Rob’s Clothing and Sundry Store in Hayesville, North Carolina faces the old courthouse. The store sign, “Open 9 AM. Closed Sundays,” with the invitation to use your MasterCard, Discover, or Visa credit card while shopping.
A 1/4 page ad in the Hayesville Yellow Pages confirms this opening time, same schedule for Saturdays. They keep it simple in the Tusquittee Mountains. Closing time is when Rob locks the door. He leaves when he’s made enough money or has a gig that night.
He owns a 1954 Gibson CF 100E acoustic electric guitar and plays in a Blue Grass band. They practice in the back of the wooden floored store.
At 7:30 AM, a tall, fiftyish Rob stands behind an old unused luncheon counter from another time, with his back to the locked front door. He is listening to the latest political debate with three men seated at a round table.
John Rogers, Sandy Matthews, and Earl Nelson are old friends. John and Sandy are Republican and Earl is the lone Democrat, but he doesn’t like Hillary Clinton either. Rob makes coffee for the boys and referees if things get hotter than the coffee. That hardly ever happens.
Medicare approved medications sludging through three fishing pals’ systems usually limit enthusiastic arguments, unless there is some half-life of Viagra still in somebody’s works.
The luncheon counter remained after Doc Dremming sold his pharmacy. He had spent thirty years on his feet, mixing medicines, and hoping he didn’t kill a customer. He never did. But the neighbor’s incessantly barking dog never did recover, even after Dremming generously donated something for Poochy’s sore throat late one night.
Doc Dremming had helped every customer in the County, except Miss Cozy O’Bannon. He couldn’t cook up a cure for the secret something that ailed Miss Cozy. She ate dirt at night. Every morning she brushed and flossed the clay out of her teeth. She was, foremost, a prideful woman. She kept getting thinner. She ate clay for twenty years so she was just a slip of a woman, as Doc Dremming used to say. No one remembers her dying, but one day she just wasn’t there.
Rumors ran through Hayesville. The most plausible explanation was put forth by Pollard Finley, the retired appliance salesman, “I reckon little Miss Cozy got tangled in the rumpled sheets at the foot of the bed one morning. That’s when her twin sister, Story O’Bannon the plump one, came into the bedroom. She stripped the bed and tossed the sheets in the new Maytag. She washed, rinsed, and spun her small sister into Eternity.
I know that washer. That’s the Maytag Epic High Efficiency Front Load Washer with the five-minute delayed liquid bleach dispenser. Miss Cozy was probably dead before the Clorox hit the wash water."
When Pharmacist Dremming took his tired feet home for the last time, he carted off enough unsold foot bath to soak his feet every day until he was 125. But, he didn’t plan to live that long. His Arthritis hurt more each year, so he ran his 4-wheel-drive Subaru faster on the mountain roads, especially on rainy nights.
Old age won’t get most men in these mountains. A real Hayesville man enjoys the last 4 seconds of life sliding down a muddy mountainside, watching the valley floor rush toward the windshield that holds a plastic stick-on reminder of the next oil change.
“Hmm, only 495 more miles before my next oil cha ...”
Back at Rob’s this Friday morning, the topic is the possible moving of the recently renovated old courthouse. There’s talk of building a new courthouse outside the city limits. “You just wait until this thing all settles out,” said Earl. “We’re going to find out that all the commissioner’s family members have bought up that land out there. It never changes, except the older I get, the less I can stand it.”
“Calm down Earl,” said John. “Your face is all red. Let’s go fishing and forget about the new courthouse. We better get up to Fire’s Creek soon though. I heard there’s talk of moving the creek too.
“All right, I get your point,” said Earl. “The way the County works, we’ll all be gone before the first survey is done anyway. Yeah, I’ll go fishing with you if Sandy comes too. I don’t want to be the only one coming back empty handed, while you bring home the limit.
‘Yep, I’ll go,” said Sandy. “But I’ll be the one catching the limit. Well, look at that. Earl’s face isn’t red anymore. Seems like just talking about fishing is good for a body.
Let’s get outta here before somebody sees us riding in the same truck with this Democrat.”
They fished at Fire’s Creek until they got hungry. Earl and Sandy both got a trout. John got two. They drove back to Rob’s store, and then each of them drove their own truck back to their own lives. There would be a weekend of news to discuss on Monday morning.
Earl had a stroke that night. Monday morning, John and Sandy sat drinking coffee. Rob was sitting in Earl’s chair. Small town. Anybody who cared to know already knew. Earl was in the hospital.
Rob said, “It’s not right. I know we all wear out, but still, it doesn’t seem right. You guys go see him. Me and the wife will go tomorrow.”
John and Sandy visited Earl that morning. His wife was there but she left. She’d been there since Friday night. "Earl, I have to apologize," said Sandy. “If I knew you were going to up and have a stroke when I told you I didn’t want to be seen with a Democrat, I wouldn’t have said anything.”
Earl was weak, but he smiled. The most they got from him was a slurred, “Thanks for stopping by.”
Earl was already shipped off to the nursing home when they saw him the next Monday. His speech was back but he was still weak. “You know the first thing I remember after the stroke,” said Earl, “was fishing in Fire’s Creek. We had a good time, didn’t we?”
John and Sandy looked down. “Boys, don’t look so glum,” said Earl. “We all have to go some time. Hey, I’m not in any pain, and besides, I’m already better than I was two days ago. We'll go fishing again. That’s a promise."
“It’s a date,” said John. “It’s your turn for a big trout.”
They visited Earl every Monday for a month and then he had another stroke. Monday morning at Rob’s place, John said, “Sandy my boy, you and I have got to get Earl out to Fire’s Creek one more time. That’s all he talks about when we see him. We need to get him fishing one more time. He’s not getting better.”
“I’m with you,” said Sandy. “We’ll probably have to sneak him out of that nursing home. Good news though, if we get caught. What are they gonna do to us? Throw us in jail for trying to go fishing with a buddy?”
Next Friday, the morning shift was changing and the old boys just walked Earl right out of the nursing home. They went fishing. Earl was buckled in between Sandy and John. They fished for three hours and Earl never got tired.
Sometimes he would cast. Sometimes one of his conjoined buddies would cast for him or they just let the line pay out into the current. Nobody caught anything and true fishermen know that it doesn’t matter.
Around noon, Earl got weak. They stretched out on the bank for a break. They dried in the mild September sun and listened to Fire’s Creek. “This creek doesn’t babble near as much,” joked Earl, “as my demented roommate, back at the nursing home."
There was a notice of winter in the wind as Fire’s Creek spray soothed the old faces, smoothed out time-chiseled features, and eased them back into 12 year-old boys.
Earl passed out. “Damn it Earl. We’re in a world of dung if you die now,” said John. “Come on Sandy, Let’s get him back."
He was still harnessed to the two old kidnappers, so they just dragged him and unhooked him when they got to John’s truck.
Back at the nursing home parking lot. “We have to stop here for a minute to remember this day,” said John. “You know, nobody is going to do this for us when it’s our time, so let’s just reflect on how it was for Earl here, to get out to fish one more time. This might be our last time and we just don't know it.”
Sandy said, “John, I kinda hoped that me and you would die together. You know, fishing over at Fire’s Creek.”
“Well, I sure as hell hope we don't,” said John. “You already have one foot in the grave now. I don’t want to have to leave early, just on your account. I still have some good years of fishing left in me. I’ve got a handsome young wife and a brand new refill of Viagra back at the house. I’m not going yet.”
Monday morning Earl was telling his wife about how he went fishing with the boys last Friday. The woman had stood by him through 50 years of marriage, lost two sons in an undeclared war, and had stayed through a 3 month indiscretion on Earl’s part, when he was 52 years old and working out of town in Chattanooga.
If he kept hallucinating like this, the old fool who flirted too much with breakfast waitresses, would be gone soon. At least there wouldn’t be anyone to argue with her, when she turned the spare bedroom into a sewing room.
The boys came by to see him and told him that it had been a dream. He laughed, but he was weak and gray, looking altogether like the last days of the “best President we ever had,” per Earl.
The resurrected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the same sunken dark eyes and ashen skin at Yalta whispered, “I wish I was back at the creek.” His breath was shallow; he was hovering just on the plus side of Death’s decimal point.
“Earl, Buddy. We’re here at Fire’s Creek right now,” said John. “Me and Sandy and you. We’re just taking a break up here on the bank before we get back in. I have a feeling we’re going to hook a big old trout that’s still out there waiting for us. You can even use a treble hook, if you keep quiet about it.”
John reached into his jacket and pulled out a plastic bottle, filled with creek water. He drew out his always-clean white handkerchief and sopped some creek water onto Earl's forehead. The cool mountain water ran along the high nose ridge, followed ancient angular cheekbones, and mingled with Earl’s joyful tears. The gathering stream trickled over institutionally parched lips.
A growing tide flowed onto the 300 thread-count hospital sheet, pooled, and then rolled, rolled on and over the bed, and cascaded onto sterile floor tiles.
John dabbed the Fire’s Creek water and Earl’s tears with his handkerchief. Hayesville had just lost its best Democrat.
Sandy didn’t ask where they were going. John and Sandy climbed into John’s truck. Soon, they were walking down to Fire’s Creek bank.
John dropped his damp handkerchief into the cold water. The faded, worn, white cloth caught in some floating branches. It lingered for a time, then broke free, and was gone.