Sometimes, you have to write a book about your hometown...and in that book you have to destroy everything and let it rebuild itself. It's fun. Here's chapter one. The rest of the book will be along shortly. I have to finish the editing first.
|Cover is concept only.|
The sun was hot by 9:00 am and there was already a thick, soupy quality to the air. Loretta stretched to ease a hitch in her back. Dark patches of sweat grew in the armpits of her brown, PEACE t-shirt and on the waistband of her gray Capri pants. It had begun to run, dripping into places she didn’t like to mention. A woman who never married, who was never loved by anyone but her father, and who never grew close enough to a friend, lover or otherwise to have such discussions. She didn’t even speak of those things with her own doctor if it could be helped.
Loretta Gates worked for thirty years in a textile mill that sat on the west bank of the Cape Fear River and retired at age fifty-six. She had lived in the same hulking, pine-log house outside of the small port town of Smithville, NC since she was born. Her mother passed when she was still in grade school. Her father when she was thirty-five, back in 1977. Since then, she’d lived alone. She was accustomed to it and she liked it that way.
In the early 1800’s, the Gates family had owned one hundred and ninety-two acres on the backside of what was now Clements Road. Her great grandfather sold over half of it to fuel his habits—workings that she herself was still using. Her grandfather, known to her as Poppa Rob, hung on with broken teeth and torn nails to what was left through the Great Depression. Robert Jr., her own father, refused to sell any of it when the good old American subdivisions came through and began to populate the area in the 1960’s. Once that development was done, her childhood home sat just across the highway from the north end of 10th street, Smithville, North Carolina, US of A. That was where she was today—June 24th, 2005—sweeping the pine straw from her front walk.
Her family home was only a few miles from the ocean, even closer to the Intracoastal Waterway. She enjoyed the salty breezes and the smell of decaying cypress, the smell of the pines and the buzzing of insects. Loretta walked down to the waterway often, checking on the progress of tourism—big during the summer, completely absent in the winter months—and hating it. They had no business in her small town. No business at all. She bought ice cream from a local young man who sold out of a truck at the park next to the fishing pier. She ate ice cream and thought about her life. Sixty-three years old, almost sixty-four. It was a long time to be alone, but Loretta figured she had it just about perfected.
The thieves came often. They dressed as real estate agents, as developers, as contractors looking to subdivide her property and put a nice shopping center there. One came dressed as a preacher asking if she might donate a portion of the land so he might build a church. It would “set you right with the Lord, Miss Gates.”
“Me and the Lord aren’t on speaking terms, mister,” she had told him. “And I’m good with that.” She punctuated the statement with the latch on her front door and hadn’t even watched out the window to see if and when he left. She was busy. There were things to do.
They all had the same story. Each of those thieves said her land was nothing but scrub oak and pine trees. Sand and fire ants. She ought to sell. There was no need to keep living there, an old lady like herself. She would be much more comfortable if she only had a small apartment to care for. Somewhere closer to family, closer to convenience. They were all being generous—they had her best interest in mind.
“Aw, hell, Miss Gates. This land ain’t worth half of what we’re offering you,” a smug Jackson Wyatt Arnett had told her. He stood right there on her front porch and said it. The wrinkly, tanned skin around his eyes looked like cobwebs cut into gingerbread dough. He was sweating, she remembered, as the day had been powerful hot. Hellish.
Loretta had looked at that rude, damnable man and smiled, watching a bead of sweat drip from his forehead and follow those cobwebs to his chin where it finally fell to his white shirt in a translucent splat. Then, just like her father had done in the 1960’s, she said in no uncertain terms, “Mr. Arnett, please to go back to wherever you’ve come from and shove your money straight up your ass. This land is Gates’ land and until the earth comes up and swallow it whole, Gates’ land it will always be.”
The thought brought a crooked grin to her face as she swept the walk and pulled weeds from her flower beds. It faded when she got a sand spur caught in the side of her sandaled foot.
“Ooh, shit on all you little bastards.”
Loretta Gates was southern tough.
There was no breeze that day. The only movement in the stifling, wet air came when a car drove by and stirred up the grit from the road. It silenced the cicadas, birds and other creatures for a moment but as the dust settled and the world seemed almost still in the heat, the animals got back to their songs. She mopped her forehead with a light blue towel and then tucked one end of it into her back pocket to dangle like and off-center tail.
Once she was satisfied her walk was swept free of fallen pine needles and various other debris, satisfied the weeds that invaded her flower bed on the house side of that walkway were pulled and discarded, satisfied things were in order as she reckoned it, Loretta put curled fingers to her hips, made a HUMPH noise and the crooked smirk came back to her face.
“Job well done, ‘Retta,” she said right out loud to no one.
Up on her porch, a plank wood deck covered by an extension of the log home’s roof, she gathered a dust pan and went back to the walk to scoop up the pile she had swept. Once it was all in the pan, she walked it out to the edge of the property and dumped it into the drainage ditch to be rinsed away with the next rain.
Another car drove by, followed by another, then a third. The last one was dented and painted blue where it wasn’t rusty. Heavy Metal played so loud that the panels of the vehicle rattled and all to the joy of the teenage boys inside. Each had a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
“Hey baby!” one shouted and it was followed by whistles, laughter and some howls.
She knew they were joking. Boys didn’t whistle at old women. In point of fact, no man had whistled or howled at her in near forty years. Those men were ignorant forty years ago and Loretta figured not much had changed. She waved after them like she was shooing a stray dog, a frown on her face.
“You’ll get yours, boys,” she said, watching the rusty, blue car disappear, and mopped her brow again. Karma was a bitch, Loretta thought. She believed that…had seen it in person. A bigger bitch had yet to be met.
A glance in each direction showed no traffic on the road and she walked across her street to the mailbox. She retrieved a few pieces of junk mail, a renewal slip for her newspaper subscription and a bill from the electric company. “Bah,” she said.
Back on her porch, Loretta placed her broom and dust pan in a Rubbermaid locker that sat at one end. She surveyed the flower bed and walkway once more before going inside. Everything was in its place. Appearance was everything to those people out there. The thieves never looked beyond it. If she slipped up, even just a little, they would come in and take her home away. She knew they would. They would find that excuse to steal from her.
“Job well done,” she said again and shut the door.
Inside the house, Loretta fanned herself with the light blue towel, thankful for the air conditioning. The home was comfortable, large and with plenty of natural sunlight. The back of the main room went up two stories into the A-framed roof and was windowed near all the way to its peak. The loft looked out over the acres of woodland that made up her back yard and was her favorite place to sit and think. She liked the birds and the wildlife that came through, foraging for food. The animals never came up close to the house, but close enough that she could see. A pair of binoculars sat on the counter next to an orchid in a small vase, a set of disposable salt and pepper shakers, and a napkin holder filled with paper napkins. She sat there at the breakfast bar in the kitchen and watched out those windows at the hummingbirds and the lizards that skittered along the ground.
There was a pitcher of lemonade inside the refrigerator and she filled a glass from it before planting her bottom in her swivel bar stool next to the window. Time to rest. Time to watch the animals. Time to relax. She would have done just that if the smell hadn’t hit her. It was a thick smell, pungent and painful to inhale like sulfur and something burning. It caused her eyes to water. There was no alarm as the scent was familiar and it filled her with equal parts exhilaration and dread.
“Ugh,” she sighed. “Never a moment’s rest.”
She took a deep gulp of the cold, sweet liquid from her glass and set it down on the counter. Beads of condensation fell from the sides of the vessel to the butcher-block surface and pooled there. Loretta walked back to the bedroom where she slept. The same bedroom where her father had slept…where Poppa Rob and his father slept. She opened the closet and pulled a pickaxe and shovel from their leaning rest in the corner, and a pair of leather gloves from a shelf on the side wall. With the gloves on, Loretta tossed the tools up over her shoulder and then leaned over to pull up on a wrought iron ring. The old hatch opened on springs that groaned with age, but stood like an obedient soldier. There were steps in front of her that lead down into the darkness…into that familiar stink.
She descended them, and felt the stench grow thicker, filling her head with urgency and thoughts best not thunk—violence and depraved sexual acts, selfish acts, horrible and terrible acts. One dutiful hand yanked opened a small, metal, panel box and flipped six breakers inside. Light flooded the area around her, then further down fluorescent lamps flickered to life. Beyond that, individual bulbs hung on strands like main street at the holidays.
The stairs ended at an earthen walkway that hugged, three-feet-wide, to the wall of a giant stone tube. The cylindrical hole was some fifty feet across and that walkway snaked down its sides like the threads of a steel nut, disappearing down into the ground as far as she could see and spiraling downward slowly toward the bottom. Loretta ventured down the path, through walkways and lifts and rickety staircases, all illuminated by the strung up lights—actual Christmas lights at the bottom. She was quite pleased with the new LED technology and how many strands could be linked together. It saved her having to use so many lanterns and so many batteries.
The trip took almost two hours—a five mile walk if you measured it, three miles straight down into the earth was a fair estimation. It was cool down there. It smelled like charred food and death and rot and sulfur, but at least it was cool. At the bottom, she found the place where she had left off the day before, and just like her father, her Poppa Rob, his father and three other generations before her, Loretta began to dig.