Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam
On the drive across the first of three mountains before reaching the Virginia border, Elsie sat silently, clearly chewing something over. To Homer’s distress, she did not once pass the time with talk of the weather or the bumpiness of the road or anything else. All she did was stare straight ahead. Uneasy and lonely for her voice, he finally asked, while almost instantly regretting it, “Are you mad at me about something?”
She responded, “I’m mad at myself for asking you to hit my father. It’s none of your business, after all. You’re not part of my family.”
Wounded, Homer answered, “You’re my wife, Elsie, so your parents are my family, too.”
“Then why didn’t you hit him like I asked?” “I was afraid I’d hurt him.”
Elsie barked a laugh. “The only thing that could hurt my daddy is a direct hit by lightning.”
“Well, just the same . . .”
“You’re weak, Homer,” Elsie interrupted, “weak in ways that often surprise me. But never mind, I’m done talking on this particular topic.”
Homer was left feeling even lower than before and his mind batted imaginary conversations back and forth between Elsie and him that went nowhere. In the valley between the second and third mountain on the way to the Virginia border, the rooster hopped up and crouched com- panionably on Homer’s shoulder. It smelled faintly of a barnyard. Star- tled, he tried to push it off but it dug its claws in and hung on.
“Are you going to let that rooster sit there?” Elsie asked. “I think I am,” Homer answered. “He seems to like me.” “Really? Why would he like you?”
Wounded anew, Homer replied, “I’m sure I wouldn’t know.”
After crossing the state line into Virginia, the roads got better and the mountains got farther apart until they turned into rolling hills that framed wide, green valleys. While Elsie dozed, Homer did his best to enjoy the scenery. Dairy cattle, grazing on the early summer grass, kept their heads down and horses gamboled in the meadows. Albert was quiet, except for an occasional long, contented sigh, and, before long, Homer relaxed. Despite Elsie’s sharp tongue, he perceived it was going to be an easy trip. They’d get to Florida, drop Albert off, and get back well before the two weeks were up. After that, he imagined the years would pass and he and Elsie would recall the fast drive they’d made to Orlando and how they’d argued but everything had turned out okay. They’d laugh and laugh about it.
When they passed through a Virginia farm town, Elsie came awake. “What a tired old place,” she said.
Homer agreed that the town looked tired. A few indolent men, dressed in faded coveralls, sat on the steps of the empty buildings and watched the Buick idle by, their eyes betraying little interest. At a stop sign, Homer took note of a man standing on the corner. He was wearing a suit and looked knowledgeable. “What town is this?” Homer asked him. The man doffed his hat. “Tragedy. We’re the county seat. You’ll find us on the map halfway between Despair and Hopelessness.” He paused, perhaps waiting for Homer and Elsie to laugh, but when they didn’t, he said, “Hillsville’s the actual name of our fair village.”
“It looks nice,” Homer said. “Except how come so many stores are boarded up?”
“That unhappy situation referred to in the press as the Great Depres- sion. Farmers can’t get a decent price on their crops and milk, so they don’t have money to buy things.”
“I’m sorry,” Homer said.
“At least we’re not starving and won’t be as long as folks can stay on their farms. Problem is banks foreclose on a couple of missed payments, they have to hit the road. Is that why you’re out and about?”
“No, sir. I’m in the coal business and fully employed. People still need coal to heat their homes and the steel mills to make their steel.”
Elsie put in her two cents. “By coal business, he means he’s a coal miner who works beneath about a billion tons of rocks, one of which might fall on him at any time.”
“It’s not that bad,” Homer said.
Albert stuck his snout out the window and sniffed the air. The man took a step back. “Is that a crocodile?”
“An alligator,” Homer said. “We’re taking him home to Florida. By the way, are we on the right road?”
“Since it goes south, I would say so. Are you taking the rooster home, too?”
“We don’t know why he’s here,” Homer admitted.
“Well, as the preacher in this town, I say blessings on you all. You’ve cheered up my day and given me something to talk about with the congrega- tion other than the empty offering plate. Why, you’re a regular Noah’s Ark!”
Homer thanked the preacher for his blessings and drove on. After turning at the next corner, he beheld a courthouse with a statue of a Confederate soldier in front. “They fought a lot of Civil War battles around here,” Homer said. “Brother against brother, so the history books say.”
“Sister against sister, too,” Elsie replied. “Women fought in the war, too.”
“I didn’t say they didn’t,” Homer replied, wondering why Elsie tried to make everything into an argument.
“Let’s stop and have lunch here,” Elsie proposed. “It looks pleasant enough and there are some benches.”
Homer agreed and lunch was served, slices of ham, onions, hunks of homemade bread, and glasses of water from a jug Elsie had filled at her parents’ house. Albert got some chicken and the rooster pecked a couple of worms out of the hard dirt. It was pleasant sitting around the court- house and they had to stir themselves to get back into the car and keep going.
A few miles past the town, they came upon an overturned hay wagon that completely blocked the road. A skinny man in bib overalls and a team of horses were watching it as if they expected it to turn upright at any moment. “What happened?” Homer asked.
“Snake in the road shied my horses. They pulled me into the ditch. When I tried to get out, it turned over.”
“Can I help?” Homer asked.
“Naw. The wife will miss me sooner or later and send my brothers and her brothers with enough new horses to get me going.”
Homer got out and inspected the deep ditches that ran alongside the road. “I can’t get across,” he concluded.
“Where you headed?” the farmer asked. “Florida.”
“You’re the first people I ever met who was going to Florida. What’s it like?”
“Hot and full of bugs so I’ve read.”
“That explains why I never met anybody going there. If you want to keep going south, go back up the road about five miles and turn right onto a dirt road. There’s a big old maple tree at the turn and there’s also a gas station in sight. Go about ten miles on it and I know for a fact it connects with a road that goes all the way to North Carolina.”
Homer thanked the farmer and turned the Buick around. Five miles passed, then six, then another and another. A gas station was passed and then Elsie saw on her side of the road what she thought was a large maple tree. Behind it was a dirt road. “Is that it?” she asked.
Homer stopped and peered at the leaves on the tree. “Must be,” he said.
“It looks like a dusty road,” Elsie said. “It’ll make Albert sneeze.”
“I shall go slow,” Homer replied, “so as not to disturb Albert in any way.”
“You’re being sarcastic.”
“For which I am heartily sorry.” “You’re still being—oh, go ahead.”
Homer turned onto the road. It wasn’t a bad road for a farm road, just a little dusty as Elsie had predicted, but Homer went slow as promised. After going for several miles, they discovered it was the wrong road, mainly because it was a dead end, arriving at an old house with acres of kudzu growing over it. As they drove up, they saw, despite the broken windows and peeling paint, that it had once been a grand mansion. Elsie said, “This must have looked like the plantation in Rebel Love.”
“What’s Rebel Love?”
“A novel I read. It’s about this man and a woman who own a planta- tion somewhere in the old South. Then the Civil War comes and the man is killed and the woman has to run the plantation herself. Then this young rebel officer shows up awful wounded and she takes care of him and then they end up being together on a cotton bale.”
“Being together?” “Yes. You know.”
Homer had to think to know but when he realized he knew, he said, “I didn’t know you liked trashy novels.”
“It wasn’t trashy. I learned a lot about the Civil War. Anyway, it’s none of your business what I read. You know what, Homer? You’re irri- tating sometimes.”
“I shall endeavor to become less irritating.”
“Just you saying that is irritating.” She peered at the old house. “I’d like to look around this place a bit.”
“We don’t have time to look around.”
Elsie made a face at him, then got out of the Buick and opened the back door and coaxed Albert out of his tub onto the ground. Albert swished his tail in anticipation. “Come on, boy. You can take care of your business while I have myself a little adventure.”
“Do you want me to go with you?” Homer asked. “Suit yourself.”
It did not suit himself but Homer still got out and followed his wife and her alligator in the hope he might keep them out of trouble. The rooster, as if he knew exactly where he was, hopped out of the car and ran ahead.
Mud, weeds, and scraggly hedges were all that remained of the grounds. When Homer and Elsie reached the back of the house, they saw that the entire roof of a wing had collapsed beneath the weight of the kudzu.
“The old South,” Elsie said. “Or what’s left of it.” Homer studied the dilapidated house and the disheveled yard. “The Hickam family fielded a pair of twin brothers who rode in the cavalry with a Confederate captain named Mosby,” he said. “They stole their horses, so my daddy said, and kept them after the war. What about the Lavenders?” “Fought on both sides,” Elsie answered. “My daddy said they likely shot at each other in the Wilderness Campaign.” Homer and Elsie took a moment to contemplate a past they hadn’t experienced while also feeling sad for ancestors they didn’t know. “I wonder where the slaves lived?” Elsie asked. “Old shacks, probably long since rotted away.” “I’m glad I didn’t live back then with slavery and the war and all.” “Not sure those people would care to live in our time. Everything they knew has been blown away by the winds of history.” Elsie studied Homer. “Sometimes you surprise me. You can be deep.” “Well, I’m a coal miner.” Elsie tried not to smile but she did, anyway. “You know what I’d like to do?” “Honestly, Elsie, I can’t imagine.” “Spend the night here.” “What? No. We need to keep going.” “Where? We’re lost.” “I’ll find the way.” “Oh, come on. It’s getting dark. We’ll have to stop soon, anyway. Don’t you have any romance in your soul?” “I have plenty but I don’t see what this old house has to do with it.” “We could build a fire and cook and maybe even have some of that elderberry wine Daddy put in the trunk for me when you weren’t look-ing. Come on, Homer. Let’s have some fun for a change.”
Homer looked to the west to see the sun settling down at the tops of the trees. It would be dark soon and he wasn’t exactly certain where he was without a study of the maps. “Okay,” he said, relenting, “we’ll spend the night here but we have to be up at first light.”
Elsie smiled. “For your reward, you may kiss me.”
Her sudden change in demeanor filled Homer with cautious joy. He kissed her lightly on the lips while trying to ignore Albert, who had bitten the cuff of his pants and was pulling on it.
Elsie held on to Homer while Homer tried to shake off the alligator. “Don’t take me back to that place,” she said.
“What place? Albert! Stop it!” “Coalwood. I’m begging you.”
Albert finally let go and retreated, looking a little sheepish or, in his case, alligatorish. “But we have to go back to Coalwood,” Homer said to Elsie. “It’s where we live and I work.”
“It’s where you work now and where we live now but couldn’t that change?”
“Elsie . . .”
She shook her head and pushed him away. “Build the fire and I’ll get the wine. We’re going to have a nice evening whether you like it or not.” “Look, if you want to talk about Coalwood, let me list sequentially all the reasons we have to go back.”
“List sequentially my backside, mister,” she growled and stomped off to the Buick.
I am ridiculously excited to be taking part in the #WheresAlbert blog tour and the lovely people at HarperCollins are giving readers the chance to win a signed copy of Carrying Albert Home along with a gorgeous personalised travel journal, plus more Albert goodies!
So, how do you enter? Piece of cake! Read the above extract to figure out where Albert is. Then tweet @W6BookCafe your answer with the hashtag #WheresAlbert. (If you’re stuck take a look at the map below and remember that I am the first stop on the tour…*hint, hint* Don’t forget to follow the rest of Albert’s journey and pre-order your paperback copy NOW!