To my father
They’re a vanishing species, everything disposable now, the neat convenience of toss-away cans— but I remember bottlecaps you brought home to me, my treasure of colorful coins, checkers for countless games, prize messages hidden beneath the cork lining. And cast on the bottles’ glass bottoms their place of origin, an exotic geography— Marion, Alabama, the ones I searched for, the plant and town I imagined named for and owned by a distant cousin who someday would share his many riches. Coke and Cherokee Grape, Strawberry and Lemonade only a sampling of what you stocked in the machines, an extra duty assumed at the printing plant where you mixed inks and matched colors for those thousands of labels, every grocery shelf lined with your handiwork. It was those drinks that put you through college I learned, recalling the rounds we made on weekends to gather empties scattered willy-nilly about the plant: Why them boys can’t put bottles back in the racks beats me, you frowned, face red as a Campbell’s soup label when cigarette butts floated in a pool of last dregs. Weekdays you made the rounds alone, up three floors and back down, refilling machines, gathering the empties on your breaks while I sat faraway allowing words to sweep me into worlds beyond Marion, Alabama, into kingdoms of imagination made possible by a man gathering bottles, his daily journeys the worn paths of love trod over and over, believing in my future he could not see, but never receiving my message sent too late, cast in this returnable Marion bottle.The GiftTo my father, J. D. Marion, 1915-1990
December, 1962, and you came to visit, downtown Gay Street swept by snowy winds as we walked toward my favorite shop of used books on the corner of Summit. No exchange of names, but the storekeeper knew me well, had seen me savor the smell and texture of ancient pages, history of previous owners’ musings scribbled in margins, bold names scrawled across colored endpapers. That day he offered a bargain, A Report on the Recent Revolution in the Colonies, Dublin, 1782. I thumbed the brittle and foxed sheets, lingered over the ligatures joining s and t, the fs like a smooth swirl of S. You stared at the storekeeper, “How much?” and I studied you weighing the ten dollars “today’s price” like a full bag of groceries, two weeks worth of gasoline, or better yet a shiny new pair of Florsheim wing-tips. I passed the book to you, plunged my hands in empty pockets. “Would you like to have it?” I heard you whisper and read those raised brows, lines of your face always puzzled by my years of using half a week’s allotment for food to buy books. You lifted a crisp new bill to pay, cradled the book in my hands like an offering laid on the altar of misspent youth. Only days before Christmas I pocketed this early present, mumbled thanks. What strings bound this gift— the glittering eye of a shrewd salesman? Years of unease between father and son? A wish to make amends? Something darker from your past? After New Year’s I returned to the shop, the owner index-finger-pecking on a battered Royal typewriter, his passion to write novels the likes of Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage the model he quoted, eyes distant and searching some faraway dream. The keys went silent for a moment and I heard him say what I never told, “December was a hard month—say thanks to your father from my wife and me. That ten dollars put Christmas dinner on the table.”The Gold Rush in East TennesseeTo H. H. “Pete” and Margie Kesterson
Neither of us ever thanked you for those treasures not laid up but cast off—so we could gather them, your son Jim and I. “There’s one about everyday,” Jim said, as we eyed the gold foil, round as a silver dollar, waiting in the five-gallon ice cream container used as a trash can. Your bedroom was the first place we looked each morning after you left for work and we were free to roam, prospectors come to the town saloon, cap pistol six-shooters strapped to our sides, hankering for a game of cards, expecting some new gold coins to lay down for firewater Pepsi, straight-up in shot glasses slipped out of the cabinet, desperate for some low-down crosseyed sidewinder to draw from the bottom of the deck. Noon and the bottle empty, card game folded, we scooped up the stack of coins, stepped over the dead bodies of all those black-hearted cheaters, and made our way out onto the range of backyard, slender hickory ponies hitched to the porch rail and waiting. “Get on up here for lunch. Haven’t you heard me?” my mother demanded in the voice of a trail boss. I tied my pony outside the door and swaggered in, a few gold coins still tucked in my pockets. Finishing off my tuna-fish sandwich in four gulps, I rose and said, “Thank ye, mam, here’s a little something for your trouble,” and lay down a gold coin. “Hold on there,” I heard as I reached the door. “Where’d you get this?” “Found it prospectin’” I answered. More questions until she scowled and stared through me worse than any quick-draw kid. “And just where did you prospectors dig up this gold?” Then followed a scene of howling worse than a passel of bandits out of the hills swooping down to slay everyone and anything in their path. I heard the line “Don’t you know you can catch awful diseases?” A vision came then from all the stories I’d read in school about gold rush fever. But I’d never read of anyone dying of it. And hadn’t I read on the gold coin itself Sold for the Prevention of Disease Only? So what was she worried about—we were the good prospectors, the good gamblers, the saviors of the home range. “Son, I don’t want you digging in anybody’s trash cans anymore—and if I hear or see another of these gold coins, I’m telling your daddy. And you know what that means.” So—dear Pete and Margie, I know you’ve wondered all these years why I could not enter your house, could not benefit from the gold you spent almost nightly, or know the joys of your being such spendthrifts, gold tossed in abandon to heaven’s delight, so many times I wonder at the fevers you must have known from all that gold.
Jeff Daniel Marion grew up in Rogersville, Tennessee, and retired in 2002 after thirty-five years of teaching at Carson Newman College. He lives in Knoxville, Tennsessee, but maintains a writing retreat overlooking the Holston River. As poet, teacher, editor, printer, and lecturer, Marion has helped to create and support the literature of the southern Appalachian region over the last three decades. His poems have appeared in more than 60 journals and anthologies. He is the author of numerous collections including Tight Lines, The Chinese Poet Awakens, and Ebbing & Flowing Springs: New and Selected Poems and Prose, 1976-2001. His fiction has appeared in The Journal of Kentucky Studies, Now & Then and Appalachian Heritage.