Near There: The Fairview of Marsha Taylor
Tough Ol' Birds
Blue Moon on the Wing
Trips to the Shed
The Exuberance of Birds
Preface & Reader Response
It is easy for comfortable men to say that rich and poor are relative concepts.
by Jerry Murley
Families climb and fall. Their members steer by mileposts and by circumstance succumb. At a moment, by degree, they cannot account the hows and whys of all. Yet by the balance hangs the fate of members past and members still to come.
* * *
Something bewildering happened not long ago that reminded me of an unusual neighbor up the north hollow from years past. For a group community workday at the home of two elderly neighbors, some young folks planted three shrubs in front of each of two yellow-rock posts by the driveway. After only a week, at mid-morning on a Tuesday, someone pulled the two foremost shrubs from each post and tossed them in the nearby creek. The family discovered this leafy vandalism and within a day the shrubs were replanted in the original holes. Exactly two weeks later, at the same time of day, the act was perpetrated again. This time the shrubs were replanted in pots at the house.
* * *
The unusual neighbor was named Lloyd Warton. His family was originally from a rural hill community known as Skeeter, which is near here but some ten miles southwest.
Long descended from an ordinary social station, Loretta Warton dropped her litter of six boys and one girl over the span of two and a half decades. In those days the county fathers hardly blinked at such productivity: everyone was allowed and expected to pursue his or her own path and to pay the price for it. There were several families like hers subsisting on what would grow from rocky soil tucked away in the sun-poor hollows of water-starved hills.
Loretta's youngest, her daughter Tessy, had a dark, wispish, hungry look that exuded an unusually alert, adventurous, and attractive vitality for a Warton sibling. A small fraction of a percent of the men in the county of some substance but little judgment attempted to get to know her better by doing for her family. Tessy had a time of it fending off the indiscriminate casual advances of local swells. Amid privation and against all odds, she managed, at a young age, to find a path to a life outside of the area and the entanglements of her family.
The most unfortunate of Loretta's offspring was a middle son, Lloyd. Stories abound in the county about Lloyd, whose demeanor and actions indicated that a few nuts and bolts were loose or missing altogether.
Lloyd was very quiet and expressionless. When he did speak, it was in a muffled voice and a dialect that only his closest kin could begin to interpret. There were exceptions to this general rule, however: one time Lloyd stood in the same position on the roadside for several hours hurling unintelligible epithets some fifty yards toward a bulldozer operator who allegedly had been one of his chief grade school tormentors. Normally, Lloyd's older brother Clifford was the spokesperson and social representative of the family. Clifford alone could make himself halfway understood, even given his punctuated mumbling issued from behind a thicket of whiskers wet and stained by tobacco drool.
To say that Lloyd's place of residence was threadbare is to lavish too much praise – to paint too luxurious a picture. There was not a blade of grass on the premises – all having been grazed or worn away long ago. There were all kinds of objects strewn around the small yard, but by far burnable material prevailed, for eating and keeping warm were a full-time pursuit. A cow patty or two heaped on the bare dirt, in addition to the woodpiles and trash, would have been a fitting adornment but one a bit out of reach.
The doings of Lloyd are legend. When the well-educated children of well-educated friends visited other residents of the hollow back then, they first wanted to hear updates and repeated tellings of Lloyd. Lloyd was highly valued: he was a treasure trove of stories, but also he was a primary deterrent to suburban development in the area. When young, well-heeled couples, driving through the hollow on bright Sunday afternoons, their minds trained on building a lovely new house in the country, beheld Lloyd and his dwelling, they would speed away. The sight of his swarthy, indeterminate coloring and thick, multiple layers of clothing, including some headdress that deeply shadowed his face and unruly hair – all seemed enough to perish thoughts of quiet country living. It certainly quickened the retreat of those shopping for quaint landscapes.
Once while working in the field, we heard an awful scraping racket from up the road. It was Lloyd and his trash headed for the county dump atop a wooden skid without wheels being pulled by his mule. This unearthly racket increased steadily for five or ten minutes to a maddening intensity. Though Lloyd was silent most of the time in terms of speech, his presence was heard throughout the hollow when he employed his mule drag.
We knew an innocent, bright local boy named Jack whom we playfully teased, saying that he was named after Lloyd's mule. The mule once escaped the captivity of his master and headed for the tall and uncut, only to be tracked down and returned to its abject confinement after repeated commands of "Come here to me, Jack" from Lloyd and his brother.
Lloyd had a horse, too. Occassionally, we would hear a clippety-clop echoing from up the hollow and then see Lloyd ride past with his white cowboy hat and chaps in a quick-step trot going to town for a parade or a sunny Saturday outing. Lloyd, with a cigarette coolly dangling from the right corner of his lips, proudly astride his horse was much different from the Lloyd of the monotonous, severely withdrawn walk on the road, chain smoking with arms dead straight by his legs, moving in small, steady, stiff steps.
Though a full-grown man, Lloyd also had a child's bicycle to use for transport to town, which is about seven miles east, or to the village, which is about four miles south. After he saw a number of bikers in their tight black outfits and sleek helmets, it was not long before we saw Lloyd riding his bike to town wearing a child's football helmet that was about four sizes too small. The helmet barely came down to Lloyd's ears and sat on the top of his head like a hump, doubling the size of his head but apparently not affecting his cranial capacity.
Back in those days, the nearby village became a trendy spot for craft displaying, antique shopping, mayonnaise eating, and biker resting. The traffic was heavy on weekends along the narrow crowded road, lined with pedestrians who had a habit of crossing the road whenever and wherever they felt like it. It was one of the few places where one could glimpse more than a dozen pedestrians at a time alongside a county road.
One summer, about an hour before sunset, Lloyd was struck in the head by a pipe that stuck out a little too far from a moving vehicle for a man his height walking so close to the edge of the road. Lloyd was rushed to the hospital for emergency care that would inevitably be paid for by the hospital itself. Locals were much relieved to learn that Lloyd escaped serious injury to that wondrous head of his. It was Lloyd's good fortune that the pipe hit him in the head exactly at the place where he already had a metal plate implanted. Seems the metal plate had been the result of a head injury about ten years earlier when Lloyd was curiously observing bridge construction up in the hills and a bulldozed tree fell on him. Now where was that helmet when he needed it?
Lloyd was a man of standards. On his daily walking trips to the village, he was known to take at least six to a dozen steps off the road when suddenly moved to relieve himself of bodily burdens. Though often he left the village with drink and food, he, like many of the well-to-do youth in the county who nightly toured the back roads drinking beer in their daddies' pickup trucks, tossed his refuse to the roadside to return home empty-handed. More often than not, in inclement weather the regulars driving the county road would pick Lloyd up and give him a lift unsolicited. Lloyd and Clifford were such perpetual solitary features on the county highways between their home and town and the village that most everybody had seen them out walking at some time or other.
How the Warton family got by was something of a mystery to us. Clifford was the industrious one and spent much of his time cutting and delivering firewood or walking to and from town and the village with an empty gallon gasoline container. Rumor had it that when the county, due to unpaid property taxes, threatened to seize the property upon which Lloyd and his extended family lived, some neighbors stepped in to pay the arrears – no doubt to the great consternation of local land developers.
Lloyd's story would border on pitiable to most folks if it wasn't so thoroughly laced with a twist of humor and downright amazing perseverance. No doubt we appeared ridiculous to him and his kin. No one in the neighborhood valued Lloyd as a mere curiosity. His presence was a constant testament to the past and our ties to it. Tolerance of his ways was not merely high-mindedness: it was an example of the broad view of human vulnerability, variability, and richness that bore witness to a more practical view of living in a state of nature. And his misfortunes were a reminder to us all of our closeness to even the most wayward: for there, except for grace, were we, walking a lonely road in the elements against relentless hardship.
We were watchful of the Wartons, as they apparently were watchful of us. For various reasons, they and we stood at a distance from one another. None dared seek a photograph of the Warton family members and their disheveled compound of shacks during the family's lean years. For they were not objects of pride or ridicule, but rather they were a stark reminder of our tangled fate and its by-products. While images of privation in a distant land might be considered a form of art, such images of neighbors are not attractive keepsakes for their observant fellow neighbors.
It is easy for comfortable men to say that rich and poor are relative concepts. But there was, nonetheless, something sturdy, if not admirable, in the way the Wartons endured. They were a self-contained island with only the narrowest of bridges to the affluent families around them. They inhabited a parallel existence with different habits and expectations – a universe in a faintly familiar but foreign phase of time. Though their ways engendered light comment, the knowing smiles of well-wishers were but thin covering for the daily lessons in humility that they provided the rest of us.