Raising his head to gaze at the slowly setting sun through tear-blurred eyes, the boy felt a sharp pain in his neck as he moved too quickly. He had been staring, motionless, and for too long now at the fresh mound of the filled in grave that lay before him . It had been raining, he recalled, but the sudden, radiant heat on his face brought his attention to our nearest star that shone through the low, dark clouds. A shaft of sunlight pierced through a breach of clear sky between the mountain and the grim, grey mists of the air. Mists that hovered just above the lower stratosphere; a vast, floating ceiling bridged the close of day with the oncoming night. It was a heavenly view at the end of a dismal afternoon. He wanted to cry all over again, but he was too spent of his tears.
He had lost track of time. “How long have I been here, staring at his grave?” he wondered to himself. Everyone else had left a long time ago. He faintly recollected someone asking if he would be all right by himself, and his answering, “Yeah…Go ahead. I’ll be O.K.” The moment everyone was out of ear shot he let loose the tears. He just couldn’t bring himself to cry in front of them. The reality set in and he couldn’t believe the old man was gone. Now he was done and ready to go home and sleep and shut down all his beleaguering grief for a while.
The burial service was over, he knew, at four o’clock. He also knew at this time of year, September, the sun sets around seven-thirty, so for about three and a half hours he just sat, recalling memories of his grandfather, and grieving for the loss of him as a best friend and the only family he had ever known. And now, looking into the face of the sunset, he came to the realization that he isn’t dead, not as long as atoms exist, the sun still shines, and there is at least one person in this world who will always remember his essence. He has merely gone back to where we all come from to rejoin the universe. He hastily stood, his legs nearly buckling under the sudden weight of his body, and turned his back on a cheap tombstone that read:
ELVIN JAMES “PAPPY” FRANKLIN
BORN- September, 17 1902 DIED-September, 17 2002
May the stars shine upon his soul
until God’s final judgment.
He started walking. It was a half-mile to the road, and by then, it would be prudent to be on it. It was always hard to see this path at night. The few neighbors that “volunteered” to carry Pappy to this plot bitched and grumbled not only for the distance into the deep woods here, but just as much for the rocky, uphill terrain of the narrow path. They tripped numerous times and even dropped his casket once. It was an embarrassing and undignified fiasco for which the boy forgave them. It was difficult for him to find anyone to be Pappy’s pallbearer at all so he overlooked the faux pas. He had no flashlight but as long as he reached the road before twilight failed completely, he could prevent a sprained ankle or a few stubbed toes.
He walked on while wiping the last of his tears on his shirtsleeve and he wondered what he was going to do, “What will become of me now? I guess somebody from the government will snatch me up and put me in a home somewhere.”
Johnny Goad was raised and home schooled by his grandfather in his country cabin in a remote, pristine valley in southwest Virginia. While Pappy was on his deathbed, their nearest neighbor, Doc Wilson, inquired what was to be done with his twelve year-old grandson? There was no other family around so it was a relevant question. Elvin insisted, rather boisterously for a 100 year-old man on the threshold of the pearly gates, “Nothin’! I done made arrangements with them that matters.” J.B. could hear the words from the kitchen table in the other room where he was sitting. He was curious, “What did he mean by that? What arrangements?”
As he shuffled through the last fifty yards of mountain laurel that seemed to swallow the neglected trail to the road, J.B. remembered who it was who last checked on him at the grave. It was the good Doctor himself. He also knew that he would be waiting for him at home. “I’m surprised somebody hasn’t sent a search party.” J.B. mused.
He reached the road, and after another half mile, he came to the gravel driveway that led to the cabin. He looked up and saw the Doctor’s red Jeep parked by the front porch light. He immediately also noticed an unfamiliar vehicle parked in the shadow beside the cabin.
He drew near and he could see Doc Wilson on the front porch sitting on the first step, his hand shielding his eyes from the light of the porch, peering into the darkness. J.B. must have seemed like a wandering ghost slowly appearing into the illumined area.
“It’s about time you were showing up. We were worried.” Doc said dropping his hand and standing.
Doctor Ted Wilson was old, but not nearly as old as Pappy. J.B. wasn’t sure, but guessed he was around 65 or 70. He was your typical country doctor. Ted used to run a clinic on the main highway into town. He was now semi-retired. Folks would call him at his home when he was needed and he would drop everything to meet them at the clinic. If there was an emergency, he never shied away from making a house call. He had short, grey hair, and a big, bushy mustache so thick the only feature one could make out beneath it was all chin and no mouth. He always reminded J.B. of a combed and neat Albert Einstein. He was normally built, usually wearing coveralls but this evening he was sporting his black suit and tie. He had immediately loosened his tie when he returned from the cemetery.
“You all right, son?” he asked with an empathetic tone. He put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and walked him up the four, short steps onto the porch.
“Yeah. I’m just going to really miss him Doc.”
“I am too, son…I am too.”
Pappy and Doc Wilson were best friends. When Elvin “Pappy” Franklin came drifting into town over fifty years ago, people didn’t know what to make of him. Just a sack of clothes and a beat up old guitar was all he carried. No one tried to get to know him very well, and no one ever understood how the old man, seemingly undereducated, accomplished the home schooling and raising of his young grandson.
In the small community of Summer Hills, Virginia, people were more inclined to mind their own affairs, though none were completely immune from the afflictions of rumor and gossip. It was generally not known exactly where, when, or how J.B. entered the picture, which for a while, was a short-lived incubator for the “virus of hearsay”.
Some speculated that he was abandoned at the old man’s doorstep by a long lost, crack addicted daughter. Others said he was found in the woods. Schoolchildren joked that J.B. was farmed out of the ground in Pappy’s garden. No one however curious or inquisitive minded, had enough nerve to check into any legalities of the guardianship of the boy. Everyone held the good Dr. Wilson in such high regard that the respect of his word and seal of approval was sufficient to accept the odd pair as a communal offshoot of their fold. “Live and let live”, as they say. Besides, J.B. appeared to be well fed, smarter than average, well taken care of, and most importantly, happy. Anyone could see and sense that the two had a powerful bond of love for each other. They were family, and they were best of friends, and Ted was an ideal buffer between them and the world at large. He was their perfect advocate and defender of their way of life.
“Doc, whose car is that?” J.B. asked, nodding toward the grey rusted 1980 Mercury.
“You’re about to find that out right now.” explained Ted as he opened the front door and allowed J.B. to enter first. He held his hand out, palm up, in an ushering gesture.
J.B. entered the cabin and spotted a woman sitting on the couch with a book in her lap that was opened upside down, taking a break from reading. She was in her late fifties; thin, with black, grey streaked hair.
“J., Meet your Aunt Lisa. She’s your Pappy’s oldest daughter,” Said Ted. “Your mother’s sister.”
“Who . . . ? Pappy had another . . . ? Why didn’t he . . . ?”
“It’s alright baby.” Her voice was soft and angelic. “I know you have a lot on you right now.” She said. She laid a bookmark in her book and set it on the coffee table. The pitch of her voice was consoling and tuneful in his ears. She had beautiful brown eyes, and in her younger days must’ve been very pretty. Even now, at her age she appeared to be younger, say, in her early forties.
“Your ‘Pappy’ knew me as a young child, but I was taken from him. He just recently found me, or should I say, I found him.”
J.B.’s head was swirling with a range of emotions. He was naturally distrustful of strangers as it was, and this woman was no one he had ever met before. She was sitting here, claiming to be his aunt, yet he never even knew his own mother. Surely Pappy would’ve said something.
She motioned to the love seat that sat at a right angle to the couch, “Please, if you’re not busy at the moment, have a seat and I’ll try to explain some of what you care to know…as well as I can, mind you.”
J.B. sat on the love seat, and while not breaking eye contact, nearly missed the cushion farthest from her.
“I would feel at ease in my heart if you would accept my condolences of the loss of your grandfather.” She began. “I am told you and he were very close.”
Immediately, J.B. could tell this woman was educated, articulate, and by the sound of her accent, from the north.
She continued, “I regret my arriving too late for the funeral. Though I talked with him on the telephone a couple of times, I wish I could have seen him at least once before he passed on. I was delayed, unfortunately.”
“You never met Pappy?”
“He raised me until I was six.”
“Then, I was taken from him.”
“Why? Were you kidnapped?”
“No…well…I was, in a manner of speaking. It was ‘legal’.”
As she said the word “legal”, J.B. sensed animosity in her voice.
“He was good to me, but certain authorities couldn’t see past their own narrow-minded ideas of what was ‘good’.”
Again, J.B. heard the sting of sarcasm in the word “authorities”. All he could muster to say was, “Oh.”
“I had been trying to find him for the past ten years when my friend gave me a lead that let me know where to find him. I finally learned that he was living here, in Summer Hills. My friend had better resources than I. One person I could never find was my sister, your mother. Needless to say I was quite surprised when I found out I even had a sister, and equally saddened to learn at the same time that she too, had passed away, and that I never got the chance to know her. Now, at least I am able to meet you Johnny, my nephew. Now, you are the only true family I have, and I, yours.”
As she spoke these last words, she smiled, and J.B. saw in her face what he could only describe as, “Eyes that laugh”. It was a look that seemed to light up the room. Suddenly, some of the distrust went away, and he felt a fondness for her. But the next words she spoke set him back a notch.
“That brings me to why I’m here, J.” she called him by his first initial, the way he preferred.
“Doc must’ve told her I like to be called ‘J’.” he thought.
“I’m here to take you home with me, to New York.”
“I know. It’s sudden. But think. You have no one now to care for you and who better than family would be suitable for that honor? I say ‘honor’ J., because this way, neither of us needs to be alone. It could actually be the best arrangement for both of us if you think about it.”
Ted sat on the arm of the love seat next to J., “I’ll look out after the property here son, until you come of age to claim it. And your Aunt Lisa is willing to make arrangements for you to visit here in the summer. It’s really for your own good J.”
J’s head was spinning. This was just too much at once. First, Pappy up and dies on him, then he learns he has an aunt, and in his first encounter with her, finds he is being uprooted from the only home he has ever known.
“Your Pappy wanted it this way, honey. He made me promise. I guess he felt it was important that you grow up with a family member.”
Ted added, “I tend to agree.”
They all fell into an ominous silence, apparently to wait for J’s reply. He thought about his options. He could run away, but where? He dismissed the thought the second it entered his mind. He didn’t want to wander around in the wild, homeless. He most assuredly didn’t want to live in an orphanage or a foster home. He felt sure the latter was obviously the only alternative. This lady seemed nice, and she was family. Also, somehow, he felt comfortable in her presence. Maybe it was some intuitive kinship there after all.
Before he could speak, she told him, “Just sleep on it tonight sweetie. We’ll have plenty of time to talk tomorrow.”
“Thank you, ma’am. It’s just that I don’t know what to say.”
“No. There’ll be none of this ‘ma’am’ business. You can call me ‘Aunt Lisa’. And Doctor Wilson here has already informed me you prefer to be addressed as ‘J’.”
Then softly, she spoke, “You know. This is all new and sudden for me too, but I’m truly excited to have you come home with me.”
He looked at her and saw she was smiling. Yes, she had “laughing eyes”, and he could tell that she meant what she said.
“Can I bring my guitar?”
She gave him a pondering frown, “Are you any good?”
Then she laughed, “I’m teasing you J., I would love it if you brought your guitar. The doctor here tells me you’re very talented.”
“Oh, he’s definitely got something special.” Said Ted
“Well, when you are in better spirits, I would really enjoy listening to you. I’m a real music lover. It must run in the family.”
With that, Ted excused himself, wished them goodnight, and assured J. he would return tomorrow. Then, with a nod to J.B., he left. Aunt Lisa soon excused herself politely, “I’m going to lie down now, but while you are thinking about it, I want you to keep in mind that I am committed to doing what I can to take care of you and keeping you safe and happy. I think, right now, we kind of need each other. I’m hoping you come to agree. Goodnight.”
J. sat, wondering how he would sleep. He was used to the lullaby of Pappy’s snoring to drift him into slumber. After a while, he got up, drank a glass of milk, and then went to bed as well. In his room, as he lay in his bed, it seemed like the darkness and silence of the night amplified every insignificant noise. He listened to the river. Though it was flowing by a hundred yards away outside, in the cold stillness of the country it seemed to trickle along right outside his bedroom window. He could hear a cricket chirping. His thoughts went to Pappy teaching him how to calculate the air temperature by the sound of a cricket, but he couldn’t concentrate on counting the chirps. The wind gusted and blew the few lingering raindrops that were caught in the leaves of the big maple tree onto the tin roof of the cabin. For a moment, J. thought it was starting to rain again. He yawned.
He was suddenly aware of a familiar sound as his eyes closed, and his mind was lulled into unconscious slumber by the snoring in the next bedroom.