Mary and Josie sat atop the hill, waiting for the sun to fade behind the mountains. Unlike games their schoolmates noisily played in the bright light of day, Red Rover or Hopscotch, theirs relied on darkness and silence. Mary’s and Josie’s game did not have a name; it was not bound by rules, teams or scores. It required only two commonplace items—a spool of twine and an old purse. Mary raided Debbie Mom’s kitchen junk drawer for the twine, and Josie snuck the purse out of her aunt’s closet.
They looped the twine five times around the stiff straps of the black leather purse and placed it in the center of two-lane Jericho Road at a sharp bend locals referred to as Dead Man’s Curve. Anyone rounding the curve would naturally let up on the gas pedal, unless they were drunk, and might see the purse reflected in their headlights.
Back in their positions at the top of the hill, Mary and Josie crouched and waited, taking turns holding the spool end of the twine, the soft light of the pink and blue Belt of Venus their backdrop on the horizon. As twilight melted into night, they heard a car backfire.
“Someone’s coming,” Mary whispered. “Get ready.”
“It sounds like Lettie Johnson’s car,” Josie said.
Lettie slammed on her brakes and got out, approaching the dark object cautiously, not knowing for sure what it was. Her heart beat a little faster, and not because of the danger posed by a tiny woman like herself standing in the middle of Dead Man’s Curve on a moonless night; as the purse came into focus, the shiny black patent leather pumps she’d coveted in the window of Dalton’s Department Store flashed through her mind. For a second, she pictured herself with shoes and purse to match, or close enough, walking into town with her head held high.
Lettie stooped to take a closer look at the purse, brushed her fingertips across its cool, damp surface, and jerked her hand away. Had it moved ever so slightly? As she began to lift the purse off the ground, she felt a gentle tug, then a steady resistance. Mary slowly and steadily reeled in the twine, the purse flopping side-to-side like a hooked fish, and pulled it up the hill out of Lettie’s reach.
“I didn’t plan to steal it, just wanted to see who it belonged to,” Lettie yelled into the darkness before driving off.
She avoided Dead Man’s Curve whenever possible now, hoping to forget the guilt and shame she’d carried home that night, instead of a new purse.
A single-bulb light socket dangled from the ceiling of Debbie Mom and Daddy John’s bedroom at the end of the hall. The cracked glass globe that had concealed it lay on a side table waiting for Daddy John to take it to the hardware store and buy a replacement. Without a cover to impede it, the bulb’s yellowish-orange light traveled freely through the gap at the door’s bottom, arriving at Mary’s door before the journey could be measured in time. Unable to sleep under the invasion of artificial light, Mary blocked the imposter by folding and placing a faded mermaid beach towel lengthwise across the bottom of her door.
The beach towel had come from a ubiquitous seaside shop during a rare family vacation to Myrtle Beach when Mary was five. After seasoned sunbathers and serious sandcastle aficionados were forced off the beach by heavy rain, they swarmed the tiny shops browsing a myriad of items useful only on a sunny day—suntan lotion featuring the iconic Coppertone girl, plastic buckets and shovels, lounge chairs and beach towels.
Exhausted parents, at a loss to dream up any rainy day activities to placate their whiny children, bickered with each other as they dragged their kids from one shop to the next. “Weren’t we here before?” kids complained. “You were in charge of just one thing, checking the weather!” exasperated mothers said to their husbands.
Probably because it rained the entire week, the mermaid beach towel was the sharpest memory Mary had from the trip. She was sure she had pulled it off the shelf accidentally, because she would never forget the heavy woman in a one-piece bathing suit running after a little boy squirting a water gun. The woman charged into Mary, who reflexively grabbed onto the towel for support, knocking over a rack of post cards.
Mary ended up on the floor with the mermaid beach towel covering her head and Wish You Were Here in Beautiful Myrtle Beach post cards strewn around dozens of sand-caked bare feet that came dangerously close to her face. Debbie Mom yelled at the woman for knocking “my baby” down, and then later screamed at Mary for pulling the beach towel off the shelf.
Mary’s other memory of their beach vacation was Debbie Mom and Daddy John bickering over whether they should eat at Howard Johnson’s or Dairy Queen. Debbie Mom won that battle, and, as if to rub it in, harangued the entire trip about why anyone would want to travel five hundred miles to eat at the same restaurant they could eat at back home, referring to the DQ.
For his part, Daddy John mumbled, “We should have stayed home and gone to Hillbilly Beach at Jordan Creek.”
Before she arrived on earth, Mary floated in a black sea far from Myrtle Beach. She was alone, yet not alone, in the middle of the wet darkness. A steady, rhythmic beat guided her over the gentle waves. Muffled voices called to her from afar; there was music. She swam toward the beacon of light onshore, hoping to find safety.
Growing up, Mary’s life was filled with music between the hours of seven-thirty and eight-thirty in the morning and three-thirty and six-thirty in the afternoon, hours when she and Debbie Mom were home alone. Debbie Mom was especially fond of Doris Day, gliding across the cracked linoleum floor clutching a mop or broom, and singing along. It was not easy to glide on cracked linoleum. She’d place the mop or broom in the corner just long enough to pour herself another cup of coffee, or flip the record.
Mary’s favorite Doris Day song was Que Sera, on the A side of the 78 RPM record. She liked that the song asked a lot of questions, but didn’t provide pat answers. Will I be pretty, will I be rich? The answers weren’t of course, just to make you feel good, but whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, que sera, sera. Still, Doris made it sound like everything was going to be just great, and Mary saw that it made Debbie Mom happy to believe this.
Reverend Jim Slack wasn’t thrilled about having company that day, but he hadn’t planned to go out anyway. The news of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Jordan Creek was just one more reason to stay home. And Arthur Ronan the third wouldn’t take long. If Art, which is what he insisted he call him, dawdled and showed any signs of wanting to sit and chat, he could always use the excuse of needing to prepare for his sermon the next day.
As it turned out, Art spent no more than about ten minutes standing at the rectory door, not even stepping inside. He appeared to be nervous about something; Reverend Slack didn’t dare pry into what that something might be. He thanked Art for returning the book and told him to drive safely.
What Reverend Slack hadn’t counted on was what happened moments after Art left. He’d just poured himself a snifter of Prohibition Edition Cutty Sark scotch, he liked it neat, settled into his recliner and kicked off his shoes, when the doorbell rang.
“Just a minute,” he said, hiding the snifter in a cupboard. He didn’t want any more rumors to get started. He hoped it wasn’t Art returning, wanting to chat after all. Even worse, it might be a member of the choir or the Women’s Bible Group stopping by to ask some inane question. “Who’s there?”
“My name is Doctor Thomas Silver,” the man said. “I was referred to you about a book.”
“Just a minute,” he repeated. Now he prayed it wasn’t some hotshot theologian who wanted to debate the Bible.
When Reverend Slack opened the door, he was surprised to see that the doctor was accompanied by a rather attractive woman and a skinny boy with wet hair. “You mentioned a book.”
“Yes, if I could have just a few moments of your time, we’ll be on our way.”
Doctor Silver held up a muddy copy of Myths, Legends and Folktales from the Hollows of West Virginia. “Unfortunately there was an incident down by the creek, and I dropped it.”
“I see,” the Reverend said. “Won’t you come in.”
“This is my wife, Margaret, and my son, Tommy.”
As soon as they were inside, he could smell it, a foul odor emanating from the boy Tommy. “Have you been swimming?” Reverend Slack said.
“I was swinging from a tree and fell in,” he said sheepishly. “I didn’t get hurt though.”
“Well, good for you, but there’s some bad stuff in that water so make sure you take a long shower when you get home.”
“He’ll take one when we get back to the motel this evening,” Margaret said. “We drove down from New York.”
“All the way from New York? What brings you to Jordan Creek?” Although he hadn’t wanted company, this portended something much more interesting than the Women’s Bible Group.
“This,” Doctor Silver said, as he held up the book again. “I knew the man who edited it, and I’ve always wanted to check out some of his assertions.”
“Well what do you know. You just missed someone else who seems obsessed with that book.” Reverend Slack walked over to the bookshelf and pulled out one of his copies. “I loaned it to Professor Arthur Ronan the third, and he returned it not thirty minutes ago.”
“Who is he?” Doctor Silver said.
“Hillbilly Heaven debunker is what I call him.” He moved toward the cupboard. “Can I offer you something to drink?” He’d decided he might as well have that scotch after all. Doctor Silver and his wife, Margaret, appeared to be the sort of people who wouldn’t mind; maybe they’d even have one themselves.
Before they could answer, Tommy piped up and said, “Do you have any Coca-Cola?”
“Tommy, don’t be rude,” Margaret said.
“As a matter of fact I do,” he said. “And you, Doctor? Mrs. Silver?”
“Please call me Margaret.”
While these pleasantries were exchanged, Reverend Slack retrieved his snifter from the cupboard and pulled a bottle of Coke out of the refrigerator. Although brief, the couple exchanged a glance that had no doubt been honed over a span of many years. Her eyes flashed worry; his eyes registered defeat.
“I’ll have whatever you’re having,” Doctor Silver said. He was already well aware it was something stronger than Coke.
“And you, Margaret?” Reverend Slack liked saying her name. It sounded aristocratic. He was glad she didn’t use the nickname, Peggy.
“Nothing for me, thank you.” Never anything for me, she thought. I might have to drive back if he has too many.
As they had their drinks, Reverend Slack provided as many details as he could about the Mountain Dew Gang—where they’d lived, the location of their production facility up on Spruce Hill, what had become of their families after the incident. He focused on Hillbilly Heaven and all the rumors that had been passed down over the past thirty years. That was his bailiwick, he asserted.
Doctor Silver listened intently, even after his third drink. “I’m just trying to get at the truth.”
“Why are you so interested in the book, specifically in Hillbilly Heaven?” Reverend Slack was on his third drink, too. Margaret and Tommy spoke softly between themselves about the day’s events.
“I believe the guy who edited it, Anthony Caputo Senior, my former colleague at NYU, made a lot of it up just to sell the book. I specifically overheard him joking with one of his students about Hillbilly Heaven.”
The Reverend Jim Slack glanced down at the book in his lap. He had never believed in Hillbilly Heaven, and yet he’d preached about it most of his adult life. He hadn’t seen any harm in giving his congregants something positive to look forward to, a better life than many of them had in the present. And, he told himself, anything’s possible.
Doctor Silver was seeking the truth, but for his own selfish purposes, to discredit his archrival, Anthony Caputo Senior. Reverend Jim Slack always assumed he was peddling lies, but had convinced himself it was for the good of others. Who would be judged more harshly, if at all?
It was dusk when the Silvers finally left; they’d stayed longer than planned. Instead of driving as far north as Fairmont, where they’d stayed on the way down, they stopped at a motel in Charleston. Doctor Silver insisted he wasn’t drunk. Tommy complained he wasn’t feeling well. Margaret said nothing, exhausted from trying to hold their family together.