by Mark Poe
His name was Hezekiah Adams. Ol’ Hez. That was the moniker he would answer to. He was a hard man. A man of the woods and river. Some had referred to him once as a river rat. Only once to his face, mind you. The gentleman that called out to him had been rewarded with a swift and intense throat grab by his vise-like grip and reminded that his name was Ol’ Hez. In Ol’ Hez’s mind, the term river rat had connotations of trash. A person that came to his mind as a river rat was one who stayed on the river to avoid an honest job. Yes, he lived on the river. It was true he had no daily job. But his case was different in the way that he had turned his back on society. He came to town once a year to resupply his most basic of needs. He had followed the belief for years that the idea of living was a good job, nice home and family. Only when these basic truths were stripped from him did the American dream become a recurring nightmare and shake loose the hidden darkness of his inner self. He was sickened daily by the idea that one of the most precious gifts from the Good Lord above, the gift of living, was being squandered when the level of existence became tilted more to the chase of wants than cherishing the blessings given. He watched people go about their daily lives in a snow globe. When the world would shake that globe containing their own understanding of the peace and contentment that inspired the daily chase, lives would be turned into a frantic scramble to gain footing needed to climb back to where they were. This would lead many to an inner search for a more spiritual presence, treating God like a candy machine. Plug in a few prayers and watch the right answers and rewards fall for their easy grabs. Others chased it through the bottom of bottles, both pill and whiskey. Once the flakes settled back to the bottom of the globe, then they dealt with the prices of the paths they chose. It was on one of these times of turmoil that led to his decision about his future. The choice was his, but the inspiration was a woman. Not just any woman, but his wife. The innocent of all was one who carried the same dark eyes that Ol’ Hez has passed through birth. Caleb was his name. The dark-haired, dark-eyed son of Ol’ Hez Adams.
Ol’ Hez had married Ruby in 1969. They had a life that most would consider mundane. They breathed each other’s breaths and thought each other’s thoughts. They created an existence that would rarely see one without the other. Times were easy, with neither having aspirations of any but the basic of desires: a small lap-siding home out on the edge of nowhere, surrounded by a few pecan trees, an old bent and twisted apple tree and small shed they had turned into a canning room and pantry. They enjoyed a simple meal at night, only to end up huddled on the couch, reading. Ol’ Hez worked in a factory in nearby Jonesboro and Ruby took care of the home and the few chickens that roamed the home place. During the early spring and through the summer, Ol’ Hez would come home from work and both would spend their afternoons working in the garden that would sustain them throughout the winter. Winters were spent under the heaviness of home-quilted blankets that were soaked with the smell of the dried wood smoke and comforting heat from the glowing fireplace. Ol’ Hez would hunt to fill the freezer’s empty spaces created from eating the fish he had previously caught. It was on the ends of one winter that formed the words of the sweetest tune Ruby could sing. The song that they had written together for these first three years had found its chorus. Ol’ Hez would be a father.
Caleb was born in August of the next year. It was more than Ol’ Hez could wrap his mind around – the idea that he was worth enough in the eyes of the Almighty to have been entrusted with a blanket full of pure love and angelic innocence. He promised in the whispers of his nightly pleas above that he was not worthy but would give his dying breath to see that he completed the task. There was a feeling of completeness emanating from every wall of the home, an added warmth in his soul, as he nightly held his son. The intoxicating smell of newborn baby filling his nostrils created tears in his eyes for no reason.
The first year-and-a-half of Caleb’s life had passed like a flash from a lightning bolt. Now, Ruby was more insistent on them attending church service. She had begun taking Caleb to outings with other mothers and their babies. There was a fear that crept into his thoughts that now maybe he would need more than just love and the paycheck that he was bringing in weekly to sustain the lives of three. The thoughts of Ruby wanting her baby boy to have all that the others his age would have. These fears had been introduced when she announced they would need to put money back for some name-brand clothes that the other babies at church were wearing. Ruby had never been one to put much credence in the thoughts of others. She was a strong-willed woman. She loved with a strong and confident passion for those she allowed in her heart. These were some of the traits that had drawn them together. Now, she seemed to be changing. Of course, motherhood would do that to a woman. He repeated that thought endlessly, in hopes that one of the turns would attach to his belief. She was becoming more transparent in her nature. The deep-rooted tree was now being swayed by winds that had never shaken a branch or loosened a single leaf. She loved being a mother but there was a question she had brought to Ol’ Hez. Were they being good parents? Were they giving him what he needed? Ol’ Hez responded with the first thought that came to his mind: you can’t put a price tag on love and let’s not get the needs of our son mixed up with the wants of others. Even as a young man, he never bought into the idea that the name on the clothes he wore reflected on the person inside them. There were no buttons on a man’s heart. He could see a look of doubt in her eyes for the first time and it scared him. He suddenly felt like an outsider in his own home. Her silence screamed at his thoughts that he had been correct about her. She wanted more. The burning question within himself was how much of his own soul would he be willing to sell to pacify her wants. He could work more overtime than he had been. He could volunteer for extra weekend hours. In turn, this would take away more time from the two people that were the reason for him to draw breath. It was an inner struggle that began to wear on him. There was a wedge that had been driven in the night of that conversation and he knew the only way to keep it from being driven deeper into the heart. He knew he would have to sacrifice the one thing that he couldn’t promise: time. Being fully aware he couldn’t treat time like a bank account gave it a heartbeat in his mind. There was only a certain amount and no work would allow for a deposit. When the balance hit zero, the account was closed. In an attempt to settle this case, he would appeal to a higher judge. As he readied himself for bed, which was now occupied only by himself, he knelt to plea for an answer. Before he could even form the thoughts in his heart, he came to the realization that maybe he was being selfish. Was he putting the wants of his own ahead of those of his wife and son? The remembrance of promising his last breath came to mind. Happiness in his wife’s eyes and the sight of his son fitting in would be payment enough, even if he had to close his own. The next day at work, he volunteered for the longer days and the weekend shift. He began working 12-hour days and eight-hour days on the weekends. At first, he missed the times with family. It caused a hurt in his soul that created a void in his everyday goings and comings. Over time, he became more mechanical in the thoughts that drove his own wants and desires. The first time he referred to them as his wife and kid, rather than his family, marked the internal calendar that this life was no longer his.
Ol’ Hez had always been a man short of stature but full of life. His dark black hair and yearly beard were defining points about him. Those dark eyes he had shared with his son exuded happiness. He always left a place happier than he found it. A master at storytelling, he was always good for a laugh, even at his own expense, most times. But that same great man was now becoming more distant and jaded about life. He never seemed rested. The countenance he wore was like a darkness that dared someone to speak to him in passing. The same old stories he had once happily told about himself, now brought thoughts of failures and they hurt. Ruby and Caleb had once been part of a great novel he was writing. They had now become just another page of a sad story of a shell of a man who once partially existed in some random place. The paychecks, being larger, covered him on the home front. Both Ruby and Caleb seemed to like all the new stuff in their life, so there was a tiny inkling inside that he must push on even though he felt like a dead man walking. The darkness covered him from the world around him. Fresh air and sunshine brought body odor and sweat. He had lost sight of the beauty of the world and it had driven him into the ground like a spike searching for the softest spot to dig the grave. Saturday would be Caleb’s 4th birthday but because he had signed on to work that day, he would miss part of it. It had caused another of the now almost daily fights with Ruby, usually consisting of his trying to explain that he needed to make sure the funds would be there to pay for the spectacular, over-the-top party she had planned and her questioning whether he had lost sight of what was most important to Caleb. Ol’ Hez left her in tears with the words that apparently the best he could do for them both was to be at work.
That Friday, after work, he stopped by the local Wal-Mart to buy Caleb the latest and greatest toy available and, just for sentimental purposes, he stopped by a local bookstore and bought him a copy of one of his favorite books when he was just a youngster. Due to the many nights that his mother and father had read it to him, he had the book partially memorized. Now, when he recalled, it the memory came through in the voices of the two who were gone on to their reward. There was a half-smile that had fought through all that sadness that he wore like a second skin. The hopes that one day Caleb would remember as much about him as he had his own parents. That he would pass the book sitting on a shelf and be transported back to the sight of his father, outlined by the lamp by his bed, reading the words and he would smile because he would have at least one happy memory of his father. The first sight that brought him back out of the hazy clouds of both times past and times yet to come was of Ruby’s car parked at the back of the house. He crawled out of the truck, with the presents in hand, and walked around the corner of the house before even going inside. Ruby was standing by the open driver’s side door with a mixed look of sadness and fear. There was instantly a strange feeling of dread rolling in his senses, as he saw Caleb in the back seat, already buckled in. Ruby began by apologizing that it had to be this way. She had planned to be gone before he made it home. She informed him that what Caleb wanted most of all was Daddy and that even when he wasn’t at work, he wasn’t really at home. Ol’ Hez knew the depression had been weighing him down but realized he had missed the need looking at the want. Prophetic words spoken by himself, but now the warning was real. She never said goodbye. She started the car and started pulling out of the yard. The last sight of the day his world passed was those same dark eyes peering at him and offering him one tiny wave through the back glass of the light blue Ford LTD. Ol’ Hez stood in silence, waiting for the swirl of the moment to settle. The toy dropped from his hand as the beating heart inside began to ache from the breaking caused by the cloud of dust carrying his angels away to Heaven. The emotions poured from him, as he realized the hell he was facing now was the creation of his own demons.
The empty house was cold, void of life. She had not only taken belongings, but also the laughter from the walls and floors. The home was now just an empty box, with him a piece of random trash floating around. It never healed with time. He continued working the long hours at work now just to have something to do and pass the time until death came and took the emptied vessel. The distance he had created between people of the living world now made it clear there would be no one to reach inside his dead world and give him even an understanding glance or a sympathetic shoulder. No bother. He had created this world of desolation and he would face it. Trying to carry through a normal day was becoming harder with a sickened heart and mind. At any stops he would make at a local store for the few groceries he could will himself to eat, there would be whispers. Whispers about his mental state stung him like bees, buzzing just out of reach and then swooping in while his back was turned. Looks from the good-hearted people he had known his whole life were more out of curiosity than caring. The trips became fewer because of this. Just a few weeks later, he would be fired from his job due to his shoddy work. He couldn’t help it. The tedious job, like his own life, had lost its purpose. Ol’ Hez headed out that day to the dark woods of the river bottoms, with the purpose of fanning the flame that was slowly burning him from inside out. As is the case of land ravaged by the devouring flames, in time, new things grow. This would be the case with Ol’ Hez.
END OF PART ONE