The August storm came hard from the south, as they usually did, with a rebel yell and mighty charge. The ancient Elms and Hickories were rolling as if the sky was running an angry hand over their spreads, dressed in full-green canvas; thick to the river. Most birds stayed in cover. Only the big crows dared breach the treetops for a glide in the wake. The downpour came in pounding earnest, from a million Gatling guns and an enfilading fire as loud as the static on a television set, off-cable in the middle of the night. The dense woods were no match for the deluge; even the ground-cover under the greatest canopy of old-growth forest west of the Cumberland Gap, took a thorough soaking. Eades Hogue, age 19, stood on a granite outcrop overlooking the Cumberland River as a Cherokee would have, two hundred years earlier. Storm drift filled the river. Upstream, a green, paint-flaking rowboat appeared, rotating in slow circles. It was empty; “must have been pulled off its anchor, probably from Corbin,” he thought. He scanned the water, looking for signs of life, but the heavy rain made visibility difficult. A lightning strike ripped the sky like a zipper, and exploded. It was close. There was another strike, hitting up-river, maybe two hundred yards that sent a web of electric current across the water.
“Best to stay put until this passes,” he thought.
He stood in closer to the trunk of a giant Hickory, using it for cover from the wind, and he pulled a joint from his overall chest pocket. It was thin like a match stick, and tight, like it had been rolled with a machine or dollar bill. He placed it to his lips and torched it with a butane lighter. The high was immediate, and brought a numbing sensation to his fingers and toes. He could hear, but sounds were muffled. The rain became a steady hum. Sheltered from the wind, he slid down with his back against the smooth trunk until he was in a sitting position where he would remain for another three hours.
Millard Hogue pulled into the asphalt driveway in the pouring rain and could see two rows of laundry soaking in the wind; the sheer weight of the water had pulled several of the garments off their clips. Three shirts had detached and were lying in a growing puddle of grass and mud. He threw the door open, crashing it against the front wall, dislodging a picture.
“Robby, how many times do I gotta tell you to pull down the clothes when your Ma’s gone to work? You just sit around on the goddamn computer and play all day. This storm was threatening for hours and I saw Ma hanging the wash up this morning before she left. Did you even step outside, just once, just to breathe the goddamn air? Or God forbid, did you do any of the chores we talked about Sunday?”
Robert Hogue, age 15, sat with his back to the door playing Def-Con 1 with headphones and a joystick. He was unaware of his father’s pleadings, which only made Millard angrier with each explosion that lit-up the screen.
From behind the couch, Millard ripped the headphones off of his son, threw them across the room, then ran around, grabbed the laptop and tossed it through the living-room window,
shattering it in an explosion of glass.
Millard saw himself on the couch, and everything he had aspired to, but abandoned. He saw a soft cushion, in a soft house, sheltering soft-people. He saw failure.
“Get off your lazy ass and get to your room before I throw you out next!” he screamed.
“Jesus Christ Dad, chill, I couldn’t hear you,” Robert shouted, now standing face to face with his father.
Millard backhanded him across the cheek dislodging two molars, causing Robert’s mouth to spurt blood. Robert fell to the ground.
“Oh my God; what have I done!” he yelled, as the violence shocked him out of the rage. He ran to the fridge and pulled out a metal tray of ice and formed an ice-pad with a kitchen towel. Rob was sitting with his back against the torn recliner sobbing, and holding the side of his mouth. He spit out two teeth as his dad sat at his side, and held the pack to his cheek.
“We’ve gotta get you to a doctor,” Millard yelled, trying to wipe the blood off his son that had drenched the front of his shirt and carpet. It was 5:25 p.m. Doctor Hughes would be in until 6:00; they still had time. The tissue under Rob’s right eye was swollen and turning black and purple.
“Son, I’ve gotta get you to Doc Hughes right away; you might have a broken jaw.”
Robbie couldn’t talk; his glazed stare was vacant and full of confusion. He took a few steps and buckled. Millard cradled him in his arms and made his way to the Taurus as the rain continued to pound down.
Sherriff Hans Bradford showed up the next morning at 8:00 a.m. with a young deputy Millard didn’t recognize. Caroline Hogue looked at Millard nervously and took his hand as the officers approached the door. They let them in and then stepped back to the couch.
“Millard, Caroline, you probably know why we’re here. I got a call last night from Doc Hughes who told me what happened. I guess Rob’s gonna be alright, but for God’s sake you fractured his jaw, knocked out two teeth and Doc is concerned Robbie may have a detached retina. Millard, this isn’t the first time. You nearly killed Eades two years ago. Time’s is tough to be sure, but you’re a grown man, and you can’t go beaten on children just because you lose your temper. I spoke with DA in Corbin, Jack Griffey, and I had to do some fast talkin; like a goddamn car salesman to keep the state from hauling Robbie out of your custody and puttin him in Foster Care.”
“Oh my God,” Caroline screamed, and then sobbed into Millard’s shoulder.
“Now Millard, you and I go way back, hell, we go to the same church, but as God is my witness, if I hear about something like this again, you’re going down and I will personally see to it. We’ll kindly let ourselves out.”
“Hans, thank you for this,” Millard said, then buried his head in his hands, crying.
The officers left.
“Mill…Mill, it’s okay. I know you didn’t mean to hurt Robbie or Eades, I know you didn’t,” she said.
“Yea, but that don’t fix things, does it? Rob’s in the hospital for a week and God knows where Eades is. Have you heard anything from him? He talks to you sometimes doesn’t he?” Millard asked, as he sat down on the couch. Caroline sat beside him.
“Mill, I haven’t heard from Eades in over a month.”
“Probably just as well. I look at him and wanna puke?”
“Why? What did he do to you? He always did well; never gave us an ounce of trouble. It’s almost like you went insane with him. Was it the tattoo, or the pipe? Millard you gotta let that go. He’s a good kid, does volunteer work, goes to church, and he’s never asked us for a dime. It’s you and your damn temper. He is never gonna live up, is he? He’s a musician, not a point guard and he’s good at what he does.”
“Yea, and what’s that Caroline?”
“He’s a kind, considerate, intelligent, good, human being. What else do you want?” she replied.
“Caroline, he grows dope. Do you hear me, pot! He wears his hair in that stupid mop,
and he smells like a goddamn, new-age fairy.”
“What’s got into you? You worked half your life for a whiskey maker; a whiskey maker for God’s sake who’s shutting down in a month. How can you sit there and judge him?”
“Pot should be.”
“Bullshit! That’s just pure drivel, nauseating, nonsense,” Millard replied.
“What can I do Mill? You’re out of control. I can only tolerate so much anger and that foul mouth of yours. I know you better than that. I know things are tough and you’ve put it all on your shoulders, but it’s like something possesses you. Maybe you should talk to someone, you know they got things like Prozac which are supposed to help,” she said.
“I gotta do something. We’re gonna lose this house,” he said, looking at his feet.
“I’m gonna go see Robbie, do you want to come?” he asked Caroline.
“I can’t; there’s a big party coming in tonight and I gotta get set-ups ready for at least a hundred people.”
“Will you be home late?” he asked.
“Yea, probably after 10:00,” she said. “There’s meatloaf and tators in the fridge.”
An hour later, he was at Whitley County General Hospital walking down a fourth-floor hallway to Rob’s room.
The door was open and when he entered he saw Eades sitting in a chair next to Rob. Eades stared up at Millard with a piercing glare, full of loathing and contempt.
“Well lookeeyere; its Pa, come to check on his handy work. How’d it feel smacking Rob around last night? Not bad Pa; just a broken jaw and a couple of teeth missing. At least you didn’t point a gun at him like you did me. What are you Pa, twice his size?”
Millard ignored the taunts and walked to the other side of the bed. Rob was trying to shake his head as if to plead for a stand-down. His face was wrapped like a mummy with ice on the swollen side. Ventilation tubes were in each nostril and he was hooked up to a vitals monitor that chirped steady, green numbers.
“Robbie, son, I’m sorry I hit you. I lost control I’m….”
“Why don’t you fuck-off old man! You come in here like a sniveling baby; why don’t you just leave, I’ll take care of Rob,” Eades said standing, cheeks flushed red, and eyes squinting in anger.
Millard looked at Eades and began to feel a deep-boiling rage in his gut, but he turned away and looked out the window where another storm was threatening.
“Eades, I was wrong. I know it; I almost killed you and your brother. It was the Devil come over me. I swear I wouldn’t hurt you or Rob on purpose,” he said, beginning to feel what was now becoming a regular swell of tears.
“Keep your sanctimonious devil-talk, bullshit to yourself. That’s your problem. If you can’t get a grip, check yourself into a facility, maybe God will help you with an anger management program. Ever consider medication? Who’s next Ma?”
Millard didn’t say a word, just pointed his head down and sobbed.
“Everything okay in here?” a male nurse asked, standing at the doorway after the sounds of yelling had filled the entire floor.
Millard just nodded up and down rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. He sat on the floor with his back against the wall.
Eades pulled a new IPod from his pocket and laid it on the pillow next to Rob’s head.
“I gotta go; we’re trimming and dead heading today, and I gotta do some repair work. That storm really kicked our ass last night. The road’s a river of mud. You’ll be okay. I’ve already loaded most of Rage and Limp Biscuit and Metallica but I’ll be doing more tonight. Listen, you have my cell. Call me anytime. I’ll have it on me even when I’m working. You’re gonna be okay little bro. I’ll be back later,” Eades said, patting Rob on the shoulder.
Then he reached into his overall pocket and pulled out a joint like the one he’d smoked yesterday in the storm.
“Hey madman, try this tonight, and you’ll feel better. You look like you could use a break,” he said, tossing the joint at Millard’s feet. Millard kept his eyes closed and head down.
He looked back at his brother, “Call me, Rob or have the nurse call me if you need anything,” he said, turning towards the door.
The room was silent, but for the steady hum and whoosh of the ventilator.
Eades drove ten miles southeast, up a holler on a dirt road leading to the cave. Felix’s rusting, Honda Accord was parked near the entrance under tree-cover and he had placed a camouflage cover over it as an added precaution. Eades parked and did the same. He entered the large opening, cut into the side of the hill, and walked a short way until he reached a heavy set of wooden doors that he knew would be locked. He pressed an intercom button and waited for Felix to reply. In a moment he heard the jostling of a padlock inside, and the door creaked open.
“Hi Eades; how’s Rob,” he asked, walking down a fifty-foot passage to an open, well-lit chamber.
“He’ll make it,” Eades replied.
Felix Hernandez was twenty four and short, less than five feet tall, with dark, Mestizo features found in Indians living in the north of Mexico. He had a round, plump face set in a permanent smile, and he wore an olive, mechanics jumpsuit that hadn’t been washed in weeks.
“I’ve been pulling off some great bud from the Kush” he said, pulling pruning shears from a leather scabbard hooked to his belt.
“I know. I tried some yesterday at the river and it damn near knocked me out. Pure Herijuana,” Eades said, smiling.
“I’m guessing $75 a quarter should be no problem, in fact, probably low. This is some high grade shit,” he continued.
He gazed across the room which was part of an intricate cave system used as far back as the Civil War by the Confederates who mined it for Saltpeter. There were also veins of coal, but small mines were long forgotten and usually just picked-over by Hillbillies living off-the-grid. Row upon row of three-foot high, leafy, pot plants stood in uniform, black buckets under florescent lighting, twenty-four hours a day. The plants were still too young to harvest other than pulling off the lower quality shake that came from the leaves and stems. The big harvest would occur around October and Felix would invite some of his under-the-radar friends from the surrounding tobacco fields and fast-food joints. Budsmen usually made $10 an hour, under-the-table, tax-free. They had been in operation for almost two years, since Eades left his home after his father kicked his ass over a pipe Eades had left on his dresser drawer.
Pot had taken over as Kentucky’s biggest cash crop as demand had skyrocketed after the sixties. Kentucky was perfect due to its dense foliage, large forests and countless, hidden coves and hollers hidden from the un-crowded back roads. Growers were well known and largely ignored by the local law enforcement. The Feds could be a problem, but with the economy in turmoil and unemployment near 15% in South Kentucky, Eades figured they were pretty safe as long as they didn’t flaunt things and kept a low profile. They were called moon-growers and budsmen, and business was booming. Eades kept a locked-safe in a covered hole and figured it held at least a hundred thousand dollars. It was almost surreal to think they were still a month away from the big harvest.
Eades turned his thoughts to his Pa. He hated him for his anger and violence but he also couldn’t help feel sorry for him. His world seemed to collapse when Ma got laid off and his hours got cut back at the Rebel Mark Distillery. Suddenly, just getting-by, meant not-makin-it at all. First it was the car and then the collection calls and then the BK and then the bank started foreclosing on the house.
Pa was proud, too proud perhaps, but his family had lived in the area for over 150 years and he was a survivor and this was his home and he vowed not to leave.
Pa’s was the first generation on both sides of the family not to live off the land or rely on it one way or another. When times were tough for Grandpa, he planted more corn and raised more pork. He was able to sustain a comfortable living through self reliance. Pa, young and restless left the farm when he returned from Nam in 1965 and was convinced he couldn’t live in the country anymore. He bought a one-story Craftsman on Third Street in Williamsburg and took a job with the Jack Daniels Distillery in New London which offered a comfortable benefits package and 401K. Ma who stayed at home when he and Rob were kids had to take a job as a hostess at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance twenty miles north on Highway 75.
When Pa transferred to Rebel Mark Distillery, things looked bright, but then the Great Recession of 2008 hit, and high-end whiskey took a nosedive. This was ironic, because Eades and Felix’s operation was doubling its sales, quarter over quarter.
Millard sulked all day in the recliner sipping whiskey from a pint bottle, watchin a boxed set of Gun Smoke re-runs. Caroline wasn’t due until 10:00 that night and with Rob gone the place felt like a morgue. He repaired the window with plastic and tape and the storm while steady, had blown itself out and the plastic covering the window flapped steady and eventually went still. He checked his watch…6:00 and he fingered his chest pocket for the joint Eades had thrown at him.
Eades, handsome, perfect, Eades. Everything Millard wasn’t, but wanted to be. Self determined, talented and intelligent. For Millard, life was a series of rides that took him nowhere. He learned to expect little and was successful with the thinking. It was safer that way. He didn’t get much, and nothing ever came easy. He remembered how happy and excited he and Caroline were when they got the news of her first pregnancy. Life was so simple and good then. They weren’t social and didn’t go out often but it was just as well. They had everything they needed. He shot hoops with Eades every afternoon and though Eades wasn’t tall he developed a deadly jump-shot from twenty feet. He enrolled Eades in a travel-ball team out of Corbin where he tore up the 12 and under competition every time he stepped on the court. God, if he only had Eades talent when he was young, he’d a made all-Kentucky easy. Soon though, Eades tired of the sport and took up guitar. It was all Millard could do to get him back out on the driveway in the evening. He started escaping to his room and playing the Hoener Electric Guitar his Grandpa had given him when he was ten, hour after hour after hour. Millard couldn’t stand the music and he thought it was wrong that Eades sequestered himself inside, when he could be outside having fun, becoming successful.
The joint was a third the size of a cigarette without a filter which seemed wrong to Millard on some level, but then he thought of cigars which gave him a bizarre sense of comfort. Pot was a symbol of something he didn’t like or understand, a statement of rebellion and independence; a mocking of what was normal in society. He saw friends in the jungle sit for days too stoned to know Charlie from Charlene. Most left so fucked up, it was no wonder they came back as padded-cell, bunk mates or Hells Angels or Mongols or drug addicts.
Drinking was civilized, widely accepted and legal. It was clean fun, like bluegrass music. Pot was sinister, dark and metallic like the music it reflected.
A beer was like a soda pop and tasted good. Whiskey was soothing and friendly and sat handsomely on a shelf in bottles and decanters of tradition and distinction. Pot made people stupid and gay and was a gateway to things far more sinister. Alcohol was a food to be served with meals. Jesus drank wine, and it might have been whiskey, had it been available.
He held the joint up with his index finger and thumb and put it to his nose. The scent was certainly distinct and he recognized it from his constant exposure to it in South East Asia. He never partook, but that was about to change.
He put it to his lips and struck a match and inhaled as he lit it. He took a toke like he would have taken a three finger shot, straight-up, and hard-back. The smoke burned his lungs and he coughed for two minutes, the time it took for his body to turn into a marshmallow, pin-cushion. Everything was numb. He sat holding the remaining half of the joint in his fingers, but he didn’t move, not an inch, not a muscle. Moving wasn’t hard, just annoying, every nerve was amputated and covered in honey. He was hungry and the thought of Chips and Oreo’s guided him in a deep hypnosis to the pantry which held neither.
As if in a trance, he opened his wallet, checked for cash and then grabbed the car keys off the counter and headed for the Taurus. He felt an amazing calm. He could function but was free of distraction and worry. He felt full of love and his thoughts turned to Caroline and Robby and Eades. He got on the road and headed towards the hospital. Things seemed slower. When he approached a red light he thought, nice… a place to stop, when it turned green, okay…my turn … there was no rush, he was on a cosmic conveyor belt delivering him wherever he chose. There was no effort, just things swirling in slow motion. Not psychedelic like he imagined, but much softer.
The parking lot was crowded but no worries, the air was clear and warm and the fresh from the rain. The hospital was beautiful alabaster, smooth like polished marble, like a Greek Temple, classic and important. He’d never noticed that before. He knew Robbie was in room 409 and he walked with a tranquil calm to the elevator and down the hall to Robby’s room.
Robby was asleep but Eades was there. Millard felt mellow. He smiled at Eades and walked to the other side of the bed and kissed Robby on the cheek.
“Have you been here long Eades?”
“No Pa, just got here ten minutes ago,” Eades replied.
“How is he?” Millard asked.
“Well, at least his retina isn’t detached, and according to the nurse, they’ll probably release him after tomorrow. I was thinking about having him move in with me,” Eades said, staring into Millard’s eyes where he saw the high, and red-eyed stupor.
“I’ll be damned. Pa is stoned! You didn’t throw it away. Geeze, I gotta tell Felix; I just lost a twenty-dollar bet.”
“It was good son; I never felt anything much like it. Is it from your crop?” Millard asked.
“Yea, from last year, and it’s almost sold out. We call it Holler Hit Man because it usually knocks you out on the first inhale.”
“Who do you sell it too?”
“Mostly frat-clubs and colleges on the east-coast. We never actually see the buyers. It goes out bulk-mail, vacuum-sealed in envelopes with no return address.
“How do you get paid?” Millard asked?
“The same way, but in advance, all cash.”
“Seems kind of risky.” Millard said.
“Yea, I suppose so, but it’s good product and everyone seems happy. We stone-up the Ivy League and bolster Whitley County’s economy in the process.”
“Can I get more?” Millard asked.
“Sure Pa, in fact, I’ll be needing some help over the next few months, you interested?” he said, and winked as the rain began tapping on the window.