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A storm is brewing in the all-but-forgotten backcountry of Kentucky. And, for young Orbie Ray, the swirling heavens may just have the power to tear open his family’s darkest secrets. Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie’s Story is the enthralling debut novel by Freddie Owens, which tells the story of a spirited wunderkind in the segregated South of the 1950s and the forces he must overcome to restore order in his world. Rich in authentic vernacular and evocative of a time and place long past, this absorbing work of magical realism offered up with a Southern twist will engage readers who relish the Southern literary canon, or any tale well told.
Nine-year-old Orbie already has his cross to bear. After the sudden death of his father, his mother Ruby has off and married his father’s coworker and friend Victor, a slick-talking man with a snake tattoo. Since the marriage, Orbie, his sister Missy, and his mother haven’t had a peaceful moment with the heavy-drinking, fitful new man of the house. Orbie hates his stepfather more than he can stand; this fact lands him at his grandparents’ place in Harlan’s Crossroads, Kentucky, when Victor decides to move the family to Florida without including him. In his new surroundings, Orbie finds little to distract him from Granpaw’s ornery ways and constant teasing jokes about snakes.
As Orbie grudgingly adjusts to life with his doting Granny and carping Granpaw, who are a bit too keen on their black neighbors for Orbie’s taste, not to mention their Pentecostal congregation of snake handlers, he finds his world views changing, particularly when it comes to matters of race, religion, and the true cause of his father’s death. He befriends a boy named Willis, who shares his love of art, but not his skin color. And, when Orbie crosses paths with the black Choctaw preacher, Moses Mashbone, he learns of a power that could expose and defeat his enemies, but can’t be used for revenge. When a storm of unusual magnitude descends, he happens upon the solution to a paradox that is both magical and ordinary. The question is, will it be enough?
Equal parts Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn, it’s a tale that’s both rich in meaning, timely in its social relevance, and rollicking with boyhood adventure. The novel mines crucial contemporary issues, as well as the universality of the human experience while also casting a beguiling light on boyhood dreams and fears. It’s a well-spun, nuanced work of fiction that is certain to resonate with lovers of literary fiction, particularly in the grand Southern tradition of storytelling.
EVERYBODY ON EDGE
Thursday, June 6th 1959
Momma and even Victor said I’d be coming to St. Petersburg with them. They’d been saying it for weeks. Then Victor changed his mind. He was my stepdaddy, Victor was. It would be easier on everybody, he said, if I stayed with Granny and Granpaw in Kentucky. Him and Momma had enough Florida business to take care of without on top of everything else having to take care of me too. I was a handful, Victor said. I kept everybody on edge. If you asked me, the only edge everybody was kept on was Victor’s. As far as I was concerned, him and Momma could both go to hell. Missy too. I was fed up trying to be good. Saying everything was okay when it wasn’t. Pretending I understood when I didn’t.
Momma’s car was a 1950 model. Daddy said it was the first Ford car to come automatic. I didn’t know what ‘automatic’ was but it sure had silver ashtrays, two of them on the back of the front seats. They were all popped open with gum wrappers and cigarette butts and boy did they smell.
One butt fell on top a bunch of comic books I had me in a pile. The pile leaned cockeyed against my dump truck. Heat came up from there, little whiffs of tail pipe smoke, warm and stuffy like the insides of my tennis shoes.
It rattled too – the Ford car did. The glove box. The mirrors. The windows. The knobs on the radio. The muffler under the floorboard. Everything rattled.
We’d been traveling hard all day, barreling down Road 3 from Detroit to Kentucky. Down to Harlan’s Crossroads. I sat on the edge of the back seat, watching the fence posts zoom by. Missy stood up next to the side window, sucking her thumb, the fingers of her other hand jammed between her legs. She was five years old. I was nine.
I’d seen pictures of Florida in a magazine. It had palm trees and alligators and oranges. It had long white beaches and pelicans that could dive-bomb the water. Kentucky was just old lonesome farmhouses and brokeback barns. Gravel roads and chickens in the yard.
Road 3 took us down big places like Fort Wayne and Muncie. It took us down a whole bunch of little places too, places with funny names like Zaneville and Deputy and Speed.
Missy couldn’t read.
“Piss with care,” I said.
“Oh Orbie, you said a bad word.”
“No. Piss with care, Missy. That sign back there. That’s what it said.”
Missy’s eyes went wide. “It did not. Momma’ll whip you.”
Later on we got where there was a curve in the road and another sign. “Look Missy. Do not piss.”
“It don’t say that.”
“Yes it does. See. When the road goes curvy like that you’re not supposed to pee. But when it’s straight, it’s okay; but you have to do it careful cause that’s what the sign says. Piss with care!”
“It don’t say that.”
We crossed a big pile of water on a bridge with towers and giant ropey things looping down. On the other side was Louisville, Kentucky. After that was just small towns and little white stores with red gas-pumps, farm houses and big barns and fields, empty fields and fields of corn and fields where there were cows and horses and pigs and long rows of tobacco plants Momma said cigarettes was made of.
I had me a war on all the towns going down.
Tat Tat Tat Tat! Blam! There goes Cox Creek!
Bombs away over Nazareth!
Blam! Blam! Boom! Hodgekinsville never had a chance!
“Let’s keep it down back there!” Victor said.
“A grenade rolled into Victor’s lap!” I whispered. “BlamOOO! Blowed him to smithereens!”
I wished Momma’d left him back there in Toledo like she said she would. She was always threatening around like that, but then she would get to feeling sorry and forget all about it. She’d been mad ever since Victor spilled the beans about Daddy. Victor was mad too, drinking his beer and driving Momma’s Ford too fast. After Louisville he started throwing his empties out the window.
I liked to watch them bust on the road.
“Pretty country, Kentucky,” Victor said.
It was the end of daytime and a big orangey-gold sun ball hung way off over the hills, almost touching the trees. The Ford jerked over a ditch at the foot of a patchy burnt yard, thundering up a load of bubble noises before Victor shut it down.
“Get off me,” Missy said.
“I ain’t bothering you.”
“Yes you are.”
“But Missy, look!”
A big boned woman in a housedress had come to stand in the yard down by the well. She was looking into the sun – orange light in her face – standing upright, sharp edged and stiff, like an electrical tower, one arm bent like a triangle, the other raised with the elbow so the hand went flat out over her eyes like a cap. She stared out of wrinkles and scribbles and red leather cheekbones. Her nose was sunburned, long but snubbed off at the end, sticking out above a mouth that had no lips, a crack that squirmed and changed itself from long to short and back to long again.
Missy’s eyes widened. “Who is that?”
“Granny,” I said. “Don’t you remember?”
I saw Granpaw too, sitting squat-legged against Granny’s little Jesus Tree. He was turning in one big hand a piece of wood, shaving it, whittling it outward with a jackknife. The brim of a dusty Panama shadowed his eyes. In back of him stood the house, balanced on little piles of creek rock. You could see jars and cans and other old junk scattered underneath. It was the same dirty white color as before, the house was, but the sun ball had baked it orange, and now I could see at one end where somebody had started to paint.
As we got out of the car, the big boned figure in the housedress let out with a whoop, hollering, “Good God A Mighty! If it tain’t Ruby and them younguns of hers! Come all the way down here from Dee-troit!” Blue-green veins bulged and tree-limbed down the length of her arms.
Victor stayed out by the Ford, the round top of my ball cap hanging out his pocket. A gas station man had given it to me on the way down. It was gray and had a red winged horse with the word ‘Mobilgas’ printed across the front. Victor had swiped it away, said I shouldn’t be accepting gifts from strangers. I should have asked him about it first. Now it was in his back pocket, crushed against the Ford’s front fender where he leaned with an unlit cigar, rolling between his lips. The sun was in back of him, halfway swallowed up by a distant curvy line of hilltop trees.
“Hidy Victor!” Granny called. “Ya’ll have a good trip?”
Victor put on a smooth voice. “Fine Mrs. Wood. Real fine. You can’t beat blue grass for beauty, can you?” A long shadow stretched out on the ground in front of him.
Granny laughed. “Ain’t been no farther than Lexington to know!”
Granpaw changed his position against the tree, leaned forward a little bit and spat a brown gob, grunting out the word ‘shit’ after he did. He dragged the back of his knife hand sandpaper-like over the gap of his mouth.
“I want you just to looky here!” Granny said. “If tain’t Missy-Two-Shoes and that baby doll of hers!”
Missy backed away.
“Aw, Missy now,” Momma said. “That’s Granny.”
Missy smiled then and let Granny grab her up. Her legs went around Granny’s waist. She had on a pink Sunday dress with limp white bows dangling off its bottom, the back squashed and wadded like an overused hankie.
“How’s my little towhead?” Granny said.
“Good.” Missy held out her baby doll. “This is Mattie, Granny. I named her after you.”
“Well ain’t you the sweetest thang!” Granny grinned so big her wrinkles went out in circles like water does after a stone’s dropped in. She gave Missy a wet kiss and set her down. Then her grin flashed toward Momma. “There’s my other little girl!”
Momma, no taller than Granny’s chin, did a little toe dance up to her, smiling all the way. She hugged Granny and Granny in turn beat the blue and red roses on the back of Momma’s blouse.
“I just love it to death!” Granny said. “Let me look at you!” She held Momma away from her. Momma wiggled her hips; slim curvy hips packed up neat in a tight black skirt. She kissed the air in front of Granny.
Like Marilyn Monroe. Like in the movies.
“Jezebel!” Granny laughed. “You always was a teaser.”
They talked about the trip to Florida, about Victor’s prospects – his good fortune, his chance – about Armstrong and the men down there and that Pink Flamingo Hotel. They talked about Daddy too, and what a good man he’d been.
“It liked to’ve killed us all, what happened to Jessie,” Granny said.
“I know Mamaw. If I had more time, I’d go visit him awhile.” Momma looked out over the crossroads toward the graveyard. I looked too but there was nothing to see now, nothing but shadows and scrubby bushes and the boney black limbs of the cottonwood trees. I remembered what Victor’d said about the nigger man, about the crane with the full ladle.
“I want you just to look what the cat’s drug in Mattie!” Granpaw had walked over from his place by the tree.
“Oh Papaw!” Momma hugged Granpaw’s rusty old neck and kissed him two or three times.
“Shoo! Ruby you’ll get paint all over me!”
Momma laughed and rubbed at a lip mark she’d left on his jaw.
“How you been daughter?”
“All right I reckon,” Momma said. She looked back toward Victor who was still up by the Ford. Victor took the cigar out of his mouth. He held it to one side, pinched between his fingers.
“How’s that car running Victor?” Granpaw called.
“Not too bad, Mr. Wood,” Victor answered, “considering the miles we’ve put on her.”
Granpaw made a bunch of little spit-spit sounds, flicking them off the end of his tongue as he did. He hawked up another brown gob and let it fall to the ground, then he gave Victor a nod and walked over. He walked with a limp, like somebody stepping off in a ditch, carrying the open jackknife in one hand and that thing, whatever it was he’d been working on, in the other.
Granny’s mouth got hard. “Ruby, I did get that letter of yorn. I done told you it were all right to leave that child. I told you in that other letter, ‘member?”
“You sure it’s not any trouble?” Momma said.
Granny’s eyes widened. “Trouble? Why, tain’t no trouble a-tall.” She looked over my way. “I want you just to look how he’s growed! A might on the skinny side though.”
“He’ll fill out,” Momma said.
“Why yes he will. Come youngun. Come say hello to your old Granny.”
“Orbie, be good now,” Momma said.
I went a little closer, but I didn’t say hello.
“He’ll be all right,” Granny said.
“I hope so Mamaw. He’s been a lot of trouble over this.“
Veins, blue rivers, tree roots, flooded down Granny’s gray legs. More even than on her arms. And you could see white bulges and knots and little red threads wiggling out. “I’ll bet you they’s a lot better things going on here than they is in Floridy,” she said. “I bet you, if you had a mind to, Granpaw would show you how to milk cows and hoe tobacco. I’ll learn you everything there is to know about chickens. Why, you’ll be a real farm hand before long!”
“I don’t wanna be no damned farm hand,” I said.
“Boy, I’ll wear you out!” Momma said. “See what I mean, Mamaw?”
“He’ll be all right,” Granny said.
The sun was on its way down. Far to the east of it two stars trailed after a skinny slice of moon. I could see Old Man Harlan’s Country Store across the road, closed now, but with a porch light burning by the door.
A ruckus of voices had started up by the Ford, Granpaw and Victor trying to talk at the same time. They’d propped the Ford’s hood up with a stick and were standing out by the front.
Victor had again taken up his place, leaning back against the front fender, crushing my ball cap. “That’s right, that’s what I said! No good at all.” He held the cigar shoulder level – lit now – waving it with his upraised arm one side to the other. “The Unions are ruining this country, Mr. Wood. Bunch of meddlesome, goddamned troublemakers. Agitators, if you catch my drift.” He took a pull on the cigar then blew the smoke over Granpaw’s head.
Granpaw was stout-looking but a whole head shorter than Victor. He stood there in his coveralls, doubled up fists hanging at the end of each arm, thick as sledgehammers – one with the open jackknife, the other with that thing he’d been working on. “Son, you got a problem?”
“The rank and file,” Victor said. “They’re the problem! They’ll believe anything the goddamn Union tells them.”
Granpaw leaned over and spat. “You don’t know nothin’.”
“Anything,” Victor said.
Victor took the cigar out of his mouth and smiled. “I don’t know anything is what you mean to say. It’s proper grammar.”
“I know what I aim to say,” Granpaw said, “I don’t need no northern jackass a tellin’ me.” Granpaw’s thumb squeezed against the jackknife blade.
Cut him Granpaw! Knock that cigar out his mouth!
“Strode!” Granny shouted. “Come away from there!”
Momma hurried over. “Victor, I told you.”
“I was just sharing some of my thoughts with Mr. Wood here,” Victor said. “He took it the wrong way, that’s all. He doesn’t understand.”
“I understand plenty, City Slicker.” Granpaw closed the knife blade against his coveralls and backed away.
“Ain’t no need in this Strode!” Granny said. “Victor’s come all the way down here from Dee-troit. He’s company. And you a man of God!”
“I’ll cut him a new asshole, he keeps on that a way,” Granpaw said.
Momma was beside herself. “Apologize Victor. Apologize to Papaw for talking that way.”
“For telling the truth?”
“For insulting him!”
Victor shook his head. “You apologize. You’re good at that.”
Over where the sun had gone down the sky had turned white-blue. Fireflies winked around the roof of the well, around the branches of the Jesus Tree. Victor walked around to the front of the car and slammed the hood down harder than was necessary. “Come on Orbie! Time to get your stuff!”
I couldn’t believe it was about to happen, even though I’d been told so many times it was going to. I started to cry.
“Get down here!” Victor yelled.
Momma met me at the car. She took out a hankerchief and wiped at my tears. She looked good. She always looked good.
“I don’t want you to go,” I said.
“Oh now,” Momma said. “Let’s not make Victor any madder than he already is, okay?” She helped bring my things from the car. I carried my tank and my box of army men and crayons. Momma brought my dump truck, the toy cars, my comic books and drawing pad. We put them all on the porch where Missy sat playing with her doll. Momma hugged me one last time, got Missy up in her arms and headed to the car.
Victor was already behind the wheel, gunning the engine. “Come on Ruby! Let’s go!”
“You just hold on a minute!” Momma put Missy in the car and turned to hug Granny. “Bye Mamaw.”
“Goodbye Sweetness. I hope you find what you’re looking for down there.”
“Right now I’d settle for a little peace of mind,” Momma said; then she hugged Granpaw. “I’m real sorry about Victor Papaw.”
Granpaw nodded. “You be careful down there in Floridy.”
“Bye Momma! Bye Missy!” I yelled.
Momma closed her door and Victor backed out. I hurried down to where Granny and Granpaw were standing. The Ford threw dust and gravels as it fishtailed up the road.
Granpaw tapped me on the shoulder. “This one’s for you son,” he said and handed down the piece he’d been working on. It was a little cross of blond wood about a foot high with a burnt snake draped lengthwise along its shoulders. Granpaw moved his finger over the snake’s curvy body. “Scorched that in there with a hot screw driver, I did.”
It was comical in a way, but strange too; I mean to make a snake there – right where Jesus was supposed to be. Like most everything else in my life, it made no sense at all. Momma’s Ford had disappeared over the hill. Pale road-dust moved like a ghost into the cornfields under the half-dark sky. It drifted back toward the skull of Granpaw’s barn, back toward the yard. I stood there watching it all, listening as Momma’s Ford rumbled away.