As for my Southern Legitimacy, I was born in Southern Indiana but my parents quickly relocated to Clarksville, Tennessee and then my adopted hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina. As an Army kid I moved around a lot, but always seemed to return to the Sandhills and Central North Carolina, which play a supporting role in this story. I now live near the Dead Mule headquarters in Winterville and teach at East Carolina University.
I have to tell you something, he said. I have to get this out of my heart.
I did something bad. I don’t know what happened to that woman, I don’t know where she is, but I let it happen.
Jimmy was my uncle, my mother’s older brother. He hadn’t amounted to much that my grandmother could ever be proud of. She kept silent at church when the other women carried on about their kids – this one in college, that one got a good job with a state road crew – but my grandmother, she had one shiftless son, another in the ground and a daughter too young yet to keep pace yet with the successes her mother heard each Sunday morning while cutting slices of a perfectly frosted chocolate cake and store bought spiral cut hams.
My mother had given up on him long ago and she laid into me for wasting my time with him. He’s a loser, she said, he’s crazy. But it was my responsibility to make sure he wasn’t dead.
Jimmy cocked his head to one side, as if someone other than we two in his filthy apartment cared to hear what he had to say.
You ever heard of the Green Knoll?
I set a glass of tea on the end table between my chair and the end of the couch that he bunkered up in most waking hours. Jimmy liked his tea sweet, terribly sweet. It was a chore to choke it down.
I don’t think so, I told him. Do you mean that town out near Star and Troy?
Well, yeah, thats part of it. Not all of it that I know about. There is more than the town. If I tell you about this, you can’t never tell anyone else, you hear?
I nodded. Jimmy was a marginal bullshitter and I had nothing else to do.
Jimmy worked where he could after high school. He was lucky to have graduated. The administration conspired to ensure he wasn’t held back. It would do no good for anyone, they agreed. He stocked grocery store shelves. He hauled tires from a warehouse to the front bays at a tire shop. He lost a job making those same tires at the Firestone plant across town. He was a fuckup and the machines at the tire factory can get people killed. He wasn’t fired, he told his mother. He left because there were other opportunities he needed to pursue.
Family goes a long way in our community and turning your back is a source of shame. Jimmy’s uncle Billy, Jimmy’s dad’s brother, was our family’s lone success story. He went to school at Chapel Hill and passed the bar. He had a solid career representing big businesses and turned his earnings into investments in land and upstart drug companies in Durham. I met him a few times, he always had a new car and shined shoes. Jimmy called him Uncle Billy but to the rest of us he was William, or Mr. Deal.
Jimmy leaned in to me, ready to impart a secret.
When I was younger, I was 22 at the time, maybe 23 – time had passed and his memory was always slippery he said – I met a woman.
He was working at his Uncle Billy’s business, the one that he shared with that old bastard Glen Spofford, he said. Uncle Billy and Spofford had known each other as boys and after each had made a meager fortune, started a land business, part of the first wave of cotton field barrons. Generations of family farms were bought at a steep discount and churned into the malls and shopping centers that would eventually corrode small towns across the state.
Glen Spofford’s family had been a part of North Carolina for longer than they could document. The pine forests that his family had willed to him were still as pristine as when Sherman burned his way through them on his way from Atlanta to Smithfield and before that when Caswell became the first Tarheel governor four months after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Spofford couldn’t care less about history. He was a piggish man, a brute. The unfortunate souls who came into his orbit were abused with the only success the man ever had, planting himself to the right of the football as an offensive guard ten times a year during his time at North Carolina State University. In a state where the only college game that mattered was played on wood floors, Spofford was belittled by indifference, which he used to justify his noxiousness to himself.
The football player found success later in life by trading his family’s trees for money and power. Lumber profits allowed Spofford to take a majority position in his company, and he took every opportunity to remind the much smarter and reasonable William Deal as much. Uncle Billy’s business skills were sufficient to weather Spofford’s unsuccessful runs at the General Assembly. The people of the district all knew him to be a hateful man and no amount of money could buy him a seat representing them in Raleigh.
I was working for Uncle Billy at their office downtown, cleaning up, moving boxes and such. I was out back, having a smoke in the sun. I remember the day wasn’t so oppressive, there was a break in the humidity and this woman came up to me. She was beautiful, dark haired, you know, like she was Mexican or something. She was tiny and when she spoke she didn’t speak with an accent like folks around here do.
Jimmy’s eyes canted to a gaze above my head as he lost himself in the memory of that first meeting. His nervous-quick cadence had relaxed somewhat.
She told me she was a writer, that she wrote investigative stories for the newspapers in Washington, DC and some magazines, you know the kind that overly educated people read. She was looking for someone from the Spofford family and she knew Glen Spofford was part owner of the real estate business. There were rumors that people who went to a church near Washington had gone missing a few years back. The families of these missing people couldn’t get help from the cops and the church wouldn’t return calls. She was looking to talk with one of the Spoffords because they had been a part of that church for generations.
So what did you tell her, I asked. I mean you worked for one of the most prominent Spoffords around and you were standing out back of his office.
I told her I would see what I could do.
Later that day, when Mr. Spofford got back from a meeting with some corrupt folks from the county, I knocked on his door and told him that I needed to talk to him. That there was a woman had stopped by looking for him. He called me in, told me to hurry, he had business to attend to in the same mean, shitty way he always spoke to me.
Spofford was especially cruel to Jimmy because Jimmy was a simple person and Spofford could prey on him. Spofford trickled his pain down daily on a helpless man.
Mr. Spofford never paid me any mind, but when I told him about the woman, what she asked about, he dropped the heavy pen he had in his hand and looked up at me. I could see him starting to panic, his face scrunched up and he told me to close the door, which I did.
Then Mr. Spofford kind growled at me like a gas station dog and said ‘You tell me exactly what that woman said’. Then I told him what she said, people at his church and gone missing and their families had asked the reporter to look into it as the police refused to.
Spofford, for the first time that Jimmy said he could remember, spoke to him calmly, pleasantly. Listen here, Jimmy, Spofford told him, don’t do anything or say anything about this to anyone until I tell you to. Do you understand me? We’ll discuss this later.
All I could do was nod my head at him. I could see that he meant for me to leave the office. But I heard him start to jam his fat fingers at the phone before I could close the door.
‘Sir, this is Glen. Spofford.’ I heard him say. ‘We need to talk.’
I met her in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly, you know the one that used to be on the way out of town? Yeah, she picked me up there. She had a small car and when I opened the door she snatched up a map and a notebook from the front seat and put them in the back. There wasn’t much leg room so I was kinda bunged up. It was already a hot day and the plastic seats made me sweat even more.
I asked Jimmy about the woman, what did he know about her?
Flor Miller was the unexpected only daughter of a Connecticut Jew and a Miami Cuban. They met their first year at Harvard, neither quite fitting in with the school’s ivy-draped waspiness. After their first date, they never left each other’s side. They were beautiful, brilliant, just monied enough to pass as members of the establishment and fled to Washington as soon as possible. Halfway between their families and smack in the middle of the action they took the town by storm. Her glowing profiles of the powerful elites that he charmed for his law practice in bars and cloakrooms were printed on glossy pages and made them both stars.
Columbia University’s writing programs called Flor Miller north, having graduated a year before her peers. She had her mother’s way with words, but she had always been uneasy with corruption and the inequality that separated the suited classes from the brown-skinned neighborhoods of her hometown. She took up the banner of righteousness and joined the fight with a writer’s notepad.
I had her drive out toward the national forest to meet Mr. Spofford and another man. I don’t know who he was. We met at an old lady’s restaurant. I don’t know if you remember the place, it was where the farmers and loggers and such would have breakfast and lunch. Back then you could still smoke inside and I remember it being so smokey you could barely get your food down. I never liked that place because of all the smoke. They say the lady who owned it was a queer, but I don’t know if she was. What do I care, you know, they food was good. She had those little sausages to go with your eggs. Must be twenty years now she’s dead. She was a nice lady.
Anyway, we pulled into the parking lot and Mr. Spofford waved to us that we should just keep driving, to follow the car he was in. It wasn’t his car and I never saw it again. He was driving and the man I was never introduced to was in the passenger seat.
Jimmy leaned back in the sagging seat of the couch, considering his words. He had that couch as long as I could remember, the loosely woven fabric was stained and worn through in places. I could tell he was bottling up. This was the part of the story that was starting to make him nervous. His bullshit usually flowed so loosely that I took notice when he parsed his words.
We drove for a ways, deeper into the woods, where the distance between houses made each one that we passed jump out at us. Laundry on the line, kids in diapers and nothing else, dogs barking at passing cars. We followed the other car, it was very clean I remember, for maybe twenty minutes and then, with little notice, turned into a driveway that followed the crest of a slight hill. We were at the top of a high point and the side road we turned down gently banked toward a house behind a stand of trees. You couldn’t see the house from the road so it took me by surprise when we drove up to it.
She followed the other car to park in the grass behind the house. It wasn’t anything special, but large, but it didn’t seem out of place. But I remember the house feeling creepy, clean and empty, like no one lived there. It didn’t make sense because the grass was mowed and the hedges were trimmed in the way if someone lived there. But no one lived there, that was plain to see once we got inside.
Jimmy excused himself to take a piss. He returned with a handful of peanuts that he proceeded eat while continuing his story.
The house, he said, was traditional, a metal roof atop a second floor and freshly painted shutters black against the stark white of the siding. Holly bushes, flush with the summer’s green, broke the monochromed facade.
I pulled at the door handle to get out of the car before she did. I was nervous for sure. I was never comfortable around Mr. Spofford and I didn’t know who the other man was. I guess I was a bit nervous for the writer, too, I mean here she was not knowing any of us from Adam, out in the middle of nowhere without a clue what was going to happen. If she was nervous she didn’t show it. The writer lady closed the car door with a notepad in hand and started to walk toward Mr. Spofford and the other man.
‘The writer’ was how Jimmy referred to Flor Miller. He seemed uneasy with calling her by her name, as if saying her name aloud would invoke guilt that he was trying to slough off.
I followed behind her. She had a flowery top on and her pants were kind of bell-bottomy, that was the fashion at the time in the cities, but it was new and cool for us country kids. Mr. Spofford walked to meet the writer with a fake smile across his face, the kind he always wore when I knew he was lying or trying to get people to vote for him, which amounted to the same thing.
Jimmy said the other man didn’t move from where he stood on the far side of the car Glen Spofford had driven. He wore a brimmed hat from a generation past and a suit that Jimmy said made him sweat just to see the other man wearing it. The man was impenetrable, expressionless with a face that held no distinction. He could have been anyone and Jimmy, to this day, could not remember what he looked like as often as he tried to recall anything about the man.
Mr. Spofford went to shake the writer’s hand and welcome her, though everyone could tell that she was anything but welcome. Mr. Spofford tried to force it. She smiled a lot at him and tried to ask questions right off the bat but Mr. Spofford didn’t seem ready to answer her.
As they stood under a comfortable live oak, Spofford introduced himself and asked Flor Miller how he could help her, what she was trying to learn.
Flor Miller told Glen Spofford, loud enough for the strange man and Uncle Jimmy to hear, that she was an investigative reporter looking into claims made by families of people in a church in rural Maryland that their loved ones had gone missing. Those who couldn’t be accounted for were members of a relatively new evangelical congregation which had ties to a prominent church in Green Knoll, which she figured was just down the road. She probed Glen Spofford, suggesting that he and his family were part of the church. Might he have any idea about the missing people?
Glen Spofford tried to laugh the allegations off while confirming his attendance at the church in Green Knoll. He told her that he had met some members of the sister parish that she spoke about, but he assured her that no one he knew of could have anything to do with the disappearance of the people from Maryland.
The strange man didn’t react, he kept his head down, listening to the conversation.
We should step inside, Glen Spofford said. He made me nervous all the time, but that day I felt goose bumps on my skin, like there was electricity passing through the air into my body. I was terrified. Might have done something to Mr. Spofford, too, he was jittery, stumbling over his words like I had never heard him do before.
The strange man was the first to reach the back door of the house and it opened without him needing a key. I don’t know why that sticks out to me. Mr. Spofford followed him and the writer went in a few steps ahead of me. I was last and I eased the door shut so it wouldn’t slam. Something in the back of my mind wanted me to shut the door, that it might protect us all from something we couldn’t see.
The group stood without speaking in dining room, empty from the floor to the ten foot ceilings. The house looked spacious from the road, but it was cavernous once inside. The space was accentuated by the lack of any furniture or decoration. It was if no one had ever lived in the house.
Glen Spofford stood still but his head was on a swivel, eyes darting from the writer to the unnamed man, waiting for someone to speak. Flor Miller asked, to everyone, and maybe her self, what was this place? There was an energy she said she felt when she neared the home that had overtaken her. She had a buzzing in her ears that was making her nauseous.
Glen Spofford could barely begin to fabricate an answer before he was cut off by the man in the brimmed hat and dark suit. The man’s voice sank low to the floor and carried through the vacant room like a string bass across a concert hall. He would be glad to answer any question that she had, but it might be best for her to see first hand the good work that was being done here.
The writer lady got a little nervous, then, and took a slight step back. She asked the man in the hat ‘what are you talking about, good work? And who are you talking about that is doing this work?’
The brimmed-hat man replied that he and his friends helped those who were troubled, people who were marginalized. They were helpers.
She looked real inquisitive then, but kind of nervous too and said ‘I don’t understand what you mean, this is making no sense.’
Why don’t we just show you what I am talking about, the man with the hat said.