Full Circle

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Commercial Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A man's life, interrupted in youth, ends where it began.

FULL CIRCLE

 

It was smaller than he remembered it from some fifty-odd years before, so much so in fact that he missed it altogether on his first pass. The turn off the main highway had been difficult to find and he still wasn't sure he was on the right road until he saw the Midway Southern Missionary Baptist Church straddling a low hill on his left, which meant the farmhouse was a quarter of a mile back the way he had just come.

Andy pulled his aging Ford into the church's graveled parking lot and eased the transmission into park. The church building itself, a small block and brick affair, was new, or at least it had been maybe twenty years ago. At any rate, it wasn't the same faded white clapboard structure that he recalled from his childhood, even though it occupied roughly the same location. Across the road behind him lay the church's oak-shaded cemetery, unchanged except for its somewhat larger dimensions.

At some point during the past five decades, the road, barely wide enough to accommodate two vehicles, had been paved in a fashion. Bluish fragments of mica-flecked slate, worn smooth by the passage of time if nothing else, now spangled the weathered asphalt, much as they had the dust-festooned dirt roadbed of his youth.

Shaking himself from his reverie, Andy dropped the gearshift lever into reverse, backed out onto the neglected macadam, and began retracing his steps. With the nearest town seven miles away, traffic was virtually nonexistent, so he allowed the wheezing LTD to advance at little more than idling speed, soaking up the scenery as he went.

It took him several moments to realize that the thick copse of stately pine trees on his immediate right represented the fruit of his labor half a century before. These lofty evergreens had grown from the tiny seedlings he and his father had planted in an unused field during the spring of his tenth year.

On his left, what had once been an unfenced expanse of sorghum cane and sage grass now served as a paddock and grazing area for half a dozen horses of various sizes and colors. The woods beyond, he knew, dropped into a deep ravine, rutted by an ancient tree-lined wagon trail that he had often walked as a boy, acting as guide and scout to numerous parties on make-believe settlers.

Turning his gaze back to the right, Andy saw the pines begin to dwindle, and suddenly, there it was. The old two-story frame house with its brown pitch shingles and peaked metal roof sat well back off the road in a confused tangle of spindly saplings and sinuous vines. A missing front door and numerous broken windows showed the place to be abandoned. The outbuildings – barn, tractor shed, corncrib, potato house, and smokehouse – had long since collapsed and been carted away. Gone, too, was the whitewashed plank fence that had previously marked the side boundaries of an ample yard. Trees and shrubbery covered what had once been the garden and barnyard, and the former parking area off the narrow driveway now incongruously housed a shiny new doublewide mobile home.

Andy forced himself to exhale and swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. It occurred to him that the protesting Ford was standing dead still in the middle of the road, so he removed his foot from the brake and slowly nosed the vehicle into the culverted drive.

A bright-red Japanese pickup truck was parked where the barnyard gate should have been. A child's tricycle with an oversized front wheel rested, for the time being at least, on the trailer's redwood-stained deck. The day was overcast and through thin living room curtains, Andy could see the multicolored flicker of a television set. He levered the gearshift into park again, switched off the ignition, and stepped out of the car.

Mustering his courage as he went, he made his way toward the alien-looking mobile home. He became increasingly aware of a familiar and strangely soothing sound as he approached the two-tone brown monstrosity – somewhere inside, a game show host was attempting to pacify a nearly hysterical contestant. "A n-e-e-e-w c-a-a-a-r!" the announcer boomed, and with a harmonious blend of oohs and aahs, the studio audience broke into appreciative applause. There was a late autumn chill in the air and a fine mist of rain had begun to fall. Andy brought the zipper of his light jacket up another six inches and pulled his tweed cap down tighter on his head, then clambered onto the protruding deck and knocked on the flimsy aluminum door.

It was nothing more than a polite rap, shy even, but in this preternaturally still country setting, it reverberated like rolling thunder. Volume notwithstanding, a seeming eternity passed without the slightest indication of a response. Andy started to knock again, then thought better of it. Probably getting dressed, he decided. Out here in the boondocks, what need was there for conventional attire in the privacy of one's own home, unless some intrusive urbanite with out-of-state license plates showed up unannounced in the middle of the morning and started banging on your door. Andy shifted his weight, shrugged off a passing chill, and waited some more.

Inside the trailer, a lock clicked and the door swung open. A thin woman in her late twenties brushed a sandy curl from one eye and looked at Andy questioningly. Barefoot, she was dressed in faded jeans and a green-checked shirt, the tail tucked in neatly on one side, but slightly bloused on the other. Behind her, a girl of three or so with copious blond hair was seated on the living room floor, protectively clutching a disheveled doll in the crook of one small arm. She divided her attention evenly between the television's enticing patter and the stranger at the door.

"Yes?" the woman asked, a little tersely Andy thought.

He shifted his weight again unsure how to start.

"I ... uh ... my name it Andy Shay," he managed at last. "I used to live in this old house about fifty years ago," he continued, gesturing toward the derelict structure on his left, "and I was wondering if you'd mind letting me walk through the old place?"

The woman didn't respond immediately, but instead gave Andy a look of frank appraisal. Despite a pounding headache, he smiled his most winning smile, feeling her eyes search his for any hint of menace or deceit. At length, her gaze softened perceptibly.

"I don't mind at all, Mr. Shay," she said finally, true to the tradition of southern hospitality. "The house has been abandoned for years and it's in pretty sad shape," she added, almost apologetically. "My husband and I are planning to tear it down next spring, but you're certainly welcome to take a look around if you'd like."

"Thank you," Andy said, real gratitude in his voice. He turned and stepped down off the deck. The woman watched him for a few moments as he trudged through the overgrowth that had once been his front yard, then she faded back inside the trailer, pulling the door shut behind her.

As Andy approached the house, he felt his apprehensiveness give way to a growing sense of warmth and familiarity. Fighting the impulse to break into a run, he forced himself to take in his surroundings as a he waded through the knee-high jungle of grass and weeds, and to compare these new images to those he had stored away in his memory long ago.

The fruit trees – apple, peach, and pear – that had outlined the sides and back of the large yard in his day were now wild, dying, or gone altogether. On the near side of the house, he spied the confused remains of what had once been his mother's grape arbor. A decaying wooden swing lay in a useless heap on the front porch. Surely not the one his father had hung in the summer of 1954, Andy told himself, adjusting his stride to clear a ruined flower bed, but he wondered all the same.

Bypassing the rickety front steps, he paused, collected himself, and sprang, letting his long legs carry him neatly up and onto the curiously solid covered porch.

Despite the fact that the living room was littered with broken furniture, rusting farm implements, and other assorted debris, entering it was like slipping on a well-worn pair of shoes – the feeling of dèjà vu was almost overpowering. A truncated flue pipe dangled incommodiously from the still-intact ceiling, creaking eerily as it swung to and fro in the breeze. Over the large gas heater that this duct once serviced, the family had warmed canned soup and melted snow for water during the great "blizzard" of 1958. And there, against the back wall, was the spot where their first television set – a nineteen-inch General Electric black-and-white floor model – had been struck by lightning during a freak electrical storm in the spring of 1959.

He passed through the living room into the dining room. How many meals had he eaten here in front of the room's two large windows? How many nights had he been made to remain at the table long past suppertime in order to finish some especially disliked vegetable? He could hear his already-pajamaed brothers, Ray and Tim – younger and therefore less discriminating than himself – enjoying Toast of the Town or Your Show of Shows in the next room while he sulked endlessly over his ice-cold Brussels sprouts.

Past the dining room, the kitchen, where he'd spent long hours watching his mother prepare fresh fruit cobblers and churn butter from milk provided by their own cows, was in a state of disarray. All the appliances had been removed, the empty cabinets stood ajar, and the floor had caved in, making it impassable. The adjoining screened back porch was in much the same shape.

Turning around, Andy wound his way back past the gaping front door toward the other side of the house and stepped into the master bedroom, which was also strewn with discarded items of various descriptions. Closing his eyes for a moment, it almost seemed as if the pungent aroma of his father's aftershave still hung heavy in the air. In the summer of 1955, three years before the baby, Ellie, was born, the family had gathered in this room to wait out an impending tornado. Mr. Shay had taught the boys a card game called Tonk – a simplified version of rummy – which they had played enthusiastically throughout the afternoon, oblivious to the impending danger. Later, they had all watched from the porch as an ugly yellow-green funnel cloud passed over the farm and headed off to the northwest in the direction of Rhodes Ferry, some twelve miles away.

The adjoining room was also a bedroom, this one having once held his brothers' bunk beds. Beyond that was a small bathroom, installed after his parents had lived on their newly purchased farm through the winter of 1953 with a wooden outhouse alone. The bathroom had since been gutted and its floor, too, had collapsed.

Andy glanced to his left and there, in the short hallway that made the house’s lower floor an unbroken loop, was the narrow enclosed staircase leading up to his own second-story room.

Working his way around the helter-skelter pile of scrap wood that now all but blocked this passage, he leaned into the confines of the stairwell, checking its integrity. Satisfied that the treads and risers would support his lanky frame, he slipped inside and began his ascent.

As he emerged from the stairway into the attic, Andy was surprised to see the room was still much as he remembered it. It was free of the clutter that choked the downstairs and its floor appeared to have remained unaffected by the passing years, probably, he surmised, because there was no evidence of a major leak in the house’s rusted tin roof.

As he scanned the empty chamber, Andy suddenly felt himself swept away by a wave of bittersweet melancholy. Too many childhood memories, all of them good, simultaneously assaulted his already strained senses. At the same time, he experienced an almost unbearable feeling of resentment and silently cursed the cruel quirks of fate that had deprived him of this place at such a tender age, thereby denying him years of ongoing happiness.

Still standing on the lip of the stairwell, he turned, his vision blurred by tears of helpless self-pity, toward the back of the house. Through the twin dormer windows, past the snarled shrubbery and choking vines that had once been a fine garden, was the meadow where he had spent countless hours running free in the sunshine, unfettered by the cautions and restraints that are inevitably imposed upon city children from birth.

In the distance, the rolling terrain dipped toward a small unseen creek, then rose up again in a glorious maze of conifers and hardwoods. Assisted by an electric pump, the underground spring that fed this tiny rivulet had also provided Andy and his family with clear, cool water unlike any he had tasted since.

Facing the front again, Andy sleeved his cheeks dry and was preparing to descend the constricted staircase when something caused him to turn back into the room. All the chamber's interior walls consisted of plain, lightly varnished wood – all, that is, except one. The far left-hand corner of the attic was almost, but not quite obscured by the bulk of an ascending chimney. Here, wallpaper had been applied, its pattern indistinguishable from this distance.

Slowly, Andy made his way across the room. Step by step, the partially hidden wall revealed itself, the definition of its time-worn covering becoming more distinct with each passing second. Unconsciously, he centered himself in front of the exposed mural and stared at it, his eyes filled with wonder. The scene depicted was one of chuck wagons, cacti, and cowboys on galloping horses, repeating itself over and over on a field of gray. He had watched his mother hang this paper more than fifty years ago, backing it with unseamed and laundered feed sacks instead of cheesecloth so as to reduce the expense as much as possible. He still carried a clear picture of it in his mind – the sunlight streaming through the eastward windows, his mother talking to him over her shoulder as she worked, and Andy, the child, seated on a small wooden footstool, handing her any implements or materials she required. It was all too vivid. Andy sank to his knees and wept in earnest.

Some time later, he again negotiated the wasted lawn, heading back toward his car. It had stopped raining, but the tall grass was drenched and Andy's leather loafers quickly became waterlogged.

On the mobile home's deck, the woman was scrubbing the metal grill of a barbecue kettle. Spotting Andy, she gave him a farewell wave with her greasy steel-bristled brush. The little girl, seated on her tricycle, also waved. He lifted his own hand in response.

"Thank you," he said again as he thumbed the waiting Ford's door open, but a sudden gust of wind snatched the words from his lips and whisked them away to the east.

Andy climbed into his car and drove away.

 

The town closest to the rural farming community of Midway was Haymarket, seven miles due west. It had almost doubled in size since Andy last saw it and now boasted a population of nearly eight thousand, or so the roadside welcome sign proclaimed.

US Highway 31, which had once marked the westernmost boundary of Haymarket, today neatly dissected it. Stretching from Michigan to Florida, this now-forgotten four-lane had been a major tourist thoroughfare before the advent of the interstate system. Andy steered south and pulled into the first motel he saw, which its less than original marquee identified as the Haymarket Motor Lodge.

At first, Andy thought the garrulous desk clerk was a little too inquisitive, at least, that is, until the latter's one-sided nonstop prattle revealed that desk-clerking was just a sideline and that he was actually a fulltime member of the local constabulary. Andy considered moving on for a moment, then decided it might arouse too much suspicion. He signed the registration card and paid cash in advance.

His accommodations were satisfactory, not new, but clean. He deposited his travel-scarred leather suitcase on the luggage stand beside the dresser and sank slowly into the room's one threadbare, but sturdy armchair, his body drained, his head still pounding. He massaged his throbbing temples and closed his eyes, letting his mind wander.

He remembered the phone call, that terrible phone call that had shattered the predawn stillness of a July morning in 1959, and which – although he hadn't known it at the time – had signaled childhood's end.

 

"Andy ... Andy!" his mother called, her voice far away, but imperative. The eleven-year-old opened his eyes. By the light of the small bedside lamp, he could see her face, drawn and haggard, her eyes swollen, her radiant auburn hair held captive beneath a scarf of jade and ivory.

His father's boss, Mr. Novak, had called, she told him. His father had been injured at work and was taken to the hospital. She had to drive into Rhodes Ferry right away. If she hadn't returned by morning, she went on, Mrs. Atwater from the neighboring farm, would come and stay with the Shay children until she got home. Andy was the oldest and she expected him to take care of his brothers and his sister while she was away. Andy told her he would, hugged her drowsily, and drifted back into a fitful slumber.

By the time Mrs. Atwater arrived at six-thirty that morning, Andy had already changed Ellie's diaper, given her a bottle of water-diluted apple juice, and poured cold cereal for himself and his brothers. Their rotund neighbor, normally the most jovial and outgoing of souls, was, on this particular day, quiet and withdrawn. Young Andy immediately sensed that something was wrong and vaguely wondered what the problem might be, but quickly put the matter aside in favor of more pleasurable pursuits.

After breakfast, the three boys had dressed and gone out to play in the pasture behind the house, leaving Ellie in the care of "Aunt" Thelma, as they called her. Thelma Atwater later served them a hot lunch of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, which they washed down with several glasses of fresh homemade lemonade before returning to the pasture and the adjacent creek to while away the afternoon.

Dinner, served promptly at six o'clock, had consisted of fried pork chops, lima beans, corn-on-the-cob, hot biscuits, and cold milk, after which Aunt Thelma had supervised the younger children as they bathed and dressed for bed, giving Andy only a cursory once-over after he had completed these tasks for himself. They had all been sitting in the living room, watching Red Skelton on the television, when a flash of headlights in the front windows signaled the arrival of a car. Andy remembered going barefoot out onto the porch, dressed only in his thin cotton pajamas. At first, he though his parents had finally returned, but when the two shadowy figures emerged from the silhouetted vehicle and stepped into the outer perimeter of the glow cast by the porch light, he had been surprised, for the pair proved to be his grandparents – his dad's father and mother – who lived in faraway Atlanta.

In the confusion that ensued, during which a great deal of hugging took place between the children and their grandparents, their grandparents and Mrs. Atwater, and Mrs. Atwater and her husband, who had arrived to take his wife home, young Andy remained aloof, watching the adults' eyes.

It wasn't until five-year-old Tim, tugging persistently at his grandmother's dress, finally got her attention and asked "When is mommy coming home?" that a pall fell over the room. Unable to bear it any longer, Mrs. Atwater burst into tears and bolted for the front door, her husband at her elbow. Grandpa Shay sank slowly into an overstuffed armchair and regarded the ceiling with brimming eyes. Across the room, Skelton's Freddie the Freeloader took a pratfall into a pile of garbage, then looked directly into the camera, his expression wounded, but stoic. The audience roared. Grandma Shay, a distant look in her eyes, warm tears coursing down her gently creviced cheeks, picked the boy up and clutched him to her bosom.

"Tomorrow, Timmy," she said softly as she absently stroked the back of the nuzzling child's head, "we'll talk about it tomorrow."

After the younger children had been put to bed, Grandpa Shay put his arm around Andy's shoulders and gently guided him outside. They sat on the edge of the porch, their feet resting on the wooden steps below. The porch light had been turned off so as not to attract insects, the stars were out in all their glory, and a balmy summer breeze wafted in from the southeast. Up the road a bit, a faint bluish light just off the farm's northern boundary marked the location of the Midway church cemetery. Grandpa Shay lit a cigarette and began to speak, even though he knew that his young grandson wouldn't comprehend much of what he said for years to come.

He told Andy how a cargo sling on an overhead crane at the lumber yard had given way, burying two workers under several tons of partially processed timber. One of these men, he said – the one who had dashed under the plummeting load in a courageous, but futile attempt to save a coworker – had been Andy's father. "Bud" Shay told his grandson how a distraught Mrs. Shay, rushing to her fallen husband's side, had lost control of the family car on a narrow two-lane blacktop and had slammed head-on into a highballing gasoline tanker. He did not tell the boy that the resultant tower of flames, reflected off the river that paralleled the highway, had been seen for miles around. He spoke to Andy as an adult. Softly, sensibly, as only a grandfather could, he discussed life, death, and the possibility of life after death, hugging the sobbing boy to his side as he talked, neither of them aware that Grandma Shay, weeping silently, was listening through the screened front door.

Lastly, Grandpa Shay talked about the effect this tragedy would have on the lives of the Shay children. He and grandma had roots in Atlanta, he told the boy, and friends who would help them if they needed it. Andy, his brothers, and baby Ellie would come live with them – there was no other way, there was no one else to look after them. Their parents would be buried at the Methodist church in Norcross, just north of Atlanta, where five generations of Shays before them had been laid to rest. The farm, too far from Atlanta to be practical, would be sold and its proceeds, together with any forthcoming insurance money, would be placed into a trust that would eventually put all the Shay children through college. Andy listened, bleary-eyed, but no longer crying, until his grandfather finished speaking.

They sat in silence for a time, Andy's hand clinging tightly to his grandfather's arm, his head resting lightly on the old gentleman's shoulder. Across the road, he watched the sage grass rippling hypnotically in the moonlight, each passing breeze generating a new wave of amber and gold that sped away into the waiting darkness. After a while, the boy drifted into slumber and the old man quietly carried him inside.

 

Andy awoke with a start, not knowing where he was. The room's only light, which filtered in around the edges of the heavily curtained windows, alternately flashed red, then blue. The neon marquee of the Haymarket Motor Lodge, he recalled. He reached up and switched on the floor lamp beside his chair, then, with a sharp gasp, quickly switched it off again. His head, still awash with pain, could endure neither the proximity nor the intensity of the offensive source's hundred-watt bulb.

Fumbling his way into the bathroom, he located a large towel, which he carried back and distributed evenly over the lamp's tattered burlap shade. Then, looking away as he did so, the fingered the switch back on again. The small room was bathed in a muted glow that his overly sensitive pupils found tolerable.

He unzipped his suitcase and rummaged around inside, finally locating what he wanted – a small brown medicine bottle, the prescription refilled just two days ago at a pharmacy in Atlanta. His shoes, which he had kicked off immediately upon entering the room, were still sodden as a result of his excursion through the Midway property earlier that day. Setting the medicine bottle on the dresser and unwrapping the plastic ice bucket that resided there, Andy unlocked his door, then padded to the ice machine four units away in his stocking feet. The adjacent vending machine announced that soft drinks were one dollar a can. He checked his pocket for change and purchased a Pepsi cola. Holding the ice bucket in one hand and clutching the soda against his chest, he managed to get his door open without dropping anything.

Andy deposited his cargo on the dresser, shook a tiny white pill from the medicine bottle, and washed it down with a gulp Pepsi, the medication's bitter aftertaste making him grimace. From his suitcase, he produced a liter bottle of I. W. Harper and mixed himself a cocktail. Arranging his pillows against the headboard, he then reposed himself on the king-size bed, drink in hand, and crossed his legs. His stomach was rumbling for attention, but he had already decided to skip dinner tonight. He took a healthy draught from his drink, set it on the nightstand beside the bed, and closed his eyes.

 

Having spent his early life in the country, Andy remembered, he had taken an immediate disliking to Atlanta, with its crowded downtown streets, sprawling suburbs, and murderous rush-hour traffic. His grandparents, who owned a large antebellum home in an older section of the city, had done everything in their power the make the transition as smooth as possible for their new wards, but while the younger children seemed to adapt easily, their efforts were lost on Andy, who had trouble in school, shunned extracurricular activities, and generally kept to himself.

Because of its extremely rural location, the farm – sixty acres of pristine woods, fields, and pastures – had eventually sold for barely twenty thousand dollars, but far from easing Andy's depression, as the older Shays hoped, the finality of the transaction had only further darkened his mood. Despite their obvious love for one another, an antipathy had developed between the boy and his grandparents, persisting and even escalating throughout Andy's teen years.

Upon graduating from high school, Andy, much to the dismay of Bud and Eulah Shay, had enlisted in the Army. He repeatedly requested assignment to Vietnam over the course of his six-year hitch, but instead served out his time as a personnel specialist at various bases in the US and Europe.

 

Andy hoisted his gaunt torso off the bed and poured himself another drink, this time without a mixer, then lay down again, content to let his thoughts ramble. Ramble, he repeated to himself dreamily, ramble as he had done.

After being discharged from the military at the age of twenty-four, he had changed addresses about as often as he'd changed jobs, seldom keeping either for longer than a year. He had been a car salesman in Orlando, an office manager in Richmond, and a paper pusher in the nation's capital. He'd had a broken marriage that left him even more bitter, a devastating bout with alcoholism, and a bankruptcy that had immediately simplified his once complex personal finances. What he'd never had though, which often worried him, was a sense of direction, an eye for the future, or a feeling that he belonged. At least, that is, until shortly after Eulah Shay passed away toward the end of 2011.

When Bud Shay had died in the late summer of 1968, Andy was stationed in Germany, the Soviet Union had just invaded Czechoslovakia, and his base was on modified alert, so he hadn't been able to attend his grandfather's funeral. On this second sad occasion though, his brother, Ray, had tracked him down through a series of phone calls, finally locating him in Annapolis, Maryland, where he was living in a tiny furnished efficiency apartment overlooking the Severn River. Andy was between jobs at the time, but had recently won several hundred dollars at the racetrack in nearby Laurel, so on a whim, he'd packed his few possessions into the back of his old Ford and had moved back to Atlanta.

Eulah Shay, a lifelong resident of that city, had many friends. Both the church service and the funeral itself were well attended. Ray and family, who operated their own office supply store in Denver, had flown into Atlanta's heavily trafficked Hartfield Airport, where they rented a minivan. Tim and his wife, both schoolteachers, had driven up from Tallahassee. Ellie, her engineer husband, and their five-year-old son had taken the train down from Greenville. The eulogy, delivered in a still-firm voice by a city father who looked to be at least a century old, had brought them all to tears. Following the interment, a dapper gentleman who identified himself as the family attorney had offered his condolences and had made arrangements for the reading of Eulah Shay's will.

When Andy arrived at the lawyer's office the following day, Ray, Tim, and Ellie were already seated around the man's highly polished mahogany desk. Andy settled into the last remaining chair, amenities were passed, and the proceedings began. Ignoring all the whereases and wheretofores, the will was really quite simple. Grandma Shay had left the house and all its furnishings to the local historical society. Any miscellaneous household items and personal effects would be equally divided amongst the grandchildren, to dispose of as they deemed fit. In addition, each grandchild would receive the sum of approximately ten thousand dollars, which the attorney assured them would be forwarded to their respective addresses in short order.

Ray, Tim, and Ellie, all of whom would be returning home the following day, decided to walk through their grandmother's house that afternoon in search of mementos. Andy waived his right to any of Eulah Shay's belongings. He hugged each of his siblings goodbye in turn, but hung back in order to give the attorney's receptionist the address of the apartment he had rented on the south side of town earlier that week. While he was still in the process of effecting this change, the lawyer stepped out of his inner office and wordlessly handed Andy a large, heavy manila envelope on which his name had been inscribed.

The bold flourish of his grandmother's hand was unmistakable.

 

On his bed at the Haymarket Motor Lodge, Andy shivered. He sat up, rubbing his aching eyes, then swung his legs off the mattress and stood, steadying himself against the nightstand. Slowly, he crossed to the dresser and took another tablet of his medication, then collected both the medicine bottle and the liquor bottle, carrying them back to the nightstand, where they would be within easy reach.

 

He didn't know why, but he hadn't opened his grandmother's envelope right away. That afternoon, when he returned to his new apartment, he had slipped the packet into the back right-hand corner of his third dresser drawer, beneath the sweaters that he seldom wore. He had forgotten about it altogether for some time. The envelope hadn't been important until he received the word.

A few months later, when Andy came across the envelope again, he took it into the living room, seated himself on the rickety rattan sofa, and opened it. It contained sixty thousand dollars in stacks bound by bank wrappers. A slip of paper had been passed through one of the binders, on which the words "Andy's college money, never used" had been neatly hand-lettered. Setting the money aside, Andy turned the envelope upside down and an even dozen old photographs spilled out onto the glass-topped coffee table – pictures of his parents, their children, and the farm. In one snapshot, the entire family minus Ellie, who hadn't been born yet, proudly posed in front of their brand-new 1956 Plymouth Plaza, with its futuristic pushbutton transmission. Another aging print caught the three boys and their sister, still a chubby toddler, working diligently on a misshapen snowman in the front yard. Nine other poignant scenes that life had long ago erased from Andy's memory followed in rapid succession. One by one, his hungry eyes lovingly caressed these monochrome reflections of his past. Then, finally, he came to the twelfth photograph.

The last picture was a full-face five-by-seven of ten-year-old Andy, the bottom border bearing the printed legend "1958-1959" in heavy black ink. It was his fifth-grade school picture, taken less than six months before his parents died. Pensively, he studied the face of his younger self, feeling something stir inside him. The boy's eyes were brimming with yet undaunted hope, his strong chin held proud, his mouth, slightly upturned at the corners, threatening to break into unrestrained childish laughter at any moment. And suddenly Andy had known – he had known the meaning of the word, had known what he should, could, and must do, had known his destiny. He felt the blood coursing through his veins with renewed vigor. He felt more alive than he had in months. A smile broke across his face.

That very night, Andy made several calls to the long-distance information operator, collecting essential data as he went.

The next day, he spent nearly two hours making four successive phone calls, all to the same area code.

After visiting his bank, he mailed four letters, all to the same zip code.

Each letter contained its own certified check.

Within a week, he sublet his apartment, sold everything of value, and gave the rest away.

On the third morning after opening his grandmother's envelope, he placed a single suitcase into the trunk of his old LTD and began his journey.

 

Andy awoke to the sound of his own low moaning. His head was an anvil and every other second the hammer struck.

His left hand, fumbling over the top of the nightstand, found the medicine bottle and clutched it to his chest.

He would lie still for a few more minutes, he told himself, just lie there and collect his senses, then he would take more medicine and drink more whiskey.

And then he would sleep a long and dreamless sleep.

 

The following article appeared on the November 14, 2012, edition of the Haymarket Herald.

 

Haymarket – Police last night were called to the Haymarket Motor Lodge on US Highway 31 south, which had been the scene of an apparent suicide.

The victim, Andrew Shay, sixty-four, of Atlanta, was pronounced dead at eleven fifty-six p.m. by Marion County coroner Augustus "Gus" Halbrooks. The cause of death was tentatively identified as respiratory arrest resulting in asphyxia, which is thought to have been brought on by the combined ingestion of large quantities of alcohol and painkilling drugs.

Haymarket police chief Thad Purcell stated that documents found in the possession of the decreased indicated that he had been undergoing chemical and radiation therapy for the treatment of an inoperable brain tumor at the Veterans Administration hospital in Atlanta during recent months.

The body was discovered by a part-time desk clerk at the motel, Haymarket patrolman Harold Eubanks, who said he had become suspicious after repeatedly phoning the victim's room and receiving no answer.

"I knew he was a stranger in town," officer Eubanks recounted, "and I was going to suggest a couple of local restaurants, but the phone just kept on ringing. His car was parked right out front and I hadn't seen him leave on foot, so I tried the door – it was unlocked, I let myself in, and there he was."

Other papers later discovered in the glove box of the decedent's car showed that he had prearranged his own funeral by mail more than a week before his death.

Mr. Shay is survived by two brothers, Raymond Shay of Denver, Colorado, and Timothy Shay of Tallahassee, Florida, as well as by a sister, Mrs. Eleanor Shay McCloskey of Greenville, South Carolina.

Funeral services will be held on Thursday at the Midway Southern Missionary Baptist Church.

 

Robert Shadrack leaned against his shovel and surveyed the empty cemetery with line-creased eyes. The graveside serviced had ended nearly twenty minutes earlier and the last of the few mourners in attendance had departed ten minutes after that, followed closely by Reverend Chamberlain. Shadrack had watched the preacher's charcoal-gray Subaru disappear into the distance past the old abandoned farmhouse a quarter of a mile down the road. He knew that the good reverend was headed back into Haymarket, where half a dozen inquisitive customers were undoubtedly waiting at Chamberlain's hardware store to hear the gruesome details of this mysterious stranger's untimely demise.

Elliott Donovan had done a spectacular job with the headstone, Shadrack reflected. It was a real masterpiece. The caretaker admired the marker again as he took a final drag of his unfiltered Pall Mall and field-striped the still-smoldering butt. The stone itself was a rare piece of blue marble that Elliott had been saving for a special client. A fluttering sparrow adorned each of the monument's upper corners, their tiny beaks clutching the opposite ends of a narrow ribbon that drooped down and overlapped in the middle to form a small oval. Into this space, the engraver had set a photograph of the departed as a young boy, cropped, laminated, and covered with heavy glass in order to protect it from the elements.

Shadrack coughed up a mouthful of nicotinic phlegm and spat it well away from the gaping hole at his feet. For over a hundred years, all the graves that made up this incapacious boneyard had run from east to west; however, in keeping with the last wishes of the deceased – and, the aging caretaker knew - in consideration of a singularity generous donation to Chamberlain's tiny church – the reverend had instructed Shadrack to dig this particular grave from north to south, and to place it flush against the cemetery's southernmost boundary.

Now, unbeknownst to anyone except himself and the gentleman in the lead-lined box below, it was time for Shadrack, who had received his own generous contribution from Andy Shay, to complete his end of their clandestine bargain. Awkwardly clambering over the low wire fence that separated the graveyard from the adjoining farm, the caretaker shoveled several scoops of dark aromatic soil into an old coal scuttle that he had brought with him for this express purpose. Setting the bucket and shovel back into the cemetery, he clumsily renegotiated the rusty barbed wire and brushed his grimy hands against his denim-overalled thighs.

Shadrack hoisted the dented scuttle and carried it back to the edge of the open grave, then began slowly pouring its contents over the foot of the concrete vault that housed the dead man's simple wooden casket, distributing the fragrant sod as evenly as possible from his position on high. Picking up his shovel, he then began to fill in the oblong pit, working steadily for just over an hour until the job was done.

After the grave had been properly mounded and tamped, the caretaker decorated it, tastefully he hoped, with the wreaths and other floral arrangements that the mourners had left behind. Then, mopping his brow with one flannelled arm, he lit another cigarette and stepped back to admire his handiwork with a professionally critical eye. Giving the job a grunt of approval, Shadrack balanced the shovel across one bony shoulder, picked up the slightly lopsided coal scuttle with his free hand, and set off on foot for the tumbledown wooden shack that he called home.

 

The sun passed its zenith and plunged tiredly toward the west, its waning beams beating a hasty retreat before the advancing darkness. A shaft of receding sunlight brushed Andy Shay's headstone, slowly extricating its epitaph from the arboreal shadows.

"Here Lies Andrew Jackson Shay," the inscription read, "Born March 12, 1948, Died November 13, 2012. He Has Come Full Circle."

From his oval recess in the sun-warmed stone, young Andy Shay silently surveyed the gently rolling meadowland before him and the unspoiled woods beyond, eyes forever seeing, feet forever touching the rich black earth of what some community elders stilled called "the old Shay place."


Submitted: November 28, 2016

© Copyright 2021 Jim Shipp. All rights reserved.

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