Saga of the Elizabethton Tarheels
I secured the boat and walked very slowly toward
the car. I wasn't exactly conscious of trying to avoid reaching the store,
but I was certainly in no hurry. I arrived at the store just as the
courthouse clock struck 5:00.
I went inside as Mr. Sanford was closing the
front door. "Justin here?" I asked as he ushered me in.
"He's still out on a delivery. He's sure saved
my hide this summer, what with Adam gone for one thing or another." Mr.
Sanford and Adam had had their problems the last three or so years. That
seemed to be true in any 'son working for his father' situation. Of course,
I'd never know because there was no way I'd ever be working for my father.
When Justin came in, I told him Clarisa was with
his mama and had taken supper to her. "Thought you might like to go out on
the boat so we can talked undisturbed." I was afraid Justin would demand I
tell him about his mama right away, but he didn't.
I used the motor to get us to an isolated beach
and we went ashore. I spread a blanket on the sand and we sat, looking out
at the sea. We were silent for a while, then Justin looked at me and said
"The news is not good, is it Marcus?"
"No, the news is not good and there is no way of
sugarcoating it, Justin. You know your mama is very ill...."
"Yeah, I I looked up the drugs she had been
taking on the internet. I know she is HIV positive and has some kind of
infection," he said.
"Not just HIV positive, Justin, AIDS and an
infection by a rare bug. As your mama said, there's a race between the AIDS
and the infection as to which will be the final cause, but the truth is, to
be very blunt, your mama is dying and has only a short time to live --
weeks, not months. Wish I had better news or an easier way to tell you, but
that's the way it is." I then told him everything. He listened in silence --
well, except for soft sobs -- not even stopping me to ask questions. If he
had, I'm not sure I could have gone on for crying.
When Justin had started crying softly, I had
reached out and pulled his head to my shoulder. When I had finally finished
talking, he was sobbing aloud. I held him tightly and stroked his hair as
Clarisa had done mine countless times, times when I cried over a broken toy,
a scrape, or cut, but never something as painful as Justin losing his mama.
I wondered just how upset I would be if it were Mother. Justin cried himself
out, lifted his head and said, "Marcus, I know how hard this must have been
for you and I love you for doing it. I just wish the news had been better."
"So do I," I responded.
We sat and talked, our arms about each others
shoulders, sitting close, until the sun was approaching the horizon leaving
us just time to sail back to the marina, arriving near the end of the summer
twilight. I tied up the boat and took Justin home. I knew he needed time
with his mother, so I only stayed long enough to collect Clarisa.
Three days later, Ms. Smith went to hospice and
Justin was left alone in the house where he had lived most of his life. Even
though both Clarisa and I insisted he stay at my place, he didn't. Likewise,
he didn't miss work since he was now the only source of income he had.
Fortunately, the house, poor as it was, was paid for so he didn't have that
to worry about.
His mama died in her sleep three weeks after I
had taken her to the clinic. Following Doc Jakes' advise, she was cremated.
An amazing collection of people attended the
memorial service at St. Paul's -- farmers, business men, lawyers, judges,
ordinary folks, and the well-to-do, all who had known Naomi at the Blue
Bird. Justin had requested gifts to the St. Paul's AIDS program in lieu of
flowers. Late in the afternoon of the memorial service, Fr. DeBruhl, Justin,
and I sailed out into the sea and scattered her ashes on the outgoing tide.
School was only two weeks away after her death
and I wondered how Justin would cope. He had mentioned the possibility of
dropping some courses and taking some easier ones so he could work longer
hours. When he said something like that to Clarisa, she raked him over the
coals royally, as did Mr. Sanford. Clarisa had been volunteering at a
program set up at St. Paul's to help people access social services; she had
Justin fill out a lot of forms to get help. He didn't like 'taking charity,'
and when he said that, he got another raking over. I, fool like,
decided to chide Clarisa for her treatment of
Justin and she told me in no uncertain terms she knew what she was doing.
"If I tried to pamper him, he'd think I thought
he wasn't able to take care of himself. I know what I'm doing." Obviously
she did since Justin responded like the adult he was. Clarisa did join me in
suggesting Justin move in with me, but he wouldn't. He did stay over more
than he had, but not much more.
Justin was being realistic about changing some
courses if he was going to work more, but since he wasn't, he kept his
original schedule. The Clan had registered for our senior classes in the
spring and when someone remarked, "Easy senior year coming up," we all
laughed. If anything, our schedule and classes were tougher than they had
been our junior year.
Justin and I saw each other several times a week
as Clarisa insisted he come for supper often, even if he wouldn't stay over.
If he didn't eat with us, she said, he'd waste away eating his own cooking.
Like peanut butter and jelly took a lot of cooking! I had hoped the 'crown
affair' was the beginning of something nice, but Justin never mentioned it
again and neither did I for fear of reading too much into
it. I HAD, apparently, read too much into it,
but the crown occupied a prominent place in my room.
I saw less and less of Father since he seldom
came home from Raleigh. I was surprised if he showed up more than two
weekends a month. I had heard a rumor that he had a woman in Raleigh and I
guess it was probably right. He certainly didn't have one at home. Mother
was taking her morning orange juice with less and less juice and more and
more vodka and was generally fully sloshed by noon. I had long
given up on trying to get her to cut down since
it did no good. Last time I tried to talk to her about her drinking, she
assured me she could stop anytime -- while holding a glass of booze in her
hand. Truth of the matter was, she spent more and more of her time in a
Band practice started two weeks before Labor
Day. We played and marched in ninety degree weather until one of the
drummers passed out. After that, we practiced early morning and late
afternoon. There was no practice Labor Day weekend, but Father phoned to say
he'd be home over the long weekend -- to give a speech, not to see the
family. He managed to get Mother sober enough to appear with him on the
platform. I was required to be there for the mandatory photo op, but when
that was over, I was allowed to go. Mother, unfortunately, had to be around
longer and Clarisa said she was having the shakes by the time Father brought
her home and left for Raleigh.
Justin said Mr. Sanford was having a big sale at
both stores Labor Day weekend. There'd be no deliveries until after Labor
Day, but Mr. Sanford had him working the floor more and more and he would be
at the new store for the sale. Then, when he came for supper Wednesday
before Labor Day, he said Mr. Sanford had insisted he
take half a day off Labor Day. "I'll be finished
at noon," he said. "What are you up to?"
"Father will be home over the long Labor Day
weekend -- to give a speech," I responded. "I'll have to show up for the
mandatory photo op, but when that is over, I'm free to go. You have
something in mind?"
"Think we might find a deserted section of
beach, even Labor Day afternoon?"
"I think we might," I grinned, "Want to take a
look Sunday? Spot a place for Labor Day afternoon?"
"Sounds like a winner," Justin replied.
I expected Father to come in Friday night but,
if he did, it was after I had gone upstairs. When he didn't show up for
breakfast, I asked Clarisa what was up. She told me he had called and said
he'd be coming in Sunday, but not to expect him for Sunday dinner.
Both Justin and I were serving at the Eucharist
Sunday and when I got home, Clarisa sent me upstairs to check on Mother
while she and Justin finished Sunday dinner and got it on the table. Mother
was still in bed, a mask over her eyes even though the draperies were closed
and the room dark. When I told her dinner would be ready shortly, she just
groaned and said she didn't feel up to eating. After the three of
us -- Clarisa, Justin and I -- finished dinner,
Justin and I cleared the table then changed and headed for the marina.
Justin and I got aboard, I started the motor,
Justin cast off and I took us out of the marina. As soon as we were clear, I
asked, "Deserted beach?"
"Deserted beach or just sailing either is fine,"
"In that case," I grinned, "Let's get the sails
We hoisted the sail, I lashed the tiller and
just let her sail. Half lying, half sitting, Justin and I faced each other.
While we saw each other several times a week and spent a good amount of time
together, we hadn't really talked since his mama's death. I knew her death
had hit him hard -- who wouldn't be hit hard by the death of his mother? I
wondered how he was coping and was afraid to ask, but today seemed like the
time for that.
"Justin," I began and then stopped. What was I
"Justin, how are you... I mean how do you...
Justin, how're you dealing with... you know... your mama's..."
"Well, I hope," he smiled a sad smile. "Really,
it's hard sometimes. Going home at night to an empty house, thinking about
how she'll laugh when I tell her something funny that happened at the store,
then remembering. Thinking I'll ask her advice when I'm trying to decide
whether I should do something or not. After all, she and I were it; we were
our total family and now half of it's gone. It's hard, very hard at times.
But I've got good friends -- John and Susan, Adam and Bobbie." My heart was
in my throat. Why hadn't he counted me among his friends? I was about to ask
when he said, "And people who love me -- Clarisa..." Justin paused, looked
at me with a curious look on his face and said, "you," and hurried on. "I
have very supportive adults. Mr. Sanford has really taken me under his wing,
helping me in all sorts of ways, helping me make decisions. Fr. DeBruhl is
there when I need him.
So, yeah, it's been hard and is hard, but it
could be worse, much worse."
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing for
several minutes, then we talked about what we would do the next day. All in
all, we had a lazy late summer Sunday afternoon and never did get to that
Monday was Labor Day and I did the photo op
thing, which took all morning. Justin had finished at the store and was
waiting for me at the house when I got there. We headed to the marina -- it
was crowded -- and finally got the boat out and headed to sea. As soon as we
were well away from the crowd, I cut the motor, we hoisted the sails and
were just sailing long, as we often did, in silence. Then we heard a roar as
John's boat rocked us with a huge wake. He whipped around and dropped his
speed to pull along side us.
"Thought it'd be next week before you arrived,"
John called to us.
"Baby had to get his picture taken with his
mommy and daddy," Justin said it that voice people use when speaking to
babies or little dogs.
"We got a late start, too" John said. "Mrs.
Sanford got home from church early and cut short the lovers' Sunday make out
party. Adam is in major doo-doo, but was finally released. See you at the
island. Kite sailing's on the menu," John said, then roared away, headed out
"Sure hope they're using protection," Justin
mused as soon as we could hear ourselves think.
"You think they really need to?" I asked.
"Surely they don't have some disease or other."
Justin looked at me and shook his head, "I
wasn't thinking of disease," he said. "Duh."
"Oh," I stammered and blushed. "I get what you
"How about we join them?"
"Making out?" I asked, hoping he'd agree.
He didn't. "Yeah, let's... I've not had time to
kite sail this whole summer."
Justin hadn't spent a lot of time on the beach
this summer, but was still beautifully bronzed. I had spent much more time
there and, if I compared my arms to my butt, I could tell a difference, but
that was about it. I covered my body with sunscreen with Justin's help and
kept reapplying it all day after I had been in the water, swimming, or kite
We got back to the marina when it was barely
light and, after the boat was secured, Justin and I walked to the car. As we
walked up the dock, he put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me to
himself. I wrapped an arm around his waist and, again, it felt so right.
When I looked up, he had a slight smile on his face and a far, far away
look. Maybe I was imagining things -- or engaging in wishful thinking.
Since the next day was the first day of school
-- the first day of our senior year -- Justin said he needed to go home.
"I'm not fond of getting up with the sun," he said, "and my school clothes
are at my place." I started to suggest we pick them up and he spend the
night at my place, but thought better of it. If he wanted to do that, he
would have said so, I was sure -- well, pretty sure.
I expected Mother and Father would be in the
library, having a drink, when I got home, but they were not. Then, when I
walked into the kitchen, Clarisa, who I did not expect to see, was sitting
at the kitchen table drinking coffee.
"Mother and Father go up already?" I asked.
"Your father is on his way to Raleigh -- or at
least he left and said that was where he was headed. Your mother's in her
"Passed out no doubt," I said.
She said Mother had to stay with Father until
late afternoon, long after I left. She added that Mother had been without a
drink for hours and had the shakes real bad when she got back home. "Your
father just brought her home, took her up to bed, and said, "Clarisa, get
some booze in her so she'll stop shaking. I'm going hom... to Raleigh."
The first day of school dawned bright and
beautiful, a perfect day for the beach, much better than the day before
which had been somewhat cloudy.
The Clan had agreed to meet in the school
parking lot before we had to go in. I picked up Justin and, when we arrived,
Adam and Bobbie were waiting in Adam's car. Adam had managed to buy an old
car from a farmer's wife after her husband died, and she finally got to buy
a new one. It was old in years, but not in miles, but still needed work when
he got it last spring. Adam started on customizing it and he,
with Justin's help -- I knew nothing, nada,
zilch, about working on cars -- had finished it over the summer. It was a
jewel. And unlike most of the deck out cars around school, spoke with a
beautiful purr, not rapping thunder.
"Where's John... and Susan?" I asked as we
walked over to Adam's car.
"John's picking up Susan," Bobbie replied.
"Romance after all?" I asked.
"They swear not," Bobbie responded.
"Yeah, right," Adam said.
Just then the two pulled up beside Adam's car in
John's mother's SUV. When they came over, Adam said, "John, when you getting
your own car? Your old man's got money."
"Which he intends to keep," John laughed, "but
the Battleship North Carolina you see here," John gestured toward the gray
Lexus SUV, "is mine. Stepmother dearest decided she needed a new car to
match her new image. She's now a redhead instead of a bleached blond and
driving a red BWM convertible. BIG change, but it got her a car."
John's mother had died when he was in grade
school -- I don't know of what -- and he and his father had lived alone
until a couple years ago when, to everyone's surprise, Mr.Thurmond had come
home from business trip with a new wife who was only a few years older than
John. John said he suspected something was going on when his father started
making a lot of 'business' trips to Atlanta. She and John got along fine
since he had a 'young man's quarters' as I did and they seldom saw each
So we were all present and accounted for when
the bell rang, and thus our senior year began.