David VanDevelder : Althea Reigns in Shangry Lah : Long Read Fiction : April 2019
Southern Legitimacy Statement: We were a prototypical southern nuclear family. My Papaw came up in the Great Smokey Mountains, near Farner Tennessee and Cherokee North Carolina. When he was nine, he lost track of the time one summer evening, squirrel hunting up on the mountain, and he avoided a sound late-for-dinner whoopin’ by running away with the circus.
He didn’t see his own mother again for almost five years; she took him for a drifting mendicant child when he appeared in their doorway one night, begging for leftovers and a place to sleep. He stayed home and worked on the family farm, and in time he got married and filled his own home with six children, all of whom were taken early by TB, among other ailments, along with his young wife. To escape the tragedy of the loss of his family, Papaw left the Smokies altogether, and he eloped with the young English/Cherokee girl who had brushed his late wife’s hair before their wedding.
He worked on the railroads as a cook, and he worked in the coal and zinc mines in East Tennessee and West Virginia and Kentucky. Their first born child was my mother, and they had five more children after that in a little government-issue stick-frame house on Alabama Avenue, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where Papaw fibbed his way into a life-long career as a machinist at Y-12 and K-25. Papaw died of intestinal cancer in the late 1970s, though had he survived it, he would have died eventually from complications related to moonshine and general orneriness.
Since Mamaw’s Cherokee blood showed in her cheeks and in her hair in ways that were impossible to disguise, the only job made available to her in the Secret City was one washing radiation suits; her government-issued safety gear was a pair of Rubbermaid gloves. She died of a brain tumor almost forty years ago. Beneath her name, Julia Bryant, our family tree reads like a medical encyclopedia from an apocalyptic future, but we tend to wear it proudly as a clan. To quote Peter Benchley’s Cpt. Quint, “Anyway . . we delivered the bomb.”
Althea Reigns in Shangry Lah
Slump Bryant preferred to let Althea welcome visitors to the farm. He found that with just one word from her, they came to an immediate, crystal-clear understanding of where the fuck it was they was a-standin,’ and could then decide, havin’ the benefit of all the really pertinent information, whether they wanted to stand there any longer.
If you stood close enough to Althea, you could feel her suck your lungs back some. There was no mistaking that voice. When Althea spoke, people listened. She said:
Nipper had known Althea’s voice since he was just a itty-bitty boy, and you could say, and wouldn’t be lying if you did, that he had developed a real soft spot for the sound of her over the years. It was what sweet summer memories sounded like, and no different, no less dear to him, in that way, than the sound of the first frogs of late spring, or the roar of the summer cicadas and the mating calls of bullfrogs at night, or the hum of a distant lawn mower on a hazy July evening with the lightning bugs floating up into twilit canopies of Oak. Yes, the sound of old Althea’s voice, though perhaps grumpy and startling, was no less sweet to him than those other things, and no less natural, no less essential to the magic and mathematics of being a child turned loose to swim through summer’s cauldron on the Cumberland Plateau.
“Man,” he was telling Code Talker, as they meandered down Martin’s Creek road toward ole’ Slump’s place at the base of Bryant’s Ridge one morning, “when we was kids, they lived pretty close to us, and of course that was before ole’ Slump took over the family place down here . . but they lived real close, and they had this peach orchard, man, and every summer it was like playin’ sharks and minnows tryin’ to creep in there and steal some of them peaches. And you would not believe the shit kids used to pull out of their ass and thighs after they got home . . this one old boy, I’ll never forgit ‘im, he done got got, but good, and he was even bleedin’ a little, and his folks told him to suck it up, you know, that it was just a little rock salt and all, and it would dissolve after a while, but that shit got infected later on, real infected, and it didn’t dissolve, neither, and don’t you know the doctor pulled a half a dozen fuckin’ barbie doll parts out of that boy’s ass? Little hands and feet and shit? Freaked. The. Living. Shit out of the doctor, who said he’d never seen nothin’ like it before, but he was really cool about it and let that boy keep them hands and feet and everything. If I can remember, his name was Tommy. Tommy Wiggins. Man, if I had them hands an’ feet, I reckon I’d turn ‘em into a necklace or sump’n like ‘at.”
Martin’s Creek Road wove among the thickets and pioneer stands of sapling trees that traced the progress of Martin’s Creek on its westward journey to the Cumberland River. Here, hillsides rose almost straight as walls from a narrow ribbon of rich black bottom land so deep that it got only six or seven hours of direct sunlight each day in the summer. A hundred years ago, everything from Martin’s Creek to Buffalo Valley was sacred Cherokee Bison hunting ground. Sacred. If you were a Cherokee, or so Nipper’s Papaw had told him, it was illegal to build anything on that land more permanent than a seasonal hunting wikiup. That land was for the Bison, and the spirits.
This time of year, the entire valley became a long, spongy extension of the creek itself, though much more difficult to traverse. Spring was early, and warmer than it should have been for mid March; high above the men’s dusty, serpentine progress, down the narrow, jagged twist of Bryant’s Ridge Road, the Red Buds and Dogwoods had just come into bloom against the almost transparent, ephemeral green of new life, causing a chain reaction of pink and white blossoms down the ridge sides and into the woods along the edges of the valley. Just above Bryant Ridge, a solitary Red Tail circled high on a thermocline, scanning the forest floor for sudden small movements. Triple-canopied deciduous jungle would reclaim almost every inch of these hills in the time it took them to complete the Millennial Census count, casting the world beneath them into a perpetual green twilight that was home to fanged night crawlers, apex predators and hill folk. It was the kind of green in which a fella could really keep a secret.
Slump’s “old fambly place” lay just along a pronounced curve in the road beneath a granite thumb behind a stand of conifers at the top of a narrow holler that cut back into the hillside where a seep had eroded the stone and earth over time. He lived in the old farmhouse that his Papaw’s daddy had built with his own hands, with a wrap-around porch that his Papaw had built high enough to command a view of the land on all sides, and beside the farm house there was a small shop building and a hay barn and a big chicken coop that Slump built between the house and the tiny creek that was what the seep became once it finally got down the ridge to ole’ Slump’s place. He had a half-garage half-barn where he stored a small tractor and a half-dozen other machines in various states of cannibalization. The entrance from Martin’s Creek Road was a big open gate made of two lodge poles with a cross member across the top, from the center of which hung a little wood-burned sign that said “Shangry Lah.” “Hit’s a play on words,” Slump was fond of saying.
“Just be cool, man,” Nipper said as they passed under the sign. “He may take a second to remember me. Or he may be a little drunk. Just don’t say nothin,’ specially if he’s holdin’ that ole’ Althea, ‘til you’re sure in your gut everything’ cooool.”
“What the fuck does that mean, sure in my gut?”
“You know, like . . intuitively cool.”
“But what exac –
Dooooooooommmmmm!!! – Althea said, no farther then three feet away, casting them all into a great whorl of black smoke with glitter drifting though it; smokey glitter dissipated on the breeze, gradually revealing the source of all the laugher . . . Ole’ Slump lay on his side in the yard beside the porch, rocking back and forth, bedazzled in glitter, still cradling the old blunderbus, which seemed to be smoldering a little at the business end. Code Talker and Nipper sat dumbfounded, in shock, slack-jawed, strapped in their seat belts.
“By gawd y’uns looked like like two daggum cave creekits, the way y’uns hit the roof of that truck,” Slump said. “Nipper, you hit it so hard, son, you looked like you was a-tryin’ to hit it.” Slump went into another fit of laughter; then he caught his breath and stood up and stopped laughing and looked Code Talker up and down and said, “Who’s boy are you?”
Code Talker rubbed his head. He could smell the moonshine on Slump’s breath from a couple of feet away. He was still trying to find an obvious source for the nickname. There was nothing slumpy at all about this man; he stood well over six feet tall, and he was all bone and sinew and tanned hide with a pair of fierce, warm, but also a bit crazy blue-gray eyes floating above it all from near the center of a five-day shadow that threatened, in places, to become an actual beard. Except for a pair of old overalls, he wore no clothes to speak of, not even shoes. He looked as though he’d been dipped in Sorghum, hung from the rafters and cured whole with last summer’s crop of tobacco. Nipper answered him:
“Slump, this here’s my buddy Code Talker. He ain’t kin to nobody around here. Nobody close.”
“No sir,” Nipper said. “Code Talker’s from Virginia, but he’s got people down in Oliver Springs and Oak Ridge.”
“What kinda people?”
“Cutlers,” Nipper said.
“A-and Hibbs,” Code Talker added.
“Seems to me like I knowed some Cutlers once upon a time or another; cain’t place ‘em now, though. Y’uns take a pull with me?”
“Yes sir, that would be good medicine.”
“Yes sir,” Nipper said. “Thank you.”
“Of course, I got . . is he awlwright?” Slump said, gesturing to Code Talker.
“He’s cool,” Nipper said.
“I got sump’n for yu’ns to take back to Cotton,” Slump said, watching Code Talker closely, as if he might make a sudden move. “Y’all sit, now . . I’ll be right back,” He paused for a moment, and he glared poison at the US FEDERAL GOVT placard in the windshield of Nipper’s truck as he passed it; then he shook his lowered head, and he looked back at Nipper with great sadness in his eyes and said, “By gawd your Papaw’d roll over in his grave an’ shit hisself if he knew you was a fuckin’ revenuer.” He said “revenuer” like he could smell dog shit close by.
“I ain’t no revenuer,” Nipper said. Slump vanished, with a slight limp, around the corner behind the chicken coop. “I ain’t no fuckin’ revenuer!” Nipper repeated, louder. Normally, census takers don’t travel in teams, but teams had been authorized “just this onest” by the headquarters up in Crossville, for counting towns like Baxter and Sparta, which Paul Harvey once called the capital of “vanished without a trace:” and normally, census takers did not investigate Dangerous Settlements; they designated locations as Dangerous Settlements, and they left the investigating to the FBI. But this was no normal census, and it wasn’t normal for a lot of reasons that had nothing at all to do with the Millennium.
They could hear ole’ Slump say something unintelligible. Then he reappeared around the side of the chicken coop carrying a big old stoneware jug; he took a long hard drink from it while he walked. He hoist the jug just as naturally as wiping his brow, and he drank again and handed the sloshing jug to Code Talker.
Code Talker took a good pull. It burned like Isopropyl Alcohol, and Code Talker winced and coughed once, hard, sort of a combination sneeze and cough, and he tried to catch his breath. Slump slapped his thigh and laughed. Slump didn’t have many teeth left; most of those were gold ones.
“I’m shore sorry about that ole’ buddy,” he said. “We don’t get too much cump’ny; wouldn’t be polite to set on the good stuff.”
“Well . . I don’t reckon you do have much cump’ny, Slump. Daggum.” Nipper said, catching his breath. He took a second deep lug of the moonshine and said, “Maaaan oh man . . .shiiittt . . ”
“What’s she . . hooooooooo golly . . what’s she pro-hoooo-hooooof at?” Nipper, asked, still blowing the words out as he passed the jug back to Slump.
“Hell, I don’t know. A lot, I reckin. High enough to make you take shit back you didn’t even steal. I tell you whut . . old boy makes this here is ever bit of a hunner’t year old, and he . . shhh . . y’uns hear that?”
The three men listened into the distant brightness of morning sun in the valley. Song birds skittered across the foreground, rejoicing the promise of fruit. In the far distance, the men could hear the sound of an engine running, revving high.
“Watch,” Slump said. He gestured toward the road with a loud slosh of the jug. The engine grew louder and louder, and then the source appeared, a bright pink 1959 convertible Cadillac Eldorado fishtailing around the turn, headed straight at them at the apex of a long rooster tail of pale yellow dust that hung in the air and settled in a yellow film along the leaves of the trees that lined the road after it passed.
“Y’uns ee that?” said Slump.
The visitors nodded, yes, they had seen it. “Man . . ain’t that ole’ what’s’er face?” Nipper said. “Reverend Goolsby’s wife? That looks just like her Caddy.”
“Gotta be,” Code Talker said. “How many of those could there be on the whole plateau?”
“If that’s a woman,” Slump said, “then it’s the ugliest damn woman that ever lived, and a monster, too. She could take all three of us, sure as I’m standin’ here, and us not even drunk.”
“It must be the Reverend, then.” Nipper said. “Though I cain’t for the life of me think of what he’d be up to down here.”
Slump shrugged and took a drink. “Ever since I started seein’ that Eldorado on a regular, shit around here ain’t been right, exactly. Somethin’ in the air. . . Come to think of it, every since them Malungins moved in yonder. Or Mexakins, or somethin.’ They was up at the old white house – you know the one, back up the valley a ways – but not permanent, just a few days here, a few days there. They’s cookin’ for sure, though. Them Malungins, or Mexakins, or wahtever, like to caught me over there snoopin’ one day last week. I got a little tub of that mah-wong for you from that visit, least that’s what I believe it is. Anyway. They got this ole’ baby doll tied up to the front gate pole up there. That right there done put the fuckin’ spook on old Slump, I tell you whut. It’s got them shiny eyes that’ll open or close, and one a them things is stuck halfway open and the other’n watches you wherever you go, like it’s a-followin’ you. It feels like it’s some kinda sign, like they’s a-signalin’ somebody.”
Slump looked at the men’s eyes, to see if they looked like they thought he was as crazy as he knew he sounded.
“Things have been kindly fucked up down here since they been around, you know it? And that Cadillac started showin’ up the same time them Malungins started showin’ up. Or Mexakins. When I don’t have nuthin’ better to do, I’ve been hittin’ ‘em with glitter loads if I can catch ‘em comin’ by. . and other stuff. Kindly spare-mentin.’”
While they passed the jug, Slump told them how he’d already lost three chickens and a fainting goat to that Pink Cadillac Eldorado, how some days it just rode back and forth and back and forth, passing by sometimes six or eight times of an evening, and how he’d been inspired by its presence, and by the loss of his critters, to resume last summer’s project of developing non-lethal experimental loads for Althea, some of which he’d let fly just ahead of that ole’ Cadillac as it made the last turn.
“I tried confetti, but that didn’t want to launch right. It kindly did, but I wanted more of a floaty effect, so I tried chicken feathers, but that stunk the place up so bad with singed feather smell that I had to settle on the glitter and sometimes glitter mixed with a little confetti. They’s got a slightly diff’rint effect. The re-port’s what matters anyhow, I reckin.” Slump eased back against the stair and stretched his back. “Tell you whut. If y’uns don’t care, help me get that mah-wong loaded in yer truck, and then we’ll see if we cain’t git them chickens back in the coop and make sure them goats penned up, and I’ll git another glitter load ready. He’ll be back, by the by, sure as the day is long.” “Mandy!” Slump called up to the house, “ohhh, Maaaandyyy . .” Presently, a shadowy silhouette loomed up behind the screen at the front door.
“Whut?” she said. They couldn’t see her face clearly, but they knew that it was scowling.
“Shooog? . . if y’uns don’t care, bring us out some of that sweet tea.”
She stood there for a moment, arms akimbo, staring poison and suspicion at them one at a time, Slump last. Then she vanished, and she returned presently with a plastic jug of ice tea and a small stack of red solo cups.
“Here,” she said, and she handed the jug and cups to Slump and said, “don’t you even think about gettin’ drunk, Samuel Bryant. We got church.”
“Yes ma’am! Thank you, Shooooog,” he said, and winked to the boys and poured everyone a chaser. Mandy disappeared again, her voice fading back into the house, but still warbling dire pronouncements and predictions at the walls inside.
“See how she dotes on me?” Slump said. He winked, grinning wide and golden. He drank from the mash jug again and passed it around, and when they all had another couple of pulls, they walked around back to fetch the two paint buckets of raw ephedrine Slump had liberated from the Malungin’s, or Mexican’s, speed cooking operation that seemed to be making its way down the valley toward Nashville, moving from one safe lab to the next. They’d set up a lab, burn it, or get caught, and then backfill the crew and move on. That’s where the boys came in, and characters like Slump, for whom all roads led back to Cotton.
“Cotton’ll like this here,” Slump said as they lifted the buckets onto the bed of the truck and covered them with a tarp. “Whoever made that there still has a bulk supplier for trucker tabs. That solvent ain’t nothin’ but water, by gawd, not even a taste of tolulene to’t. I know, I done tasted it myself.”
Then they set about gathering the chickens and goats back out of the yard close to the road. The goats proved to be problematic, since they were fainting goats. That took some getting used to. Nipper couldn’t seem to creep quietly enough to herd the damned things without startling them into paralysis, so he got more and more frustrated and cussed more and more the harder he tried, which only added to the goats’ stress, making their fainting reflex, in turn, even more hair-pin and dramatic. Then, to make matters even more interesting, Slump’s Vietnamese Pig, Jane, woke up from its nap under the porch and joined the commotion, squealing the goats comatose whenever it found an opportunity to scurry in close enough.
And so they progressed, Nipper and his dubious herd, moving across the farmyard five or six hard-won feet at a time; and now and then one of the goats would jolt awake suddenly to circle back behind Nipper, where Jane awaited – weeeeeeeee – causing him to have to start from the beginning. Slump got so tickled, watching this impromptu slapstick comedy, that he forgot all about the re-loading Althea for the return of the Cadillac Eldorado, which appeared presently, roaring around the curve in the road at the heart of a billowing cloud of yellow dust, like a tornado with a hot pink tomato floating at the bottom of it, just narrowly missing Code Talker and two of Slump’s chickens, and then finished the turn through the trees in a rush of spinning gravel and was gone.
“Well sheeeiiiiitt . . .” Slump said, watching the tail lights vanish on a distant turn through the settling yellow dust. “That warn’t no woman. I got a good look at ‘im that time. I think you’re right, by gawd; that there’s Reveren’ Goolsby, hot roddin’ like ‘at. Wide open, and in his missus’ car, too. My mind’s tellin’ me it just ain’t possible, but there he was, sure enough. Plain as day. Who’da fuckin’ thunk it?”