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I grew up close to the earth and even closer to my grandfather on a farm in Pamplico, South Carolina. We lived surrounded by a tranquil forest near the Great Pee Dee River. The Pedee Indians called the river Pi'ri,' "something good and capable." It is sprinkled with small islands within walking distance of our home. To me, the land and the river are the most sacred places on earth; a creation with a sinister beauty that to this day still possesses my soul; it is a forgotten wilderness where, in my childhood, wild turkey, cougars, deer, and drunks roamed freely. The drunks, who lived in wooden shanties hidden among pine trees and deep in the cypress swamps, were as much a part of the landscape in my youth as were the bats that dipped and fluttered in the tobacco barns when dusk fell.
Voices from days past still whisper when I walk through the woods behind the house that nourished my early years with mystery and fear. There's Isabelle, with her roots and soothing lips talking fire out of my burning flesh. I hear Granddaddy racing the motor of his pickup truck at the cliff's edge overlooking the deep waters of the Pee Dee as I look down at the muddy red spinning whirlpools in fear. I see happy drunks dance naked and angry ones shoot in the air. I see the dead man. I remember festive feasts on Sunday with the preacher, the doctor, the gossiping church ladies; I look on as all at granddaddy's dinner table eat their soul food, tell tall lies, worship the Lord, and take a nip on the side. There on the river bank, hungry bodies make love. Sawed-off shotguns watch over stills, and high speed chases put the law to shame. It is my history, the good and the evil, and I cherish it for what it's worth. It is who I am. I sneak away behind our house and run with abandon, the tears welling in my eyes. In the hush night air, the memories burn against my new skin. The past is gone, but it is still with me.
Chapter One: South Carolina 1965
I played with a daddy long legs spider as Granddaddy pulled out his "Tommy Gun" from what looked like a violin case. T.C. Cox fancied himself a gangster, bragging that Pretty Boy Floyd had one just like it. He kept the "Tommy Boy," a .45 caliber submarine gun he liked to clean under his Lazy Boy chair right beside a quart jar of clear white lightnin'.
Granddaddy put the gun carefully under the Lazy Boy. I was in first grade struggling with learning my numbers. Grandaddy was working on his numbers too. It was a game we played every night in the den warmed by the fireplace. I studied my math and he studied his. He was counting bills from his black wallet, the one for big bills. In his brown one, he kept mostly twenties. That evening, he was counting from the black one, bursting at the seams with one hundred dollar bills. I plopped down on the arm of his chair counting my fingers as the skinny-legged spider made its way up the underside of my arm. When the struggling spider began to bore me, I looked at Granddaddy counting the crisp one hundred dollar bills and asked my question firmly so I wouldn't be ignored.
"Grandadddy, how you make moonshine?"
His clear gray eyes widened as he put the wallet back in his pocket and rubbed his long pale fingers together. "Well, sugar, it ain't hard. Just mix corn meal, sugar, and wheat together, and let it simmer."
I could feel my mother's wrath as she stared at us.
"Stop asking your Granddaddy those crazy questions," she snapped.
Her face was in a halo of light as she watched us from the long hallway that led to Granddaddy's bedroom where a 12-gauge Winchester lay cropped at the door. In a corner of the room was the secret passageway that led to huge black safe.
T.C. Cox didn't believe in banks anymore. He lost faith in financial institutions when he lost all his money during the Depression. He hated President Hoover for letting the banks fail "Hoover can go to hell, talkin' bout a man should be content with a buck fifty and some overalls." That's why he salted his money away in places he thought were safe.
One day Moma found him angry as hell sitting in his truck counting in the bank parking lot. He told the bank clerk he wanted all of his money out of that damn bank after she advised him he would be penalized if he took it out of the certificate of deposit. Granddaddy cursed everybody in the bank, terrified the clerk, got his money in a cloth sack, all $30,000 dollars of it, and sat in the truck counting one thousand dollar bills until Moma got there. Moma persuaded him not to take his money out of all of the banks in one day.
Moma was still watching us while nervously drying dishes.
"Put...the...spider...back...in...the...jar...leave...your....Granddaddy....alone!" She shouted, angrily stressing each word.
As I walked over to the windowsill to put the daddy long legs back, I saw headlights shining through the red velvet drapes that encircled the glass doors in the den. A familiar streak of fear raced through my body. I dropped the jar that held the spider and carefully picked up the broom against the windowsill. At a safe distance, I slowly pushed away the drapes and saw a ball of dust speed down the dirt road that led to our house. Dancing through the dust was a blue siren.
I screamed, looking back at Granddaddy. "Granddaddy it's the police!"
He didn't flinch, listening as Walter Cronkite continued to report the news. The cars sped around the back of the house. Mr. Sonny Man, one of T.C.'s moonshine runners, raced his red Thunderbird, nearly turning on two wheels as he sped a around the curve to the back of the house.
I hollered, "It's Mr. Sonny Man, Granddaddy! And the cops are right behind him."
Mr. Sonny Man was a rip-roaring daredevil who tore up the dusty back roads of the Pee Dee running moonshine. But this time, he had a cop right on his tail.
Granddaddy didn't look my way, but kept his eyes on Walter Cronkite on the black and white TV set. Slowly he eased from his chair and walked out the back door. I saw fear in mother's eyes as she stood at the landing that led to the kitchen.
"Baby, you stay right there, don't you go outside now." She dropped and broke a dish on her way back to the kitchen. I heard her repeating the Lord's Prayer in a trembling voice before I stormed out the back door and ran to Granddaddy's side.
Mr. Sonny Man was a thick man with blue black skin, rippling muscles, and a penchant for trouble. today he was dishelveled and reeked of alcohol. Granddaddy stood against the policeman's car, cool as a cucumber, looking at his gold pocket watch. He put it back, folded his arms, crossed his ankles, all the while sizing up the young blue-eyed sheriff's deputy with the crew cut.
Mr. Sonny Man was stumbling and pacing back and forth. Nervously, he pointed his finger at the young officer waving wildly, with his gold front tooth flickering in and out of sight between his lips, he yelled, "Why de hell you followin' me ya sona-bitch!"
Nanny Mae, his girlfriend, sat in the back-seat of his Thunderbird with her legs crooked up on the back of the front seat drinking from a bottle of Cold Duck, "Katty, come over here, sweetie so ya wo get hurt," she called to me.
Suddenly, Granddaddy walked between the two men, pulled his coat back to reveal his Saturday Night Special attached to his suspenders, and faced the young officer. He leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "You on private property, son, and you a long way from the highway. That's just why you boys keep gettin' killed down here in the country."
The young man turned his head to the side visibly shaken. His face had turned fire-engine red. There was silence as Granddaddy caressed the trigger of his pistol with his fingers. Like a little boy who had just been spanked, the deputy backed away quickly from the two men, got in his cruiser, and drove off as fast as he had driven in.
Granddaddy turned to walk back in the house and barely looking at Mr. Sonny Man, said, "You better get yourself together, we gotta run tomorrow."
Nanny Mae shouted, "Nigger, com'n, let's go to the backwoods, didn't I tell you Mr. Thedo would take care of dat sucker?"
Still pacing, Mr. Sonny Man pulled out a soiled white handkerchief from his pants pocket, rubbed his sweaty forehead, got in his Thunderbird, and with dust bellowing behind him,sped off. I followed Granddaddy as he sauntered back into the house, sat in his easy chair, pulled out a pocket knife, and began cutting his fingernails. Walter Cronkite was about to say goodnight.