Hemingway said courage is “grace under pressure.” Let me tell you about a time when I didn’t prove he was right.
The seventh-in-a-row episode of some television show featuring swampy fellows and the crazy hijinks they pull is nearing an end. Or maybe it’s just starting. Of what I am sure: I’m reclining at Jen’s folks’ home on the side of a mountain in North Carolina, it’s late and I’m full of glazed ham and macaroni salad.
The hills and hollers at 3500 feet are beautiful during the day, but at night you can’t see your mouth bow, jaw harp or gourd trumpet in front of your face. I lose myself in this darkness. I’m happy to be indoors, burrowed into this recliner, watching men of a certain beard prance about in camouflage (on the TV).
Hand over hand, Jen’s Stepfather Bob pulls each beaded window cord, lowering the blinds, completing the cocoon. He stops on the last window that faces the street, and, a minute later, says, “Huh.” Now he’s powering off the TV with the remote, now he’s out on the screened-in porch. I should really think about getting up and seeing what Bob’s up to. Any minute now, I will. Think about it, that is.
Bob’s a quiet man and I almost miss him walking calmly to the master bedroom. My curiosity finally conquers my lethargy. I put my hand against the window and peer into the darkness, down the steep driveway to the street below. I see the tail lights of a truck idling near the driveway.
This is unusual and a bit ominous. No one drives on the mountain unless they live here and no one ever drives on the mountain at night. Even though we’ve visited here for years, I’ve never seen the neighbors. I army-crawl onto the porch. I can hear men muttering in the still, winter night, slurring their words, stamping the underbrush. Back inside, I babble to Jen as I try to work through what’s happening. “Those men are here and they have cages on their truck and it’s really dark out there because it’s night,” and so on. Talking to think, that’s my jam.
But now I’m quiet because Bob has returned and he has a gun.
It’s a stainless steel hand cannon and it’s holding court from the dinner table while Bob laces up his sneakers. Jen says something but that firearm has me locked in mental stasis and I’m no longer taking in auditory data. Every ounce of my attention is focused on that king-sized pistol. I don’t want to make any sudden moves.
“Why don’t you gun ahead and gun on your gunny guns,” Bob says to me. I walk in slow motion as I follow Bob and the Beretta to the garage.
The three of us–Bob, the gun and I–are in the front of the SUV. Bob has somehow squeezed the massive handgun into the center console cup holder. I peel my eyes away from it and discover that we’re inching down the sharp slope of the driveway. There is no light beyond the cones of asphalt in front of the headlights. I can’t see the men. I think I hear a howl.
As we’re approaching the rusted-out pickup truck in the street, Bob says something about the gun again, but I take it to mean he wants me to snap some photographs of the truck with my phone’s camera. I’m on it, pressing the shutter button a thousand times in the four seconds it takes to pan by the pickup. I review my surveillance.
“Did you get ’em?” the gun asks.
Each photo is a streak of white blur against a bigger black blur.
“You bet,” I tell Bob.
I’m scanning the woods, the street, the neighbor’s yard, the cul-de-sac where we turn around to finally head back. The stillness out there is unsettling. That beat-up pickup is still parked on the side of the street. Bob pulls the SUV into the driveway. We begin the slow ascent to the safety of the house. We’re halfway there when I see movement in the trees.
At once I know the Adversary has come for us. An infernal figure, part man-goat, part hillbilly themed professional wrestler, materializes from the hellish grove. His unholy hounds cry out in the night, their wretched wails echoing off these mountains of madness– Wait, no, this is a man, but his eyes are glowing and he’s walking toward me. Okay, his eyes are normal, but is that a double-barrelled shotgun in his left tentacle? Where did his dogs go? And why in tarnal darnation is the car stopping?
My window rolls down, not by my hand. I realize that Bob is offering me to the mountain man as a sacrifice, that the mountain man might take me and spare Bob’s family. Makes sense.
“Hey, Bob,” says the biggest, most dangerous mountain man I’ve ever seen.
“Evening, Gordon. Seen anybody out there?” Bob asks my captor.
The man leans one arm on the window opening. “Yep, I talked to some boys who lost their hounds. Said they went after something and they thought the dogs ended up around here. You can hear ’em barking.” Then he looks at me. “How you doin’?” Bob introduces us and we shake hands.
I’ve heard of this Gordon. He’s the neighbor I’ve never met but stories of him are steeped in acts of pure manliness. He’s on his way now, back into the night, into the mountains where he lives with the bear and the coyote, keeping a watchful eye on us.
I’m reclining in front of the TV again, but instead of watching, I’m mentally reviewing my performance tonight. I’ve faced the unknown. I’ve shown that I can be a man of the mountains, with a bit more practice, and maybe just for short bursts at a time. I’m satisfied. I crack open a cold one and offer it to the Beretta. The gun declines, saying he’s had enough, he’s loaded, and we laugh.
So begins my foray into personal essays. I’ve built up several over the past few weeks and after some encouragement from friends and family, decided to put them out in the wild. They should pop up here at my website once a week or so, you know, subject to author’s enthusiasm and all that. Thanks for reading. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it, critical or otherwise. Leave a comment or get in touch.