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Heritage: A Novel (excerpt)

This is an excerpt from Heritage, a novel I wrote during the pandemic. It's a family saga about how we make peace with the broken parts of our past. Release date TBA.

The Hartfield's cabin on Mill Pond Lane, thirty miles outside the bustling city limits of Chicago, was humble by any measurement. The thatched roof, clinging desperately to rusty nails and reincarnated lumber - secondhand scraps left untended behind the Mitchell Sawmill just begging to be taken - kept most of the elements out, besides the occasional stubborn raindrops that, despite the Hartfields’ best efforts, managed to nose their way through the pin sized cracks, and settle into perfectly positioned metal buckets that had practically become permanent fixtures in their living room. The house was built with care by the Hartfield clan, piece by piece, and withheld the worst the brutal northern winters could throw at it. The walls withstood howling winds and managed to avert the destructive path of the occasional tornado that touched down along the nearby prairies. But that is not to imply that everything about the cabin was ideal. The dust clouds from the dirt floors and the frequent visits by raiding rodents, were among the few things the Hartfield brothers hated about their living situation, not to mention the scourging shame poverty branded onto the souls of its victims. John Delaney Hartfield, or J.D. as he was better known, lived in the cabin with his two sons John Jr. and James. J.D., a gaunt, unshaven man, looked every bit his age and then some. He slammed a hot pot of broth onto the heavy wooden table he had carefully made with his own blistered and scarred hands. "Aren't we gonna say grace?" asked John Jr., the older of the two brothers. He was always consumed with spiritual matters. So much so that his father often accused him of being “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.” His younger brother, used to these holy disruptions, rolled his eyes, and started into his bowl. J.D. shrugged. "Do what you like." They all knew if she was there, it wouldn't have even been a question. But they all knew she wasn't there, and her absence left a bigger void than the empty chair at the table or a missed prayer before a meal. Mary, the devoted wife and loving mother, was gone. Hanging on the wall overhead was a black and white image, popular at the time, of a white bearded man with hands clasped and head bowed in humble prayer.[1] The portrait leaned a half inch to the left, just as it did the day Mary first put it up. She practically ripped the screen door off the hinges in excitement when she came in with it. Normally, she was not one to indulge in material things, but she made an allowance for this. The moment the photographer captured in time reflected her deepest heart's desire, to remain in a constant, undisturbed state of tranquil peace and perpetual prayer. It would not have mattered to her if she knew that the artist's subject was no saint, but a flawed man who drank too much and never lived up to his potential. No one dared touch the picture lest they dishonor her memory or bring down any more calamity upon themselves. The boys' mother had survived the great Chicago fire of 1871[2] and the Spanish Flu of 1918,[3] but she was no match for the arbitrary gods of fate, which demanded a sacrifice via lightning bolt.[4] It was very biblical in its precision, but utterly errant in its judgment. Mary Hartfield (born Mary Evans) was the closest to God of any of the Hartfields, and likely anyone else in town besides the good Reverend Brummell, and even that was worthy of debate. She spent her mornings in devoted Bible reading, she prayed while she washed dishes, or performed any mundane tasks really, and she even talked in hymns. Like the time she walked past a drunk beggar who was singing bar tunes downtown at the intersection of Lake and Dearborn. She exclaimed loudly, "how sweet the sound!"[5] Or the time when asked to testify on her husband's behalf at the local police precinct, she responded to a question regarding his whereabouts in the wee hours of the morning, "none other, has ever, known."[6] She walked with grace, kindness, and a healthy dose of quirky Midwestern charm. Her family moved back to Heritage after the Chicago fire, because her mother Martha James Evans was a dreadfully fearful person, and the quiet pace of Heritage met her needs for docile comforts in the second half of life. Heritage was her mother's hometown, and a city her grandfather, Henrick Mendenhall James, allegedly helped build from the ground up, or at least that's what she had been told, there was scant evidence or any historical markers verifying the claim, other than the worn-down letters engraved on the patriarch's headstone in the family cemetery that read, "Pioneer. Presbyterian. Family Man."

Mary had been saved dramatically as a teenager at one of those big tent revivals in the spirit of Charles Finney.[7] That night, the handsome young preacher, a recent Oberlin graduate, sang the gospel and it struck deep into her lonely heart. Her father, Richard Evans, abandoned them suddenly after they moved back to Heritage, so the thought of a God who would never leave her or forsake her sounded appealing. But it was the sounds of the church music that really did her in: songs like "What a friend we have in Jesus," "Great is Thy Faithfulness," and her personal favorite "Amazing Grace." She was halfway down the aisle before she knew she had left her seat.

Women of all ages were throwing themselves at the altar near the feet of the spirited, and conveniently single, young evangelist. Ethel Mitchell, the town gossip in those days, and wife of Melvin Mitchell, the owner of the Mitchell Sawmill - the main economic industry in Heritage, was swooning in the Spirit next to Mary. The preacher ignored Mrs. Mitchell, soaked the sweat up from his face with an embroidered hand towel he had borrowed from the Heritage Motel, and beelined to Mary, who knelt humbly in gentle obedience. With her eyes closed, and the hands of the preacher pressing tightly onto her chest cavity, she invited the Christian God to take residence in her supple, wholesome heart. Tears streamed down her face, as she felt - as she would later describe on many occasions - a "blessed assurance."

This is not to imply she was a perfect saint - those are in very short supply, if they exist at all – but simply, her religious convictions covered over a multitude of naivete. Namely, a blind faith in God and goodness that blinded her to the predatory threats and sorrows lurking in the shadows of the big, bad world. Every once and awhile, those reality calls would puncture the protective bubble of her holy oblivion and catch her entirely by surprise. Like the disappointing letdown of her wedding night and of course, the fateful lightning storm on her evening walk around the pond. It was her youngest son Jay who found the body, smoking and charred like a pig roast. If it weren’t for the recognizable fringes of her favorite blue and white church blouse, he wouldn't have been able to distinguish his mother from a steaming pile of roadkill. He may have been small at four years old, but he was old enough to know his mom no longer existed in the form he had once known. Her death marked a lot of things for the Hartfield boys, not only a new regiment of household chores and responsibilities, but the end of their nurturing and emotional development. J.D. was not the type to dish out praise, he was incapable of providing any sort of feelings even adjacent to love. But he poured every bit of himself into the house, enough to hold the physical structure together, which for him, was the closest he could get to affection. He had promised Mary, when he proposed impulsively one day after a long day's work at the mill, that he would build her the house of her dreams if she simply said "yes."[8] Mary's answer reflected more her belief that God was calling her to be a mother, than it did any desire for a fancy house or an emotionally available husband. Still, J.D. worked fiercely to live up to his word and work off his debt. He would have done it too, had it not been for the untimely injury at the Mill, which incidentally, led to the sawmill’s eventual closure, and the town's first economic recession. It was a moral injury as much as any, the result of bodily fatigue from working back-to-back shifts, and the necessary and subsequent accompaniment of whiskey to drive down the resentment. He should have said "no" when asked to keep an eye out for the boss's eleven-year-old son Michael, who's curiosity about the inner workings of the mill was rivaled only by his enjoyment of swimming in the pond. J.D. didn't hear the scream or the crushing of brittle bones as they lodged themselves underneath the twenty-foot water wheel which powered the mill. By the time J.D. recovered the boy's body, the damage had been done to them both.[9] The Mitchells shut down the mill in the wake of the painful investigation. J.D. was brought in for questioning on several occasions, his family members thoroughly questioned on his character, but no charges were ever officially filed. No one could prove J.D.'s negligence or drunkenness on the job, and he surely wasn't going to voluntarily give up that damning evidence. As a juvenile he had spent a night in jail for delinquent behavior, and that was enough for him. He would take the secret to his grave, along with a slew of others. His gallant effort to rescue the kid, which resulted in a dislocated shoulder from holding the wheel awry, would be what was remembered by most people in hindsight, except of course for Melvin Mitchell, the boy's father, who harbored suspicions of foul play. J.D. steered clear of Melvin and the mill from then on, which wasn't easy considering he lived around the pond from them.

To make money, J.D. hired himself out as a day laborer and took any odd jobs he could from mowing lawns to painting houses. Later, he was able to receive a disability check from the government, which was both another source of income and shame.[10]

J.D. did not share his wife's reverence for religion. J.D. tolerated church like a child tolerates a rectal thermometer. The level of discomfort during it was only matched by the sense of relief to have it over with. If he was lucky - which he rarely was - he might even have his primal urges released when they returned home from church as a reward for the laborious suppression required to appear righteous. If Mary wasn't in the mood - which she rarely was - he would take care of himself in the bathroom using a worn out black and white photo of a half-naked Italian woman he acquired in a poker game during the war. She had made her rounds before finding a permanent home in J.D.'s genuine leather wallet which he also won with a well-played hand. During his time in the service, he managed to avoid getting killed or contracting any venereal diseases, which was a helluva lot more than most of his fellow soldiers could say. J.D. was a simple-minded man, which is not to say he was a simpleton. He could lose himself in thinking if he put his mind to it. At night, he would sit in a rocking chair on the porch and wonder if anything might be looking back at him from the other side of the universe. Given his fantastic thoughts, he was more likely to believe in alien life than an afterlife. He thought often about mankind, but only with a general sense of dread and sadness. He didn't dwell much on his purpose beyond that of his duties as a man and provider. As an ex-soldier, he felt lost without a war to give him meaning. So instead, he just did the most pressing physical task in front of him to keep the terror of life's meaninglessness at bay. If he wasn’t too careful, he might trouble the emotional underworld lying dormant inside him like undisturbed waters beneath a frozen pond. John Jr., also referred to as "John," or "Junior," depending on whom you asked, the elder of the two brothers by two and a quarter years,[11] wanted nothing more than to please his father. He idolized the man even in his deficiencies and derangement. John learned to accept his father's love in piecemeal, through obligatory parental duties, three square meals a day, and the enduring quality of his workmanship. The cabin resembled his father in many ways. It was old, tired and faulty, but headstrong, built to withstand whatever concoction nature could serve up. But that's what led to his father’s downfall: malt whiskey. His main vice ultimately became his undoing. Their mother, and her pesky religious mores, was the only thing keeping his demons at bay. After burying the charred remains of his wife by the maple tree they had planted together on the side of the cabin, J.D.’s inner strength crumbled, leaving him hollow like the logs lining the cabin walls. John Jr. became immune to the strings of verbal abuse their father spewed out in the late hours of the night. He could only pray for the spells to pass quickly, or for the steady cadence of rain dripping into buckets to lull his brother Jay to sleep. Jay was too young to understand that he was witnessing his father's demise in the years that followed his mother's death, a slow suicide by self-sabotage. As he grew older, he would match his father's penchant for drink, and mirror his downfall. Whereas John sought divine intervention to escape the present calamity, Jay began to mimic his father's reckless behavior. First, it manifested in normal childhood rebellion, like stealing candy from the General Store, but as James moved into upper grades, it escalated to smoking cigarettes and consuming alcohol behind the Mitchell's abandoned barn. "You're going down a dark path," John Jr. warned his younger brother one night after Jay returned to the cabin reeking of nicotine. "You don't have to follow your sinful passions."

He tried to deliver his lectures with love, but in James' "backslidden" condition, he couldn't distinguish between true care and self-righteousness. "You think you're better than me. You're not!" "I didn’t say I was better than you," John Jr. insisted. "You didn't have to…your actions speak for themselves." Even though John Jr. disagreed with the choices his brother was making, he didn’t report the delinquency to his dad. He had seen too many times what happened when his dad took out his anger on his brother. As worried as he was for his brother’s soul, he was equally worried about what his dad would do to his brother’s body. On one drunken night, J.D. whipped the fair skin on James' back until the blood vessels popped. His belt was the paint brush and James' back was his canvas.

"It’s a good thing your mother isn't alive to see what you've become. You are a good for nothing disgrace." James got the brunt of his father's violence, verbal and otherwise. Partially because he was younger and more defenseless, and partially because John Jr's religious lifestyle had almost made him immune. John Jr. followed in his mother's footsteps, he found peace in the religious rituals and structures of the church. But more than that, religion became a buffer for him from the bitter judgments of his intoxicated old man. Somewhere hidden under his teenage subconscious was the belief that he could do what his mom had done and tame the beast that held his father captive. The more his dad raged, the more John Jr. pressed into his religious way of life. John didn’t feel superior to his brother, he felt protective of him. He didn’t want to see Jay compound his pain by making detrimental choices. Unfortunately, his brother refused to heed his warnings and went headlong down a path of destruction.

[1] The photograph entitled Grace, is believed to have been taken in 1918 by Eric Enstrom. The subject of the photograph was Charles Wilden who earned a meager living as a peddler living in a sod house. [2] Oct 8-10, 1871. The fire burned through the city of Chicago killing 300 and leaving one-third of the city homeless. [3] It is estimated that 500 million people (a third of the world’s population at the time) were infected by the influenza pandemic worldwide and 50 million deaths globally. 675,000 died in the United States alone. [4] Mary died June 5th or 6th 1921. There is a discrepancy in the historical records. [5] From John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace. [6] In the Garden or as it’s sometimes rendered by its first line "I Come to the Garden Alone" is a gospel song written by American songwriter C. Austin Miles, a former pharmacist who served as editor and manager at Hall-Mack publishers for 37 years. According to Miles' great-granddaughter, the song was written "in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in Pitman, New Jersey that didn't even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden.” The song was first published in 1912 and popularized during the Billy Sunday evangelistic campaigns of the early twentieth century by two members of his staff, Homer Rodeheaver and Virginia Asher. [7] Charles Finney, a flamboyant revivalist between 1825-1835, became a well-known leader during the Second Great Awakening. He was a teacher and President of Oberlin College in Ohio, where he promoted social reforms such as abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, and Universal Education. Students were admitted to Oberlin regardless of race or sex. [8] They were married in 1904. [9] Michael Mitchell died in 1912. [10] Monthly disability insurance benefits were first established by the Social Security Amendments of 1956. [11] John Jr. was born December 19, 1914. James was born March 4, 1917.


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