll give you a lift. Those boys may come back.”

In the car, the man asked, “How is it you would take on a group of boys?
“They said something.”

“Let me know. I don’t want to say it and have you go off on me.”

“Called me a name,” Joe paused. The man’s expression was asking for clarity, “They called me hallelujah Joe.”

The man smiled, “That’s do it every time. They needed a good ass whipping.”

 

Over the front door of the store, a small bell bounced and rang as Joe made it to work for his father late that day. Joe entered with a noticeable black eye growing. Harry looked up from the butcher block, “Coming in late? They keep you after school again?”

Joe stood quiet.

“What’s this?” asked Harry. “Black eye. You been fighting again? What have I told you about turning the other cheek? Head to the basement for a lesson. Maybe this time you’ll get the idea of discipline through your hard head.” He turned to Billy, “Watch the store. Be back shortly. If a man does not show discipline to his son, he’ll never learn obedience and good manners.”

Joe did as told and headed down the narrow wood stairs to the basement. Boxes in rows stacked from the cold cement floor to the thick wood beams that supported the store. Harry used the coolness of the basement to store canned goods. Off to one side was a large tank full of oil for the furnace when winter comes. The machine sat quiet and stood jury to the sentenced you boy. Harry stomped down the steps after letting Joe spend a few moments waiting to let the meaning of the moment set in.

“Joseph,” Harry use the formal name for such executions. “As it plainly state in Proverbs, ‘He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”

Joe shook at the words and watched Harry pull his belt from the loops of his pants. Joe ducked as he swung and in the dark Harry swing the end of the belt with the heavy steel buckle. The buckle drew blood, “Damn you old man!”

Harry stood back shocked.

Joe stood inches from Harry’s face, “That’s the last time you’ll ever swing at me. Your religion is killing me. I have to fight in school because everybody makes fun of you. Then, you expect me to stand here and let you beat my ass. Never again.”

 

 

That night, Joe packed a small bag stuffed with beef jerky and a few candy bars from the store along with a change of clothes. He left through the same bedroom window used by the boys to eavesdrop on Harry’s night time rituals. Joe was on his own.

Son of a Preacher Man Series – Episode 1

Angel of the Lord

The rain that had not stopped turned the dirt road from Mineral, Virginia to Richmond into a mud path that sucked wood wagon wheels down. The word from neighboring farms was another damn hurricane had come ashore down around Myrtle Beach and tracked right over Richmond. A month earlier another storm tore up the outer banks and rampaged up the James River to drown a lot of livestock down in Suffolk. The Richmond Dispatch, as it was called before adding the name ‘Richmond Times Dispatch’, only gave lip service to the storm on page four, “We have to regret that the wind and threatening weather of yesterday interfered with the decorating of the business houses of the city.” The locals were planning a visit from the president who was on a train from Fredericksburg to a quick whistle stop in Ashland. The report continued, “They decided a number of persons had to hesitate about carrying out such plans, but the wind and dark skies were disheartening. However, if we all can’t have what we wish, let us be thankful for what we have, and resolve to enjoy ourselves to the uttermost.”

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President McKinley visiting Richmond was not on the mind of farmers with work to do, even if General Lee and his wife were party to the ceremony. The old man rarely got a hold of a newspaper and paid little attention to the columns of newsprint with the smudge of black ink stain that lasted about as long as any of the pontification of people who never did any real work. His son, Harry, was only ten in 1899, but old enough to be a farmhand.

“Harry, you and Wesley git the calf  up in the wagon. Come on, push,” Joseph, the old man, said. “Boy, the beef buyers in Richmond ain’t gonna’ wait for this downpour to stop.”

The boy behind the calf heaved against her hind quarter and pushed the baby up shoving the animal up and under the canvas of the covered wagon.

Harry was a skinny farm kid no where near filling out the hand me down overalls. Like his four brothers and three sisters, he was no stranger to hard work. In the 1800’s farm folk had lots of kids for cheap labor in a post Civil War Virginia. Soon as a boy could carry a bucket of water without dragging it in the dirt, he’d go to work in the fields. And, most would work there until they outlived enough winters to finally die and get buried in the family plot out back.

Making the Fall trip to the market in downtown Richmond from Mineral took a couple of days. Even the wildest of imaginations could not dream up the same distance would only be a short car drive of about a half hour would actually come true in the next century.

The old road back then crossed a couple of rivers that ran down through a part of the Chickahominy swamp until what’s now called Staples Mill Road runs in to Broad street. Harry and his brother Wesley walked along the dirt path by the wagon watching the old cow follow her calf in the wagon. “No need to tie her,” the old man told the boys. He taught them that she’d stay close behind her baby in the wagon. Along the way other farmers would greet the wagon, “Take my cow along to market?”

The neighbors knew and trusted old man Joseph as an honest haggler for a good price.

Before long, there’d be a small cattle drive pushing through the country side. They’d get to the first river and the man that owned the wood bridge charged a nickel toll for the wagon to cross. The boys would drive the cows through the water at a penny per cow. At night, the only heat was the kerosene lamp they hung from the roof of the wagon. One black overcast night with only the small dim light bouncing off faces of family members huddled together seated on hard wood planks of the wagon floor, Harry spoke to Wesley, “One lone light – out there – no stars can be seen through the clouds. Wouldn’t you know it, snow flakes are beginning to fall.”

“You think we are gonna’ do this all our life?” asked Wesley.

“Look at our old man. He’s beat. Ain’t got a hope and a prayer.”

“Ain’t no prayer ever get him out of the dirt.”

Harry nodded and turned his attention to one of his favorite dime novels to read in whatever dim light from the kerosene was left. “That your favorite?” Asked Wesley.

“Seth Jones or the Captives of the Frontier. I like it. Listen to this line, ‘The clear ring of an ax was echoing through the arches of a forest.”

“Sounds like us,” said Wesley.

“Yeah, except he goes on to fight savages and survive.”

That was an understatement, as life in the country was tough. These are the people that cleared acres upon acres of land with nothing more than an axe and shovel. They fell trees, stripped the bark to make lumber for houses, firewood for fuel, and leave land cleared by hard strong hands. They did the back breaking work to uproot hundred year old stumps to make way for tilling the dirt for rows of corn and butter beans. Survival was basic for men that knew how to work and were not squeamish about the task to bleed a hog by slitting the things throat. The women knew how to boil the animals hair off its back and they mastered knife skills to slice and butcher the right cuts to make use of everything the hog had to give for feeding the family. Smoking and putting up a ham was only the beginning of meat curing and tasks needed to make good use of all the meat with no waste. Girls learned early how to can tomatoes, beans, and pickles without killing off a family member with tainted food. Everyone pulled their share. They had to work or die.

The mission of this trek through rain and mud was to make it to the 17th Street Farmers’ Market in Richmond. Haggling over prices and negotiations from tough buyers and sellers was the main event, but shoppers also listened to political speeches and raised their own voices at religious revival meetings. Little did Harry and Wesley know what those hell and brim fire meetings would mean to them later.

 

The season for harvesting and haggling at the farmer’s market turned into a cold winter until finally a new planting season came and the boys had a field to clear and get ready for butter beans and corn. Harry was busy stabbing his pitch fork in mounds of black dirt turning the clumps over to take seed. Wesley was no where to be found.

The sun moved into an unbearable angle and sweat poured off Harry when he heard Wesley, “Hey.”
Wesley’s head of long black hair was soaked, “Where have you been?”

“Swimming,” answered Wesley. “Too hot to work this time of day.”

Harry’s face flushed red, “Papa has me working in this dirt and you are off skinny dipping.”

Wesley shrugged and laughed.

The pitch fork was in Harry’s hand where he had been aiming the empty prongs at another mound of weeds and black dirt. He said nothing.

Wesley watched the anger grow in Harry and his nonchalant attitude disappeared.

Harry raised the steel fork into a spearing position and before either boy could speak, he let go. The sharp steel prongs of the spear headed toward Wesley’s chest.

Fear filled both boy’s faces. Neither could believe their argument had gone this far.

That old pitchfork glided in what felt to Harry like a slow motion lifetime.

Then, mid flight, the fork was smacked down and dug deep in a mound of dirt within inches of Wesley.

The thud in the ground was the only sound for a moment.

Harry felt a ringing rise into his ears like he was about to pass out.

“Damn, Harry,” said Wesley.

Harry dropped to his knees, “Jesus, what have I done?”

“Just about killed me for nothing. Lucky son-of-a-bitch that fork hit the dirt. I don’t know whether to kick your ass, tell Pa, or what.”

“Wesley,” said Harry, “this is a miracle.”

“For who?’

“Both of us been saved by something.”

“Like what?”

“It must be the angel of the Lord smacked that fork in the dirt.”

“Angel of the Lord?”

“Has to be. Look how close to your feet. Only a few more inches and you’d be shooting blood. We have been saved by something.”

Wesley looked straight on at Harry, “Saved by something of for something?”

 

Like a bolt of lightning, according to Harry telling the story years later, he was born again in that instant and never turned back. He spoke of that night when he tossed his favorite dime novels in the fire and picked up the family Bible. Some years later, Harry got off the farm as a young man and moved to Richmond where he became a milk man. In his time, the milk man drove a horse drawn wagon over the same route of households each day. He told how that old horse knew the route so well, he’d stop at each house and make all the turns without having to pull the reigns. Cold winter mornings were a challenge for Harry, and the horse struggling up slippery streets in Church Hill delivering milk.

Harry became a man of commerce. He didn’t have formal schooling, but he had business sense. Knowledge of the food chain engrained in him from the farm and the bartering skills at Richmond’s Farmers Market was all the education he needed. He opened a grocery store.

One store led to the second and third small family corner store owned by Harry. In those days, the grocer did all the work. Buyers came in with a list and the grocer filled the bags and rang up the total. Holidays during the depression offered most people little to celebrate. Each Christmas, Harry would bring in a railroad car of flour and boxes of oranges. He handed out the bags of flour and oranges as long as the inventory lasted. Most people in Barton Heights felt a deep kinship with Harry. These were days when a hand shake was a badge of honor. It was a common practice to have customers buy on credit and it paid off. During the depression, customers with a tab came in and asked Harry if he’d take real estate in exchange for wiping out debt. This led to him owning a sizeable inventory of home sites.

Grocery stores made money for Harry, but his calling, his passion was preaching. That memory of the pitch fork stuck with him. He and Wesley spent many a day on the revival circuit preaching hard core about the sins of the world. They pitched circus tents all over rural Virginia to hold their firebrand prayer meetings he had heard at the market meetings. In addition, Harry rented retail store fronts and opened his ‘Good News’ mission for weekly prayer meetings. At one point, he bought a church for his brother – but it failed and Harry moved his family in the living quarters of the church. That move would become the genesis of many stories.

A Book by the Toilet

The book on the counter was sectioned by a coupon bookmark.

The only words showing from the coupon advertised a discount headline, ‘Receive a Free…’ Not enough of the copy was revealed to answer what ‘Free’ item would be offered if I only opened the book to that page. What could it be? Maybe there would be some ‘buy one get-one’ at the store down the street with doors, or some code to be entered for one more promise lost in the shuffle of websites.

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There were many books stationed throughout the house to captivate any reader, but this one volume held a strategic advantage. It was placed by the one seat that holds the visitor captive. That toilet that keeps us placed and bonds our free will to get up and leave. Not like the soft cushion by the end table in the living room where another book rests with another bookmark stuck at a page where the bad guy is just about to get his twist of fate. Or, that book in the office with its platoon of sticky notes marking page upon page of affirmations to make me better, break a habit, or just get me to finish one task of the day. The book in the living room is marked with the family tree and an old church bulletin from 1960 something marks a scripture that meant something once. The thought was something about ‘my word will not go void, but will produce…’ something or other. Then, the book by the bed on the nightstand is a whole different story.

Each of these volumes had been marked for some reason to re-read some line or two. This edition from my favorite author lies face down with a coupon. Since there must be something important marked, I picked it up. Upon opening to the placement of the bookmark, I found nothing. The thing had been placed between two empty white pages. “Why would I do that?” I wondered.

This famous and favorite author had filled my imagination for years with countless metaphors. His plain speech had been colored with fanciful descriptions that on occasion would end up in sentences as long as paragraphs. The writer could hold me captive past colons and commas to the end of the page the way this damn toilet binds be in this seated position. With all of his symbols, analogies, similes, and comparisons, why would I mark a blank page with nothing to give? Is that emptiness a challenge for a writer with no audience to just keep writing? Do all the pages before that led to this blank empty space mean nothing as well? On earlier page he once wrote that time is hungry. There is much truth in the metaphor as time has eaten away many dreams and filled volumes with the ‘what if’ questions. The blank page became a beacon to turn the tables and begin the daily task to devour time instead.

The white of the blank paper began to burn into my retina. A bright light at the end of the tunnel of death as if a warning becomes clearer and clearer with years left behind and a future that has been revealed.

Pages before filled with things to do and places to go; finish school, get a job, get married, get a better job, make a sale, hit a quota, buy a stock, build a 401k, pay for this, pay for that, get that car, get that boat, get that house, color your hair, lose some weight…get a break. Pages and pages filled all leading up to this one empty blank space left that screams, “What’s next?”

The writer with no audience is stuck on a toilet.

How different is that from anyone else? Do all the things we believe are important end up with nothing more than a blank page? What is it we chase only to find out we were the ones being chased? The blank empty page is the very thing that pulls us into an unknown future. The fact that we do not know is the thing that drives us. This is easy when youth is on your side. That is the mystery, the cliff hanger, the reason to turn the page.

Sunday Morning Confessions

“This morning I hired a prostitute,” the man said.

That caused an uncomfortable rustle. An uneasy tension filled the room. The preacher on the stage continued, “She was hitchhiking, so I picked her up and told her how dangerous that is. Turns out she wasn’t hitching at all, just advertising.”

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The sanctuary was full that morning as more and more followers have grown the congregation. If business kept up that way, they’d have to add services to turn over the seats and move crowds in and out each Sunday, or build a bigger place. The reverend was against that big time. He said anything of the sort is way too big of a distraction. All the fund raising, land buying, architects, contractors, and the worst of it all, building committees lead by elders of the church with nothing better to do but complain. He continued, “Darlene, that’s her name. She’s right up here in the front row, stand up Darlene.”

An attractive young woman in her twenties stood. She was obviously not dressed for church; or hitchhiking. Her tight jeans, high heels, pull over tank top shows a lot of Darlene.

“Darlene will be working in the office. That’s why I hired her. I want you to get to know Darlene as she is an example of a new vision I have for the church.”

The preacher paused and walked a few steps closer to his flock around the podium.

“That vision is just six words. This is easy to remember, and easy to say over and over. Ready?”

Another pause, while the thought of a new vision and a prostitute running the church business all in one Sunday service sinks in. Events such as this may seem like a lot to take in. That is if you do not know the pastor. For a preacher, the man is full of surprises. He takes in a breath, smiles, and announces, our job is to ‘Be Christ like; not just Christian.”

He lets those words hang in the air.

“Be Christ like; not just Christian!”

When he nearly shouts his statement, the voice bounces off the large panes of glass windows, “Just six words. You can handle that. Repeat them with me.”

One old lady in the front row yells back, “Be Christ like, not just Christian.”

She tugged on the tweed lapel of the coat a size or two too big on the old man beside her. He resisted her coaxing to stand up, but he gave in and with a bowed head gave a thumbs up and the woman turned to the members of the small church and shouted out her six words again. She started the contagion and like some gravely cough or sneeze the thing spread back two pews and grew across the sanctuary. When Darlene, the whore, stands with her she lifted her arms in praise and nearly exposed her braw less breasts tucked in her tank top; right there in church as she yelled, “Be Christ like; not just Christian!”

To draw attention away from what many may call temptation the organist jumps in with a hymn called, To Be Like Jesus, and that gets the congregation standing, shouting and singing.

The rally goes on with members chanting; some even moved to the isles to shout and dance waving their arms.  Just as the virus had spread the thing retreated and seats were taken with silence once again filling the place with the final notes from the song.

Sunday morning sun beams arch down from the stained glass windows illuminating clouds of dust only seen in that light from above. The preacher smiles in his warmth of success from his new line and sees in the audience a look in the faces of members filled to bursting with stories about sin and salvation, and with the success of the rally still pounding hearts. He gained that special confidence to take it up a notch “Does anyone have anything to share in the ways of testimony this morning”

“Yeah, I can share,” the voice from the last pew turned heads.

A man in a worn brown suit stands. His plaid flannel shirt is buttoned to the top with no tie; his Sunday best. The guy walked up to the podium and before speaking, he lit a cigarette, “I quit last year. But, I started again.”

He takes a long deep inhale on the thing as it burned down near the two fingers holding it. As he exhaled, he crushed the butt out on the surface of the podium. “There you be,” he said, “Quit again.”

The man looks around the church taking in the view and raised his hands mocking praise, “It’s a miracle! I quit again. God saved me and I am free!”

Then he pats his pockets, and shrugs, “No, never mind. I just forgot to buy another pack. Not God at all. You want to be Christ like? That it? Then, listen up. The thing is, God does not care if you decide to kill yourself on your own with bad decisions. That just makes his job easier. Give the angel of death a day off.”

What a strange Sunday morning could be the description on the faces in the crowd; an old farmer smoking in church and a nearly exposed prostitute leading a chant about Jesus. What could be next?

The preacher cleared his throat upon returning to the podium, “I believe what Bother Jones was trying to get at is the reality that we have a choice. To quit or not to quit.”

“Amen!” from a member. “That’s right from another”

Like any good man of the word, the preacher could think fast on his feet and used the old man to tell a story about one of the final things Jesus did, “There came a time for the sermon on the mount. You may have heard about it. But, the key message is all about choice. There’s a lot of stuff that comes before us and demands some action. He said there are only two choices that count. Smart folks at Columbia University did a study that said on average we have about seventy decisions to make everyday. Everyday! That racks up over twenty five thousand a year. Imagine all these decisions and Jesus said we only have two.”

Members look at one another and take in the facts.

“How can that be?” asked the preacher. “How can we get our heads around this and make sense of our mission to be Christ like, and not just Christian?”

Heads nodded in agreement and he continued, “We have to know the answer he gave about choices. He said only two. There’s the wide path where everyone goes and the narrow one that is the harder of the two choices. Only two. Be Christ like, or just be Christian.”

A Reunion at Christmas Time?

He looked familiar in some way when he tapped on the microphone on the band stage, “Testing, testing…” the general buzz of conversations dissolved to hear the guy, “If you are wondering why you are in a room full of old people, you’re in the right place. Welcome to the 1965 class reunion of John Marshall High School… Christmas edition”

“Wouldn’t you know it,” an old lady chuckled in the crowd, “He’s still the class clown.”

Bill, the guy that looked like the cover of Mad Magazine back in the sixties was now a skinny old man. What was a goofy kind of face now just blended in the herd of unrecognizable faces distinguished by Magic Marker name tags. He stepped off the stage and a three piece light jazz group with a bass guitar, drummer, and lead piano started tinkling some white wine and brie music.

LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION OR KEEP READING

One of the few men with a full head of hair, let’s call him Joe, escorted an attractive fit lady a full six inched shorter through the crowd, “Damn, I don’t see anyone I remember. I remember the kids the way they were fifty years ago clear as day.”

A bald man with thick black eyeglass frames nearly runs up, “Joe! Can’t believe you made it.”

“Of course I made it. I ain’t that damn old.”

“I mean you made it here. Never have seen you at any other reunions.”

“It’s hard to leave Florida for all this cold weather,” Joe answered. “Why on earth plan a reunion so close to Christmas?”

“They figured old people refuse to travel without a good reason, and visiting family around holiday time would be a draw. And, damn, look here, it worked. You’re here.”

The cinderblock cavernous gymnasium had been so large back in the sixties when the architectural style was modern. Just as with so many places in our memory, they aren’t so large anymore as buildings and dreams shrink with time. Now the experts call this style of building mid-century on one of those tear down a house and build it over shows on cable TV. The shiny maple hardwood floor still had the thick polished glaze of the basketball court turned dance floor for feet in socks at the high school senior prom. Along the walls the retractable bleachers were tucked away in long rows of polished pine coffins.

Joe moved through the crowd narrating events and people to his wife, “That fat guy over there you see laughing, he hasn’t changed. He was such a wannabe ass kisser to the popular kids.”

“Was he a friend?”

“No. I wasn’t a cool kid that drew followers.”

As they browsed through couples who chatted as if they were once again teens trying to solve world problems like protesting Vietnam and deciding which acne cream works best, Joe and his bride amused themselves eavesdropping conversation to conversation.

“You went to VCU right?”
“It was RPI, Richmond Professional Institute back then.”

“That guy you dated, I hear he became a lawyer up in DC.”

“Damn, you look almost the same,” as one lie led to another.

“So, Joe’s wife asked, “Which one of these girls did you date?”

“I asked a lot of them out, and they all turned me down, so I dated a few from other schools. However, there were maybe two girls I took out maybe once.”

“No crushes?”

“Oh, plenty of those.”

She poked his side and teased, “Any familiar faces?”

“Who can tell? They’re so damn old.”

“There was one in particular favorite crush I knew since elementary school. Prettiest and most popular girl in school. She was my first rejection.”

“What happened?”

“We were in something like the fifth or sixth grade and I got up the nerve to go to her door. They lived around the corner.”

“Did she break your heart?”

“No her mother did when she refused to let her go to a movie with me. Too young to date.”

“Is she here now?”

“That would be something, go back in time.”

Just saying that line snapped some time warp as if he had uttered a secret word to call the Gods to attention and grant do-overs. The Jazz trio morphed into the high school Beatles sound like band. Kids with hair too long to be football players strained their adolescent voices to hit notes only the nasal tweaking Brits could pull off. The old became new and young again. Gus, the school superintendant stood guard at the door checking pocketbooks for alcohol. The laughing fat kid with fat feet stuffed into shinny Weejuns penny loafers could not wipe the smile or his sweat from his face as he brought two cups of punch for the quarterback and the prom queen to sip in front of him. The class clown made faces and did some stupid dance move. Future lawyers, bankers, hopeful politicians, and young hopefuls that would more than likely end up in sales jobs played important as if the prom was their proving ground. Joe stood on the sidelines off court on the other side of the lines drawn in the wood floor for basketball players to obey the rules. The gym had been transformed at the hands of the art department that hung long streamers of crepe paper from the rafters back and forth across the ceiling. Hundreds of feet of the crinkled ribbons had been strung over untold hours of giggling girls coaxing boys up tall step ladders to dare the heights. Suspended above the bodies swaying to the music, the web mimicked a large net hanging above a swarm of teenagers whose main mission was not to dance but to get a first kiss, feel up someone, or get felt up. The lights dimed for the slow songs, the girls teased during the fast ones, movers to look up to, and hangers on to hope for the best. All the while our young Joe stared and listened. He could hear their comments culled from the band and noise and laugher and clatter from across the room, “What’s he doing?”

“Just sitting there,” but Joe thought that strange since he was clearly standing.

“Maybe he’ll get to his Christmas presents.”

“All he does is stare.”

“Joe,” someone addressed. “Joe.”

He thought maybe it was the girl with brown hair and dark eyes; the one from elementary school. The one who stared at him in her compact mirror from her desk in the front row as he day dreamed from his desk in the back row. She had not aged.

“Joe,” he heard again.

He smiled. Then, felt someone tug at something he held in his lap. “It’s okay, Joe. I’m just taking your book so you can open a present.”

Joe opened his eyes and the scene was no longer a gymnasium decorated for dancers. A bald man in a buttoned down Ivy League pink shirt came into view as he pushed an aluminum walker toward him, “Hey, Joe. You awake?”

The nurse helping him smiled with dark brown eyes as her brown hair caught some reflection of late afternoon sun from the tall windows that stood as a backdrop to a circle of wingback chairs stuffed with old people wearing outlandish Christmas sweaters.

“The group is all here, Joe.”

He took in the view like a tired old man waking from a long nap.

“Let me take that,” he heard and the nurse tugged his book.

“What’s that?” The man with the walker asked.

“That,” the nurse answered, “is his high school year book. He looks at it everyday.”

“That must get old.”

“That’s where his memory is. He can’t remember breakfast or that this is our Christmas party. But, he seems to remember 1965 just fine.”

As the nurse closed the yearbook, Joe held on to the last page he was looking at, the last page in the book with the headline, And Thus, All Good Things Must Come to an End And a photo of Gus, the school super, pulling down the metal gate to close off the hall that led to the gym.

SHORT STORY – Jump Off Rock

The Secret of Jump Off Rock

His skin was burnt umber, but his features were not African. Jose Ramos had the right words for ladies and big callused hands for picking apples. An angry eagle tattooed on his right bicep seemed to spread its wings as he lifted one more heavy crate up on the flatbed truck. The box of red and yellow orbs plentiful in Hendersonville, North Carolina held the promise of a crisp treat to satisfy the crisp fall morning in October 1979. To see Jose on a corner in a seedier part of town, he may be mistaken for a gang member. Here in the sun drenched orchard, he would be labeled a migrant worker here for the season. In truth, Jose liked the nickname J.R. as he was the master of this field. He fancied himself the head of his own land empire the way Larry Hagman strutted about the Dallas soap opera about to premiere its second season. His apple orchard farm was much smaller than the trashy empire on one of the only three TV networks. The size didn’t matter to Jose as his twelve acres produced sixteen varieties of the fruit that gave acclaim to Hendersonville as the most productive stretch of dirt in North Carolina.

How Jose Ramos became a land owner is a story that began back in the sixties.

***

It was a nice warm June day in 1965 in Hendersonville as Hector Hernandez cruised Main Street in his 1955 Chevy. Hector’s ride was black with hand painted flames and illegal mufflers to give the car a roar. He’d lay rubber half a block and his friends thought he was the man. When he wasn’t driving and cruising for beer, he and his buddies would stand on the street corner and torment the whores. They’d grab their crotch and tease, “La monada, want some of this?”

Young painted prostitutes paraded to look old enough to know better responded by giving the kids the finger. If Hector was in his car he’d pump the gas to make the exhaust pipes sing, and he’d laugh at the response, “When you grow a real pipe or roll of cash, we can talk.”

Hector could have been an earlier version of Jose. He had the dark good looks and shared a very similar background.  Mexican. Shitty neighborhood. His family lived in a small worn out frame house perched on a mound of a lot at a corner in one of the worst neighborhoods. Hector and his buddies claimed territory along Seventh Avenue around Robinson where drugs and whores were sold. In his day, mid sixties, the drug sold to the rich white kids was marijuana. Those kids, once called ‘preppies’, cluttered the place during summer vacations. Hector’s group was happy to taker their money from that whole baby boom generation of assholes. Hector could care less about the way these foreigners from Miami or Long Island acted out on pot for the first time. The drugs would change over the next decade in young Hector’s life, what the whores did would stay the same, just as the vacationers seeking cheap thrills never change from generation to generation.

That summer of ’65, Hector lost interest in teasing whores and began seeing a girl from school and a nicer part of town. Maria Alvarez had become special. He had just picked her up after school at the West Henderson High and headed south on Haywood Road, “Where are we going?” asked Maria.

“Nice surprise,” he said, “You like sunsets?”

“Of course.”

He noticed the book she held in her lap, “What’s that book?”

“My senior yearbook. I want you to sign it.”

“I like that name. The Falcon.”

“Yeah, well we do appreciate our football team.”

“I like the bird. Fast animal. Knows how to kill.”

A warm breeze blew in the open window as Haywood merged into Asheville Highway, “Why are we headed downtown?”

“Pick up my cousin Juan and his girlfriend Barbara. You’ll like them. Good kids.”

Once they made the turn west on fifth, Maria guessed the surprise, “You’re headed up to jump off rock.”

“Busted,” said Hector as he wheeled into a dirt parking space next to a small wood frame house; one of those post war shacks not big enough to be a bungalow. Juan and Barbara perched in folding lawn chairs behind the railing on the porch.

“Amigos!” announced Juan as he and his girl hoped in the back carrying a brown bag.

“What you got in that bag?” asked Hector.

“Libations for the ladies,” and he produced a cold six pack.

“How you get that?”

“Friend at the convenience store owed me.”

They headed on fifth up through Laurel Park when the D.J. on the local AM station said, “This new song from the Stones is going to be a hit.”

Hector cranked the volume as the fuzz tone guitar hit the first licks and Mick’s shouting, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

“Story of my life,” Juan said and Barbara slapped his shoulder.

Twists and turns of two lane pavement took over as Fifth Avenue turned into Laurel Park Highway. The road would turn back and forth on itself, “Go slow said Maria. This is one dangerous road.”

“That’s why they got that rock wall on the left.”

“Not a big wall.”

“Big enough to be hard work.”

“Hard for who, Amigo?” said Juan. “The probably used a bunch of Mexicans.”

“Nah. Most likely a bunch of Indians.”

Juan popped another brew and sipped the fizz, “Damn sure no redneck white guys broke a sweat.”

After another turn the pavement ended. Gravel cracked under the tires and the dirt path looked like it would take them to an infinity drop-off from a group of large granite boulders. Hector turned off the car, “Here we are. Let’s check out that sunset everybody talks about.”

Once the car doors thumped shut, Hector let Juan and Barbara walk ahead. His heartbeat was almost in his throat as he reached for Maria’s hand. She accepted and squeezed his palm with a sweet smile and her eye’s sparkled, “Maria Sparkle,” he said.

“Giving me a nickname?”

He thought he’d like to say how he would give her the world; do anything. Maria had a stronger power.  Being with her had taken on a new dimension. The test to win her over became the entire world in front if them; much bigger than all the space out there across the rise and fall of the afternoon horizon. Each step toward the edge felt like the last important step in his life.

“Hey, check that out,” he heard Juan say.

“Barbara, let’s take that path down around the base of the rock.”

Juan’s coaxing Barbara came as a relief to Hector as he wanted Maria all to himself. The dirt path ended and the granite edge of jump off rock became a natural step.

Maria stepped out of her Bakers flats so her bare feet could feel the stone warmed by a full day of new summer sun, “Nice,” she said. “It’s like the center of the earth is holding me from flying off into the universe.”

“And that is some universe,” added Hector looking out over the folds of the valley and the soft rounded mountains on the horizon, “Just in time,” said Maria as the sun dipped closer to the edge.

When sunset came, Hector felt some pride that he himself had orchestrated a great moment. A falcon soared above headed for a tree for the night. All was quiet. No breeze, no exhaust pipes, no blaring music. Just silence for a moment.

“Beautiful,” Maria broke the spell.

To Hector, Maria was far more beautiful and said to her, “Maria Alvarez,” he smiled her name. “You have the prettiest eyes. And, your hair …”

She stopped him, “What about my hair?”

“It flows like it is some kind of black cool liquid over your shoulders.”

“Oh, quite the poet.”

Hector wanted to say more, but the fear of telling her how he loved her stopped him.

“Some place up here, huh? She said to break his spell.

“Yeah,” he said. “You believe it?”

“Believe what?”

“Why they call this jump off rock. The Indian princess.”

She waited staring at Hector for an explanation, and he continued, “She jumped off the rock up here and killed herself.”

“Why would she do that?”

“Her brave had been killed. Couldn’t go on without him. That’s love.”

“If that’s love,” she said. “I want no part of it. At least for now. Right now all I want is to have some fun and leave all the love stuff for old people.”

“But, you say just for now?”

“Maybe some day after college. Could be.”

Hector felt safe since he had kept his feelings to himself.

“You going to college?” she asked.

Hector took a deep breath, “Not much chance a Mexican fruit picker going to college.”

“You may be surprised what you can do Hector Hernandez. You just wait.”

“Hey, we’re out of beer,” said Juan coming up the path where he had taken Barbara off to himself.”

Hector watched the last of the day’s sun illuminate Maria’s face, “We could wait for the moon.”

Juan buts in, “Ain’t no moon this time of month, man. Let’s head down for another six-pack.”

“Your friend still owe you one?”

“Nah, he’s off work now.”

“Ain’t none of us old enough, Juan. You know that.”

“Come on, let’s hit it. I’ll think of something.”

The ride down the mountain seemed quicker than the long crawl up.

“Turn right up ahead,” said Juan.

When Hector turned right on Hebron, it felt more like a u-turn, “Where you taking me?”

“Down on Greenville Highway, there’s a service station that sells beer and no one knows us or how old we are.”

“That’s a hike.”

“So, all we ever do is cruise, cruise, cruise. Ain’t never getting no where.”

“Where is it you so hell fire bent on going anyway, Juan?”

“Take my guitar to Nashville. Become a big star like Elvis.”

“Ain’t no Mexicans make it big at anything,” Hector laughed and glanced in the rear view mirror at the skinny runt of a kid in the back seat. His nose was too big and those squinty eyes said everything Hector knew about Juan. He was the scrappy little big mouth that would start a fight and watch Hector finish it.

“Why you be so down on other people’s dreams for?”

“Just real, man.”

“Hector, if you can not imagine picking yourself up, picking fruit is all you ever do.”

“You too Juan, all I see is apples in your future.”

“You watch smart ass. I am going to be somebody some day,” Juan said it with determination.

His comment got Maria’s attention. She glanced back to see that Juan turned his attention to Barbara. The privacy of the moment let her reach across the front seat to touch Hector. She slid closer to whisper, “Hector, I really do see something big in your future. If I see it, you should too.”

As they drove, the group grew quiet. A few miles of peace and they passed an opening in the forest and off to the right down the hill a wide vista of green stretched out.

“Bet there’s plenty of booze in there,” said Juan.

“You mean the Hendersonville Country Club?”

“Yeah, fat chance us ever getting in there.”

A new sixty five Ford squealed out of Bent Tree Road right in front of Hector causing him to hit the breaks.

“Totalmente mierda!” Hector yelled.

“What?” asked Maria.

Juan answered, “Wholly shit.”

“Hector Hernandez I am shocked at such language,” teased Maria.

Juan said, “Catch that guy.”

Hector sped up and followed the big square tail lights on that new Ford. They raced after the car around corners speeding by the intersections Chariton Avenue and Belmont Drive. Expensive homes flew buy and more intersections until they nearly missed some old woman driving an Oldsmobile at Forest Street. She blew her horn and yelled some kind of old fart obscenity as Hector pushed on after the Ford. This kept up until they turned right on White Street and came to a stoplight at the corner where Main Street changes name to Greenville Highway.  The Ford was stopped in the right turn lane at the light and Hector stopped his Chevy to the driver’s left.

Maria said, “Oh no wonder, that’s Bobby. The quarterback at school.”

Bobby saw her look at him and winked when she said, “Hey Bobby.”

“What you doing in that heap?” he laughed.

“Heap, my ass,” said Hector. “At least it’s mine, and I don’t have to ask daddy for the keys.”

Juan from the back seat leans up, “Oh, you that big football Falcon quarterback, huh? Look more like chicken to me.”

“You say what?” from a now smile less Bobby.

“Oh, sorry Amigo,” said Juan. “I meant to say chicken shit.”

Bobby raced his engine, “Put your money where your mouth is wetback”, and hooks a right on red to Greenville Highway. Hector floors it from the wrong lane but is close on Bobby’s rear. They pick up speed down the two lane highway now getting darker with the night coming down. The race goes on past Flat Rock and somewhere around Erkwood Drive, the guy riding shotgun in Bobby’s Ford tosses a beer can out the window to hit Hector’s Chevy in the front grill.

“That’s it!” yelled Hector catching some of Juan’s anger and picking up more speed.

The car sways in each turn, Maria becoming more and more frightened. She did not bargain for this and closed her eyes, “Hector, please give this up.”

“That stuck up white kid needs a beating.”

“Please, Hector, I don’t want anyone to get hurt. Please, slow down.”

Hector took his eyes off the road to see what he was doing to the one person he cared for most. He started to ease off the gas, the Ford’s tail lights faded into the dark just as the car passed Robert E. Lee Drive. Hector locked on Maria did not see old man Timmons pull his tractor out on Greenville Highway after the Ford cleared the intersection.  Bobby did not see Timmons tractor in his rear view mirror. He just sped away around the next bend in the road to the right and zoomed by Boxwood Loop. His buddy laughed, as they left the old Chevy in their dust.

Timmons tractor was slow. The plow with large discs for carving rows in fields was in tow behind the tractor and had no trailer lights.

This big steel discs reflected light from Hector’s beams.

The sharp edges zoomed toward the car just as Hector dropped his gaze at Maria and returned to the road. Then he felt his chest crush against the steering wheel and heard glass shattering. Hector saw something fly by through the windshield. Juan and Barbara crushed against the back of the front seat.

Everything went black for Hector.

He thought, just for a moment he heard old man Timmons pull on the door and yell something to him.

 

The next morning when Hector woke up at the hospital, he learned about his broken nose and three fractured ribs from crushing the steering wheel on his 1955 Chevrolet. The pain in his collapsed ribs could not come close to the new deeper ache when he heard the doctor explain that Maria Alvarez had been killed. No one would add to the pain with details how she was thrown through the windshield and landed on old man Timmons plow.

It was six weeks to the day that Hector Hernandez stood in court looking up at a white haired judge. The man looked through his glasses down his nose at a file that told the story of that night, “Mr. Hernandez,” he addressed the teen as an adult. “This is a very serious situation you have.”

The judge made eye contact with Hector as he folded his hands over the file he closed on his desk, “You aware of the pain you have inflicted?”

Hector nodded and sniffled out a ‘yes your honor’ and spoke, “I can not bear what my life will be like without Maria.”

“Well, young man, the great state of North Carolina considers reckless driving a class two misdemeanor. The more pressing issue is the death by vehicle law. My understanding is the young man in the back seat had been drinking, is that correct?”

“Yes sir, some beer.”

“And, you?”

“I had one earlier that evening.”

“Well, I appreciate your forthcoming as your blood alcohol test did not show intoxication. That would make this a homicide case.”

That word cut deep into Hector releasing a level of fear he had not experienced. The judge continued, “Our state defines felony death by vehicle as unintentionally causing a death while under the influence. Does the seriousness of your situation ring true, young man?”

“Yes, your honor,” the words choked with a quiver. “I know and I deserve to suffer. Maria did not deserve what happened.”

The judge took in the boy’s words, “Life, Hector,” he said, “is not something deserved one way or another. We all make our own lives and have to live with the consequences of our own decisions. You made a bad decision.”

The man sat back to take a breath, “Now, I have to make a decision.”
He let the quiet sink in. Time to give thought some deep roots to grow.

“Hector, you are a young man and not a bad person. You made choices that ended badly. What should I do? Send you away and let a bad mistake make a bad old man with nothing more than regret to live with. Does that sound right?”

Anyone witnessing the judge would feel a certain fear that the man was about to let the death of a young girl go unpunished. A justice system void of any justice could not be a good thing. Then, the judge made an attempt at leveling the field, “Hector Hernandez, you will be sent to our juvenile justice system facility in Asheville where you must complete a course of corrective study. You will also be confined there until you have successfully completed your high school education. Once released, your fines will be paid in community service.  Also, you will no longer have the privilege of a driver’s license until you are of adult age.”

***

The sixties passed and the seventies opened up a new world for Hector. That sentence of community service set the course for Hector’s life, as he worked for a youth center in Hendersonville with the mission to train and inspire young people. This was the place for Hector to meet a young smart ass kid, Jose Ramos.

Jose was trying to be the man on the street in the eyes of his friends. He had that in common with a younger Hector. He was too young to push drugs to the vacationing yuppies, and small enough to be the butt of teasing by the whores. Jose was a skinny kid and kind of short, but with a wide smile that split his cheeks into long dimples that girls thought was cute. He compensated his size with more bullshit than seemed possible. But, the charisma gave him some capital with the guys and a few of the school girls. One of these girls was a pretty freshman at the school where the Falcons ruled. She was sweet and volunteered at Hector’s youth center.

“Jose,” she’d say, “why do you hang with those kids? You know they’re up to no good.”

“You mean my posse?”

“Bunch of posers maybe, posse, that’s a stretch.”

“Come on girl, you talking about my team,” and Jose would laugh and push at her shoulder. “Why don’t you and me take in a movie?”

“You know my Daddy doesn’t think I’m old enough to date.”

“What? You’re a freshman in high school.”

“And, you are just fresh,” she’d say and turn away.

Jose liked the girl and thought of her in a serious manner, not at all the way he’d think about the whores in cut offs and no bra tank tops. Teenage boys have to deal with these conflicts, so Jose took it out in big talk with the boys.

Then, the afternoon came that opened a door for Jose. He stopped in the drug store on Main with the lunch counter and soda fountain. The place could be a time machine from the fifties. There in front of him sat the pretty girl with a milk shake that looked as tall as she was on the counter. He took the stool next to her, “You still think your Daddy won’t let me drop by?”

“Jose, no use trying.”

“You got something against Mexicans like we can’t ever do anything?”

“That has nothing to do with it. You should know better.”

“Just experience is all.”

“Don’t put yourself down. You can do anything you set your mind to.”

“Except get you out on a date.”

She smiled and took a sip from the straw in the shake.

Jose watched and smiled, “What brings you downtown anyway?”

“I help out at the youth center and this weekend we are having a bake sale to raise money for our programs.”

“That center raise a lot of money?”

“Cash keeps it afloat. Like anything else.”

“How’s that work, people donate money same as going to church?”

“Kind of,” she said. “Hector keeps it in a safe and takes it to the bank every Monday.”

“Good for him.”

 

That tidbit of information played well with Jose and his buddies, “We should break in one guy offered to Jose.”

“You crazy? I ain’t planning on getting shot or jail.”

“Who would shoot you late Sunday night?”

“Sunday?”

“The man goes to the bank Monday morning. Think of all that cash from the week before just sitting there with our names on it.”

Jose pondered, “How would you do it?”

“Easy, lift your skinny ass up through the back window. You’re the only one small enough.”

“What about the safe?”

“Ain’t no safe. I’ve been in there. Only thing in the office is a file cabinet. Maybe the man has a box for cash, but no safe.”

“Why would she say safe?’

“Girls don’t know shit. She probably thinks a file cabinet is a safe.”

“Why were you in there?”

“Girl I like said to volunteer.”

Jose laughed, “Got you wrapped?”

“No way. Don’t matter. I can go back in Saturday, sweep the floor take out the trash, some shit. Then I’ll unlock the window in the back so we can get you in.”

 

Sunday afternoon dragged by and the sun just hung there refusing to go down. Then finally gave up. Soon it was dark and really quiet since no one hustled about on Sunday nights. Silence was broken when Jose slid the metal trash can across the cobblestones of the alley to get a boost up to the back window. He grunted himself up feeling the bricks of the old building scrape his knees through his jeans. The white paint on the window sill had aged into a powder that stuck to Jose’s palms as he pushed the unlocked window up. One leg in and he pulled himself inside, “I’m in,” he whispered to the other boy outside. “Hand me the flashlight.”

Jose inched through the center back to Hector’s office.

Just past the door he aimed the flashlight around the room. Behind the metal desk was one lone brown file cabinet with four drawers, “Damn, unreal,” he said.

The top drawer was locked with a combination lock. The thing was a safe after all.

Jose started to back up when the ceiling light hummed its fluorescent glow, and he heard, “Stop right there.”

Jose turned around.  He stood face to face with Hector,
“What are you doing here?”

“It’s my office,” said Hector. “How old are you?”

“Old enough.”

“Don’t be such a smart ass. Sit down. Now, how old are you?”

“Fifteen.”

“A real man at fifteen. That’s a bunch of years ahead of you to spend in jail.”

“I ain’t done nothing wrong.”

“You broke in.”

“Ain’t stole nothing,” said Jose.

“Bet that combination lock slowed you down some.”

Jose sat quiet and Hector pulled up a chair, “What you think? Should I call the police?”

“Do what you got to do.”

“What I have to do is make a decision. Now on one hand, you have done a bad thing. I can call the cops. Put you away until you become a real bad person. Or, you can have a say in the matter.”

“How’s that?”

“You ever hear of Timmons Orchard? Big apple orchard over east of town?”

“Lot of farms over there.”

“Well, old man Timmons is what you call a benefactor. He helps the center.”

“Gives you money. Pay off the Mexican, huh?”

“Better than that. He let’s me decide about some kids here that can go to work on his farm. Learn something.”

Jose said, “I get it. You get kids and he gets slave labor.”

“No, he pays young men that I recommend. The really bad kids that sling dope around and cut each other. They get sent away. Good riddance. Kids like you too stupid to be bad, but can be saved and go to work. The ones that do good end up being somebody. Does that sound like something you can relate to?”

Jose sat quiet, “You think I’m stupid?”

“I think you are young enough to make stupid mistakes. But, doing something stupid does not make you stupid for the long run. If you try, you might be something.”

“I can be something?”

“Not that many years ago I was the same. Then a man gave me a choice when I did something bad, he said he did not want to make me a bad person by going to jail. I think you deserve the same chance.”

***

Jose took him up on the offer. Old man Timmons taught Jose the pride that comes from hard work. Taught him to show up on time. Do a full day. Get paid. Along the way, he taught Jose about apple varieties, the magic of pruning and grafting. Then, he did one better. He schooled Jose on saving and always learning something new. Helped him get through school. After some years, Jose became a favorite of old man Timmons. Up to the day he died. The man had no family so he willed twelve acres to Jose, along with other parcels to various young people he had helped from the youth center. So, Jose Ramos became the owner of J.R. Farms and his sixteen varieties of Hendersonville apples are some of the best.

The unofficial end of the summer of 1979 was coming up Labor Day weekend. There’s a much bigger event on the calendar for Jose. The North Carolina Apple Festival right at home in Hendersonville. A big weekend for sure for apple growers to show off their crops and have locals and tourist pig out of all kinds of fried and apple treats to sample.  Jose drove a fully loaded flatbed truck toward downtown to the apple festival on Main. He turned the radio on to listen to the local radio station live remote broadcasting the event to hear the warm up for the opening of the festival. The D.J. on the scene talked about the tents going up, tons of apples being unloaded, and a run down of some of the tasty treats promised, “Don’t forget those apple beignets. Get ready to crank up the volume for the latest number one hit, can you stutter, My My My My Sharona? Here’s the Knack.”

Jose turned the volume down and pressed on southwest on Asheville Highway. He passed the mix of old houses and crappy looking small commercial buildings. The Knack kept yelling until he approached and passed the triangular intersection at Haywood Road. The stoplight stopped him. The light changed. The DJ changed, “From number one we’re going way back for an oldie but goodie. Fifteen years ago seems like yesterday when you hear the Stones …”

The fuzz tone guitar pounded and Mick shouted, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

Jose drove on. Church Street and the merge with Main came up. Jose took Church to wind around to the lot for vendors at the festival. He made it through the stoplight at Fifth but Fourth caught him. The big red brick building with antique arched windows reminded him of who he was; and who he has become. He watched as Hector Hernandez came out to change the letters on the sign. Jose beeped the truck horn and Hector waved back. He stood there a moment’ then gave Jose a thumbs up. Hector picked up the tackle box of letters used to announce some weekly event at the center. He eyed the sign checking it and looked up at the permanent marquee on top of the sign with the name, Maria Alvarez Youth Center.


Jump Off Rock Comments and Reviews

Patsy, You’re great with dialogue. I liked the description of the car – black with the fire painted on the fender. You are good at describing people and places. Thanks for the good read.

Melissa, My first impression when your story came on my screen was that it was very long and I may have to come back and finish it later. Obviously, I didn’t do this because it caught my interest and held me to the very end. I enjoyed your story very much. You have a lot of good description, and it almost made me cry.

Greg, There is a great depth of tragic feeling in this story.

Alease, You have done an excellent job of capturing in a cognizant way a long span of time in a relative few pages. The metaphysical truth that life reflects back to us what we think is seen in every scene, especially the conversation about going to Nashville. The setting in the car was evocative. The short sentences describing the car wreck have a hearty and believable punch. I applaud you for not going with traditional stereotypes, especially where the judge is concerned. This is an inspiring read.

Jose, This has the qualities of a future novel. The characters breathe and are realistic, with the plot original. Great work.

James, I REALLY hope Nuckols continues to write. I think he can grow into something special.

Are Your Commercials Working?

There is a proven formula to get more from your commercials.

Some say the quote “Practice what you preach” may be a negative statement. Other statements such as, ‘Put up or shut up’ may fall into the same genre. A more positive spin such as, ‘Lead by example’ says the same thing.

However you say it, the thought came to mind as we rolled out some new commercials for our books to be sure we too are following the example expressed in another video we posted.

Here’s a test for you to decide if we are correctly using the PAPPA advertising formula we teach to improve results from  for commercials and advertisements.

First, we launched the following two ads for It Is No Secret. One is driving more clicks.

Headline:      Have You Been Seduced

Action:           Break the Rules

Headline:     The Divide Between the Rich and Poor Widens.

Action:          Get answers, not secrets.

Viewers are directed here.


Our next campaign for the book The Secret Advantage features two videos that attempt to follow the PAPPA formula for results.

Headline:      Can you change if you have more advantages?

Action:           Discover what winners know that leave the losers behind.

Headline:     Tired of seeing others get everything you want?

Action:          Get the advantage those at the top have used.

The call to action leads here.


 The next campaign features the video series The DARE Matrix.

Headline:     Most People Fail

Action:         Dare to be a winner and leave failure to others.

Leads go here.

Compare these commercials with the PAPPA formula explained in another video.

Medicare or Who Cares for All?

“What if I die?” My question landed on her face.

The USF Diploma on the wall behind her backed up her authority on the topic, so I anticipated a clinical answer, “We all die,” she said and smiled.

Doctors should not tease, but she and I had exchanged joking comments from time to time and her answer did not shock so much as what was to follow. She explained that the day for me was not that day, but she did want to run some tests to be sure we were on the right track. When she had suggested some tests, she explained, “Sonogram of your carotid arteries to be sure that brain of yours is getting enough blood.”

She gave some comfort explaining how the tests are done, and then added, “First step is to be sure your insurance will pay for it.”

“How long may that take?”

“Most times in a couple of weeks, could be a month at the most.”

“A month,” led to that question, “What if I die before the insurance approves my reason to continue to live?”

This story goes on all the time for those ripe enough to be on Medicare. Several problems with the fanciful idea of ‘Medicare for All’ comes to mind.

First, Medicare is not free. We pay every payday all our working lives into that fund that is rightfully our money.

Medicare payroll tax on earned income

The Medicare payroll tax is 2.9%. It applies only to earned income, which is wages you are paid by an employer, plus tips. You’re responsible for 1.45% of the tax, and it’s deducted automatically from your paycheck. Your employer pays the other 1.45%. If you are self-employed, you pay the full 2.9%.

The Additional Medicare Tax

The Additional Medicare Tax was added by the Affordable Care Act in November 2013. The ACA increased Medicare by an additional 0.9 percent, but only for individuals whose incomes are over a certain threshold. Those affected pay a total of 3.8 percent in Medicare tax.

Once we get to the age when we qualify for Medicare Insurance and can begin to use all that money taken from our payday, we continue to pay. The cost for the insurance is deducted from the monthly Social Security check. If you do not have supplemental insurance you are on the hook for twenty percent of the cost of actual care. A recent operation for a shoulder injury requiring a hospital stay racked up over $150,000. That twenty percent means $30,000 out of pocket. Therefore, Medicare is not free.

Next, the doctor you get may not be the one you want. Several years ago we enjoyed a family practitioner that really knew her stuff. We were not alone. She gained the trust of many and decided she no longer needed to work for someone else, a practice that did accept Medicare. She opened her own office and discovered she would have to hire someone to fill out all the paperwork and take on the liability of getting insurance companies to pay. That education so nicely framed in her office had left her with over a half million in college debt, so forget hiring someone to fill out government forms. Instead, like so many doctors, she instituted the DIY system of file your own insurance in the hope to get back some of the $200 appointment fee. With too much out of pocket, we had to find another doctor with a practice that accepts Medicare.

The problems associated with ‘Medicare for All’ includes:

Approval or denial of life saving tests delaying potential treatment.

Doctors in debt that refuse to accept Medicare. With a single payer system this could create a number of doctors that choose not to run their business on discounted prices and high overhead.

In 2018 there were about sixty million people on Medicare. Nearly twenty million were on Medicare Advantage that covers some of the gap or out of pocket costs. What happens if we expand that pool of those insured by ‘Medicare for All’ to include all three hundred twenty some million Americans?

The answer is you will not get health care, but instead you will get an insurance policy. An insurance policy is not health care. This would be as if the government gives everyone in America a car, but no gas.

When you hear anyone who says, ‘Medicare for All,’ the truth is, ‘Who Cares for All’.

Your government will not care if you lose your doctor. The politicians do not care if your life saving tests are delayed or outright denied. No one in Washington, D.C. cares about the trillions in national debt that you will pay for every April 15th for the rest of your life.


Sources:

https://www.thebalancesmb.com/medicare-tax-3193121

https://www.fidelity.com/viewpoints/personal-finance/new-medicare-taxes

https://www.kff.org/medicare/state-indicator/total-medicare-beneficiaries/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D

It Is No Secret

Have you been seduced to think there is a secret to success?

Authors and experts have been giving the rest of us rules and steps to follow for thousands of years. How many of those rules have you broken? The seduction of hidden secrets is over. Acting on one or two principles from a list of rules and then quitting will never get you what you want.

The truth is; there is no secret.

Here’s the video preview of It Is No Secret.

Listen to the audio book instantly from Audible