A Quick Excerpt — For the Love of Honeysuckle Road — A Southern Novel in Progress

On a night not long before I turned ten years old, my mother smoked tires, as much as our landlord’s borrowed Rambler wagon could, to the great house Doc Turner and his wife Janie shared.  My lap 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 lain 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 pastor might elevate an infant to baptize.  We had clearly roused the man and Janie 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 her 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.  He quietly said the only medicine we could give my Sam was mercy and a sweet goodbye.  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 medicine she had left for me

Having gone directly to fetch them, down the hall slipped Janie 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, they 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 chandelier.  They let me lose her with all the beauty they could provide.  On the sheeted table of Doc and Janie’s dining room, with the curtains of its tall windows billowed by a soft salt wind, I felt Sammy’s dark mouth turn cold against my cheek.  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 when 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 felt stout as the wood floor, yet cushioned with the ease of a man bearing someone’s heartbreak as though it were his own.  “No charge, long as you let me share some in raising that boy.  I believe there is much goodness of God in a boy who can love a dog that well.  I feel it in him.  See it up in his eyes.”

Janie had kept near me, and chose then to ease my face away from Sammy’s head.  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.  As 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 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 acting 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 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 it, looked up at Sammy’s half-covered silence on the table, and felt the truth of what she meant massage the places where I hurt.  Her wisdom so simple and clear I would have missed it.  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 to celebrate her long after she’s gone.  Write her on your soul.  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 – just a lad of 27 when she married him — had paid the photographer extra to join him in busting in on her in that hour before they wed.  To ambush her with a camera and capture him proving his love for her with a little pre-marital molestation.  Disregarding my age she called him a rascal scamp bastard, then covered her smiling mouth and apologized.  She told me that picture captured his own crazy way of being in the love they had made together.  A love unbreakable.  

“I thought my mother would kill him,” 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 thought for a second to laugh.  Then I cried.  The crying came, finally, good and long.  Janie had made it so.  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 walked at one another’s knee just the same, independent and devoted at once. 

Three years later, 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.  She and Doc always courted one another in plain view, but their affair turned into a two-person parade of adoration.  The town buzzed about seeing them splitting the intracoastal waterway wide open together in their little Bertram yacht, often with Janie at its helm, raising laughter and a big wake in the no-wake zone around the Wrightsville Beach Marina.  When I came to mow their lawn for far too much money — a job secured for me the day Sammy died — Janie would invite me in for mineral-water lemonade, bawdy jokes and some out-loud reading, often from a James Herriot book.  She would tell me of fireside dinners with Doc on the beach and going to what they thought was their secret place in a little tree-lined cove up the Cape Fear River to skinny dip, as they had on their second date.


4 Responses to “A Quick Excerpt — For the Love of Honeysuckle Road — A Southern Novel in Progress”

  1. Hi Michael,

    This is beautiful. I love how you included Samantha. Give Jill my love.


  2. Love what you have given to us so far and look forward to “the rest of the story”.

  3. I love how we authors use people, pets, places, and experiences in our lives to create interesting pieces to our stories.
    So sweet you added Samantha.

  4. Carol White Says:

    Can’t wait to read the whole story and have you at our book club again.

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