Carrying Albert Home By Homer Hickam: Book Review
Is it a road trip? Is it a love story? Is it fiction? Is it a memoir?
The answer is all of the above, and more.
I hardly know where to start with this crazy, quirky, loveable book.
Suffice to say that, when your ex gives you an alligator (the eponymous Albert) as a wedding present, it's only going to be a matter of time before your other half decides it's him or the reptile.
Allegedly based on the true story of Homer Hickam's parents' early marriage – and, even now I've read it, I'm not sure whether I believe even half of it.
Hickam describes his parents as "West Virginians who knew how to make their tales as tall as the hills".
I'm inclined to think it takes one to know one.
But does that matter?
Not a bit of it.
Carrying Albert Home By Homer Hickam: Book Extract
When Elsie came outside into the backyard to see why her husband was shouting her name, she saw Albert lying on his back in the grass, his little legs splayed apart and his head thrust backward. She was sure something awful had happened to him but when her alligator raised his head and smiled at her, she knew he was all right. The relief she felt was palpable and nearly overwhelming. After all, she loved Albert more than just about anything in the whole world. She knelt and scratched his belly while he waved his paws in delight and grinned his most toothsome grin.
At just a little over two years old, Albert was over four feet long, which was big for his age according to a book Elsie had read about alligators. He was covered with a thick skin of exquisite olive-colored scales with yellow bands on his sides that the book said would disappear over time. Raised ridges rippled down his length, even to the tip of his tail, and his belly was soft and creamy. His expressive eyes were the color of gold but glowed a compelling red at night. His face was quite striking, his nostrils perfectly placed atop the tip of his snout to allow him to breathe while resting in the water, and an endearing overbite that presented rows of brilliantly white teeth. He was, Elsie believed, about the handsomest alligator there ever was.
Of course, Albert was also smart, so smart he followed Elsie around the house like a dog and when she sat down, he crawled into her lap and let her pet him like a house cat. This was good because she was no longer able to have either a dog or a cat, due to Albert’s tendency to ambush them from under the bed or out of the little concrete pond her father had built for him. Albert had never actually eaten either a dog or a cat but he’d come close, enough so that both species had declared the Hickam house and yard off-limits for at least the next century.
After smiling back at her “little boy,” as she liked to call him, Elsie took note of her husband, who had ceased yelling and was just looking at her with an expression that she interpreted as somewhat peevish. She could not help but also note that he was dressed in a rather peculiar fashion, which led her to ask, “Homer, where are your pants?”
Homer did not answer her directly. Instead he said, “Me or that alligator.”Then he said it again, this time low and slow. “Me...or...that... alligator.”
Elsie sighed. “What happened?”
“I was sitting on the toilet doing my business when your alligator climbed out of the bathtub and grabbed my pants. If I hadn’t climbed out of them and run out here, he’d have surely killed me.”
“I guess if Albert wanted to kill you, he’d have done it a long time ago. So what do you want me to do?”
“Choose. Either me or him. That’s it.”
There it was. How long, she wondered, had this been coming at her, at them both, at them all? Yet, she had no answer other than the one she gave. “I’ll think it over.”
Homer was incredulous. “You’re going to think it over when it’s me or that alligator?"
“Yes, Homer, that is exactly what I’m going to do,” Elsie said, then flipped Albert over and beckoned him to follow. “Come on, little boy. Mama’s got some nice chicken for you in the kitchen.”
Homer watched in disbelief as Elsie led Albert inside the house. At the fence, Jack Rose, neighbor and fellow coal miner, approached and coughed politely. “You gonna catch cold, son,” he said. “Maybe you ought to go put on some pants.”
Homer’s face turned crimson. “Did you hear?”
“Everybody on this row likely heard.”
Homer knew he was in for some terrible ribbing. Coal miners always liked to take a man down a notch and Homer being chased into the yard without his pants by Elsie’s alligator was going to make it easy for them. “Help me out, Jack,” he pleaded. “Don’t tell anybody about this.”
“Okay,” Rose said, amiably, “but I can’t guarantee the missus.” He nodded over his shoulder to the window where Mrs. Rose stood with a big grin. Knowing he was doomed, Homer hung his head.
That night, over supper, Homer paused over his brown beans and cornbread. “Have you thought it over yet? About me and Albert?”
Elsie didn’t look at him. “Not yet.”
Homer was clearly miserable. “I’m going to catch heck from the other miners about being chased outside without my pants.”
Elsie still did not look at him. She was staring at her beans as if they were sending her a message. “I have a solution,” she said. “Quit the mine. Get out of that dirty old hole and let’s go live somewhere clean.”
“I’m a coal miner, Elsie. It’s what I do.”
She finally looked at him. “It’s not what I do.”
All night long, Elsie slept with her back turned to Homer and the next morning, after fixing him breakfast and handing him his lunch bucket, she provided no kiss, or a wish that he might return home safely. Homer was certain he was the only Coalwood miner who went to work that day without some sort of well-wishing from his wife and that knowledge was a heavy weight to carry. On top of that, a miner named Collier Johns gave him the business about his excursion in the yard without his pants. Johns thought himself sly by asking, “Did Elsie’s alligator really scare you out of your pants, Homer?” This was followed by general laughing and slapping of the knees by the other miners on the shift. The correct and expected response from Homer should have been something funny or ribald but he said nothing, which took all the fun out of the ribbing and it subsided. The suspicion was that Homer had fallen ill, perhaps gravely so. Later, there was much discussion of this on the company store steps. The conclusion was that his illness was his wife, a peculiar girl who, though lovely, was the kind who could destroy a man by wanting more than he could provide.
Two more days went by until Elsie walked outside into the yard, where Homer was sitting on a rusty chair he’d scrounged from the company junkyard. She stood before him and, after taking a deep breath, announced, “I will let Albert go.”
Relieved, Homer said, “Wonderful. Thank you. We’ll put him in the creek. He’ll be fine there. Lots of minnows to eat and the occasional dog or cat trying to get a drink.”
Elsie pressed her lips together, an expression Homer knew all too well meant she was not pleased. “He would freeze in the creek during the winter,” she said. “He has to go home to Orlando.”
This was an astonishing proposal. “Orlando? Good Lord, woman! It must be eight hundred miles to Orlando!”
Elsie defiantly raised her chin. “I don’t care if it’s eight thousand.”
“And if I refuse?”
Elsie took another deep breath. “I’ll take him myself.”
Homer could almost feel the earth shifting beneath his boots. “How would you do that?”
“I don’t know but I’ll figure out a way.”
Instantly defeated, Homer asked, “Does he have to go all the way to Orlando? Could we not drop him off in one of the Carolinas? It’s warm down there, so I hear.”
“All the way,” Elsie replied. “And when we get there, we have to find the perfect place.”
“How will we know the perfect place?”
“Albert will know.”
“Albert is a reptile. He doesn’t know anything.”
“Well, at least he has an excuse for that, doesn’t he?”
“You’re saying I don’t know anything?”
“I’m saying none of us do. I’m saying everything we think is true is probably not true at all. If I said a million things and you said a million and one things back, none of our words might even come close to what the truth really is.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s the most honest answer I can give you.”
After his wife had gone back inside the house, Homer sat brooding in his junkyard chair. For one of the first times in the entire history of his life, he felt scared. A week ago, the mine roof had cracked like a rifle shot and a giant slab of rock had missed him by inches but that hadn’t scared him at all. He’d never told Elsie about that but he knew she knew. She seemed to know everything he tried to keep from her. In contrast, Homer confessed to himself he knew very little about the woman he’d married and had now put the fear of God in him with her threat to head off for Florida whether he went along or not.
There was, he realized, only one thing to do. He would seek the advice of the greatest man he knew, the incomparable William “Captain” Laird, World War I hero, graduate of the Stanford University engineer- ing school, and lord and master of Coalwood.
And so, although he did not know it, the journey began.
After a full shift underground, Homer showered at the company bathhouse, dressed in a fresh pair of coveralls and town boots, and asked the office clerk to see the Captain. The clerk waved him to the door and the Captain roared “Enter!” to Homer’s knock. His hat held in his hands, Homer stepped up to the Captain’s desk. The Captain, a huge man with ears like an African elephant, looked up and frowned. “What the devil is it, son?”
“It’s my wife, Captain.”
“Elsie? What’s wrong with Elsie?”
“She wants me to take her and her alligator to Orlando.”
The Captain sat back and considered Homer. “Does this have anything to do with you running around your yard without your pants?”
“Yes, sir, it does.”
The Captain cocked his head. “Okay, son, I’m always up for a good story and I sense this might be a good one.”
After taking an offered chair, Homer told the Captain about Albert chasing him outside and then what he said and what Elsie said. The Captain listened intently, his expression gradually changing from bemusement to squinty-eyed interest. When Homer was finished, the Captain said, “You know what I think this is, Homer? It’s kismet or damn close.”
Homer had heard of kismet but he wasn’t sure what it was and said so. The Captain leaned forward, his bulk looming as if to smother Homer’s doubts. “There are times that come to us to accomplish things that don’t make sense but make all the sense there is in the universe. Does that make sense?”
“Of course it doesn’t. But that’s what kismet is. It makes us careen off in odd directions from which we learn not only what life is about but what it is for. This journey may be nothing less than your chance to discover these things.”
“You’re saying I should go?”
“I am, indeed. You are hereby granted your annual two weeks’ vacation and you have my permission to draw one hundred dollars from the company to finance the trip.”
“But that’s so much money! I’ll never be able to pay it back.”
“Yes, you will. You’re the kind of man who figures out how to pay a debt and then does it. Now, let us speak of Elsie. Have you made it clear to her that she is the most important person in your life?”
“I guess not, Captain,” Homer answered, truthfully, “but she surely is.” He scratched his head. “Trouble is I don’t know if I’m the most important person in her life.”
“Well, maybe that’s another reason you’ve been given this journey, so that the two of you can figure out what kind of couple you are meant to be. When are you leaving?”
“I don’t know. Until just now, I wasn’t sure I was going.”
“Go in the morning. A thing put off is a thing not done.” The Captain’s countenance turned gloomy. “Make no mistake. I’ll miss you. You have those goons on Three West running good coal and likely they’ll fall back into bad habits with you gone.” He shrugged. “But I’ll make do. A young man on his way to adventure in tropical climes! I wish I were you.”
“I will tell you truly, Captain,” Homer answered. “I sense this journey will be one of the most painful experiences of my life.”
“It may very well be,” the Captain agreed, “and perhaps that is all the more reason you should do it. That said, in two weeks, I want to see your bright and shiny face back on Three West.”
Homer rose from the chair, thanked the Captain, received a farewell salute, and walked outside into the dusty air, oblivious to the line of evening shift men tromping past to the manlift. In the sequential manner he’d been taught by the Captain, he made some rapid decisions. Getting to Florida from West Virginia with a wife and an alligator was a daunting task. His first decision was to eliminate going by train or bus. Neither of those conveyances would likely accept an alligator as a passenger. No, to get there, they’d have to go by car. Luckily, he had a good one, a 1925 Buick four-door convertible touring car he’d recently purchased from the Captain.
Homer’s next decision led him to walk to the company store, where he procured a large washtub on credit and then went to the pay window and got one hundred dollars in the form of two fifty-dollar bills. As he walked to his house, the tub hitched up on his shoulder, he caught the attention of several ladies sitting in chairs on their porches. Their husbands were evening shift miners and so they had a little time on their hands to sit and watch anyone and everyone who might walk by. Most of them spoke to him as he passed, and one, a new wife in town, even asked him if he might stop for some iced tea. Though he politely touched his forelock to all of the ladies in a gesture of respect, he kept walking. He was a handsome young man, Homer Hadley Hickam, nearly six feet tall, his straight black hair kept slicked back with Wildroot Creme Oil. He had the broad shoulders and muscles of a coal miner, and a lopsided smile and very blue eyes that many women found interesting. But he wasn’t interested in them, not since he’d met and married Elsie Lavender.
Homer stowed the washtub in the back seat of the Buick, which was parked in front of the house, then went inside to apprise his wife of the decisions he had made. After peeking into the bedroom and not finding her, he discovered Elsie—her full married name was Elsie Gardner Lavender Hickam—sitting in the bathroom on its cracked linoleum floor. Her back was against the bathtub and she was holding her alligator, who was looking at her in rapt adoration. She was also crying.
Not counting sad movies and onions, Elsie had only seriously cried twice before, to Homer’s recollection: once when she’d agreed to marry him, and again when she’d opened the box holding Albert and read the accompanying card from a fellow she’d known in Florida named Buddy Ebsen. In both cases, he still wasn’t sure why. Uncertain what to say to this third bout of serious tears, Homer naturally said the wrong thing. “If you’re not careful, that thing will yet bite off your arm.”
Elsie raised her face and the sight of it hurt Homer’s heart. Her usually bright hazel eyes were puffy and rimmed in pink and her high, prominent cheekbones—which she said came from the Cherokee in her blood—were wet with tears. “He will do no such thing,” she said, “because Albert loves me. Sometimes, I think he is the only one in this old world who does.”
Recalling the Captain’s recommendation, Homer said, “You are the most important person in my life.”
“No, I’m not,” she shot back. “Not even close. First is the Captain. Second is the coal mine.”
“The coal mine is not a person.”
“In your case, it might as well be.”
Homer did not want to argue, mainly because he knew he couldn’t win. Instead, he said the thing he knew would either make her very happy or call the whole thing off. “We leave for Florida in the morning,” he announced.
Elsie pushed a tear-soaked strand of hair from her cheek. “Are you joking?”
“The Captain gave me permission to go as long as I make it back in two weeks. I bought a galvanized washtub at the company store for Albert to ride in. It’s in the back seat of the Buick. I also withdrew one hundred dollars from the company.” He dug into his pocket and displayed the two fifties.
Her astonished face told Homer all that he needed to know. She believed him now. After all, a man didn’t get two fifty-dollar bills from the company if he wasn’t serious about using them. “If you still want to go, I think you should pack your things,” he said.
Elsie pondered her husband, then stood up and put Albert in the bathtub. “All right,” she said, “I will.” She brushed past him heading for the bedroom.
When he heard her open the closet door followed by the rattle of coat hangers, Homer felt a little panic crawl up his back and perch on his shoulder. When he looked at Albert, the alligator seemed to be sizing him up. “This is all your fault,” Homer said. “And, damn his hide, Buddy Ebsen’s.”Next chapter
Every morning when Elsie blinked awake, she was always a little surprised to find herself a coal miner’s wife. After all, to avoid that very thing, she’d caught a bus to Orlando the week after she’d graduated from high school. As soon as she stepped off the bus, she knew she’d made the right decision. It was as if she’d entered a kind of beautiful and sunny wonderland. Her Uncle Aubrey was there at the bus station to meet her and regally placed her in the back seat of his Cadillac and drove her like she was some kind of queen to his house, as fine a house Elsie had ever seen even though there was a for sale sign out front. Her uncle explained he had lost a lot of money in the Depression but was certain that, as long as Herbert Hoover was in charge, he’d be rolling in greenbacks again before long.
Elsie got a job waiting tables at a restaurant and enrolled in secretary’s school, and started meeting young people who were vastly more interesting than anyone she had ever known. She especially liked one boy, a tall, lanky fellow named Christian “Buddy” Ebsen, whose parents owned a dance studio in downtown Orlando. From the start, Buddy took a special interest in her. Unlike some of the others, who made fun of her for her West Virginia accent, Buddy was always kind and polite, always listened to her attentively, and was just so much fun. He even had her over to meet his parents and taught her to dance all the latest dances.
But Elsie had learned that good things didn’t always last and, sure enough, Buddy left with his sister to go to New York, there to make his fortune as an actor and a professional dancer. After a few months passed with not so much as a letter from him, Elsie had to admit to herself that Buddy probably wasn’t going to come back anytime soon. She found herself lonely and homesick, and after graduating from secretary school, took the bus back to West Virginia. It wasn’t to stay, she told Uncle Aubrey, but just for a visit, a visit that had now lasted three years and included, almost inexplicably, marrying a Gary High School classmate and coal miner named Homer Hickam.
The morning after Albert chased Homer into the yard, Elsie saw her husband off to work and then retreated to the bathroom, there to cuddle her alligator who mostly lived in the bathtub. Albert had been a surprise gift from Buddy, arriving a week after the wedding, inside a shoe box with holes punched in it and string holding it together. Besides a cute little alligator no more than five inches long, there was a note inside. I hope you will always be happy. Something of Florida for you. Love, Buddy.
So many times Elsie had dissected that message! She wondered if Buddy had hoped she would be happy because, without him, he thought she wouldn’t be? And why send something of Florida that would live for years if he hadn’t wanted her to think of him all the time? And, maybe more important, there it was in his looping cursive, that word: Love.
Absently, she petted Albert while she thought of the other man in her life, who happened now to be her husband. The first time she saw Homer, she was playing guard on the Gary High School girls’ basketball team. They were in the Gary gymnasium and the opposing girls were from the high school in Welch, the county seat. During a lull in play, Elsie’s eyes drifted to the top row of the bleachers and landed on a sharp-faced boy who was watching her in a way that made her feel a bit unsettled. A pass from her teammate bounced right off her and she had to scramble to get it. Then, without a thought, she threw the rules away and bounced the basketball between her legs, twirled about, threw an elbow into the girl guarding her, and dribbled in for a layup, every single move against the rules of girls’ basketball. The referee blew the whistle and the Welch coach nearly fainted at the audacity of a girl actually touching another girl and working the ball. Elsie ignored the hysteria. She was looking for the boy for whom she had shown off but was disappointed to see that he was gone.
The next day he was waiting at her locker. He said, “My name is Homer Hickam. Would you go with me to the dance this Friday?”
That was when Elsie noticed his eyes. They were the bluest eyes she guessed she’d ever seen and there was a kind of cold fire in them. Before she knew what she was doing, she’d said yes, which meant she had to tell the captain of the football team that she’d changed her mind.
Outrageously, come Friday, Homer didn’t show. Elsie went to the dance alone and was forced to dance with another dateless girl while watching the captain of the football team dancing with the head cheerleader. She was mortified. In the two months of school that followed, Elsie saw Homer in the school hallways and in a couple of classes but she ignored him. The worst part of that was he ignored her, too. Then three days before graduation, he stopped her in the school hallway. “Will you marry me?” he asked.
She drew herself up, clutching her books to her chest. “Why would I want to marry you, Homer Hickam? You didn’t even come to the dance you asked me to!”
“I had to work. Daddy got his foot broke in the mine so it was up to me to go pick coal at the tipple to tide us over.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“I figured you’d hear about it.”
Elsie shook her head in astonishment at his thickheadedness, then pivoted on her heel and walked away. “We will get married,” he called after her. “It is meant to be.” But Elsie kept her head up and didn’t turn around. She didn’t think anything was meant to be except that she was going to get out of the coalfields the very first chance she got, which was exactly what she’d done. For more than a year, she had lived the life she’d always dreamed about. She hung on a dandy fellow’s arm, and breathed clear air, and soaked up sunshine. But then it had all somehow gone wrong, and she found herself back in West Virginia. Before she could escape again, her brother Robert informed her that the superintendent of the coal mine in Coalwood wished to entertain her in his office.
“Why does he want to see me?”
“Because he does. You shouldn’t question a great man like Captain Laird.”
Robert drove Elsie to the coal mine office and ushered her inside, leaving after the Captain gave him a wave of dismissal. “Please sit down,” the Captain said politely.
Elsie sat before the massive oak desk and the majesty of the grand man behind it. She said nothing because she didn’t know what to say. The Captain smiled at her. “I asked you to come today so that I might speak with you concerning a young man who works for me. He is a most enterprising man, bound to rise to the very pinnacle of the coal mining profession. I believe you know him well. Homer Hickam.”
Elsie was only a little surprised. She knew, because her brother Robert had told her, that Homer worked for the Captain. “I know him,” she confessed.
The Captain’s smile did not waver. “You are a lovely young thing. It is perfectly clear to me why Homer desires you but I fear you have broken his heart. This makes him somewhat inefficient in his work. Can’t you help him and me and this coal company by marrying the boy? It is a simple request. You have to marry someone.”
“Sir . . .” Elsie began.
“Please call me Captain.”
“All right. Well, Captain, I like Homer, I really do but there’s this boy
in Florida. . . . He’s off chasing fame and fortune in New York right now but I think he wants me and he might come back.”
The Captain reared back in his chair, looking contemplative, and said, “A man who’d decamp to New York instead of marrying you must be a very unserious man! In fact, I would imagine he is so unserious that he is up there enjoying himself. I’ve been to New York many times. There are women there, Elsie, women like you don’t know. Some of them even have platinum hair.” When Elsie’s lips trembled and her eyes turned damp, the Captain gently asked, “Do you know how it is that I came to marry my wife?”
When Elsie confessed in a choked voice she didn’t know, the Captain told her how he’d pursued the woman who was now the lovely Mrs. Laird, and how, after he’d asked her a dozen times, she said she’d marry him only if he had a plug of Brown Mule chewing tobacco in his pocket and, what do you know, he did!
“This is called kismet, Elsie. It is what made her say what she said and me have what I had. Do you understand?” He came from behind his desk and sat down beside her and patted her knee. “Let kismet be your guide for that is the will of the universe.”
Elsie tried to wrap her mind around kismet but had trouble with it. She had always thought God made things happen. It had never occurred to her that there was something else floating around in the air that did, too.
“Look, daughter,” the Captain rumbled on. “Why don’t you at least agree to meet Homer in Welch this Saturday eve? Maybe you two could have some fun there. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”
“I don’t suppose so, sir,” Elsie agreed.
“Fine. He will meet you in front of the Pocahontas Theater at seven o’clock Saturday evening. Can you make it?”
“Yes, sir. One of my brothers will drive me there.”
And so it was settled and her brother Charlie drove her in his jalopy to Welch and dropped her off. Homer arrived on time and they went inside, with very little conversation beforehand, and watched the movie that was, as she recalled, one about Tarzan, the ape man. They did not hold hands. Afterward, she and Homer waited outside Murphy’s Department Store for Charlie to pick her up. That was when, without preamble, Homer once more asked her to marry him.
“No,” she said.
“Please,” he replied. “The Captain said he’d give us a house and I shall soon be a foreman. We would have a good life.”
Since she had talked to the Captain, Elsie had been feeling terribly blue about Buddy and had let her imagination get away from her. She saw him in New York going out with a lot of flashy women and just having the time of his life while she languished forlornly first in Florida and now back in the awful Appalachian hills. Impulsively, she decided to leave Homer’s proposal to kismet, just as the Captain had said she should do. She heard herself say, almost as if in a dream, “If you have a plug of Brown Mule chewing tobacco in your pocket, I’ll marry you.”
Homer looked sad. “You know I don’t chew tobacco.”
Elsie felt a glimmer of relief.
Homer dug in his pocket and then held up a pouch on which there was a picture of a brown mule and was redolent of a sweet chaw. “But I just happened to pick this one up off the bathhouse floor. Thought it might belong to one of your brothers.”
Elsie stared at the pouch, then at Homer’s twinkling eyes, and for one of the only times in her life, she simply gave up. “I’ll marry you,” she said and instantly burst into tears. She supposed Homer took them as tears of joy but they were something very different. They were tears for herself, for who she was and now would be, a coal miner’s wife. After that, the days ticked by until the wedding and then it came and went. She barely recalled saying the words in front of the preacher and slipping on the cheap ring that turned green within a week.
Afterward, she wrote Buddy to tell him that should he come home from New York at last, he would no longer find her in Orlando but instead married to a man in Coalwood, West Virginia. His response was Albert, whom Elsie raised in the kitchen sink until he got too big, whereupon she transferred him to the bathtub in the upstairs bathroom, the only bathroom in the house. While Homer was at work, which was nearly all the time, she sat with the little alligator and sang him songs. She also fed him bugs and, when he grew large enough, chicken parts donated by the company butcher in the company store. She took him outside and walked him around the yard on a leash like he was a puppy while miners on their way to work stopped long enough to tip up their helmets and watch in wonder. Her daddy came over and dug a hole in the backyard and lined it with concrete so that Albert could have a little pond to swim in during the summer. Because Homer was so busy digging coal, she spent more time with Albert during her newlywed year than with her husband and it seemed to her that Homer didn’t really mind.
It wasn’t long before Albert got so big he began to stroll around the house, sometimes crawling up on the couch, his tail flipping over the table lamps. He made a yeah-yeah-yeah sound when he was happy or excited. He flung himself into Elsie’s lap and cuddled every chance he got, turning over so she could scratch his creamy belly. The only thing Albert was afraid of was thunder. One night, when the thunder was like somebody beating on a kettle drum, Albert climbed out of the bathtub, pushed open the bedroom door with his snout, and crawled into bed. When Homer turned over and looked into Albert’s glowing red eyes, he jumped up and ran for his life, tripping down the steps and going right over the rail, his fall cushioned only by the cherrywood coffee table in the living room. Hearing the crash and subsequent groans, Elsie cuddled Albert for a few minutes before she got up to see how Homer was doing. From the floor of the living room, he said he was fine, save a bruised hip, but the coffee table wasn’t and since it was company property, they would have to pay for it if it couldn’t be fixed.
“I never liked that old coffee table, anyway,” Elsie said and, when the thunder receded, escorted Albert to his bathtub, then went back to bed. As she lay there, listening to Homer trying to reassemble the coffee table, a thought occurred to her. “If I could only get Homer to Florida,” she mused, “maybe he’d change into someone more like Buddy.”
Now, with the astonishing journey Homer had proposed, she considered her closet and what to pack. She also realized that perhaps what the Captain called kismet was giving her a second chance to get out of the coalfields. She really hadn’t thought Homer would agree to carry Albert home but now that he had, it would mean days on the road, time enough for her to perhaps sway him, for the sake of their marriage, not to return to West Virginia.
And, if that didn’t work, maybe when he got a look at how beautiful Florida was, it would convince him those old Appalachian hills were nothing but ugly traps.
And if that didn’t work?
Well, she would cross that plank over the creek when she came to it but she thought she already knew the answer.
Once she got out of the coalfields this time, no matter what her husband did, she was never coming back. Next chapter
Homer placed some blankets in the roomy trunk of the Buick plus a wooden box that held an extra shirt, a pair of khaki pants, a toothbrush and shaving mug, a razor, and cream. He then went upstairs to the bedroom, where he found Elsie just as she closed a cardboard suitcase, an arm of a blouse hanging out. Silently, he tucked the arm of the blouse in, then took the suitcase, the only one they owned, to the car.
Before long, Elsie appeared with Albert on the rope that served as his leash. Homer gestured toward the washtub. “Albert goes there.”
Elsie inspected the tub and wrinkled her nose. “It’s too small. His tail will hang out.”
“It’s the biggest tub I could find. It will have to do.”
Elsie had a quilt over her arm. She tossed it to Homer. “Put that in the washtub so he’ll at least have something soft to lie on.”
Homer inspected the cloth and its intricate needlework. “My mother made this. She worked two years on it.”
“Albert likes it. Put it in the washtub.”
Homer draped the quilt inside the washtub and turned back to his wife to find that Elsie had put her arms around Albert behind his front legs and had lifted him up. “Well?” she said. “Pick up his tail.”
Homer picked up Albert’s tail even though he’d read that an alligator could use his tail to knock a man down and be on him before anything could be done. But all Albert did was moon over Elsie while she eased him into the washtub. “He fits fine,” Homer said, relieved.
“Sweet boy,” Elsie said and patted Albert’s knobby head. He grinned at her. “You go to sleep now.”
“I have procured maps from the company gas station,” Homer apprised. “I have Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. They were out of Georgia.”
“What happens when we get to Georgia?”
“We will keep heading south. The sun will rise on our left and set on our right. Eventually, we’ll come across Florida.”
“I want to see my folks,” Elsie said.
Homer raised an eyebrow. “We don’t have time to see your folks. We need to get back to Coalwood in two weeks or we could lose our house. I might even lose my job.”
Elsie’s laugh was harsh. “What a disaster that would be!”
“Look, Elsie . . .”
“No, you look, Homer. Mama and Daddy love Albert. Daddy built him a pond and Mama sends him birthday and Christmas cards. If we took him to Florida without letting them say goodbye, they’d never forgive us.” No matter how they had indulged their daughter’s love of her alligator, Homer doubted Elsie’s parents cared two cents about the reptile in the back seat but he held his peace. After a final look around at the mountains and the little town he loved, he steered the Buick out of Coalwood and aimed it in the direction Elsie wanted to go.
The Lavenders lived in Thorpe, a typical little McDowell County coal camp with gray dust drifting about and houses coated with black grime. The Lavender house was positioned on the side of a steep hill well above the level of the mine tipple, which meant it sat in clear air. Although it belonged to the coal company that owned Thorpe, it had been assigned to Jim Lavender because he was a talented carpenter. Coal companies were always after him and the Thorpe mine had won out by offering him a house not only high on the mountain but with an adjoining barn and two acres of land. Jim’s wife, Minnie, was a pleasant, kindly woman who had birthed nine children and raised seven to adulthood. Two sons had died, one at birth, the other when he was six. His name was Victor and Elsie said one day he’d played in the nasty creek that flowed from beneath the Thorpe tipple, caught some sort of disease, and died two days later. What he’d died of, nobody knew for sure. Elsie often talked about Victor, wondering what he might have become had he lived. Homer supposed he might have become a coal miner like all her other brothers but it was Elsie’s opinion Victor would have become a writer. Where she got that, Homer surely didn’t know but he left it alone. He supposed a dead brother could be anything Elsie wanted him to be.
When Homer pulled up in front of the Lavender house, Elsie got out and opened the back door. “Help me get Albert out,” she said.
“You should just leave him in the car,” Homer replied. “That way, your folks could come out and see him and then we’ll be on our way.”
Elsie petted the alligator’s snout and was rewarded by him opening his jaws and showing her his fine white teeth. He made his yeah-yeah- yeah happy sound. “Your father is silly, Albert,” Elsie said, “because with his planning and his money and his maps and all, he has failed to notice that we have no food.”
Homer silently conceded this was good thinking on Elsie’s part. Restaurants were expensive, even if one could be found on the open road, so it made sense to carry as much food as possible on an extended trip. If there was one thing the Lavenders had, it was food. Their hillside farm was well tended.
Homer and Elsie carried Albert in his washtub up the steps to the front porch, where they sat him down between two rocking chairs, one of which was full of Jim Lavender. Jim was wearing muddy boots and bib overalls and his left arm was in a sling. “What’s wrong with your arm, Daddy?” Elsie asked. “Did you have a fall?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Jim answered. He raised his eyebrows. “Why do you have Albert with you?”
“Because we’re carrying him to Florida.”
“Really? I figured you to keep him until he ate Homer.”
Homer took off his hat. “Well, sir, he’s already big enough for that, at least a mouthful at a time.”
Jim smiled at Albert, who smiled back. “He is a handsome beast, ain’t
“Yes, he is, Daddy,” Elsie agreed. “And sweet, too.”
Elsie’s mother appeared at the screen door. She was dressed in a faded frock, a grease-stained apron, and a frown. “Hidy, Elsie, Homer,” she said without passion. “Is that Albert? He’s growed.”
“That’s Albert, Mama,” Elsie said. “You look like you’ve been crying. What’s wrong?”
“Your daddy’s arm is what’s wrong,” Minnie answered.
“Let’s not talk about my ailments,” Jim quickly said, then stood up. “Think I know why you’ve come. If you’re going all the way to Florida, you need to stock up with some victuals. Well, you’ve come to the right place. For twenty dollars, we could supply you enough to go to Texas.”
“Jim, we ain’t charging these children nothing,” Minnie scolded. “Now, you come on in, Elsie, so we can talk.”
“Albert should come in, too,” Elsie said. “I don’t want the sun on him.”
Minnie nodded. “Jim, you go on up to the pigpen, do what you have to do to get these children a ham.”
Homer helped Elsie carry Albert inside, then went back out and fol- lowed Jim off the porch and past a chicken coop toward a copse of trees on the back edge of the property. There, he caught the odor of pigs.
“Got me a big old sow and a slew of piglets,” Jim said. “A couple of boars, too. They’re snuffling around in the woods.”
“What happened to your arm?” Homer asked.
“I had me a fall. It was from Mrs. Trammel’s bedroom window. A midnight visit, if you will.”
“So you broke it,” Homer said, unsurprised at his father-in-law’s philandering. He had that reputation.
“Naw. Dilly Trammel shot me as I was climbing out.” Jim winced, as if the memory made him get shot all over again. “Trudy and me heard him at the front door—an hour before he should’ve been home, by the way—but then he sneaked around and winged me with his pistola while I was doing my best to save the honor of his wife by not being caught. What kind of man would be so low as to shoot a man looking after the honor of his wife?”
“I’m sure I can’t imagine,” Homer said while frowning.
Jim smirked. “So tell me, Homer, why are you on this fool’s errand? If I was you, I’d just toss that reptile in the nearest creek and take Elsie home.”
“I’d like to but I just can’t. It’s what Elsie wants and I’m bound to do it.”
Jim shook his head. “There’s only one way to control a female. You let her know who’s boss. Granted, that might be hard with Elsie but it’s what you got to do.”
Homer shrugged. “I love her, Jim.”
“Love! Stuff of women’s magazines. Anyway, Elsie’s a special case. She always took a iron hand. I had to smack her more than once when she was a girl. It didn’t do much good but she knew when she’d done wrong by my lights.”
“Yet you came over to Coalwood and built a pond for Albert,” Homer pointed out. “Why’d you do that?”
“I’m her father and she asked me to.”
“Well, I’m her husband and she asked me to take her alligator to Florida.”
Jim grinned. “A romantic coal miner! That’s a rare breed!”
Homer searched for a retort but couldn’t find one. “How about that ham?” was the best he could do.
Jim pointed toward a gigantic pig that stood just inside some low brush. “That’s Bruiser, one of my boars. Man could eat off him for a year.”
“He’s some pig,” Homer agreed. “But he looks kind of mean.”
“Mean? He’s downright vicious. Bet he’d eat Albert given half a chance.”
Jim led Homer into a tool shed where he selected a knife, its sharp edge shimmering in the pale light, and showed it to his son-in-law. “String ’em up, slice ’em along their necks, end of their days. A sharp knife’s the key.”
“Pigs know when you’re going to kill them,” Homer said, turning from the knife. “They’re smart and they know.”
Jim shrugged. “They all know, Homer. You think a cow don’t know? You think a chicken don’t know? I killed a bunch of ’em and I can tell you they all know and they don’t like it one bit. But that’s the way God designed us, to eat. And to eat, we have to kill.”
Taking a loop of rope, Jim led the way out of the shed to a board nailed between two trees with thick nails protruding from it. “This is where I hang ’em,” he said. “Tie up their back legs, then string ’em up, then stick ’em. You heard about somebody crying like a stuck pig? That’s where that phrase came from.”
Homer was unsettled by Jim’s description of a dying pig and watched morosely as his father-in-law made a noose out of the rope and handed it over. “This is for Bruiser,” he said, nodding toward the giant boar, which was carefully watching them through an opening in the surrounding brush. “Put this around his neck.”
Homer looked at the thin rope and then at the boar. “You’re joking. That pig’s six times bigger than me.”
“Look, boy, it’s your ham.”
It was indeed his ham so Homer took the rope and crept up on Bruiser. To his surprise, the boar didn’t move although its serious oil-drop eyes watched him closely. “Just loop it around his neck?” Homer asked.
“Better than around his tail,” Jim replied.
Homer edged around the boar. “Easy, pig,” he said.
“His name is Bruiser,” Jim reminded.
“Easy, Bruiser,” Homer said, then lunged with the rope, successfully placing the loop over the boar’s head.
Bruiser’s response, after a moment of apparent contemplation, was a shriek and a massive flailing of his cloven hooves. Hanging on to the rope, it felt to Homer as if his arms were being pulled out of their sockets. Still, he gamely gripped the rope and tried to keep up with the pig but it was devilishly fast and, in seconds, Homer found himself on his stomach being dragged over the roots of trees and through various thorny bushes and stinging nettles. He twisted until he was on his back, then began to spin over and over until at last he could hold on no longer. Defeated, he let go, then lay draped over a protruding tree root, mentally searching his body for wounds and contusions and broken bones. Finding nothing disastrous, he got to his knees, then struggled to his feet.
Jim walked up with a big pink ham on his shoulder. He held up the knife. “Needed it to cut down one of the hams what was curing.”
Homer sagged against the big oak. “Why did you want me to catch Bruiser?”
Jim looked back into the woods. Trees were waving from where the pig had barged through. “Didn’t. Just wanted to see how long you’d hang on. You did pretty good.”
Homer was not a man who much cared to cuss a man out but, in this case, he made an exception. It did not seem to bother his father-in-law. In fact, based on his laughter, it was a source of some amusement.
A little later, while Homer was trying to wash the blood off his arms at the water pump in the yard, Elsie marched up to him and said, “I want you to hit my daddy.”
Homer shook his head. “I can’t do that, Elsie.”
“Did he tell you what he did?”
“Yes, but I still can’t hit him. He’s only got one arm so it wouldn’t be fair. Besides, knocking down an old man just isn’t in me to do.”
Elsie stared at him hard, then wheeled away. Before long, he heard Jim give out a loud yelp. When he came inside the house, he saw Elsie holding a stick and Jim clutching his wounded arm, his face screwed up in pain. Nothing else was said after that, even at supper, where Jim kept a studied silence and both Minnie and Elsie wore enigmatic smiles. Homer just kept his head down. Next chapter
Even though he had multiple aches from being dragged through the woods by an enraged pig, Homer rose early and, with Elsie and her mother directing him, loaded the car with loaves of baked bread, the big smoked ham, gunnysacks of smoked chicken, a box of early summer tomatoes, multiple jars of green beans, and a basket of onions. Homer was gratified that the food was probably more than sufficient to carry them through two weeks on the road. With any luck, he would only need to spend his money on gasoline and, here and there, maybe a night in a motel. Otherwise, they’d just camp in a field somewhere.
Albert was also carted out in his washtub and placed in the back seat, where he snored softly, his stomach full from a big breakfast of fresh chicken. Through the window, Homer shook his father-in-law’s offered hand.
“Hope you know what you’re doing,” Jim said.
“We’ll be okay,” Homer replied.
Jim’s expression was doubtful. “I had my fun with you yesterday,
Homer, with Bruiser and all, but I hope you know I care about you. You’re a good man, maybe too good by a sight, so keep in mind there’s a Depression out where you’re going. We’re mostly walled off from it here in the mountains. People you’ll run across are going to be desperate. Stay on guard.”
“I will, Jim. Thanks for the advice. And the bruises.”
Jim grinned, then stepped back. Elsie kissed her mother, leaning in through the window. “I love you, daughter,” Minnie said. “Say hello to brother Aubrey.”
“I will, Mama. Wish we had room to take you with us.”
Minnie straightened up, then leaned into Jim, who’d come over and put his good arm around her. “I have enough to do around here,” she said. “Now, off you go.”
Suddenly, a russet-colored rooster with a green tail launched itself inside the car and sat with a defiant expression atop the basket of on- ions. Homer looked over his shoulder at the creature. “You’d best get out of here, rooster,” he said. “Albert’s already giving you the eye.”
“It ain’t mine,” Jim advised. “I don’t know whose it is but I’d keep it if I were you. It might provide dinner somewhere along the road.”
Homer made one last attempt to swat the rooster out of the car but it responded by hopping into the washtub and atop Albert’s head. Albert rolled his eyes up, then grinned. “All right, you green-tailed thing, if that’s the way you want it,” Homer said and, with last waves to Jim and Minnie, steered ahead the Buick, loaded down with food, a husband and a wife, an alligator and a stowaway rooster, all bound for Florida.
On the drive across the first of three mountains before reaching the Virginia border, Elsie sat silently, clearly chewing something over. To Homer’s distress, she did not once pass the time with talk of the weather or the bumpiness of the road or anything else. All she did was stare straight ahead. Uneasy and lonely for her voice, he finally asked, while almost instantly regretting it, “Are you mad at me about something?”
She responded, “I’m mad at myself for asking you to hit my father. It’s none of your business, after all. You’re not part of my family.”
Wounded, Homer answered, “You’re my wife, Elsie, so your parents are my family, too.”
“Then why didn’t you hit him like I asked?”
“I was afraid I’d hurt him.”
Elsie barked a laugh. “The only thing that could hurt my daddy is a direct hit by lightning.”
“Well, just the same . . .”
“You’re weak, Homer,” Elsie interrupted, “weak in ways that often surprise me. But never mind, I’m done talking on this particular topic.”
Homer was left feeling even lower than before and his mind batted imaginary conversations back and forth between Elsie and him that went nowhere. In the valley between the second and third mountain on the way to the Virginia border, the rooster hopped up and crouched companionably on Homer’s shoulder. It smelled faintly of a barnyard. Startled, he tried to push it off but it dug its claws in and hung on.
“Are you going to let that rooster sit there?” Elsie asked.
“I think I am,” Homer answered. “He seems to like me.”
“Really? Why would he like you?”
Wounded anew, Homer replied, “I’m sure I wouldn’t know.”
After crossing the state line into Virginia, the roads got better and the
mountains got farther apart until they turned into rolling hills that framed wide, green valleys. While Elsie dozed, Homer did his best to enjoy the scenery. Dairy cattle, grazing on the early summer grass, kept their heads down and horses gamboled in the meadows. Albert was quiet, except for an occasional long, contented sigh, and, before long, Homer relaxed. Despite Elsie’s sharp tongue, he perceived it was going to be an easy trip. They’d get to Florida, drop Albert off, and get back well before the two weeks were up. After that, he imagined the years would pass and he and Elsie would recall the fast drive they’d made to Orlando and how they’d argued but everything had turned out okay. They’d laugh and laugh about it.
When they passed through a Virginia farm town, Elsie came awake. “What a tired old place,” she said.
Homer agreed that the town looked tired. A few indolent men, dressed in faded coveralls, sat on the steps of the empty buildings and watched the Buick idle by, their eyes betraying little interest. At a stop sign, Homer took note of a man standing on the corner. He was wearing a suit and looked knowledgeable. “What town is this?” Homer asked him.
The man doffed his hat. “Tragedy. We’re the county seat. You’ll find us on the map halfway between Despair and Hopelessness.” He paused, perhaps waiting for Homer and Elsie to laugh, but when they didn’t, he said, “Hillsville’s the actual name of our fair village.”
“It looks nice,” Homer said. “Except how come so many stores are boarded up?”
“That unhappy situation referred to in the press as the Great Depression. Farmers can’t get a decent price on their crops and milk, so they don’t have money to buy things.”
“I’m sorry,” Homer said.
“At least we’re not starving and won’t be as long as folks can stay on their farms. Problem is banks foreclose on a couple of missed payments, they have to hit the road. Is that why you’re out and about?”
“No, sir. I’m in the coal business and fully employed. People still need coal to heat their homes and the steel mills to make their steel.”
Elsie put in her two cents. “By coal business, he means he’s a coal miner who works beneath about a billion tons of rocks, one of which might fall on him at any time.”
“It’s not that bad,” Homer said.
Albert stuck his snout out the window and sniffed the air. The man took a step back. “Is that a crocodile?”
“An alligator,” Homer said. “We’re taking him home to Florida. By the way, are we on the right road?”
“Since it goes south, I would say so. Are you taking the rooster home, too?”
“We don’t know why he’s here,” Homer admitted.
“Well, as the preacher in this town, I say blessings on you all. You’ve cheered up my day and given me something to talk about with the congregation other than the empty offering plate. Why, you’re a regular Noah’s Ark!”
Homer thanked the preacher for his blessings and drove on. After turning at the next corner, he beheld a courthouse with a statue of a Confederate soldier in front. “They fought a lot of Civil War battles around here,” Homer said. “Brother against brother, so the history books say.”
“Sister against sister, too,” Elsie replied. “Women fought in the war, too.”
“I didn’t say they didn’t,” Homer replied, wondering why Elsie tried to make everything into an argument.
“Let’s stop and have lunch here,” Elsie proposed. “It looks pleasant enough and there are some benches.”
Homer agreed and lunch was served, slices of ham, onions, hunks of homemade bread, and glasses of water from a jug Elsie had filled at her parents’ house. Albert got some chicken and the rooster pecked a couple of worms out of the hard dirt. It was pleasant sitting around the courthouse and they had to stir themselves to get back into the car and keep going.
A few miles past the town, they came upon an overturned hay wagon that completely blocked the road. A skinny man in bib overalls and a team of horses were watching it as if they expected it to turn upright at any moment. “What happened?” Homer asked.
“Snake in the road shied my horses. They pulled me into the ditch. When I tried to get out, it turned over.”
“Can I help?” Homer asked.
“Naw. The wife will miss me sooner or later and send my brothers and her brothers with enough new horses to get me going.”
Homer got out and inspected the deep ditches that ran alongside the road. “I can’t get across,” he concluded.
“Where you headed?” the farmer asked.
“You’re the first people I ever met who was going to Florida. What’s it like?”
“Hot and full of bugs so I’ve read.”
“That explains why I never met anybody going there. If you want to keep going south, go back up the road about five miles and turn right onto a dirt road. There’s a big old maple tree at the turn and there’s also a gas station in sight. Go about ten miles on it and I know for a fact it connects with a road that goes all the way to North Carolina.”
Homer thanked the farmer and turned the Buick around. Five miles passed, then six, then another and another. A gas station was passed and then Elsie saw on her side of the road what she thought was a large maple tree. Behind it was a dirt road. “Is that it?” she asked.
Homer stopped and peered at the leaves on the tree. “Must be,” he said.
“It looks like a dusty road,” Elsie said. “It’ll make Albert sneeze.”
“I shall go slow,” Homer replied, “so as not to disturb Albert in any way.”
“You’re being sarcastic.”
“For which I am heartily sorry.”
“You’re still being—oh, go ahead.”
Homer turned onto the road. It wasn’t a bad road for a farm road, just a little dusty as Elsie had predicted, but Homer went slow as promised. After going for several miles, they discovered it was the wrong road, mainly because it was a dead end, arriving at an old house with acres of kudzu growing over it. As they drove up, they saw, despite the broken windows and peeling paint, that it had once been a grand mansion. Elsie said, “This must have looked like the plantation in Rebel Love.”
“What’s Rebel Love?”
“A novel I read. It’s about this man and a woman who own a plantation somewhere in the old South. Then the Civil War comes and the man is killed and the woman has to run the plantation herself. Then this young rebel officer shows up awful wounded and she takes care of him and then they end up being together on a cotton bale.”
“Yes. You know.”
Homer had to think to know but when he realized he knew, he said, “I didn’t know you liked trashy novels.”
“It wasn’t trashy. I learned a lot about the Civil War. Anyway, it’s none of your business what I read. You know what, Homer? You’re irritating sometimes.”
“I shall endeavor to become less irritating.”
“Just you saying that is irritating.” She peered at the old house. “I’d like to look around this place a bit.”
“We don’t have time to look around.”
Elsie made a face at him, then got out of the Buick and opened the back door and coaxed Albert out of his tub onto the ground. Albert swished his tail in anticipation. “Come on, boy. You can take care of your business while I have myself a little adventure.”
“Do you want me to go with you?” Homer asked.
It did not suit himself but Homer still got out and followed his wife and her alligator in the hope he might keep them out of trouble. The rooster, as if he knew exactly where he was, hopped out of the car and ran ahead.
Mud, weeds, and scraggly hedges were all that remained of the grounds. When Homer and Elsie reached the back of the house, they saw that the entire roof of a wing had collapsed beneath the weight of the kudzu. “The old South,” Elsie said. “Or what’s left of it.”
Homer studied the dilapidated house and the disheveled yard. “The Hickam family fielded a pair of twin brothers who rode in the cavalry with a Confederate captain named Mosby,” he said. “They stole their horses, so my daddy said, and kept them after the war. What about the Lavenders?”
“Fought on both sides,” Elsie answered. “My daddy said they likely shot at each other in the Wilderness Campaign.”
Homer and Elsie took a moment to contemplate a past they hadn’t experienced while also feeling sad for ancestors they didn’t know. “I wonder where the slaves lived?” Elsie asked.
“Old shacks, probably long since rotted away.”
“I’m glad I didn’t live back then with slavery and the war and all.”
“Not sure those people would care to live in our time. Everything they knew has been blown away by the winds of history.”
Elsie studied Homer. “Sometimes you surprise me. You can be deep.”
“Well, I’m a coal miner.”
Elsie tried not to smile but she did, anyway. “You know what I’d like to do?”
“Honestly, Elsie, I can’t imagine.”
“Spend the night here.”
“What? No. We need to keep going.”
“Where? We’re lost.”
“I’ll find the way.”
“Oh, come on. It’s getting dark. We’ll have to stop soon, anyway. Don’t you have any romance in your soul?”
“I have plenty but I don’t see what this old house has to do with it.”
“We could build a fire and cook and maybe even have some of that elderberry wine Daddy put in the trunk for me when you weren’t looking. Come on, Homer. Let’s have some fun for a change.”
Homer looked to the west to see the sun settling down at the tops of the trees. It would be dark soon and he wasn’t exactly certain where he was without a study of the maps. “Okay,” he said, relenting, “we’ll spend the night here but we have to be up at first light.”
Elsie smiled. “For your reward, you may kiss me.”
Her sudden change in demeanor filled Homer with cautious joy. He kissed her lightly on the lips while trying to ignore Albert, who had bitten the cuff of his pants and was pulling on it.
Elsie held on to Homer while Homer tried to shake off the alligator. “Don’t take me back to that place,” she said.
“What place? Albert! Stop it!”
“Coalwood. I’m begging you.”
Albert finally let go and retreated, looking a little sheepish or, in his case, alligatorish. “But we have to go back to Coalwood,” Homer said to Elsie. “It’s where we live and I work.”
“It’s where you work now and where we live now but couldn’t that change?”
“Elsie . . .”
She shook her head and pushed him away. “Build the fire and I’ll get the wine. We’re going to have a nice evening whether you like it or not.”
“Look, if you want to talk about Coalwood, let me list sequentially all the reasons we have to go back.”
“List sequentially my backside, mister,” she growled and stomped off to the Buick. Next chapter
By the time Elsie got back with a bottle of wine and two empty jelly jars, Homer had gathered some scrap lumber and sticks to make a fire. “I looked through those big glass doors over there and saw what looks like an old porch glider,” he said. “This place has had people in it since the Civil War. Likely the Depression drove them out.”
“Won’t it be locked?”
Homer held up a rusty screwdriver. “Found it over there. I can open anything with one of these.”
Elsie smiled. “You’re more talented than I thought.”
Homer jimmied the door and, with Elsie’s help, carted the glider out and placed it beside the fire. “It’s mildewed but if we put the blankets on it, it should work just fine,” Elsie said. She held up the wine and the jelly jars. “Let’s have some of this and then we can put one of the chickens on a spit.”
Homer went after the blankets and also carried along Albert’s tub. Soon, after roasting the chicken and eating a portion of it, they tried Jim’s homemade wine. Albert and the rooster were asleep in the tub. Everything was warm and cozy.
“This is nice,” Elsie said, snuggling into Homer’s shoulder.
“It sure is,” Homer said, knocking back some more of the wine. After a few minutes of cuddling and wine sipping, Elsie was feeling warm and reckless. They were on the road! There was at least a chance for them to create a fine new life, if only she was clever enough. She allowed Homer to kiss her again, this time a long, deep kiss with a promissory note at the end. Relaxing, she sighed and said, “This reminds me of one time when I was in Florida. We made a fire on the beach and had wine and it wasn’t homemade. It was real wine from Italy.”
She felt Homer tense. “I can guess who you were with.”
Elsie had meant to convey how wonderful Florida was but knew she’d made a mistake. She rushed to cover it up. “It wasn’t like that. It was a whole bunch of us. They were just a swell gang. I never had so much fun. When we get to Florida, I’ll introduce them to you.”
“Will you introduce me to Buddy?”
She hesitated. “You know he’s not there,” she finally answered in a small voice. An image of Buddy dancing with platinum-haired women rose in her mind, which caused her to look sad.
“But I know where he is.” Homer shrugged her head off his shoulder and stood up and pointed at her heart. “He’s in there, isn’t he? And I guess he always will be.”
Elsie started to tell a lie she knew her husband wanted to hear. I don’t love Buddy. I love you. To her astonishment, what came out was “I’m sorry.” When she realized what she had said, she tried to tell her lie again but it still came out the same. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I, Elsie,” Homer said. “I guess we both are.” His last words before he stalked off into the darkness were, “We’re going back to Coalwood.”
Elsie sat on the glider for how long she didn’t know. She spent the time kicking herself for not being able to lie to her husband when she’d most needed to. She pulled a blanket about her and stretched out on the glider and watched the unblinking, unmoving stars in the celestial heaven. Her breathing was a little ragged. What was Homer going to do? He might even abandon her! But then she thought, no, Homer would never do that. He was too honorable. Still, he had said they were going back to Coalwood. All her hopes for the journey faded. She’d never be able to change Homer’s mind now. The truth was, she confessed to herself, she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
Elsie noticed a sweet, sugary smell and realized it was honeysuckle, the perfume of the old South she’d read about in Rebel Love. She sat up and drew the sweet air into her lungs as deeply as ever she could. The coal camps where she’d been raised always had an irritating petroleum odor and when the coke ovens were lit, the belching smoke gave her choking fits and left her throat as raw as an open wound. Oh, I could breathe this forever, she thought as the honeysuckle essence drifted softly by.
Relaxing, Elsie thought about how she might change things with Homer and decided, for the sake of the journey, she’d just have to get the lie out of her mouth. Buddy is gone from my heart and you are my husband and that’s all that matters. It ought to be enough, she figured, to get him all the way to Florida, and time enough for her to convince him to never go back to Coalwood and maybe, just maybe, turn her dour husband into someone more like that long-legged and limber dancer she’d fallen for.
Elsie cast off the blanket and stood to look for Homer but he was gone. She supposed he was probably in the car sulking. Had Buddy ever sulked? Not that she could recall. He was always laughing, telling jokes, being so warm in the way he talked to her. Taking his shadow in her arms, she began to move according to the last dance she and Buddy had danced among the palm trees. Two steps forward, two back, one to the right, one to the left, then a twirl. Elsie took another drink of wine, then another and kept dancing, remembering, breathing in the honeysuckle air.
Elsie came awake with a start and found herself looking skyward toward a blinding sky alleviated only by the face of her husband. “What’s wrong?” she asked, before closing her eyes as tightly as she could lest they explode.
“Nothing’s wrong except probably your hangover.”
Some of the previous evening came back to her. She had danced and then . . . she supposed she had sat down on the glider and had herself more wine. After that, sleep had come and crazy dreams. She’d been back in Orlando and danced and danced with Buddy. “I’m sorry,” she said, then put her arm across her eyes to further block the light. She had a terrible headache. “I’m sorry for . . . for telling you that story about being on the beach. I’m sorry for saying I was sorry. I meant to say . . .”
“It’s okay,” Homer said. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter. And I feel bad for making fun of you when you said the rooster liked you. Of course he likes you. He likes you because you are good and you are kind even if you are a coal miner.”
“Nothing like faint praise to start the morning,” Homer said. “I’ve made coffee. Can I help you up?”
Elsie allowed him to help her up but she kept her eyes closed, lest the light sneak in and blow her brains out. He folded her hands around a cup and she greedily drank the bitter brew. “My head is killing me,” she confessed.
“I have some aspirin in my kit,” Homer said. “I’ll bring you a couple.”
“Thank you.” After a few more swallows of coffee, she could feel her mind sorting itself out. Then she felt her hand being taken and two pills being placed in her palm. She gulped them down, then managed to get her eyes open to a squint. “Where did you sleep last night?”
“Right beside you. There.”
“On the ground? Didn’t you get cold?”
“It was my choice. But now, Miss Lavender, it’s your turn to choose.” Elsie picked some coffee grounds off her tongue. “The choice is really yours,” she said, dreading what he was going to say.
His answer was a surprise. “Okay. Here’s what I choose. You stay here and take it easy while I take the Buick to get some gas at that station we passed. Then I’ll come back for you and we’ll keep going.”
Elsie managed to get her eyes open enough to study his face. “Where are we going?”
“Why, to Florida, of course. Why else are we on the road?”
“But you said we were going back to Coalwood.”
He peered at her. “We are. After Florida. What did you think I meant?”
“I don’t know. The wine got to me, I guess.”
“It surely did. When I came back, you were dancing.”
She looked up and searched his eyes for anger but saw only hurt and disappointment. I’m sorry was on her lips but she forced the words away. “You know, you still owe me a dance from that time you stood me up in high school.”
He shrugged. “I can’t dance. That was another reason I chickened out and didn’t take you.”
“I bet you’d dance real good, Homer, if only you gave it a try.”
Hurt once more welled in his eyes. “Somehow, I think I’d come in a distant second in that category.”
Elsie stayed silent in the face of the truth.
“Well, I’m off to get some gasoline,” Homer finally said in a cheerful voice that Elsie knew was forced. “I’ve already had my breakfast but I got out some bread and cheese for you. They’re right there beside the fire.”
“Where’s Albert?” Elsie asked.
“I put him in the car for the night so he wouldn’t get cold. This morn- ing, I took him for a walk. Now he’s asleep again in the back seat. Unless you want to get him up, I’ll just leave him there.”
“You took care of him last night? And walked him this morning?” “He didn’t even try to bite me.”
“He never meant to bite you. He was just being playful.”
Homer didn’t reply. He just kept walking. After she’d heard the Buick start and rumble away, Elsie sat until her headache began to fade. Finishing the coffee, she shook off the blanket and stood up and walked away from the fire. She took a breath. The essence of honeysuckle was still there, made all the fresher by the cooler morning air. Breakfast could wait.
And once more, although this time very slowly lest her headache return, she danced. One step to the left, one right, two forward, two back, and twirl.