The palace of my family royalty was constructed out of brick and mortar in 1963 at the cost of $ 13,000- more money than my father said he could earn in ten years. It was a replica of “The Alexander”, page fourteen of “Country Luxury Home Catalog” my mother ordered. The builder looked at the picture and said, “ I can do that.” He didn’t need the blueprints. It had a long narrow front porch with four white columns and a ram’s head pediment that towered over a single wooden door. The iron chairs balanced on each side were for “ Looks only” my mother said. There was no sidewalk stretching from the circle driveway carved into the woods from to the entrance. It all looked so good from the road.
The land was purchased from a Covington family elder and was paid in yearly installments to The Farmers Bank . Prior to the bank’s permission it was a haven for rabbits and squirrels ; my father with his chainsaw and ax proceeded to make it his home and not theirs
A birch tree, much to large to cut by hand stood as a sentry to all those who drove up to the real main entrance, the back door. Carved intials and cupid’s heart s scared it’s gray skin. A tree limb presented itself for a tire swing that dangled to permit playful fun. Oak trees intermingled with maples and sycamores provided leaves for raking and a canopy of shade in the summer. Those wooden creatures less fortunate became firewood for bonfires and firewood for the fireplace.
The house was nestled into a bed of limestone rock dug out by backhoes while just yards away a sinkhole the size of three tobacco barns threatened it’s existence.
The King of the palace, my father was in-name-only, “ The Judge, The Jury and The Executioner.” He liked to believe that it was his power that controlled. In reality it was my mother, “ The Chief Cook and Bottle washer “ that sat at the head of the table and maintained the bank statements in a drawer in her small desk in the living room.
The carport was our official living room. It was an area on the east side of the house that remained under roof but only one wall. It was built in, so to speak. Not added on and never were there any intentions to let any wheels of any kind park on it. It had metal chairs, a matching round table that were positioned around a porch swing. This area was a place of entertainment and relaxation. People came by without invitation and were welcomed to “ drag up a chair”. The topics most discussed were the weather. .. whether it was frightening, redeeming or threatening. Guests would sit and drink tea and coffee. .. all hours of the day …. Even at night… it was never to late to make a pot of brew for your guests. They would sit in the coolness while watching tractors semis and hitchhikers go east toward Gallatin or west toward Springfield. When a car did circle through the front driveway they knew three things: 1. We don’t know them, 2. They don’t know us and 3. They’re lost and number one or two will ever be resolved. Traffic making it’s way up the dusty main driveway to the backdoor had a mission: borrow something; a tractor, a baler or some money or sell something: school fundraisers or encyclopedias.
The arriving guests would always be greeted in the same way, “ What do you know good?” “ What’s up or “What’s happening” ? were not proper. It was one late summer evening that this scene took place.
Sammy, a Cross Plains neighbor, shouted opening the truck door and headed in the direction of the carport in a lurching gait. “I think a storm might be coming up on us, Mr. Harold.” Them cows are fit to be tied. You reckin’ they know something we don’t?” Sammy said while moving across the gravel in succeeding waves of muscular contraction all the while spitting tobacco juice in a Coke can. He bumped into the trunk of a dogwood tree- the tree ‘s bark showed the results of years of interactions with cars- the tree was always in a state of recovery. He nodded to the tree as if to ask for its forgiveness.
“ Drag up a chair, Sammy,” my father said while removing his city dress shoes for a pair of high top work boots. “ We’re fixin to talk about something important,” he laughed. He looked at my mother. She disappeared through the back door. “ Get us some tea, Bea.” He knew she would deliver. My father continued the removal of his shoes. His arms were two toned: White skin under his cotton sleeves and burned to a crisp in the exposed area. It was evident his desk job had limited day time confinement.
“ Do you know whose truck was parked in the widow’s driveway last night?” Sammy said as he found a chair that suited his satisfaction for size and direction. His overalls loosely covered his round body.
“ Nope but I bet you do,” my father laughed. “ Anybody we know?”
Sammy laughed and rolled his eyes. “ You wouldn’t believe it and I surely didn’t but I saw it with my own eyes.”
My mother opened the door magically with a tray full of fried apple pies and a pot of hot coffee. Their conversation suddenly changed it’s tone.
“ Mr. Harold, I would like to borrow your tractor. Mine is in the shop. They said they have to order some parts and I got a dead cow down that I need to drag out of the field.” Sammy gobbled down an apple pie and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“ No problem, he looked at my mother to gain her approval. She knew what work was lined up for tomorrow.
Black clouds darkened the sky. The thunder cracked and lighting popped a tree in the front yard. A few raindrops fell on the windshields and made muddy streaks.
“ Let’s go inside,” my father said.
My father, mother and Sammy moved into the house to continue their conversation.
Sammy sat down in the sixth chair. It being the empty chair at the oak table closest to the back door-it being our kitchen table. The interior “ living room” was a spacious dark paneled room that included all the social rooms: the kitchen, dining room, den and living room. It took up 2/3 of the house’s square feet. This chair being so close to the back door was an easy entrance to all family meals and conversations for visitors.
Sammy looked at his boots. “ Sorry Beamama, I think I got cow poop on your carpet.”
“ Oh, no problem,” my mother said. She would clean it up tomorrow. Her reign included carpet cleaning as well as crowd control.
As the rain subsided Sammy concluded that it would pick the tractor up in the early morning. He said his goodbyes and left.
It was my father’s evening ritual: eat supper, take a bath and then wrap himself in a terry cloth towel to settle in to watch the evening news. It was September. The tobacco crop was harvested. The farmers called it “ cutting and housing”. This was a big relief for farmers to know that they didn’t have to worry about droughts, floods or the bugs would destroy their yearly income.
The box TV sat on a ruined antique table that my grandfather had been so inclined as to “ shorten it” by cutting off the glass claws on the legs. My father stared at the lights and sound coming toward him while he sat in a room of darkness in a tall wingback chair. It was turned up too loud. My father’s hearing loss had come at a high expense, the constant sound of diesel tractors. had been My mother sat at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette. She had selective hearing- she didn’t hear when she didn’t want to.
“ Where is Clay?” my father asked her. “ I haven’t seen him today. I wonder where is he?”
Clay was twenty six years old at the time of his murder. Even at age twenty six he was going bald. He had a Clark Gable kind of persona but had some self image issues about an underbite. His mandible X-rays were on my mother’s desk. He was earthy: a fisherman and a hunter who shot only rabbits and birds. He liked to go frog gigging and seemed to enjoy the fun of living in the country. He worked as an ironworker but had been a laborer on the pipeline with my father. He worked on the farm in the tobacco and the hay fields. His genetic inheritance was more like the Baldwin side of the family, laid back and sensitive to the disease of alcohol. He lived his life as a bachelor as did our brother, Dale three years older. The two of them lived a few miles away in the Reverend’s house. A house purchased by my parents from the family of the reverend who hung himself in a tobacco barn. My mother said she heard his wife scream when she found her husband hand hanging from an oak tier.
Clay was my mother’s son. Dale was my father’s. Clay never argued with my father he just disappeared.
Dale being a younger version of my father seemed to take his blows head-on. Dale was tenderhearted and very fragile. When he was ten years old I saw him kneeling under a tree with a large kitchen matchbox in his hand burying a baby rabbit whose mother had been run over by a hay baler. At age twelve my father scolded him because he was “ not man enough” to drag our family pet dog out of the road.
On this night, Sept 26, 1986 our family began it’s descent into madness.
“ I don’t know where he is , Harold. Maybe he is with Dale.” My mother felt something wasn’t right either.
About that time the ten o’clock news came on. The announcer said, “ A Robertson County man has been shot on Douglas Ave. in Nashville. Police are on the scene. The family has not been notified.” The reporter’s face was lit in a shadows. Police cars and ambulances were packed into the corners of the TV screen. It may have been another night of regular programming after all murders, stabbing and car accidents are a regular part of reality TV news.
He turned the TV off and stared at the screen. They sat in darkness in silence. Then the walls were lite up by headlights pulling into the driveway. My father ran. He knew that anyone that came to the backdoor could see through the door. It was half glass. My mother disappeared into her room behind him.
The knock at the back door came as no surprise. My father now clothed in the shirt and pants he had removed before his bath stood with bare feet. He opened the door. The officer , a young man about the age of my brothers seemed to be preoccupied with a clipboard.
“ What do you know good, officer?” My father asked the officer. His fear hidden behind his mask of smiles had been programmed and engrained. “ What do you know good?”
“Are you Harold Covington? “ The officer stepped inside and stood beside the sixth chair. The table reserved for all guests.
“ I am officer. Is something wrong? “ he asked his hands trembling and his voice cracking. My mother peeped out from the bathroom and was standing in the hall .
“Your son, Clay has been shot. His body is in the General Hospital morgue. We will need someone to identify the body. “ The officer placed a folded piece of paper into my father’s hand as he could not reach out and take it from the officer when it was offered. “ I’m sorry.”
The officer left .
My mother came into the kitchen and lit under cigarette. She didn’t say anything. My father phoned Dale. He made another phone call to Sammy and asked Sammy to go with Dale to the morgue.