They have one summer to find what was lost long ago.^"Never settle for less than the truth," she told him. But when you don't even know your real name, the truth gets a little complicated. It can nestle so close...
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They have one summer to find what was lost long ago.^"Never settle for less than the truth," she told him. But when you don't even know your real name, the truth gets a little complicated. It can nestle so close to home it's hard to see. It can even flourish inside a lie. And as Chase Walker discovered, learning the truth about who you are can be as elusive--and as magical--as chasing fireflies on a summer night. A haunting story about fishing, baseball, home cooking, and other matters of life and death.
Charles Martin's novels have been acclaimed by reviewers and readers alike and have been finalists for multiple awards. He lives a stone's trhow from the St John's River in Jacksonville, Florida with his wife and their three boys.
I stepped out into the sunlight humming a Pat Green tune, slipped on my sunglasses, and stared out over the courthouse steps. After three days of incarceration, not much had changed. Brunswick, Georgia, was like that. Discarded bubblegum, flat as half-dollars, dotted the steps like splattered ink. Lazy, blimpish pigeons strutted the sidewalk begging for bread scraps or the sprinkles off somebody's double-shot mocha latte. In the alley across the street, an entire herd of stray cats crept toward the wharf just four blocks down. The sound of seagulls told them the shrimp boats had returned. And on the steps next to me, two officers lifted a tattooed man, whose feet and hands were shackled and cuffed, up the steps and, undoubtedly, into Judge Thaxton's courtroom. Based on the mixture of saliva and epithets coming out of his mouth, he wasn't too crazy about going. No worries. Given my experience with Her Honor, his stay in her courtroom wouldn't be long.
His next short-term home would be a holding cell downstairs. These were cold, dark, windowless, and little more than petri dishes for mold and fungi. I know this because I've been in them on more than one occasion. The first time I stayed here as a guest, I scratched Chase was here into the concrete block wall. This time I followed it up with Twice. Makes me laugh to think about it. Sort of following in Unc's footsteps.
Two blocks down, rising above the rest of town like the Ferris wheel at a county fair, stood the bell tower above the Zuta Bank and Trust. Most churches-turned-banks have that. At the turn of the century, its Russian Orthodox congregation had dwindled down to nothing, leaving the priest to roam the basement like the Phantom in his catacomb.
And while the Silver Meteor was the most famous rail ever to run these woods, she couldn't hold a candle to the one that ran underground.
When the first Russian immigrants appeared in the late 1800s, they built on an existing footprint. A hundred years earlier, the local inhabitants had built their own meetinghouse. The building served several purposes: town hall, church, and shelter. Unique to the structure was a basement. Because much of South Georgia rests so close to the water table, they dug the basement into a hill, then lined the walls and floors with several feet of coquina. This did not mean it stayed dry, but it was dry enough. Through two trapdoors and one hidden stairwell, the townsfolk survived multiple Indian attacks and two Spanish burnings of the building above. Few today know about the basement. Maybe just the four of us. Sure, folks know it was there at one time, but most think it was filled in when the ZB&T was built. Scratchings on the walls show the names of slaves who knelt in the dark, listened, and prayed while dogs sniffed above.
Eventually the Phantom vacated as well, leaving the building empty for nearly a decade. Hating to see it go to waste and needing a place from which to loan money, a local businessman bought the building, ripped out half the pews, one confessional, and most of the altar, and installed counters and a vault. Local sentiment swayed in his favor. The depression was still fresh on people's minds, and in that mind-set you couldn't let a perfectly good building go to waste. If you built the church, don't take it personally. Just because folks around here don't like your brand of God doesn't mean they don't like your brand of architecture. Count your blessings. Most in Glynn County echoed this sentiment. Some of the locals proudly traced their roots to the Founding Fathers--the English prisoners sent from England to inhabit the colony back before the Revolution. Such sentiment was not unique; folks in Australia did the same. In the sticks of Brunswick, Georgia, rebellion was as hardwired into the DNA of the residents as was the love of Georgia Bulldog football.
While South Georgia found itself squarely embedded in the Bible Belt, and most churches were filled on Sundays, only Saturdays were sacred. Saturday afternoons from September to December, folks huddled around the altar of an AM station and worshipped the red and black of the Bulldogs. And while local pastors were much admired and respected, none carried the weight of the radio voice of the Bulldogs, Larry Munson. If Larry said anything at all, it was gospel. Throughout the decades, much has been written about Notre Dame and Touchdown Jesus, The Crimson Tide and Bear Bryant, and Penn State and Paterno, but from the salt marsh to the mountains, it was a certifiable fact that God himself was a Georgia Bulldog. How else did Larry Munson break his chair?
November 8, 1980. A minute to go in the fourth quarter. The Gators led the Bulldogs by a point. The Bulldogs had the ball, but ninety-three yards stood between them, the goal line, and their shot at the national title. On the second play of the game, Herschel Walker had bounced off a tackle and scorched seventy-two yards for six points and the beginnings of immortality. Now he stood on the field, having rushed for more than two hundred yards, either a target or a decoy. Buck Belue of Valdosta, Georgia, took the snap, pump faked--causing Florida Gator Tony Lilly to stumble--and dumped the ball down the left sideline to Lindsey Scott, who high-stepped ninety-three yards and joined Herschel atop Mt. Olympus. Amidst the mayhem in the press box, Larry Munson would break his folding chair, solidifying his place alongside the commentating gods and inside the heart of every man, woman, and child in the state of Georgia. Sports Illustrated later called it the "Play of the Decade," and many sportswriters agreed that Herschel Walker was the greatest athlete ever to play college football.
Folks in Georgia need no further argument. The State rests.
My office at the Brunswick Daily sat across the street, looking down on me. I could see the rolling slide show of my screen saver shining through my third-story window. My perch. As a reporter assigned to the court beat, I kept my finger on the court's pulse by watching these steps. The sign above my head read Glynn County Jail, but I didn't turn and look at it. Didn't need to.
After three days in jail, I was pretty sure that my editor had bitten his nails to the quick and was up there eyeing me from his perch, just seconds from walking out the double doors across the street. I looked east, toward the water and my boat. Home sounded like a good idea. I needed to get a shower, put on some deodorant, and breathe something other than dank cell stench. The paper could wait.
Uncle Willee sat in the driver's seat smiling at me from beneath his wide-brimmed palmetto leaf hat, called a "Gus." It's a cowboy hat for hot weather, a lightweight version of the hat made famous by Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove. The brim was soiled and crown wrinkled, worn dirty by a farrier with a fishing addiction. It sagged a bit around the edges but curled up at the ends--a mirrored contrast to his face.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets and sniffed the salty air blowing in over St. Simons, across the marsh, and bringing with it the ripe smell of curdling salt and mud--a function of our geography. The Gulf Stream, some hundred and fifty miles due east, keeps constant pressure against the East Coast's most western edge--something akin to a hedge--causing the "Bermuda High." Thanks to it, the Golden Isles live under a constant sea breeze that keeps both the no-see-ums--invisible gnats with an attitude--and hurricanes at bay.
The coastal rivers of Georgia, like the Satilla, the Altamaha, and the Little Brunswick, flow out of the west Georgia mountains through the Buffalo Swamp and empty into the cordgrass of the marsh flats. Like a seine made of cheesecloth, the marsh filters the flow and sifts the sediment, creating a pluffy, soft mud.
Here in this pungent muck, native anaerobic bacteria decay bottom matter and release a gaseous bouquet that smells like rotten eggs. As the tide recedes, fiddler crabs, snails, worms, and other tiny inhabitants burrow into the pluff where they hope to escape being slow-cooked at a broiling 140 degrees. As the tide rises, the critters climb from their holes, where they--like beachcombers--bask and bathe.
During peak tourist season, visitors stroll the sidewalks, sniff the same air, and wrinkle their noses. "Something die?" Technically, yes, the marsh is always dying. But then the tide returns, trades old for new, and the canvas gives birth again.
To us--those who seek the solace of the marsh--it is a stage where God paints--yellow in the morning, green toward noon, brownish in the afternoon, and blood red toward evening. It is the sentinel that stands guard at the ocean's edge, protecting the sea from the runoff that would kill it. It is a selfless and sacrificial place. And when I close my eyes, it is also the smell of home.
When I graduated college, I came back to Brunswick, bought an acre along the Altamaha and a sailboat named Gone Fiction at the annual police auction. She was a thirty-six-foot Hunter and had been confiscated during an offshore drug raid. The SWAT guys at the auction said they'd busted some Florida writer running drugs along the coast. When his books didn't sell, he traded his pen for a habit and joined the dark side. I didn't know a thing about sailing, but she looked cozy--had a bed, toilet, shower, small kitchen, and a bow big enough for a folding chair. Not to mention a rope railing where I could prop up my feet. I sized her up, imagined myself perched on her nose watching the tide roll in and out, and raised my hand. Sold! I got her in the water, motored her upriver to my acre of land, and dropped anchor in water deep enough not to ground her when the tide ran out. She sits about eighty yards offshore, which means when I tell people I live on the water, I'm not kidding.
Unc sat in a black, four-door 1970-something Cadillac hearse pulling a double-axle trailer he'd bought at a U-Haul auction. As a farrier, he uses the trailer as his workshop and his home away from home. He bought the hearse, which he calls Sally, more than a decade ago when a nearby funeral home needed an upgrade. It's the joke he plays on the world, and given the life he's lived, a joke is helpful.
A single fishing pole stuck out the back, the line tip dangling with a redheaded jig. Unc tipped his hat back, raised his eyebrows above his polarized Costa Del Mars, and smiled a guilty grin. He lifted his seat belt buckle, popped the top on a Yoo-hoo, stuffed an entire MoonPie into his mouth, and then sucked down the Yoo-hoo like it was the last on earth. I shook my head. Sometimes I wonder how a man like that raised a kid like me. Then I remember.
He dropped his glasses down on his chest. "You look like the dog's been keeping you under the porch."
Maybe I did look a bit disheveled.
I walked up to the car and began pulling on the ID tag they'd put on my wrist three days ago. It's like one of those plastic bands they give you when you check into the hospital. When they booked me, I told them, "I don't really need this. I already know my name." Problem is--that's not entirely true.
After about ten seconds, I decided that you'd have to bench-press five hundred pounds to break it. I pulled harder. It might as well have been a pair of handcuffs.
Unc shook his head. "Boy, you couldn't pour pee out of a boot with instructions on the heel."
Uncle Willee speaks his own language made up of one-liners that make sense mostly to him. Aunt Lorna and I just call them "Willee-isms," and between the two of us we can usually figure out what he's trying to say.
I stuck my hand through the window and said, "May I?"
He reached into his back pocket and handed me his Barlow pocketknife. "Always drink upstream from the herd."
Another thing about Willee-isms--they often use just a few words to say what would require ordinary people about a hundred. In this short exchange, he was bringing notice to the fact that he came prepared with his Barlow--as always--while I was without mine. Hence, naked and dependant on another, i.e., Uncle Willee, who to my knowledge had never followed the herd. That meant he thought ahead, while I had not. But why say all that when you can talk about some herd drinking upstream from some other herd somewhere in some ethereal pasture?
He looked through the windshield and picked at a front tooth with his toothpick. ". . . like being caught with your shorts down."
I shook my head, opened the smaller of the two blades, and cut off the wristband that told the jail my name.
He slipped the knife back into his pocket and whispered under his breath, "Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it."
I climbed into Sally and buckled my seat belt. "Well, aren't we just as full of wind as a corn-eating horse?"
"It ain't boasting if you done it."
"You're an embarrassment to civil society."
Unc dropped the gearshift into drive, turned up Wynonna Judd's rendition of "Free Bird," and said, "You don't know the half of it."
That, too, was true.
I was six years old, or so I'm told, when the state sent me to the home of Willee and Lorna McFarland. It would be my last stop. But after twenty-two years of living with Uncle Willee, I knew only half his story. It was the other half I'd spent most of my life trying to figure out.
Just as we were about to merge into traffic, he pulled the stick back up into neutral and pulled his glasses down to the tip of his nose. "Oh . . . Tommye's home."
Willie Nelson sings a song about an angel that skirts too close to Earth, clips a wing, and ends up sick and grounded. He mends her wing and patches her up only to watch her catch an updraft and exit the stratosphere. As the words Tommye's home echoed between my ears like a bell clapper in a clock tower, I remembered that tune.
Unc grabbed a fresh toothpick that'd been stuffed into the foam above the visor and laid it on his tongue, all the while studying my eyes.
I tried to mask them and nodded. "When?"
He pushed his glasses back up and adjusted his side mirror. "Few days ago."
"Where's she staying?"
He accelerated and waved at a Sea Island soccer mom driving a black Suburban, who let him merge. "With us."
After years of unanswered phone calls, "return to sender" letters, one unannounced visit, rampant rumors, and finally the ugly and public truth, Tommye had flown home.
Thirty minutes later we turned off Highway 99 and onto the dirt road that led to home. It was lined with some fifty-four pecan trees that Unc's daddy--Tillman Ellsworth McFarland--had planted almost fifty years ago. He dropped me at the barn and looked up at the loft. "I'll be up in a bit. Give you two some time."
I climbed the steps, filled my lungs, and pushed open the door. The loft was my home away from home. I'd lived up here throughout high school, during college, and for a while after. Even now, when I don't feel like driving back to the boat, I sleep here.
The window unit was set on "high," and condensation ran down the inside of the windows. Tommye stood near the refrigerator, reaching for a glass off the top shelf. She wore sweats that looked two sizes too big and a cutoff shirt exposing a sunrise tattoo on the small of her back. Her brunette hair was blonde, stringy, and tired looking. She heard the click of the door and turned slowly. Her face was thinner, her eyebrows sculpted, and the green emeralds I'd known in high school were dim, bloodshot, and burning low.
She smiled, tilted her head, and . . . have you ever seen video of melting glaciers where huge chunks, the size of skyscrapers, break off and crash into the sea? If hearts can do that, then when her hair slid from behind her ear and down over her eyes, and the right side of her lip turned up, I heard my heart crack down the middle.
I nodded toward the cabinet. "What're you looking for?"
She never took her eyes off me. "Anonymity."
Barefoot on the worn carpet, fresh red polish on her toes, she stepped across the single-room apartment. She stopped, her face inches from mine, reached for my hands, and pulled gently. A hug that said, "Meet me in the middle." Her arms and back were strong, and her tomboy's chest felt unnatural and Hollywood-firm. We stood there several minutes, her holding me. But as the minutes passed and the facade faded, she leaned on me, and the hug passed from her holding me to me holding her.
The night she left--nearly nine years ago--she had ducked in out of the rain, fear on her lips. Her hair was dripping, her clothes were soaked, she carried a light backpack with the few things she had gathered from the apartment, and crusted blood was smeared across her face. She woke me and pressed her lips hard to mine. The blood tasted bitter, and the swollenness felt strange and taut. She pressed her finger to my lips and said, "Remember, I was happy once. With you . . . here . . . I was." She fought back the tears, wiped her face on her sleeve, and her eyes narrowed. "Chase . . . never settle for less than the truth." She threw her head back, exposing the parallel bruises on her neck. "Never." Blood broke loose from her nose and dripped down off her chin. "Promise me."
I reached to wipe the blood, and she brushed me off.
Her voice echoed across the room. "Do it."
Another kiss, and then she disappeared back through the rain, the taillights of her Chevrolet glowing like two red eyes.
This hug betrayed her, as that one had.
She kissed me where my cheek joins my lips, and I heard the two sides of me crash into the sea. Technically, Tommye was my cousin, but since I was adopted, my family tree had been grafted in--labels didn't matter. I leaned forward and pressed my lips to the corner of her mouth. She pressed her cheek to my face, pulled away, and then touched me gently. The confident body language of the kid I knew had been hijacked by the quiet, retreating woman before me.
I opened the fridge, pulled out the milk jug, and drank from the bottle. "You been home?"
She looked around and folded her arms across her chest. "I am home."
I offered the jug, which she accepted, pouring the milk into a glass and then handing the jug back. She sipped slowly. Her skin looked like an iron canvas stretched across a cracked, wooden framework. Her body was thin but fit--like she'd been living on vegetables, Pilates, and plastic surgery.
I was about to make more small talk when Unc knocked on the door.
"Well, you never knocked before," I called. "What'd you start for now?"
He came in, kissed Tommye on the forehead, and handed her a plate covered in aluminum foil. "They're hot. Lorna'll be up in a minute. She's curling her hair."
Tommye pulled off the foil, closed her eyes, and breathed above the steam. She eyed the cookies. "Some things never change."
I looked at her. "And some things do."
She bit in, the melted chocolate chips dotting the edges of her lips, and chewed. She polished off a cookie, brushed her hand on her pants, and leaned in under Uncle Willee's big left arm, tucking her shoulder under his.
I was about to say something else stupid when the phone rang. I sat on the desk, punched speakerphone, and said, "Chase here."
"Chase!" It was Red Harrington, my transplanted New York editor. "How was your vacation?"
A forty-something, blue-blooded, ponytailed Yankee who was, as Unc liked to say, as out of place in South Georgia as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, Red had followed his Ivy League wife south after she tired of Manhattan, him, and his girlfriends ten years earlier. He was wifeless, houseless, and working to pay alimony. The paper was all he had left. Besides his baggage and the compromises in his own life, Red had a nose for news and an absolute and all-encompassing passion for discovering the truth hidden in any story. He was the epitome of the postmodern man--he trusted few and constantly asked, "What are you hiding?"
"It was . . . good." I looked at the phone. "Thanks for the dinner."
"Oh, don't worry. I'll deduct it from your paycheck. Listen, I know you probably want a few days off to rid yourself of whatever you picked up in prison . . ."
I looked at Tommye, who smirked at me. Her face told me she was impressed.
". . . but I need you." His tone of voice told me he wasn't lying.
"A train hit a car out in the boonies, some whacked-out lady on a suicide run."
"They know who she is?"
"Not yet, but DNA results ought to be in tomorrow."
"How 'bout dentals?"
"Can't do. Dentures."
"You want me to track her down?"
"Eventually, but she's backstory. The real story is the kid she kicked out of the car just before she parked in front of the train."
Unc zeroed in on the phone, and a single wrinkle appeared above his eyes. He let go of Tommye, walked over, and stood by the desk.
"They found him yesterday," Red's voice continued. "The morning after the crash. He was standing in the road, looking lost, and covered in ant bites . . . among other things."
Unc looked at me. I knew what he wanted.
"What other things?" I asked.
"Just get to the hospital. Room 316. You'll see."
"Anybody gotten anything out of him?"
"No. That's your job."
The phone clicked, and Unc looked out my window and across the pasture dotted with palm trees and a few of his Brahman cows.
I grabbed my car keys and looked at Tommye, who had lain down on my bed, pulled the sheet up, and closed her eyes. "You staying awhile?"
She nodded. "Not going anywhere."
I walked over to the bed and placed my hand on her foot. "That's what you said last time."
She rolled over and looked at me. Tired would have been an understatement.
I walked down the steps and into the barn, where I found Unc already sitting in the passenger seat of my truck, hat on and buckled in. "Where you going?"
"With you." He pointed out through the windshield. "Drive."
Is it just me, or has the world picked up speed since I stepped out of jail? The shower and deodorant would have to wait--as would the view off my bow.
My vehicle is a 1978 Toyota Land Cruiser, and her Christian name is Vicky. On my seventeenth birthday, after two years of penny-scraping and nonstop daydreaming, Unc matched my savings and helped me buy her. She's forest green, sports a black padded roll bar, large worn mud tires, winch, manual locking hubs, four-speed transmission, and front and rear pipe bumpers, and she'll go most anywhere. Judging from the freshly dried mud along her wheel wells, that remains true whether I'm in jail or not. You can take the kid out of the candy store, but not the candy store out of the kid.
One feature that allows her to do this is the snorkel intake that runs up out of the hood and along the passenger's side of the windshield. A snorkel intake feeds oxygen to the engine. Most stop at the top of the engine, while this one is about seven feet in length. It has its history in Africa, where British guides and explorers who needed to ford rivers could do so in water that rose up over the hood and steering wheel. Vicky's snorkel allows her to drive through water that would cover up the steering wheel. Though I've never done that to her, it's something to dream about.
Last month Vicky turned over two hundred thousand miles. We celebrated with an alignment, oil change, and a fish dinner on the beach. She rides a little stiff, her springs creak, she's showing rust bubbles around the rivets of her wheel wells, and she seldom sees the northern side of seventy miles an hour. Despite all this, I like her for many of the same reasons I like the marsh--when in her, I breathe deeply.
Which is something I desperately needed now. I pressed in the clutch, slipped the stick into first, and rolled out of the barn. We pulled onto the drive, and I shifted into third. The wind swirled around me-a hug from Vicky. That's when it hit me, the thing that'd been on the tip of my tongue since Tommye pressed her face to mine. I touched my face, rubbed the tips of my fingers with my thumb, and looked out beyond the dotted white line. There was no doubt about it.
She was burning up.