Lead me Home (novel excerpt)

When I pulled in the driveway at Aunt Ophelia’s house, I knew I should take the peaches in--that they would ruin in the vehicle. I rested for a while on the sofa downstairs and decided I should check my email from work. When I logged in, I deleted all the junk from the inbox, and though I constantly right clicked to block the junk emails, somehow they were able to bypass the block by resending the same junk through a different address. Then, I saw it. The email was from the owner, it was marked as important, addressed to everyone, and the title was “Restructure of the Organization.” At first, I simply glanced at the email and didn’t think much about it, but then I reread it more slowly. While the message from Mr. Sampson simply announced a new Vice-President had been hired, and that even more changes would be made, I felt this new guy must be connected to Sampson from a political standpoint, since we didn’t have an opening, a position, for a Vice-President, and I knew Sampson well enough to know that nothing was simple, and the hiring of a new Vice-President meant the money to pay him could not cut into current profit for the Sampson family, that someone would get cut out of the picture in order to get needed funds to pay for his salary. The email casually mentioned something about restructuring and I had to wonder what that meant.

I felt sick to my stomach. I’d felt pretty close to Sampson and felt I should have known about any change in structure. I was in his inner circle and had done everything he had asked or suggested, though I didn’t necessarily agree with him. I’d even given several hundred dollars to the Democratic Party at his suggestion when I was not a Democrat, but a free-floating voter, and Jaden would have had a fit had she known since she and her family religiously voted Republican. We had been over to Sampson and Earline’s house several times for parties to watch the University of Tennessee games, even though neither one of us had gone to the University of Tennessee, and to family parties on holidays when we didn’t travel to Pavo. Earline felt a commitment to us since we were not from Nashville, being outsiders, and didn’t want us to spend holidays alone eating at restaurants. I had always sensed Sampson a puppet being controlled by the strings of Earline, whose father had owned the hotel, but when one works for someone or a group of people, he has to get with the program, join in whatever keeps him working. It seemed to me that it was like being a member of a certain religion, that once converted you couldn’t stray without fear of retribution, not from God, but from the people.

What irritated me most, however, was that Sampson hadn’t mentioned anything to me, and I was the general manager with a supposed direct line to owner/president Sampson, and if anyone had been deserving of appointment to Vice-President status, it would have been me. After all, he had consulted me on practically everything about the business. I had even served on the Chamber of Commerce board and the noon Rotary of downtown Nashville, and I had even served on several committees, having been asked by the Mayor at Rotary. Most of all, I had turned the hotel business around by offering discounts, doing more marketing to groups, offering shuttles to the Ryman, Grand Ole Opry, international airport, major businesses, and I had improved room quality and trained staff more than ever had been done in the hotel’s history. Even when it was difficult to get staff to work the third floor, or get customers to stay there because of the haunting, I created a marketing scheme that made the third floor the most popular in the hotel. What happened was a prostitute had leaped to her death decades before, and people had seen the ghostly apparition of a woman wearing a gown caked with blood and heard screams, doors slamming, and moaning. I had read that the notorious gangster Al Capone often stopped in Tennessee on runs between Chicago and Florida at a house he owned in Monteagle, Tennessee. The owners had turned the place into a popular restaurant, and they had capitalized on the home’s criminal history. Jaden and I had dinner there one weekend after hiking the Fiery Gizzard trail on the mountain. It had also been rumored that Capone stayed in Nashville some as well prior to or after owning the house in Monteagle, so I did a little research at the state archives and learned he’d stayed in the hotel. Then, using a little imagination, I turned the suicidal woman on the third floor into yet another lover in a river of jilted lovers of Al Capone and ended up with a new marketing strategy that worked. What was really interesting to me was seeing the story grow on its own over a year or so until people requested to be housed on the third floor, hoping for a glance at Al Capone and his jilted lover’s apparitions, and to my surprise, housekeeping employees actually wanted to be assigned to that floor. Whether I believed in ghosts or not, which I tended not to believe in, I wouldn’t deny others’ experience of them.

All of my work had yielded a huge profit for Sampson and nice bonuses for me, and these had continued through the years Jaden and I had been in Nashville. The hiring of a new Vice-President meant that I would report to him, and the interesting thing was that the new guy had not been in the tourism industry at all. In fact, he had worked for Eddie Kovacs, a developer who I knew from Rotary. Kovacs was a shrewd man who purchased buildings, reconfigured them into expensive condos, or bulldozed buildings for construction of new buildings. In fact, Kovacs had reconfigured an old warehouse downtown for the condo building Jaden and I lived in, and he had done a meticulous job. I imagined Kovacs to be a grown up kid who had been alienated by his parents and spent all his time in his room with Lego’s. He had a fast-talking Yankee accent, hailing from New Jersey, and though he was nice enough at Rotary the few times I had sat at his table and talked with him, he was not interested in people. He talked superficially—weather, events in the city, the New York Yankees. Even during the Pledge of Allegiance, the Rotary four-way test, the lunch prayer, and the guest speaker every week, I watched Eddie and knew his mind was elsewhere, the wheels constantly turning and clicking like a master clock from Switzerland, and scanning the audience at Rotary for any females who might be new and could fall victim to his predatory ways, which he had become so successful at by his fast-talking masculinity and seemingly endless supply of cash that provides someone a false feeling of security. Eddie’s double-breasted suits, his hundred dollar hair cuts and jell, his shined shoes by the old black man downtown on the corner, and his diamond cufflinks signified his importance to others. I simply saw him as a man looking to make yet another dollar and using any means to do so. If the new Vice President was Kovacs’ protégé, then I knew I could be civil toward him, but not necessarily like him, and I also knew my job might be in danger.

I also suspected Sampson might be looking at retirement, selling out the business, spending part of his time at their condo in Destin, Florida, particularly in the winter when his arthritis inflamed his body and made him resemble the Tin man from The Wizard of Oz. When gout would inflame his toe joints for a few days, he would drive their customized white van with orange pen stripes to signify his dedication to the University of Tennessee, which he had attended only briefly in his youth, and he would move into the motorized buggy and glide down the automatic handicapped ramp and zoom through the lobby into the restaurant, where he would down steak and eggs at breakfast, totally ignoring his doctor’s orders to stay away from red meat.

Part of me had even looked at Sampson as a surrogate father. He had often called me “his boy,” and I suppose what made him like me so much was he had never had a son of his own. I didn’t want to believe it was the money I’d help him make. He did have two step-daughters from Earline’s earlier marriage to a Tennessee congressman, who ended up in jail for taking bribes from undercover agents for votes on bills. It had apparently been a dark cloud in Tennessee politics, but it had not been the first and I felt sure it would not be the last.

I knew I needed to call Jaden, but I didn’t want to bother her at school. I knew this restructuring could affect my position, but I wasn’t worried. If I wanted another job in Nashville, I would get it, and I wasn’t too worried about finances either if restructuring meant my losing my position. Jaden and I had saved a lot of money over the years, and we had always lived within our means. Coming from families that once had money that no longer had money meant we had been conditioned to save. In fact, our rule was to live only on one of our paychecks. That way, if one of us lost a job, or God forbid something happened to one of us, we could survive.

Still, knowing all this did not help the way I felt. What I wanted to do was call some old friends, go out, and have a drink. I knew I couldn’t call Doug since he was recovering, and I also remembered the few times we’d gone out together. Once, when we were in high school, and Doug was sixteen and I was fifteen, there was a party in Thomasville at one of the motels for juniors and seniors at Pavo High. We had both been invited, so we got a couple of dates. Doug’s date was Reba, the Church of Christ preacher’s daughter, who was only fourteen. My date was the Methodist minister’s daughter, who was my age. In addition, our friend Sam who was the Baptist preacher’s son went without a date. Doug and Sam drove their vehicles, since I did not own a car until half-way through my sixteenth year.

The seniors had rented three rooms at the Sheraton that connected. Music was blasting, mainly Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” Even today, that song brings a warm feeling over me when I hear it in the Jeep and I turn it up. I don’t know if the warm feeling is the fondness I feel for the music or from the memory of all the beer I consumed that makes one feel warm on a cold night. Sam didn’t consume beer though. He had crept into the bathroom where all the beer, wine, and liquor were iced down in the tub. He’d pulled a fifth of Jack Daniel’s out of the ice, opened the bottom, and turned it straight up, downing the entire fifth. Everyone had cheered him on, and even in my half inebriated state, I felt this was the beginning of a bad night. Shortly after, Sam had become really drunk and began wild-dancing, running, and cursing on the hotel’s second floor balcony. He’d even yelled at some tourists and stuck his head through the metal railing on the balcony. It took several of us to get his head back through the railing, and because we were laughing so hard, he began to curse and get violent toward us.

The motel management had received numerous complaints, so we were asked to leave. It was bad enough that we had all lied and said we were going to see a movie in Thomasville, but with Sam in such a state, I had a feeling it would only get worse, and it did. Sam got in his car, began doing doughnuts in the parking lot, leaving smoke from the rubber burning on the asphalt. When he’d finally stopped, he was sick, throwing up inside his car and all over himself. He’d even urinated and defecated on himself. Finally, Sam had passed out. Doug and I had hatched a plan to cover ourselves. The plan had been that I would drive Sam’s car home (even though I had a learner’s permit), I would pull the car into the front yard of the Baptist pastorium, I’d get out and jump into Doug’s car with our dates, and we would tell everyone that Sam had left the movies and when he returned, he was drunk, and we didn’t know what else to do but take him home. We got Sam into the backseat and implemented our plan.

As I had driven down the highway toward Pavo, music off and windows down, I felt okay. When I’d glanced in the rearview mirror, Doug was following closely behind, so a cop wouldn’t see me driving and pull me over, which could have easily happened had they seen me driving. The best and worst thing about a small town is that everyone knows everyone else. In times like this, it can be devastating, but in other times, it can be the best thing ever to know everyone. I had heard movement in the backseat and low, guttural sounds that reminded me of a horror movie. Then I had seen Sam in the rearview mirror. He had risen from his drunken stupor and had an insane look on his face. He’d grabbed me from behind at the throat and choked me. As I swerved from one side of the road to the other, I’d tried to yell, which came out as a strained whisper, and Sam had finally fallen motionless in the backseat. With Sam passed out again, I had coughed and breathed until I felt somewhat normal, and when I saw the “Welcome to Pavo” sign, I inhaled and exhaled deeply, feeling relief.

Turning from Main onto Elm, I had driven below the speed limit, and Doug followed close behind. As we rounded a curve and approached Sam’s house, I noticed what I thought were people standing in the minister’s front yard, and unfortunately, I had been accurate. Of all things, the minister and his wife had been having a prayer party, which had just ended. There seemed to be about forty people in their front yard, getting ready to leave. As I had driven slowly by, they all had waived, thinking it was Sam, but I had seen the looks on their puzzled faces when they caught a glimpse of me at the wheel thanks to the streetlights. I’d waived back and had kept on driving until I reached Miss Parker’s house, a young school teacher who had been rumored to sleep with senior football players and buy them beer. Her front porch light was on, and Doug eased in behind me. I’d knocked on the door, and when she’d opened the door, she stood dressed in her robe and said, “Hey Max.”

“Hey,” I’d said. “Do you mind if I use your phone?” Then, I offered the first of my series of lies. “We’ve all been to the movies in Thomasville, and Sam came back after it was over really drunk. I need to call his parents. He’s passed out in the backseat, and Doug and our dates are in Doug’s car.” I’d wanted to add that, so she wouldn’t have the impression I was using a line to come in for a sleepover, not that I thought she would since I wasn’t a football player and was actually kind of scrawny. Years later, I still wondered if the rumors of the teacher were true, or if football players started the rumor, so other students would think they were getting laid.

“Oh my,” she’d said. “Come on in.”

I used the phone and dialed the number. Back then, one had to only dial the last four digits, and the minister’s wife answered on the second ring.

“Mrs. Vickers,” I’d said. “We went to the movies and Sam came back to get us and he was drunk. He’s pretty sick. He’s in the backseat passed out.”

“Bring him home right now!” she’d yelled.

“Yes mam,” I’d said.

I had told Ms. Parker thanks and she told me to be careful. As I had walked out the front door, she’d told me to come back and visit some time, that she always liked me. I nodded, went out, and got back in Sam’s car. The dried vomit smell in Sam’s car was even more overpowering than it had been driving down the road with the wind blowing in, and I’d felt a little nauseated, since it reminded me of spaghetti sauce.

As I had pulled into the driveway at Sam’s house, his parents were there to meet me, and the prayer crowd had dissipated. Then, I’d told the second round of lies. I had explained about the movie, his getting drunk and coming back to get us, but I could tell they didn’t buy it. I knew they were concerned about their son, but I also had half-way hoped for some gratitude. After all, I didn’t have to drive him home, nearly get choked to death.

I’d hopped into Doug’s car and we had driven away, looking back and watching them try to lug him out of the car. I told them what I had told Ms. Parker and the Rev. and Mrs. Vickers. I told them to stick to the story, that no matter what happened, we all needed to be on the same page.

We’d dropped the girls off first. I remember it felt like a date gone bad, so we didn’t kiss them good night; we just said goodnight. When I got home, mama and daddy were already in bed, but their reading lamps were on. I opened the door and mama was reading her Sunday school lesson.

“Hey Max. Did ya’ll enjoy the movie?”

“Yes, but there was a problem.”

Mama had elbowed Daddy, his eyes opened, and he sat up. “Sam didn’t go to the movies with us, but he came back when it was over to pick us up. He was really drunk.”

“Lord have mercy,” Mama had said.

I had told them about the vomit and all, told them how I drove him home, but when we got to his house, they were having a prayer party, and I drove a little further down the road and used Ms. Parker’s phone. Mama raised her eyebrows when I said that. I suspected she had heard about Ms. Parker, but she didn’t say anything about it. I’d told them about the Rev. and Mrs. Vickers and taking Sam home.

“Well, you did the right thing,” Daddy’d said. “Try to get some sleep. I’m sure Sam and his parents will be alright.”

All Mama had echoed was “Lord have mercy.”

I had gone on to bed, but tossed and turned a lot. I’d heard the phone ring about three in the morning, heard Daddy answer, and he’d said, “Well that’s not what Max told us, and I don’t believe he’d lie about it.” I had lay in bed and felt guiltier than I ever had before. My chest hurt and I struggled to breathe. I continued to toss and turn the rest of the night and I couldn’t stop thinking about my having lied. I felt clammy and sick to my stomach.

When we got to church the next morning, everyone knew (Another characteristic of small town life is the grapevine). Some looked at me with scolding looks, and others came up to me and told me they had heard what I had done to help Sam. For the first time since Reverend Vickers had begun preaching at First Baptist, he didn’t yell, or beat, on the podium. He had looked defeated, and Sam had sat next to his mother on the first row and looked ashen. He didn’t speak at all. At the end of the service when the church had begun singing “I Surrender All,” I saw people look at Sam and I’d felt like some people might be looking at me, but no one had gone down to join or rededicate, so they stopped on the third verse, a first I recalled. On Monday, the school had been abuzz with the story, and it had stretched to Sam having had his stomach pumped, his car having been totaled by me, me having been arrested for driving without a license, a lawsuit from the motel owner for damages, all the ministers in Pavo crusading against the sale of alcohol. After a few days, things calmed, but never totally disappeared. Mama and daddy had acted standoffish towards me, and after three days, daddy said at the supper table, “Max, did you lie?”

“Yes, sir,” I’d replied, but if he had really counted, it would have been a lot more than one.

“You know I don’t care that you drank. I think what you did for Sam was a good deed. But I have always taught you not to lie to me. The truth is far easier to deal with than a lie on top of the truth. I want you to always tell me the truth, and we’ll work it out one way or another.”

Tears had welled in my eyes and a lump formed in my throat, probably the first since my early childhood, and I made a promise I would not lie to them again, and I haven’t. Reverend Vickers had resigned the following month, and they moved away. I never knew what became of Sam, but I felt that he would be alright. Daddy had then headed the search committee for a new preacher.

Nick Reddick is a Georgia writer.

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