The Death of James A. Garfield

by Rob Hunter
some background »

The Death of James A. Garfield

Garfield’s assassin wanted to be ambassador to France.

In the middle of the Twentieth Century mysterious things were still reported in the Southern Highlands. Ask anyone—mountain witch women with their own all-American brand of voodoo, seers and clairvoyants, the whole shooting match. This is, of course, the kind of stuff you read about in the Sunday supplements. In real life hauntings, hexings and supernatural doings are as strange to the post-bellum South as pit barbecue, Winn-Dixie, Dr. Pepper and Royal Crown Cola are familiar.

I had read the book The Time Machine when I was a kid. By H. G. Wells? It scared the hell out of me at the time. I grew up in MycenaeWisconsin, just west of Elm Grove. But that was then, 1938, twenty years before I found my own time machine. OK, so it’s a patch of tomatoes; tomatoes are a reliable time machine; they just require some interpretation. Those Cherokee Purples don’t work the same way as H. G. Well’s crystal and brass apparatus. The Cherokee Purples in their lonely patch in the Great Smokies keep their own counsel, and what they know they don’t volunteer.

Tomatoes as a time machine was something Dilly already knew. Dilly, that’s Delilah, my wife—child bride, in truth. At the time of this story, Delilah was a kid in bib overalls. An exploding deer figures in this story, too, only later on. The deer thing happened when I was in the fourth grade and, in addition to the nine-times part of the times tables, I was also supposed to be memorizing the Presidents that week. We were expected to have the times tables by heart and be able to recite the presidents from memory. And in order.

Did I tell you I went to James A. Garfield Junior High? Probably not. We had cheerleaders and a losing basketball for them to cheer for—Bobo skewatten-daddle, get it right! James A. Garfield gonna win tonite!

It is important that you know I am not delusional about the death of Mister Garfield. School spirit saw to it that I was at least minimally informed about the late president. My seat was in a row of identical kid-scarred birch-topped desks screwed to metal frames. The frames were in their turn screwed to the floor. It was good oak floor just like on the basketball court next door at the junior high where in a few years I would play center. I had a crush on one girl all the way from kindergarten through seventh grade at Garfield Junior High. Ellen Heckel was a cheerleader but her family moved to Sheboygan when we were both twelve. So for me President James A. Garfield was a little anecdotal history, a losing sports team and a blighted romance. And I never got to be a war hero, either. I missed out on World War Two because I was pigeon-toed. It’s my name—Pigeon, Harley Pigeon. The pigeon-toed thing never fails to get a chuckle. And some suspicion that I might have been a war slacker.

Oh yes, the exploding deer. The only witnesses to the deer’s end were the tomatoes, Cherokee Purples, large and irregularly formed. See, the deer didn’t have a name but the tomatoes did.

Ask Ed Seitz; he’ll tell you.

“Yeah, yeah, those strange tomatoes.” That’s Ed. Ed Seitz is my partner. “The Cherokee Purples. Harley, pull over; I gotta pee real bad.” Ed pees a lot when we are on the road. Together Ed and I are Factory Findings. My specialty is brass grommets; Ed knows the industrial string and twine business inside out. The leaf springs of Ed’s Buick sedan sag with sample cases and catalogs. He is a salesman to be respected. Ed once shared his vision of the New South with me. “Air conditioning, Harley. That is what will relocate Northern manufacturers to Dixie.” This was in 1948. We were playing billiards at the Antlers Hotel in Milwaukee. We had never met before, just ankled up for a few beers and a friendly stranger’s game.

“Air conditioning and cheap labor, Harley. No unions. These guys are going to pack their factories, run off and start all over again.”

Ed Seitz did not laugh when I fessed up about the pigeon-toed thing. “Hmm. Good for you. Four-F. You saw an opportunity and did your war work as a civilian.” This, and the beers, made me feel I owed him something. Ed is not muscular on personality. He knows what he knows.

Staying in the office Ed and I were losing money. On the road we made money. Milwaukee, Chicago, Vincennes, Evansville, through the Chattahoochee National Forest, Macon, Tifton, Georgia to the Florida line, usually at Valdosta, Georgia. At Valdosta the sheriff’s cousin operated an axle-popping mud hole. He had the only tow truck in the county and the state police looked the other way. Our alternate route was to scuttle over to pick up US #1 at Waycross to miss the Valdosta mud hole and the chance of a sleepover in the lockup. The Route 1 swing took us into Gainesville and Ocala, the beef and citrus belt of central Florida where we had only one account, an alligator tannery.

We usually drove straight through Valdosta. We figured in the towing as a cost of doing business. We met our suppliers’ bottom lines and the rest was gravy. We charged what the traffic would bear. What won over people's hearts was that we guaranteed delivery or we paid. While the trains could take weeks, we knew the roads, the mud holes and speed traps of the South. We rented a truck.

You probably picked up this tale expecting one of those conspiracy theory tell-alls. I mean from the title and all. Nope. This is a love story. James A. Garfield, the Pride of the West, twentieth President of the United States, figures minimally in the account. Sure, there was an assassin, a guy passed over for a civil service appointment, but infection—blood poisoning—is what got James A. Garfield, the late president. Doctors didn’t bother to wash their hands in those days. Charles Guiteau, Garfield’s killer, wanted to be ambassador to France. He was a lawyer, go figure. And it was Mister Garfield who got a song written about him, so much for the assassin's fifteen minutes of fame. Everett Hoops, Dilly’s grandfather sung that song for me on the Carolina side of the Great Smokies. Right near where the deer exploded. Here’s a piece of that song: Oh, I'm feeling mighty lowdown low. I been shot down mighty lowdown low.”

Clearly, Mr. Garfield was not a happy guy. After all, he had been shot. And me? All I wanted was to find happiness on US Route 41. Route 41 is where this story rightly begins. And Ed Seitz and I were not looking for happiness per se, but new business—which when you have enough of it, is the same thing.

*  *  *

In our first year on the road Ed and I chatted up our interests to pass the time. We didn’t have a lot of interests and we were just about talked out. Time goes slowly on Route 41; bladders fill up fast. Ed’s fast-filling bladder was partly how I met my bride-to-be. Remember the exploding deer? Whatever agency watches over traveling salesmen was going to bring me to that patch of Cherokee Purples where the deer gave its all.

Dixie Duck and Process of Lester’s Grove, South Carolina had landed a tarpaulin contract for mothballing every deck gun in the entire US fleet. They needed grommets, pronto. Through dumb luck and the grace of God, Ed and I were in their office the afternoon the order came through.

“You’re sure your grommets will fit our dies?” asked Dixie Duck's production manager.

We were sure. “If they don’t, we’ll eat the order and you’re only out one day.” We promised overnight delivery, fools that we were. We made good on our promises and made sure that word got around. This took beaucoup driving with one of us always behind the wheel. In the hill country of South Carolina Route 41 disappears into that limbo of good intentions where highway projects languish. These coffee and Benzedrine runs were no fun for us but our customers loved us. Ed picked up hitch hikers and let them drive to spell him.

When our rented rig pulling 6 tons of brass grommets pulled into the Dixie Duck and Process loading dock it was three in the morning and I was there to meet it. A very large black man named Wilton Paine was at the wheel. He explained Ed was sleeping in the back of the cab. A steady diet of bennies and caffeine was giving him double vision and for Ed Seitz night driving was out. Wilton had obliged.

Wilton ratcheted the hand brake and pulled a pint from the recesses of a worn denim jacket. He beamed upon us, blowing clouds of smoke from his pipe, shaking his head in sad affirmation, “This is true, I can't deny it. I'm weak...” We passed the pint around. “But I'm a good man, I just get out of control sometimes is all.” In the soft circumlocutions of South Carolina, Wilton Paine had a predilection for strong drink. Clearly, he liked things the way they were; it was just that things could be better. And I never saw Wilton out of control. Good men were hard to find. That night Wilton Paine became Factory Findings’ third partner. I never saw him drunk and he never let us down.

The grommet setting dies didn’t fit. I figured they wouldn’t so, while Ed and Wilton were on the road back to Milwaukee, I sunk our floating capital—200 dollars—into the local machine shop. There were three sets of alternate dies ready for whatever might be on board when our truck showed up in Lester’s Grove. I walked Dixie Duck’s floor manager through the setup and told him to hang on to the dies. Courtesy of Factory Findings. We would be doing business here again.

With Wilton spelling Ed and me at the wheel, we could beat contract haulers or Railway Express by days or weeks. That Valdosta mud hole got us once with Wilton driving and a load of 55-gallon drums on board for the alligator hide tannery in Ocala. Wilton told me to stay under cover in the sleeper and pulled an Oscar-winning “Yassuh, Boss” routine on the cops that had us laughing for months after the fact. They let Wilton through for free. Black folks knew how to work the system in Dixie.

Like I said, word got around. We delivered and on time.

*  *  *

Some months before Wilton Paine joined Factory Findings, Ed and I drove in silence as stations faded in and out on the dashboard radio. In south Gary, somewhere between Inland Steel and the Falstaff brewery, the Buick swerved hard right, taking a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn at 40 miles an hour. Too fast. Tires squealed, and I was thrown against the door; Ed’s enthusiasm always picked up once we got past Chicago. I was jolted out of whatever slumber I had drifted into.

“Remember the bar with the stripper?” Ed had a frosty beer and a particular oasis in mind.

“The tassels.“ I remembered. We would detour.

Calumet City, Illinois is the fallen sister of Hammond, Indiana. That the Calumet River had once caught fire was legend among the guys at the Antlers bar. The two towns straddled the state line. Calumet City was blue neon beer joints with electric country bands; all the bars had strippers. This particular bar was called the Calypso. The same woman as last time twitched above the bar, partaking of a private epiphany two feet from the end of her nose. At ten AM we were outnumbered by the band and the girl. She was at the end of a long work day and moving just enough so that she might be dancing. Now the stripper with the tassels is definitely not in the Mr. Garfield song. She is important because every good story has to have a proper siren. Me being from Mycenae and all, I knew about sirens. The stripper’s tassels signified temptation of a sort. Her eyes stared noncommittally into space as she cranked out the mileage on her plywood stage. The tassels rotated lackadaisically, one clockwise, one counterclockwise.

“Just an hour, okay, Ed?”

“Just an hour, Harley.”

Ed hung on in the Calypso for a twelve-beer hour. He left a fiver in the stripper’s jar and waved to the band. The stripper nodded acceptance to the jar while ignoring Ed and me.

Destiny was calling and now I was driving. I jumped 41 and headed east to Asheville on US 40. Our coup at Dixie Duck had introduced us to purchasing agents at other fiber processors.

The roadside Burma-Shave signs were a touch of humor in the predictable procession of tarpaper shacks surrounded by junked cars, scrub pine, leavened with the sporadic offering of flattened raccoon. You remember them? The Burma-Shaves grabbed me with their cornball poetry.

Riot in drug store
Calling all cars
100 customers
99 jars
Burma-Shave

The signs came in sets of five—with the last sign the kicker for the sponsor, Burma-Shave.

Ed woke up on the Carolina line.

“Harley, I gotta pee.”

Ed had to pee. I cruised along, eyes peeled for an appropriate peeing grove. And passed a set of Burma-Shave signs. I only caught the last two lines and hit the brakes.

Little did I dream
While in my youthful bloom
For the murder of
James A. Garfield
I’d meet my fatal doom.

Not your usual Burma-Shave sign. I had a feeling of all-over creepiness that something was not right on this road.

“Ed, here’s your pit stop. I gotta check those last signs.”

“U-turn? You want a U-turn? Great, then I’ll take a pee.”

Ed hustled out of the Buick and ran over to stand against a bridge abutment at one of those country creeks with which the South abounds. Short and overalled, a small figure stepped from the roadside scrub and declaimed.

“You are Lost. Lost Forever.” The little girl was freckled and red-headed. Her pale skin made her look spooky.

Ed hastily zipped back up. His look of distress said he was not through.

“Hello. Who are you?” I asked.

“I am Delilah,” she said.

“Well, Delilah, I am Harley, how do you do? And we are never lost. We navigate by the sun. This is US Route 41. Or Route 40. We just don’t know what town we’re in.”

“I told you you were lost.” Her logic was irrefutable.

“Dilly? You there?” The call came from a scrub copse beyond the bridge abutment.

“Here, Grandpa,” shouted Dilly.

“Whatcha got, Dil?” There was a rustle from a stand of alders. A stoop-shouldered muscular man in bib overalls slid down the ditch on his rear end and approached us.

“Oh. People. Hello, there, I’m Everett Hoops. I see you’ve met Delilah. Lost?”

“My Grandpa is the Tooth Fairy,” said Dilly.

Leathery crevasses etched themselves into the old man’s walnut-tanned face as he displayed a warm, welcoming smile of many missing teeth. “I’ll admit to being the Tooth Fairy. Excepts that I leave my teeth and take the money.” The girl puffed out her cheeks and blew a suppressed laugh out through her nose. There was the smallest bubble of snot. The old man and the child struggled to contain their joke. Then Everett Hoops threw back his head and burst into song. This was to be the first time I heard the song about Mister Garfield, for whom my junior high school was named:

A preacher said to James A. Garfield, “If you should die tonight Where d’you think you’ll spend eternity?”
Mr. Garfield looked up kinda sad-like and he give him somethin’ like this:
Oh, I’d make my home in heaven, Lord, Lord,
Oh, I’d make my home in heaven.

The old man sang through the gaps in his teeth. He was more authentic than an old recording. His tremulous high tenor sounded like he had brought his own static and scratches with him. When he was finished, the old man hugged the child.

“The Cherokee Purples told us you would come,” said the girl. “Because you have been here before. In a dream the tomatoes had.”

I figured they were having us on. But suppose I was to tell you tomatoes have a secret vegetable language? The Cherokee Purples, that is. That to those who can understand them they will foretell future events? Well, they don’t really. What they will tell—to those who’d bother to stop and pass the time of day with a patch of tomatoes—is what really happened. See, no one remembers what actually took place even a couple of hours ago. That’s right, they foretell the past. History is opinion. Well anyway, here I was trying to keep eye contact with a little girl in bib overalls who was looking serious as all hell. Then she broke a grin. Ah, I thought. They are having us on. Now we will all share the joke. Nope.

They caught the giggles again, started laughing out loud and sat together in the long grass of the verge.

“We’re not lost,” said Ed. “We just stopped to check out the Burma-Shave sign. My partner was curious about what it said.”

“Well, that’s a long story,” said the man, “that I can tell you if you have some time to spare. Have you avoided temptation?”

“Pretty much,” I said.

“Then you get to come up to our place,” said the child. And she struck out up the hillside at right angles to the road.

“Y’all’re too late for the yachting cannon,” said Delilah over her shoulder. “Grandpa was picking ticks all this morning. Off Barney. But I can show you the barn. Wanna come?”

“Barney is a dog?”

“Well, yes.”

The man and the girl shared another private glance. I felt Ed and I were being set up.

“If we come along will you tell us about the Burma-Shave signs?” I asked.

“I might.”

“If we come along, will you tell us what the hell you mean about tomatoes having a dream that we were coming?” asked Ed.

“Nope, you’ve got to believe,” said the little girl.

The four of us stumbled through a rolling pasture of wildflowers in full bloom. “Watch your step, gents. We only got three cows but they get around,” said Everett. We jumped a pair of small ravines, eroded at their bank sides by a recent gully wash. Undercut sod clung by tangles of roots dangling upside down bouquets of daisies.

“Jump good, now. Sharp stuff stickin’ up down there.” In ravine number two were the rusting remains of leftover agricultural implements, a dismembered horse-drawn mower and parts of a Cord truck. Four dome-shaped valve heads the size of young watermelons rusted red atop a cracked engine block that had oozed its oil onto the ground. The oil spill had hardened into a thick dark varnish. A large, black dog came gamboling up, wagging all over. It was a standard poodle. Not your average Appalachian farm dog. The dog rolled joyously at Dilly’s feet.

“Barney?”

“Yep. And there’s the barn.” Weathered and unpainted though not dilapidated, the small barn stood straight on unrotted sills. The barn was immaculate except for where an elephant or other large ruminant had strayed into automatic weapons fire. All the evidence suggested an impromptu massacre. Fresh blood was drying black and stippled in a neat three-foot pattern smack-dab in the middle of a windowless side wall. There was some dripping. There was no dead elephant or other large ruminant in attendance.

“Damn ticks,” said Everett. “They drive Barney crazy.”

“Grandpa and I pick off the ticks and drop ’em into the cannon. Then boom,” said Dilly, patting the muzzle of what looked like a miniature deck gun from a pirate frigate. “I get to shoot it.”

“Yachting cannon,” offered Everett.

There was too much information being presented here. I decided not to ask how a gun used to signal ocean racing for the idle rich made it into the hills of Carolina.

“We don’t do deer bombs anymore though,” said Dilly.

“Just as loud as the cannon but too dangerous,” said Everett. This was even more information I didn’t want to hear.

“If we used our time wisely, we could be in Willimantic, Connecticut by Tuesday,” Ed grumped, unsettled by the blood spattered all over the barn’s shiplap siding. These people were an unknown quantity. Ed was concerned.

“Something wrong, mister?” Delilah lost her whimsicality and stared down Ed Seitz with fire in her eyes. He was making fun of her grandfather.

“No, no, no. Filthy ticks. Eradicate ’em. Bloodsucking parasites. No, it’s a good thing.” Ed gave me the raised eyebrows and a sideways nod that said let’s get the hell out of here. He didn’t want any trouble with these folks. They had a gun, albeit a miniature cannon that would take considerable time to load and point.

We were in the company of a pair of folksy, down-home maniacs. Like I said, there was a deer that exploded as I was trying to learn my times tables in Wisconsin but I didn’t know about it then. The deer died on the Carolina side of the Great Smokies, in a sunny clearing by a grove of mixed hickory and alder. The deer’s passing went unnoticed.

Meanwhile, the girl was waiting. She had positioned herself between Ed and her grandfather, a defensive posture.

“I’m not objecting; knocking off wood ticks is a good thing. No, no, no, yes, yes,” said Ed. “It’s the splattering—isn’t that extreme? That’s just an observation, not a criticism.”

Everett turned to Ed. “You, sir, are a follower of thread. Like Theseus in the Labyrinth.”

“Willimantic. That’s in Connecticut,” said Ed, missing the classical reference.

The Willimantic trip was Ed Seitz’ planned pilgrimage to Thread Mecca, the shrine of twine—the American Thread mills in New England. I never get excited about string, not like Ed. But forty-three years on the road and Ed had never yet made it to the shrine of twine. He was groping for an excuse to make a quick getaway. Right now we were behind schedule.

“Like Theseus. The slayer of the Minotaur?” said Everett. “You are a follower of thread. The thread was red, like the stitching on a major league baseball.”

“Huh?” Ed.

“Yes you are. The stories get mixed up but they all make sense in the end. It was a red thread,” said Everett.

“I am a traveler in industrial twine,” said Ed Seitz.

“I thought so.” The Tooth Fairy was satisfied. “Like to hear about the deer bombs?”

I said no; Ed said yes and sat down. He looked nervously at Dilly. She might have misinterpreted a refusal. Everett Hoops told us about deer bombs.

“The deer bomb. That’s what deerjackers did. We, they, did it all through the Depression. My father did not, but he told me the story and how to make them. If you have a dead battery hanging around and everybody did; you attach a length of wire to each of the terminals. Then you dig a hole and bury the battery, leaving the wires sticking out above ground. The battery has to ripen—build up a charge, I guess, in the hole for three to six months. When the battery is in the ground long enough and the wires touch you will have one righteous explosion. Tape the exposed wires—you’ve got to strip ’em back, of course—to a block of deer lick salt, the twenty-five pounder. A deer licking at the salt completes the circuit.”

“And kaboom!” said Delilah with relish. This must have been a story she had heard often.

“When my father, Dilly’s great grandfather, died I became the caretaker of his tomatoes. From there on in they were to be my responsibility.”

“Oh, yes. Tomatoes.” Me. If we had been inside I would have been edging toward the door.

“It’s a good thing. A good thing, too. Yes, yes.” Ed was not convincing. He was talking about the battery bomb, not the tomatoes. Ed hadn’t caught up with Everett Hoops fast-flowing changes of subject.

“And you’re not objecting,” said the girl.

“Not one bit. No criticism intended,” said Ed.

“Well, you don’t have to worry. We never really made a deer bomb. It’s one of Grandpa’s stories.”

Ed looked relieved.

“But we could.” I’d just bet she could.

“Wolf apple. Wolf peach, that’s it,” said Everett. “That’s what tomatoes are called. Lycopersicon, the ‘wolf-peach.’” The grandfather was as tickled with his tomato lore as he was of James A. Garfield and the battery deer bomb.

“Why James A. Garfield?”

“Because nobody remembers him,” said Everett. Ask a silly question, etc.

“And tomatoes’re not rightly a vegetable, you know.” Everett Hoops didn’t just retail his homilies on the simple life. He was ready for wholesale. “The tomato is rightly a berry.” They were enjoying this. We were probably the first entertainment they had had in a spell.

“Trail the vines over for a second rooting and Cherokee Purple will give you a berry the size of your head,” said Dilly. “Course you gotta pack the mulch to ’em.”

“And your great grandfather’s tomatoes are why James A. Garfield appeared on a Burma-Shave sign?” I asked.

“It was to get your attention,” said Dilly. “The signs. We put ’em up. The tomatoes only made the suggestion.”

“My attention?” Here was a place I did not care to go. These two had been trolling for wise guys, traveling salesmen grinding their retracements over the ill-graded choking dirt byways of the southern heartland.

“Me? Me personally? My attention?”

“You. You are the chosen one. I shall be yours.” Dilly. She looked wise beyond her years; her eyes said she was dead serious. They were not having me on. This is a kid trick, getting inside your head so you find wisdom in a picture of your own lost innocence. I reminded myself that this red-headed, freckled kid would grow up to be a woman. Eventually. And a damned attractive woman, too. That is if one of the travelers she and Everett trolled for along US 40 didn’t murder them and steal their three cows.

“You are travelers, seeking your fortunes armed with but guile, courage and a native wit like Odysseus in the old story,” said Everett. “You have heard the call of the road and heeded the Name of Power. President James A. Garfield has brought you here to us.”

“You shall return to claim your bride. Me,” said Dilly, picking her nose.

“President Garfield, James A. Garfield, has set your path specifically to bring you to us. He has guided your feet as surely as Athena did for Odysseus. You have already passed through hell and escaped the siren call,” said Everett.

The siren call. I thought of the industrial wastelands south of Chicago. “We followed US 41,” I said.

“You followed your instincts. You are a curious man; you despise a mystery,” Everett said. “You have been tantalized.”

“I recall from James A. Garfield Junior High that Tantalus was a Greek doomed to spend all eternity hungry and thirsty while the gods dangled bunches of grapes just out of reach.”

“Correct,” said Everett. “Dilly is the grapes of heaven and you must come back when she has ripened to an appropriate age.”

“I only wondered who had been messing with the Burma-Shave signs.”

“It was us,” said Dilly, “We’ve been trolling for my prince for a coupla summers. You are the first. You are the one.”

“Prince?”

“You are my chosen champion,” said Dilly.

“Chosen by the late president, James A. Garfield,” Everett said. Well, that explained everything. “You are what I leave to Delilah. With you, Harley, she shall wax fat and browse the pastures of plenty.”

“You must read a whole lot.”

“We have two books. Bullfinch’s Mythology and the Bible. Dilly and I read aloud in the winter. The stories tend to get mixed up but Mr. Garfield straightens ’em out.”

This was the South of Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre and, without wishing to offend Everett and Delilah, I plunged right in. “Just how many years are we talking about here?”

“Seven,” said Everett. “You will come back to claim your bride in seven years. She will be eighteen years old. Almost.”

“I can hardly wait.” This was meant to be sarcastic. If they caught on they gave not a clue. The grandfather played it straight.

“You must wait.”

Okay, I had to wait. The kid was ten years old. I would be happy to wait. I looked over the pint-sized girl child from whose pencil-thin shoulders faded overalls hung by their suspenders. I pictured a wedding night playing mumblety-peg. These people were weird. Weird and compelling.

“Beauty and the Best. Like in the fairy tale. Dilly is the Beauty and you are the Best,” said the grandfather.

“I am the Best because of Burma-Shave?”

“Because you answered the call of President Garfield. Yes. It’s a sure thing. President Garfield never misses. After the tomatoes, of course.”

Of course. I sat down in the grass next to Ed.

“What if I don’t come back for Delilah?”

“I am the Tooth Fairy.” The old man was controlling a full-body laugh that started near his diaphragm. “If you find any teeth under your pillow, better check your wallet and your checking account. You’ll be back. I’ll see you don’t forget.”

*  *  *

Well, a lot of people come around the house and they all stayed for supper. When supper was over (and the dishes was all done up), Mrs. Garfield went in and sat down by the bedside. She said “James, if the worst should come to the worst and you don't get well, do you wish for me to marry again?” Mr. Garfield looked up at her with a smile on his face and he give her something sort o' like this:
O' don't you never let a chance go by, Lord, Lord. Don’t you never let a chance go by.”

Ed and I finished that trip with our contacts outbidding each other for the privilege of buying from Factory Findings. We bought a semi on credit, with purchase orders for security. We had figured a way to cut transportation costs and therefore increase our share of the billing. This involved consolidating our bulk orders in one truck in the Midwest then breaking down the loads for local delivery ourselves. All we needed was a depot for offloading and breaking down our orders. Wilton had fixed things up with the owner of a drive-in movie who was only open weekends. We would rendezvous with Wilton in Knoxville, Tennessee in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Sure enough, he met Ed and me with three panel trucks and two brothers-in-law. Wilton had married off a lot of sisters.

Okay. Time passes. The New South blooms, just like Ed Seitz foresaw 37 years ago back in the Antlers billiards room in Milwaukee.

Dilly and I are on the road most of the time, pulling an Airstream trailer. The checks catch up with us with the same irregularity of Factory Findings quarterly reports. The Burma-Shave roadside signs are not renewed; they fade and fall in forgotten locations, no hands clapping.

*  *  *

Well, the next day I was walking down the street and I met Mrs. Garfield, carrying a bunch of roses. She looked at me with tears in her eyes, and gave me something sort o' like this:

Gonna lay ’em on my husband's grave, Lord, Lord.
Gonna lay ’em on my husband's grave.
Gonna lay ’em on that long & flowery branch, Lord, Lord.
Gonna lay ’em on that long & flowery branch.

Everett Hoops has gone on to raise tomatoes for the angelic swarm. And Ed Seitz is flogging binder twine somewhere on that big highway in the sky. Dilly and I now tend her grandfather’s tomato legacy, Cherokee Purples, Brandywines and Bonny Bests. We get back to the mountains to sort and save the seeds each year. Wilton Paine is the southern partner of Factory Findings with his home office in Gainesville from where he manages a fleet of seventeen company-owned trucks. I suspect Wilton spends most of his time over on the Gulf, sword-fishing. Wilton’s reports reach us from time to time but, frankly, the man is making us so much money with his down-home managerial style that I feel guilty just reading the bottom line. Anyway, next year Wilton will be buying out Dilly and me to become El Honcho Grande for the whole operation.

You guessed it. I waited seven years and went back to claim my bride.

Romantic? Well, frankly I had forgotten. It was Wilton who first spotted the huge and unauthorized checks drawn on the corporate accounts. Then he checked Factory Findings certificates of deposit, those quick roll-over accounts where we shave a little off the system by parking our withholdings. Some had been cashed out. And not by us.

That same morning I had found a tooth under my pillow.

That Ed Seitz and Everett Hoops might be in cahoots did cross my mind. Not that I didn’t put Wilton and his brothers-in-law out of suspicion. They loved a good laugh. It was just a hop down the holler, five miles to the nearest phone, to put Delilah Hoops’ grandfather in touch with UPsala 8478 where an ancient black daffodil telephone rang on the second floor of the Zabloski Bros building where Ed Seitz was sure to answer when I was away. That gave me more food for thought.

And then there was the tooth under my pillow. Not a child’s tooth. It was a molar, worn, yellowed and long in the shank. Human I guessed, but I’m no expert.

As I drove south I nursed an unsettling image of Dilly and her grandpa out in the woods rummaging through a pile of deer bones scattered by a long-exploded battery bomb left over from Everett’s father’s predations in the Depression. Looking for a tooth. None of these explanations left me truly happy. I opted for Mr. Garfield uniting two lovers from the Presidential hereafter.

A word about tomatoes. The Cherokee Purples have no opinion on the doings of humankind. They just pass on what they see, but you have to know how to ask. This is vegetable wisdom. The writers of history have their story; the tomatoes have theirs. Now, who are you going to trust? I’d trust the Cherokee Purples; they don’t have a stake in the game. They just watch and wait. What exactly they are waiting for, I don’t rightly want to know. Not yet. Since Everett died there had been no more omens or portents from President Garfield or the tomato patch. Dilly says it’s not that the Cherokee Purples aren’t talking, could be we just forgot how to listen.

copyright 2008, 2019 Rob Hunter

A different version of The Death of James A. Garfield was first published in the July 2008 A Fly in Amber, Shelly Jackson, fiction editor.

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