Now … 2011
from Go Down Looking
I knew that I could locate the place where it happened. Everything about it had been seared into my brain almost four decades ago. Time will never erase the scene that changed my life and so many others. But I missed the turn. There was no sign. I knew the old store, washateria and school were long gone, but my memory said that the sign marking the ghost town had survived. There were road signs for Muddig and Yowell, why not Jot ‘Em Down? Had Texas forgotten?
I instinctively followed the road I thought was right, turned south and found where it might have happened. But things didn’t look the same as they had back then … and it just didn’t feel right. My memory said that the road had been gravel and well-traveled in those days. This one was just black dirt and saw little traffic. I definitely remembered corner posts and a fence, but maybe the fence had been taken down.
I stopped at a grain silo where a grain truck was being filled and asked a fellow with gray hair if he remembered what had happened here long ago. Behind his dust mask, he looked about my age, maybe a little younger. “I was just a boy then, but the old men down at the store in Pecan Gap can tell you where it happened.”
Just a boy? “Didn’t there used to be a sign that said Jot ‘Em Down?” I asked.
His voice was muffled through the mask. “People stole ‘em faster than they could put ‘em up. They say they named the old store after some radio program. Guess that made the signs good souvenirs.”
I nodded. “Lum and Abner’s store, Pine Ridge, Arkansas.” His look said that he was too young to remember that, too.
I was in no hurry and the breeze felt good in the Jeep with the top down, so I meandered down unpaved roads that took me back and forth across Delta, Hunt and Fannin County lines. The counties converged here, the stomping grounds of my youth. I passed the home place of a girl I used to date, but no sign of the house remained. Back then, the house sat alone on the Blackland Prairie like the stubborn stump of a grand tree, a final holdout against cultivation.
I knew I was delaying the primary purpose of my trip, but did not know why. I passed a driveway sign that said Jesus is Lord as I headed back to County Line Road. I turned north toward Pecan Gap and soon pulled alongside an old gentleman riding a bicycle. I decided to test his memory and hollered into the slight breeze. “Know where Jot ‘Em Down is, or used to be?”
He stopped, smiled and nodded. “Well, you go down here to this little falloff, then it’s just after the second curve in the road.” I asked if he remembered that day. A few words into my description, he interrupted. Animated now, snuff juice flowed from his mouth into the soft, crisp breeze of early fall. I watched for it to dribble on his antique girls’ Santa Fe bicycle or across his chambray shirt, but the breeze carried the stream away from both and onto the tires of my Jeep. He seemed oblivious to the brown flow that emerged with every word. “I remember. Everybody around here that’s old enough remembers that day.”
I stopped at the farm store in Pecan Gap where two men sat outside on a bench. The full-bearded one seemed to be the proprietor. His overalled companion had one ear missing and looked to be at least as old as me, if not older. He remembered, but could not give exact directions. I was about to leave when a dualie flatbed pickup pulled into the farm store shed. The bearded proprietor stood. “This feller can tell you.”
The owner of the dualie, a heavy-set farmer in a t-shirt, nodded when asked about it. “I wasn’t old enough to drive back then, but Daddy took us kids down there that day.” He gave me exact directions. He said it was north, not south off the farm-to-market road. “You may have been fooled because the road got heavy traffic back then. Nowadays, just one or two farmers use it to get to their fields. The road’s impassable a lot when it rains. You know about black gumbo?” I nodded. I grew up on it.
As I drew closer, I wondered why I had put off visiting for so long. The site was less than a half-hour from my house, but I had never returned. Not once in more than thirty-seven years. I’m the type that haunts old graveyards and tries to reconnect to the past. I see visions, hear voices and feel touches that may or may not be real. I touch old things with reverence, especially if a loved one held them long ago. So why had I stayed away from the scene of a defining moment in my life for all those years?
The farmer was right. Grass had taken the road and only ruts and fences on both sides made it recognizable as a trail at all. There was a county road number sign, but no indication of county maintenance. I had to go slow and that was fine; I wanted to. As I approached the corner where it had happened, I heard a whistling noise. Fairly common when the Jeep top is up, but unusual when it is down. Maybe the wind shifted. Or maybe I was hearing things I wanted to hear. I knew it felt right as I stepped out.
I leaned on the fence as I had those many years before. But this time, I wondered about details I could not allow myself to consider then. What did he feel in those final moments? And who had removed the bodies? I walked the ground, looking for signs that only an archaeologist might find, listening for a voice that only I could hear.