By Paul McNiel
It’s the rainy afternoon before election day and the roads around Boone, North Carolina are littered with little square plastic signs—red, white and blue. Many have blown over. But, there must be thousands of them, most just a name, a name representing some person—a person with a team of staff and volunteers making sure those signs are seen, and working the phones. The signs represent politicians who want to represent me.
Tomorrow is the big day.
I’m in an old Chevy truck with mountain man legend Eustace Conway. On the bench seat between us is a small backpack of “important papers,” my oilskin raincoat, his thick, red fisherman’s sweater, his small adz axe with its darkened hickory handle, worn shiny, and a leather cover tied over the blade. There is also a jar of chunky applesauce—a gift from his brother Walton, whom we just visited. I pull the heap toward myself, away from the stick shift as we brake at an Y intersection.
“Are we clear?” asks Eustace.
I look over my right shoulder. Clyde, his Aussie Tri, is seated calmly in the truck bed beside a plastic trashcan of mushy pears for the hogs at Turtle Island. There is fog on the ground and the road twists upward and dissolves between two hills covered in the last of fall foliage.
“Clear,” I reply.
I’m hunched down holding a locust log and he is bowed facing me, the adz flying in a close arc, taking away wood between his boots in clean golden scoops. The energy is startling, or maybe the thought that the slightest slip and that blade could be scooping into me. He stops and we stand up and let out a deep breath. A few chips have caught in my hair and on his blue wool shirt. The light is fading and there is a whiff of wood smoke. We heave the log into place.
Well past dark we finally quit and go inside, where it is dry and there is light and the warmth of a wood fire. At his table there is a large cast iron pan and under the lid, she tells us, is fried mushrooms and onions and pieces of hog fat. Eustace slaps his hands together and rubs them with the bright-eyed enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning.
“Ol’ miss piggy. She was a fine hog!” We all smile with him. I hold his left hand and reach across the table with my right, and we bow our heads. “Thank you, thank you, thank you…”
In the morning the air inside is cool. I have let the fire go out. Eustace has a busy day of work, but I am leaving. The sun is not up, but I can just make out some of the artifacts: an old Laguna pot he traded some moccasins for, a large wooden tub with four handles all carved from one piece, full of clean, sharp hand tools, a gallon jar full of peppers, a very asymmetrical painting of a heart: red with finger swirls of blue. I can hear Eustace loading things into his truck and talking on his flip phone, briefing his guys on the day’s plans.
We are standing at his door. He is wearing that thick red sweater, and a silver braid rests on each of his shoulders.
“I guess you’re leaving.”
I nod, and he furrows his brow, then a bright smile spreads over his face and he puts his arms out and wraps me in a hug, all wool and sawdust and forgiveness. I get in my truck and roll out, and there are the plastic signs, even more than yesterday. I try to imagine “Eustace Conway” signs, but all I can see is him, filling his doorway and smiling bright, with wood chips on his sweater and a full day of work ahead of him. We aren’t voting today, we have other plans.
Paul McNiel is a graduate of The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.