The Death of James A. Garfield

by Rob Hunter
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 4.33 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...

You probably picked up this tale expecting one of those conspiracy theory tell-alls. I mean from the title and all. Nope. This is a more like a story about how I met the Tooth Fairy than it is about the late President’s ghost. In the middle of the Twentieth Century mysterious things were still reported in the Southern Highlands. Well, there was this one item about an exploding deer that got buried in the back pages. However, in real life, hauntings, hexings and supernatural doings were as strange to the post-bellum South as pit barbecue, Winn-Dixie, Dr. Pepper and Royal Crown Cola were familiar. Oh yes, the exploding deer. The only witnesses to the deer’s end were tomatoes: Cherokee Purples, large and irregularly formed. See, the deer didn’t have a name but the tomatoes did. The exploding deer thing happened when I was in the seventh grade, and way before I met my bride-to-be. I was nowhere near the scene.

My name is Harley Pigeon. I grew up in Mycenae, Wisconsin, just west of Elm Grove. And James A. Garfield, the Pride of the West, twentieth President of the United States, was shot and killed alright–the sort of abrupt ending that gives rise to ghosthood. There was an assassin, a guy passed over for a civil service appointment, but infection–blood poisoning–is what got James A. Garfield, the late president. Doctors didn’t much bother to wash their hands in those days.

It is important that you know I am not delusional about the death of James A. Garfield: He was shot by a disgruntled office seeker and his middle name was Abram, the A in James A. President Garfield figures in only minimally, delivering an occasional opinion from the Presidential hereafter. That’s the ghost.

At the time the story starts, the late 1950s, the dust was still settling after those events which we who lived through them called World War Two–and harmless weirdness was a popular preoccupation. So Ed Seitz and I were not unprepared. Ed Seitz? He’s my partner.

“Yeah, yeah, the tomatoes.” That’s Ed. “The Cherokee Purples–strange fruit, that’s what. Harley, pull over; I gotta pee real bad.”

Together Ed and I are Factory Findings. My specialty is brass grommets; Ed knows the industrial string and twine business inside out. The leaf springs of Ed’s Buick sedan sag with sample cases and catalogs. He is a salesman to be respected. We pulled over to empty Ed’s bladder; Ed pees a lot when we are on the road.

Short and overalled, a small figure stepped out of the roadside scrub and declaimed. “You are Lost. Lost Forever.” Ed hastily zipped back up. We weren’t looking for anything out of the ordinary. But not not expecting it, either. We were in one of those back-of-nowhere boondocks that abound in Appalachia.

The little girl was freckled and red-headed. Her pale skin made her look spooky. A large, black dog came gamboling up, wagging all over. It was a standard poodle, not your average Appalachian farm dog. The dog rolled joyously at the girl’s feet. “Barney’s not lost.” She grabbed the dog by its ears and shook its head. The dog seemed to love this.

“Hello. Who are you?” I asked.

“I am Delilah,” she said. “James A. Garfield has guided your feet. It’s a sure thing. President Garfield never misses. After the tomatoes, of course,” she said with wide-eyed innocence. This is a kid trick: getting inside your head so you trust them.

“Well, Delilah, I am Harley, how do you do? And we are never lost. We navigate by the sun. This is US Route 41. Or Route 40. We just don’t know what town we’re in.”

“I told you you were lost.” Her logic was irrefutable. “Follow me.”

We followed her.

Ed and I stumbled over ravines, through gullies and, torn by brambles, stung by nettles, following Delilah and Barney the poodle through an endless Appalachian outback.

“Here we are,” said Delilah. She gestured proudly toward a tumbledown barn.

All the evidence suggested an impromptu massacre. Fresh blood was drying black and stippled in a neat three-foot pattern smack-dab in the middle of a windowless side wall. There was some dripping.

* * *

Did I tell you I went to James A. Garfield Elementary? Probably not. We had cheerleaders and a losing basketball team for them to cheer for–Bobo skewatten-daddle, get it right! James A. Garfield gonna win tonite! School spirit saw to it that I was more or less informed about the late president. I had a crush on this one girl all the way from kindergarten through seventh grade, but her family moved to Sheboygan when we were twelve. So for me President James A. Garfield was a little anecdotal history, a losing sports team and a blighted romance. And I never got to be a war hero, either. I missed out on World War Two because I was pigeon-toed. The pigeon-toed thing never failed to get a chuckle. It’s my name–Pigeon, Harley Pigeon. And some suspicion that I might have been a war slacker.

Ask Ed Seitz. “Air conditioning and cheap labor, Harley. No unions,” he told me, sharing a vision of the New South. This was in 1958. We were playing billiards at the Antlers Hotel in Milwaukee. We had never met before, just ankled up for a few beers and a friendly stranger’s game.

“Air conditioning, Harley. That is what will relocate Northern manufacturers to Dixie. These guys are going to pack their factories, run off and start all over again.”

Ed did not laugh when I fessed up about the pigeon-toed deferment. “Hmm. Good for you. Four-F. You saw an opportunity and did your war work as a civilian.” This, and the beers, made me feel I owed him something. Ed is not muscular on personality. But he knows what he knows.

Back to James A. Garfield again. Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell actually invented a metal detector to find the exact location of the assassin’s bullet? Mr. Garfield had been placed on a bed with an innerspring mattress. Bell’s device wouldn’t work because of the metal in the springs. Mr. Garfield died.

Charles Guiteau, Garfield’s assassin, wanted to be ambassador to France. He was a lawyer, go figure. And it was Garfield who got a song written about him, so much for Guiteau’s fifteen minutes of fame. Everett Hoops, Delilah’s grandfather, sang a song for me on the Carolina side of the Great Smokies right near where the deer exploded:

Oh, I’m feeling mighty lowdown low. I been shot down mighty lowdown low.

Mr. Garfield was not a happy guy. After all, he had been shot. And me? Ed Seitz and I were not looking for happiness per se, but business–which when you have enough of it is the same thing.

* * *

In the hill country of South Carolina Route 41 disappears into that limbo of good intentions where highway projects languish. Dixie Duck and Process of Piedmont, South Carolina had landed a tarpaulin contract for mothballing every deck gun in the entire US fleet. They needed grommets, pronto. Through dumb luck and the grace of God, Ed and I were in their office the afternoon the order came through.

“You’re sure your grommets will fit our dies?” asked s’s production manager.

We were sure. “If they don’t, we’ll eat the order and you’re only out one day’s down time. We’ll eat the cost.” We promised overnight delivery, fools that we were. This took beaucoup driving with one of us always behind the wheel. In the 1950s tourists were few and far between, and we drove pedal-to-the-metal. These coffee and Benzedrine runs left us bleary-eyed and reeking like a hamper of lapsed laundry. But our customers loved us.

When our rented rig with 6 tons of brass grommets pulled into the Dixie Duck and Process loading dock, it was three in the morning, and I was there to meet it. Ed had left Milwaukee the previous day. A very large black man named Wilton was at the wheel; he explained Ed was sleeping in the back of the cab. A steady diet of bennies and roadhouse coffee had given Ed double vision and for him night driving was out; he had needed a break. There, in the fog of a mountain switchback, was Wilton Paine with a cardboard suitcase and his thumb in the air. Ed liked to pick up hitchhikers and let them drive. Wilton Paine obliged.

Ed clambered down off the sleeping shelf. “Wow, here already?” He knuckled his hair, then his eyes, and let go a phlegmy smoker’s cough. He was wearing striped flannel pajamas. He crawled over Wilton and exited the cab. “Harley, meet Wilton.”

“How do, Wilton.”

“Hiya, Harley. Mind if I have a drink?” Wilton ratcheted the hand brake and pulled a pint from the recesses of a worn denim jacket. He beamed upon us, blowing clouds of smoke from his pipe, shaking his head in sad affirmation, “This is true, I can’t deny it. I’m weak…” We passed the pint around. “But I’m a good man; I just get out of control sometimes is all.”

“How much out of control?” The rig was a rental. We had a bond posted.

“Can’t rightly tell. And ’cause I’m so big folks tend to write off any damage I cause.” In the soft circumlocutions of South Carolina, Wilton Paine had a predilection for strong drink.

“He’s been driving since Gary, Indiana,” said Ed.

Good men were hard to find.

“You drink on the job?”

“Never.”

That night Wilton Paine became Factory Findings’ third partner. Clearly, he liked things the way they were; it was just that things could be better. And with a soft-spoken competence, he set about to make them better. I never saw Wilton out of control. I never saw him drunk and he never let us down.

Well, the dies didn’t fit our grommets. I figured they wouldn’t so, while Ed and Wilton were on the road from Milwaukee, I sunk our floating capital–200 dollars–into the local machine shop. There were three sets of alternate dies ready for whatever might be on board when our truck showed up in Piedmont. I walked Dixie Duck’s floor manager through the setup and told him to hang on to the dies courtesy of Factory Findings. We would be doing business here again.

With Wilton spelling Ed and me at the wheel, we regularly beat contract haulers and Railway Express by days or weeks. At Valdosta, Georgia the sheriff’s brother-in-law operated an axle-popping mudhole at the county line, and he had the only tow truck in the county. The state police tended to look the other way. That mud hole got us once with Wilton driving and a load of 55-gallon drums of sodium bisulfite and ammonium salts on board for the alligator tannery in Ocala. Wilton told me to stay under cover in the sleeper and pulled an Oscar-winning “Yassuh, Boss” routine on the cops that had us laughing for months after the fact. They let Wilton through for free. Black folks knew how to work the system in Dixie.

Like I said, word got around. We delivered and on time.

* * *

Some months after Wilton Paine joined Factory Findings, Ed drove while I dozed. Through the industrial wastelands along the Gary, Elgin and South Shore interurban tracks, the route twists like the stitching on a major league baseball. Except for the red thread. Like Theseus and the Minotaur? Like I said, I grew up in Mycenae, Wisconsin where the Mycenae Boosters insisted that the doings of the ancient gods and heroes be taught in elementary school. I have been also known to read the occasional grommet and twine catalog.

In south Gary, somewhere between Inland Steel and the Falstaff brewery, the Buick swerved hard right, taking a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn at 40 miles an hour. Too fast. Tires squealed, and I was thrown against the door; Ed’s enthusiasm always picked up once we got past Chicago. I was jolted out of whatever slumber I had drifted into.

“Remember the bar with the stripper?” Ed had a frosty beer and a particular oasis in mind.

“The tassels.” I remembered. We would detour. Calumet City, Illinois is the fallen sister of Hammond, Indiana. That the Calumet River had once caught fire was legend among the guys at the Antlers bar. The two towns straddled the state line. Calumet City was blue neon beer joints with electric country bands; all the bars had strippers. This particular bar was called the Calypso. The same woman as last time twitched above the bar, partaking of a private epiphany two feet from the end of her nose. At ten AM we were outnumbered by the band and the girl. She was at the end of a long work day and moving just enough so that she might be dancing.

Now the stripper with the tassels is definitely not in the Mr. Garfield song. She is important because every good story has to have a proper siren. Me being from Mycenae and all, I knew about sirens. The stripper’s tassels signified temptation of a sort. Her eyes stared noncommittally into space as she cranked out the mileage on her plywood stage. The tassels rotated lackadaisically, one clockwise, one counterclockwise.

“Just an hour, okay, Ed?”

“Just an hour, Harley.”

Ed hung on in the Calypso for a twelve-beer hour. He left a fiver in the stripper’s jar and waved to the band. The stripper nodded acceptance to the jar while ignoring Ed and me. Destiny was calling, and I was driving.

Ed slept it off all the way to South Carolina. I jumped 41 and headed east to Asheville on US 40. Our coup at Dixie Duck had opened doors to purchasing agents at other fiber processors.

The Burma-Shave signs were a touch of humor in the predictable procession of tarpaper shacks surrounded by junked cars, scrub pine, and leavened with the sporadic offering of flattened raccoon. You remember them? The Burma-Shaves grabbed me with their cornball versifying. Ed snored and I read.

Riot in drug store

Calling all cars

100 customers

99 jars

Burma-Shave

The signs came in sets of five–the last sign a kicker for the sponsor, Burma-Shave.

Ed woke up on the Carolina line. “Harley, I gotta pee.”

Ed had to pee. I cruised along, eyes peeled for an appropriate peeing grove. And passed a set of Burma-Shave signs. I only caught the last two lines and hit the brakes.

Little did I dream

While in my youthful bloom

For the murder of

James A. Garfield

I’d meet my fatal doom.

Not your usual Burma-Shave sign. I had a feeling of all-over creepiness that something was not right on this road.

“Ed, here’s your pit stop. I gotta check those last signs.”

“U-turn? You want a U-turn? Great, then I’ll take a pee.” Ed sprang out of the Buick and ran over to stand against a bridge abutment over one of those country creeks with which the South abounds. This is the part I told you about at the start of the story–where we first met Dilly.

“You are Lost. Lost Forever.” The pale-skinned little girl, freckled and red-headed, appeared as if from thin air. Ed’s look of distress said he was not through. Ed was dancing about and doing his best to hold it.

“Go on, pee. I’ll wait,” said the girl. Ed looked grateful and hustled off.

“Dilly? You there?” The call came from a scrub copse beyond the bridge abutment.

“Here, Grandpa,” shouted Dilly.

“Don’t you never let a chance pass you by,” wailed an old man’s voice.

“Don’t you never let a chance pass you by,” the child called back.

“Whatcha got, Dil?” There was a rustle from a stand of alders. A stoop-shouldered muscular man in bib overalls slid down the ditch on his rear end and approached us.

“Oh. People. Hello, there, I’m Everett Hoops. I see you’ve met Delilah. Lost?”

“No. We know where we are; we just missed a turn is all.”

“They are looking for Route 40,” said the little girl. “They don’t know where that is.”

“I recall someone from the state came through putting numbers on things. That was ’06 or ’07. You most likely want the Willardsville Pike,” said the man in the overalls as he dusted off his fanny.

“My Grandpa is the Tooth Fairy,” said Dilly.

Leathery crevasses etched themselves into the old man’s walnut-tanned face as he displayed a warm, welcoming smile of many missing teeth. “I’ll admit to being the Tooth Fairy. Excepts that I leave my teeth and take the money.”

The girl gave me the once-over. “Not too likely material they’ve given us to work with.” She puffed out her cheeks and let a suppressed laugh out through her nose. There was the smallest bubble of snot. The old man and the child struggled to contain themselves.

“Mr. Garfield has sent you. You have followed the call of the Cherokee Purples,” said Everett Hoops. Then he threw back his head and burst into song. This was to be the first time I heard the song about Mr. Garfield, for whom my school was named:

A preacher said to James A. Garfield, “If you should die tonight where d’you think you’ll spend eternity?”

Mr. Garfield looked up kinda sad-like and he give him somethin’ like this:

“Oh, I’d make my home in heaven, Lord, Lord,

Oh, I’d make my home in heaven.

The old man sang through the gaps in his teeth. He was more authentic than an old country record; his tremulous high tenor sounded like he brought his own static and scratches with him. When he was finished, he hugged the child. They then faced each other and performed what appeared to be a familiar ritual.

“Don’t you never let a chance pass you by,” they chanted together.

“The Cherokee Purples told us you would come,” said the girl. “Because you have been here before. In a dream the tomatoes had.”

I was trying to hold eye contact with the girl in the bib overalls who was now looking serious as all hell. She broke a grin. Ah, I thought–they are having us on. Now we will all share the joke. Nope. They caught the giggles again, started laughing out loud and sat down together in the long grass of the verge.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said the old man. “But suppose I was to tell you tomatoes have a secret vegetable language? The Cherokee Purples, that is. That to those who can understand them they will foretell future events? Well, they don’t; they foretell the past. What they will tell is what really happened. See, no one remembers what actually took place even a couple of hours ago. History is opinion.”

“We’re not lost,” said Ed. “We just stopped to check out the Burma-Shave sign. My partner was curious about what it said.”

“Well, that’s a long story,” said the man, “that I can tell you if you have some time to spare. Have you avoided temptation?”

I recalled the stripper in Calumet City. “Pretty much,” I said.

“Then you get to come up to our place,” said the child. She scrambled down the shallow bank, hopped the creek and struck out at a right angle to the road.

“Y’all’re too late for the yachting cannon,” Delilah called over her shoulder. “Grandpa was picking ticks all this morning. Off Barney. But I can show you the barn. Wanna come?”

I jumped the creek after her. “Barney is the dog?”

“Well, yes.”

Ed was huffing and puffing as he waded over to join us, his cuffs wet from the creek. Everett followed. The old man and the girl shared another private glance. Ed and I were being set up.

“If we come along will you tell us about the Burma-Shave signs?” I asked.

“I might.”

“If we come along, will you tell us what the hell you mean about tomatoes having a dream that we were coming?” Ed asked.

“Nope, you’ve got to believe,” said the little girl.

By now the four of us were stumbling through a rolling pasture of daisy fleabane in full bloom. “Watch your step, gents. We only got three cows, but they get around,” said Everett. We came to a pair of small ravines, eroded at their bank sides by a recent gully wash. Undercut sod clung by tangles of roots dangling from upside-down bouquets of daisies.

“Jump good, now. Sharp stuff stickin’ up down there.” In ravine number two were the rusting remains of leftover agricultural implements–a dismembered horse-drawn mower and parts of a Cord truck. Four dome-shaped valve heads the size of young watermelons rusted red atop a cracked engine block that had oozed its oil onto the soil. The oil spill had hardened into a thick dark varnish.

“And there’s the barn.” Weathered and unpainted, though not dilapidated, the small barn stood straight on unrotted sills. The barn was immaculate except for where an elephant or other large ruminant had strayed into a fusillade of automatic weapons fire. Snuffling and the delighted moans of a dog rolling in something good issued from under the wide planked floor.

“Barney?” A low hanging pall of black powder still lingered around the sodden shingles under the eaves.

“Yep. We named him for the barn. Groundhog,” said Delilah. “He got the skunk last week.” There was no dead elephant in evidence.

“Damn ticks,” said Everett. “They drive Barney crazy.  Grandpa and I pick off the ticks and drop ‘em into the cannon. Then boom,” said Dilly, patting the muzzle of what looked like a miniature deck gun from a pirate frigate. “I get to shoot it.”

“Yachting cannon,” offered Everett. I decided not to ask how a muzzle-loader used to signal ocean racing for the idle rich had made it into the hills of Carolina.

“We don’t do deer bombs anymore,” said Dilly.

“Just as loud as the cannon but too dangerous,” said Everett.

This was information I didn’t want to hear. I paused to reflect that I was in the company of a pair of folksy, down-home maniacs.

Ed was unsettled by the blood all over the barn’s shiplap siding. “If we used our free time wisely, we could be in Willimantic, Connecticut by Tuesday,” he said. The Willimantic trip was Ed Seitz’ often spoken of pilgrimage to Thread Mecca, the American Thread Mills’ String Museum. But forty-three years on the road, and Ed had yet to make it there.

“Something wrong, mister?” Delilah lost her whimsicality and stared down Ed Seitz with fire in her eyes. “You making fun of me and my grandfather?”

“No, no, no. Filthy ticks. Eradicate ‘em. Bloodsucking parasites. No, it’s a good thing.” Ed gave me the raised eyebrows and a sideways nod that said let’s get the hell out of here. These people were an unknown quantity, and Ed had a low threshold for the unknown. And they had a gun, albeit a miniature cannon that would take considerable time to load and point.

“Not that I’m objecting. Knocking off ticks is a good thing. No, no, no, yes, yes,” said Ed. “It’s the splattering–isn’t that extreme? That’s just an observation, not a criticism.”

Everett beamed on Ed. “You, sir, are a follower of thread. Like Theseus in the Labyrinth.” Meanwhile, the girl had positioned herself between Ed and her grandfather, a defensive posture.

“There is a museum. Willimantic. That’s in Connecticut…” said Ed, missing the classical reference. “…the shrine of twine.” I never got excited about string, not like Ed. He was grasping for any plausible excuse to make a getaway. Right now we were behind schedule to meet with Wilton and share out deliveries among us. “When folks need thread or twine, that’s where you’ll find me. I travel with a line of twine, and we are headed to the museum…” He pilled out his pocket watch. “They close at five; we should be going…”

“Connecticut is 500 miles away,” said Delilah.

“…right now as a matter of fact.” Ed looked imploringly to me for confirmation.

“Yep,” I said.

“Like Theseus,” said Everett. “The slayer of the Minotaur? You are a follower of thread. The thread was red–like the stitching on a major league baseball.”

“Huh?” Ed.

“There you are. You have heard the call of the road and heeded the Name of Power. President James A. Garfield has brought you here to us. The stories get mixed up, but they all make sense in the end. It was a red thread,” said Everett.

“I am a traveler in industrial twine,” said Ed Seitz.

“I thought so.” The Tooth Fairy was satisfied. “Like to hear about the deer bombs?”

I said no. Ed said yes and sat down. He looked nervously at Dilly. She might misinterpret a refusal. Everett Hoops told us about deer bombs.

“The deer bomb. We did it all through the Depression. If you have a dead battery hanging around, and everybody did, you dig a hole and bury the battery, leaving a pair of wires sticking out above ground. The battery has to ripen, build up a charge, in the hole for three to six months. Tape the exposed wires to a block of deer-lick salt. When the wires touch you will have one righteous explosion. A deer licking at the salt completes the circuit.”

If you will recall, a deer exploded as I was trying to factor quadratic algebra in Mycenae, Wisconsin. My seat was in a row of identical kid-scarred birch-topped desks screwed to metal frames.

“And kaboom!” said Delilah with relish. “But we don’t do them any more, the battery bombs,” she pouted.

“When my father, Dilly’s great-grandfather, died, I became the caretaker of his tomatoes. From there on in they were to be my responsibility,” said Everett Hoops. “No time for batteries.”

“Oh, yes. Tomatoes.” Me. If we had been inside, I would have been edging toward the door.

“It’s a good thing. Resourceful.” Ed was not convincing. He was talking about the battery bomb, not the tomatoes. “A good thing, too. Yes, yes.” Ed hadn’t caught up with Everett Hoops fast-flowing shifts of focus.

“And you’re not objecting,” said the girl to Ed.

“Not one bit. No criticism intended,” Ed repeated.

“Well, you don’t have to worry. We never really made a deer bomb. It’s one of Grandpa’s stories.”

Ed looked relieved.

“But we could.” I’d just bet she could.

“Why James A. Garfield?”

“Because nobody remembers him,” said Everett. Ask a silly question, etc.

“And tomatoes’re not rightly a fruit, you know.” Everett Hoops didn’t just retail his homilies on the simple life. He was ready for wholesale. “The tomato is rightly a berry.”

“Course you gotta pack the mulch to ‘em,” said Dilly.

“And your great-grandfather’s tomatoes are why James A. Garfield appeared on a Burma-Shave sign?” I asked.

“It was to get your attention,” said Dilly. “The signs. We put ‘em up. The tomatoes only made the suggestion.” They were enjoying this. We were probably the first entertainment they had had in a spell.

“My attention?” Here was a place I did not care to go. These two had been trolling for wise guys, traveling salesmen grinding their retracements over the choking dirt byways of the southern heartland. “Me? Me personally? My attention?”

“You. You are the chosen one. I shall be yours.” Dilly. Her eyes said she was dead serious. I reminded myself that this red-headed, freckled kid would grow up to be a woman. Eventually. And a damned attractive woman, too. That is if one of the travelers she and Everett trolled for along US 40 didn’t murder them and steal their three cows.

“You are seeking your fortunes armed with but guile, courage and a native wit like Odysseus in the old story,” said Everett. We were smack dab in the middle of some traveling salesman joke. Except Everett, self-anointed Tooth Fairy, appeared sharp as a box of tacks and the comely daughter was only ten years old.

“President Garfield, James A. Garfield, has set your path to bring you to us. He has guided your feet as surely as Athena did for Odysseus. You have already passed through hell and escaped the siren call,” said Everett.

The siren call. I thought of the stripper and the ecological war zones south of Chicago. “We followed US 41,” I said.

“You followed your instincts. You are a curious man; you despise a mystery,” Everett said. “Dilly is the grapes of heaven, and you must come back when she has ripened to an appropriate age.”

“I only wondered who had been messing with the Burma-Shave signs.”

“It was us,” said Dilly, “We’ve been trolling for my prince for a coupla summers. You are the first. You are the one.”

“Prince?”

“You are my chosen champion,” said Dilly.

“Chosen by the late president, James A. Garfield,” Everett said. Well, that explained everything. “You are what I leave to Delilah. With you, Harley, she shall wax fat and browse the pastures of plenty.”

“You must read a whole lot.”

“We have two books. Bullfinch’s Mythology and the Bible. Dilly and I read aloud in the winter. The stories tend to get mixed up, but Mr. Garfield straightens ‘em out.”

Without wishing to offend Everett and Delilah, I plunged right in. “Just how many years are we talking about here?”

“Seven,” said Everett. “You will come back to claim your bride in seven years. She will be eighteen years old. Almost.”

“I can hardly wait.” This was meant to be sarcastic. If they caught on they gave not a clue. The grandfather played it straight.

“You must wait.”

Okay, I had to wait. The girl was ten years old; I would be happy to wait. I looked over the pint-sized kid from whose pencil-thin shoulders faded overalls hung by suspenders. These people were weird. Weird and compelling.

“And all this is because of Burma-Shave?”

“Because you answered the call of President Garfield. Yes.”

Of course. I sat down in the grass next to Ed.

“What if I don’t come back for Delilah?”

“I am the Tooth Fairy.” The old man was controlling a full-body laugh that started near his diaphragm. “If you find any teeth under your pillow, better check your wallet and your bank account. You’ll be back. I’ll see you don’t forget.”

* * *

Ed and I finished that trip with our contacts outbidding each other for the privilege of buying from Factory Findings. We bought a semi-trailer on credit, with purchase orders for security. We had figured a way to cut transportation costs and therefore increase our share of the billing. This involved consolidating our bulk orders in one truck in Milwaukee then driving south. All we needed was a depot for offloading and breaking down our orders. Wilton fixed things up with the owner of a drive-in movie in Knoxville that was only open weekends. We would rendezvous with Wilton in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Sure enough, he met Ed and me with three panel trucks and two brothers-in-law. Wilton had married off a lot of sisters.

I waited seven years and went back to claim my bride.

Romantic? Well, frankly I had forgotten.

* * *

It was Wilton who first spotted the huge and unauthorized checks drawn on the corporate accounts. Then he checked Factory Findings certificates of deposit, those quick roll-over accounts where we shave a little off the system by parking our withholdings. Some had been cashed out. And not by us.

That same morning I had found a tooth under my pillow.

That Ed Seitz and Everett Hoops might be in cahoots did cross my mind. Not that I didn’t put Wilton and his brothers-in-law out of suspicion. They loved a good laugh. It was just a hop down the holler–five miles to the nearest phone and Alexander Graham Bell’s singing wires–to put Delilah Hoops’ grandfather in touch with Upsala 8478 where an ancient black daffodil telephone rang on the second floor of the Zabloski Bros. Bldg., where Ed Seitz was sure to answer when I was away. That gave me more food for thought.

But then there was the mysterious tooth. Not a child’s tooth. It was a molar, worn, yellowed and long in the shank. Human, I guessed, but I’m no expert.

As I drove south I nursed the unsettling image of Dilly and her grandpa out in the woods, rummaging through a pile of deer bones scattered by a long-exploded battery bomb left over from Everett’s father’s predations in the Depression. Looking for a tooth. None of these explanations left me truly happy. I opted for the unseen hand of James A. Garfield uniting two lovers from the Presidential afterlife.

Everett Hoops met me by the same rural bridge abutment where Ed had stopped to pee seven years earlier.

“Don’t you never let a chance pass you by, Lord, Lord,” Everett sang into the alder copse.

“Don’t you never let a chance pass you by,” answered a full, strong contralto. My, my, how time had dealt kindly with Delilah. Beautiful and poised described her–to a point. There was still an endearing touch of the bizarre about the young woman. And when she smiled, freckles danced across the bridge of her nose.

Thirty years later, and those freckles still dance.

The New South bloomed, just like Ed Seitz foresaw 37 years earlier in the Antlers billiards room in Milwaukee. The Burma-Shave roadside signs were not maintained; they faded and fell in forgotten locations, no hands clapping.

Everett Hoops and Ed Seitz had by now gone on to raise tomatoes for the angelic swarm. I like to think Ed finally made it to the shrine of twine. Dilly and I tend her great-grandfather’s tomato legacy: Cherokee Purples, Brandywines and Bonny Bests. We get back to the mountains to sort and save the seeds each year. Wilton Paine is the southern partner of Factory Findings with his home office in Gainesville from where he manages a fleet of seventeen company-owned trucks. I suspect Wilton spends most of his time over on the Gulf, sword-fishing. Wilton’s reports reach us from time to time but, frankly, the man is making us so much money with his down-home managerial style that I feel guilty just reading the bottom line. Anyway, next year Wilton will be buying out Dilly and me to become El Honcho Grande for the whole operation. Dilly and I are on the road most of the time, pulling an Airstream trailer. The checks catch up with us with the same irregularity of Factory Findings quarterly reports.

* * *

“Dil? Honey, where did we put the signs?” I figured it was time to visit Everett Hoops’ Cherokee Purple tomato patch. I was rummaging in the garage loft. We were behind schedule on our youngest daughter, Addie. She had wanted to finish college first.

“What?” Delilah was shouting from the back porch but she ended up with a choking fit as she tried to hold in a belly laugh. Just like she and her grandfather had so long ago. I scuttled down the ladderway.

Dilly performed a pirouette on the porch, a presentation of herself. “Addie took them with her last week. She says we might forget where they were.”

“The James A. Garfield Burma-Shave signs?” Since Everett died there had been no more omens or portents from President Garfield and the Cherokee Purples. Dilly says it’s not that they are not talking, could be we just forgot how to listen.

“Fair child, fair children,” she said, taking a bow. “Wanna go trolling?” The freckles danced.

We rendezvoused with Addie at her dorm, and we are today headed south to find what is left of US 41. Then, if US 40 is still there, east on 40. We have the old James A. Garfield signs in the trailer. A father (or grandfather) never figures his daughter will ever find a man worthy of her.

A word about tomatoes. The Cherokee Purples have no opinion on the doings of humankind. They just pass on what they see, but you have to know how to ask. This is vegetable wisdom. The writers of history have their story; the tomatoes have theirs. Now, who are you going to trust? I’d trust the Cherokee Purples–they don’t have a stake in the game. They just watch and wait. What exactly they are waiting for, I don’t rightly want to know. Not yet.

One Response to “The Death of James A. Garfield”

  1. I LOVED this! Excellent work!

Leave a Reply