A Short Story by Ken Wise
‘I’m looking forward to showing you off, Cliff,’ remarked Allie looking out of the side window of the Trailways coach as it made its way down the eastern coast of the United States on its way south.
Allie squeezed my arm as she huddled closer to me in the seat as the coach sped relentlessly on its way to Galax, Virginia. It had been a hectic four months since Allie and I had met at our workplace in New York; both of us working for Sparkle, a new monthly magazine which meant to attract both men and woman alike. I had joined the magazine as a freelance writer on special assignment from London where I had worked for many years for a mainline magazine. Allie was someone special; her bright sparkling personality complemented the magazine she had worked for since leaving high school. We both seemed to click straight away and within weeks Allie had moved into my downtown apartment in New York.
Both in our early twenties, we had a lot in common with a few exceptions; I was an imported limey and Allie, well, she came from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia as in the well-known Laurel and Hardy song. However, Allie had somehow managed to bury any apparent connection with her hillbilly heritage; when she spoke the tone of her voice was pure New York. We never had any problem communicating when it came to a more physical side of things; we were definitely on the same wavelength. It was Allie who had suggested that it was time for me to meet her ‘folks’ as she called them. We hastily arranged a two-week vacation from the magazine, a job which we both loved. I looked intently at the pretty, petite but well-built girl who now snuggled close to me and I suddenly felt at peace with the world.
Arriving six months ago in the United States, I had been a little worried about being accepted in the bars and restaurants where all the young would-be journalists congregated after work, but just for the fact of my being with Allie, everyone had readily accepted the strange English-speaking limey that had descended in their midst.
After a stop around two o’clock in the morning to get a coffees and a snack, we settled down to try to get some sleep before our arrival in Galax. The sun was shining the next morning as we wearily disembarked from the coach. Allie’s brother Hayden was there in his pick-up truck to collect us, shaking my hand vigorously as if to underline his warm welcome. Hayden displayed all his home-grown attributes with his ‘glad to see yer’ and ‘tickled to death to have yer’. I liked him immediately; what you saw was what you got, no messing! Arriving at the spacious farmhouse which nestled on prime farmland in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I marvelled at the spectacular views spread out before us. Brady and Irene Brown welcomed us warmly and Irene showed me to my room which was situated above the lounge at the end of the large farm-house. When I say room I am being kind; it was a roof-space converted into a loft, the height of which made it almost impossible to stand up. It would seem that our close relationship had not exactly been conveyed to our hosts. Allie flashed an apologetic look in my direction as she made her way to her ‘old’ room which had been kept aside for her eventual return. Our stay in the Blue Ridge Mountains was not going to include anything of a sexual nature!
It had been arranged that the next day being Sunday, we would all attend the local church which was situated on the top of the next hill. It was soon apparent that everyone living on the mountains all used pick-up trucks, the use of these included travel to the church every Sunday. There must have been around fifty or more and they all jostled for the best parking spot which would enable their occupants easier access to the pretty church.
The preacher that day was in his usual fiery mood, it was hell and damnation day and his accusing look seemed to float over each and every person sitting in their pews. Looking around I imagined that every one of his flock were sinking lower in their seats as his relentless gazed travelled over them. I guess my incessant looking around like a demented meerkat must have attracted his attention because I soon found that his sole attention seemed to fall on me. His eyes narrowed as his damning lesson of the day finally found a person who obviously fitted the bill – that limey from the old world; a man who was obviously descended from the evil men who had tried (unsuccessfully) to crush the free spirit of the first Americans. Yes, this person was now the target of the day. To make things worse, everyone else in the congregation, relieved that there was another schmuck who obviously needed the salvation, all turned around in unison and fixed their gaze on yours truly. It may have been my imagination but I am sure even Allie seemed to shrink away, as if to distance herself from her true love. Perhaps a sign of things to come!
It was customary for the preacher to stand at the entrance of the church to shake his parishioners’ hands as they obediently filed out of the church having been saved for another week. Me? As Pastor Luke shook my hand he seemed to sigh; a sigh which seemed to indicate that there was at least one lost lamb that was beyond his help!
As we waited patiently for a break in the line of leaving pick-up trucks, a loud retort was heard and Allie suddenly gave out a small exclamation: ‘Oh no, not him!’ Looking around we all saw him, running arms outstretched and heading in Allie’s direction.
‘Hi Jethro,’ Allie cried out as he grabbed her in a bear hug and lifted her up two feet in the air.
‘Allie Bell, you have come back to me!’
Allie, still in the bear hug, managed to turn to me and gasp ‘Oh, that’s his pet name for me’.
Allie finally managed to extract herself from the young man’s grasp and pulled down her sweater which had inadvertently been pulled up showing her midriff. Looking rather embarrassed, Allie tried to introduce me to this pushy young man; he glanced in my direction and uttered a curt ‘Hello’ but then turned his attention back to the object of his attention, Allie. The next few minutes, which for me seemed ages, were spent with Jethro grabbing Allie and lifting her up and putting her down. It was almost as if he had rediscovered a pet puppy! I was not particularly happy to hear the ‘come back to me’ bit. Was there a history between these two that I had not been informed of? Allie and I had long ago declared all our ‘past histories’ of boyfriends and in my case girlfriends. For both of us, it appeared that the number had been rather small, having both just reached the age of twenty-four. Finally, Brady seemed to tire with all this boisterous attention that his daughter was receiving and announced that we should all go, but not before inviting the man Jethro to visit them!
‘Yowl come and see us’ was the order of the day and as Allie and I got into the back of the pick-up truck I had a distinct feeling that we would not be seeing the last of this extremely loud character.
The next day was pleasant enough with Allie taking me to visit her countless relatives, introducing me as her ‘fiancé’, a term which surprised me as we had never, ever, mentioned becoming engaged! Still, it sounded nice and I walked around with a new sense of purpose as each relative seemed to warm towards me with every greeting.
We were at a neighbour’s BBQ when we had his first visit; Jethro now appeared to have a mission, it soon became apparent that he wanted to find out what the opposition consisted of and he had found out that person was me! Jethro became my shadow; he walked where no man had been before or since to that matter. Everywhere Allie and I went, Jethro turned up. ‘Hullo Cliff-Ford’ was his usual greeting. ‘Clifford’- I kept correcting him but in the end gave up; he had realised that it was fast becoming a sore point with me, which for some reason pleased him. Allie for her part seemed to tolerate the intrusions better than I; she even started returning his kisses on the cheek, giggling incessantly at his feeble jokes. I started to feel uneasy about what was developing but what I was powerless to stop; after all, it was all in good fun. My fears increased when I found that Allie had suddenly regained her ‘good ol’ hillbilly accent. I found that my Allie had suddenly turned into another person entirely; ‘you all come and see us, and have a nice day’ were now in common use by my partner. The same person who had just recently declared her love for me and had announced to the world that we were ‘engaged’. I wondered where this was leading to – it was not long before I was to find out!
I then started to do some research about good ol’ Jethro and found out that he was a bit of a celebrity; he and his father operated the largest still in the area, producing the best corn whisky that money could buy! Speaking for myself, I was not at all interested in obtaining the stuff, even less drinking it, but to Brady and his family Jethro was the man, he was a direct contact with the hooch! What was more when he came over, which was most days, the merchandise he brought with him …was entirely free!
I became increasingly fearful, even more so when my new fiancée also revealed her extreme liking for it. Oh my God, Allie, love of my life was fast becoming a lush! It was soon apparent that the blood that ran in Allie’s veins must have contained in the past, copious amounts of moonshine. My bubble containing the perfect image of my lovely fiancée was rapidly deflating by the minute. It was three in the morning when the phone rang and Brady answered it.
‘Yes, of course Jethro, I am sure he would be only too pleased to help you.’
Instinctively, I knew that the ‘he’ might just be directed at me! Without waiting for the call I walked nonchalantly down the wooden steps, one at a time and in slow motion. I felt icy shivers going down my spine, shivers which I could not understand. I nodded as Brady almost insisted that I assist poor Jethro; he had been let down by his driver. He had a large load of… er, merchandise that he had to move that night otherwise it would be discovered! Could help him by driving the lorry across into the next state? I looked around for Allie as if to seek her advice; surely she would not wish me to attempt such a dubious task? I glanced in the direction of her bedroom and was disturbed to see Allie outlined in her darkened doorway, obviously full aware of what was going on. Was this a test? Was I now being asked to see if I fitted in with the local community?
My heart was sinking as I walked out and got into Brady’s pickup truck, he was going to drive me to the meeting point. What would happen now? Jethro warmly welcomed me.
‘Hi there Cliff-Ford, nice that you could make it.’
I nodded back without much enthusiasm. I was still not sure how I came to be there; after all I was on a ‘get to know the folks’ trip, not a trip transporting illegal booze! I climbed into the driver’s seat of the truck which contained the whisky and started following the directions outlined by the obliging Jethro, which were to follow him in his truck. We would drive for about five miles, do a right turn, and be safe in the next state. After this he would bring me home safe and sound to Allie. I instinctively did not like the way he related to the ‘taking me home to Allie’. It had a hollow ring to it, a ring that I just did not believe. Was I the lamb going to the slaughter?
I strained my eyes in the dark as the trucks lumbered down the country lanes, swaying to one side then the other under the weight of the contraband booze. I suddenly became aware that my truck did not seem to sway as much as the one in front of me, in fact, by now I had the distinct impression that it could well be half empty or was it half full?
I had no time to ponder any further on this because suddenly the truck in front of me disappeared. Facing me was a familiar scene that no driver of any vehicle liked to see: the flashing blue lights of a police car and two policemen who had only one thing on their minds – for me to pull over and stop. I felt a sudden urge to comply.
Getting down from the truck I was met with the usual demands issued on occasions such as these: ‘Spread ‘em’.
I was only too happy to oblige. I suddenly felt completely helpless. How could the two men miss the previous, obviously heavy loaded truck and pick on poor ol’ harmless me? I didn’t even look like a booze runner – whatever they looked liked. I was a limey on a ‘Lover – get to know the mama and papa visit!’
They never even waited for my feeble answer as to what I had in the back of the truck; they were going to find out!
‘Well sir, how do you explain this?’
I walked around the back of the truck and peered into the now opened back; sitting innocently in the back was a single crate which appeared to contain whisky. What was more surprising to me, there appeared to be only two bottles of the stuff! My haul could not have been worth more than thirty dollars. I could not make up my mind whether to be angry or relieved.
The two men smiled to themselves and then proceeded to advise me that the two bottles (obviously one for each of them) would be confiscated and I would be taken to the local jail and charged with booze running which would normally mean twenty years in jail. Oh, leave the keys in the truck – it would be recovered later. Yes, and I just knew by who!
I spent the rest of the night in a not so cosy jail, without a blanket, and without the usual privilege of being allowed a call to a lawyer or in my case, Allie. No one came that night and it appeared that I would be taken the next morning to the local court-house to hear my fate.
The local preacher had been right, I was a no-good son of a gun who would fall and had fallen by the wayside and would surely be heading for damnation. My only problem was the absence of Allie, my fiancée of forty-eight hours. It must be concluded that the shame of all this had been too much for her. The slim lady called Clare who entered my cell at eight in the morning was nice enough; she was well groomed and spoke with a slight southern accent. Clare seemed sympathetic to my predicament.
‘Can I ask you a question, Clifford?’
I nodded, instantly warming to her for being the first person to pronounce my name correctly.
‘Can you tell me why you only smuggled just two bottles instead of going the whole hog? I mean, it was never going to yield you much money – if you don’t mind me saying so?’
I looked at the sweet thing.
‘Ma’am,’ I said in my best southern accent ‘I was just following orders – if my future father-in-law had said take poison, I would have done so, after all I am just a stupid son of a ++++++’.
Clare smiled sweetly.
‘I guess there is one born every minute! By the way, you are free to leave. The only stipulation is that you leave town straight away and not return to the farm.’
I didn’t bother to ask why! It was with some relief that I gathered up my coat to leave.
‘Oh, by the way, how much do I owe you, Clare?’
Clare smiled at me.
‘Why don’t you buy me a cheeseburger before you go? After all, I think you have been shafted enough!’
As I walked out of the jail house I had to sign some release papers and I could not help noticing the names of the two arresting officers. They sounded familiar and I turned to Clare and she nodded.
‘Yes, Jethro’s brothers!’
It confirmed to me that the blood that ran through the veins of the men and women of the Blue Ridge Mountains was surely one hundred per cent proof! After all, what kind of woman would sell her fiancée for two bottles of scotch? – I’ll tell you – one that is a +++++bitch!
PS. The one good thing – I did get Clare’s telephone number!
(c) Copyright Ken Wise 2012