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Publisher Grand Central Publishing
eBook Kindle Edition
It was 1958, and Landon had already dated a girl or two. He even swore that he had once been in love. Certainly the last person in town he thought he'd fall for was Jamie Sullivan, the daughter of the town's Baptist minister. A quiet girl who always carried a Bible with her schoolbooks, Jamie seemed content living in a world apart from other teens. She took care of her widowed father, rescued hurt animals, and helped out at the local orphanage. No boy had ever asked her out. Landon never would have dreamed of it. Then a twist of fate made Jamie his partner for the homecoming dance, and Landon Carter's life would never be the same. Being with Jamie would show him the depths of the human heart and lead him to a decision so stunning it would send him irrevocably on the road to manhood.
In 1958, Beaufort, North Carolina, which is located on the coast near Morehead City, was a place like many other small southern towns. It was the kind of place where the humidity rose so high in the summer that walking out to get the mail made a person feel as if he needed a shower, and kids walked around barefoot from April through October beneath oak trees draped in Spanish moss. People waved from their cars whenever they saw someone on the street whether they knew him or not, and the air smelled of pine, salt, and sea, a scent unique to the Carolinas. For many of the people there, fishing in the Pamlico Sound or crabbing in the Neuse River was a way of life, and boats were moored wherever you saw the Intracoastal Waterway. Only three channels came in on the television, though television was never important to those of us who grew up there. Instead our lives were centered around the churches, of which there were eighteen within the town limits alone. They went by names like the Fellowship Hall Christian Church, the Church of the Forgiven People, the Church of Sunday Atonement, and then, of course, there were the Baptist churches. When I was growing up, it was far and away the most popular denomination around, and there were Baptist churches on practically every corner of town, though each considered itself superior to the others. There were Baptist churches of every type-Freewill Baptists, Southern Baptists, Congregational Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Independent Baptists ... well, you get the picture.
Back then, the big event of the year was sponsored by the Baptist church downtown-Southern, if you really want to know-in conjunction with the local high school. Every year they put on their Christmas pageant at the Beaufort Playhouse, which was actually a play that had been written by Hegbert Sullivan, a minister who'd been with the church since Moses parted the Red Sea. Okay, maybe he wasn't that old, but he was old enough that you could almost see through the guy's skin. It was sort of clammy all the time, and translucent-kids would swear they actually saw the blood flowing through his veins-and his hair was as white as those bunnies you see in pet stores around Easter.
Anyway, he wrote this play called The Christmas Angel, because he didn't want to keep on performing that old Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. In his mind Scrooge was a heathen, who came to his redemption only because he saw ghosts, not angels-and who was to say whether they'd been sent by God, anyway? And who was to say he wouldn't revert to his sinful ways if they hadn't been sent directly from heaven? The play didn't exactly tell you in the end-it sort of plays into faith and all-but Hegbert didn't trust ghosts if they weren't actually sent by God, which wasn't explained in plain language, and this was his big problem with it. A few years back he'd changed the end of the play-sort of followed it up with his own version, complete with old man Scrooge becoming a preacher and all, heading off to Jerusalem to find the place where Jesus once taught the scribes. It didn't fly too well-not even to the congregation, who sat in the audience staring wide-eyed at the spectacle-and the newspaper said things like "Though it was certainly interesting, it wasn't exactly the play we've all come to know and love...."
So Hegbert decided to try his hand at writing his own play. He'd written his own sermons his whole life, and some of them, we had to admit, were actually interesting, especially when he talked about the "wrath of God coming down on the fornicators" and all that good stuff. That really got his blood boiling, I'll tell you, when he talked about the fornicators. That was his real hot spot. When we were younger, my friends and I would hide behind the trees and shout, "Hegbert is a fornicator!" when we saw him walking down the street, and we'd giggle like idiots, like we were the wittiest creatures ever to inhabit the planet.
Old Hegbert, he'd stop dead in his tracks and his ears would perk up-I swear to God, they actually moved-and he'd turn this bright shade of red, like he'd just drunk gasoline, and the big green veins in his neck would start sticking out all over, like those maps of the Amazon River that you see in National Geographic. He'd peer from side to side, his eyes narrowing into slits as he searched for us, and then, just as suddenly, he'd start to go pale again, back to that fishy skin, right before our eyes. Boy, it was something to watch, that's for sure.
So we'd be hiding behind a tree and Hegbert (what kind of parents name their kid Hegbert, anyway?) would stand there waiting for us to give ourselves up, as if he thought we'd be that stupid. We'd put our hands over our mouths to keep from laughing out loud, but somehow he'd always zero in on us. He'd be turning from side to side, and then he'd stop, those beady eyes coming right at us, right through the tree. "I know who you are, Landon Carter," he'd say, "and the Lord knows, too." He'd let that sink in for a minute or so, and then he'd finally head off again, and during the sermon that weekend he'd stare right at us and say something like "God is merciful to children, but the children must be worthy as well." And we'd sort of lower ourselves in the seats, not from embarrassment, but to hide a new round of giggles. Hegbert didn't understand us at all, which was really sort of strange, being that he had a kid and all. But then again, she was a girl. More on that, though, later.
Anyway, like I said, Hegbert wrote The Christmas Angel one year and decided to put on that play instead. The play itself wasn't bad, actually, which surprised everyone the first year it was performed. It's basically the story of a man who had lost his wife a few years back. This guy, Tom Thornton, used to be real religious, but he had a crisis of faith after his wife died during childbirth. He's raising this little girl all on his own, but he hasn't been the greatest father, and what the little girl really wants for Christmas is a special music box with an angel engraved on top, a picture of which she'd cut out from an old catalog. The guy searches long and hard to find the gift, but he can't find it anywhere. So it's Christmas Eve and he's still searching, and while he's out looking through the stores, he comes across a strange woman he's never seen before, and she promises to help him find the gift for his daughter. First, though, they help this homeless person (back then they were called bums, by the way), then they stop at an orphanage to see some kids, then visit a lonely old woman who just wanted some company on Christmas Eve. At this point the mysterious woman asks Tom Thornton what he wants for Christmas, and he says that he wants his wife back. She brings him to the city fountain and tells him to look in the water and he'll find what he's looking for. When he looks in the water, he sees the face of his little girl, and he breaks down and cries right there. While he's sobbing, the mysterious lady runs off, and Tom Thornton searches but can't find her anywhere. Eventually he heads home, the lessons from the evening playing in his mind. He walks into his little girl's room, and her sleeping figure makes him realize that she's all he has left of his wife, and he starts to cry again because he knows he hasn't been a good enough father to her. The next morning, magically, the music box is underneath the tree, and the angel that's engraved on it looks exactly like the woman he'd seen the night before.
So it wasn't that bad, really. If truth be told, people cried buckets whenever they saw it. The play sold out every year it was performed, and due to its popularity, Hegbert eventually had to move it from the church to the Beaufort Playhouse, which had a lot more seating. By the time I was a senior in high school, the performances ran twice to packed houses, which, considering who actually performed it, was a story in and of itself.
You see, Hegbert wanted young people to perform the play-seniors in high school, not the theater group. I reckon he thought it would be a good learning experience before the seniors headed off to college and came face-to-face with all the fornicators. He was that kind of guy, you know, always wanting to save us from temptation. He wanted us to know that God is out there watching you, even when you're away from home, and that if you put your trust in God, you'll be all right in the end. It was a lesson that I would eventually learn in time, though it wasn't Hegbert who taught me.
As I said before, Beaufort was fairly typical as far as southern towns went, though it did have an interesting history. Blackbeard the pirate once owned a house there, and his ship, Queen Anne's Revenge, is supposedly buried somewhere in the sand just offshore. Recently some archaeologists or oceanographers or whoever looks for stuff like that said they found it, but no one's certain just yet, being that it sank over 250 years ago and you can't exactly reach into the glove compartment and check the registration. Beaufort's come a long way since the 1950s, but it's still not exactly a major metropolis or anything. Beaufort was, and always will be, on the smallish side, but when I was growing up, it barely warranted a place on the map. To put it into perspective, the congressional district that included Beaufort covered the entire eastern part of the state-some twenty thousand square miles-and there wasn't a single town with more than twenty-five thousand people. Even compared with those towns, Beaufort was regarded as being on the small side. Everything east of Raleigh and north of Wilmington, all the way to the Virginia border, was the district my father represented.
I suppose you've heard of him. He's sort of a legend, even now. His name is Worth Carter, and he was a congressman for almost thirty years. His slogan every other year during the election season was "Worth Carter represents-" and the person was supposed to fill in the city name where he or she lived. I can remember, driving on trips when me and Mom had to make our appearances to show the people he was a true family man, that we'd see those bumper stickers, stenciled in with names like Otway and Chocawinity and Seven Springs. Nowadays stuff like that wouldn't fly, but back then that was fairly sophisticated publicity. I imagine if he tried to do that now, people opposing him would insert all sorts of foul language in the blank space, but we never saw it once. Okay, maybe once. A farmer from Duplin County once wrote the word shit in the blank space, and when my mom saw it, she covered my eyes and said a prayer asking for forgiveness for the poor ignorant bastard. She didn't say exactly those words, but I got the gist of it.
So my father, Mr. Congressman, was a bigwig, and everyone but everyone knew it, including old man Hegbert. Now, the two of them didn't get along, not at all, despite the fact that my father went to Hegbert's church whenever he was in town, which to be frank wasn't all that often. Hegbert, in addition to his belief that fornicators were destined to clean the urinals in hell, also believed that communism was "a sickness that doomed mankind to heathenhood." Even though heathenhood wasn't a word-I can't find it in any dictionary-the congregation knew what he meant. They also knew that he was directing his words specifically to my father, who would sit with his eyes closed and pretend not to listen. My father was on one of the House committees that oversaw the "Red influence" supposedly infiltrating every aspect of the country, including national defense, higher education, and even tobacco farming. You have to remember that this was during the cold war; tensions were running high, and we North Carolinians needed something to bring it down to a more personal level. My father had consistently looked for facts, which were irrelevant to people like Hegbert.
Afterward, when my father would come home after the service, he'd say something like "Reverend Sullivan was in rare form today. I hope you heard that part about the Scripture where Jesus was talking about the poor...."
Yeah, sure, Dad....
My father tried to defuse situations whenever possible. I think that's why he stayed in Congress for so long. The guy could kiss the ugliest babies known to mankind and still come up with something nice to say. "He's such a gentle child," he'd say when a baby had a giant head, or, "I'll bet she's the sweetest girl in the world," if she had a birthmark over her entire face. One time a lady showed up with a kid in a wheelchair. My father took one look at him and said, "I'll bet you ten to one that you're smartest kid in your class." And he was! Yeah, my father was great at stuff like that. He could fling it with the best of 'em, that's for sure. And he wasn't such a bad guy, not really, especially if you consider the fact that he didn't beat me or anything.
But he wasn't there for me growing up. I hate to say that because nowadays people claim that sort of stuff even if their parent was around and use it to excuse their behavior. My dad ... he didn't love me ... that's why I became a stripper and performed on The Jerry Springer Show.... I'm not using it to excuse the person I've become, I'm simply saying it as a fact. My father was gone nine months of the year, living out of town in a Washington, D.C., apartment three hundred miles away. My mother didn't go with him because both of them wanted me to grow up "the same way they had."
Of course, my father's father took him hunting and fishing, taught him to play ball, showed up for birthday parties, all that small stuff that adds up to quite a bit before adulthood. My father, on the other hand, was a stranger, someone I barely knew at all. For the first five years of my life I thought all fathers lived somewhere else. It wasn't until my best friend, Eric Hunter, asked me in kindergarten who that guy was who showed up at my house the night before that I realized something wasn't quite right about the situation.
"He's my father," I said proudly.
"Oh," Eric said as he rifled through my lunchbox, looking for my Milky Way, "I didn't know you had a father."
Talk about something whacking you straight in the face.
So, I grew up under the care of my mother. Now she was a nice lady, sweet and gentle, the kind of mother most people dream about. But she wasn't, nor could she ever be, a manly influence in my life, and that fact, coupled with my growing disillusionment with my father, made me become something of a rebel, even at a young age. Not a bad one, mind you. Me and my friends might sneak out late and soap up car windows now and then or eat boiled peanuts in the graveyard behind the church, but in the fifties that was the kind of thing that made other parents shake their heads and whisper to their children, "You don't want to be like that Carter boy. He's on the fast track to prison."
Me. A bad boy.
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