Here’s the whole shebang for those of you who haven’t been following along.
My daddy used to say / You gotta be a man / You gotta pull your weight / You gotta work the land / But every time I tried and failed / He turned away from me / By the time I was a man / It was too late for him to see.
“The best things in life are free.”
Alan Reuss had always heard people say it when he was growing up, but he missed the point. By “best,” he thought they’d meant capitalized words. He’d thought there was a difference between love and Love, liberty and Liberty, god and God. How silly. All those high concepts cost money. Alan had thought them above commercial considerations, back when buildings were named after great men who made laws, not great corporations that made sneakers.
God cost money. Country cost money. Family cost money. If a man couldn’t buy his way into heaven, then something was obviously wrong with the plan being advanced in most of the churches.
The slogan had some merit, but only because the best things in life were little. Licking the bowl of cake batter after the cake is already in the oven. The smell of grass, right after mowing it, and right before a thunderstorm, when the wind whips up. Sweet potato custard. A double rainbow. A pastel sunset. Little things did big things to a man’s soul, and a man never learned how to appreciate them when they really meant something. It was when he’d been humbled by life, when he was down on his luck, when he could barely keep his bills paid, that he found the simple joy of just taking a deep breath. That’s when stopping on the way back from the mailbox to pick a few wild blackberries off the side of the road could be the highlight of a man’s day. Happiness wasn’t making a killing in the stock market. That was satisfaction. Happiness was writing a poem. It was sipping water from a spring, not a bottle that claimed it came from there. It was pulling off the interstate, three hundred miles from home and two hundred from the destination, because a sign said there was a state park, and the park overlooked a river and had some picnic tables, and he could pull out his guitar and sing a few songs to nobody but a few ducks and squirrels.
Until Alan lost all the big things, he never learned to appreciate the little, and he reckoned lots of rich folks never got the opportunity to discover that, really, there was a difference between the forest and the trees.
Here he sat at the crosswords, which, by pure coincidence, was the site of a minor Revolutionary War battle involving Patriots, Tories, and a handful of Indians recruited by one side or the other. He had a job interview, but it wasn’t till tomorrow, and right now he needed tranquility. He sang himself hoarse about Smoky Mountain memories, and how he’d laid around and played around this old town too long, how Uncle Remus put him to bed when he was a kid, and why don’t she love me like she used to do? Alan thought about how, if that battle had been held two miles downstream, the guitar he was playing right now might have been made out of that gigantic spruce tree right yonder.
But, more likely, not.
Then he got back in his car, checked his Twitter, and headed off in the direction of his interview, where, if he could jump through enough hoops, he’d be offered a job he would have turned down ten years earlier.
Scuppernongs and muscadines / Bubble gum three for a dime / Orange Crush over ice / Sawmill gravy over rice / That’s the way / My world / Used to be.
When Alan Reuss was a kid, a scuppernong vine stood at the edge of the front yard, just a few feet from the highway. On the side of his grandparents’ house, in the middle of the mill village, was a muscadine vine. He loved to take a break from cutting the grass, or playing catch, and pick the wild grapes. They were similar. Scuppernongs were golden. Muscadines varied from reddish-purple to greenish-gold. The skins were tougher than grapes, and there were seeds to spit out. For no particular reason that he could describe, Alan always liked the muscadines a little better. Like the muscadines, Alan grew up with a thicker skin than most kids. He was a bit of a hick, always listening to country music because that was what his father liked. Frank Reuss demanded a lot. Alan had a hard time pleasing him but never stopped trying. In some ways, he grew up too fast. At fourteen, he knew how to get his daddy home when he’d had too much to drink at a cattle sale, or a horse show, or a ballgame. Frank always took Alan with him, not because theirs was a rich companionship but because Alan was his backup. Sometimes Alan felt as much hostage as son. In other ways, though, he grew up too slow. He was socially awkward because he grew up isolated. When other kids inquired about his favorite rock band, or why his blue jeans were too short, or why he still wore his hair short, Alan didn’t know what to say. He only knew the world of his father, the farm, and the family. He loved to read, whether from comic books, sports magazines, or the local library. People said he was the smartest kid in town, and under their breaths added that he was a little strange, “a mite peculiar.” A little strange to them was just normal to Alan.
Alan worked one day a week at a curb market. The rest of his afternoons were on the farm, feeding the cattle and horses, mowing the pastures, hauling the hay. That’s the way it was for eight months of the year. From August on, beginning in the seventh grade, Alan played football. His father had played football. It’s what Reusses did. It’s what made their men men. Alan knew well the feeling of dread, sweating on the practice field, when he’d see his old man arrive in his red Ford pickup, half pint of whiskey under the seat and bottle of Sprite between his legs “to chase it with.” Daddy would just sit in that pickup, atop the hill above the practice field, and watch practice. When Daddy was there, Alan knew better than to dawdle. He got yelled at for his athletic failings twice as much from his father as his coaches. Frank took a good bit of the fun out of it. Fun wasn’t the purpose of playing football. Winning was.
He always kept a Sprite / To chase his Rebel Yell / When he slept it off / It was time to give me hell / People say that deep down / He was always proud of me / But secondhand was not a plan / To set my demons free.
Being Frank Reuss’s son wasn’t without its advantages. Alan had lots of friends attracted by his father’s gregarious nature. All his football teammates loved the parties, the barbecues, at the Reuss farm on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and at Christmas time. Daddy set the boy up with cheerleaders, but, man, those dates were embarrassing. Alan didn’t know what to do, what to say, how to act. He really had two sets of friends: the jocks with whom he sweated in the hot Carolina sun for hours each afternoon, and the kids who, like Alan, were academically gifted. Alan wrote sports for the school paper, and, as a senior, was the president of the National Honor Society. He fell in love with the daughter of a professor at the local college. Chelsea Fowler wouldn’t have gone to a football game if it had been played in her front yard. She was into drama and played the female lead in most every school play. She fancied herself a bohemian who listened to Simon & Garfunkel, read Russian novels, and smoked cigarettes. They went out several times, but soon she gravitated toward Freddy Johnson, a kid who’d quit the football team, smoked cigarettes, too, and God knows what else he was into. Alan thought he was sorry, regardless of whether he starred opposite Chelsea in “Li’l Abner” or not. Alan watched that play bitterly from the wings. He was the stage manager.
By the time his senior year rolled around, Alan and his father rarely talked because most of the time they did, they argued. He grew resentful. Of course, he did his duty, and the football team turned in a championship season. Playing in the offensive line gave Alan confidence, but he never really matured in the fashion of his teammates. He got so emotional and motivated sometimes that he couldn’t do anything right, but he wouldn’t give up, and as often as Coach yanked him out of games, he’d stick him right back in. The word on Alan was that he was better coming off the bench. Languishing on the sidelines seemed to settle him down.
When he got mad, he’d often blame his father, and when he did, his teammates always sided with the old man.
“Just shut the fuck up,” the quarterback, Jack Simms, told him. “Your daddy’s a great guy, man. You ought to learn how to appreciate him.”
“Oh, yeah,” Alan said. “Well, you ought to live with the son of a bitch.”
When I left the farm / To make it on my own / He didn’t take it well / Sitting home alone / Without me to disagree / The bottle started to win / It burned a hole / Into his soul / And cancer filled it in.
Alan Reuss’s understanding of what happened to his father had been best expressed by Johnny Cash one night during an appearance with David Letterman. The difference between a man who merely drinks and an alcoholic was “one drinks from the bottle, and, the other, the bottle drinks from him.” The bottle started drinking from Frank Reuss sometime while Alan was in college.
After graduation, Alan spent several years out of town. Deciding to return had been the greatest mistake of his life. He found a job, but what he’d stupidly thought was that he could do something about the collapse of the whole family around Frank’s decline. Alan was only a crutch. Nothing healed. The house was a perfect indicator. Inside there were holes in the walls. The shrubbery outside was overgrown. The old swimming pool was cracked and dry. An olive-drab pool collected in the deep end, turning the playground into a place where only frogs and snakes frolicked.
One day Alan stopped by the house at lunch. Frank sat in the living room on the couch, a quart of Heavenly Hill vodka half empty on the coffee table. Even by Daddy’s standards, shitfaced at noon was a tad extreme.
Alan sat down.
“So … Pop … what’s the deal?”
Frank stared at him, cockeyed.
“Back when me ‘n’ ya mama was dating and ‘Giant’ come out, I thought Rock Hudson was the biggest hero they ever was,” Frank said.
Alan looked at the television. CNN was covering the impending demise of the actor, who had contracted AIDS and would be dead within a day.
“Goddamn!” Frank yelled, the force of the profanity causing his whole torso to shake. “Come to find out, the whole time, he was a goddamned faggot!”
Alan looked at his father and pitied him. Even back in high school, they’d never been able to talk unless he was drinking. Sober, he was always standoffish, paranoid, and angry. Drunk, he made no sense. They’d stopped talking.
Within a year, Frank was dead, too. The doctors said it was colon cancer, but Alan knew that was overly specific. He drank himself to death. If booze hadn’t pickled his colon, it would have shut down something else, but Alan found some serenity in the way his old man died. He’d have never imagined Frank taking it with such dignity. He’d grown resigned to his fate and succumbed with the full knowledge that it was all his own doing.
Alan wept regularly at his father’s bedside. So, too, did the procession of old friends who stopped by, mostly to pay their respects but sometimes more. His sad plight hit his old drinking buddies hard. They brought food Frank couldn’t eat. One spent the night after passing out on the floor. Frank Reuss was a beacon to where they were headed.
Death taught Alan the meaning of irony. Back in high school, Daddy had tortured him with angry accusations his friends never heard about “the great guy.”
“You ain’t nothing but a goddamned baby!”
“Well, I’m sorry, Daddy.”.
“You goddamned right you are!”
As Marty Robbins once sang, “The shoe is on the other foot tonight …”
Alan had gone off to college and become a man, but, by the time he got back home, his father was nothing “but a goddamned baby.”
Frank Reuss died knowing it, but Alan took no satisfaction. He just tried to remember the good times, and as time passed by, it’s mainly what he did.
Now that I am old myself / It doesn’t seem so bad / Because sometimes simple rhymes / Are the only ones we have / I wouldn’t have named him Frank / But I never had a son / I sold my soul in different roles / Not to be outdone.
One morning, five years after Frank Reuss’s death, Alan and his mother sat in the kitchen of her house, nibbling on toast and jelly, sipping coffee. They shared memories, mostly humorous, of Frank.
“It never suited Daddy to do things the way everybody else did,” Alan said. “He lost interest if he couldn’t pull something over on somebody. He’s the only man I ever knew who could drive to another town to watch me and Nick play football, fly a Screamin’ Eagles flag on both front windows, and convince the poor fellow at the gate that he was supposed to park in their booster club’s lot.”
“He dared you to stop him,” she said.
“He could say the most ridiculous thing you could imagine, with a perfectly straight face, like you were the one who was crazy, and he’d get away with it because it was just too much trouble to stop him. We’d pull on in, and I’d look behind us, and the poor guy would be standing there, scratching his head.”
They laughed and laughed about the time, when he was twelve, that Daddy got him and Luke Musgrave in the State Fair free by claiming they were under six, how he routinely parked right next to the fairgrounds by claiming he was exhibiting livestock, and how he’d get eight into a Clemson football game with six tickets.
“God, he could lie,” Alan said. “Not little ones. Big ones, the kinds only a fool would believe, but they didn’t have to be fools. Just like what he always yelled at me and Nick. ‘Don’t dispute my word!’ That was his attitude with everybody, and everybody went along with it, just like me and Cliff. That was Daddy in his glory, back before the fall.”
The fall. They dwelt on it silently, but just for a few seconds. It was no fun.
“You remember that time those two stud horses broke out?”
“Oh, yeah,” Alan said. “Broke out of the barn, started fighting, both of them jumped the fence, me and Nick hopped in the back of the pickup, and off we went, chasing two studs in heat right through the middle of town.”
They both started laughing, tried to suppress it, couldn’t stop.
“They, they had a big … drawing or something …” Linda Reuss recalled.
“It was at the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. There was a big flat-bed trailer, Johnny Whitson standing up there on the P.A. Here come the two of them, one quarter horse and one Appaloosa. The crowd parted, folks diving for cover, and here we show up on the scene … in hot pursuit.”
“Lord, they took off through the mill hill, ran through clotheslines …”
“Shit all over town. Me and Nick had to come back up there with a shovel.”
Mom got up and got the coffee pot, had to bring it back to the table because she was laughing too hard to keep from spilling a cup. Alan topped off his and crumbled up a packet of Sweet ‘n’ Low in.
“Mama, maybe it’s a good thing he’s dead,” Alan said, stirring the coffee. “They’d th’ow him in jail now.”
She had her reading glasses on, having picked up the local paper to see if there were any good coupons and hoping it would get her stopped laughing. She looked at Alan over the top of them.
“They th’owed you in jail back then, too,” she said. “Not your daddy.”
I hope you like my short stories. What I really hope is that you’ll read my novels, The Intangibles and The Audacity of Dope, and two more that are on the way. They’re available at neverlandpublishing.com. You can order signed copies at montedutton.com. Kindle editions are available at amazon.com. Thanks so much for your interest.