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Cherokee Purple

by Rob Hunter


The old locks were a half dozen miles out of town. Massive stonework stood, an abandoned jungle temple, from where canal speculators had gone bust with the arrival of the railroad, more than a hundred years before. Hollyhocks and bindweed enveloped a rotting garage, the width of a Model T, with splayed whitewash letters in a child’s hand, Kids Only, painted on its side.

A giant stone archway made of carefully set and mitered blocks rose a few hundred yards from the river’s bank. “Tarzan and the Lost World,” I said to the thrum of katydids in the wild wisteria.

There was a comforting gurgle of flowing water. Time or the county engineers had cut a side channel around the original spillway. A corduroyed culvert pipe made of bolted-together sections bypassed the flume. The new work said WPA all over it. They had planned a park here. One picnic table and a rope swing. Not bad.

A project forgotten with the start of the war but well-intentioned. The picnic table was stained with pollen and pitch residue and stood lopsidedly under a Scotch pine. A converted 55-gallon drum looked like an oversized tomato juice can; flue holes had been punched in its base with a cold chisel.

The burn barrel had scorched the lower limbs of a sprawling live oak with a rope swing. This was a Lord-of-the-Jungle style hemp liana made from wrist-thick three-strand twisted rope. Kids showed off their diving skills and derring-do here in the summer. A miscalculation of moment and arc meant splattered brains on century-and-a-half old freestone masonry.

I studied the arches. Underneath, two spillways and a channel lay buried under a floating mass of green. Watercress moved ever so slightly from the passage of the stream. There were what I figured to be keystones missing — wasn’t there only one keystone in an arch? — I’d better ask Ed.

The pile of a granite chimney rose sixty feet into the air, a footing for block and tackle, a rope-hoist crane from bygone days. The locks had worked better in the 1830’s. For now and into the foreseeable future, the locks were locked. The watercress jungle below the spillway served as a foothold for the Virginia creeper that crushed the sluice gates shut.

Bindweed, doing its binding.

The locks were a huge endeavor before steam power. The new American nation shared a vision of barge traffic, towed by horsepower, linking the country from New York to the Mississippi River. An inland navigation scheme put out of business when the railroads came. The dams, locks and waterways became archaeological junk, weed-clogged ditches. History in the un-making.

There was the glint of foil at my feet, a discarded gum wrapper. “A geezer, geezing,” I said and poked the gum wrapper into the abyss with my toe. Down it went, fluttering back and forth on chance currents of air like a feather dropped from a passing bird. I leaned over to watch it fall.

And I slipped. I went down, down, ass over teakettle, straight to the bottom. There wasn’t even time to let out a yell. I skittered down the slope, sliding on my trousers seat down to a slippery landing on a mattress of decomposing watercress. I expected death, immediate and unforgiving. All I got was some bruises and a splash.

At the base of the chimney, my shoes filled with clear, cold — very cold — water, I twisted my neck back and up. Wow, those old-timers really knew how to build stuff: all muscle, not even steam. Pick and shovel work. And no one but the kids who swung on the rope would ever know about this place. The swinging kids and, every so often, a grieving parent whose offspring misjudged the windage.

I slipped again, lost my footing on a slimy rock and went face down into the watercress. My hands shot out to grasp at anything.

And there was Ol’ Parrish. Or what was left of him. The wild hogs had got him, but not before Ol’ Parrish bashed his own brains out. If the stove-in skull and gnawed leg bones scattered under the watercress were indeed Ol’ Parrish, the only embarrassment for Norma was that he died showing off on the rope swing, not in a transport of rapture on top of his cheerleader sweetheart.

History is wonderful and fragile — ignore it and it goes away: the giant stone earthworks, Thelma’s tin ceilings’ secrets. Parrish Wagstaff’s body. I figured if these bones weren’t Parrish Wagstaff’s last testament, they should be.

I recall shinnying back up the sides of the earthworks on a creeper vine as thick as my wrist. Must be as old as Methuselah to get this big. Rappelling up, the sklitch sklitch in my oxblood wingtips sent rivulets of water wrung out of my socks trickling backwards up my pantlegs. Whomp! I slammed a shoe against the vertical stonework. Whomp! The next shoe. The vine would give out, pull away.

I looked down at the watercress pool, now thirty feet down. Small solace for a happy landing. Ol’ Parrish had already made his landing; I hoped his death would suffice for the two of us. I didn’t have a cheerleader waiting.

I felt the vine pull away from the rock face and threw one arm desperately upwards. Growing from a chink in the rocks was a straggly vine with a familiar lumpy purple tomato hanging on it, a Cherokee Purple. I grabbed at it. And it came loose in my hand. If you have been expecting a supernatural intervention here, think again. Tomatoes don’t volunteer.

But about now as you may recall, I was hanging in the middle of the air with a tomato in my hand praying for any pulp fiction hero to come flitting by and pluck me from the jaws of death. I could have imagined it there, but that tomato got me back to safety.

My 7th-grade algebra teacher liked to say “The event will define its own parameters,” a mite uptown for backwoods mystical mumbo-jumbo, but I figure that lone Cherokee Purple saved my life. And Norma’s reputation. Its message? If you want anything done right, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

That Cherokee Purple cleared my head better than any spiritual encounter at a tent revival. Born again, born again, praise the Lord, I’m born again! Arms flailing, I cut up the side of that rock wall like a piece of runaway farm equipment.

Grabbing at tussocks of wild sedge, I hauled my flesh over the edge as far as my belt buckle where it hit a snag. It was caught on a sharp point where the rock had split. Holding on to a wisp of grass, I reached back and jacked the buckle over the rim. I swore as I tore a knuckle.

Safe up top, I collapsed, let all my muscles go limp, and enjoyed the luxury of just lying still and listening to the pounding of my heart. I fell asleep in a muddle of exhaustion and dappled sunlight. And came to with approaching voices.

They sounded like Wildrose Mahaffey and Norma Cawthorne.

I had caught the peeing baby again. The Graybar Hotel was calling me. I wondered if the sheriff played checkers.

A man’s first call is to his vanity; wake one up from a sound sleep sometime; he’ll reach for his pants, his false teeth and a comb, in that order. I stood up and banged my head against the mossy underside of the picnic table. I had been set up — pin the tail on the Harley; Mahaffey was a small town cop with something to hide. And all I wanted was to look good for the newspaper photographers: Perpetrator returns to scene of crime after twenty years. No matter I had been eight years old when Norma and Ol’ Parrish split the district. The last one in is guilty.

Norma and Wildrose were laughing, too. Together, not at me, as they meandered through Spanish moss that cascaded from low hanging live oak trees, the classic antebellum courting couple. And not too much the worse for wear if you squinted when you looked at them.

“Howdy, Mr. Pigeon.”

“Norma, Colonel.”

“Seems like you found Ol’ Parrish.”

“As you said, the wild hogs got him.”

Mahaffey had an arm about Norma Cawthorne’s waist. He offered me his hand.

“Eat mo’ possum, Harley.”

“Amen to that Colonel Mahaffey.” If they were happy, I was happy.

* * *

Sitting in the shade
Counting every dime I made.
What more can a poor girl do?
Ruby, Ruby. Ruby, are you mad at your man?

In South Carolina, local distances are told off with the high school football field in mind. A motivated linebacker could get you from the pool hall to the graveyard in five minutes. It was a short funeral with few mourners — Wildrose, Norma, Ed and me. Thelma and Ol’ Parrish were laid to rest side by side in the family plot.

Like I might have told you, I got my education hanging around the poolrooms and running errands for guys in bars. It was a good education and I got to read a lot. Ah, for those halcyon days of yore when a writer didn’t have to figure out how a thing worked, just had to come up with a name. The Cherokee Purples, like Tarzan and John Carter of Mars — call them a dream. You can’t outdo a dream armed only with 20th-century technology.

And what wisdom from the Cherokee Purples was revealed to me as I dangled on a precipice?

We have seen the future and it’s not yet. Pithy, huh?

Like I may have said, tomatoes can give us insights on the past. For the future we have got to wait.

And Thelma?

Empty and alone with the cold canned beer and the thin, mealy white bread sandwiches wrapped in plastic, Thelma died as she had lived — at the White Street Billiards and Snooker. The buzz of Piedmont had it that the new electric pinball games with cash payoffs were cutting into Thelma’s clientele. Hot Rods and Frisky killed her with bells and lights that flashed. That or despair. They never achieved a consensus. Suicide was not out of character for Thelma, and folks figured she finally gave up on things.

I never found out really why Thelma killed herself; perhaps just for something to do that day. Seeking meaning in otherwise unrelated events is a presumption that we are the focus of God’s energies on any given day.

Ask the Cherokee Purples.

Copyright © 2009 by Rob Hunter

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