Excerpt: Lacey Took a Holiday
She sold her soul for a bottle. He stole it back.
Lacey Grady is “a woman of leisure” and an alcoholic. Andy Warren is a bitter and jaded WWI veteran whose wife and only son died during childbirth. When Andy recognizes that Lacey is drinking herself to death, he kidnaps her out the brothel where she works and takes her to his mountaintop farm.
She woke to realize that she had been sleeping in a bed smaller and softer than the one in which she made her living and that she was wearing the sort of flannel nightgown she hadn’t worn since she was a little girl.
The pleasant embraces of the bed and the gown and the soft cotton sheets were quickly overwhelmed by dull pain in her stomach. As she pulled her knees toward her chin and rolled onto her side, she saw a pale light revealing a doorway to another room. There a man sat at a table, his back to her. Lacey knew for certain then that she wasn’t at the saloon and she wondered where she was.
She pushed the covers back and slowly sat up on the side of the bed. As her feet descended and her head rose, the room began to turn rapidly. She looked down, cradling her forehead in her hands, a throbbing pain behind her eyes. This much, at least, was familiar to her. The pain in her stomach and head, and nausea and bed spins, and the trembling hands always came when she had gone too long without a drink.
Still, she managed to get to her feet, bent over with one hand on her stomach and other on her forehead. Taking small steps, she walked unsteadily toward the dim light. She bumped against the doorframe and rested there for a second or two before she continued.
Lifting her face a little to one side, she decided that she was walking into a kitchen. The light was a kerosene lamp, turned up not too brightly, sitting on a small table. The wooden floor creaked as she shuffled into the kitchen and the man turned toward her, leaning away from the table on the back legs of his chair.
She did not recognize him. Surely not. She would’ve remembered his face—lean and sharp-eyed, crowned with a shock of thick brown hair. She took him at once to be someone who knew precisely what he intended to do at every moment. And she sensed as well that he was a farmer. Most of her customers were mill workers or from the quarries, and when a farmer came around they stood out immediately.
They stared at each other. She was waiting for some explanation of who he was and where she was. And he just seemed to be waiting.
As she started to speak, she became aware of the terrible taste in her mouth. Her voice was a harsh rasp. “Have you got anything to drink?”
There was the slightest hesitation before he responded, his voice sure and clear. “Fresh out.”
Her eyes darted around the little kitchen, some part of her hoping he was deceiving her, that she would see a friendly bottle. Instead, her gaze fixed on an oval mirror, just large enough to reflect her appearance: her long, dark hair tangled, her face puffy and ashen, her shoulders stooped and bent forward, one hand not quite still upon the stomach she could see protruding slightly beneath the flannel gown. She felt her knees giving way and leaned against the back of another chair at the table.
“I better sit down.”
He watched her silently as she crept around the chair as if it were a precipice and slowly sat down on it. He closed the book lying on the table and leaned forward until his chair rested on all four legs.
“You sure you’re ready to be up?” He spoke with soft, clipped words.
She wanted to speak, to ask him all the obvious questions he should be answering without being asked. The words would not put themselves together. Slowly she lowered her head until it rested solidly on the table. “I think I’m going to spit up.”
“Spit up what, darlin’? Nothing left in your stomach but bile. Whatever else was there you upchucked on the floorboard of my truck on the way up here.”
She sighed and closed her eyes. There was the scraping sound of him pushing his chair back. She didn’t look but felt that he was picking her up with a single, effortless motion, her head resting against his chest. Then she felt him put her back in the same bed she had crawled out of and pulling the covers up around her neck. He brushed the disheveled hair out of her eyes with delicate motions and kissed her on the forehead.
“It’s burning its way out of you, Lacey,” he said. “Tomorrow you’ll feel some better.”
She rolled away from him and pulled her knees against her stomach. At least he knew her name.
The second time she woke up in the wonderful little bed she knew immediately that she was better. Her head still ached, but the bed was no longer trying to throw her onto the floor. And the dull pain in her stomach had become mostly nausea, brought on, she thought, by the strong aroma of frying bacon. She opened her eyes.
The bedroom, which was scarcely larger than the bed, was full of morning light. Apart from the bed, the only furniture in the room was a small, white chest of drawers. Above the foot of the bed was a dress she recognized as hers. It was hanging on a peg that, like all the walls, was painted an altogether dainty yellow.
Turning onto her side as she had the night before, she could see the kitchen table and hear the sounds of frying grease and of someone moving about. There was also a strange scraping sound coming from the other direction. She rolled onto her other side and raised up with her elbow beneath her. Pushing aside the thin curtains, she looked out the tiny, square window. She could see a shed a few yards away with a long-roofed overhang supported by creosote posts. And beneath the shelter was a dusty Model T truck with no sideboards.
“So,” she muttered, “he does have a truck.”
Again there was the scraping sound from right outside the window, but she could not see the source. Nothing was moving from the far left side of her view, where twin ruts made by the truck disappeared behind a tall stand of timber, to the far right, where the ground sloped downhill and she could barely make out the shape of a larger outbuilding—maybe a barn. But what was making the sound?
Suddenly there was a rushing noise, like the sound she had heard as a child when a covey of quail took flight. The baying roar of a dog erupted only inches from her. The dog, immediately running at full speed, appeared from beneath her window only momentarily as it raced toward the shape of the distant barn. It was a white and brindle hound, its ears trailing frantically behind it.
The dog had startled her. It must’ve been digging just outside the bedroom. She laughed and caught her breath.
There seemed to be nothing threatening about this place where Lacey had found herself, apart from the absolute mystery of it. She wondered if perhaps Curly were behind her being here. Several times in the last few months he had commented on her drinking too much, and she contemplated the possibility that he had packed her off while she was drunk so that she could dry out for a while. Before, though, when drinking had been a problem, he had taken her away himself for a day or two in the middle of the week. What day was it, anyway?
Pushing back the cotton sheets and the intricately stitched quilt, she put her feet on the floor again and, somewhat unsteadily, stood up. She straightened and stretched and made her way slowing into the kitchen.
She could tell from his movements that the man—the same one who had been sitting at the table the night before—was scrambling eggs. He glanced over his shoulder at her and a hint of a smile flashed across his face.
“So you survived sobering up,” he said. “Not everybody does.” He was scraping eggs onto a plate. “Would say, ‘Good morning,’ to you but—“ he glanced out the kitchen window—“must be nearly eight o’clock by now. I’ve burned half the day and the only thing I’ve done that I was supposed to do was milk the cow. But I do have some breakfast here for you.”
A wave of nausea rolled through her as she smelled the food and thought about eating. “Oh, I’m sick.”
“Here,” he responded quickly, pulling a chair out for her. “Sit here and drink this.”
He poured a mug half full of coffee and the rest of the way full of milk and set it in front of her.
“I take a little sugar with mine.”
He shook his head. “You won’t need it, rich as that milk is. It’s mostly cream.”
Lacey’s hand shook so that she could not grasp the cup without spilling the coffee.
The brief smile appeared again and he said, “Why don’t you try it with two hands?”
As she lifted the coffee to her lips, she wondered if she would throw it right back up. It did stay down, though, and for an instant her nausea seemed to ease.
“Now eat a piece of this,” he was saying. He set a plate before her with the fluffiest cornbread she had ever seen and cut a thick piece in two and lathered it with half-melted butter. As she reached out for it with a trembling hand, he said, “Wait.” He poured a spoonful of what she realized was honey over the buttered surface. It seemed to her to take forever. “Now.”
Either it was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted or she had never been this hungry before. It was a flavor unlike any she had experienced, even when Curly had taken her to the continental kitchen in Charleston.
“Lord, this is good,” she said. She took another drink and reached for a second piece of bread.
“It’s real sweet cornbread,” he explained, “and sourwood honey.”
He nodded. “Yeah, sourwood honey. There’s a hive here on the mountain.” He poured himself a cup of black coffee and sat down in the opposite chair. “All the sugar—the honey, the cornbread, the cream in the coffee—it all helps to draw the alcohol out of you. Another piece or two of bread and you’ll be ready for some real breakfast.”
Lacey gobbled down her second piece of cornbread. The more settled her stomach felt, the hungrier she became.
She tilted her head toward the stranger and studied his face. He wasn’t that old, she thought, not yet thirty. Although with farmers, their faces weathered, it was sometimes difficult to know. He had the lean, sturdy look of a man who was constantly busy, and she noticed again the perceptive quality of his expression.
It seemed to bother him that she was watching him so closely. He got up and went back to the stove. As he mounded eggs and bacon on a plate for her, she looked around the kitchen. There was a cleanness and a neatness belying a woman’s oversight.
When he sat the plate before her and picked up her empty mug, she asked, “Did Curly put you up to this?”
He filled the cup with coffee and cream and set it down. “I guess I don’t know any ‘Curly.’”
She gave a cynical smile and crossed her legs. She meant to do it provocatively, but the cotton nightgown was so full that only her foot, resting on her knee, protruded.
“Sure you do,” she said. “You can’t miss him. A big fellow, about six-four or five. Big belly on him.”
“Oh! Two-Ton,” the man said with a grin. “Real stout boy with lots of dark hair on top of his head. Yeah, I know who you’re talking about.”
So her being there wasn’t Curly’s idea? Who was this guy?
“No, Mr. Curly didn’t put me up to anything. In fact he took real exception to me walking out with you the other evening. Took right much persuasion before he saw things my way.”
She tore another piece of cornbread in half. “Wait a minute, rooster. You’re saying that Curly didn’t want you to take me out of the saloon, but you talked him into it?”
There was the little grin. “Something like that.”
She shook her head. Nobody ever talked Curly into anything. “Who are you?” she asked. “And where the hell am I?”
He seemed to have the habit of waiting a moment before answering direct questions, and when he did this time there was something like the slightest bit of embarrassment in this voice. “Andy. My name is Andy Warren.” He blew across the top of his coffee mug. “You still don’t remember me?”
“Darlin’, I never saw you before.”
“Well, you never saw me when you were sober,” he said. “This is the third time we met. I first saw you about four or five months ago. I was coming back from Little Washington and stopped off in Draper. Thought I’d have some late supper and your saloon was the only place open. Come to think of it, the place is named ‘Curly’s,’ isn’t it? That was the first time we were together.”
“Well, ‘together?’ Do you mean we just spoke or do you mean—“
“No, I mean we were together.”
“And you don’t remember me, or the name you called me?”
Lacey shook her head.
He took a drink. “So,” he said slowly, “I came through a couple months ago and I was with you again. . . . And you were even drunker that time. But you did call me by the same name. I guess maybe it’s something you call all your—customers.”
When men went to bed with her, what did she call them to their faces? “What?”
The stranger didn’t speak right away. “Not important, I guess.”
“Right,” she said, “well, I know all about Curly’s and Draper. What I’m curious about is exactly where I am now.”
“Watauga County,” he said. “You’re on my farm, on top of a big damn mountain. I own about 1200 acres on top of the mountain. Of course, only a couple hundred acres have been cleared for farming.”
“That’s great. Where the hell is Watauga County?”
“Right near the Tennessee border.”
“You ever hear of a town called Boone, North Carolina?”
“Well you should have. It’s named for Daniel Boone. But if you haven’t, then you don’t know where you are. I guess you’re sort of in the middle of nowhere. Or, up here on the mountain, I guess you’d say you’re on top of nowhere.” He picked up the coffee pot and filled his mug.
Lacey felt herself sigh in frustration. “Excuse me, Buck, but what the hell am I doing up here?”
“Well,” he blew on his coffee again, “you’re on a holiday.”
“. . . A holiday.”
He nodded and she couldn’t tell whether or not his expression was serious or playful. “I didn’t think it was possible, but when I came back through Draper a couple nights ago, you were even drunker than you were the first two times I saw you. You were sitting at a table and some fool was trying to buy ten minutes of your tail. And you kept asking him to buy you a drink. I sat down beside you and said to him, ‘My sister sure can’t hold her liquor, can she?’ He just stared at me. Couldn’t decide if I meant it or not. Directly he just got up and walked off.”
Lacey stared at him. She wasn’t sure what to make of him or this whole bizarre experience. Was he telling the truth? How did she end up on top of a mountain hundreds of miles from her home and last memory?
“Any of this coming back to you?”
She shook her head.
“Well, you were drunker-‘n-a-skunk. I tried to talk to you a little bit and I wasn’t getting through too well. So I asked you if you wanted a holiday. I asked if you wanted to come with me to my farm for a few days, or weeks, to sober up and rest up and get off your back, so to speak. I had to ask you two or three times, but finally you said, ‘Yes.’ And you gave me the nicest smile and you said a couple more things that didn’t make much sense. And then you smooth-ass passed out. Fell right on your face on the table.
“So, I got up and put on my duster. And I picked you up and sort of slung you over my shoulder like a feed sack. Yeah, I was headed out the door and that’s when I met your friend Curly. Well, I didn’t meet him first. There was some wiry, squirrelly little fellow who came between me and the door.”
“Stu. That was Stu the piano player.”
“Maybe so. At any rate he wasn’t having much luck slowing me down, so he commenced to hollering out. And then this Curly fellow got involved.”
“You had a fight with Curly?”
He chuckled. “Oh lord, no. Big ‘un like that would’ve busted me up. Anyway, if there’d been a fight, every drunk in the place would’ve been on his side, hoping to get a favor in return. No, I reckon I said the right words and he decided that maybe you did need a holiday.” He set his cup between his two hands and sat gazing at her. “So here you are.”
Lacey had utterly no idea how to feel. “Here I am? . . . On top of nowhere?”
“Yep.” He pushed back his chair and stood up. “In the middle of the morning, nearly. I got work to do.”
She glanced involuntarily to either side. “So I’m just supposed to sit around here?”
“That’s what a holiday is, isn’t it?” He was pulling on a pair of heavy boots. She hadn’t noticed that he had been wearing only socks and it made her realize how tall he was. “You can just make yourself at home,” he was saying. “I usually come back to the house about lunch but, since I’ve stayed here so long this morning, I’ve made myself a basket. I’ll be back late in the afternoon and fix you some supper.”
Now she had no idea what to say. There were elements of panic and astonishment mingling in her—along with some anger at Curly for just letting this stranger kidnap her.
“Outhouse is just out behind the porch a few yards. Pump is in the sink, so you don’t have to go outside for water. And it’s sweet water. Plenty of food left here if you get hungry before I get back and there’s half a pot of coffee, if you keep the fire going in the stove. Wood box right over there.” He motioned behind the stove.
Looking around the kitchen again, she was struck by the orderliness of the place. “Just how long you plan on keeping me here?” she asked.
He shook his head. “You can leave anytime you want. Your dress and shoes are in the little bedroom. Follow the trail into the woods and it’ll lead you down the mountain to the farm road. Not but seven—maybe eight miles, but it is a lot of up-and-down. When you get to the road, take a left. It’s about four miles from there to the highway.” He was opening a drawer and taking out a pair of gloves. “If you stub a toe or twist and ankle, best commence to crawling because you’ll be sitting a long time if you intend on waiting for help. Mine’s the only house up here. Oh, I do let out a few dozen acres for pasture to some of my neighbors, but that’s on the back side of the mountain where the road don’t go.”
He picked up a small lunch basket from beside the sink. “Now if you’re walking down the mountain, best stay spry and walk in the ruts. The grass has some fair size stones in it and your shoes aren’t the best for climbing. And also,” he paused, “sometimes in the spring like this the timber rattlers will lay in the grass just where you can’t see them. They’re waiting for young rabbits. They might mistake those creamy ankles of yours for a bunny—and you’d both be really disappointed.”
She nodded. “So basically you’re telling me that I’m a prisoner here.”
“Not at all. Not at all. If you don’t want to leave on your own, I’ll be glad to take you. I go down to Boone ever two or three weeks. Be glad to take you.”
“Or three.” He stood with his back to the door. “I know this is an unexpected break from your routine, but you might find it relaxing. At least you won’t have to listen to that honky-tonk piano—or that wormy fellow what was playing it.”
“Uh huh,” she nodded. “Just how much time on my back is this ‘holiday’ going to cost me before you take me home?”
He grinned and shook his head. “I haven’t asked you for anything like that. I don’t intend to. I wouldn’t take advantage of you, Lacey. If you had to work for it, it wouldn’t be a holiday, would it?”
She tilted her head. “Aren’t you afraid your wife is going to come home?”
He was startled. “What?”
“Your wife. She must be off visiting her mother or somebody. What if she comes home unexpected?”
“No.” He shook his head again. “I don’t have a wife.”
“You don’t?” Her voice had a teasing skepticism. “I never saw any man who kept a house this neat. And anyway,” she held out her arms, “I’m guessing this isn’t your nightshirt.”
He looked at the gown as if he had suddenly recognized it. He shook his head. “That nightgown . . . has been folded up in a drawer for a long time. And as far as this place being neat and tidy, I served in the Army during the war. In the Army you learn to be by-god neat and tidy.” He glanced down. “I don’t have a wife.”
Neither of them said anything then. She realized that somehow she had touched a nerve. He seemed adamant—almost offended.
“I guess I’ll be headed out now,” he said.
She rubbed her hand across her chin, still wanting more information, more conversation, and still perplexed by all he had told her and how it all seemed to be true. “Aren’t you afraid,” she asked, “that I’ll steal something?”
He opened a door from the kitchen onto a screened porch, beyond which she could see the shed and truck. “Well,” he said slowly, “what would you steal?” He picked a hat off a nail by the door. “Can you drive a truck? ‘Cause you’ve got to steal that before you can get away with anything else.”
He rolled the fedora over and over by its brim. “I don’t have much of anything worth stealing. Anyway, you aren’t really interested in that. So let me tell you that I’ve only got one thing locked in this house. At the foot of my bed in the other room is my gun box. I keep my pistol and rifle and some other firearms in there. The reason I keep it locked up is so some flatlander doesn’t open it when I’m not around and blow his foot off. If you feel some need to look in there, the key is hidden behind the right leg of the bed nearest the box.” He studied her face. “Let me tell you something again, which you aren’t going to believe. There is no liquor on this farm. . . . Later on today, you’re going to find yourself looking around for some. And there just isn’t any.”
Then he was gone. Just as the door was closing, she saw the dog loping toward him.
Lazarus Barnhill is a native of Oklahoma who has lived all over the south. He holds three degrees, including a Doctorate in Spiritual Development. He has been obsessed with writing since he was a boy. A father of three and grandfather of two, he resides in North Carolina with his wife of 33 years and an irritating cat, Jessie, who is for sale cheap.