Chick McKissick’s daughter, Myla didn’t make it home from Knoxville last Friday. Myla’s an honor roll student in her Junior year. She also runs track for the Vols. Chick couldn’t be more proud.
She left after class Friday afternoon and should have been home before eight. At nine o’clock there was no answer on her cell phone. A cold rain had fallen all afternoon. After nightfall, it had turned to sleet and ice. Chick was worried.
At nine thirty, he went out looking for her. He called Warren Thurman, the sheriff around ten, waking him up. Warren immediately told Chick to meet him at the station. Together they drove hurriedly out the east county road, the likely route that Myla would have taken home. As they drove into the high hills, whole sections of the road were solid ice.
A little after eleven, using the search light, they spotted her car thirty feet off the road.
It had slid down an embankment to a level landing of dense woods and ten-foot high underbrush. The car was wedged in, the engine wrecked. Myla was unhurt but trapped. No heat, no ability to roll down the windows and, due to the remote location, no cell service. While at first rattled, she eventually calmed down. She kept her head, bundled up, and waited. Some three hours later, she saw the search light wash over the car.
They managed to get her out safely. I got the call near midnight, dressed quickly, and met them at the clinic. Other than some slight hypothermia, Myla was fine. I suspected some mild shock, but she disguised it well…likely to calm her teary-eyed and tender-hearted father.
Chick took the tow-truck out Saturday and retrieved the car. It was totaled.
He had recently finished rebuilding the engine of a late model Volvo. Instead of selling it, he let Myla have it to drive. She left early Monday morning to return to class.
But Sunday night, Chick was restless. Somewhere in the small hours he went to her room and sat quietly in the large chair near her bed. He just wanted to be close. There, for the longest time, he watched her sleep. Her face, illuminated by the soft pale of moonlight, had a fragile, transparent, youthful delicacy. She had been brave, and smart. But, to him, she was still his little girl. He wanted desperately to wake her, to hear her voice, to hold her close. Instead, he sat silently and exhaled a deep sigh, shaking his head.
He struggled to push back from his mind the cringing images of what might have been, of the swallowing dread that consumed him in those last seconds before reaching her car, of a terrible, different outcome, of a tragic loss and a life forever changed and grieved.
But, what might have been hadn’t happened. She was there, and safe, and okay.
He closed his eyes. Against the silence of the shadowed room he heard the soft, ebbing tide of her metered breaths, the gentle assurance of her presence. The low, rhythmic sighs washed over him, consoling him, soothing him with music that was sweet, and warm, and tender. For him, it was the purest of lullabies. Soon afterwards, he leaned his head against the tuck of the chair and drifted deep into a consuming and untroubled sleep.
Recently, Mayor Walt Hickman has been trying to talk in French…or at least a rather butchered derivative of the language. Walt and his wife are taking a trip to Paris in late March. With a heavy dose of false humility, he apologetically tries to play off his bilingual efforts as an exercise of preparation. Of course, everyone knows that he’s simply seeking a means to brag about his upcoming vacation. Connie finally told him that she would be glad to refund him the cost of the return flight, allowing for a lengthy immersion into the language. Walt bellowed, thinking this was hilarious. Connie never broke a smile.
On Thursday I ate lunch at the Depot Diner, squeezing on to a stool at the lunch counter between Hoot Wilson and John Harris. These fellow bachelors were both in a glum mood, commiserating over their shared fate. The Watervalley Benefit Ball is this Saturday and their respective girlfriends, Karen Davidson and Ann Patterson, had insisted on going. For Hoot and John, the event ranked right up there with a colonoscopy.
The Benefit Ball has been an annual high-brow affair dating back over a hundred years. It provides one of the few opportunities for the women of Watervalley to play dress-up. They loved it.
For the men it was somewhat less enchanting. This was a black tie affair, making typical party favorites like food fights and beer pong strictly off limits. Unlike many of the social gatherings in Watervalley, the men are expected to actually pee indoors. Furthermore, we’re talking about guys like Hoot, whose New Year’s resolutions included things like “this year, wear more camo.”
“My rented tux is really tight,” Hoot lamented.
John leaned forward and looked at Hoot’s plate, unable to resist teasing the big fellow. “No great surprise there, Hoot. Based on the serving size of your lunch, you must be a family of four.”
“Hey, it’s hard to find a place that rent’s tuxes for a man my stature.”
“Maybe you should try Nashville Tent and Awning.”
Lida Wilkins heard John’s comment and approached with the coffee pot. “John, can I get you anything? Dessert, coffee, a likeable personality?”
Hoot bemoaned on. “I just don’t understand why women think this is such a big deal. Hey Lida, help us out here. You’re a woman, right?”
“Gee, Hoot. What gave it away?”
“Why do all the women want to go to this stupid ball?”
“Hmm, how about, ‘Because it’s fun.’”
“Fun!” Exclaimed Hoot. “Lots of things are fun. Fishing is fun. Going to the pistol range is fun. Bowling is fun. You don’t have to get all doodled up for those.”
Lida shook her head. “Hoot, I’m only responsible for what I say, not for what you understand.”
Hoot sat puzzled. She had lost him with that last comment. Lida, John, and I exchanged quick glances. She regrouped.
“Okay, Hoot…question: Fishing, shooting, and bowling. Has Karen gone with you to do all those things?”
“Well, yeah. Those are like, you know, my three favorite sports.”
Dipping her chin, Lida looked squarely at him. “Alright, Hoot. Listen up. First of all, any activity that allows you to eat while you’re doing it, doesn’t qualify as a sport. But, that’s beside the point. The real issue here is that it sounds only fair that you be willing to do something that Karen wants to do.”
Hoot shrugged. “Yeah, okay, fine. It’s just that I really hate wearing a tuxedo.”
She handed me a menu. “Hoot, you’re shopping on the wrong aisle with that attitude. You need to go over to the big girl panties department.”
Hoot was undaunted. “I know some guys look good in a tux, but I’m not one of them. I don’t know. For some reason it makes me fell like a big sissy.”
Lida winked at me before speaking. “Hoot, you can rest assured that anybody who’s in the same room with you will definitely be catching the scent of a real man.”
John nearly spit out his coffee. I spoke quickly to keep from laughing outright. “I’ll have the special and some tea, Lida. Make it to go.”
“So, Lida,” persisted John, jovially. “Are you saying you’re not sympathetic to our lowly plight here?”
“It’s all deja moo.”
“You mean déjà vu.”
“No, I mean deja moo. I’ve heard all this bull before.” Lida winked at me again and turned away. “Luke, I’ll get that right up for you.”
About this time, we all heard Walt Hickman saying “Bonjour,” to his waitress and glad-handing a couple of fellows before departing out the door.
“I guess everybody in town knows about Walt’s big trip,” injected Hoot. “I don’t get it. Why spend all that money to go over there?”
“So, Hoot. You saying you wouldn’t want to go to France?”
“Not unless it included a Bass Fishing Tournament.”
“Paris has a reputation for being a pretty enchanting place, Hoot,” John offered casually. “Some people say it’s quite romantic.”
“Huh. Well, I can tell you one thing. We got plenty of romantic places right here in America.”
John was intrigued. “So, fill us in, Hoot. Give us a few examples.”
Hoot pushed his plate away and wiped his chin with a certain ceremonial flair. He seemed to be gathering all the formality he could. “Well, boys. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Karen and I are planning a little trip of our own. And I can guarantee you our destination has romance and excitement written all over it.”
John and I glanced at each other with raised eyebrows, equally amused and curious. Hoot allowed for a dramatic pause, awaiting our full attention. I took the bait.
“Alright, Hoot. Don’t leave us hanging here. Give us the skinny.”
Hoot looked from side to side and then huddled closer, signaling that his words were in tight confidence. “We’re going to Moline, Illinois.”
I shot a puzzled look at John. He had nothing. I spoke hesitantly. “Um, okay, Hoot. Help me out. What’s in Moline?”
Hoot crossed his arms and smirked, offering me an incredulous glare. “Why, that’s the International Headquarters of John Deere, doc. It’s fourteen hundred acres of absolute awesome. I got tickets to both the factory tour and the museum.”
A long silence ensued. John said nothing, leaving me to fill the void. “Okay, right…good. Exciting stuff, indeed.”
“Yeah, doc, you know…you’ve got to be making honeymoon plans. I’ll check it out and get back with you.”
I nodded awkwardly. “Sure…sure. Hey, you never know.”
Hoot grabbed his ticket, slid out his stool, and headed for the cash register. Along the way he slapped me heartily on the back. “Have a good one, boys.”
“You too, Hoot,” I replied. “And don’t worry about the tux. Just think of yourself as Bond, James Bond.”
He smiled, nodded, and departed. As soon as as he was out of earshot, John mumbled under his breath. “Not sure about Hoot in a tux. Might be more Junk Bond than James Bond.”
“Hey, don’t get me wrong. Hoot’s a great guy. But let’s face it, he’s just a big loveable kid.”
“He’ll be fine. Hoot’s got plenty of street smart.”
“You mean as in Sesame Street smart?”
“Well, not everybody has your pleasant warmth and persuasive charm, John.” About this time Lida had my lunch waiting at the cash register. I slid off of my stool and began to put on my coat.
John snickered. “Yes, doctor. Acknowledging my social genius is important. Congratulations on admiring me.”
I could only smile and shake head. “See you Saturday, John. I’ll let Lida know you’re picking up my bill.”
Before he could reply, I made a hasty exit.
On Friday, I found out from Estelle that Connie had gone to visit her son in New York for a couple of days. Afterwards, she was travelling to Philadelphia to attend to some estate issues of a distant relative. I quizzed Estelle about the details, but she knew little else about it. The whole business seemed rather odd if not outright secretive.
I will have to wait until her return.
Meanwhile, from Watervalley, that’s all for now.