This is just a quick sampling of the book, from it’s beginning. It’s a tale of the 1960′s South, lush with oddities, the unorthodox, the spiritually lovely and the outwardly beautiful, all at full-throttle trying to find their way. Much like life today without Vietnam and newsreels and transistor radios. Enjoy this little taste, and feed me back your thoughts.
The Sinners of Honeysuckle Road
Copyright 2012, Michael Cogdill
1960’s Coastal North Carolina
Fredrick Robert Turner claimed he felt nearest to God with his arm up a filly’s birth canal. Even on her side, a horse stood sacred in his heart, high and holy as any cathedral. Going shoulder-deep into a birthing mare rose way above trying to cram his heart up what he loved to call the “airtight ass of orthodoxy.” For him the too highly churched could make an Easter basilica cold as a January well bottom.
I was barely out of boyhood when he started laying that gospel on me. All about how healing an animal felt hallowed. Cosmic beyond the stars. Doc Turner said ailing creatures, mute of all hateful words, harbor the paradise of mercy, of forgiving life for what it’s given. That God fully flowers in their eyes, whether they’re restored to flourish or cushioned to die. He shunned the fear and strut and pelt-preening of humankind in favor of animal humility, their honest and simple grace, even when they’re pretty. His patients never sermonized him about cuss words or the slippery evils of sex and wine. They refuse to worship some “little red-faced woman-hater aiming lightning at us from the heavens.”He couldn’t remember not adoring them for it. For all of it.
The fall after he graduated Duke Seminary – where he went to appease an inheritance from the mother who fancied him the rising new Billy Graham – Fred Turner enrolled his mastery of United Methodist divinity into the school of veterinary medicine in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He claimed he told the matriarch he needed a postgraduate sabbatical in the high church of Noah’s modern ark. She gave in and vowed he would get the coastal house – its graceful swath of coastal ranch land and all – and the some-odd million dollars anyway. As long as he tested his gospel legs with some occasional marrying, burying and preaching and didn’t slay himself on some “sugar-tit slattern masquerading as a Tarheel princess.” He told her just to think of the DVM after his name as Doctor of Virginity’s Madonna. He once threw a wink at me and said, “If she’d read my mind the day I graduated vet school, DVM would have stood for Dabbler in Vaginal Merriment.”
My memory still raises the man, and the woman he nearly worshiped, into mortal angel-hood, no matter the nattering that went around about them. To this moment they feel to me like the bearers of miracles, having straddled earth and heaven. They could out theologize a dozen clerics and out cuss the crew of an aircraft carrier. Their flaws, to me, made them more nakedly true and far more interesting than most anybody else I’ve known, save some women. The Turners were direct as a fine rifle, elegant as the scroll work of its sides, and always on a hair-trigger hunt for fun, only once in a while out stalking the overly pious doing harm. They made the rarest love, all over one another, even with a glance. Love deep as moonless night and they the only stars in it. They loved barefaced and out loud, and proved it even to the mail man. When he crept around looking for someone to sign for a package, he caught them in the literal making of it – both wearing only the heat of the day on a hammock strung between oak trees in the side yard. Whispers soon rose about the Turner house as a harbor of Godless sweaty wickedness. Gossip never gets around on its tiptoes, so even children, with hardly a twig’s worth of understanding why, came to fear the place as a high-dollar flophouse for the hell bound. But whispers through that grape vine seemed to callus no Turner’s heart. They both still defeated sadness when it knocked at all hours at their every door, even when the knuckles belonged to the duped and the desperate. I live as some proof of that. A witness to the goodness of two people even my own mother had quietly indicted as “right vulgar, I hear tell.”
On a night not long before I turned ten years old, momma smoked tires, as much as our landlord’s borrowed Rambler wagon could, to the great house Doc and Janie Turner shared. My lap rode full of the part golden retriever she had gotten to help replace my father. My Samantha had taken a snake bite in the back yard of our trailer, but we didn’t know of it until the sickness and swelling had laid her so low her breath hardly fogged a mirror.
In the glow of his great front porch, Doc lifted Sam from my arms as a minister might elevate an infant to baptize. We had clearly roused the Turners from still sleep, yet they whispered only patience. Quiet care in their high-ceiling foyer, where we waited in its aromas of cherry tobacco and homemade Limon cello. We stood in silence after Janie and Doc disappeared with my Sam through the curtained glass doors into their dining room. After hardly time to worry, he stepped back into the hallway, knelt and drew my face near the bay rum scent of his own. He pulled down his tiny glasses and gave me a moment to magnify the easy care that came up in his eyes. It was his way of warming the news before he let me taste of it.
Doc said the only medicine we could give my Sam was mercy and a sweet goodbye. The words feel soft and stout as the July wind in my memory, even these years after. He patted my shoulders with a vow to help me live up to so fine a dog’s memory, claiming that remembering how Sammy lived was a good and lasting medicine she had left for me.
Having gone directly to fetch them down the hall, Janie slipped in with the needles that would help me feel the last little gust of breath leave my companion. For four years Samantha had wallowed snoring at the foot of my bed. Rather than force us into the purified chill of the office out back, the Turners gave of the most formal room in their great house on the waterway. Allowed the veterinary workings of merciful death to hold sway under the warmth of their best chandelier. They let me lose her with all the serenity they could provide. On the sheeted table of Doc and Janie’s dining room, the curtains of its tall windows billowed under the soft salt breath of the Gulf Stream. I remember because they ghosted against my arm and soon felt warmer that Sam. Her dark mouth had turned cold against my cheek, and that pulled me away. I remember thinking dogs feel no embarrassment at a mother’s confession she can’t pay. From behind me, her vow to bring the money as soon as she could finally quaked out some tears. Broke her down. Doc eased away toward where she stood near the door. I heard her grief turn mildly contagious to him.
“Sweet, there’s no charge here.” His voice tumbled into the room and pillowed into my ears. Eased down into me. The sound of him reminded me Doc was neither devil nor God, but a man bearing our broken hearts under the strength of his own. “No charge, honey, long as you let me share some in raising that boy. I believe there’s God’s own goodness by the ton in a boy who can love a dog that well. I feel it in him. I see it, right there.”
Janie had kept near me, and chose then to ease my face further off from Sammy’s. She kissed her, massaging my hands where they held the fold of her front paws. I still recall the smell of those dog feet — the fresh tang of summer weeds she had romped earlier that day. Janie draped her in a white towel. I stepped back and said my first words since Sam died.
“We were kids together, this girl and me. What happens to her now? What do we do for her now?” In making the voice, I thought of chopping dry oak, how it gives way to a good blade, and that a boy must cut his way out of acting like a baby. Out into being like a man.
Doc had taken my mother from the room, and Janie quietly followed, having said nothing. This gave me time with Sam, a moment to pull back the towel and think about the finality of stroking the gold silk of her. Her head a perfect fit for a boy’s hand. I stood with both hands on her in the quiet. Taking in the lonesome peace left where a good dog’s bounding life had been.
Janie soon eased back to where I stood at the table. She reached a picture of Doc Turner into my view. A snapshot of him in a tuxedo, and her semi-gowned for their wedding, both faces splayed with laughter, as if a wave of fun had crashed extravagantly into them. The shutter had caught him with one hand on her backside, the other wrestling against her own toward some petting of her cleavage. The glass held a web of cracks that reached into the black wood frame.
“You see that glass?” she said delicately from behind me, with her arms slung across my shoulders. “I can’t fix that. It’s just a ruination now. But when I knocked this picture off and broke it a month ago, I didn’t break what’s in it. Or what’s behind it. Not a thing can ever break the times I’ve had with that crazy, beautiful man.”
I looked at the picture, looked up at Sammy’s half-covered silence on the table, and I felt the truth of what she meant massage the places where I hurt. Her wisdom so simple and clear, so easy to miss. My boyhood grief and I were bound to step right past it without her.
“Son, not a single goodness of your Samantha will ever break down as long as you remember. Remember her. Celebrate her long after she’s gone. Write her on your thoughts . Carry the remembering of her everywhere you go. Death will take her from you only if you let it. Only if you worry more about losing her than you think about loving her.”
We sat a while at the dining table, and she told me how the Doc – a true boy of 27 when she married him — had paid the photographer extra to join him in busting in on her an hour before the organ music started. They ambushed her with a camera to capture him proving his love for her with a little pre-marital molestation. She lived it again, softly out loud, looking at the picture, letting it carry her off a moment. Handsome rascal scamp bastard, she whispered, and covered her smiling mouth and apologized. She told me that picture spoke to her. Had a good say about his crazy way of being in the love they had made together. Love unstoppable. A kind a boy and girl ought never outgrow.
“Darlin’, I thought my mother might beat him like a rented three-legged mule,” she said, helping me stroke Sammy’s head. “Now she’s 101 years old. And wouldn’t trade him for Marlin Brando, a tub of whisky, and another 20 years.”
At that I felt a laugh brush at my insides. Then I cried. The crying came, finally, good and shattering and long. Janie had made it so, willfully, kindly I believe. She and Doc Turner had made it all right. She held me for what seemed an hour, and we cried over Sam together until the crying, for then, was spent. It would buy no more comfort for a while. Then she listened while I told her about Sam — a dog who had walked, adored, for years at my knee with no need of a leash, a far finer creature than most of the people I had known. She told me that meant Sam and I had lived out the secret to their marriage. At their hearts, where no one could fully see, and in a way words won’t quite tell, she and the Doc had romped through life at one another’s knee just the same, free and devoted at once.
Three years after that night, when her diagnosis of an aggressive skin cancer came, Janie aimed the fireworks of her life at the world and lit all the fuses at once.