There’s a story that used to get told, Lara, of how my maternal grandfather lost his leg in a woodcutting accident and the unlucky events that followed. It most often starts in Danville, Arkansas, where Mama’s people—the Stepwells—were from, that brutal summer of 1952 when she was about to turn twelve, your age now. I say most often because, depending on the teller and the occasion of the tale, certain variations make all the difference. The state was deep into drought that year, and by August Yell County women were once again hanging snakes from tree limbs to tease rain from passing clouds. Copperheads, moccasins, kings—not even the buzzards dare touch them. This last detail will no doubt strike you odd, but you must understand that Arkansas was, and remains to a degree, a frontier state, and the Ouachita hill country has, to this day, not been penetrated by any major highway or railroad. Practitioners of backwoods witchcraft were common as Methodists, and sometimes one in the same.
Stepwells were landed gentry. By this, I mean that they’d lost their money, but not that old southern suspicion of the heart that they were better than other people. They’d come down from Henry County, Tennessee, assimilated, were doctors and shopkeepers, a Sheriff or two, and a Congressman famous for riding a jackass into the Arkansas State Assembly. Mama’s people owned land on the Trail of Tears near Solgahatchia, and it’s there, daughter, that everyone who ever told this story, save me, lay buried. Though you might not remember, you stood in the intolerable heat of the Adams Family Cemetery for Mama’s funeral, and later we picked blackberries from the eastern gate. Aunt Peg Stepwell has traced our line all the way back through John and John Quincy Adams. I guess it’s possible. There’s Jameses in there, and a whole string of Poteets—you’ve heard of our southern Missouri relations. What I need you to know is that Mama’s people had flair, an unbridled tendency toward the dramatic, traits I’m certain that you recognize well.
Not yet thirty-five, Weldon Stepwell was a much-loved native son, known for his good looks and temper and for starting as catcher on the Danville Littlejohns, one of the Dixie League teams that had popped up all over the South after the war with Hitler, when anything at all seemed possible. Him and his young bride, Floradee, owned Eternally Yours, Danville’s floral boutique. Not against his wishes, Weldon’s name had been thrown into the hat for a run at the County Seat, then held by a man with Little Rock money, the very man, Lara, he’d once knocked through a plate-glass window for flirting with Dee. Fundraising had begun—it was a horse race, as they’d say. Surely great days lay ahead for Weldon Stepwell. With a little luck such a man could go far. The blood of presidents flowed through his veins. Who could name Weldon Stepwell’s limits? Such was the thinking that Sunday afternoon in August, when the sky swelled with clouds of a color not seen for ages, the first fat raindrops thwacked the sidewalks and the iron bell atop First Methodist clanged.
Floradee, from whose mouth I first heard this story, was at that instant lacing baby’s breath into a bridal bouquet, the scent of the yellow roses mixing with the odd heaviness of that afternoon’s air. My mother was pouting out on the front steps, listening for thunder and wishing herself a million miles from Yell County when the bell rang and a flashing ambulance slammed up to the front door.
“Get in, Josephine,” Doc Jenkins, a cousin on one side, screamed. “Dee,” he hollered over the siren. He reached a big, palsied hand out the door and pulled her in, and the ambulance took off with such a jolt that all three fell on the metal gurney that had a chill to it, Dee claimed, the sort of cold that stays.
The road up Chickalah Mountain was like running your tongue over missing teeth, the truck slip-sliding through fresh mud.
There’d been an accident. With the bucksaw, Doc said.
Weldon was up there. And another man. The call’d come from the hunt club. Weldon had cut a leg off. He was hemorrhaging.
The girl shouldn’t see this.
When the doors opened, a calm came over Floradee, the way it does when she prays out loud in public, that look in her eye. He was white, the second leg cut half-through as well. She ripped a strip of hem off her dress, twisted a tourniquet beneath the knee, what was once a knee. Fine blood misted their faces with each loosening.
Dee tightened when Doc said. My mother said, goddamnit to hell. Where was it, the cut-off leg? She asked Dee to let her do the tourniquet. The sun was out, rain still falling all lit up like silver bullets. The devil beating his wife, Mama called the phenomenon.
A hundred or more stood waiting on the hospital lawn when the ambulance wailed up. Everyone agrees that the hospital lawn was entirely covered that August evening with men and women and families who’d driven over from Danville. The Littlejohns were there, as was Coach Clyde Love, who’d lost a son to sniper fire in France, and his wife, Ruthie, a nurse, the first to see the scene inside the ambulance.
“Dear God,” she’d screamed when Weldon’s gurney was hauled out. The hospital’s double doors opened and, right there in front of them, Ruthie Love stripped naked, wrapped herself in a sheet, and disappeared into the operating room.
Danville folk stood on the rain-sweet grass. Flowers had bloomed. The war was over, this should be a happy time. They’d got him to the hospital before he bled to death. There was hope. Anything could happen, anything at all.
I can picture my mother and grandmother—the women who would raise me, Lara—moving from blanket to blanket, accepting the sympathies of their kith and kin. I’ve lived long enough to know something of sudden change, that sucker punch life throws now and again.
Later, a voice hollered from the stone balcony, “He’ll live!”
Somebody yelled “Praise Jesus, and another, “Hell yeah.” Then applause echoed off St. Mary’s walls before the lawn emptied and the jubilation passed.
Months later, when Weldon Stepwell suffered phantom charley horses in the missing limb, it came to my mother to massage the stump, the only way to ease the nights of him stumbling off crutches in the kitchen, breaking chairs, glass panes with bare fists, anger mixed with humiliation and rage, a season of blood and fury. The doctors prescribed morphine. Gangrene came with the new year. The bed sheets were unspeakable. It was decided to use the money in the campaign chest to fly Weldon to Boston for a six-week rehabilitation, and a specialist in prosthetics who’d fit an artificial leg to the state of the art, and teach my grandfather—an athlete not yet forty—to walk. They drove him to Little Rock for the flight out on January 5, 1953, Floradee’s thirty-third birthday. The sojourn to Boston was not of Weldon Stepwell’s free will. At the airport, when the attendant wheeled him to the stairs and the two men hoisted him up, he would not look back. Nor did he make any sign before the door was sealed shut, or wave from a cabin window. He did not make the signal that meant I love you, though Mama had looked for that, especially. I imagine her then, Lara, having it happen that way—a twelve year old massaging the charley horse from a phantom limb. How the smell of her wounded father stayed in the van all the long drive home, and, though she was an optimist, remained in her heart ever after.
The trip to Boston and weeks of rehabilitation that winter are mostly lost to history. In all our time together, my grandfather never once spoke of it, not one word, but he was a smart man, Lara, his mind was exceedingly sharp. He must have remembered how he left his young family fifteen hundred miles south. This story of woundedness in exile so closely mirrors a passage from my own life, that I’m certain I know it well. Only instead of Boston, it was Florida, where a book tour of the Southeast was set to begin the fall after Mama died, when it was still unresolved exactly what had killed her (as it remains, to this day) and I was hurt to the core, as lost as I’ve ever been in my life. Had I not already appropriated the five-thousand dollars the press had awarded me against travel expenses, I would not have left you, or your mother, even, for anything in the world. You were four-and-a-half then, and will have to trust that the prospect of a month on the road shaking the hands of strangers, even for what should have been a celebratory time with the publication of a first book, made me sick to the stomach. But before I knew it, I was at check-in and security and then on the plane and landing in Ft. Lauderdale, where I lugged bags full of books and fishing gear (I’d arranged to hook up with an old friend on the Outer Banks after my North Carolina readings) to the rental car and then off to the hotel where the bellman wore a hearing aide that whistled all the way to my room.
This was late September on the Atlantic Coast, hurricane season, and Kyle had just become a named storm off the coast of Bermuda. But it was all sunshine and heat in Ft. Lauderdale, a shock coming from Utah, where new snow shone on the peaks and the aspen had turned fall gold. The South Florida Book Festival was set up in a convention center adjacent to my hotel. I could see the beach out the window, which always brings your mother to mind, because that’s where we fell in love, really, on Assateague Island off the Maryland Coast, where these horses run wild on the beach, and I once gathered a bushel basket of horseshit and wrote I LOVE YOU SUSANNAH in ten foot tall letters on a shining sand dune while she was off shopping for wine and fish. That afternoon way back when, she’d laughed until she cried, then looked at me and said, “That’s a crock, Joey.”
I had a couple hours to kill before the signing and, rather than hit the hotel bar, walked a few blocks over to the beach where decent waves, four-footers, were breaking, harbingers, I’ve since learned, of a storm at sea. This girl in a white bikini, she couldn’t have been eighteen, was body surfing the clean waves, diving through the lips of breakers and catching the curls, riding swells right up to the sand. I wondered what you and your mother were doing that second, had you thought or spoken of me? Did I occupy any place in your thoughts? Before I knew, I’d waded out past the first breaker, the green-cold Atlantic to my chest. I could taste the salt and the sun felt good on my face. I body surfed a few waves, enough to wash away the airplane grime and scrape my belly on the sand. The surf lifted my spirits. Then a roller knocked me under and I mistook up for down. Three hard strokes and I was still under. That’s when the panic hit, and here’s what I pictured, Lara, you looking down at me on a silver gurney, a tag tied on my big toe. I crawled out on hands and knees and lay there fighting for breath.
“You okay, dude?” the girl asked.
I said, “Yeah, fine,” and she smiled and walked away.
Later that night, after signing three-hundred copies in rapid succession for dealers who didn’t know me from Adam, I spotted a friend (well, an acquaintance, Lara. You’ll remember him from Park City, where he promised, upon his death, to bequeath you his sixteen dogs). He’d got big in the book writing business, and stood there accepting gift cigars and bottles of whiskey, posing for photographs with buyers in front of a giant cardboard version of his own book jacket—a barefoot man hopping around burned hotdogs knocked off a portable grill. THESE PEOPLE ARE US, the big letters said.
The same guy stepped onto an elevator with me after dinner, so plowed he could barely push buttons. A fat Cuban cigar stuck out of his front shirt pocket, and another was penciled behind his right ear. He got this real serious look when he became aware of me there in this mirrored elevator, so all four walls showed us regarding each other. “I know you,” he said. Then the door opened on whatever floor he’d pushed, which was certainly, I thought, an error. He stepped out and spun around, so his shoe heel squeaked on a stone tile. “You should go home. Right this second,” he said, just as the doors slid shut. “Just go on home.”
Later, at the airport, a security guard took a big, silver drum hook out of my tackle box and tapped it on the table. “What do you intend to do with this?” he asked.
I said, “Fish.”
I’ve never felt further from you and your mother than when driving across Tennessee, up the Appalachian parkway through Asheville, then down into Carolina and the town where your mother and I were married, where I delivered a reading at my old alma mater, then skipped out on the after party for the hotel room where I sat staring out the window at the most amazing rain. Had I turned on the television, I would have known that Hurricane Kyle was Class 3 now, sustained winds of 126 miles-per-hour. He was destined to head inland somewhere near the Pamlico sound, where your mother and I discovered one golden October that we were pregnant with you, that we’d need to change in quick time. Our lives together had been lived up through that time preoccupied with ourselves—you’ll learn this, Lara, how easy it is to be self-centered in a world vacant of offspring. And you were not our first chance at parenthood, we’d been down that road before. We’d made choices and had a time of it, let me confess. I’d been guilty of more than my fair share of the troubles between your mother and me, and that needs no repeating here. But we found ourselves camped on Cape Lookout’s dunes in October. Your mother had brought the sort of test that you pee on, and it turns a certain color, blue I think, for positive. The blue strip fluttered in my fist as we danced into the Atlantic that morning.
Inside six months, we’d moved west, where I was able to secure the professorship that I have to this day. Your mother and I healed old wounds, or I thought we did, and your arrival brought unspeakable joy to our lives. We became better people than we’d been, I know we did. And though it seems crazy, I packed my suitcase, walked down and got into the rental car, and headed east into the night toward Harker’s Island and Cape Lookout, only half because I’d arranged to meet a friend. This was the early morning of October 11, 2002, Kyle’s twenty-second day as a named hurricane, and the very day the storm was to make landfall.
At this point in the story, with me driving east on highway 70 through Goldsboro to Kinston, I turn my gaze back to Weldon Stepwell, your great, great grandfather, Lara, and the bit of story I’ve been able to piece together from the winter of 1953. Boston, Massachusetts must have been the oddest place on earth for my grandfather to wake up sober. The rehab facility, I’ve learned, overlooked Boston Bay, so he could hear the foghorns and whistles of vessels departing and returning from sea. The specialist had fitted a prosthesis (still wooden, then, painted in a tint that perfectly matched his flesh, with a size eleven foot—my size) to just above the right knee. A substantial hunk of his left leg was missing as well, and I imagine him sitting in a room that overlooked the bay, alone for the first time in his life. Even as a paratrooper in the war, when he’d leaped out over France suspecting his young wife of having an affair back in the states, there’d been friends. Phone access was not then what your generation knows, Lara. Simply picking up and dialing home was not an option. What I’m saying is that there came a time when my grandfather was sober, handicapped for life, with not one soul on his side. An ocean heaved on one side, fifteen hundred miles on the other. I do not underestimate the severity of that moment.
A great sum of money had exchanged hands in order for my grandfather to go to Boston. As I’ve mentioned, his name had been in the hat for a run at the County Seat. Some thousands of dollars had already been collected for the race which was to pit him against a man who’d held Yell County for twenty-some years, the very man my grandfather had once knocked through a plate glass window in a jealous fit. After the accident, when it became increasingly clear that Weldon Stepwell’s recovery required outside assistance, the campaign funds were mysteriously released, and deposited into my grandfather’s bank account. Add to this, Lara, the man who was instrumental in making the funds liquid was none other than his rival. Though there had been serious strife between Floradee and Weldon Stepwell, there was a daughter to consider, and Eternally Yours, the floral store she’d somehow managed to keep afloat. Dee intimated in more than one telling that she was somehow instrumental in winning the funds’ release (though I never knew how until only recently, when something between your mother and me clarified the subject). One Christmas Eve in Little Rock, just as grandma Flora was serving peanut butter fudge, some reference was jokingly made to the peanut butter jar on the counter, only my grandmother didn’t laugh. She cried. In fact, she sobbed so hard that I thought she was having a heart attack. It was warm outside, her tenth floor windows open, and I heard a tornado siren wailing way off by the river. Then my mother stormed out into the lobby and waited for me and my step-father at the elevator. That’s how Christmas Eve ended that year, we never even opened gifts.
Weldon Stepwell returned from Boston clear as a bell. That’s how it was put, clear as a bell. The specialist had fitted his prosthetic, and he’d learned to walk again on the cat walk that wrapped around the facility overlooking the bay. The family had some happy times back in Danville before it all fell apart. I never heard the old man speak a single word, Lara, of what happened on Chickalah Mountain, or the events that followed, nor did he ever make reference to having split my grandmother’s head open with a peanut butter jar—a full-through laceration, I’ve learned—in a rage after learning the truth behind the Boston money. He never hinted that Dee’s brother, Arthur, who’d been an officer in the war, had pulled a pistol on him just outside the front door of the Danville house, and that was how they’d separated, at gunpoint, under threat of death (and a court-signed injunction) should he ever set foot near her again. Nor did they ever make peace in this lifetime, though once, me and Floradee walked into El Chico Mexican Restaurant, and there he sat at a booth with his big-butted second wife, Jewell. A look passed between them, and my grandfather stood up so the table bucked their beer bottles and chips and salsa across the floor. On his way out he punched a hanging potful of begonias, and that’s when I realized that they still loved each other.
I know that this must be confusing, Lara, how these stories conjoin, but they do, nonetheless. I turned the old man into a father of sorts (a role he never shirked), spent summers with him down in Mt. Ida, on Lake Ouachita where he was a semi-famous fishing guide out of Shangri-La Resort. Many a predawn morning was spent in his flat bottom, casting Devil’s Toothpicks at schooling largemouth. We’d drive to the collapsed lake bridge, where we’d hop over the pilings into the sun-shafted water and dive until our fingers touched the dark cold at the bottom. There was something about Weldon Stepwell, and I loved him with a full heart.
He called me to the Veteran’s Hospital on the day before the back surgery that would take his life. There was this story he liked about how he’d won a bet with me once while walking a dirt road in the Fordyce deer woods. Early November in Arkansas, the afternoon light was soft and we walked side-by-side. It was day before Opening Day, he’d checked me out of school himself, and there I was in the woods.
“Joey,” he said. “Bet you two bits a deer walks out right there.” He stopped, pointed. Strangely, it just dawned on me for the very first time that he didn’t limp. How odd, I thought. A stranger would never guess that Weldon Stepwell was an amputee.
“Fine,” I said. I was thirteen that fall, about to make my first kill, an occasion when one’s face is dipped into the blood of the fallen animal. “What’s two bits?”
That second, before he could answer, a doe stepped out shyly, her mule ears lifted and alert. We stood still. When the buck stepped out, my grandfather blew a shrill breath between his front teeth. The buck spun, nostrils flared and sun on its tines. When it snorted back at us the old man laughed a belly laugh. Light shone in his eyes.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, except to say that this is as close as you can ever get to the man and, in turn, my people. You are an only child, Lara, and one day family will matter a great deal. His part of all this, Weldon Stepwell’s, is all played now. If nothing else, this story reconciles him with my grandmother, or I hope it does. On the day–the very hour–they lowered Floradee into the earth, I lit a fire, wrapped a thing they’d both touched in scarlet cloth, and beat out a slow heartbeat on my own chest. This telling ends what started on Chickalah Mountain, the day rain came to Yell County, Arkansas.
But what I’d like to get to—what this finally all adds up to—is what happened to me, and in turn us, when I drove east into Hurricane Kyle, just as the storm caught its breath and howled into the Pamlico Sound. I drove through Raleigh, hit 70 east, windshield wipers on high. This was the road that your mother and I traveled so often during our Greensboro years, when I was finishing the master’s degree and then as a new prof at the Quaker college across town. This was the road we cruised that Saturday with our home pregnancy test, headed for Calico Jack’s Marina, where a ferry took us across the sound to island dunes, where a diamond painted lighthouse flashed our shadows huge on the water. A day or two surf-fishing was the story, but going back was, at least to my mind, a way to reconnect to that hopeful time when the future (you, Lara) shone out in front of us.
The first sign that I was in trouble came in New Bern, the salt line, where the scent of ocean washed through the car and the rain let up long enough for me to roll down windows and get my first look at the sky. Roadside ditches were rivers now, and the sky was a color I’d only seen in tornado weather, a bruise going yellow. I drove through Havelock into Morehead City, where the wind came on and the rain, and the road through Old Beaufort toward Harker’s Island was slick as owl shit and emptied entirely of traffic. The people on that slice of earth, removed even now from the mainland, are an odd sort, Lara—that much is clear, even in a hurricane. For one thing, they bury kin in their own front yards, and make shell paths to the carved stones. Generations lay buried head to foot in these yards, and this was Halloween time, so many of the tombstones were decorated–witches, goblins, the odd sea monster. A whole string of front doors had mirrors duct-taped to them and GO HOME KYLE was magic markered on a sky-blue door beneath a silver crown.
At Calico Jack’s, I walked out on the spongy marina peer, white boats rising and falling with the swells. A chill wind slapped me straight in the face. Over on the Core Bank, the lighthouse flashed through blown up sand. Some people say that spirits inhabit the wind, and, if such is the case, the spirit world was full assault. It occurred to me that there was a fair chance I’d die that day, and what a dumb-ass I was to put myself in such a predicament. There was no turning around, not until this thing passed. I booked one of the rooms above the marina where a woman who’d been drinking a whole lot gave me the lowdown. The old friend I was to meet had left a message: forget this, man, his note said. I’d be here for a while. Roads were closed. Best keep my head down, stay away from the windows. The power’d been knocked out, so electrical shock was not an issue. Phones were dead. Water was shut off. She handed me a pack of barbecue potato chips and a can of beer. “On the house,” she said. “Pay up whenever. Ten-percent off this week.”
So I lugged my bags up into the dark, stinking room, one whole window covered with a sheet of stained plywood. Outside, dark was coming quick, and the full brunt of the storm bore down. The sound of it went through the whole of my body. I lay across the sour bed, shut my eyes and listened. The air was hard to breathe. This was where I’d die, I thought, this bed, my deathbed. The stained plywood, my last vision. I would never tell you that I love you again, nor hear it said back. Here was what I’d always known and feared. Dear God, I remember thinking, if you’ll just let me get out of this. Outside that second, glass broke, a sound I knew from Christmas just before you were born, Lara, when your mother and I had argued and I accidentally broke the pane out of our front door.
I got up, threw my suitcase in the trunk, started the car and drove away. Into the mouth of that night, I drove west, toward Raleigh and the plane ride home. The road was flooded. Many times I steered the rented Pontiac through black pools, the headlights shooting off into empty space, cold water swilling in the floorboards. Rain blew through the shut windows. The sustained wind was hurricane force, howling. Once, I fish-tailed in a curve, and the car spun just in front of a concrete viaduct. I saw it coming, the glassy bits of gravel shining in the embankment pier, the cold, fast swirl of water below, the stranger’s voice your mother would hear over the telephone next morning. But the car straightened, I don’t know how. I’ve never been as thrilled and alert, and full of heart-thudding hope as I was then. I was going to by-god make it. This turning home is powerful medicine, Lara, and I believe that’s how my grandfather must have felt on the day of his release, when he walked out into the daylight where the shining taxi blew its horn.
By the time I left Carteret County, the wind lay down and the rain eased off—Hurricane Kyle was at that moment merging with the cold front that would kill it. I found a hotel on the highway, forty miles out of Raleigh. All the place had for phone service was a booth out by the highway, a box with a Southern Bell unit in it, barely light enough to dial. And just then, while I punched the numbers and prepared to tell your mother where I was and what was happening, how I’d decided to scrap the last week of tour and fly home, the storm kicked up one last notch. A gust with rain in its teeth hit me straight on, but that was okay, Lara, what was wind and rain compared with a wife’s voice, a daughter’s? So soaked and happy to the bone, I could not have cared less.
Your mother picked up straight away. “Hello?” she said, and there was enough of a question in that last note to make my stomach sink.
I said, “It’s me. I’ve been stuck in a storm. I’m coming home tomorrow.”
It was at this point that I heard your voice, Lara, as it sounded at four years old, as sweet and lovely a sound as has ever been.
“Let me speak to Lara,” I said.
There was a moment’s silence—just enough. “She’s getting ready for bed, now. You should have called earlier.”
“I’m in a hurricane.”
“That’s your fault,” she said. “I won’t feel sorry for you.”
The remainder of our conversation circled around the point that your mother was not exactly prepared for me to return the next day, that you and she had plans that remained incomplete, that this time away had been good for you, and it wasn’t fair for me to just barge back in. “We need time,” she told me, and said goodbye. And that was it, I’m sure of it, how Weldon Stepwell felt when he turned the corner on his newly fitted prosthesis and the wind hit him in the face, so he missed a step and saw himself for who he’d always be. At that moment, about to fly home, a number of choices lay themselves at his feet. He chose to become the sort of man who refused to limp. Such a choice had its consequences. When my own plane touched down in Utah, fresh from the longest sustained hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, I retrieved my bags and walked out the terminal gate, as afraid as I’ve ever been. Then I saw you coming. You ran toward me, Lara, arms outstretched, crowned in a shining tiara, on your lips, already, the words that would conjure me home. In time, your mother appeared, the soft light on her face. The three of us embraced under the night sky, and it was okay. We made it. We’ve had a life. Hell at times, but a life.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all this now, and I don’t know what it all means, if anything at all. Except to say that with all the shit that’s predicted to befall you millennials, a whole lot of which has been perpetrated by my own generation’s hand, you might one day find yourself in a predicament where all depends on a single decision. If that cold wind happens to slap your face, maybe this story will somehow make sense and be of use to you then. If, for nothing else, its hope. I’m the last one alive who knows it, and I don’t pretend to understand. But lately I’ve been wondering, I’m telling you.