A work of fiction about a good ole boy, not long for this world, that speaks to the encounters in life that might seem insignificant in the moment, yet their affect lingers…
by: Hugh Blanton
Their divorce was a bigger failure than their marriage, so Tony and Leasea thought it would be a good idea to have an even bigger wedding party their second time around. Fifteen Harley-Davidson motorcycles roared into Cardinal Hollow for a wedding that started at noon and went on until midnight. Most of us hollow residents were reluctant guests and kept as much distance as we could between ourselves and Tony’s biker friends without appearing unfriendly, but most hollow residents also left soon after the bolo tie-wearing preacher pronounced Tony and Leasea man and wife. I stayed around, can of warming Budweiser in hand, watching the party in mild amusement. Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, and other southern rock bands blasted from Tony’s enormous stereo speakers set out in the front yard, and the bride, in her denim mini-skirt and cowboy boots, danced with the guests. Their two kids, Jonah, seven, and Zeke, five, chased each other around the yard with water guns. When it came time for the bride-and-groom’s dance, Leasea’s head rested in Tony’s chest, but her eyes kept drifting to Chet, the man she’d left Tony for a little over a year prior. Chet, with his red bandana tied in a kerchief over his crew-cut, returned surreptitious glances between draws on his Winston and gulps of Coors, one arm around the shoulders of his present “old lady.” Tony feigned obliviousness and I wondered if this second marriage was just as doomed as the first.
Tony had never held a regular job throughout his adult life. He did odd jobs around the Kentucky/Tennessee/Virginia tri-state area — cutting up and removing storm-downed trees, roof repairs, landscaping, etc. He didn’t exactly look like someone you’d want around your home with his long unruly dirty blond hair, unkempt beard, pocket t-shirt, and torn-up Levi’s. But he was considered a good ol’ boy, and indeed, was not an outlaw. Myself, I never hired him for any odd jobs on my own property. He worked carelessly with no regard for personal safety and I didn’t want to risk legal liability if he injured himself. But to maintain goodwill, I occasionally bought firewood from him. After my wife died (five years ago now) Tony showed a bit of sympathy and kindness by throwing in a few extra pieces of wood and stacking them neatly for me on my back porch. During his last delivery, he overheard my radio tuned to the local NPR affiliate. “What the hell you listening to in there?” he asked with mock incredulity.
Tony began asking me about literature, saying that he’d noticed my bookshelves through my window. (The day he overheard my radio Maureen Corrigan was reading her latest book review.) It was as if he were going through a phase after his divorce where he wanted to refine himself and develop a taste in higher-brow art. He mentioned that he’d liked Edgar Allan Poe in high school, saying that Poe was “dark and creepy.” He recited the first two lines from “The Raven” and then said he’d forgot the rest of it, but he would recite the whole thing to me the next time he saw me. It was as if he were trying to impress me, like a student to a teacher. One thing I enjoyed about this “phase” that Tony was going through was that he stopped blaring country music and southern rock on Saturday nights while he was going through it. However, he soon went back to his old habits and in fact never brought up “The Raven” to me again.
I was taking a look at the new DEAD END signs and guard rail at the end of Cardinal Hollow Road when Tony came down out of the woods. He often hunted up there, but he didn’t have a gun with him that day. He stopped to have a bemused look at the signs with me; they seemed so unnecessary since it was obviously impassable in any type of vehicle. “That’s the dumbass county for you,” he said. “Always spending money on useless stuff so they can get more money next year.” I didn’t want to tell him that Lew Jackson, a long term hollow resident and busybody, had been hounding the county for months to install it. Since it was deer mating season, I changed the subject and asked if he’d seen any deer today.
“Nope, didn’t see any deer. But last summer when I was up there during that heat wave I saw a five-foot eastern diamondback,” he told me. I said that I didn’t think eastern diamondbacks ranged this far, but he assured me he had seen it, saying that he’d killed and skinned it. “I’ve got the hide up there in my shed. Next time I go up there, I’ll bring it back and show you.”
“You’ve got a shed up there?” I asked. The far end of Cardinal Hollow was steep mountainside, almost a cliff, overgrown with mountain laurel and dogwood.
“Yeah. Just a place to get away from all the shit,” he said.
Near the six month mark of their second marriage, Leasea stormed out of Cardinal Hollow in her Ford Bronco, a pile of clothes in the front seat and two screaming kids in the back. Tony spent the rest of the night nipping at a whiskey bottle, occasionally shooting off his guns in his backyard. After what sounded like a 12-gauge shotgun blast at 2 in the morning I dialed his telephone number intending to ask him to knock it off. He answered the phone with “Tony’s funeral parlor! You stab ’em, we slab ’em!” and hung up. However, he did turn off his stereo and must have gone to bed, there were no further gun shots that night.
The day after Leasea took the kids and left Tony, I was watching the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team in the Elite Eight of the NCAA basketball tournament on television. I hoped that Tony had calmed down and would be quiet, but he began blasting his stereo that afternoon and fired off one of his guns right before halftime. I prepared myself for a long day of gunshots and loud music, but luckily no other gunshots rang out. However, he did continu blasting his music the rest of the day, and the night. I dialed his number again, but this time he didn’t even bother to pick up. The next morning, his stereo was still blasting. I went over and knocked on his door, but he didn’t answer, maybe he couldn’t hear me with all the noise. I walked around his house trying to look in through his windows, but all the curtains were closed. His motorcycle was sitting in his front yard, but I couldn’t assume he was still home because he could have left in his pickup truck. The garage door was locked, like it usually was, because that’s where he kept his tools. He may have taken off in his pickup truck to go to one of the bars across the Tennessee state line, something he often did. Sewell Wilson, who lived right next door to Tony, shut the electricity off to Tony’s house by flipping the circuit breaker. At last, peace was restored to Cardinal Hollow.
Leasea stormed back into Cardinal Hollow the next weekend in her Bronco much the same way she had left, and beat on Tony’s front door demanding that he “Get your ass out here and quit hiding from me!” After receiving no answer she stomped over to my house and asked me to tell him to call her as soon as I saw him. After a week there was still no sign of Tony. Leasea came back again that next weekend and threw a rock through Tony’s front window. She reached through, unlocked the door, and went inside. Seconds later she ran back outside, collapsed to her knees and retched on the front lawn. Tony had been decomposing for three weeks.
The gunshot I’d heard just before halftime of the Kentucky Wildcats game was the .44 magnum that Tony placed in his mouth and blew the top of his head off with. The unseasonably warm weather brought on rapid decomposition and swarms of insects. I allowed the Bell County sheriff’s deputies to use the phone in my home as they investigated (they couldn’t use Tony’s because it was considered a crime scene) and they referred to Tony as a John Doe. When I told them they could identify Tony by a heart/dagger tattoo on his right shoulder, deputy Charlie Black said, “Tattoo? Ain’t no tattoos visible. We’re gonna have to use a shovel to get his ass out of there.”
Only a couple of Tony’s biker friends showed up for the funeral, and I was the only Cardinal Hollow resident. There was a very awkward moment when Tony’s mother said to Leasea, “He always loved you and the kids. He said he didn’t care if they were his or not, he still loved them.”
It was almost two years before the county seized Tony’s home for back property taxes, and another six months before it sold. The new homeowners had to use a power sander on the floor where Tony’s body had decomposed. They didn’t seem the least bit upset at living in a house where the previous owner had committed suicide. Soon talk of Tony’s death in Cardinal Hollow faded away.
As I grew more bored in my retirement I decided to take up hiking, and the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Kentucky was a good place for it. I had ventured the steep mountainside on north side of Cardinal Hollow one day and something caught my eye up near the top of the mountain, shrouded in the thick June foliage. It was a difficult climb, like trying to hike through a Brillo pad, but as I got closer I could see it was a man-made structure of wood and tar paper. There was a cutaway window next to the entrance, which was so low I had to squat to enter. A table/bench was connected to the wall beneath the cutaway and the mountain’s rock face served as the back wall. Two cans of Budweiser, still in their six-pack plastic rings, sat atop the table right next to a half empty bottle of Ancient Age, all of it covered in thick dust. Four beer cans, crushed and empty, had been tossed to the corner. I used a poplar twig to rip down the cobwebs. This was Tony’s “place to get away from all the shit.” The burbling sound of Cardinal Creek at the bottom of the mountain could be heard, and I just sat there listening and gazing out through the cutaway. Tony couldn’t have picked a more perfect spot. After nearly an hour I got up to leave and saw above the cutaway hole the hide of a five foot long eastern diamondback. Four ring rattler still attached.
Hugh Blanton is an Appalachian expatriate now living in San Diego, California. He has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, Nerve Cowboy, and other publications. His latest book, A Home to Crouch In, is now available from Cajun Mutt Press.