Author’s Note: When a writer has a story to flow, no, spill out of him or her where they cannot stop writing, it may be one that makes them proud. This is such a story, a southern story as most of mine are, and one that I believe fits into the holiday season. One of desperation, fear, sadness, and finally hope. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone. E.
The Unbroken Circle…
Mark Mooney lifted himself from a stained lumpy mattress; rubbed his head with one hand while reaching for the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels. As the last of the amber liquid slid down his troth, he knew that there was not enough left in the bottle to dull his troubled mind. It was Christmas Eve; all he could think of was his wife and daughter, they would be alone this Christmas. He messed up; he should be home with his family instead of living in a cold dingy room above McGentry’s General Store.
The alarm clock leap to life once again jerking him back to reality, jumping out of bed he stood over the open floor vent to catch what little heat that rose from the store below. Rumbling through a cardboard box he shook out the cleanest looking uniform, washed his face, dressed and walked out the door.
Crawling into his old pickup Mark looked down at the doll he had bought at a Dollar store wrapped in used Christmas paper that he had pulled out of the office party trash. His plans were to drop it off for his daughter after work, before he went to Townsend’s bowling alley. The bowling alley was where a few other single parents he knew, mostly men gathered, they would all be there on Christmas Eve to get drunk and forget their mistakes in life.
Pulling into the Post Office parking lot, he popped a stick of gum in his mouth; he needed to avoid getting close to anyone; he knew that he reeked of whiskey. Mark had taken a co-worker’s shift to earn extra money, that is what he told himself and he tried to remember how late the liquor store stayed open. He could not remember the last time he was totally sober, and he worried about keeping it from his employer.
Mark reached in his jacket pocket pulling out a card to his mother, he had been going to mail it for two weeks, and he threw it into the out of state bin. He loaded his mail truck and pulled out onto Townsend’s icy main street.
He begins his day by cursing the snow and sleet that suddenly begin to stick to the winding road leading up the Old Tuckaleechee Road one of Tennessee’s most dangerous. Half way up the mountain Mark was having trouble seeing, it was a whiteout and he could feel his tire chains slipping on the ice. Suddenly through the white wall came a flash of red, it was an old pickup truck sliding toward him.
“What the hell”?
He jerked the steering wheel sliding to the side of the road; he stopped just as the old red truck toppled over a guardrail and disappeared out of site. Mark radioed Mountain Rescue before trying to run toward the bent and torn guardrail, the truck was now wedged on a ledge of jagged broken trees; below was nothing but open space ending at the valley floor several hundred feet below. Without thinking, he found himself sliding down toward the icy edge of a cliff. Mark was thankful for the brush and vines that slowed him down as he plummeted toward the rim of the mountainside. He grabbed at a straggly cedar tree growing out of a rock next to the truck; his breath bellowed a foggy mist and his heart pounded in his ears.
Through the shattered driver’s side window, Mark could see a small white-headed woman twisted beneath the steering wheel with a trail of blood running from her forehead. His next thought was selfish, even cruel…he wish that he had called in sick, dropped off the doll, bought a bottle of Jack and gone back to his grubby room. Mark looked at his bloody hands caused by grabbing at rocks and small trees on his way down, one wrong move and the truck would plummet to the valley taking them both with it.
“This is diffidently going to make me late for the party.”
Mark looked at the drop off beneath the old truck before crawling through the broken window. The truck wobbled, he stop, steadied himself and his nerves then crawled slowly to the passenger’s side, the truck wobbled again, and he held his breath while looking under the steering wheel. He was looking down at the small fragile body of a very old woman, praying as the truck shook, he pulled her gently up to the seat beside him; he thought she was dead. He realized he could not get both of them out to safety; he sat holding her close to him as he listens for sirens.
Suddenly she moved; open small round ice blue eyes, and then the dark leathery face lined with wrinkles as it spread into a toothless smile.
“Jimmy!” O.K. thought Mark she’s delirious.
A veined hand patted his face; Mark could not believe what he was seeing, she had to be ninety and who was Jimmy? He was speechless as she begins to talk in a deep mountain accent, he knew she was hurt badly but for some reason she did not know it.
“It took me a long time to get this old truck started”.
“Mam, you need to lie still and don’t talk”.
“I was going to the store; it just slid off the road”.
“Now don’t be mad at me son, I know you thinking you ma shouldn’t be out driving, but I needed stuff to make you boys you favorite spice cake.”
An aggravated sound rolled out of Mark, the old woman thought he was her son; he did not have time for this, he had mail to deliver, to see his daughter and get to a party where he could drown himself in a bottle! Where was Rescue?
“Oh, what the hell.”
Upset at his own life and the current situation Mark slammed his fist down on the old ragged dashboard; he did not care if both of them went over cliff, the truck trembled and then, he stopped to think, this could be his mother.
“Please lay still help is coming.”
He knew she was hurt badly and he hoped she would not die in his arms; he just looked at her in amazement when she opened her eyes and started talking again as if nothing was wrong with her. Mark now confused with his own feelings tried to tune her out; both compassionate and angry he did not want to hear a story from some old woman that was causing him to miss a party, or seeing his daughter.
He tried drifting away into his own self-centered world, but the story she was telling pulled him slowly back into her world. This tiny crushed woman was so old she had to have lived through hard times, the Depression and Wars this country had fought, she would not give up talking to him.
She told about her marriage to a poor man the town called a “Cherokee half-breed”, she said that her ma disapproved of him, but they were in love and had three children, war took two of her children and her baby, a Nave pilot was now coming home for Christmas. Mark’s feeling of frustration abruptly turned into one of humbleness, her hardships had begun to make him see that he should be grateful that he had a family even though he was not with them.
Mark sadly thought, “I threw away my family to drink and party.” He listened to the strange but believable stories. He thought her ability to keep talking in such a traumatic state was unbelievable too!
“I do rightly R‘member another day this cold Jimmy. You were born that day. I kin tell you don’t want to hear it agin but I spec we ain’t going’ no where right now.”
Mark just looked at her.
“Mam, please, you need to lay still, don’t talk!”
“You pa left for work with nothin’ but weak watery coffee in his stomach. I wished that I could make him some biscuits and sweet milk gravy but there was no food in the house. I fussed over his being hungry as I helped tie bailing wire round his old boots to keep the soles on while he worked. You R’member Jimmy, you pa was a logger and the boys went with him.”
She coughed and Mark dabbed at the blood gathering in the corner of her cracked lips. His only thought, please God do not let her die, her son is coming home.
“My pa didn’t hold no grudges. But, one time he promised if you daddy helps kill hogs we could have some meat. We never got no meat. I decided after your pa and the boys left to find work that day I would go ask for that meat. I was eight months with you, but I walked them five miles down the mountain to my daddy’s farm.”
Mark continued to wipe blood, hold her tight, and pray that Rescue would be there soon, and listened.
“We lived in a three room farm shanty off Tuckaleechee Road, down a bit from that old Baptist Church that burnt down when you was just a boy, it were free cause we worked on the farm, sharecropped; the older boys were big enough to help, we wanted to buy it, took us twenty years to get that place.
Her hand went to Mark’s cheek patting it with gnarled fingers.
“My ma, she came from the wealthy Whitfield family over in Rock County, got pregnant I spec, and pa, a handsome thing, he was from a poor family. But, I hear that it was a shotgun wedding. That day Pa opened the door sayin’, come in out of the cold Sister Girl; he always called me Sister Girl. When I told him I come for the meat he promised, ma ran over and shut the door right’ my face. Well, I guess she never forgave me for leaving’ her with a passel of young un’s, I had eight sisters and brothers.”
Mark felt like an intruder eavesdropping into her past, even worse she thought he was her son. The life she had lived was beyond anything he could imagine.
“I left and I walked up the mountain road to old Preacher Stone’s. He were not any preacher, we just called him that cause he talked so much. Mattie, his wife was boilin’ pork, onions, and taters together. I was so hungry I thought my knees would buckle under me. Mattie asked if I had been to my ma’s and had I seen she was carryin’ another baby. She said that my ma did not need any more babies. I recon’ maybe God thought the same way cause that little baby boy died shortly after he were born. Matter fetched me out a big tater from the pot and told me to eat, she told me to help her peel apples and she would give me a pie to take home.”
The old woman started coughing, bringing blood that Mark could not stop, and he could not get her to stop talking either!
“We baked pies and cornbread and I had been painin’ for hours. I didn’t tell Mattie, just said I had to go home. She packed up a pie, some pork, and other stuff for me. I thought I’d never get up that mountain. I unpacked what she gave me puttin’ it in a pot over the fire and the rest on the hearth; I smiled, my family would eat good that night, it was Christmas Eve.”
Suddenly she went limp; Mark held his breath until she began to talk again, he had stopped trying to silence her, she had to tell her story to her Jimmy.
“I knew you were going to be born, ready or not; I put a kettle of water on to boil. I knew what to do. I’d helped my ma birth many a young un’.”
Mark just looked down, this frail little woman thinking of the courage she had then, and still possessed.
“I was alone and it was gettin’ dark when you pa and the boys come home. He had this tiny cedar tree and four ears of dried corn, guess he planned on poppin it over the fire and we’d spend Christmas Eve eatin’ it and stringin’ it to put on that puny tree. Then he said to me, what’s that good smell Girl, a miracle? He were laughing when I said, old Cherokee come see you miracle. When he looked you pa’s face just broke up. We both sat cryin’ and thanked God for our Christmas boy. The boys came in quietly looking at you, and then left us alone. The fire got low, but we didn’t care and we weren’t even hungry. We were warm and full of love, the kind of love only a child can bring; it was you Jimmy.” She looked up patting Mark’s cheek with trembling hands.
Mark was choking back his own tears when she told him to look in her front shirt pocket and get her billfold. She pulled a picture out of it.
“R‘member, you first soldier picture.” Showing Mark the picture as he looked out the back window of the pickup, he could see the red lights of an ambulance and those of Mountain Rescue
“Thank God.” Mark breathed a sigh of relief.
He started to put the picture back in the billfold when he saw a yellowed newspaper clipping stuck to it. It was an obituary.
[Military services will be held for Captain James Earl Dunlap of Townsend, Tennessee in Moss Cemetery on January 24, 1964. Born December 24, 1933, Captain Dunlap a Navy pilot was killed in Vietnam on December 24, 1963; he was the son of Emma Jean Dunlap and was preceded in death by his father James Earl “Cherokee” Dunlap in December 1960, twin brothers Matthew and Mark Dunlap both Navy pilots killed in Vietnam in December 1962.]
Mark held her close to him, no longer able to stop his tears. She opened her eyes they were now veiled with the shadow of approaching death. He somehow knew that James Earl and the boys were waiting on their mother to come home. Mark brushed the tears from his face looked down to find her smiling.
“Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday Jimmy Earl I’m ready to go home now.”
Her face relaxed, the wrinkles seem to fade from her dark leathery face, the only thing showing was a smile. As her breath became shallow, Mark leaned over and kissed her cheek.
“Bye mama, I love you.”
When Mark returned to Townsend, he knocked on the door of the house that was so very familiar to him; he had painted it yellow his wife’s favorite color and the white picket fence a few years back. In trembling hands, he held a doll wrapped in used Christmas paper and hope in his heart that all was not lost. Suddenly his heart melted and he knew that the New Year would bring him joy; a lesson well learned when he heard his little girl scream.
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