You take a long left after pushing the truck hard over the Intercoastal bridge, you have to push hard because that sucker rises up from backwater level to something that a fifty, maybe sixty foot mast can easily tuck under. That left will put you on the southbound road, although it’s not as if you haven’t been running southbound for the last 25 minutes already.
There’s another bridge now, a short one that jumps over the river, and a backcountry store with a tiny marina sits hard against it. Sweep right, then left and give it the gas and the big truck shoots down a road with soybeans growing up to the very edge. There’s a red barn, the kind with boards rotted away near the ground so you can see the vague tires of some large thing inside, and a crusher run driveway, and a tire swing. And then it’s a mile and a half, you know it’s a mile and a half because the truck has gauges to tell you so, but it feels like two, and you remember Grandpa telling you about country miles, and you flick the wheel and rock the truck just for the fun of it, and you smile.
A fire station sits across from a church. This passes nearly for a town down here, since the fire station has the ball field and the big radio tower, the church has the sign and the parking lot of grass and there’s nearly always a car or two around it. And it sits at the head of the blackwater.
It comes upon you all at once, that big canopy of trees, like driving south into a woodlot that grows out of the water. The road cuts left and the sign warns you to go 25 mph but you’d be a damn fool to go much more than 20. There are no lights here, no shoulder to the road and no markers. You go slow because you’re suppose to go slow and if you miss, well, you’ll be trudging back to the fire station to get the fellas to haul one more heap from the swamp. They’ve done it before.
It’s another 3 miles that feels like five, the road twists and rocks, the county doesn’t get down this way very often and it shows. There’s a little bridge with two ancient black men painted onto the railing, they always have fishing poles and they always wave and you always wave right back. There’s the old and new house or two, the man with the salvage yard behind the barn, the fella with all the firewood you keep meaning to ask after, the horses that creep up to three rail fences and sniff after you as you pass. You keep your eyes on the road as much as you can, there might be a car coming the other way, and there might be enough room for the two of you but you’re gonna hear some gravel fly if it’s on one of those sharp curves, don’t you know.
And the trees, everywhere. This is the fence you hide behind, the stockade that sews up the lowland, just as the lowland surrounds the small bit of high ground that you and the woman live on, and you pull into the dirt drive, the place looking new but not all that new at all. The grass is coming in slowly and it ain’t grass you grow for looks, but grass that knits the clay together, that makes the ground hard enough to walk on.
You can look up if it’s night time (and it often is, in these short days) and there’s something you haven’t really seen since you were five, and sitting on Grandpa’s cold steel seat on top of Grandpa’s cold steel Farm-All, but there they are. The streetlights of the south, ten billion of them, and a quarter-moon to sickle them about.
There’s a warmth coming from behind the storm door, a light, and you knock mud from boots and go right on in.
It doesn’t take much to assemble a crowd down here across the state line. It was three days before Thanksgiving and a mild breeze was blowing across the homestead as the county building inspector peered at the steps of the deck on the back of the house, my builder and I leaning in with breathless anticipation. The neighbor had wandered over, sensing entertainment, and his dog took it all in from a prone position in the mud.
“Nope, ain’t gonna pass code. Gotta have all those steps the same width. Didn’t I tell you this last time?” The fellow from the county was adamant, fifty pounds overweight and about half my age.
I sighed. “You did, and they are. I believe your exact words were the steps need to have between ¾” and 1¼” overhang from the riser, right? And they all do, see?” I held a measuring tape in a gnarled hand and jabbed it at steps randomly.
“Yup, sure do. But they also need to within a ¼” of each other, consistently.” The inspector was scribbling something on his pad, something horrid no doubt, because inspectors scribble only when there is bad in their world. “Get that fixed. And you need more hurricane straps on the joists, and a nail in every hole and . . .”.
He droned on for a while, and I fixed a look to the builder, who looked not a little stricken. The same builder who hadn’t filed for a permit for the decks, and who’d turned me loose on them after I not so tactfully observed that the decks on his other houses weren’t big enough to suit me and by golly I was a carpenter and wanted ‘em built right. That was two weeks and three inspections ago, and the rotund kid from the county was holding firm. The kid who was holding the hallowed Certificate of Occupancy which would allow us to, well, occupy.
The kid roared off in his official looking Jeep and the neighbor squatted to take a peek under the deck. Heavy 4 x 6 beams holding up 2 x 8 joists, posts emeshed in concrete, all topped with the prettiest 2 x 6 decking I could get my hands on, the stuff from my old lumberyard without nary a knot in it. The whole thing gleamed, stout enough to park a battleship on it, clean lines and long runs of balusters and wide handrail. Beautiful, expensive, and a huge failure.
“Shame, really”, the neighbor drawled. “Helluva nice piece of work you got there son. Ain’t it nice, Ron?” he quizzed the builder. “Hell yes it’s nice.”
“I shouda got those permits in sooner”, moaned the builder. “That damned kid’s gonna be the death of me with his letter of the law crap, we gotta get this placed closed and settled. Lawd, the ‘lectrician is done, plumber and air, the wells in and the septics passed. All we got left is this deck and the sumbitch won‘t pass it.” He toed the ground and looked over at me, and the guilt was on him and he looked a bit like you’d expect someone to look when looking at a client who was also a worker.
I wasn’t happy. “Goddam kids”, I mumbled. “Park a battleship on it and he’d fail it anyways. I’ve about had it, rental house closes in five days, wife’s got the place packed, if we don’t close before December I’m homeless and I’m dealing with this horseshit.” I tugged on the shoulder straps of the Carhardts and eyed the neighbor. “You ever have this problem with the county on your house?”
The neighbor laughed. “Oh hell no. We never have a problem with nobody down heah.”
“Well shoot, why not?”
He smiled, a smile born out of years of looking at the sun and his land, hooking a cigarette out of nowhere and flicking a Zippo. “Easy enough. Don’t give ‘em nothin’ to pass in the first place.”
“Yeah. Then build it on Sunday when they’re out fishin’.”
“Works that way, does it?”
“Ain’t suppose to burn leaves without a permit. But you wait until Sunday, you best hope there’s good breeze blowing. Ain’t suppose to take trash to the dump without a county sticker on your car, but you go ahead, my wife runs the place and I already told her about y’all. Just don’t go until . . .”
The neighbor was still grinning. “Sunday, yep. Might want to wait ‘til the afternoon, sometimes she stays up late Saturdays and don‘t open the place when she‘s suppose to.”
It all passed, of course. Hard to see the end of the road when you’re scrabbling around in the mud under a deck, putting 500 nails in 50 hurricane clips and knowing that there hasn’t been a hurricane that could move this deck ever, ever in the history of the blackwater. Hard to see your wife smiling at a new refrigerator in the way that a wife only will. Or see a grandson breathing soft in a crib at midnight, when the day before there was only an empty room there. Or to wake on a Sunday and lean over the railing on a big back deck, the steam from the coffee rising to fog your face just as the smoke from the neighbors leaves begins to flit across the fence.
It is, truly, a homestead, in the sense that there wasn’t much here before and now there is a beginning, decks and house and all. There is much to do.
But I can stand there in blackness of a night, and look at a blaze overhead and hear nothing at all and know goodness at the end of a long road with no shoulder, and a bean field that goes on forever.
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