Just outside the village, on the south side of Cemetery Road, lies the Locust Hill Cemetery. And there rest the founders of the village—the Irish and English and most of all the Germans—farmers all of them. On their tombstones of varied shapes and sizes—slabs and columns and obelisks—and in varied shades of brown and grey—their names are chiseled and worn. The Kohlmanns, the Pratts, the Wrights, and the other early settlers silently greet their infrequent visitors, many of them mere teenagers seeking by night the cemetery’s dark, indistinguishable privacy. Even so, in orderly rows the dead of Locust Hill, West Virginia, rest, awaiting God’s judgment.
A little brown gravel lane curves in and out of their Elysium. Each May the Keepers of the Village roll into the lane to freshen the cemetery in preparation for Memorial Day, pulling the weeds and polishing the tombstones and planting flowers. Since everything in the village is to be kept in order, so must the cemetery be.
But across Cemetery Road and down just a bit from the little brown lane is the red brick home of Mrs. Johanna Eberle, fifty or so now, a widow and mostly alone. She is a spare woman with sad pale-blue eyes and fading red hair pulled tightly against her head. Her home stands alone, flanked by the fields of other families. The field to the west, fallow this year, belongs to the Lowery clan; the one to the east, flush now with mustard, belongs to the Lamberts.
After the death of her husband six years ago, Mrs. Eberle was not able to maintain her home. Soon it wanted a new roof, and the white wooden trim about the doors, windows, and front porch was all in need of paint. Ironic, in that Mr. Eberle had supported his family for many years by painting houses and churches and barns all over Locust Hill.
But Otto Eberle also drank. Three sheets to the wind, he’d come gliding home near midnight on Saturdays in his paint-spattered Ford pickup, the same one he used to haul his painting equipment about. So many trips that truck had made to the bars on the South Side of Parkeston, the ones Otto favored, that it knew its way home with only the slightest help from its driver. Through the dark it would go, heading toward Locust Hill, with unflagged painting ladders protruding from its tailgate.
The villagers determined from years of observation, made by both the men and the women, observations they mostly shared at Crandall’s General Store, that Otto Eberle was rewarding himself with drink on weekends for his temperance on work days, for he was known to be a reliable worker and a good-humored, voluble man, generous with his wife and two children and honest with his neighbors and clients.
“It must be the Irish in him,” Irma Lambert, one of the Village Keepers, said on one of those grey days when the chorus of gossipers would linger in the general store, as if held hostage by the rain.
“Can’t be,” Lem Dietrich replied while seated by the coal-fire stove, an upturned Coca-Cola crate serving as his chair. “Eberle’s a good German name, just like mine. Why, my great grandmother could recall when the Eberles first came to Locust Hill. Before the Civil War it was, or so she said.”
“Well then, the man’s mother—she must have been Irish. Her or someone else in the blood line,” Irma maintained.
“Yes, that must be it,” added Gracie Evans, another of the Keepers.
“Well, Otto’s a good man in his own way, I can vouch for him on that,” Charlie Crandall put in. “Always good to buy his paint and supplies right here when he can. ‘Need to support local business,’ Otto says. And I certainly agree with him on that.”
“That don’t excuse his drinkin’,” Gracie retorted quickly.
“Then why don’t you just march right over there and reform him, Gracie, since you’re the leader of the Methodist Women’s League out this way?” Charlie said, with a wink to his wife, Lorna.
“Bein’ the head of the MWL don’t make alcoholics my responsibility, Charlie Crandall, and you know that good and well. Reformin’ someone’s got to be a two-way street. The other person’s got to want to change first and Otto Eberle don’t.”
“Maybe so, but it’s got to be a one-way street ‘fore it gets to be two-way, don’t it? Right now I’d say it’s a no-way street—a dead ender, for sure. Someone’s got to make the first move, Gracie.”
“Well, Charlie, that someone’s not goin’ to be me, I can tell you that. I’m not caterin’ to no drunk.” With that, Gracie grabbed her sack of groceries from the counter and started for the door while muttering, mostly to herself, “Sometimes I wish there was another place in Locust Hill to shop, I really do!”
One of the Crandalls’ numerous store cats, stretched out in the front display window alongside a pyramid of sun-bleached boxes of laundry detergent and crackers, stirred itself just enough to watch Gracie leave. Sic transit gracia in pluvia, mused the cat before falling back into slumber, its head resting against an overturned Ritz cracker box.
Then one morning in his forty-second year Otto Eberle, whether German or Irish, made a mistake that was more than just one Saturday night drink too many. Anxious to finish painting the Wiggins family’s barn, he did what he always cautioned himself never to do—he started the day up on a roof before the morning fog, which loves to linger over the Ohio Valley, had lifted. Up the ladder he went and out onto the barn’s high wet metal roof to lie down on a tarpaulin and lean out over the roof’s edge to paint as much as he could reach of the barn’s eaves, thinking that they at least would be a dry place to start before the sun dissolved the fog and heated the barn’s metal roof beyond bearing. Tom Wiggins, working inside the barn, heard Otto cry out as he fell and found him in the barnyard—eyes open, mouth agape, and neck broken—frozen in the moment of his death.
After the loss of her husband, Johanna Eberle retreated into silence. It was said in the village that only a meager insurance policy kept her from total ruin. She still came to the Crandalls’ store once a week, occasionally more, to purchase milk and fresh eggs and a few canned goods. That much was no different than before, but now she said even less than the nothing she used to say. Charlie and Lorna wished her well each time she came, but her replies were little more than a quiet “thanks,” said with her pale eyes lowered, focused on her few groceries.
“Gracie, why don’t you go visit Johanna?” Charlie suggested one day. “Invite her to the MWL since she’s all alone now. She sure could use the company.”
“Not my place to do it. She’s still got family. They should look after her.”
“But, Gracie, what’s the Good Book say about carin’ for the widows and orphans?”
“What’s it say about us takin’ care of ourselves, Charlie? Don’t always be puttin’ this burden of carin’ onto my shoulders. You got shoulders of your own, you know.”
“But I’m not the MWL president, Gracie. Seems to me you’re the perfect person to help Johanna out.”
“I come here for groceries, Charlie, not advice on carin’ for people. I swear I sure wish another store’d open up out this way!”
Over the next three years Johanna experienced the departure of her son and daughter in addition to the loss of her husband. Still, neither Gracie nor Charlie visited her. Johanna’s son went off to the newly prosperous South, some claimed, or perhaps conjectured, to work in an auto factory, or maybe it was an office inside a factory. No one really knew for certain but added some details anyway, just to plump up the story a bit.
Besides, it was Annaliese’s leaving that stirred the greater talk, even more than her father’s death had done, for she was as pretty as any girl in Locust Hill, maybe even as any in the town of Parkeston, with her freckled face, bright blue eyes, and long blush-red hair. After graduating from high school, she just up and left, so far as anyone knew, just as so many of the village’s young people still do, trying their fortunes elsewhere. At the time local opinion held that she had deserted her mother just when she was most needed, although a minority favored the view that each of us has his own life to live and so it must be with Annaliese.
But in particular it was Annaliese’s return, or rather her numerous returns and departures, that prompted the greatest curiosity of all. She returned the first time before a full year had passed, and may have even been home for a few weeks before anyone knew, for when spring broke, suddenly, there she was, standing on the front porch of her childhood home with her belly as big as the full moon.
Passersby, and they increased in number now, looked intently toward the house as they went, hoping to see Annaliese on the porch or in the yard and spot, if they could, whether her left hand bore a ring, or possibly two. But none could tell, the distance from the road to the house being just too great.
Besides, she soon disappeared again, before reappearing later in the summer. This time she was sitting on the front porch, rocking an infant and holding a bottle to its mouth, still with no husband in sight. This pattern of coming and going every few months continued for several years.
When Annaliese’s little boy was three—the villagers did keep track—he played in his grandmother’s unfenced front yard, often near the road, furiously pedaling his little firetruck up and down the driveway. Sometimes he would also stand by the road and wave at the passing cars, as if to invite their company, until Annaliese would call to him, “Eddy, come back to the house! Stay away from that road! You’ll get run over!” Some claimed that, in addition to waving, Eddy would chuck rocks at their vehicles, though no one ever claimed any damage.
Besides, greater concern arose concerning the boy’s appearance. His hair was very dark and curly. His other features were dark also, quite unlike his mother’s or his grandmother’s. Nor were the boy’s features like Mr. Eberle’s, said those who remembered him. This fact gave rise to much speculation about just who little Eddy’s father could be.
Then, the next summer, there descended into Locust Hill a god—a sun-browned, muscle-rippling man-god clad most often in tight denim jeans and a white V-necked T-shirt, which he was always quick to shed in the hot sun. This Adonis first appeared to Lem Dietrich as he was driving to the General Store.
“Who is it, do you suppose?” Charlie Crandall asked Lem.
“Little Eddy’s father, I’d wager. The little‘un looks a whole lot like the big’un, same dark hair an’ all.”
“Just come to visit, I guess,” Lorna commented rather sadly. “Looks like he took no interest in the boy before this.”
“No, no, not just here to visit—to work,” Lem corrected her. “He’s up on the roof of Johanna’s house right now, tearin’ off the old shingles left and right with a flat bottom shovel. Why, there’s shingles and tarpaper aflyin’ everywhere! I tell you, that boy’s workin’. And lordy, has he got the muscles! Army guy, I’d say, maybe a paratrooper or somethin’ special like that. Must be to have them big muscles. Workin’ up there on the roof in that hot sun just like a hired hand, ‘cept for his lookin’ a whole lot like little Eddy’s father. Can’t rightly figure it all out just yet.”
The next morning the young god—clad now in leather gloves, denim shorts, and heavy tan work boots—was collecting the roofing debris from around the house and tossing it into the back of a truck. Sweat glistened on his dark hair and sun-gilded shoulders and crept in rivulets over his taut pectorals and abdominals. Annalise, wearing her own denim shorts and a white halter top with fetching effect, was sweeping the ground slowly with a large magnet strapped to a pole, stopping every so often to warn little Eddy not to leave the porch.
“You’ll step on a nail and have to go see the doctor and get a tetanus shot!” she cautioned him repeatedly.
“No won’t,” he replied, each time taking another step closer to the ground. When he finally reached the bottom of the porch steps and started to run toward Annaliese, she rose up from her work, shook the magnet at him, which now bristled with roofing nails, and said, “Get back on that porch, Eddy, before I blister your behind.”
Back up the steps went little Eddy, more wide-eyed at the sight of the sharp nails than at the threat of blisters, which his four years of wisdom had already taught him was most likely a hollow threat. Annaliese laughed at Eddy’s retreat. So did the god, who then offered to chase Annaliese up the steps.
It was Irma Lambert who reported all this on her visit to the General Store that afternoon, for she had decided to inspect the Lamberts’ field daily, filled as it was this year with green beans. She was replacing her husband, Hal, in this chore since his inspections of the field had produced much more information about Annaliese’s sunbathing costumes than about the condition of the crops.
“They’re quite the little family,” Irma declared. “He’s either Annaliese’s husband or her lover, I can tell you that much, because for sure he’s little Eddy’s father, just like Lem said.”
“Any rings on their fingers?” asked Lorna.
“Can’t get close enough to see without appearin’ to be nosy, which you know I’m not. But have to admit I sure am curious.”
“And what about Johanna?” asked Charlie. “How’s she takin’ all this?”
“Can’t tell that either. She never even pokes her head out. You’d think she’s not even there.”
“Oh, she’s still around all right,” Charlie replied. “Comes here to the store more often than before and buys more stuff than she ever did. But still says next to nothin’.”
“Reckon she has to buy more, with more mouths to feed,” Irma said before adding, “Well, I’m goin’ out to the field again tomorrow morning to check for Mexican beetles and harvest a few beans. That field’s always been a problem for us. Lose more there than we grow. But maybe this year we’ll get lucky and we’ll have us some beans to can. Looks like a good crop comin’ on for a change. I reckon that young man, whoever he is, will still be roofin’ tomorrow. I’ll let you know.”
And so he was. With a white towel on his right shoulder, the god hoisted a bundle of shingles from the back of a delivery truck and climbed a ladder. Splat! He tossed the bundle onto the porch roof as though it were no more than a wet rag before descending the ladder and then ascending again with another bundle and making another splat. This one shook the roof and resounded off the surrounding hillsides.
When four bundles were in place, he measured and marked one corner of the roof, then instructed Annaliese to climb the ladder and hold in place the end of a blue cord he gave her. “Be sure to hold it real tight now, Darlin’,” he said, just the way a god would do. Then he unrolled the cord from its aluminum holder while walking to the far side of the roof. There he took another measurement and pressed the blue cord down upon his mark. Pulling the cord taut with one hand, he raised it with the other and let it strike the roof’s fresh tarpaper. Thwack! it sounded, leaving a chalky blue line beneath it. “Good job!” the god called to his consort, who replied with a giggle, “You’re welcome, Master” and descended the ladder.
Irma diligently reported the progress of the roofing project to her husband, who listened but expressed increasing concern about bean beetles and halo blight and many another legume-related threat he’d read about or heard of at the Locust Hill Farmers Co-op. He pressed Irma daily to let him inspect the field again with his more expert knowledge, but she assured him that the beans looked just fine.
Irma also reported daily on the god’s progress to the Crandalls and their patrons. In three days’ time he had shingled the front roof; in two more the rear with its small screened-in porch. Next the god took up the labor of scraping and sanding the house’s blistered wooden trim. In less than a week’s time he’d freshly painted all of that. Irma observed it all every day from the bean field.
The day the painting was completed, Lem Dietrich was driving by the Eberle house. He had his window down as he approached, for it was a hot day. He slowed the truck a bit, the better to observe the god’s labors. And sure enough, there was the god himself standing in the front yard, holding little Eddy in tow with his right arm while his left wound tightly about Annaliese’s waist. They were all three watching Johanna inspect her house. She was walking very slowly in the grass, about twelve feet from them, with her left hand pressed to her hip and her right hand shielding her eyes from the sun, looking up at the roof, then at the porch, then seemed headed for the far side of the house, looking up all the while, as if in amazement. The Eberle house, it seemed, was back in order.
The rest of the summer the god labored in the yard—mowing, weeding, patching, and sowing. He planted shrubbery around the house plus two small trees in the front yard and a larger one in the back. Annaliese helped him most of the time while Eddy cavorted and laughed around them—all to the delight of Hal Lambert, whom Irma had finally allowed to return to the bean field, now that she was satisfied the god was keeping Annaliese too busy for sunbathing.
The bean harvest was excellent that year—not a single leaf chewed by beetles or troubled by wilt. The harvest was ending and its produce sealed in glass jars in the Lambert’s pantry. Soon the bean plants themselves could be plowed under.
One morning in early October, as Hal Lambert was surveying his now frost-stricken bean plants, he heard a car door slam in the Eberle driveway. The god had emerged from a gleaming blue sedan that seemed brand new; he entered the house. Presently, he returned along with Annaliese, both toting boxes and bags and carrying suitcases. They loaded them into the sedan and returned to the house. But before they could enter, Johanna appeared on the porch with little Eddy. She kissed her grandson and handed him to Annaliese. She was crying now as she kissed Annaliese’s cheek and then Eddy’s again while stroking the boy’s thick black hair. Then the god kissed and hugged Johanna as Annaliese fastened Eddy into the backseat of the sedan. Next Annaliese, Johanna and the god all hugged and kissed some more. Soon Annaliese and her mother were standing by the car’s opened passenger door. Annaliese took her mother’s hand in both of hers and then placed it on her abdomen while the god climbed in the driver seat.
Hal reported all this to his wife, who reported it at once to the Crandalls, who repeated it to their patrons, who spread the word from farm to farm that the god of order and his beautiful family had now departed Locust Hill. At least for now.
Carl Parsons, a former manufacturing manager for TRW Automotive, has had a secondary career as a college instructor of rhetoric and literature. Now retired, he serves as a Master Gardener for the University of Tennessee Extension office and contributes essays on botanical subjects to Hey, Smokies! (an online travel magazine). He has also served as associate editor for Heater, a crime fiction magazine. Currently, he is an active member of Scribophile online writers’ workshop. Born in Parkersburg, WV, he now resides in Kodak, TN. Publication Credits: • Crime Novella, Jukes, to be published in March 2020 by Dark Passages Publishing • Short story, “Judith and Phillip,” published by Foundling House (2019) • Short story, “Another Bus Ride for Sunny,” published by Spillwords Press (2019) • Two poems published with Literary Yard (2019) • Two poems published with Plum Tree Tavern (2019)