Benediction, novel excerpt from Charles Dodd White

Chap­ter 1

Lava­da rose to the iron dark and stepped bare­foot across the cab­in floor, paus­ing and plac­ing her hand to the door to test the wind's new ache. To know it as her own. Touch told her she would need Mason’s coat. It hung on a nail next to the man­tle. She took it in her hands and slipped her thin arms through the sleeves, wear­ing the weight of her man for a moment before she drew on his blis­tered boots and stepped into anoth­er day lack­ing him.

A rill of day­light cracked the ridge. She came around the side of the cab­in to check the car for frost. Drew back her fist and smacked the door seam, overnight rime free­ing. She climbed in and cranked the engine, revving it to open the ther­mo­stat. Went back to the cab­in to get the old man up and ready for being left alone.

She tapped at his bed­room door and spoke his name. She could hear him stir, but he said noth­ing. She knocked again, hard­er, and heard the under­ly­ing hiss of his slip­pers. He would be out.

She snapped three eggs into a chi­na bowl and whisked them togeth­er, dic­ing in onions and thawed pep­pers. Any­thing else would have been too hard on the old man’s teeth. The range ticked three times before the pilot light caught and the ring spat crenel­lat­ed flame. The skil­let talked as the eggs hit the sur­face. By the time she scraped them onto two small plates, Sam entered, dressed and clean­ly shaven.

Good morn­ing, daugh­ter,” he took his place at the kitchen table.

She set his plate before him and sat. How long had it been now since the con­ven­tion of call­ing her as his kin had been con­fused with his actu­al belief in their blood rela­tion?

Good morn­ing, Sam. Sleep well?”

Ah,” he nod­ded.

His words failed him more these days. What was said and what he intend­ed seemed to live in two dif­fer­ent cor­ners of the same room, nev­er com­plete­ly at odds and yet mis­laid some­where between thought and the say­ing.

Do we have time to gar­den today, Daugh­ter?”

She crossed the fork and knife on her plate.

It’s win­ter, Sam. There’s noth­ing we can plant this time of year. Everything’s frozen. I’ve told you that.”

He released a sigh, shook his head, blue eyes seek­ing.

After scrap­ing off the remains of wind­shield ice with a kitchen blade, Lava­da climbed into the Hon­da and gunned it for the ridge line road. She liked the feel­ing of the hol­low sink­ing behind her, the road open­ing up to the over­looks. Slip all teth­ers and give her­self to momen­tum. The morn­ing dri­ve was a plea­sure, a tight con­trolled move­ment along the shoul­ders of the moun­tains, the right-of-way ced­ing to her mem­o­ry of so many dri­ves in and out like this one. She did not con­scious­ly antic­i­pate dips and curves, as much as feel her­self for­ward, lean intel­li­gent­ly into the next bend and brake.

At Stubbs’s road­side stop above the coun­ty line, she pulled into the emp­ty park­ing lot for her cig­a­rettes. When she swung the door open, the cow­bell banged against the glass and Mrs. Stubbs glared at her over the top of a Bet­ter Homes and Gar­dens.

Help you?” she said in a tone bereft of sin­cer­i­ty. Her mag­a­zine a sol­id screen of over­bold font, por­ti­coes, Eng­lish top­i­ary.

Yessum,” Lava­da answered, awk­ward. “Can I get a pack of Kools?”

What’s a Kools?”

They’re cig­a­rettes. Men­thol cig­a­rettes.”

Nev­er heard of them,” she said, sight­ing her down one ill eye.

They’re in a green box. With stripes.”

The old woman found them, shoved the pack across, rang her up.

How’s your hus­band? I’m used to see­ing him in here.”

Cough­ing up a lung,” the old woman said. “Come down with some­thing, I guess. He’ll recov­er.”

That’s good.”

Lava­da turned to leave.

Your man still up at the pen?”

The famil­iar dis­fa­vor, the judg­ment of a life reduced to what they want­ed to see of her, what they want­ed to make of her. She knew she would always remem­ber the sim­ple gift of their hate.

Thanks for the cig­a­rettes,” she clinked open the door.

You’re still a young thing,” the old woman called. “There’s bet­ter out there than hol­ing up with a father-in-law fit for the old folks’ home, you know.”

She had lit the first cig­a­rette before the engine turned and fin­ished it by the time she crossed the South Car­oli­na state line. With the win­dow cracked, the win­ter air danced in, mak­ing con­fu­sion of the hair loose at her tem­ples. It stung.

Once she was com­ing down through the foothills, the road widened as it plunged through red banks and thick­en­ing pines. Road­hous­es stood emp­ty this time of morn­ing. Fire­works stands were bright and antic with signs. Broad ply board pro­claimed: BLACK CAT. NO DUDS GUARANTEED.

On to the town lim­its of Dry Gulch, a long stretch of green flats with a few small farms on either side, trac­tors asleep under tin roofs. Fur­ther on, the town prop­er began to assem­ble itself, newish brick ranch­es with big yards and cyclone fences sur­ren­dered to hun­dred year old state­ly colo­nials with scrolled bal­conies. Final­ly, the old down­town, a true main street, divid­ed by occa­sion­al islands of rotary club flower beds, stub­bled for the win­ter. Small poplar trees braced with met­al poles to ensure per­fect ver­ti­cal growth. On each side broad side­walks gave way to inde­pen­dent store fronts: a pair of bar­ber shops, Lonney’s Hard­ware, a Puri­na feed store, Army/Navy sur­plus. Going out of busi­ness.

Lava­da parked at the end of the side­walk and stepped into Gillenwater’s. Inside, the grill siz­zled with sausage pat­ties and hash browns. She stepped behind the counter and poured a white mug full of cof­fee for her­self. Gillen­wa­ter flipped the sausage and pota­toes onto a plate and leaned back over the counter with a most­ly clean fork. She poured him out a cup and set it down at his right hand. He fell to his break­fast.

You’re in ear­ly,” he shaped out his words between bites.

She scanned the few tables and booths to make sure the morn­ing prep work was done. The duty, auto­mat­ic.

Afraid of the weath­er. Thought it would be worse than it is.”

You know I can always come out to get you in case it gets rough.”

That’s too far, Den­nis.”

It’s just a dri­ve, is all.”

He looked down at her boots, laced tight to her calves, the ends tucked in.

Don’t those get hard on your feet? You look more sawmill pulper than wait­ress.”

Through the glass façade, she watched the emp­ty street come into its reg­u­lar mid­week stride. As soon as the door swung open, she greet­ed her first cus­tomers, order pad tucked under her arm, pen notched above her ear.

Now, Den­nis,” she cocked her head and answered in her best Nan­cy Sina­tra. “You know as well as I do these boot were made for work­ing, And that’s just what I’ll do…”

She whis­tled off, leav­ing him grin­ning.

Chap­ter 2

Mason lift­ed his arm, thumb rigid in the air, hear­ing big tires and a quick engine com­ing on. He had not both­ered with the thin sounds of pas­sen­ger cars, know­ing they were a waste of effort, but the big trucks were dri­ven by men long on the road, emp­ty of good cau­tion. They would wel­come him, a curios­i­ty to enter­tain the lone­some hours ahead. When he heard the grind­ing down­shift and the engine catch­ing high, he dropped his hand, eased one shoul­der strap of the ruck from his shoul­der and turned toward the asphalt, wait­ing to be let on and tak­en the rest of the way home.

He climbed up into the cab and stowed the back pack on the floor in front of him, all his ready pos­ses­sions rid­ing against his shins, bounc­ing soft­ly as the truck gath­ered speed.

The dri­ver grunt­ed his name and Mason gave his as well and then they were on to the rit­u­al exchange, the swap­ping of sto­ries that ate up so much of the com­mon life of the high­way. As the hours drew on, his own voice became an easy song in the throat, a steadi­ness that passed between both men while his mind could slip away to watch the long green of the free world roll out on either side of the road, the bor­der­less ground like some kind of mate­ri­al­ly real­ized echo, a crack­ing sound wave of all that lim­it­less choice.

As they came into the foothills and lat­er the moun­tains, the trees nudged in clos­er, attend­ing him, con­strict­ing the pas­sage into some form he could rea­son­ably suf­fer. So dif­fer­ent than the unfa­mil­iar world of the pied­mont, a place that was crushed, dimen­sion­less. Here there was grip and hold, a coun­try with lega­cies not eas­i­ly slipped. This place held no guess­es, no decep­tions of promise, only the fate of know­ing what oth­ers who had rid­den these same roads and byways knew, that the world of bluff, creek and gorge was with­out par­al­lel, that the grim and the beau­ti­ful were locked togeth­er and that the men and women were owned by it in equal mea­sure, released by noth­ing so sim­ple as God giv­en will.

He got out at the head of the Nar­row Spoke cross­roads, foot­ing it back toward the glum wind­ings of the grav­el road lead­ing in to the fam­i­ly prop­er­ty, sin­glewides up on naked blocks with clap­board addi­tions tip­ping against the pre­fab, rude ideas of improve­ment real­ized by incre­ments. Shep­herds and ter­ri­ers barked. Secu­ri­ty lights popped on in the twi­light.

Ray Ray met him on the deck of his trail­er, auto­mat­ic pis­tol palmed but loose, a sim­ple piece of iron, no threat between peace­able kin.

You look like shit, Cousin,” Ray Ray smiled.

The way of the world.”

Ray Ray laughed his easy laugh.

Bring your sor­ry ass up here.”

Mason slipped the ruck and met an embrace. Ray Ray shoved him back a sec­ond lat­er and stared hard into his face.

Same old Bud­dy,” Ray Ray said final­ly, falling to Mason’s child­hood nick­name. “Sit down. I’ll get us a lit­tle cold beer.”

Mason pulled up one of the met­al fold­ing chairs and trained it around so he could see the length of the val­ley he’d trudged up. On the oth­er side of the far ridge­line the tourists had moved in and bought up all the scenic views, stick­ing paste­board man­sions to it so they could feel good about them­selves for look­ing across at all the stub­born trail­er trash who refused their bribes. The homes’ huge glass fronts were ablaze with elec­tric light. Big yel­low light pour­ing out so they could be seen watch­ing those who watched them back, maybe won­der­ing if it was enough to stir envy and hate in those poor mis­be­got­tens. Hop­ing it did. The sight of it all made Mason itch for a few satchels of dyna­mite.

Ray Ray came back with two popped tall boys, tears of con­den­sa­tion run­ning. Mason laid one to his tem­ple for a moment, then drank deep.

I guess you fig­ured out Lava­da didn’t come and see me,” he said. “Two years, and not once.”

An old diesel train engine hauled a short freight out towards the riv­er bed. The sound of its progress clacked on, a spike of use­less noise in the use­less dis­tance.

Bud­dy, she’s been look­ing after your Dad­dy real good. That has to count for some­thing.”

They emp­tied their cans.

She’s my woman, and she aban­doned me. That sure as hell counts for some­thing all right.”

 

There was lit­tle easy room to be had when it was time to set­tle in for the night. The couch and an old boy scout sleep­ing bag were all Ray Ray could appor­tion. The beer had tak­en its toll on Mason, and he suf­fered a tired­ness that threat­ened to car­ry him into a scal­ing and dream­less obliv­ion. But before he would let him­self be bro­ken and dragged down, he ground his fists into his eyes and turned his head toward the long win­dow and the val­ley beyond. Dark­ness and moun­tains reared in an enor­mous force over every­thing his eye could take in. A frozen break­wa­ter, a great avalanche of stone poised to descend.

He swung his feet to the floor and stead­ied him­self, lis­ten­ing to Ray Ray snor­ing in the back bed­room. The night made things some­how strange, derelict. The shape of old lamps, chairs and end tables released their accus­tomed lines, and objects inert man­aged to live, to feel. The sad­ness of this place sud­den­ly broke over him, tum­bled in a mute chaos of things remem­bered and imag­ined. Con­fused grief bead­ed in his eye. He did not know what sor­row he was weep­ing for. He feared, above all, that it was not his own.

One more beer. A rick­ety shuf­fle to the hum­ming fridge and an Ice House torn from the plas­tic ring. Drink­ing like there was an undis­cov­ered world in the next swal­low. Know­ing it all was about her, always had been. Even his hatred was a kind of love. He knew she made him suf­fer a brand of mad­ness, an epilep­sy of need, and regret too. One ele­ment seemed to sharp­en the oth­ers, grind­ing down what­ev­er remained of him in the process.

He eased out to the porch where his ruck was leaned against the far rail­ing and care­ful­ly drew the weight of it onto his back. Stag­ger­ing, he braced his free hand to the cor­ner post and stepped out into the star­lit yard, mov­ing under the con­stel­la­tions, feel­ing as ancient and marooned as those splin­ters of galac­tic time. Over­head sketch­ings of car­di­nal direc­tion and deci­sion. He sucked back the rest of the beer, pitched the alu­minum husk beside the road and walked straight out of the old fam­i­ly place, pur­su­ing the stranger course of what lay before him.

Charles Dodd White was born in Atlanta, Geor­gia in 1976. He cur­rent­ly lives in Asheville, North Car­oli­na where he teach­es writ­ing and Lit­er­a­ture at South Col­lege. He has been a Marine, a fly­fish­ing guide and a news­pa­per jour­nal­ist. His fic­tion has appeared or is forth­com­ing in The Col­lag­istNight TrainNorth Car­oli­na Lit­er­ary ReviewPANKWord Riot and sev­er­al oth­ers. His nov­el Lambs of Men, a sto­ry of a Marine Corps vet­er­an of World War I in West­ern North Car­oli­na, was pub­lished by Casper­ian Books, and his sto­ry col­lec­tions Sin­ners of Sanc­tion Coun­ty by Bot­tom Dog Press He is cur­rent­ly at work on anoth­er nov­el.

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2 Responses to Benediction, novel excerpt from Charles Dodd White

  1. Hi San­dra,

    Not yet. Still wait­ing to place it with a pub­lish­er, though there's a good pos­si­bil­i­ty lined up. I'll get Rusty to let folks know when it does. There's anoth­er excerpt com­ing up in about a month at 751 Mag­a­zine.

  2. sandra seamans says:

    Just won­der­ing if this nov­el is avail­able yet.

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