T. M. Brown
A prolonged Indian summer gripped Georgia. Though already the first Sunday of November, hot and humid weather more suitable for early September caused sweat to trickle unabated down my neck dampening the collar of the fresh cotton polo I had just yanked over my head. The moving truck pulled away as I latched and locked the trailer doors. Liddy patiently watched from her passenger window as I walked up the sidewalk and locked the front door of the colonial brick suburban house we had called home for the last seven years.
I jumped into the driver’s seat, buckled up and squeezed the hand of my wife of forty years, and then reached for the gear shift. “Any regrets?”
Liddy raised her window and turned her gaze straight ahead as a silly smirk appeared. “Nope, Let’s roll! We’ve got a moving truck to meet in Shiloh tomorrow.”
I dropped the gear shift into drive, and my foot slid from the brake to the accelerator. Our Expedition jolted forward with the packed trailer in tow. Liddy stared straight ahead for the first few minutes while she caressed the manila envelope stuffed with photos, brochures and paperwork pertaining to the house we contracted to purchase for our retirement. Liddy dozed off soon after we turned south onto US Highway 19, and I settled in for the afternoon drive to our destination an hour south of Albany.
The all-too-familiar gated communities and shopping centers thriving under Atlanta’s ever-present shadow faded in my rearview mirror. I snapped a farewell salute as we passed Cornerstone Books where I served as chief publishing editor until one week ago. The historic highway narrowed as it introduced a scenic panorama of autumn colors as more and more farms, fields and forests lined the historic route.
Liddy stirred enough to adjust her position and place a small pillow between her head and the window. Looking at her as she fell back to sleep jogged my memory of the first day my eyes fell upon her on the Athens campus forty years ago. My smile over the memory faded when I glanced at the stranger in the rearview mirror. Gray encroached the dirty blonde hair on the temples, and crow’s feet pointed to sagging eyelids. After an extended sigh, I reminded myself that I no longer was that spirited young co-ed Liddy first met. A second peek at Liddy returned a grin to my wrinkled face.
When Liddy first suggested I consider early retirement, I turned a deaf ear. Undeterred, Liddy persisted. “Theo Phillips, it’s high time you realized that you can afford to do what you’ve always wanted. I want you to walk away from that job you’ve grown to resent. Why not invest the time to write your own stories like you’ve always envisioned?”
Once my hard head embraced the idea, Liddy wasted little time. She arranged the sale of our home, scoured a mountain of listings, made countless phone calls and endured long day trips, while I agreed to fulfill my promise to my boss and work until the end of October. Liddy took great pride when she announced our home had a buyer. The following evening she methodically spread a collection of photos on the kitchen table of a picturesque, historic home located in a South Georgia town aptly named Shiloh. Liddy believed this house would make the perfect retirement home. Not far from our childhood hometowns, the pictures brought back fond memories. I agreed, and a day later we received acceptance of our cash offer for the house. We both felt God had answered our prayers.
On the outskirts of Albany, Liddy stirred and wiped her eyes as the late afternoon sunlight glistened between the tree tops. She cleared her throat and lowered her sunglasses from the top of her head and surveyed the passing scenery before she asked with a drawn-out sigh, “Where are we?”
I pointed to a well-timed road sign. “Albany’s 30 more miles. Looks like we’ll arrive in Shiloh a little before six.” The news earned a smile as she stared back out the window.
Liddy adjusted herself in her seat and looked over with a curious grin. “What were you thinking about while I was asleep?”
Without turning my focus from the road ahead I said, “How lucky I was to have stolen the heart of the prettiest girl that ever graced the Athens campus.”
Liddy giggled. “That’s convenient because I feel the same about you.”
We soon turned onto the Flint River Highway, the homestretch leg of our journey. The amber glow grew darker as the sun disappeared below the distant treetops.
Liddy bit her lower lip and clenched my hand. “Do you think we did right? I mean… buying this house and leaving Peachtree?”
A chuckle erupted first. “Hun, I’ve absolutely no doubt that the vetting process you orchestrated selecting this house removed any reservations I might have clung onto about my retirement or our decision to pack up and move to Shiloh.”
Her cheeks glowed. “Me neither, but I wanted to be certain you weren’t just trying to appease me. I’m truly looking forward to sinking deep roots and making a slew of new friends.”
My wink and affirming grin brought a smile to Liddy’s relieved lower lip. “You’re right,” she said. “But how well do you think we’ll fit in?”
My smiling face bobbed up and down. “Trust me. A town like Shiloh won’t allow us to remain anonymous long.”
Liddy laughed and agreed that Shiloh would be like the small towns we remembered growing up, where even strangers passing through town were addressed as “friend” or “neighbor,” and names were exchanged during a hearty handshake or hug.
Liddy’s attention diverted to weathered barns and sheds with rusted tin roofs along the side of the road. “We must be getting close.”
She begged me to stop when her eyes fixed upon an abandoned mansion with discolored columns and dangling shutters that no longer protected the shattered windows. With critters and termites likely the only tenants, I convinced her we should save a close up inspection for another day. Plantation oaks with dangling moss lined the rest of the way into Shiloh, as the Expedition’s automatic headlamps flicked on and attacked the growing dark shadows, and distant lights welcomed us into town.
The highway transformed into Main Street, and at Liddy’s urging we slowed well below the speed limit and rolled through the Town Square. She pointed to the drug store and next-door barber among the quaint shops and office fronts. We both joked about the movie theatre with its lit marquee and reminisced about fifty-cent Saturday matinees. Without regret, Shiloh lacked familiar retail chain store names and revealed family-owned shops and businesses all but a memory in most small towns in the South.
The Chamber of Commerce brochure depicted an antebellum era red brick courthouse anchoring the center of Shiloh. Instead, we discovered a newly constructed brick and granite city hall building with a grand portico that marked a well-lit main entrance. Decorative red brick walkways wound their way through manicured grass and meticulous gardens. As we crept along, Liddy pointed to a life-like bronze statue of a young man illuminated by spotlights near a corner of the Town Square.
“I wonder who he was?” Liddy asked. “He looks so young. There’s nothing in the literature about it.”
I only shrugged as I searched for the street that led to our house and navigated our way to our corner property. The word SOLD stood out on the Arians Real Estate sign in the front yard. Liddy’s eagerness left little doubt about her desire to show me more of the house, but darkness, the growl of our stomachs and fatigue suggested otherwise. A couple of blocks further down the quiet neighborhood street, Liddy exchanged smiles with two red-haired girls playing out front of one of the beautiful mansions among a neighborhood of elegant but dated homes.
At the southern end of town, we drove past Shiloh’s school complex that brought back memories of our own school days. The buildings and grounds appeared to have received recent renovations rather than merely a fresh coat of paint. The football stadium and athletic fields behind the school seemed larger than one would expect for a town the size of Shiloh.
We turned back onto Main Street, and a yellow and blue neon sign directed us to the Shiloh Motel. “Thank goodness! I’m sure goin’ to be glad to crawl out from under this steering wheel. Besides, I’m famished.”
Liddy lowered her window. “Hey, check it out. Bubba’s BBQ. Smells good too. Let’s hurry up and get checked in.”
When we entered the motel office, a silver-haired woman dressed in a blue and white flowered frock eyed us as she slurped down the last of her drink. She pulled off her makeshift paper towel bib, wiped her cheeks, and wriggled out of her armchair. A platter next to her chair held remnants of her dinner, a couple of ketchup ladened fries alongside a neat stack of sucked-clean rib bones. With a flick of her remote, she muted Aunt Bea from Andy of Mayberry and adjusted her dress as she approached. Her contagious smile made us reply likewise, but the shrill of her greeting we’d never forget.
“Welcome folks to Shiloh. Y’all mus’ be Mista an’ Missus Phillips. We’ve been expectin’ y’all.”
Liddy froze and managed only a nod. I continued up to the counter and fought back an escalating chuckle. Instead, I feigned a cough before I greeted our cordial hostess with a suitable grin.
“I’m Barb, Barb Patterson. Me and my husband Bubba are the proud owners of the best motel and barbecue restaurant in Shiloh.” Her cheeks flushed as she muffled a cackle with her hand. “Oh, me. Oh, my. Truth be told, we own the only motel and barbecue restaurant in town.” A brief outburst of self-indulgent belly laughter followed.
My polite smile and a chuckle indulged her humor. “Well Barb, thanks for such a pleasant greeting. We’re glad to be here after our long drive. This is my wife, Liddy.” I reached back and guided Liddy to my side. “I believe the two of you spoke this morning. I’m Theo, Theo Phillips.”
“Y’all mus’ be plum tuckered out.” Her fingers flittered in the direction of my hand reaching for my wallet. “Just keep your wallet in your pocket for now.” She slid a registration form and pen in front of me. “Just sign right here. We’ve got our best room reserved for you. We’ll deal with the formalities in the morning.”
I pointed to our name and new address already filled in as I slid the signed form back to her. “Thanks, but how’d you know…?”
Barb muffled another high-pitched snicker. “Honey, Mista Nick is not just the realtor in town but also a dear friend and good customer. He stopped by for lunch and told us all about you and how you’re buying Miss Betty Priestly’s old home.” She stared at Liddy’s amazed look. “Besides, everyone in Shiloh knows the Priestly house. Y’all sure are getting a mighty special home.” She pulled the form off the counter. “Will you need one or two keys.”
I lifted up one finger and promptly received a brass key with the number 10 stamped on it.
Liddy’s composure returned, and she reached out to greet our capricious but jovial hostess. Barb took Liddy’s hand and looked at Liddy. “Honey, if you need anything, just dial the desk. It’s a real pleasure to be the first to welcome y’all to Shiloh.”
Liddy grinned. “Thank you, Miss Barb. We’re glad to be here too.” After Barb released Liddy’s hand, Liddy asked, “How late is the restaurant open?”
“Just hold one second.” Barb lifted the receiver of the mustard yellow rotary phone on her desk, dialed and then tapped her deep red fingernails on the counter. “Cecil? The Phillips just arrived, and they’re mighty hungry. Will you take special care of ‘em? Maybe seat ‘em at one of the winda’ tables? …Thanks, Ceec. You’re a doll.” Barb hung up and looked at Liddy. “Miss Liddy, y’all are all set. Hope y’all are hungry. Bubba’s ribs are ‘specially good tonight.”
Liddy smiled and glanced in the direction of Barb’s empty platter. “Sounds great. I think we’ll give those ribs a try. We haven’t eaten since we left Peachtree.
As soon as we entered Bubba’s BBQ Restaurant, a tall, silver-haired African-American gentleman approached us with a broad toothy grin. His white bib apron wrapped easily around his slim frame allowing him to tie it in the front and a damp towel draped over his shoulder provided clear evidence of his busy day.
“Y’all mus’ be the Phillips. Welcome to Bubba’s. My name’s Cecil, and that’s Bubba over there.”
Cecil then turned his head and yelled loud enough to be heard across the kitchen. “Bob, say hello to the newest folks in town, the couple Mista’ Nick spoke about this afta’noon.”
Bubba, a rotund man with graying dark hair raised his free hand and gave a sweaty smile and promptly returned to tending the carousel of meat slowly rotating over the smoke pit.
The table Cecil directed us to offered a clear view of Main Street. Liddy and I took the menus but handed them right back without opening them.
“Barb recommended Bubba’s ribs, so how about two platters with some sweet tea.”
Cecil affirmed our choice with an appreciative nod before he scooted towards the kitchen and yelled, “Two more ribs.”
Liddy and I soon admitted we were ready to bust by the time we shoved our near empty plates aside. When Cecil inquired about dessert, Liddy raised her hands and shook her head.
After we paid for the meal and expressed our appreciation to Cecil and Bubba, we decided to stretch our legs and venture into the center of town. On the Town Square, Liddy found a bench next to the walkway and admired the unique architecture of Shiloh Baptist Church across the street. My interest fell upon the bronze statue we saw earlier.
Spotlights highlighted the young man’s chiseled face. He wore a collared polo shirt with a “SHS” monogram above a fleur-de-lis over his heart. A coach’s whistle hung from his neck, and a Bible rested in one hand while the other pointed upward. The life-like detail monopolized my attention until my eyes drifted to the plaque at the base.
JESSIE MASTERSON, BELOVED COACH AND TEACHER, SACRIFICED HIS LIFE SAVING THE LIVES OF TWO OTHERS THE NIGHT THE ORIGINAL COURTHOUSE BURNED DOWN, DECEMBER 8, 2010.
I stood with my arms crossed while my instincts conjured the possible story behind those two dozen words. Liddy walked up and clutched my elbow disrupting my thoughts. I looked into her weary eyes and realized it was time we headed back to the motel.
Before we left Town Square hand-in-hand, I peered over my shoulder at Jessie Masterson and then glanced at Liddy. “I was thinking… what a tragedy. I just might be curious enough to learn more about that young man’s story.”
Deed’s Publishing, release date by Spring 2017.