Copyright © Stephen P. Byers 2004
It was the summer of 1946. I remember like it was yesterday despite the elapse of forty-eight years. Cousin Emery and I were sitting in the cemetery on a hot summer day. He was telling me about how come Lost River Bridge was the kind of place it was.
“My daddy says folks come ’cause Granny Sarah made it a place where people liked to live. I guess maybe that’s partly true, but I think most come just ’cause folks here didn’t shoot and rob one another. Sure they was stills, but not that many. The church didn’t like them, and most everybody here is religious and goes to church on Sunday. But I ain’t sure.”Emery had a way of pursing his lips and nodding his head exactly like my father.
“Me! I think it was good luck and nothing else.”His head nodded, and again I saw my father agreeing with himself. He hit his fist into his hand, and grimaced like the preacher stressing the gospel.
“That’s right. Just good luck! ’Course, comeheres don’t always make good citizens, but the spirit of Christianity in Lost River Bridge welcomes everyone. That’s what saved them from themselves.”
Here was I, Elijah Taber, born in Canada with no right whatever to tell Ozark natives what they should and shouldn’t do, sitting with Walter and Eloise Applehorn in the Fireside Café telling them what they should and shouldn’t do in the new Lost River Bridge they wanted to reincarnate.
Just so you know who everybody is, I’ll remind you that Walter Applehorn is the grandson of Abner Applehorn, the richest man ever to live in Lost River Bridge. That is, until Walter come to live here. Walter left to go to college; became a petroleum engineer, and a millionaire when he came back at the age of forty-two. He bought Abner’s old house—built about 1884—and turned it into a bed and breakfast, an act that struck the natives dumb. I remember Eloise told me the story about Walter letting the news out that he intended to turn the old house into a tourist home.
“The aura of surprise suppressed the void of incomprehension.” Those were Eloise's exact words. They kind of stuck in my craw because I thought they had a real ring to them. Her description of the reaction went something like this:
Silence reigned as mouths gaped and eyes bugged. Some staggered backwards, clutching the veranda rail. Others turned their backs. A man and woman stared at each other, motionless as if Walter had said he planned to build an atomic power plant on the river. Three weeks passed before the reaction subsided. Some folks thought Walter experienced a blow to the head when drilling for oil. Some thought he injured his brain when he fell from a tree as a child. Sunday gatherings after church produced various proposals from asking Walter to leave town to asking the state legislature to pass a law.
In the next two or three years folks came to realize Walter was right. Tourist dollars brought revenue and jobs, especially during hunting season. Tourist cabins were added later. The Fireside Café occupied the first floor of the old mansion. It became the central meeting place, and nobody cared any longer about the old community center collapsing and being torn down.
Eloise's restaurant gets a visitor
Well, there we were after Eloise closed down the café. She’d turned off the outdoor VACANCY sign even though she didn’t have a single customer.
“There’s never any business Sunday night,” she said, putting the entrance door on the latch. “Let’s get down to business.”
Walter pushed a couple of tables together and unrolled the plat showing his proposed reconstruction using saltshakers and ketchup bottles to hold down the corners. He’d barely started his explanation when we heard a noise on the outside porch. Eloise jumped to her feet, switched on the light, and opened the door.
“Pardon me, Ma’am, I bumped into the chair in the dark. I didn’t mean to scare you. I seen the light was on in the restaurant, and I wondered if perhaps—”
“No,” Eloise said, pushing the door closed.
Walter was on his feet. “Wait a minute. Let’s at least find out what the guy wants.”
He crossed to the door, swung it open, and ushered in the worst dressed, most miserable looking bum you ever saw. I mean, it was sad, but when I looked a second time, I was curiously drawn to this fellow. His face was, well, I’m not sure how to describe it—maybe serene—sort of an inner peace glowing under his skin.
“What is it you want, fella?”
“Thought maybe I might get something to eat. Ain’t got no money, but I’ll work for my feed.”
Walter scratched his chin. “What kind of work do you do?”
There was nothing shamefaced, or apologetic, in his voice. He spoke with a degree of confidence inconsistent with his dress. “Wash dishes. Mop floors. Clean-up. Stuff like that. Can’t do much heavy work on account of—”
Eloise had been watching from a few steps back from the door. “We don’t need help with that kind of work,” she said.
Walter told me later he reacted to his intuition. Emery Taber used to say Walter could divine good souls the way a medium divines the supernatural. In the fourteen years I’d known Walter, several times I’d seen him act impulsively, and by golly, he was right more often than wrong.
“Sit down,” he said to the visitor, “tell us about yourself.”
“Not much to tell. Joined the military following my dad who fought in Viet Nam. I was hurt real bad in a freak accident. They patched me up and turned me loose a few months ago just after my thirty-second birthday. That’s all there is to tell.”
I couldn’t judge if this fellow was making up a story, and I guess neither could Walter nor Eloise. Walter was first to react.“What brings you to this lonely outpost?”
The fellow reached for his wallet, pulled out a tattered paper, and handed it to Walter, who unfolded it and began to read sitting with his elbows on his knees. As he read, Walter straightened up in his chair as if a mystical being pulled him up by the hair. Suddenly, he gasped.“Good Lord! What a tale.”
The tale of the stranger
Walter handed the paper to Eloise. “You read it,” he said. He lead the visitor to the table beside me. When he sat, the stranger hung his head as if ashamed, or maybe embarrassed. It was like he didn’t want to hear the message. If he’d put his hands over his ears when Eloise began to read aloud, it would not have surprised me.
San Francisco - 1976. About six years ago, I stepped on a land mine in Vietnam that exploded in my face. Private Andy Harper wrapped my head. The bandage was rough. Maybe he used a piece of his uniform. On the way back to base, we met enemy fire. Harper pushed me to the ground, and lay on top of me. After some time the firing stopped. I couldn’t move. Harper didn’t answer my call. The medics found us several hours later; I don’t know how long exactly. Harper was dead. He died protecting me. I owe my life to him. It’s not much of a life, but if I could, I’d give it to him. I never did learn anything about him, except his home was in a place called Lost River Bridge. He never told me where it’s at. Being as how I’m blind now, I don’t expect I’ll ever find out, but I can say this; that Harper boy sure was a swell fellow who didn’t deserve to die. Dictated by Sergeant James Higgins. Written by Sister M.F.B. Army Nurse Corps.
Again, Walter was first to break the silence. “Why don’t you tell us your story? Start with your name.”
The young man raised his head. He sighed, and then began in the same unapologetic voice.
“I’m Jimmy Higgins. I’ve been looking for Lost River Bridge for about two years since I left the Army. The soldier you just read about was my father. Before he died three years ago, he asked me to find Harper’s family, and tell them what he did. Yeah! Well, I’ve tried, and I can tell you this ain’t exactly an easy place to find. Anyway, I’m here, and I’m looking for Andy’s family.”
Walter drew up a chair and sat.
“I know there’s more to your story, but before you go on I have to tell you the Harpers aren’t here any more. Old Mr. Harper took the death of his son real bad. He was never in good health anyway. With the news of young Andy, he just kind of withered on the vine. After he died, Mrs. Harper left. I think she went to a senior home, but I don’t know where. It’d be tough to find her now. She’d be about eighty years old, if she’s still alive.”
Jimmy didn’t seem to have any reaction. He shrugged his shoulders and looked at Walter for an instant, shifted his gaze to me, and finally stared at Eloise. “I guess you want me to leave now, Ma’am,” he said.
She didn’t let on whether she was sympathetic to his cause, or otherwise. Her answer may have surprised Jimmy, but it sounded like standard Eloise to me. She often waffled in her decision-making, and dodged by suggesting they think it over, so when faced with an immediate question, she usually turned to her husband. “What do you think, Walter?” she asked.
To Walter, a problem wasn’t a problem until somebody other than him made it a problem. And, if it was a problem, then he had to get all the facts. He looked at life as a series of events to which he applied logical solutions as if it was simple arithmetic. More than once, I heard Eloise accuse Walter of over-simplifying everything.
She turned to me with a sinister scowl. “Elijah,” she said, “Walter thinks if an apple is round, and he can find something else that’s round, then that something else must be an apple.”
Walter ignored her wisecrack as if he hadn’t heard her. He was stuck on the subject of Jimmy Higgins. The story obviously gripped him and he wanted to know more, but he still had not answered her question. “Look Jimmy,” he said at last, “it’s dark out and there’s no place for you to go tonight. I’ll make a deal with you. You’ve told us your Dad’s story. Now, you tell us your story, and we’ll not only feed you, we’ll put you up for night.”
I thought maybe Jimmy would object, but he may have been more desperate than I imagined. He shrugged, and began this tale:
At eighteen, I joined the Army. I suppose you’d say I was following my father’s footsteps. I didn’t have grades or money for college. Dad thought the Army’s offer was pretty good, so I signed up. A bunch of us guys had a few beers one night, just fooling around having a good time. Things got rowdy and we stole a Jeep out of the motor pool and went for a joy ride. I was driving and I got going too fast. We went off the road, hit a tree and I was pinned. Nobody else was hurt; that is nothing serious. The local fire department fished me out and took me to the hospital with a broken back. The court martial didn’t take long. The prosecutor asked if we were drinking before we took the Jeep? I admitted I’d had a couple of beers. That was it. He talked the jury into believing I lied, and I was drunk. They kicked me out; dishonorable discharge. I had to tell my father. He was pretty sore about it, but there wasn’t nothing he could do. I hated to hurt him like that, but what’s done is done, and I coudn’t take it back. I hung out at home doing therapy and getting odd jobs. He and I got to talking again, and I think, at least I like to think, we was good friends before he died. One of the things that makes me think so is he give me that letter about Harper. After he passed on, I kind of thought there was something in it; some purpose or reason that I couldn’t understand. I didn’t have no job, him dead, Mum gone, no money coming in; what did I have to lose? I figured I had one mark against me I’d regret all my life; I didn’t want something else to regret. I had no reason; I just decided I’d go look for Harper’s parents. Well, it’s hard to explain; there was sort of a reason. It seemed like I should as if something was pulling me. So here I am, and you’re telling me I ain’t going to do what I thought I wanted to do. It’s not pretty. I’m sorry.
Walter didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Eloise, would you please get Jimmy a bite to eat. I’m going to check the old first aid room out back to see if its habitable.”