As Thomas Mannering peeled out of the Danielsville Country Club parking lot in a spray of gravel, he glanced in his review mirror and saw Ginger, standing under the portico, disconsolate, bravely trying not to break down, but obviously not succeeding. Someone, it looked like Clara Engles, put a reassuring arm around her and led her back inside.
A couple of gawkers had assembled, unable to resist the commotion that had started in the bar and spilled into the lobby. The fools. Well, who wouldn't want to watch a man commit suicide? And surely, he'd just committed professional suicide.
Going down the highway, his face still flushed with anger, Thomas pounded the steering wheel until his hand hurt. After it became evident that there was nowhere he could go to escape his guilt-ridden conscience, Thomas pulled to the side of the road.
He looked at his watch. It was 12:45. He had picked Ginger up at 12:20 and they had arrived for the dinner engagement, a meeting with a couple of high-ranking members of the state's judicial nominating commission, promptly at 12:30. The meeting was a formality; with Judge Evans retiring as Superior Court judge for the district that included Danielsville, and Thomas Mannering the only credible candidate, he was considered a shoo-in as the interim appointee and as a candidate for next year's election. Now, scarcely 15 minutes later, the crowning goal of his career was beyond him forever.
The road getting there had been difficult. Growing up in poverty in a town like Danielsville had not been easy. Achieving professional success, the esteem of his peers and a position of respect in the community had not been enough to open all the doors. His humble beginnings precluded him from being accepted as a member of the local clique. The town powers, the so-called gentry, controlled the money, the money controlled the political machine, and the machine controlled everything else. Social order in a small Southern town had strictures, most often implied, but every bit as rigid as those that of Japanese feudal society: hard work and discipline, if it came from one with humble roots, could never supplant the proper pedigree. Still, they had finally come to him, yet, to many in Danielsville, he would always be the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. And today, he feared, he'd proven his detractors right.
He had always had the temper. As they said in the South, 'he'd come by it honestly', meaning he'd inherited it from an ancestor who personified those traits. His family ascribed his firm jaw line, penchant for debating, and his temper, to his paternal grandfather, EJ, Edward James Mannering. Well, EJ, Thomas mused humorlessly, couldn't you have bequeathed me something a little more practical?
As a child in Danielsville, life had been intolerable at times. His father, an unlettered country boy, had spent most of his working life as a route man for a soft drink company. Though intelligent enough, he lacked the will to try and rise higher in the business world; no doubt, Thomas realized, the emotional baggage he had accumulated growing up in poverty influenced his singular lack of ambition. His mother, also from the country, spent most of her life as a waitress, working her fingers to the bone, working lines on her face and premature gray into her hair. Over the course of his life, Thomas watched the smile slowly erode from her face.
He had wanted the position as Superior Court Judge. Ginger had wanted it for him. Would she would forgive him for throwing it away? Of course. Twenty-six years of marriage to him had often tested, but never bested, her patience. With Fay a freshman in college and Thomas Jr. a senior in high school, he and Ginger looked forward to a golden time together, domestically and professionally. Now, with Christmas less than three weeks away, he'd given her his present: ashes and bitterness: In one injudicious moment he had cast aside his well-cultivated facade of placid civility and let everyone see his hidden face - a grim visage of rage and resentment that had been molded by the pressures of growing up poor in Danielsville.
He needed to talk to someone. Who? Thomas pulled back on the road, not sure of where he was heading. Soon, he found himself heading in the direction of West Lake Road.
James Ickson lived on the outskirts of town, next to his church, a rectangular concrete block structure as unpretentious as James, painted light blue with John 3:13 inscribed in large letters on one side.
James' house was next door to the church; it, too, was a simple affair, built for comfort and practicality. The yard, almost bereft of grass, still had a meticulous neatness to it.
James' truck was in the driveway. James was a tree cutter by trade. Never afraid of sweat, he also did hauling and cleanup, anything to stay busy and earn an honest dollar.
As a teenager, James had worked for Thomas' dad, helping out on the soft drink truck. During the summer, Thomas would often ride with them. James, only a few years Thomas' senior, was the eldest son of a stern but loving mother, helped support his family, and provided a father figure to his younger siblings. James was strong, yet gentle, and had an instinctive sense of peoples' needs; when he committed himself to the ministry, no one who knew him was surprised.
Once Thomas had a Bowie knife, a cheap thing he'd bought at the Army-Navy store. The long knife, thrown against a tree one time too many while playing Tarzan, had snapped handle from blade. James, raking the yards for extra money, had seen Thomas start to throw it away and asked if he might have it. The next week when he saw James again, there was the knife, shorter, but like new: James had taken the blade and used a hand file to hone a new tang for the handle. It must have taken several hours of intense, patient, labor. He gave the knife back to Thomas, shorter, but functional. This, and other experiences with James, taught him to perceive the potential of things, and people, in a new way.
James held the screen door open for him. "Hey, Mr. Thomas, good to see you." Raised on old-school Southern manners, James had called him that since he was ten years old. Thomas, in turn, always referred to him as Reverend James.
"Sorry to drop in without calling, Reverend James."
"Always got time for a friend." They caught up quickly with each other, politely inquired about each family's health. Formalities aside, James fell silent; his experience as a pastor had taught him that a little patience was all it took to get people to vent their feelings.
During their second cup of coffee, Thomas said, "Reverend James, I screwed up royally today. I punched out Bruce Pagett."
Bruce Pagett was a thrice divorced drunk subsisting on the rapidly diminishing proceeds of a family inheritance that stretched back several generations. No one was sure exactly how he had managed to squander his fortune, everything from drugs, gambling, and blackmail were rumored, but bad business ventures, thought woefully less dramatic for gossipers, were most likely. In high school Bruce been the prime motivator for a malicious clique of snobs whose primary purpose, beyond being slaves to fashion, had been making sure that those on the other side of the social barrier knew their place. Thomas, with his sometimes threadbare clothes, humble origins, and quiet, studious ways, was a natural target. It wasn't surprising when Bruce took a personal interest in making his life miserable.
"After school sometimes, he and his cronies would drop by the place where my mother worked, Loudin's Grill - you remember it?" James nodded. "There was a jukebox there, so it was a popular hangout. I can still see him, sitting with his arms thrown over the back of the booth, talking too loudly...Anyway, whenever I was there, he'd snap his fingers at my mom, or hold up his glass and rattle the ice...then look at me and sneer. You know the type." Again, James nodded. "And he'd call her Sunshine. A grown women. I wanted to kill him. But I knew it would get my mom in trouble if I stood up to him. There were other things he did in school...but the way he demeaned my mom...." Thomas sighed heavily. Surely, James, as a young black man growing up in Danielsville in the sixties, had had his share of intolerant jerks to deal with.
"And he was at the country club today?" James prompted.
"Naturally. I was in a great mood. All the effort I'd put into my career was about to pay off. I was happy to be taking Ginger out, enjoying the holiday atmosphere a bit. In the lobby, Ginger stopped to admire the Christmas tree. I saw Sam Martin sitting just inside the bar and stepped in to say hello. I was about to leave when I heard Pagett's voice. 'Hey, Sunshine, how about a refill,' and there was Bruce, already drunk-as-a-skunk by noon.
"I was about to let it pass when he made another comment, something about how the club must have lowered the bar - I don't remember exactly, everything went kind of fuzzy after that. It really didn't matter. The point is, it was like someone threw a switch in my head. All the anger I'd suppressed against him and his ilk came out. We wound up in the lobby, nearly knocking the Christmas tree over. Then Sam pulled me off of him."
Thomas shrugged his shoulders. "That was it. Career over. And when I think about the good I could have done. Instead, I let a pathetic drunk goad me into a fight. Ginger tried to talk me into going back in, but I was in such a rage. I completed my self-immolation by biting her head off." Thomas smiled morosely. "Never step between a rage and the object of its intent, huh."
James walked Thomas out to his car. "Life is a chain, Mr. Thomas. You've broken your links. Reestablish your links. You're a good man. You've got friends you don't even know about. I sense others out there who care for you and want to help. You've just got to open up and let 'em. "
Thomas got into his car. James leaned down, his face inches from Thomas'. "Listen," he said softly, "don't ever believe that things can't change. But you gotta' ask for help. And Thomas, you've got to believe."
"I don't doubt that, Reverend James. I don't doubt that at all."
Mulling over James' words, Thomas found himself turning onto highway 64, headed in the direction of his late grandfather's farm.
Civilization was rapidly encroaching on farm country. When he was a boy, the ten mile drive from the outskirts of Danielsville to the old family farm had been a journey through an unending patchwork of cotton, corn and watermelon fields, only broken here or there by intervening woods. Every year now, fewer fields were tilled. Rustic farm houses were architectural relics; with little fight, they had given way to modernization as apartment complexes, community developments and light industry spilled over the city's borders and greedily invaded the country: pre-fab houses and double-wides, with large satellite dishes and small pick-up trucks in their yards, seemed to be the standard now.
The old Mannering place was a few miles off the main highway, arrived at by way of a two-lane dirt road that had scrupulously avoided all efforts at modernization.
Thomas paused briefly at the empty farm house, now in the last stages of demolition. He had salvaged some wood from it the year before and had keepsake boxes made for the kids. The old pecan tree still stood guard at the edge of the front yard, next to fallow fields and across the road from a rise where green apple trees had once dominated the landscape. EJ had built the house.
EJ had inherited a bit of land from his father, and though of modest means, managed to add to his holdings by leveraging enough money to purchase several tracts of uncultivated land a few miles distant. This was to be a source of lumber and pine sap, and as an eventual heritage for his family. Unfortunately, the pressures of an economic downturn led him to make some bad decisions. He lost the land and part of his holdings he had put up as security, only retaining the house and a few surrounding acres.
Several years later, the state highway department purchased much of the land for a planned interstate. If EJ had held on just a few more years, the family's future would have been assured.
As a youngster, Thomas had been told that EJ's death was an accident; he had opened the door of a car he was a passenger in to spit some tobacco and had fallen into the path of traffic. When he was older, his mother confided to him that it was widely speculated that EJ, broken in spirit, had deliberately flung himself from the car. With a crushed pelvis, EJ lived for two days, then died, leaving as a legacy a run-down farm, a widow, and seven hungry children. Thomas said a silent prayer that EJ's misery hadn't followed him to the grave.
As Thomas walked back to his car, dried leaves crunched under his feet like broken dreams.
His next stop was just down the road, in easy sight of the house: Reynolds' Springs Baptist Church and, behind it, the cemetery where several generations of Mannerings rested, always near to the fields and woods that had dominated their lives.
Sparked by James' mention of a broken chain, Thomas parked, got out, and began wandering idly through the graveyard, reading the history on the tombstones as he'd often done as a child. Standing alone, surrounded by tall pines, their bristly canopy holding up a gray December sky, Thomas closed his eyes. Lulled into a sense of tranquility by the gentle sussuration of the wind, he felt an overwhelming sense of peace. Here, it was easy to realize that life was full of continuity, and mystery, and bigger than his problems.
Tears, the pain of a boy damned up from childhood, found their release, their source betrayed only by the silent heaving of his shoulders.
Seconds later, Thomas opened his eyes. He felt a jolt. A man was standing in the far corner of the graveyard, his back to Thomas. Where had he come from? There were no other vehicles around. Maybe, he rationalized, he'd been kneeling down, a not unusual occurrence in a place this serene. He was wearing what in the country was called a Sunday-go-to-meeting suit: the pants appeared slightly too short, and the suit was wrinkled. His hair was short, cut high above ears and neck as was traditional for those to whom citified vanities mattered little. What was a farmer doing wearing a suit in the middle of Wednesday afternoon? Walking to the graveyard in a suit? Thomas started to call out a greeting, but decided he didn't want to intrude on the man's privacy.
Whose grave was it? It was in the corner, near Thomas' family group. As Thomas watched, the farmer took something from his coat pocket and placed it on the tombstone he stood before. Then, without turning around to face Thomas, he left by the back gate and, exhibiting a slight limp, began walking up the road toward the old farm house.
Curious, Thomas gave him time to get up the road, then walked over to where he had been standing.
The grave was EJ's. Sitting on the tombstone, like an offering - or an omen - perhaps a resonance of agrarian living's pagan roots, was a red tobacco can. Old, with an oval picture of a heavily whiskered, frock-coated gentlemen in he center, a bit of rust apparent on the bottom edges, and a faded and twisted, green tax stamp across the top; it was the type of inexpensive item one might find in an antique store, a decorative accessory casually displayed so as to support the store's rustic ambiance.
Thomas picked it up. Something heavy rattled within. He hesitated only a second before opening it, wondering if the act might constitute a violation of confidence, but quickly deciding otherwise; after all, it had been left on his grandfather's grave.
Inside, amid yellowed lining paper, were some filaments of tobacco as dry as the whisper of yesterday's dreams. His father had smoked this brand on occasion - as had his grandfather. A lot of farmers did. The tobacco still had the vaguest hint of aroma, enough potency left to conjure images of winter winds that sent chills that got inside your skin and stayed, iron stoves with fires glowing in their bellies, fields of yellow corn proudly waving silky topknots, sweet spring water taken from a communal well ladle, long front porches with worn rockers and swings end to end, and tin roofs that whispered with gentle rains and shouted in raging summer thunder storms.
For a moment, Thomas felt a rare affinity with his ancestors, the long line that extended backwards until it crossed an ocean and meandered through German fields and rocky Scottish hillocks before fading into the ineffable mist of history's dawning.
Thomas unfolded the paper. Inside was a signet ring with a semi-precious stone, and a pocket watch. Thomas examined the watch. The watch's hands were stuck on 12. The second hand, residing in a small insert at the bottom, where six would have been, had probably not ticked off a second since - Thomas wasn't sure; since Eisenhower was president?
Thomas smiled at the feelings the watch generated. On his periodic visits to the country he remembered seeing similar pocket watches, a dozen to a card, sitting on a shelf behind the counter at stores like Maybelle's, almost hidden by the gloomy lighting that seemed to pervade all country stores.
Whose legacy was this? He knew his grandfather had smoked this brand of tobacco. The ring was a common enough item. The watch was definitely one like E.J. would have carried. On impulse, Thomas turned the watch over.
A chill ran through him.
Crudely scratched on the back of the watch were the letters EJM.
"EJ?" Thomas said aloud.
The wind, which had been blowing tepidly from the northwest to the southeast, reversed course with sudden strength: loose pine needles and a few remaining leaves from the woods to the right of the graveyard briefly showered down. Across the graveyard funeral wreaths rattled drily, faded ribbons fluttering wildly in the wind. As Thomas watched, incredulous, the long shadows of the surrounding tombstones shrank to a fraction of their former length.
Then, as quickly as it had started, the sudden gale ceased.
The sun, a pale ghost febblely making its way to the western horizon moments before, now rode high in the center of the sky.
"What...?" Thomas shook his head vigorously. Nothing changed.
Thomas felt a dull ticking in his hand. The old pocket watch was running again.
It read one minute after twelve. Thomas turned his wrist over. His wrist watch read the same.
For a minute, he stood, unmoving, filled with wonder as he stared at his grandfather's tombstone. The inscription was blurred by something running in his eyes.
From someone whose time had run out, he had been given a gift of time.
Before Thomas got into his car he paused and looked up the road toward the old farm house; in front of the over grown bushes next to the dilapidated front porch, he thought he could make out the figure of a man - but it might have been a shadow.
Thomas held the pocket watch aloft. "Thank you, grandfather," he whispered.
He thought the figure waved back. But it might have been the wind, stirring the limbs of the bushes.
Reluctantly, he turned away. He put his legacy back into the tobacco tin, carefully placed the can in his pocket, then got into his car. He had to get across town and pick up Ginger and get to the country club.
He didn't want to squander the gift he'd been given. Second chances were rare.
This time, he'd get things right.
Michael says, "I play chess, I raise cats. When not staring at my computer screen, I sit and brood a lot. When I can, I indulge my interests, which range from iconology to physics. I tend to like anything that deals with the outer realms of human consciousness. At forty-something, I still spend my weekends playing rock and roll. Writing, so far, as kept me from falling off the edge of the world."