My close friend from Lebanon days, Jimmy Nokes, has asked about my novel, New Palestine. i haven’t actually written the novel but have several chapters or short stories in various stages of completion. They are on the back burner until i have finished my book about my experience with women at sea and perhaps several others before i re-attack New Palestine.
i published the short story, “Leaving New Palestine,” several years ago on this website, but it was lost when my previous web provider crashed a number of sites. At the beginning of the original short story, the narrator, Abner Moses was introduced along with his good buddy, Ezekial Ratliff. Abner is a retired U.S. Navy chief warrant officer who returned to his hometown of New Palestine. Ratliff is essentially a traveling salesman. The two meet regularly when Ratliff’s route takes him to New Palestine. They usually meet at Erlene’s Diner just off the square. Ratliff enjoys hearing Moses’ tales and the novel was originally planned to be those tales told by Moses as in “Leaving New Palestine.”
i am reposting the short story here for Jimmy Nokes. i’m also including a work in progress introducing Abner and Ezekiel.
Once again, i want all of my Lebanon friends (and all other readers) to know although there is a great deal of my memories of my hometown used in the stories and many of the people and places may seem familiar, the story is from my ideas about story telling and neither any places nor any people are representative of folks or places back home.
I am Abner Carlisle Moses.
I was born in Nazareth Creek, a little settlement about twenty miles southeast of New Palestine, Tennessee in 1933. I was born in a depression and been in one pretty much ever since.
My great, great grandfather, Aaron Moses, came over the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone in 1775. He helped cut the Wilderness Road and married one of Daniel’s sister-in-laws in the process. But in 1782, Aaron and his family left the Boone conclave and moved to Squirreltown in southern Kentucky. From there, the whole family migrated to Nazareth Creek around 1804.
I was too young to fight in World War II, so i fought in high school. They kicked me off the high school football team because I beat up the star halfback with my helmet after he straight-armed me in a pre-season scrimmage. Then at the start of my junior year, I beat up a boarding cadet at the military prep school pretty bad with a tie rod off a 38 Ford. It happened in plain sight outside the Starlight Theater on Ferndale Pike, just south of the town square right after the Wednesday Matinee. The movie showing that afternoon was a Bob Steele oater. The judge told me I was lucky I didn’t kill the goober and gave me the choice of joining the Navy or going to jail.
So Abner Moses was the first of his immediate family to leave Tennessee, and I left it for a goodly while. I liked the navy. I tested high enough to be a radioman, but I wanted to be out on deck, so I became a boatswainsmate. Being a sailor back in the late forties, early fifties was a damn sight different than being a sailor today, and being a boatswainsmate meant long hours and hard work, and most of it was no-shit manual labor.
It wasn’t all that bad and I had a knack for working around boats and liked all the fancywork with line so i got along okay. I learned early on about staying out of fights. On my first ship, the U.S.S. Frederick Sinclair, an old 2200 ton destroyer, one of the duty master-at-arms, was this huge, hirsute, second class gunner’s mate. i had come back late on the liberty launch cause i got about three sheets to the wind and couldn’t get my lock to open at the locker club right outside the destroyer pier gate in San Diego. When the officer-of-the-deck, some smart ass first class yeoman, said he was going to put me on report, i started raising hell and the petty-officer-of-the-walk called this bozo duty master-at-arms.
He sorta picked me up with one arm around me and under my arm pit and started shuffling me off, saying, “Boy, I think it’s bout time you learned a little destroyer discipline. It was just after taps when he shuffled me right on down to the boatswain’s locker, and proceeded to beat the living hell out of me. I figured I was tough and held up pretty well, but then the next day, Petty Officer Carrier, a second-class boatswainsmate and our leading petty officer, couldn’t find my liberty card. They held it for two weeks before I could go on liberty again. That hurt a hell of a lot more than the whipping, so I learned: never was late again.
That pretty much led to quick advancement back then and after we got through the Korean War, I had made second class. By sixty-one, I had made chief and before I knew it, they had nominated me for the warrant officer program and i’d become a bona fide, no-shit Bo’sun warrant. And to tell you the truth, that was my hey day, my crowning moment, cause there just ain’t no shit like a Bosun’s shit.
I never married. Didn’t particularly want to and didn’t have to, being in the Navy and all. When I was in sixth grade and she was in the fourth, I had a dream about a girl named Mary Claire Dubonnet back in New Palestine – we moved from New Nazareth into a house bout two blocks off the square when I was four. But somehow this dream took my breath away and i was taken with Mary Claire. Course, New Palestine girls in general and Mary Claire in particular wouldn’t have much to do with me. I was wiry and small, with a big head and always getting in trouble. i probably scared ‘em. But even after I left, Mary Claire was the girl of my dreams and it was real hard to get serious about any other girl.
And the Navy allowed me plenty of opportunities to be with women, especially on deployment. There were several I seriously thought about marrying. Kazuko, whose parents were killed by the Nagasaki A Bomb was the closest. But my momma, Cora Mae Macon Moses, talked me out of it through letters when I told her of my intention. Probably just as well. I was way too independent to have ever been a good husband.
So after twenty-five years, the damn Navy decided I should be doing shore duty for the remainder of my career and I told ‘em to shove it. They gave me a pretty good pension so i used the G.I. bill and went to a San Diego college and picked up my B.A. in English. Took me most of three years.
So i headed back home. Momma was gone and Daddy had passed long before her. But New Palestine was home. I hooked on as a county correspondent with the Nashville Daily Blade, the afternoon city daily. It was a good deal: part time and let me as close to the inner workings of the county seat and city government as I could get, which was always interesting. i also got to cover the local sports, which was both the high school and Joshua Military Academy.
It was several years before I met Ezekiel Ratliff. He sold auto parts to the auto parts stores around the mid-state and New Palestine had a couple of his major customers. He stopped off for lunch at Erlene’s Diner just east of the square on nearly every visit. I was a regular at Erlene’s but Ratliff’s and my schedule had not matched up before that day in sixty-seven. We was both at the counter so just naturally started jawing. He’s a good guy and we hit it right off. We both liked to tell our stories; so pretty soon, we are getting there early and spending a couple of hours over coffee spinning our tales.
I suppose New Palestine ain’t a great deal different from most small towns in the South, although we all like to think New Palestine is a sight better than all of them others. Of course, come to think about it, all those other towns probably think they are better than the others. So i guess we are all more alike than we like to believe.
Leaving New Palestine
“Caroldeane was always a mite different from most of the girls round here,” Abner Moses mused.
“Ain’t a hell of a lot of women, young or old, who’ll take on a man straight up, but Caroldeane done it a bunch of times.
“Don’t know what possessed her to run away like she did, but she was always a mite strange, different from most of us around here.”
“What kind of family did she have; what was she like?” Ratliff asked.
“Well, the family didn’t measure up to snuff: poor folks, generally. Caroldeane was youngest and the only daughter out of six kids Missus Culpepper had. She had two die in childbirth, and two more died afore they started school. Course you gotta remember there was a hell of a lot more to die from when you were a kid growing up around here before the fifties. Hell, I lost a brother and a sister myself. The brother died when he was a couple of months early and my sister died at four from pneumonia.
“The other Culpepper boy joined the Navy ‘cause the judge told them he had to or go to jail. I think his name was Henry.
“Quince, Caroldeane’s ole man never really had a job. Ran an automobile junkyard for a while, but that didn’t take. He kicked around doing odd jobs mostly, labor, not handiwork, even though he fancied himself a handyman. He was a little bit bloated from whiskey, but hard.
“Quince had three brothers as I recall. Reamus served quite a bit of time for slicing up some guy outside a beer bar up beyond four-mile hill. Another, Robert E. -it was hard not to remember his name -just sort of disappeared. Folks really don’t know what happened to him.
“The oldest, Broadus, got kicked by a mule, right in the forehead when he was ’bout twelve.
“Never was quite right again. You might have seen him on the square playing with his little stick and twine. Heard he crawled up in an unlocked car on the square bout three January’s ago. They found him froze to death several days later. Damn shame, Broadus might have scared a couple of women once or twice cause they didn’t know he was harmless, but he never done anyone no real harm. Caroldeane’s old man and momma took in Broadus and sort of took care of him as much as they could. They put up a lean-to on that old shed they lived in for him to sleep. Some folks say they heated it, but I don’t see how they did that. I reckon he slept on the floor in the shed when it was too cold to sleep in the lean-to. They kicked him out after Caroldeane left town and he just sort of shifted around on his own, living on handouts and sleeping in barns or backyard shacks until he crawled up into that car. Somebody said that he had been doing that for years, but usually not in the winter.
“Quince stuck around, too. He ran that junkyard into the ground, and when that failed, he hired on with city works, doing all sorts of odd jobs. Drove a school bus for a while, right after they made the old high school into a junior high. But two or three girls claimed he made some advances or said some lewd things to ’em and they kicked him off the bus and put him on a scooter running around town and picking up dead dogs and such and taking ’em out to the dump. It was okay by Quince because he felt like that scooter was his own and he treated it like it was a car since no one in his family, at least not around here, ever had a car, excepting, of course, all of those broken-down ones in the junk yard. I suspect that had a good deal to do with the business failing. I mean what the hell is a man doing running an auto junkyard when he can’t put enough of a car together just so it would run?
“Nobody ever saw much of Caroldeane’s mom. She stayed pretty much out of sight, stayed mostly in that four-room shack at the back of the junkyard. Even after they got out of the junk business, they stayed on the land. No land around here is all that great with the limestone and all, but that old junkyard, out near the quarry was about as bad as any round here.
“Some say she was once a pretty woman, came down from Jerome County. Don’t know
how they met or anything. I only saw her a couple of times and she had pretty much gone to seed by then: gaunt, gangling woman, bout five-seven and all bones and a hard look. Didn’t talk at all when I met her down at the farmers’ market about ten years ago. Just stood back of Quince and sort of glared at the world. But hell, anybody married to Quince and wearing nothing but old cotton dresses and brogans, and living in that shack in that junkyard on that worthless land with all that junk would have ended up looking and acting like that.
“Mary Beth Edwards once told me that Miz Culpepper was born Lilah Mundy. Mary Beth said that she was in Whiting’s hardware store on the north side of the square round the early 50’s when she came in with Caroldeane and was trying to buy a wash bucket. Old Nails Whitehead was
a waiting on her. Mary Beth said that Nails wouldn’t lower the price fifty cents and Missus Culpepper didn’t have enough money. They squabbled about it for about fifteen or twenty minutes when Nails finally called for Colonel Whiting. The Colonel told Miz Culpepper that the price was fixed but that he would put the fifty cents on account with no interest. Mary Beth said the poor old thing got all hot and irate and told the Colonel that the ‘damn Culpepper’s might not be bothered by owing people, but no Mundy and especially this Lilah Mundy was ever gonna owe anybody anything and that he could just keep the damn wash bucket.’
“That’s why Caroldeane was so surprising. You could see a bit of her mother in her. She was tall, bout 5-8 or so, but certainly not gaunt, just about right most of the boys around here would say. I guess even ole Quince might have had some good looks about him before that beer gut, and the whiskey-red, swollen nose got in the way of anybody noticing. But Caroldeane was a pretty kid from the get go and just kept getting better looking as she grew up.
“Caroldeane was a looker: not a classic beauty, mind you, but she had a woman’s figure by the time she was twelve, and it was a damn sight perfect. She had soft curves and skin that glowed like cream just out of the churn. Her nose turned up a bit, and her head was small. Her eyes were those dead pools of blue that haunt you. And her hair was thin, bobbed, but always blowing in the wind. It was sand colored, not brown, not blonde, with streaks of light running through it. She had a small mouth too, the kind that looks like a rose petal. A lot of babies have them but lose ’em before they get through with grade school. Caroldeane kept hers, at least up until she left.
“But it wasn’t Caroldeane looks that made her so different. She always seemed interested in people but snapped at them whenever anyone tried to be friendly. Actually, the kit and caboodle of them were like that except for Broadus, who was always running up in people’s faces on the square and almost screaming, “Do you know me?” with that silly ass grin on his face and snapping the string tied onto a little string. Caroldeane looked approachable. Lots of rumors ran around about how she let boys do things with her, but none of them was substantiated, and I’ve seen her chew boys’ heads off when they approached her too many times to believe it. She didn’t seem to like boys at all. Didn’t like women too much neither. Didn’t make much sense to me, and most of the other folks around here either.
“She spent a lot of time wandering around the square, watching folks, not saying much.
“Missus Thatcher, the old school teacher who retired and started up the city library – the one that use to be the old Macumber town house on main street fore they all died and left the house to the city in their will. Missus Thatcher used to say that Caroldeane was nearly always in the library when she wasn’t kicking round the square. Missus Thatcher said that Caroldeane read bout everything that she could but sort of gravitated to poetry books. Said she eventually started reading just poetry and weird kind of stuff like Ezra Pound who was some nut case who turned communist and lived in Italy.
“Caroldeane stayed away from the junkyard as much as possible, even around the age of six. Her mom would send her down the square to get Broadus. About the only time Missus Culpepper seem to worry about Broadus was getting him home for the evening meal. She’d apparently tell Caroldeane to come through the square on the way home from school and get Broadus.
“There’d be some pretty good arguments between the two of them down there on the square in the late afternoons. Sorta eerie: Caroldeane, between eight and sixteen, laying down the law to Broadus who was forty or so when this stuff started. Broadus was the oldest brother of Quince and Caroldeane was Quince’s youngest.
“Anyways, Caroldeane and Broadus would have these screaming arguments on the square and Caroldeane acted like a marshal or something and would finally shoo ole Broadus back to the junkyard. Then, Caroldeane herself would just sort of mosey around the square, looking in the windows, watching the people. Sometimes she would find a bench, usually the one outside Feller’s pharmacy over by the arcade, and just sit and watch people until after dark. Sometimes she’d stay there until the last store closed. Then she’d finally get up and wander back to the junkyard. Old Quince and Caroldeane’s mother were hard people but they apparently never got mad at Caroldeane, pretty much let her do what she wanted to do from the time she started school till she ran away. People use to laugh and say that Caroldeane and old General Hicks, the statue of the Confederate officer in the middle of the square, spent more time downtown than anybody.
“She especially liked hanging around the arcade in the winter. Tulip’s Five and Dime was on the other side of the arcade from Feller’s. Caroldeane would wander in just before closing and just look at all of the cheap stuff they had in bins up toward the front. I remember liking Tulip’s too. It smelled like they’d been making cotton candy and coffee for so long they couldn’t scrub the smell out. Always seemed like it was warmer in there in late fall and winter afternoons. Wasn’t much to buy really. Lots of small stuff from Japan. Trinkets. I liked it. Caroldeane liked it too. That’s where Robert first talked to her.
“Robert Witherspoon took her back to the junkyard one night. Just before Thanksgiving. Cold, rainy night, not quite sleet. I’d gotten back from delivering a load of fuel oil out on Chigger Lane and had stopped at Erlene’s Diner, just off the square on East Main. Wasn’t hardly anybody anywhere, being Monday. Robert came in from the office at the other stone quarry, the big one out on Nashville Pike. It was just past five and dark already. The rain started just about when Robert and I finished our supper. I decided to have some pecan pie, ala mode of course, but Robert started to head home. The next Saturday, he told me what happened.
“Robert had to walk down to the square where he had parked his truck in the middle area.
“He said he really didn’t know why he didn’t just get in the truck and go on home. But he didn’t.
“He walked across the empty square in that cold rain to Tulip’s. It was warm inside and it did smell of cotton candy and coffee. The old wood floors were dark and rough, but the place was well lit. That showed off the trinkets in the best light.
“Caroldeane was there. Young and wet and a bit shivering from the cold, she was rummaging through those trinket bins up front. Robert said he forgot what he came in for and wandered around for a few minutes, smelling and feeling warm. He was walking out and Caroldeane, with that old wet felt coat and those young, dead pool blue eyes was standing there, and he knew she had about three miles of walking in cold rain to get back to the junk yard. He asked her if she’d like a ride home.
“Robert said it sorta surprised him when she said yes. She had turned down a bunch of rides, even in the snow and one hell of a lot colder weather than that little piddling cold night in late November. But Caroldeane said yes. So Robert and her walked back to the middle of the square and that old GMC pickup he had. He started it up and fired up the heater. Caroldeane sat sort of like a knot against the shotgun door. Robert said she look like a fawn that just got cornered by a puma.
“He kept saying, ‘Child, don’t worry. I just wanna take you home so you can get a hot meal and get dry and warm and have a good night’s sleep.’
“He said Caroldeane seemed to shrivel up closer to the door and said, almost defiantly, ‘There ain’t no hot meal I’m gonna get and the folks are too stingy to turn on the heat, so it ain’t likely I’ll get warm, but I may get dry.’
“He said that bout the time he got two blocks from the square, the old GMC heater got warmed up and it got toasty inside. He said Caroldeane seemed to sort of melt with the heat. She relaxed and sorta moved away from the window. He said when he got up near the old mill offload for the railroad, he glanced over and she actually smiled at him. He said he could remember it because it was right across from Catfish Heaven and that damn neon sign kept flashing and he kept seeing her smile through the flashing old fish sign with the curly whiskers.
“Robert told me that he kept wondering how old she really was. He kept thinking she was bout the best looking woman he had ever seen, but he figured she had to be shy of sixteen. She just didn’t look it. ‘Moses, i’d swear on a stack of Bibles that there was all sorts of thoughts running through my mind, honorable ones and damn awful ones, but after we got past that damn catfish, I gulped, grabbed that steering wheel, stared at that road through the cold rain and drove straight to that junk yard.’ That’s what he told me.
“They got to junk yard bout when the rain slowed down near to a drizzle. Must been just after seven. Robert drove that old GMC through what was left of the junk in the junkyard and curled around broadside to the old rambling shack.
“As the truck got close to the house, all of the old lights of the junkyard security -about a dozen poles with twin floods hanging from each end of a yardarm -came on in sequence. Robert told me that he saw the three other Culpepper’s coming toward him in a line.
“‘Thank you, Mr. Whitherspoon’ were Caroldeane’s last words to him as she got out of the car.
“Robert said it was weird. Quince was carrying a poleax. Missus Culpepper had a baseball bat, and Broadus had that damn little switch with the string. ‘It kept running through my mind that I should be more afraid of Broadus than the other two,’ Robert told me.
“He said Quince yelled at him. ‘Where the hell you been with my daughter, you son of a bitch?’
“Fore Robert could say anything, Missus Culpepper screamed, ‘Caroldeane, that ole
man done touch you?’ Robert said he remembered her yelling and seeing the veins in her neck all popped out.
“‘Momma, the man just brought me home from the square; he was just being nice,’ Caroldeane tried to explain to her momma, but ole Quince wasn’t listening to that. Didn’t care.
“‘Listen you son of a bitch, my daughter is special. She ain’t white trash. You can’t just go and do with her what you want. She’s special. If I ever see you with her again, I’ll beat you to death with this here ax.’
“Robert said he kept thinking a whole bunch of things. He kept wondering why Quince wasn’t listening to Caroldeane. He wondered how he could just gun that old GMC and get the hell out of there, but that seemed to him like it would look like he was running cause he did something bad. Poor manners, you know. He kept thinking that if Quince and Missus Culpepper lost it, the bat wouldn’t hurt him unless they got him out of the car, but that damn poleax would come right through the window if Quince’s aim was about half good. And he knew the worse thing that could happen would be for Broadus to lose it and charge him. He knew that he couldn’t get out of there before Broadus could get to the truck and that if he lost it, Broadus could kill him with his bare hands.
“Then in the middle of all this thinking, with Quince, Missus Culpepper and Caroldeane
screaming in that cold dark drizzle, he realized that someone was singing. It was Broadus. Broadus was singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Everybody sort of quieted down and everybody looked at Broadus. He was standing in that cold rain with the junkyard security lights shining on his big flat face and that arched red lump of a scar across his forehead. He was standing at attention like he’d seen the cadets at the military school do with that silly stick with the string on the end, on his shoulder, like he was at right shoulder arms. And he was singing, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is stamping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on.’
“Fore he got to ‘Glory Hallelujah,’ Missus Culpepper fell down on her knees and started crying, ‘Oh Quince, Quince, what have we done?’ and she started sobbing hysterically.
“Caroldeane ran over to Broadus and put her arm around him, saying, ‘It’s okay Broadus. Everything is going to be all right. I’m here, Uncle Broadus. You can take care of me.’
“Robert said he looked over at Quince and he had dropped the poleax and kept looking back and forth between Caroldeane consoling Broadus and Missus Culpepper weeping on her knees in the mud. Robert said he didn’t know what the hell he should do. He decided to stay in the truck.
“Finally, Quince yelled to him, ‘I think you best be going now. Remember what I said I’d do if I ever catch you with Caroldeane again.’
“Robert said he didn’t say nothing. Just sort eased that old GMC back through the wrecks and out the gate. He said before he made the right hand turn back into town, he glanced back. It was still drizzling. Caroldeane had her arms around Broadus and they were a swaying back and forth. Missus Culpepper was still on her knees in the mud, a crying, but Quince had gone over and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Caroldeane still came down to the square after that, but more often than not she would walk home with Broadus, holding his free hand, the one without the stick and the string. This went on for several months. Missus Thatcher, the librarian, said Caroldeane kept coming to the library during all of this, especially on the weekends, but she said Caroldeane quit reading that Pound fellow and started reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Mary Beth Edwards said Missus Thatcher told her that it was one big jump from Pound to that particular Browning and not necessarily what she would have expected from a child.
“It was March when Caroldeane left, almost six months after the rain incident with Robert. The Culpepper’s kicked Broadus out about two months afterwards. Missus Culpepper quit coming into town altogether. She died of pneumonia bout a year later. Somebody told me she just quit eating and shriveled up, but as far as I could tell there wasn’t much shriveling to do. Quince lived in that shack for about twenty more years, then the quarry people bought him out. He’s moved to Jerome County. Folks say he’s living with Missus Culpepper’s family, the Mundy’s over near Lazy Snake Hollow.
“Robert left town bout six months after Caroldeane left. Told me he needed to get away. Said he couldn’t stand the smell of cotton candy and coffee anymore, that he nearly got ill every time he walked by Tulip’s. He wrote his sister, Margot Biddle, a few years back. He went to New Mexico, running a strip mining operation for the Navajo’s out there. Margot told Mary Beth that he had married an Indian girl, a Navajo, and was moving to Pittsburgh to the corporate headquarters of the strip mining company.
“Bout four months ago, Missus Thatcher said that she got a letter from Caroldeane. She said Caroldeane had wandered around, doing waitressing at truck stops and other restaurants and finally worked her way up to Boston. She landed a job someplace down near Haymarket Square. Then one day some guy asked her to help him with a paper for his class at one of the colleges there. One thing led to another and that she now is the head writer for one of the television channel news divisions up there. She wanted to thank Missus Culpepper for letting her do all that reading in the library.
“Said she didn’t much like the steam heat in her apartment and she missed the square but she liked Boston a lot. Then on toward the end of the letter, she asked Missus Thatcher to write and tell her whatever happened to that nice man, Mr. Whitherspoon.”