By the time I met him, Edgar was already a little bit famous. He was in his early thirties, and it had been years since the Little People stopped speaking with him. The animals that had kept him company in his youth also kept their distance, but he had a wife and two children, and his reputation as a medical clairvoyant was spreading across the South. He’d even been written up in The New York Times, although they called him illiterate, which wasn’t true. Edgar could read just fine, although he often used an unconventional method, laying his head upon a book, closing his eyes, and absorbing the contents of the pages straight into his brain as if through osmosis. He could recite almost every word of a book he read in this manner despite that it was—it is—impossible. I didn’t believe a word of it.
I was born and raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is considered a city round those parts, but I had gone north, to Chicago, for college. I wanted smokestacks, ironworks, and trains rattling between tall buildings. I was convinced that industry was the key to the future. Pops and Mama never understood why I didn’t just go to Western like everyone I grew up with—the Hilltop, they called it—or to Emory, if I was so ambitious. Emory was a fine Southern institution. Plenty of other greasy bones around there, Mama said. Greasy bones what she called ambitious folks. But the Yankee bug bit hard, drained my Southern blood like a tick, and infected me with what Mama called ideers. Still, by the time I finished journalism school, in spring of 1910, I was a little homesick. I wrote a letter, sent a few clips, and lined up a spot covering the births, deaths, and marriages beat, back at the Bowling Green Daily News.
I hitched a ride with a man from the Sun-Times who had some story to cover down south. When we got close to Bowling Green, where the hills began to roll and the mist drifted up from the low spots, I spotted the first tobacco barn with its black creosote boards, and I actually asked the driver to pull over so I could get out and breathe a minute. “Carsick?” he asked, but I just pushed open my door and ran into the field, dew darkening my shoes, arms out wide, and I let out a shout I hadn’t even felt brewing. I was glad to be home.
The thing about the South is that it is full of superstitions, ghost stories, and magic. Even though I had missed those green hills and misty hollers, the smoky cafes where they serve coffee with the spoon sitting in the cup, and even the sound of the fiddles sawing in a lot out behind the church—even if I am a Southerner in my heart—I do not believe in ghosts. I am not superstitious. And God doesn’t get off the hook, either, being just another ghost.
Science! Industry! At the bar after work, I made loud, bourbon-fueled pronouncements. I’d push my chair back and do a bit of proselytizing. Finger-in-the-air stuff. Once or twice I even ranted in the newsroom, and my fellow journalists stopped typing and looked up, slack-jawed, pausing in their stories about the upcoming city council elections, or the price of salt pork, the new program in home economics at the college. They looked up, but they weren’t listening so much as marveling. At the confidence of youth. The certainty of knowledge. I was obnoxious.
Science! Industry! I loved all things steel and plastic. I loved modern medicine. To hell with this backwoods-herbal-remedy hoo-ha. To hell with their palm-reading, their ghost stories, their iridology, which took place on the edge of town in a tiny cabin where people waited all day for the practitioner to look deep into their eyes and tell them what ailed them. Lined up on the porch, the “patients” clutched little sacks of tobacco or bundles of furry mullen leaves. These were payments
for the “doctor.” They also paid with cornmeal, sugar, cured bacon, and moonshine, and they waited and waited for that little old man to look into their eyes and tell them, based on some dot in their iris, if they had kidney disease or were pregnant or had cancer or melancholy. He prescribed nettle tea and raspberry leaves, cold compresses and lard ointments. Backwoods quackery, I called it, and I wrote an article about it, too.
Somehow, I had a girl. Merry Miller was studying biology on the Hilltop. She wanted to be a doctor, and was serving as a research assistant in one of the labs. Her father was a professor of history, but despite her parents’ insistence on education, they didn’t encourage her medical aspirations. Merry often mimicked her mother, speaking in a nasal voice: “Oh, Merry! If you would just make some effort! Don’t you want to meet a nice man and get married like your sister?”
Her sister, Michael Ann, had married a dentist and lived in large house with a wraparound porch. Michael Ann was a local beauty, a charming, graceful debutante. She had started a local soup kitchen that I had featured once in the paper, but she had recently birthed her first child, a premature boy, so for the time being, the soup kitchen had to go on without her.
I was not what Merry’s parents considered a “nice man.” They were civil enough to my face, but Merry reported that they complained about my tattered clothing and my uppityness. They were, however, glad to see her going out in the evenings to someplace other than the lab, and I think she liked the rebelliousness of dating someone her parents didn’t much care for. I took her to local dances, but we never danced. We sat at a table in the corner, sipping punch, hashing out what Bowling Green needed to really put it on the map, to bring it into the future: a new hospital, a better library, a decent streetcar, liquor on Sundays, and no more churches. Once in a while, I took her to the bar, and she listened to me rant—the liquor really brought it out. Together we would teach these hicks. We’d bring this gorgeous, backwards place into the glassy, gleaming Twentieth Century.
And then I met Edgar.
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SHENA McAULIFFE’s stories and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Gulf Coast, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah and is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Earlham College.