Elmer Chastening stood atop a bluff overlooking his vast acreage. The velvet green rolling hills cascaded into the distance. The tall pine trees breathed in deeply and exhaled into the misty fog beneath. The thick, dense forest stretched its arms and waited patiently for maturity. But Elmer didn’t see trees. His eyes saw crisp dollar bills waving in the breeze where leaves should have been. He would wait patiently for cutting the timber, as he had waited patiently for most of the things he valued in his life.
He was barely eleven years old when he’d learned to strap a yoke collar on a mule. Elmer remembered clearly the day his father had taken him down to Saline Clifford’s place and told him to get the mules hitched for plowing; he’d had a putrid hatred for heat, sweat, blisters, and the sound of his stomach demanding food that wasn’t there for the taking. No, he would never let that happen again. He couldn’t.
He wasn’t going to have one of his children walking to school with no shoes on, or worse, shoes so tight they rubbed the back of your heels until the flesh came clear off. “Why wear any shoes at all, thought Elmer?” Pride, he guessed. No, sir. His children might hate him for the workload he gave them, but he’d rather they did that than live with the humility he’d been cloaked with growing up.
Elmer owned a good deal of Heaping KY’s small town– if you didn’t count color town, which ran clear across the other side of the tracks down Lewis Street. Most white folks didn’t cross the tracks, and seldom did a black man dare cross except seeing a doctor, dentist, or the likes. The small town was rarely silent and almost never dull.
Heaping had been abundantly fertile to Elmer, just like his wife, Gladys. But life had not always been perfect, and Elmer had seen the effects of the Great Depression first hand, as he was born during the beginning of it.
Elmer had six children, all strong and of goodly countenance. War had taken its toll on a couple, but they sprang back like the elastic of a rubber band, sturdy yet versatile.
His wife, Gladice, was anything but giddy, although her name might suggest otherwise. No, she was serious and inquisitive, annoying at times even. Of course, he wasn’t the most comfortable fellow to get along with and could lose his temper over the smallest irritant. When this happened, he seemed to completely blackout and become someone he was not even familiar with. It hadn’t been that long ago that he had taken a fresh green switch and beat one of his children until the blood sprang forth. Gladice had grabbed the switch and broke it in half. “Elmer stop!” she’d screamed. “ELMER LOY CHASTENINGS you’re going to kill that child!” It was in that moment that he seemed to come crashing back into reality and felt sure that the proverb that said “punish them with the rod and save them from death,” was not perhaps meant to be as forceful as he had taken it. He’d tried hard in the last couple of years to stop disciplining them at all. He’d let Gladdy do that, he thought. Yes. For Gladice’s words were like chicken soup– warm and nourishing to the soul, but his words tended to be more aptly described as tar trying to mix with water; hot and sticky, repellant even.
Gladice was a sturdy woman with broad shoulders and breasts that had satisfied Elmer for over twenty-five years now. She had dark chestnut hair, thicker than the pines, and her eyes were as violet as an Aster bloom. She could outwork most men, and she cooked better than his mother ever did. Perhaps it was because there was plenty of food to be had in Heaping and an abundance on Elmer’s table–and he needed an abundance to keep all the mouths fed.
His son’s names and birth order are as follows– Elmer Almon jr, Samuel Wesley, Johnathan David, and Joe Dellas. His last son, Clifton Robert, died of measles shortly after his first birthday. They would have grieved in anguish longer had it not been for the surprise of a daughter, their first, Katheleen Sophia, and then two years later, Eva Victoria was born. She being the last of seven.
At night, after all the children were in their beds, Elmer would reach for Gladice, and she would lay listening to the sounds of mattress springs keeping rhythm with her husband’s body. She’d sigh softly, wondering if this were the last time her womb would fill up with life. Elmer figured the more children he had, the more workers, and the more workers meant more money, and money was his constant companion. The fear of never having enough was a restless irritant.
Yes, Elmer and Gladice were proud of their four sons and two daughters. The eldest was one of the most excellent men in town. Almon was a good shoulder above the rest of the boys and handsomely mysterious with his seaweed eyes and blondish auburn hair. Elmer put him in charge of the service station he’d opened last June. His charisma worked somewhat of magic over the customers. They trusted Almon with their vehicles, the cost of repairs, and the prices he quoted. He had a humble smile and what appeared to be a genuine concern for their pocketbooks. Many young men his age were moving to bigger cities to work in the automotive industry or factories popping up after the war. Still, Elmer wanted his children to stay in Heaping, and Almon wouldn’t begin to know how to think for himself. No, that was something his father did for him. There was an understanding among the Chastening’s, and that was to never go against Elmer’s wishes or desires.
Heaping was growing for a town its size, and Elmer saw to it that he was part of that growth. The station had been profitable, and he had hired a mechanic who was training his sons on all the repairs of the latest automobiles. Once Elmer felt secure with the first service station, he had plans to open another in the next town over.
Elmer sighed again as he looked over his land and thought about all the sweat and determination it had taken for him to become someone. Yes, he was someone now. Elmer had made something of himself, and as you can imagine, when Elmer walked down the streets of Heaping, everyone knew who he was and what he was worth. Everyone in the town loved Elmer and used words such as good, kind, a man of God, a great father and husband, a loyal friend, easy-going, and even comical jokester was added at times. Yes, all these adjectives were used to describe the affections bestowed upon him. After some time, he acquired a nickname in the town of Heaping. Charlie, the milkman, Frank the postman, Connie the beautician, Lane the tailor, and the townspeople referred to him as merely, “Elmer, the rich man.” Just the sound of it tickled his ears and made his chest puff out further. “Elmer the rich man,” he spoke into the thick air of the morning. His eyes twinkled. He clicked his teeth, making a tweak, tweak, click, click sound, and kicked up his heels. He counted the coins in his left pocket as he walked down the hill with sass in his step.
Elmer loved to count things. Nothing was ever wasted in his sight. If extreme was what Elmer wanted, then extreme is what he got. He prided himself in having the same car for almost fifteen years. Of course, he had splurged on a new 47 Cadillac with whitewall tires. It was pearly cream in color, but he’d never driven further than the church house and back home in it–Kept it clean and waxed and covered. Everything was measured in worth here at the Chastening’s home. To get something new for a Chastening was a rather peculiar occurrence, yet their house stood higher than anyone in the town. Sunday morning attire was the finest to be had, and even his daughters were cloaked in satin and silk. It was back to basics and cutting corners to squeeze a dime out of a nickel come Monday.
Elmer didn’t trust banks, and although he had a large sum in the First Bank of Heaping. He also had quite a few coffee cans hidden in the barn, among other precarious places.
Elmer’s front porch wrapped around the house and stood tall from the Corinthian columns that lined the front. The inside was even more breath-taking. The spectacular circular staircase greeted guests at the entrance, and the woodworking was impeccable. Dust did not have a chance to settle in Elmer’s home because he was a perfectionist. Each lamp, crystal vase, and gilded gold picture were placed just so–causing the light to catch the eye and leaving one mesmerized by the objects’ beauty. But like all houses which kept their tenants sheltered underneath their dwellings, their occupants carried secrets–secrets the window curtains tried to cover with their heavy tapestries. Secrets the birds knew that chirped outside in spring and secrets that were forbidden to be discussed for fear that their power would destroy every occupant once the words were spoken. Each family member knew that telling these secrets would forever change the course of history, and then everything the occupants were trying to hold together would collapse. Implode, and erupt.
And. . . Even the biscuits and redeye gravy seemed to try and cover them like a thick coating that stuck to their insides and stopped the pain from seeping out. Sticky jams and marmalades drenched in butter churned and beaten covered them. Sometimes the secrets were hidden by music, laughter, and even a taste of wine or sherry on occasion, but mark my word, and they lingered like the smell of eggs after a boil. Putrid and rotten. Even the fans and the perfume couldn’t escape them. Yes, the Chastening’s had their own demons to deal with, but we’ll get to that later. As for now, in our story, Elmer has just left gazing over the land he owns and has just kissed his wife, tickled the youngest Victoria in the ribs, and grabbed his coat and hat.
It’s Monday morning in the town of Heaping, and Elmer is getting ready to drive into town and check on his Service Station and his sawmill. He’s about to get inside his car, the one he drives everywhere, not the one for show. Indeed, that’s really where our story begins because Elmer Chastening’s routine is getting ready to become significantly altered, and the choices he makes will forever change his path. I would assume your path as well. If I could oblige you to bend your ear for a moment, I’d like to tell you the story of Elmer’s predicament and how it came about. Perhaps, I’ll articulate it well enough to leave just a touch of Elmer’s fingerprints upon your soul?
If you ever find yourself in Heaping, KY, look for the flagpole on Taylor Street and turn right at the service station. Follow the light post and the road that winds and curves down Boulder street, and just to your left, you’ll see a road tucked back behind some trees, a road named after the very folks who live there, The Chastenings. If you walk up the exquisite porch and take a hand to the brass knocker on the cherry red doors, you might just meet Elmer’s wife, Gladys. If she invites you for tea, which more than likely she will because that’s only her nature, do try and study the creases right above her temple area and the violet of her eyes that now has softly faded. And after you dip your silver spoon into her rose-covered teacup and taste of the orange Asberry spice with ginger, do gaze out the sitting room, past the redwoods, and down the hill. There you’ll see a large oak tree with some carvings dug neatly into its skin, and six steps beyond lies a secret box buried deep beneath the earth. A box filled with secrets that were never meant to be dug up. . . Or buried for that matter. Buried secrets cause the most disparagement. For even though they may lie quietly at the bottom of the sea, their spirits walk amongst us.