Observations and Meanderings

A Couple of Announcements

For those of you in the greater Knoxville area, you’re welcome to come by the Children’s Festival of Reading this Saturday (5/21) at the World’s Fair Park. Three of us from the Authors Guild of Tennessee will have a tent there and we’d love to see you.

Also, I’ve added a retail location for my children’s books. Ijams Nature Center has copies of all five books in both English and Spanish versions:

Stop by the Visitor’s Center, and stick around to enjoy one of Knoxville’s most pleasant attractions. Just a few minutes from downtown.

The Boone Series Continues (Part Four)

I’m sharing this excerpt from Following Frankie, book four in the Boone Series, to mark the publication of the fifth book. Choosing Family is scheduled for release in May of this year. In this selection, Boone and Frankie are on the road, visiting some of the places his friend Melvin had suggested. Their next stop is the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.

Enjoy. 

When I get to Waycross a guy in the gas station where I fill up and use their ATM to get some more cash tells me that Highway 121 will take me to the east side entrance to the refuge and tells me how to get to the highway without going through town.

Using a machine in a gas station to get money is weird. Nobody else is around, which is good, because I get my PIN wrong the first time and have to start all over. Plus it subtracts an extra $3.00 from my account for some kind of fee. I get $80.00, buy a couple of candy bars and three or four drinks, and head back out to the truck before somebody like Abigail comes along with a rock or a brick to rescue my dog.

Frankie is sitting in her seat waiting and thumps her tail at me when I climb in. I pull out of the station and head in the direction the guy said would get me to 121. We’re in south Georgia now, which is a lot of pine trees and red clay, too flat to feel like home but more familiar than the beach. We get to Folkston and the east entrance to the refuge after about an hour drive and park at the visitor center.

I find out pretty quick that Melvin either didn’t know or forgot about the rules here. Frankie isn’t allowed in the canoes, which is no big deal, since I’ve never been in a canoe in my life and don’t want to start in a place with alligators hanging around. She also can’t go on the boardwalks, which is kind of a big deal, since a lot of the trails are boardwalks and that knocks out quite a bit of the park for us. 

When I first got Frankie and the whole time I lived at home I never ran into any of this shit about not being able to take my dog with me. I mean, she couldn’t go into the grocery store with me or anyplace like that, but if I hadn’t run into that guy that told me about Caswell Beach I would have wasted a trip to the ocean, and now here I’m running into the same thing. Never thought of Frankie as a problem before; she’s the best thing I’ve got going right now, and if there’s a place she can’t go then I don’t want to be there either.

Course that’s not entirely true. I’d like to have gone out on the boardwalks at least a little ways. Melvin was right about one thing. The swamp is like a whole different world, and I had to stand kind of on the edge of it to see what it was like. But I can’t take Frankie except on the trails that are on solid land and I’m sure not leaving her with some stranger just so I can go out into the swamp a little ways on one of the boardwalks.

I have to say, though, that being back in the woods, even though it isn’t the same kind of woods I’m used to, feels awful good. I guess I’d forgotten what that’s like. Then I think, it’s been like a week, actually less than that, since you got on the road and you’re homesick already. That’s pitiful. I can hear Melvin saying, “You need to see some other places while you’re young, Boone; you never can tell what will happen. You might find the perfect place to live or a vacation spot to keep coming back to, or maybe even the love of your life!” 

He was grinning at me when he said that last part, I remember, because he knew about me and Nancy and was just giving me a hard time. He was a good guy; a lot of those old folks couldn’t hardly remember their own name, but Melvin was pretty sharp.

By the time we get back to the truck from the two or three trails we can take, it’s close to the end of the day and time to find a place to park and sleep for the night. I’m about to get in and head for the exit when I hear somebody yell, “Hey, Tennessee!” I don’t think anything about it but then I hear it again and when I look around some guy’s pointing at me and saying, “What part of Tennessee are you from?”

At first I don’t say anything because I can’t figure out how he knows that I’m from Tennessee, since I don’t know him from Adam. He points at the license plate on the truck and says, “I saw your truck when we pulled in. Nice dog.” He’s walking over to us and Frankie is watching him. She’s not doing anything, not growling, hair not standing up along her back, but she’s not wagging her tail either. He gets a little closer and I can hear a growl, so low I almost miss it, but when I look down Frankie is all tensed up.

He’s a big guy, not as big as Tiny, but big. He steps in way too close to me and Frankie’s growl gets louder. I say, “You ought to step back a little. Getting kinda close there. Frankie doesn’t like it and I don’t much like it either.”

“Maybe you ought to keep your dog under control,” he says, and stays right where he is.

“She is,” I say. “This is her being under control.”

He stands there for a second, and then steps back. “I didn’t mean anything by it.” He raises his hands up in front of his shoulders. “Sorry.” He doesn’t look sorry.

“No problem,” I say. “What can I do for you?”

He shakes his head. “Never mind, man, just trying to be friendly.” He turns around and heads back to his car. There’s two other guys there and I see him talking to them and pointing at us. They’re too far away for me to hear.

One of the guys looks around the parking lot and says something to the rest of them. They all turn the same direction and look, so I turn that way too. I see a guy walking up to a big SUV. The first guy, the one who came up to me, says, “Hey, Virginia!” and the car owner stops and looks around the lot.

“Let’s get out of here, Frankie,” I say, and take her around to the passenger side. She jumps in and I start around the front, but when I look over at the SUV all three guys are standing around the driver almost shoulder to shoulder, and he’s backed up against the rear fender of the car. 

I never liked bullies; got pushed around plenty in school and couldn’t do much of anything about it. Back then I knew nobody would back me up if I tried to stand up to them, especially Mr. Timmons’ gang. If you don’t have some kind of backup it’s hard to stand up to anybody. That makes me think about Jerry and I reach up and touch the scar on my arm from the knife fight. Tiny stood with me then, and so did Nancy. I don’t know whether these guys are bullies or thieves, but I’ve dealt with both kinds, and they both piss me off.

I’m trying to decide what to do about it when another car pulls in and parks one spot over from the SUV. Two people get out and the woman on the passenger side says, “When were you going to join us, Raymond? The grill’s about ready.” Then she looks at the three guys that have the driver, I guess that’s Raymond, backed up against the car and says, “What’s going on here?”

The one that had come over to me says something to her and she just stands there like she’s not sure what to do. I can see Raymond’s face enough to know he’s scared, so I get Frankie back out of the truck and go around to the front.

“Y’all okay over there?” I shout, and start walking toward them. Frankie is right beside me and I’ve got the leash wrapped tight around my hand. She’s growling loud now, and when we get a little closer she barks once. Now she’s pulling hard on the leash and everybody’s looking at her. I’m wondering whether I should have gone into the back of the truck and picked up my shotgun when the three guys look at each other and start heading back to their car. 

They get in their car and start to pull out of the parking lot, but turn in next to my truck on the passenger side. I can’t really see what’s happening but I hear glass breaking and then the car backs out, turns hard, and heads out of the lot. When I turn back around all three people, Raymond and the two others, are staring at me.

“I got the license number,” the woman says. “Georgia plates. I’m going to call the police. Maybe they’ll . . . .” She kind of trails off and looks at Raymond.

Raymond nods. “Maybe they will what, Denise? The police are not going to set up roadblocks for a broken window. Sorry,” he turns to me and then back to her, “I say definitely call it in, but I would not expect anything to happen.”

She nods and Raymond looks over at me. “I would like to thank you, young man. I do not know what would have happened had you not been here in the parking lot, but I am sure it would have been unpleasant at best.” He holds out his hand. “My name is Raymond, as I am sure you have guessed by now. And who might you be?”

I grab his hand. He’s got a solid grip. “Boone. This is Frankie.”

Raymond smiles. “A great pleasure to meet both of you.”

This guy talks like he’s giving some kind of speech, even though it’s just us and I’m sure he already knows Denise and whoever that other guy is.

Now he’s calling them over. “Denise, Jeremy, come meet our rescuers. This is Boone, and this fine looking animal is Frankie.” He looks at me. “With a name like Frankie, this could be either a male or female dog.”

“Frankie’s a girl,” I say. I feel like I ought to do something besides just stand here, so I stick out my hand and we all shake, which feels weird because I don’t ever do that. It’s so serious, like we’re making some kind of business deal or something. Then I say, “Frankie, this is Raymond, Denise, and Jeremy.” She looks at the three of them and then back at me.

Raymond laughs. “Not easily impressed, is she?”

“She just doesn’t know you,” I say, not sure whether I’m supposed to get mad about that or not. “She’s really a good dog.”

“I have no doubt,” he says. “Now, how shall we reward you? Aside from paying for a replacement window, I mean. Jeremy,” he looks over at the guy, “Is your brother-in-law still working at his friend’s body shop?”

Jeremy nods.

“Would you call him, please, and find out how much a replacement side window, parts and labor, would be? What year is your truck, Boone?”

I tell him and Jeremy steps away and pulls out a cell phone. He talks for a minute or two and comes back over.

“He says about $400.00.”

Raymond nods. “Thank you, Jeremy.”

“About what happened with those three assholes —” I stop and look at Denise. “Sorry about that.”

She laughs. “No apology needed, Boone. I’d say that’s exactly what they were.”

“I didn’t do anything besides walk over here. Those guys thought they had you cornered. They came at me just a couple of minutes ago, used that same trick on me they used on you. Backed off because they didn’t want to have to deal with Frankie, so maybe she’s the rescuer.”

“Well said, Boone,” says Raymond. “We will say both of you, then, since the two of you showed up together. Just in the nick of time, right?”

I shrug. “I guess so.”

“Definitely so,” says Raymond. “Now, you will join us for supper, of course. Where are you staying?”

Here we go again. I’m so damn tired of people asking me that. When I don’t answer right away, Raymond takes the hint, I guess, and says, “No matter. We are in the RV park just outside Waycross. Did you come that way?”

I nod.

“If you will follow us, then, we will have a meal together, you can meet my wife Charlotte, and you can tell us about your travels with Frankie. Oh, I sometimes wish I was young again and able to just pick up and leave on a whim.”

Denise laughs. “Ray, you’re always picking up and leaving on a whim. I’ve known you for twenty years and this trip isn’t new behavior for you.” She glances at me. “You and Boone may have a lot in common, now that I think about it.”

I don’t know about all this, but I get in my truck and follow them out onto the highway anyway. I hope this doesn’t turn out like it did with Jericho. 

We’re behind Raymond’s car and Jeremy is out ahead a little ways. Denise said something about getting the steaks on the grill as soon as they got there so we wouldn’t be too late eating. Raymond drives pretty fast for an old guy and I have to pay attention so he doesn’t get away from me.

There was this family back home, the Binfields, that had a house set so it looked out on the valley one over from us. You could see that place from anywhere, especially late in the day when the sun hit all those windows. I remember Daddy used to say those people had enough money to burn a wet dog, which I thought was pretty damn funny until I got Frankie. Anyway, that family was richer than anybody else in the county.

I don’t think Raymond has that much money, but he’s sure got a nice RV. 

The Boone Series continues (Part Three)

I’m sharing this excerpt from Keeping Secrets, the third book in the Boone Series, to mark the publication of the fifth book. Choosing Family is scheduled for release in May of this year. This is from about midway through the book, and Boone is living in a small house on the grounds of the assisted living facility where he’s working.

Enjoy. 

Saturday about ten in the morning somebody wakes me up banging on the door. Frankie is up and wagging her tail, so I open the door and Tiny is standing there. 

“Hey, man, how’s it going?” Then I get a look at his face.

“What’s wrong?”

“You still got that shine recipe?”

“Yeah, it’s in the kitchen, in the drawer. Why?”

“Because that’s all you’ve got left, Boone. That and whatever shine we haven’t drunk up yet.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

I’m trying to keep from shouting and not doing such a great job, so I reach out and grab his arm and pull him inside. I slam the door and Frankie jumps back.

Tiny is already on the couch, and he’s filthy. His jeans are torn and dirty and I can smell smoke coming off him like he’s been camping out on one of the lake islands and spent all night sitting by the fire.

“You got any water, man?”

“In the kitchen. You’ll have to get it out of the sink. You going to tell me what happened? You look like shit.”

He goes into the kitchen and drinks three glasses of water standing right there at the sink before he comes back in and plops down on the couch again.

“It didn’t start at the still, I’m pretty sure about that.”

“What didn’t start?”

“The brush fire. You know nobody’s done anything with that land next to ours for who knows how long. Some of it you can’t hardly hack your way through. They’re trying to figure out how it started, but me and the rest of my family have been up there all night, trying to keep it from spreading to our land. The fire burned away that tarp I had on all our stuff and as soon as the firefighters saw the setup they called the sheriff. It’s all burnt up, all the supplies, and the law’s got the coil and the other stuff. They asked me about it and I said I hardly ever come up to that part of the property, and anyway that’s not our land up there, and I’m pretty sure they believed me. Anyway, it’s gone. You better drink what you’ve got left real slow, man. There isn’t going to be any more. Not from that still, anyway.”

I can’t think what to say. 

“What the hell happened to Frankie?” He’s looking at her back leg, and I realize I haven’t talked to him for the last few days.

“Tell you later. It’s all gone?”

He nods.

I just stand there. Gamaliel and my daddy had that still for years and nothing happened to it. I take over and it’s already gone. Maybe Daddy was right about me. Maybe I’m a useless piece of shit after all.

Tiny’s back at the sink. He’s drinking slower now, and sets his glass down after only filling it up the one time.

I start to say, so what do we do now? and don’t because there’s nothing to do. 

Chapter Twenty-One

“I need a drink,” I finally say, looking at the floor.

Tiny starts laughing and pretty soon he’s doubled over on the couch. He finally gets his breath and sits up.

“Hell, yeah, let’s have one. Or two.”

I make two the way Gamaliel would want me to and bring them back into the little living room. Tiny stands up and takes one of the glasses from me and raises it up. “To the old man.”

I raise mine up too, but I don’t say anything because I don’t want to start crying in front of Tiny.

He takes his all in one drink and shakes his head, hard. “Damnation, I forgot how he liked his. I better sit back down.” And he does. I take the glass from him and put it on the floor next to the corner of the couch and sit down beside him. I take a little longer with mine but pretty soon we’re both just sitting there staring at the floor. Nobody says anything for a while and then Tiny says, “I believe one’s going to be enough for me.”

He stands up and says, “I got to go check for hot spots. If that fire gets into our buildings they’d be gone in no time flat.”

“Need some help?”

“Every bit we can get. It’s a big damn mess up there. You sure you don’t need to stay here with Frankie?”

As soon as he says that I remember that Frankie can’t go with us, and I’m about to tell him to go on, that I’d better stay here. Feels like I need to go up there and help, though. Tiny would do it for me in a heartbeat, I know that.

“I’ll get Mark to watch her. Or Betty.”

He nods and heads for the door. “I’ll see you up there. I got to get going.”

After he’s gone I sit and stare at Frankie for a long time, thinking about Daddy. One of the worst beatings I ever got, maybe the worst, was when he came up on me and Curt out in the field where he is now. We weren’t more than ten or so and Curt had brought a box of those big kitchen matches and we were flicking them at each other. We’d set the head of the match on the side of the box and press down hard on the other end with our finger and flip at it with our other hand, middle finger behind the thumb and then pow, as hard as we could, If we hit it just right it would light and fly toward the other guy. Curt was better than me but I was starting to get the hang of it when Daddy showed up. 

Looking back I know he was real scared, but all he showed us was mad. Curt got out of there in a hurry and I got the shit beat out of me. He sent me back to the house and when I turned and looked back at him he was stomping all over the place where me and Curt had been. I didn’t know why he cared so much about it, it wasn’t even his house or barn or anything.

I finally snap out of it and stand up. “C’mon, Frankie, let’s go see Mark,” I say.

When I get to Tiny’s place there are half a dozen trucks parked all over the yard and Mrs. Thompson is walking toward the house from the field. She looks like hell, like she fell off her four by four and it dragged her a ways.

“Everybody’s still up there, Boone,” she points toward where the still used to be. “I think they’re making progress but I sure am glad to see you. It’s pretty damn awful, worst I’ve seen since I was a little girl.”

I start to ask about that but she’s already inside the house. There’s nobody else around, so I head out through the back yard and into the field.

Everything looks the same until I top that first hill. The land drops down a little and then back up toward the wood line, and I can hear men’s voices and see people moving around, in and out of the trees.

There are foot trails through the grass where people have been back and forth from the Thompson place up to the woods, and I follow one of them down and back up toward where the still used to be. A couple of guys look in my direction and then right back down to the ground, moving their heads back and forth. I can’t see what they’re looking at from where I am.

Three of them are leaning up against that big rock that Tiny and I used as a landmark, drinking from a gallon milk jug they are passing back and forth. One of them splashes a little water from it on his face and I hear another one say, “Damn, Mike, if you’re going to pour it out just hand it on over. I’m dry as a bone.”

I come up to them and they nod at me, but don’t offer me a drink. They can tell by how clean I am that I just got here. I stand there for a minute and finally say, “Tiny around anywhere?”

Mike points toward a bunch of guys about thirty feet into the woods. “Think he’s over there.” I nod and head that way.

When I get close Tiny looks over his shoulder and waves me into the group. One of the others looks at me and says, “Where’s your gloves?”

I just stand there.

“You planning to do this bare-handed? That’ll last about a half a minute,” the same guy says, and it sounds just like all those times I been made fun all my life and I’m about ready to shove his gloves right up his ass and head on back to the truck when Tiny says, “You know those gloves you left here when you helped me clean out that shed? I let Gary over there have them but I’ve got another pair you can use,” and he tosses me a pair of gloves that smell like smoke already.

I’m really dragging by the time somebody comes around with a jug of water. This is a lot harder work than I’ve done in a while and pretty damn depressing work on top of that. Somebody working close to me said it was early in the year for this kind of fire, that it usually happens in the fall, but that these woods were so grown up that it wouldn’t take much.

“You know they found a still right over there,” he says, pointing back to the rock. “I bet some damn fool was up here making shine and went off and left the fire going, and now look what we’ve got. Damn fools,” he says again, pulling a black branch aside to look under it for anything still burning.

I almost tell him that we weren’t cooking any mash right now so it couldn’t have been us and catch myself just in time.

Surely Tiny wasn’t up here working without me.

The guy with the water is gone, making the rounds to everybody else, so I get back to work. The group I’m in, four of us altogether, are working around the side of the hill, just across the fence from the Thompson’s land. There are two guys out ahead of me, and the one in front is about thirty yards away when he stops in his tracks and says, “Oh, shit, oh, shit! Somebody call the sheriff, quick!”

He looks back and catches my eye. “Move your ass, kid! I said get somebody over here! It looks like we got a dead guy at the base of that big tree over there!”

It’s like I can’t move for a second, and then I turn and start back toward the rock, looking for Tiny or Mrs. Thompson. I don’t know anybody else up here. By that time the other guy that used to be ahead of me is past me and moving fast, shouting for somebody named Bowden. I don’t have any idea who that is.

I start after him, trying to keep up. There’s so many branches and vines, all grey and black and no leaves, that I keep tripping and a couple of times I almost fall on my face. I don’t get very far before I see him coming back with a big guy, bigger than Tiny even. I have to jump sideways to get out of their way. 

After they go by I turn around and follow behind, and pretty much everybody on the hill is right behind me. We get close to the tree, about twenty feet, and the big guy and three others are standing there in a line with their arms stretched out wide. 

“Keep back, y’all,” one of them is saying, over and over. 

We’re all crowded together in sort of a line facing the three guys guarding the tree. I can see what used to be a person, a man I guess, sitting on the ground leaned against the trunk of the tree. His hand is flopped down on the ground beside him and I can see something right next to it.

It’s a meth pipe.