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He wasn’t called “Old Woody” for nothing. He was old. Really old. Legend had it that he was the oldest man in Hicksville, and even more pathetic, that he was also the loneliest. He filled his days with fuming resentments held towards those that had wronged him in the past. He filled his nights with seething hatred towards those that had wronged him in the past. Nobody could understand why Old Woody was so preoccupied with the past during his every waking moment, because his present was no bargain either. In fact, Woody’s present sucked; it sucked donkey ears, and it might even begin to suck worse than that because old Sally was barking up a storm out front.

Old Woody looked out at an unfamiliar beat-up car that had just lurched to a stop in the driveway. The amount of dust kicked up told him that they had probably driven down it at forty-miles-per-hour. What was the rush? He stepped outside his front door and waited for them to approach him. When they were within 15 feet, he held up his hand palm out, “That’s close enough. I don’t know you.” “We mean you no harm, sir. We had heard from Raymond Caviler that you might be renting one of these two houses here, or the RV you have out back,” the young man said. “And I mean you no disrespect, hell I don’t know you from Adam, but a referral from Raymond is just about the worst recommendation you can have, as far as I’m concerned. He really screwed me over years back, never paid any rent, and left the place in shambles.” The young man couldn’t pivot fast enough, so the young woman stepped in trying to be as sweet as honey as reassuring as an old pair of slippers. “Oh, he just overheard us talking to a group of people outside the Post Office and suggested this. We don’t really know him. We aren’t from around here. We’re from Texas, and just trying to get a fresh start.” The sound of a woman’s voice was hypnotic music for old Salley. Something that she hadn’t heard much since Heather had died ten months back. She cautiously walked up to the girl, while tentatively wagging her tail, and plopped down to the ground beside her. Damn it Sally! I’m trying to run them off. And you pull this shit? Old Woody thought. The girl took full advantage, bending down and stroking Sally’s ears while saying, “Your dog can tell we’re okay, I see.”

They were young, perhaps you could even say attractive if they just cleaned up a little and dressed in any semblance of self-respect, most likely in their early to mid-twenties, and probably had never worked at a real job in their entire lives – just like most of the lost and rudderless young people who stayed in this valley. He had seen them coming and going for the past quarter-century. Jesus, didn’t anything ever change? The majority of the lives of the young people living in this place mirrored living in a time warp: a cross between the repression of the fifties and the hedonism of the eighties, only they never seemed to wear condoms, and cocaine had been replaced by crystal meth and heroin. If these two weren’t full-fledged addicts, they probably had a chippy going, which was atrocious in the case of the girl, because she was pregnant.

This was bad. Really bad. Bad because it had always started just like this in the past. Old Woody was congenitally unable to not help people even when his instincts were virtually screaming inside his head, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it.” “What made you decide to move here from Texas? There’s a hell of a lot more jobs down there than there are up here.” The young man had regained his composure and started in with the conman’s greatest asset – the ability to lie with such conviction and such enthusiasm as to simply wear their marks down through confusion and tedium. “My uncle on my mama’s side said he had a place for us and some work, you know, in local agriculture. So, we high-tailed it up here three days ago. When we got here, just yesterday, he was in the County holding tank, and his wife says that she don’t want nothing to do with us.”

There had been another round of busts that occurred yesterday that were the talk of the town. Riverside County Sheriff Chad “El Choppo” Bianco was at it again. With the 2024 election coming up later this summer he was back up here on a mad chopping frenzy busting Mom and Pop marijuana growers to get the squares, bible thumpers, and Fox News watching local octogenarians ginned up to vote for him. This kid could have gotten that information from the town’s conservative newspaper that rapturously rushed the news off the presses this morning and had stacks of copies sitting at every local shop and store by 9:00 a.m. Big news in a small-town travels even faster than in a big town because the inhabitants are ravenous for anything that could possibly brighten up their miserable lives. Old Woody hadn’t read the account yet and wasn’t much into the local pot scene anymore since El Choppo had finally gutted him two years ago as a part of his never-ending inquisition upon the undesirable citizens of this valley who he apparently felt were the scum of the earth and deserving of his unending harassment.

“What’s your uncle’s name?” “Clemon White. You know him?” “No.” Old Woody could see the kid exhaling a sigh of relief. If you watch them close enough, conmen always tip their hand. But he had to hand it to the young man, he was good, and Old Woody suspected that the young lady was even better. His instincts started up again, “Send them on their way! Send them on their way!!” The car displayed Oklahoma, not Texas plates. “Let’s see your license.” “Why?” The kid asked incredulously. “Because, if I were to rent to you, I want to know exactly what I’m getting myself into.” The kid walked up and handed over his license. Arkansas. There was no ring on his finger so Old Woody asked, “How far along is your gal?” “Six months.” He immediately seized on the sympathy card saying, “I really need to get her someplace comfortable. I’ll work like a dog if you’ll help me do that.” God he was good while trying to draw Old Woody in. The noble guys banding together to save the damsel in distress.

“How are you planning to pay rent?” “I can’t right now, until I get a job, but I can start working it off right now. How much is it, anyway? And, for which house?” “Thousand a month. You pay utilities for that one with three bedrooms, Five hundred with utilities paid for the RV out back, the one Raymond left in such great condition.”

The early May sun was starting to sharpen its teeth. Old Woody looked at the girl leaning against the car and could see that she was breathing heavily, probably even starting to sweat. “How about you get her seated at that picnic table under that shade tree over there. I suppose you have some water. Then I’ll show you the RV.” The girl wouldn’t hear of it, she wanted to see the RV too, so he led them out back. The RV was nestled into a fenced garden overgrown with weeds. There was enough trash and junk strewn around it to fill a pickup bed at least a half-dozen times. The only reason Old Woody left it, aside from overwhelming depression, was that he could close the garden gate and forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind. “The air conditioning works. You can find her a seat in there somewhere. I’ll pull my truck around, and you can start filling the bed. Every time you get a load, let me know, and I’ll drive you to the dump.” “Ain’t we gonna’ sign a contract or something?” “Nope. A man’s word is only as good as the man that gives it. I want your word that you won’t fuck me over. Once I see that you got this place cleaned up and looking like something, we can talk over the particulars. The only things I want you to know right off is no Raymond Caviler or any of his bunch. No sloppy-assed drinking, and no hard drugs, and keep your car parked in the driveway where it is. Let’s people casing the place know that someone’s around.” “What about the money?” “Am I insulting you if I say that I doubt that you have any?” “Down to my last twenty.” “I can’t afford to go into my pocket for you. Hell, once you turn on that air conditioner, it will start to cost me. I’ll take you to this church’s food drive tomorrow and introduce you. That will get you something to eat, and you can tell those people your story. If they start helping the two of you it will tell me that someone’s willing to stick their neck out for you.” The girl had switched on the air conditioning and was already throwing rubbish out the front door. “My name’s Eddie. She’s Nora. What’s yours’s?” “Didn’t Raymond tell you?’ “I wouldn’t want to repeat what he called you.” “Sounds about right for him. See what you think of him after you clean up after him. People around here call me Old Woody like it’s a big fucking joke, but my real name’s Zakery; Zakery Pepperwood.” “Should I call you that?” “No. That was in another life. Just take the Old out of the front of Old Woody. Just make it Woody, and that would be fine with me.” “Okay Woody. I’ll get to work.”

As Woody drove his truck out back, his mind was already filling with fantastically daunting scenarios of all the bad things that could happen. Hell, they could be murderers for all he knew. And he didn’t discount his thoughts as paranoia because bad things had been happening for the last five years, pretty much right after El Choppo had come to town. In fairness, Woody knew that it wasn’t all the lawman’s fault, but his inquisition was just too much of a downer to discount as mere coincidence. His best friend Roach had gotten himself shot and killed trying to break up a brawl at a Trump rally in 2023. Roach’s wife, Starsong, Heather’s best friend since high school, moved away shortly thereafter, saying that she just couldn’t bear to look at this chaparral for another day without him. They understood, because there were days that they just wanted to pack it in and leave. Clarence became so embroiled in Reservation politics right after he was elected Tribal Chairman that no one ever saw him in town again. Samantha and Kenny moved to Carlsbad over on the coast years ago after her grandmother left her a beachfront home in her will. Stonny left with Juanita and their three young children for Mexico after Heather died because Juanita said she just couldn’t live here without her. Stonny broke down at the funeral and just laid down crying in the isle and curling up into the fetal position blurting, “Leave me be. Just leave me be.” So, they did as they left the church.

Which brought him to Heather, the love of his life. When they married in 2008, she was 34, and he was 55. The wagging old tongues in this glorified little Peyton Place labeled her a gold digger, which was hard to square with the facts because he moved in with her. She tended her stable of fine Arabian horses on 400 acres, and he tended to his guerilla pot growing operations with his friends and neither had been happier in their entire lives than they were in each other’s arms. It wasn’t supposed to go down the way it did. He was supposed die before her, she was supposed to reluctantly remarry, all were supposed to tell the tale of the legend of Old Leather Lungs and his wild and beautiful red-headed girlfriend for many years to come. Then came the diagnosis – ovarian cancer – the silent killer. She was already a year to a five-year survival rate projection of 46%. They sold everything they had in anticipation of the medical bills and bought this dilapidated homestead. He would grow onsite in a fenced back garden just to be near her and be able to pay the most pressing bills. Gone were the days of 330-pound harvests. He would be lucky just to get by with less than 70, and he would have to have help in the clone room, the garden, and in the trim house; and that help brought on an endless succession of town losers and cheap country conmen. When El Choppo finally rolled him up in 2022 he almost welcomed it, although it was enforced, rest had finally come. He embraced it, and then a year later Heather finally died, and he immediately looked twenty years older, which when it happens at 71, makes you look a century old, older than death itself.

So, the truth of the matter was that Woody was just hanging on; for what he wasn’t really sure, but he wasn’t ready to go just yet. There were more books to write, more environmental warnings to chronicle, more social injustice to expose. His work on this earth wasn’t done yet, he was sure of it. But his world had changed for the worse, and he was lonely. He was in fact, the loneliest man in Hicksville. That’s why he would give these kids a chance. The truth was that deep down inside he saw it as his last chance to believe in the goodness of humanity, and in all that doggerel he had written in the past about the family of man. Although he knew these kids were laying a con on him, he also knew that anyone could change if shown a better path in life. And besides, conmen or not, with them around, he might be perpetually disappointed, but at least he would no longer be lonely. And he wouldn’t be a complete sucker, because when it came to conmen, he had seen every trick in the book. So, they thought that they had found their patsy, did they? It wasn’t going to be quite that easy.

Eddie was knocking at his studio door. “Got the first load ready to go, Woody.” When they walked back to the old garden the girl was out in it hand pulling weeds with Salley at her side. “Should she be doing that?” Woody asked Eddie. “Just try stopping her. Besides, she’s as strong as an ox. You wouldn’t mind if we got a vegetable garden going, would you? She grew up with one at the orphanage she was at. Says it took her mind off of things, and she really really likes vegetables. Besides, it would save on food bills” “Just Vegetables?” “Well, aren’t you allowed six Cannabis plants in this state?” “Yes, but don’t push it. And I’ll want a cut of both. It’s my water, after all.” “Fair enough. Suppose you could help find the clones?” “I know just where to look.”

The ride through Hicksville out to the County dump revealed the usual cast of characters, and all the usual sordid events. There were unwed girls, less than a year out of high school, sporting fatherless babies like six shooters on their hips. Boys, with bottles of malt liquor squeezed between their knees, cruised up and down the highway strip that was less than a mile long. Older men drank from bottles encased in paper bags while they sat under the shade structure in the town park. The parking lot of the liquor store was jammed packed. Hobos bummed change and cigarettes outside the Circle K. Open sales of crystal meth occurred on the side streets. A line of eight Police Cruisers sped at sixty-miles-per-hour through town returning to their cities of origin from a recent marijuana bust followed by the reviled chop wagon. Raymond held court outside the supermarket. Eddie waved excitedly at him. “You know that guy has a line of bullshit a mile long. Seems like the nicest guy in the world when he wants to be. Killed a good friend of mine during a riot at a medical clinic back during the pandemic. Don’t know how he got off. Some fucking technically, I suppose. But watch out for him. He’s not what you think he is, I can guarantee you that.” “I can take care of myself, Woody.” “I’m sure you can, but it’s not you I’m worried about, it’s me. Killers of old men are sure to kill again. Easy targets, you know. Please don’t bring him anywhere near my place. I wouldn’t go around him, except in a very public place.” Eddie seemed disinterested, so Woody let it drop, but maybe a seed of caution had been planted because this young man had a woman and a baby on the way to think of beside himself.

On the way back they stopped at the garden center where Woody bought vegetable seeds and potted tomatoes and peppers. Woody had Eddie run into the Post Office for his mail, and unexpectedly called in an order to the Mexican restaurant. Returning to the truck he gave the bags to Eddie saying, “To hold you two over until the food drive tomorrow.” “Thanks”

When they got back Nora was sitting in the shade with Salley’s head in her lap. “Hope you don’t mind that I’ve stolen your dog?” “She’ll come in when she’s ready. Misses her master.” “What kind of a dog is she?” “Australian shepherd,” Woody replied and was surprised at the lump forming in his throat, “They were always Heather’s favorite.” He turned and left quickly.

Eddie came to the studio an hour-and-half later saying he had another load ready to go. The scene in town was no different than before, save to say that the Police Cruisers had dwindled to six, but the chop wagon was full, and you could smell the pungent raw colas from a mile away. They must have raided an indoor grow. “Is it always like this?” Eddie asked. “No, just on ‘Bust Thursdays,’ they want to get in their overtime before the weekend. Speed labs everywhere, eight women gone missing for over three years, and all that matters to them is busting marijuana growers. It’s like a phobia with these guys.” “Jesus.” “Yeah, Jesus help us all.”

Nora and Eddie had the RV cleaned out, and the garden cleared by Monday. Woody showed Eddie where to go clip apples for a hundred bucks a day, although that work would only last another three weeks at best. It was something at least – the best kind of cash with no questions asked. Nora planted and watered in the garden and started to revitalize the old compost pile. It was obvious that she had some experience, and that this work nourished her. They came to the studio on Friday with Eddie’s $500.00 in hand. Woody was at a crossroads. His instincts told him to take it and remain the tough guy. You have to watch out when you start an association with tenants because a tough guy can always get nicer, but it is almost impossible for a nice guy to get tougher. Once people have a nice guy pegged, they just won’t buy it. The problem was that Woody had always been a nice guy, and this afternoon was no different. “Keep it for groceries, and the laundromat. You’re gonna’ need gas. And there’s surprisingly decent cloths at the second chance shop in town” “Well, that’s nice,” Nora said with just a hint of sympathy in her voice, “But what about you?” “I’ll let you know when we need to draw up something formal, but for now, let’s just let things ride.” The kids were shocked. How could they continue to con someone that didn’t need to be conned? This was entirely new territory for them. “Look you two, I know that you never knew Clemon White from Jesus of Nazareth. You don’t have to con me. I can see that you’re in love, true love, it just shines through.” He handed Eddie a set of keys saying, “Go ahead and move into the house. I couldn’t stand living there after Heather passed. Use what you can, sell what you can’t, but remember that that place was built on love.” “Are you sure?” “Go on, get out of here before I change my mind.”

While Eddie was off working at one place, or another Woody helped Nora tend the garden and the six stellar Grandaddy Purple marijuana plants. She was a hard case with her cynicism honed to a sharp edge by those years in the orphanage. But the plants softened her, and she wanted to learn as much as she could about how to care for them. He taught her the nuances of organic fertilization, and that timing was everything in its application. And then one day with the start of the molasses applications, just prior to flushing, Salley yelped, and Woody knew that something was horribly wrong. He rushed to her, shovel in hand, and his suspicions were confirmed. He struck the rattlesnake across its back three times with the shovel, with each strike more violent than the last, and then he pushed it away. Yeah, that snake was one of God’s creatures, but this one had just killed Heather’s favorite dog. He couldn’t abide that. Salley was spastically shaking uncontrollably, and Nora was apoplectic screaming, “God dammit, God Dammit, God dammit!” Then she charged towards the snake. Woody held her back. “It can still bite you. Stay away. Think of the baby.” Nora staggered back, dropped to her knees, and let out huge resonating sobs. “Nora, listen to me, you have to go back to the house.” “Can’t we take her to the vet?” “Nora, her time is at hand. I can’t let her suffer any more. Now please – go!” Stepping on that poor creature’s neck, seeing the light go out of her eyes took it all out of Woody. Sally had had run ins with numerous rattlesnakes during her life and had come out unscathed, but her reactions had just gotten too slow with age. The way of the world. He buried her right there in the garden, disposed of the snake, and went to check on Nora.

More drama was developing just when he felt he couldn’t take any more. Nora’s water had broken onto the kitchen floor; and she was staring down at it in apparent shock. He walked her to the bedroom, got her settled, and then called the midwife. When the midwife arrived, she estimated that it would be at least an hour before delivery. Woody drove out to the ranch where Eddie was working as a day laborer. “Come on! The big moment has arrived.” Eddie was so excited that Woody told him, “Leave your car. We’ll come back for it. Come with me.”

The baby came a half hour after they got there. Eddie held the little boy and just seemed to transform on the spot. It was like they both glowed, there was such a light in the room. As Nora put him to her breast the men went outside. Eddie unexpectedly hugged Woody saying, “Thank you. Jesus, thank you. I’ve never met anyone like you. I didn’t think anyone like you existed in this world.” Woody started crying too. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but the release after burying Sally was needed, and he was grateful it happened. Big life changing events were piling up one on top of the other.

In the next few weeks, the colas of the marijuana plants thickened to outrageous proportions, the pumpkins swelled brilliantly orange, while the remaining vegetables started showing signs of fall’s demise. The changing of the seasons, the changing of the guard, the changes needed to let life run its course. The baby was doing well. Eddie and Nora were proud parents. Zakery was happy for them and was once again receptive to all of the everyday miracles of life. And then the letter he was waiting for arrived in the mail. Changes. Changes were coming as Zakery reflected on his life.

Life sure can be a shitty proposition. You just don’t think about how bad things can get when you’re young and strong. In the back of your mind, you truly believe you can weather any storm, overcome any obstacle, defeat any enemy; especially if you’re fighting it out with the person you truly love at your side. It’s you against the world, until the world shows you just how much bigger and ruthless it is. Your friends die or fade away with their own hardships, cancer takes your wife, aging takes your strength, death will ultimately take away any notions of literary immortality and laugh as it does it.

The last five years were hell, pure hell, but he had to suffer them to learn life’s biggest lesson: stay the course, just stay the course. Everything else will fall into place. Just don’t let life beat you; stay the course.

These kids had wormed their way in, and after so doing clung to the faintest premise of the American Dream like barnacles clinging to a ship’s hull. The baby changed everything. From conmen to citizens when the midwife laid the first slap on the little boy’s ass. His crying was the starting gun to responsibility. In an instant they got it. Zakery just stared at the grand farce of it all. Another child coming into this world as he was about to leave it. But one more adventure, at least, before he did. He volunteered to babysit while the kids went down the hill for groceries and supplies. They suspected that something was up, but they said nothing as they were leaving.

The journalism school up in Utah had accepted him as a writer in residence for a year, and would possibly take him on as adjunct professor if they liked what he produced during that year. The great American novel. The one he had told Heather he was going to write when they got married. It had so far eluded him. Or rather, he had avoided it. There wasn’t much time left to face the challenge of it. What was he afraid of? What had been holding him back? And what would he tell those bright-eyed bushy-tailed college kids? Write what you know. Write what you love. And if you’re not sure of either, write anyway. Writers write. Just write. Well…the semester started in two weeks…

The kids could have the eight-pound weed harvest and it would yield them at least four grand in the right circles with at least a pound for their own private stock. Zakery had little doubt that Eddie would know what to do. The apple harvest would kick in by October and run for four weeks. Another two grand. Enough to clear the year’s property taxes and buy quality Christmas presents for the baby. Between the studio and the RV, they could collect another $1,500 a month in rents, and Nora would make sure to collect it. God help anyone who tried to stiff her. A decent start – much more than he had when he started out; young, strong, ready to take on the world.

As the baby softly slept in his crib Zakery taped the manila envelope containing the deed to this piece-of-nothing farm to the mobile that hung above it. He thought back to that day when he had given his spread to Stonny and Juanita on their wedding day all those years ago. They made that place magical with the laughter of their children and the depth of their love for each other – and Heather – she was the anchor that kept them all in safe harbor, and when she went on, they all drifted out to sea. No more of that. No more of that.

All this place needed was a young man’s energy, and Eddie would just have figure it out. A stake in life for Nora who didn’t trust anyone or believe in the goodness of anyone either. Well…what would she believe now? The full moon had risen, and the coyotes howled in appreciation. He heard the car doors slamming out in the driveway and knew that they would be hauling in the groceries soon. He spirited himself out the rear door and walked briskly to his truck parked out back by the garden; the garden that had changed all of their lives for the better. When he saw the lights come on in the baby’s room, he started the truck and silently left the property. He didn’t hear their shouts of joy, but he had no doubt that those two would be whooping it up. As he turned onto the asphalt highway that would merge onto other highways that would take him to his new life, he no longer thought of himself as the loneliest man in Hicksville, California, but rather, as the luckiest man on earth.

Author’s Note:

This finally puts to rest the open-ended questions concerning the fate of the central characters that occurred at the end of Old Leather Lungs a novella that is contained in Zingers: Five Novellas Blowing Like Dust on the Desert Wind (2020) published by Anaphora Literary Press.

John C. Krieg is a bitter and contemptible old geezer who is about to die. For kicks John allows his 9-year-old granddaughter to sit on his lap and drive his decrepit car around at a high rate of speed on their five-acre lot located up on the high chaparral of Southern California while blasting Johnny Winter on the stereo. In another life, John was a landscape architect, swimming pool contractor, and outlaw pot farmer. Gone, all gone now, and for sustenance John now sits at the keyboard daily and tries to write something of significance for the family of man. One family tradition is to bury all of our deceased dogs on site, give them festive markers, and miss the hell out of them. Late at night John visits the grave site of Luke the Legendary Bloodhound and mournfully howls in remembrance of their better days gone by. When he finally kicks, John wants any of his usable organs donated, and then to be composted so as to give what little he has left back to Mother Earth.

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