Friday, August 26, 2011

Delicate April on Hodd’s Mountain

Delicate April on Hodd’s Mountain
Tom Sheehan


Oliver Kettering remembered almost everything. And judgments came of that memory. So it was that two coincidental things happened within seconds of each other as he sat on his porch: April, the sweetest month to him for close to 80 years, was into a third most memorable day, and his youngest granddaughter, Holly Gatersby, had come down off Hodd’s Mountain in a sour mood. Showing attitude in her face and in a most determined walk, she went past her grandfather, without waving a salute, right to Fleet’s General Store. The Kettering patriarch, on the porch of the small house he had righted from a barn more than a half century earlier, two wives ago, six boys and girls and six good hounds ago, noted the rigor of her walk. “The girl’s only 17,” he said to himself in polar judgment, remembering 17 like it was last night right after the evening meal. Like then, Delicate April was touching him with her ten delicious fingers. He was sure April would never let go her grip on him.

He hoped that somehow April’s ten good fingers would also touch Holly Gatersby before the day was out.

“It’s a damn shame if they ain’t doin’ just that,” he continued in his communal prayers, the thick white beard reacting to a breeze more than his jaw at self-talk, the hazel eyes catching early sun and making them live as lit kindling. His half left leg was thrown up on a barrel top, haphazard, bent. Every time he threw that leg up on railing or barrelhead, Oliver Kettering swore he could see Brutus the mule snapping back at him the fiercest of kicks. A dozen or so neighbors, in a hurry, had come to his rescue a good fifteen years back. Once he swore he remembered every face of theirs; now he wasn’t so sure he could pull all into one scene again.

In quick summary Oliver acknowledged most folks around about were kin of his, from one strain or another, and mostly friendly otherwise. He understood his own “otherwise” as being poor advice that he’d tossed from his present spot in the world, the sole chair on the generally-proclaimed Judgment Porch where he sat at the moment. Oliver, as all Hodd’s Mountain knew, was a curious mixture himself…he neither looked like he was near 80 (seemingly half that age) though he oftentimes acted like 80… in proof he thought it had to be 30 years or more since people stopped calling him Ollie, sort of an extension of respect of what he had become the whole length of The Chawtenauga, advisor of all and such as he preferred to call it….

And Holly, true to one strain he knew as well as the book, was capable of going in one of two directions. Like her father Luden Gatersby, she could be idle, shiftless and sorry most of her life, like Luden a damn scarecrow of what he could have been; or, like her sister Marvel Alice Gatersby, she could, one illustrious day, haul up her damn britches and damn well get to work gettin’ out of a rut. Marvel Alice, after her britches hauling, hard work, daring, dreaming, was three years into college, the first girl off Hodd’s Mountain to do so in the best part of a hundred years. Though he loved Marvel Alice and her attitudes, he knew he loved Holly just as much; yet that thought caused him serious argument; did he love Holly a bit more because she needed more loving, and more security? He savored those thoughts in his usual fashion, fully and consequentially.

Then, in further adjudication, he said another prayer for her… Holly now mostly blessed in haymow adventures. Quickly he counted on his fingers his diverse intentions, marking with her name the deep sweep between thumb and index finger each time passing through that valley. Delicate April, as ever, coming around every year with sweet hope, touched him again and he prayed once more that its most decent enterprise and selection would include this grandchild of his at an obvious precipice of life, a place where he had been a time or two.

And so, absorption came on him again. A tremor in the bent leg, the hoisted leg, brought Brutus back in a hurry, and he spoke to nobody in particular, a sense of sharing accosting him, as he said: “Damned if I can’t smell old Brutus’ field work leather comin’ back from its winter stash. And I can see the old cinches, reins and checkreins hangin’ in the barn the last time I hung them up for good, seein’ them over these late years slowly givin’ way to dryness and crackin’. Every time I go in the barn, Old Plow, I swear on Eternity I can smell you.” In his mind, in all about him, came a cessation of all other images and thoughts as Brutus came home again. “You ain’t none lettin’ go either.” A furrow, as straight as a rifle shot across the back acres, from a long day past, fled its neatness through his mind.

Holly, in sudden realization, came back just as quickly in the mix of images; he could picture her down the road somewhere drying on the vine, ageing, missing the richness and true goodness of late years, her hair thinning, lips curling, thoughts dimming. “Oh,” he thought aloud, “what a mixture of hope and disillusion abounds.” It felt as though Brutus had kicked him again.

Then, from the mid-section of Old Smoky, the line of rock edging the road to Mt. Albion, his friend April sent down the smell of new maples afloat in the universe, and also the hidden horror of an old accident. His first wife, Therese Fablon Kennesy, came back in a rush, and he swore in another instance that he knew the same perfumed scent she had set adrift specifically at him one night at a dance almost 70 years ago. So drifted was that scent it they clung to him for her whole life. It was a special life until the wagon, with her and their first daughter Ida Ells, had gone down off that Mt. Albion road, straight onto a pile of boulders and the inevitable and unaccountable smithereens. Life then, for a bit, had rushed about like a headless chicken, and he had gone everywhere for every reason until his soul had quieted down. Sanity had lead to preservation, he swore.

*

Oliver’s bad leg gave off one small ache of memory, and Holly’s determined gait, so it said to him, was one of anger, and he judged it to be dead against her now-and-then boyfriend, Angus Hollerfield. Angus, handsome as handsome comes, more man than boy, knew all the paths and all the valleys of The Chawtenauga… and traveled them, as word went, usually after dark from forked leg to forked leg. One path led directly to Holly’s barn on the side of Mt. Albion, and most other paths had their own same conclusions, moonlight not withstanding. With a sense of wisdom, and long practice at life’s endless war, Oliver could damn near orchestrate the illuminated arguments rising out of gray matter and understandable hungers put in place at Creation itself.

In one memorable night on the Judgment Porch he had argued with great gusto against Merle Preblum whose daughter Alice Colber, named for her uncle Al, had apparently been dishonored in a neighbor’s barn. “Goddamn shame, Merle, you forget your manners and memory what you exercised in and out of a barn or two in your own time. The boy was coltish, not forsakin’ anything at all, and that girl a fair mare in her own right. They been right-minded for a good dozen years now. More power to ‘em both, that lesson in humanity and all its cravin’s.”

Oliver had sprung that same argument on Holly a time or two, or one interpretation of it, to make his point, to give her self-reflection something shiny to look at for a change.

“Way in the past, girl,” he had said, “perhaps 10 or 15 thousand years ago, or perhaps longer than that of which I ain’t sure, you can make up your own mind to whatever, someone kin to us back down the road, made up his mind about somethin’ and set the pattern and path for us, all of us. Makin’ us like we are, he did, and they ain’t much we can do about that decision of his and why it comes down to us. So just picture someone in your friend’s family, over the hill there, or off in another cave or another valley makin’ a decision that came down to your friend and they ain’t a helluva lot he can do either about that old granpap of his a few hundred steps back down on the ladder of Creation. Locked up in the blood, it is, tighter than the front door on the hive out there back of here.”

Holly, as most kids off Hodd’s Mountain, or for that matter anywhere in this here universe of looking up and looking back, paid little heed to words from an elder where sauces and hungers were involved. “He’s such a liar, Gramp. Out and out, a liar from the first word. Never once said he snapped another pair of bloomers like he ought to have said. Ownin’ up is important to people. And he didn’t spend a breath on it. Just holdin’ onto the goodies like he couldn’t ever let go.”

The blush of her pure pink was as healthy as the old gent could imagine it. “Girl,
you can imagine him in your image or in his image, but you don’t get both, and don’t try to make his image be your image. It don’t work that way. Never has, never will, believe me. You can go down to the river to pray for all of that, or up on the mountain in the mornin’ glory, but it ain’t comin’ to you on any silver platter, no matter how hard you pray. Best thing is to let him do the prayin’. That’s the secret in all of this here houndin’ us. He gets to do the thing best needed. Sooner or later, the way he combs his hair, how he holds his head, the path shows itself.”

Now, obviously on this sweet April morning, it appeared the frisky colt had run an odd course. “I best warn that boy of eternal loss,” he said half aloud, knowing April, in its most fierce grasp hardly ever lets go, and granddaughter Holly had as many good parts to her as anybody on Hodd’s Mountain.

In a sudden vision he saw the silhouette of Angus’ widowed mother, Best Pearl, and knew a slow, subtle ache of another sort. As part of the same vision, he could almost frame up the picture of a long-past forebear, Cro-Magnon or whatever name had been given him by people who invented such names, moving from cave to cave with more than one kind of fire with him or about him. The picture tickled the hell out of Oliver; Brutus and the ugly kick, and all the old leather work, made a hasty departure when he saw a saber-toothed tiger sitting beside a cave opening in the face of a dark cliff, licking at bone remnants, drooling. Time, so twisted upon itself, marched in the abrupt darkness across that imagined cliff. All Oliver Kettering’s genes, some thinking they were deeply hidden and nearly lost, gave thanks in a rush.

Best Pearl, upon hearing a caution come from him as they sat in her kitchen, said, without a bit of hesitation, “Oliver, you know well as I do, there is barns and then there is barns. They do make memory, I swear. We knowed ‘em and they know them, and like you always said, ‘It all makes the world one whirling place of addiction,’ and bless me so for sweet addiction.” She added a shyly spoken but clearly heard, “Oh, yes. My! My!”

She herself was a late mother, and now at 50 or thereabouts, prime and robust, a light within emanating, hair as blond as a bottle would allow it on short order for a special occasion, set tasks in a row. With near effortless moves she primped her hair, ran a cloth over the shiny blue-checkered oil cloth on her kitchen table, righted and smoothed out her apron with the sweep of one hand, and just as casually let an elbow touch the old man of the mountain… less some degree of work still in the till, as he often said.

“There is one way we can square those kids away, Oliver,” she volunteered. Immediately he somehow felt the old Cro-Magnon spirit moving in the woman. She tickled him right down to his funny bone, the hair shaping, the apron primping, the forgotten light hustled from some back acreage, the Cro-Magnon woman at her best. He figured whatever she had in mind was right as rain, and would have some prominence to it and a damned lot of years of refinin’.

“You just didn’t all of a sudden come up with that notion, did you? Or you been spendin’ some of the moonlight workin’ part time at it?”

“Oliver, I must admit, for only you to know, that I been that way ever since I seen you and Hustice Helen in the back of a wagonload of hay some time past. Never was any sinnin’ there either. Oh, my, no. No sinnin’ there, just naturalin’. And you never fooled me none with the philosopher stuff, knowing you’re a man all the way from the very beginnin’ you’re always talking about.”

In a queenly and outright manner she practically knighted him as she added, “You’re the mountain itself, Oliver, and I swear my boy is trackin’ the route you laid out so long ago over half of Hodd’s Mountain. That kind of talk is endless, you know, once it gets hold of by some hereabouts… and you can imagine where I’m pointin’.” Her nod was down the road from them, at the Town Pulpit, Bernadette Mabel. “She does swear by some things as being gospel good.”

Part of Oliver’s recall went skittering down the ways and valleys and over hills and hummocks long gone into mist. But a stubborn way held at some things so precious they seemed on their own not wanting to part. His smile was not an old man’s smile, nor was that smile one of boast.

“So what kind of an idea you been spinnin’ about in that pretty head?”

At last, he was thinking, things are getting kicked out in the open. He affirmed within himself, It’s time enough. Too much seed gone to pot.

So he said openly, “You thinkin’ we been wastin’ time and those young ones showin’ us a thing or two about time itself?” The old mountain was straining in him; it was bound to break loose in a landslide sooner than later. As he took in all signatures of any sort in the room, any leftover ownership marks that might have been dropped in passing, a line of her hip movement, subtle as tea smell in the back of the kitchen, eased its way from wherever it had been tucked away and made itself known again.

It was contagion and he believed in contagion.

“It’s easy, Oliver. You up and promise to marry me, do it all over again. We party, make speeches, get holden onto one another, and then you just up and back out of it all, like you went and changed your mind without a single fuss. Ought to slight hell out of that boy of mine. Make him somethin’ miserable ‘bout his mother getting’ stood so.”

He thought about it for the shortest spell. The picture of a Cro-Magnon man came back to him in all his raw glory. As if in a partnership with that older man of the mountains, he then said, “Whyn’t we make like I’m tryin’ on seducin’ you, getting’ you into your own bed and lettin’ him catch up to us.” It really wasn’t a question he had proposed. “Now that might scare the hell out of him, him bein’ the really worryin’ type boy we hope he is. That might put the thunder under him, shake his outlook all to hell and then some.”

“Oliver,” she replied, the mouth ajar with her words and a move at false surprise, “You do get past yourself sometimes for a man your age. I have to admit the thought’s been there more’n once since his nibs last took a belt out of me and got himself killed too on that bad turn of the road, like he was being served up one more time for all his shenanigans and such. There’s always been a good connection since we both lost folk on that crazy road up there. I think it’s been cookin’ for a long time.”


**

It was little more than a week later, and the stage was set.

The routine on Angus was decoded and duly noted, for Saturday was usually a night for Holly; a walk uphill for him, a new go at heaven for her, or a good shot at it. The maples and the early blossoms, the richness of new grass, the spill of a decent moon so soon after a few chilled nights the week earlier, said romance was well afoot, and the whole of Hodd’s Mountain echoed with possibilities, with encounters promised as sweet as could be dreamed.

Best Pearl had put on her long flannel nightgown, where pink flowers roamed at will, where the long folds allowed all beauty its hideouts. On her head the knot of hair, newly golden, was loosed and tossed for best of measures. In her mind, little was left for chance; the house spruced from corner to corner, as well as herself. Signs of loneliness she had borne for endless nights, were put aside, like the screen magazine at least three years old but radiant with a picture of one handsome dog of a movie star; and the tired, worn, nearly obliterated .45 Elvis record of new love was finally dropped into the waste bucket. But she was perfumed for the fare-the-well of all else she owned.

Scenes, she knew, were being set. A sudden glimpse of how movies were made came to her and just as quickly disappeared with an in-taken breath.

Oliver Kettering, the old man of the mountain, performer yet, waited down on the corner of Fleet’s General Store with some of the old bucks, passing time and tobacco and old stories between one another.

“Damn thing I noticed, Oliver,” Malcolm Brisbee said, “that you got yoreself pretty clean shaved for a Saturday night with the old boys. You ain’t one bit losin’ that bait on me; you got sonethin’ goin’ on we don’t know about, like you’d let us know just as many times you did before.” He raised his hands in bounden salute and waved them at the sky and whatever else. “I think we gonna run you for president, Oliver, or raise some damn fine stature for you at the end of the valley, some that all the old folks from here to the end of The Chautenawga can take heed.”

“It’s what I’m ever tryin’ to fathom, Malcolm, this boundless bit carryin’ on in us since Creation did it’s thing, and we ain’t got it figured out which way is really right and really wrong. Beats me at times all to dazzle, it does, lookin’ at it from all sides.” Oliver looked down the road toward Best Pearl’s house square and neat against the barn behind it. The image of a man of the caves came back to him in clear luster. “We look at things two ways or more every time out, seems to me, and I’m not lettin’ myself out of any argument here.”

“Oliver, you cut the furrow a little deep for me every now and then, and I suppose this here is another one of them now and thens, you figurin’ you’re still asittin’ on the mighty porch of deliverance and all us here at your feet waitin’ on judgment. But if you’re talkin’ about men and lady things, ain’t no way to hide it in mystery talk… it’s damn well mysterious all by its lonesome. When there’s honest couplin’ ‘tween folks, I can’t think there’s two ways of lookin’ at that, no matter what age we’re at.”

“That’s strictly the point I’m making, Malcolm. Honest couplin’ for the moment or for some kind of promise? The future counts itself on what’s goin’ on now.””

“Hell, Oliver, none of us knows what’s around the corner, never mind plannin’ on what we don’t know’s goin’ to be there. It ain’t logical for me, not enough to change my appetite for supper, that’s for sure.” He laughed his way out of the whole argument, coughed once and nodded as Oliver Kettering, the old man who ought to have a stature
raised up for him, walked off from the group of old timers and headed toward Best Pearl’s house still neat as a straight furrow against the barn at the other end of town.

The confrontation came in Best Pearl’s kitchen, not in her bedroom.

But Best Pearl’s essence had assailed Oliver from the moment he entered her small house at the edge of town. He could not stay away from her in her loose gown where all promise seemed to leap about as she moved around, lovingly, coyly, proud. They gabbed a bit. Stopped gabbing. Closed a bit. Came together a bit. Oliver’s right hand, hidden in the deep folds, was at anointment when Angus stormed into the room from outside the house.

The young Lothario of Hodd’s Mountain screamed at Oliver, who turned and said, “Only as far as you go with my granddaughter, same distance, and not making her any decent promise. Is that enough for you? Is that a truce? Or do I let your mother speak her piece right now?”

Best Pearl’s arms were still locked around Oliver’s neck.

Angus, before bolting in defeat, said, “All right, Old Man.”

And Best Pearl added “All right, Old Man,” perfectly happy with all considerations, though not in perfect mimicry of her son’s words.


______________________________________

Tom Sheehan

Bio note: Sheehan served with the 31st Infantry Regiment in Korea, 1951. His books are Epic Cures and Brief Cases, Short Spans, Press 53; A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, Pocol Press. He has 14 Pushcart nominations, Georges Simenon Fiction Award, and is included in Dzanc Best of the Web Anthology for 2009 and nominated for 2010 and 2011. He has 209 short stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. Print issues include Rosebud Magazine (4), Ocean Magazine (7) among others. He has published 3 novels (An Accountable Death, Vigilantes East, and Death for the Phantom Receiver. Poetry collections include This Rare Earth and Other Flights; Ah, Devon Unbowed; The Saugus Book; and Reflections from Vinegar Hill.

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