Hayesville’s Best Democrat

Rob’s Clothing and Sundry Store in Hayesville, North Carolina faces the old courthouse.
The store sign: “Open 9 AM. Closed Sundays,” with the invitation to use your MasterCard
Discover, or Visa credit card while shopping.

A 1/4 page ad in the Hayesville Yellow Pages confirms this opening time, same schedule for
Saturdays. They keep it simple in the Tusquittee Mountains. Closing time is when Rob locks the
door. He leaves when he’s made enough money or has a gig that night. He owns a 1954 Gibson
CF 100E acoustic electric guitar and plays in a bluegrass band. They practice in the back of the
wooden floored store.

At 7:30 AM, a tall, fiftyish Rob stands behind an old unused luncheon counter from another time,
with his back to the locked front door. He is listening to the latest political debate with three men
seated at a round table.

John Rogers, Sandy Matthews, and Earl Nelson are old friends. Two Republicans; Earl is the lone
Democrat, but he doesn’t like Hillary Clinton either. Rob makes coffee for the boys and referees if
things get hotter than the coffee. That hardly ever happens.

Medicare approved medications sludging through three fishing pals’ systems usually limit
enthusiastic arguments, unless there is some half-life of Viagra still in somebody’s works.
The luncheon counter remained after Doc Dremming sold his pharmacy. He had spent thirty
years on his feet, mixing medicines, and hoping he didn’t kill a customer. He never did. But, the
neighbor’s incessantly barking dog never did recover, even after Dremming generously donated
something for Poochy’s sore throat late one night.

Doc Dremming had helped every customer in the county, except Miss Cozy O’Bannon.
He couldn’t cook up a cure for the secret something that ailed Miss Cozy. She ate dirt at night.
Every morning she brushed and flossed the clay out of her teeth. She was, foremost, a prideful
woman but kept getting thinner. She ate clay for twenty years, so she was just a slip of a woman,
as Doc Dremming used to say. No one remembers her dying, but one day she just wasn’t there.
Rumors ran through Hayesville. The most plausible explanation was offered by Pollard Finley, the
retired appliance salesman, “I reckon little Miss Cozy become tangled up in the rumpled sheets at
the foot of the bed one morning. That’s when her twin sister, Story O’Bannon the plump one,
came into the bedroom. She stripped the bed and crammed the sheets in the new Maytag. She
washed, rinsed, and spun her small sister into Eternity.

I know that washer. That’s the Maytag Epic High Efficiency Front Load Washer with the five-
minute delayed liquid bleach dispenser. Miss Cozy was probably dead before the Clorox hit the
wash water."

When Pharmacist Dremming walked his tired feet home for the last time, he carted off enough
unsold footbath to soak his feet every day until he was 125. But, he didn’t plan to live that long.
His Arthritis hurt more each year, so he ran his 4-wheel-drive Subaru faster on the mountain
roads, especially on rainy nights.

Old age won’t get most men in these mountains. A real Hayesville man enjoys the last 4 seconds
of life sliding down a muddy mountainside, watching the valley floor rush toward the windshield
that holds a plastic stick-on reminder of the next oil change.“Hmm, only 495 more miles before
my next oil cha ...”

Back at Rob’s this Friday morning, the topic is the possible moving of the recently renovated
old courthouse. There’s talk of building a new courthouse outside the city limits. “You just wait
until this thing all settles out,” said Earl. “We’re going to find out that all the commissioner’s family
members have bought up that land out there. It never changes, except the older I get, the less
I can stand it.”

“Calm down, Earl,” said John. “Your face is all red. Let’s go fishing and forget about the new
courthouse. We better get up to Fire’s Creek soon though. I heard the county is moving the creek
too.”

“All right, I get your point,” said Earl. “The way the government works, we’ll all be gone before the
first survey is done anyway. Yeah, I’ll go fishing with you if Sandy comes too. I don’t want to
be the only one coming back empty-handed, while you bring home the limit.”

“Yep, I’ll go,” said Sandy. “But I’ll be the one catching the limit. Well, look at that. Earl’s face
isn’t red anymore. Seems like just talking about fishing is good for a body. Let’s get out of here
before somebody sees us riding in the same truck with this Democrat.”

They fished until they got hungry. Earl and Sandy both got a trout. John got two. They drove back
to Rob’s store, and then each of them drove their own truck back to their own lives. There would
be a weekend of news to discuss on Monday morning.

Earl had a stroke that night. Monday morning, the two Republicans sat sipping coffee.
Rob was sitting in Earl’s chair. Small town. Anybody who cared to know already knew.
Earl was in the hospital.

Rob said, “It’s not right. I know we all wear out, but still, it doesn’t seem right. You guys go
see him. The wife and I will go tomorrow.”

John and Sandy visited Earl that morning. His wife was there, but she left. She’d been there since
Friday night. "Earl, I have to apologize," said Sandy. “If I knew you were gonna up and have
a stroke when I told you I didn’t want to be seen with a Democrat, I wouldn’t have said anything.”
Earl was weak, but he smiled. The most they got from him was a slurred, “Thanks for stopping by.”

When they saw him next Monday, Earl was already residing in The Hayesville Home, conveniently
located on Cemetery Lane, appropriately at the end of the road. His speech was back, but he was
still weak. “You know the first thing I remember after the stroke,” said Earl,
“was fishing in Fire’s Creek. We had a good time, didn’t we?”

John and Sandy looked down. “Boys, don’t look so glum,” said Earl. “We all have to go some time.
Hey, I’m not in any pain, and besides, I’m already better than I was two days ago. We'll go fishing
again. That’s a promise."

“It’s a date,” said John. “It’s your turn for a big trout.”

They visited Earl every Monday for a month, and then he had another stroke. Monday
morning at Rob’s place, John said, “Sandy my boy, you and I have got to get Earl out for some
fishing. That’s all he talks about when we see him. We need to get him out on the creek one
more time. He’s not getting better.”

“I’m with you,” said Sandy. “We’ll probably have to sneak him out of that nursing home.
Good news though, if we get caught. What are they gonna do to us? Throw us in jail for trying
to go fishing with a buddy?”

Next Friday, the morning shift was changing and the old boys just walked Earl right out of the
institution. They went fishing. Earl was buckled in between Sandy and John. They fished for three
hours and Earl never got tired. Sometimes he would cast. Sometimes one of his conjoined buddies
would cast for him, or they just let the line pay out into the current. Nobody caught anything and
true fishermen know that it doesn’t matter.

Around noon, Earl got weak. They stretched out on the bank for a break. They dried in the
mild September sun and listened to the creek. “This creek doesn’t babble near as much,” joked
Earl, “as my demented roommate in The Hayesville Home."

There was a notice of winter in the wind as the impatient stream spray soothed the old faces,
smoothed out time-chiseled features, and eased them back into 12-year-old boys. Earl passed
out. “Damn it, Earl. We’re in a world of dung if you die now,” said John. “Come on Sandy, Let’s get
him back." He was still harnessed to the two old kidnappers, so they just dragged him and
unhooked him when they got to John’s truck.

Back at the nursing home parking lot, John said, “We have to stop here for a minute to remember
this day. Probably nobody is going to do this for us when it’s our time, so let’s reflect on how it
was for Earl here, to get out to fish again. This might have been our last time too,
and we just don't know it.”

Sandy said, “John, I kinda hoped that me and you would die together. You know, fishing over
at Fire’s Creek.”

“Well, I sure as hell hope we don't,” said John. “You already have one foot in the grave now.
I don’t want to have to leave early, just on your account. I still have some good years of fishing
left in me. I’ve got a handsome young wife and a brand-new refill of Viagra at the house. I’m not
going yet.”

Monday morning Earl was telling his wife about how he went fishing with the boys last Friday.
The woman had stood by him through 50 years of marriage, lost two sons in an undeclared war,
and had stayed through a 3-month indiscretion on Earl’s part, when he was 52 years old and
working out of town in Chattanooga.

If he kept hallucinating like this, the old fool who flirted too much with breakfast waitresses,
would be gone soon. At least there wouldn’t be anyone to argue with her, when she turned the
spare bedroom into a sewing room.

The boys came by to see him and told him that it had been a dream. He laughed, although he
was weak and gray, looking altogether like the last days of the “best President we ever had,”
per Earl.

The resurrected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the same sunken dark eyes and ashen
skin at Yalta whispered, “I wish I was fishing in the creek.” His breath was shallow; he was
hovering just on the plus side of Death’s decimal point.

“Earl, Buddy. We’re here at Fire’s Creek right now,” said John. “Me and Sandy and you.
We’re just taking a break up here on the shore before we get back in. I have a feeling we’ll
be hooking a big old trout that’s still out there waiting for us. You can even use a treble hook,
if you keep quiet about it.”

John reached into his jacket and pulled out a plastic bottle, filled with creek water. He drew
out his always-clean white handkerchief and sopped some creek water onto Earl's forehead.
The cool mountain water ran along the high nose ridge, followed ancient angular cheekbones,
and mingled with Earl’s grateful tears. The gathering stream trickled over institutionally parched
lips.

A growing tide flowed onto the 300 thread-count hospital sheet, pooled, and then rolled,
rolled on and over the bed, and cascaded onto sterile floor tiles. Earl died.

John dabbed the cool mountain water and Earl’s tears with his handkerchief. Hayesville had just
lost its best Democrat.

Sandy didn’t ask John where they were going. They climbed into John’s truck. Soon, they were
walking down to Fire’s Creek bank. John dropped his damp handkerchief into the cold water. The
faded, worn, white cloth caught in some floating branches. It lingered for a time, then broke free,
and was gone.