Jamie and Andy were not about to miss the big Fourth of July celebration and after a lot of begging and pleading, the doctor released them Sunday with a detailed list of dos and don’ts. Molly and Ethan picked them up in her big Lincoln at noon Sunday. Sally Ann and Scotty prepared lawn lounge chairs for them under an ancient oak so they could observe everything going on.
People started arriving at four. There were games for the young kids, Ethan got a ball game going and neighbors sat in folding chairs under the old oaks and visited. Hand-cranked ice cream freezers were filled at five and kids started cranking. As a churn was frozen, it was packed in large tubs with salt and ice to ‘cure.’ The long food table was set up at six and women began loading it with food. At six-thirty, the old iron bell mounted in an oak clanged away and everyone gathered around the table. Reverend Ernest Whitson, pastor of Bethel AME Zion church offered—at great length—thanks and people started piling their plates high.
Rich and Doug had never experienced such and found it all simply amazing. Both could not believe the variety and quantity of food set out and were even more amazed when empty dishes were quickly replaced by filled ones. Sally Ann, Claire Bell and Mrs. Edwards had done dozens of deviled eggs. Doug commented on the fact that none were left long before everyone started on the desserts. When all had finally had their fill, people packed away leftover food, often exchanging something they brought with a neighbor.
By the time food was packed away, the temperature had dropped a bit and kids were playing tag and the ballgame resumed. Ethan was having a blast and was delighted to discover his boyfriend was not as bad a ballplayer as he claimed to be. The ballplayers had finally had enough around 8:30. Randy had brought a tarp used to cover huge rolls of hay and Ethan and Scotty spread it under an oak then spread a blankets on it. Young folks were soon sprawled out on the blankets. Rich, Jeff and Art joined them, sitting Indian style. Doug came out of the house carrying a guitar case which Rich opened, took out a guitar and started playing. Two more guitars appeared and soon a sing-along was in progress. Doug was leaning against Rich, the two singing harmony. Ethan wanted very much to be sitting close to Scotty, but decided he wasn’t ready for that yet.
At 9:30, there was a tremendous boom and the sky was lit up by fireworks. How Davis Edwards managed to have a fireworks display no-one knew, and no-one was about to say anything about it because it had been an Arkadelphia Plantation tradition longer than anyone could remember. After the fireworks, the ice cream churns were opened and everyone had fresh peach or strawberry ice cream, another Arkadelphia Fourth of July tradition.
Finally the day was over and it was time to go home. Randy told Ethan he and Ginger would drop off Jamie on their way to Pleasant Grove. Rich and Doug insisted on taking the jump seats in Ethan’s truck and letting Sally Ann ride shotgun. “The lady deserves royal treatment for all she did to make the day a wonderful experience,” Rich said, and Doug agreed as did Ethan.
Rich’s phone rang on the way to the Taylors’. Reception was pretty erratic at Arkadelphia and he asked Ethan to stop as he had a fair signal where he was. He told the caller to hang on as he had to get out of the truck. As he stepped out, he motioned for Doug to get out as well and said, “We’ll walk back.”
“Sis,” Ethan said, “I was major proud of you today.”
“Thanks. Proud of you too, Brother. You have a good time?”
“Don’t get me wrong, Ethan, but I was surprised your boyfriend could play ball like he did.”
“Honest? I was surprised as well. He just keeps surprising me.”
“You’re in love, Ethan?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“You don’t know?”
“How do you know? I don’t know how you know you know.”
Sally Ann laughed. “What do you think?”
“I think if I’m not, I’d not be able to stand the real thing. Yeah, Sally Ann, I am in love with Scotty.”
“Well, he’s not a super jock stud, but he’s one damn fine looking guy. All the girls think so. I just laugh and tell them he’s taken and they try to figure out who she is. I just smile and say, ‘Remember he came from Marietta.’”
‘It has been a long, but wonderful day,’ Ethan thought as he crawled into bed. He could barely remember a few things about the last Fourth of July he had attended. It was before his dad was injured when Sally Ann was a baby.
At breakfast the next morning, Rich said he was going to be around for a while. “The phone call last night was from my boss. I’m to get a motel room in Braggton. We’d like for me to share with Doug, of course, but his place is too small—it’s a college dorm room with private bath and microwave—and I’m to be headquartered in Bragg County to work with the sheriff and GBI. Both have found indications something pretty big and ugly is going on here.”
“You can stay here,” Jamie said. “How many classes do you have Doug?”
“I have the Tuesday and Thursday lit class Ethan is in and a Friday seminar from nine to twelve.”
“Ethan, thirty minutes to the college?” Jamie asked.
“Less than thirty-five on a bad day.”
“You wanted to know about plantations, you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know. Rich, you’d be fifteen minutes or less from Braggton, less time than it’d take you to get out of your driveway in Atlanta,” Jamie laughed, but it wasn’t too funny to Rich as it was often true! “What’d you think?” Before Rich could answer, his phone chimed. The eccentricities of cell phone reception in the area were nowhere better illustrated than by the fact that a cell might ring inside the Taylor house, but otherwise there was no reception. However, reception was okay in the plantation house. Rich looked at his phone, shook his head and walked outside.
“How do you like the idea, Doug?” Sally Ann asked. “We’d love to have you. Your bed okay? You like the food? What’s the problem?”
“We’d be intruding on you. You have your lives, very busy lives, and we’d be added work.”
“You got the wrong impression! Think you’d be guests?” Ethan chuckled. You are free about half the time. Supplement that paltry professor’s salary. Grow some calluses on those smooth hands. Work on the great American novel ...”
“And become more than academically acquainted with male bovine excrement, commonly called bullshit,” Jamie laughed.
“It’s a gracious offer,” Doug said, “and I would love to accept, but this is Rich’s ballgame. Frankly, it looks like the break he’s been waiting for. He’s been frustrated because he is usually given cases that are not very challenging. We both think his being openly gay is a factor, but it is never overt enough to be more than a hunch. If this situation is big enough to leave him down here, it’s bigger than he first thought last night. If it is, he’s been assigned to it because he is here and low man on the totem pole. Everyone in the Atlanta office looks at south Georgia as if it is the end of the world.”
Rich came back in and said, “Something’s got to be done about cell phone service. Well, my boss’s boss was on the phone. I am now reporting to him, not my former boss. He told me to be prepared to stay here all summer at least. ‘You will learn to appreciate air conditioning,’ he laughed. I fly back to Atlanta for a briefing, to get things I need, pick up a car I’m being issued and come back and settle in. I’m to rent an office, get phones, internet and all installed and be ready to go by the end of next week.”
“When does your flight leave?” Doug asked.
“Five-forty tomorrow evening. I need to find an office, place to live, get installation of communications going before I leave. If I’m not finished in time to make that flight, I’ll get the six-thirty one Wednesday morning.”
An idea was forming in Jamie’s fertile brain, but before putting it on the table, he went to the kitchen and called Scotty. When Jamie came back to the living room, Rich said, “Well, I guess I’d better be get started. Long day ahead of me.”
“Hold on for a few. May make it shorter than you think,” Jamie said.
A few minutes later, Scotty came in, walked over and sat in Ethan’s lap and kissed him. “Now that important business is out of the way, we can get to the trivial things. Jamie called and said I should come over because he had an idea. Dangerous at best. What’s going on?”
Rich quickly filled him in, then Scotty asked, “And how do I fit into that picture, Jamie?”
“Okay, it’s like this. Rich is going to be here all summer, Doug will be as well, so they need a place to live. Rich living in a motel room does not sound like fun. Doug’s place is too small—a dorm room with a microwave. Rich also needs an office. Your place will be finished early next week. With some added workers, it could be finished this week. Pleasant Grove is down the road a piece. You and Ethan are going to end up living together sooner or later and I suspect sooner. So, Rich rents your house and has a place to live and an office. Cost less than a motel and an office in town. He needs to get to town; fifteen minute drive. Doug, of course, will be living with Rich—free rent, Doug—and have thirty, thirty-five minute drive to the college three times a week.
“Since Ethan and Scotty are shy about sleeping together right now—Sally Ann and I think that’s a good idea, you two need time and we do too—Scotty has the guest room and you stay in your room, Ethan. Any other problems?”
Everyone was silent for a minute or two. “Maybe you are on to something,” Rich said. “We know cell phone reception out here is erratic at best. No broadband. On the plus side, the house is isolated from snoopy neighbors and is, so far as looks is concerned, just a part of Pleasant Grove. How far to Randy’s place from yours, Scotty?”
“About a quarter of a mile.”
“Good. What do the rest of you think, especially you and Scotty, Ethan?”
“Sounds like a winner to me,” Sally Ann said right away.
Ethan and Scotty looked at each other and blushed before huge smiles covered their faces.
“Now that we have that settled, what’s the next step?” Jamie asked. Ethan suddenly realized Jamie had taken charge and was running this operation. He sometimes thought any idea Jamie had, involved thinking with his little head, which he guessed was normal at sixteen, but listening to him now he was well aware of the fact that his baby brother was growing up. Jamie was well on his way to being a solid young man and he was proud.
“Well, before we get into rent and all that, Davis will have to have a say,” Ethan said, “but putting that aside, what needs to be done? What yet has to be done to your house, Scotty?”
Scotty thought a minute and said, “I guess the major job is completing the bathroom. The re-wiring is complete. I think all the appliances are in place except the heat pump. It’s to be delivered and installed tomorrow. All that’s left is painting the outside and inside.”
“The place has been re-wired?” Rich asked.
“It has and that included wiring for phones. Boxes are there for cable-TV and internet, but that’s not likely in the near future.”
“Okay, maybe we have a deal here. Babe, we’ll have a look at it and see what Mr. Edwards thinks. If it’s a go, I get busy making happen what needs to happen. May be able to make the flight this evening, which would be good, may not. You need to make a list of what I need to bring for you from Atlanta.”
After breakfast, Rich accompanied Ethan and Scotty to Mr. Edwards’ office. Rich explained what was going on quickly and Ethan told him what Jamie had proposed. “Kid’s sharp,” Davis said. “Randy says he is a wonder at cattle sales. Can spot a problem with a cow half a mile away and is real slick when it comes to bidding. He knows exactly when to call it quits and how to bluff out other bidders. Rich, anything Arkadelphia can do to help see those assholes that hurt those boys are punished is yours. The house, however, is Scotty’s. I suspect Uncle Sam pretty much sets what you can spend for an office and place to live, so you know about that. You pay Scotty.
“Scotty, you’ll need furniture. Don’t expect you to call in an interior decorator, but buy good stuff. Since you’ll need to get basic things so Rich and Doug will have a decent and comfortable place to live, go ahead and get it. Arkadelphia will loan you the money and you can pay it back out of the rent. Looks like a win-win situation to me.”
The question of Rich’s housing and office settled, Ethan left to take Jamie, Andy, and Sally Ann into Braggton to make a statement for the sheriff and GBI. Scotty and Rich and Doug went to look at the house.
Even though Monday was observed by most as a holiday, since the Fourth of July came on Sunday, the painters had started work at six-thirty to take advantage of the cooler morning temperature. Prepping the outside had been finished earlier and paint was being applied using precision spray guns. It was going rapidly. The outside would be ready for a second coat by the time the first was finished. Painting the trim would go much slower, but the outside would be almost, if not completely, done before it got too hot to work outside.
Inside, workers were busy prepping for paint and had already started painting the kitchen. For some reason, all the activity paused for a moment and the house was silent, then a toilet flushed. “Yes!” someone called from the bathroom, obviously pleased. A few minutes later, a man carrying a large bag came out and said, “Mr. McCarter, your bathroom is ready for action!”
“No thanks needed, just a check in the mail,” the plumber laughed.
“Thanks nonetheless,” Scotty said as he shook his hand.
“Now it’s off for my weekly visit to Ida Johnson’s. Can’t convince her her toilet is not a disposal unit, so it’s a ‘come fix my toilet’ at least once a week. See y’all.”
Rich looked at the bedrooms and decided he’d use the front one for the office. He did a quick sketch of the floor plan, a diagram of outlets, placement of doors and windows. When he was able to borrow a measuring tape from a workman, he indicated measurements on his sketches. When he finished, he took out his cell phone and said, “No surprise. There’s no service at all.” They walked outside and find one spot which barely had a signal, all else was dead. “Okay, need to get to a phone which I will probably tie up for an hour or more. Is there a fax available?” Scotty said there was one in the plantation office. “Good.”
Scotty and Rich went to the plantation office. Ethan and Mrs. Edwards had been huddled together in Ethan’s office since Ethan returned from Braggton. They were so absorbed in what they were doing, they didn’t acknowledge Scotty and Rich’s entrance. Scotty indicated Rich should use Randy’s office. Rich refined his sketches and gave them to Scotty to fax to the communications people in Atlanta. Meanwhile, he called the headquarters of the phone company and kept being transferred. After he had been transferred the fifth time, his patience was running out. As soon as the sixth person spoke, he said, “If you don’t have the authority to order a cell phone tower built, transfer me to someone who does and skip all the intermediate people.” He listened for a few minutes and said, “Fine. The US attorney’s office needs a cell tower in Bragg County built yesterday. On your map, cell coverage looks pretty good. In reality, I just had to drive to get to a land line to call you. A tower where we need it would upgrade your service as it will have line-of-sight coverage for miles.” Rich negotiated a fifty-year contract with Arkadelphia providing a site of the tower rent-free and in return they would receive broadband. “I told him his company will eventually get a lot of good PR out of the agreement. He said he’d fax a contract. ‘You'll have the authorization within the hour,’ I told him. Ethan, Mrs. Edwards.” Both jumped when Rich spoke.
“Where did you two come from?” Ethan asked.
Scotty and Rich laughed. “Ethan, we’ve been here at least fifteen minutes. What’s so interesting?”
“Mrs. Edwards is taking back her old job as accountant for the plantations. We’re installing and learning a new system. What are you two up to?”
“Well, Rich has looked over the house and did the measuring and everything for his office and talked the phone company into erecting a tower here in exchange for broadband service to both plantations.”
“Now I need the deal authorized,” Rich said. “The phone company just faxed a copy their law department came up with. Pretty standard. They will build and operate the tower rent-free for fifty years in exchange for broadband service to both plantations. I have added ‘50 Mbps or better’ as a qualifier for the broadband. Heaven only knows what will be available in fifty years or in ten years for that matter. You’ll have high speed internet out here now. You need it especially with the two men doing online courses. The contract will need to be witnessed and notarized as will a contract for rental of the house.”
“I can sign them,” Mrs. Edwards said, “and Ginger is a notary.” Mrs. Edwards called and said, “Ginger, Molly. Can you bring your stamp and come to the office? We need some documents notarized.” When she hung up, she said, “She’ll be right over.”
The fax machine started and spit out several pages. Rich looked at them and said, “Here’s the plans for the office including what a local company can do to get ready for the communications team. Scotty, there’s approval for office furniture. Afraid it has to be on the approved list, but at least it’s not the gray-steel-desk category. Couple of places in Audubon listed as approved suppliers. You can check them out after class today if you like. I’ll give you the list. I’ll indicate ‘has to have’ items and the rest depends on whether you want it or not. All of it will be sold when my time’s done here, but you’ll get it for a pittance. Also the rental contract is here.” Rich then picked up the phone again.
Scotty left Rich on the phone, arranging with an electrical company to get added wiring done and with a security company to get a system in. He had just finished when Mr. Edwards walked in. Rich hung up the phone and said, “Mr. Edwards, need to talk with you. Bit of locking the barn after the horse has been stolen, but I’ve made a deal with the phone company. Mrs. Edwards approved, but there’s still some decisions to be made. No rush though. Well, I need to run.”
“Fine. I just dropped by to see whether Ethan had strangled Molly yet.” Without turning around, Molly surprised Rich when she shot Davis a bird over her shoulder. Davis laughed. “See why I had to marry her?”
Rich just laughed, waved and left.
“I’m on my way to check on Jamie and Andy,” Davis said. “Dek said Andy had gone to the Taylors’ right after breakfast so I guess he’s doing okay. Said Ethan was taking him, Andy and Sally Ann into Braggton to make statements, but they’ve been back awhile. Hanging’s too good for Rudy Ballock, his asshole nephew and his bunch of thugs.” Davis motioned to Scotty and they left the office, headed to the Taylors’. “So what you been up to Scotty?”
“Trying to keep up with Rich. He is definitely a man on a mission. Something a lot bigger than we thought is going on here. I mean, he got a cell tower for here—that’s one thing he needs to talk to you about, where to put it I mean—free broadband serving both plantations, authorization to furnish the office, all, apparently, no questions asked, top priority. On a personal note, Ethan and I plan to talk at length with Jeff and Art and Rich and Doug. You and Mrs. Edwards have been great as has Randy and your advice concerning relationships is great, but there’s a side to our relationship where, to be honest, you’re no help at all. I mean ...”
“Son, I know what you mean and, believe me, I understand!”
“Well, both couples advise us not to move in together. They told us we had the rest of our lives to live together, but only one beginning. Living under the same roof wasn’t a question until this other stuff came up. I’d live at Pleasant Grove and Ethan would live here. Then when Rich and Doug accepted my offer, everyone, including Ethan and me, thought that meant I’d be living at the Taylors’. Ethan and I haven’t really had a chance to talk about that, but we will. I’d like to know if it’s okay for me to stay with you until we are ready to move in together.”
“Of course it is. You’re always welcome to live with us. By the way, I think you are wise to wait.”
When they got to the Taylors’, they found Andy and Jamie asleep on the living room floor. “They started playing Uno as soon as we got back. Paused for lunch and pain pill at lunch and I suggested they lie down, but they would have none of it. They were ready to play Uno. You see how far they got. I tried to get them awake to go to bed or at least a place more comfortable, but both told me to leave them alone. They are going to be sore in even more places,” Sally Ann chuckled.
There was a lot of activity going on at both plantations. The decision was made to put the cell tower at the back of a pasture at Pleasant Grove where it would be hidden from the plantation houses. It was started the week the agreement was signed. The wiring of the office for communications was extensive, but accomplished by the end of the same week. The telephone company was doing whatever it was doing to get broadband to the plantations.
Scotty and Ethan planned to see about office furniture Thursday after class and asked Doug to join them. The list of approved providers was limited, Scotty hoped to find something he liked; but he didn’t. Rich suggested he go to a military depot about twenty miles from Braggton and made arrangements for him to meet someone there Friday afternoon.
As he walked into the warehouse, Scotty saw a desk he fell in love with. The sergeant showing them around laughed and said, “That desk belonged to a general who retired six months or so ago. When I offered him his office furnishings, he told me what I could do with them. Would have been painful for the post commander! Never really knew what was going on with him.” Scotty signed for the desk, credenza, a desk chair and two comfortable chairs. It would be delivered within a week. Richard and Doug both suggested Scotty just get very basic furnishing for the house and do more extensive shopping after they were gone. He didn’t follow that advice, but went ahead and furnished the bedroom and living room completely.
Randy, Mr. Edwards and Dek had started mowing Tuesday after the Fourth. With the addition of Pleasant Grove, including its pastures, it was quite an undertaking. Jamie and Andy insisted they were well enough to mow, but Randy let them know right away they were not to go near a tractor.
Wednesday, Ethan and Scotty joined the mowing crew—Ethan on the fourth tractor and Scotty relieving Mr. Edwards who was, in spite of what he said, a bit old for being shaken all day by a tractor. Doug had asked why he couldn’t run a mower. After a few practice runs, he took Ethan’s place and Ethan worked with Mrs. Edwards getting the new system up and running. Doug had an absolute ball. When Randy commented on his enjoying hot, sweaty work, he said, “I guess it’s a matter of perspective.”
With the routine July tasks plus the addition of Pleasant Grove, everyone was working flat out. Even Jamie and Andy had things they could do within the limits placed on them by the doctor—limits which were being withdrawn. There were twelve-hour days and six-day work weeks. Sundays everyone slept in, but Ethan and Jamie, as did all the others, had things to do around the house which occupied the afternoon. Because of the hours and labor involved, Scotty and Ethan managed little more than some heavy make-out sessions. A couple of times they did bring each other off, but that was it.
Sally Ann had joined forces with Mrs. Edwards and Claire Bell to prepare dinner at noon and supper at eight-thirty. Doug had said he wanted to learn about plantations and soon became just one of the people working when he was not in class. Rich showed up for supper most evenings, but was pretty close-mouthed about what he was doing.
By the last week in July, given the hours, labor and heat, tempers were growing short. Friday of that week, the pressure cooker was ready to blow. Everyone was exhausted and there was tension in the air at supper. When Davis said, “I’d like to get an early start tomorrow,” Jeff threw his fork on the table and yelled, “God damn, Dad! What’s the fucking point? You have insisted on too much and you god damn know it. What the fuck difference will it make if we get everything done to perfection, but kill ourselves in the process? We’re all young, but the pace is killing us. I’m surprised you haven’t dropped dead of a heart attack. I will not be a slave to a god damn plantation. Arkadelphia and Pleasant Grove are supposed to be providing us with a decent living, not killing us. These are good people you are trying to kill. You want them here, then you damn well are going to have to change. Beginning right now, Arkadelphia and Pleasant Grove are on five-and-a-half-day work weeks, period. I know this time of year is a busy one and there are easier months ahead. I know we have over twelve hours of daylight, but we don’t have to use them for work. Beginning Monday, we’ll go to work at seven, have an hour for lunch, and work from one until five-thirty. Saturday we quit at noon. That’s it. If Pleasant Grove pastures are not mowed or fences replaced, it can be done later or left undone.”
Davis sat with his head down for a while before he spoke. When he did, he said in a quiet voice, “Son, you are right. I was so involved in my dream for the two plantations that I ignored what they are supposed to be about. You’re right: five-and-a-half-day work weeks and nine-and-a-half-hour days. We’re finished work until seven Monday. I’ll let Randy and Dek know.”