Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of the novel, The Battle for Nashville, which we're serializing every week on our Web site.
Sims Moseley had no desire to return to Nashville. It was a place that was far behind him now. His family, his friends, the home he'd grown up in and the city itself had receded bit by bit, memory by memory, until the toxicity of the place had been flushed from the backwaters of his mind and had evaporated into the air. Now, whenever he stared at the exposed brick walls of his Sutton Place apartment, thinking about his earlier life, he did not cringe. Instead, he would become almost giddy, secure in the knowledge that no one could reach him here, that he was beyond their grasp, that he was utterly removed from their little Southern civilization. As he would gloat at his independence, he could feel the euphoria blossom within him. His stomach would start to glow, and a tingling would spread down his arms to his fingertips. Looking at the proud Manhattan skyline from his apartment window, he felt as if he had lived here forever.
After 15 years of living in Manhattan, Sims knew himself to be truly exiled from the South. The selfless gift of New York was a new beginning, an existence created in absolute anonymity in the city's sidewalks and bars and office buildings where no one knew him at all. New York absolved him of all that had come before. And it allowed him the freedom for all that would come after. The city was, quite simply, too occupied with itself to care much about Sims Moseley. And that is why Sims loved it so much.
When Sims left Nashville, he had driven away without looking back, pulling out of the long, gravel driveway of Darby Glen barely able to entertain anything other than a desperate need to leave the place. The decision to leave had been hastily planned. It had come on a day in early October, a bewilderingly beautiful day, the weather so soft that an outsider to Tennessee would never have been able to imagine anything wrong at all. Making his escape down the long driveway, his fear so consumed him as to make him nearly psychotic. He half thought that if he looked in the rearview mirrorat his mother, who had descended the front steps and was screaming at him to come back, at Dorthula, who was trying to restrain his mother and place her warm blanket over the entire frigid affairthat some massive force of nature, like a tornado lying on its side and extending from the house, would envelop him and suck him back into the horrific scene he was escaping. As he gripped the steering wheel, darkness roared in his mind and the chaotic thundering was so great as to nearly overwhelm him. All he could manage to do was go forward, secure in the faith that before long he would arrive at another place and that this other, wherever it was, would be better than what he left. That, he knew, was the only plan to guarantee his survival.
It was Dorthula's station wagon he had taken to make his getaway; he was sorry about that. He had not been able to find his mother's car keys. As he had darted about Darby Glen, hatching his exit plan, he happened to look inside Dorthula's ancient Chevrolet Impala, a car in which she had ferried Trigg and Sims around for years. A set of car keys dangled innocently from the ignition. It was so odd, Sims reflected, that as a 26-year-old he had no car and that he would have to steal Dorthula's. Why had his father taught his brother to drive, but never him? Why had his father always encouraged Trigg to kick around in the old farm truck as a way of learning to drive but never encouraged Sims to do the same?
Others might have questioned Sims' sanity, and they certainly had. The truth of the matter was that Sims was doubting his own stability as well. The falling apart had taken place after his father's death. Jim Moseley had shot himself in the head in the barn. He had not been drunk, according to the coroner's report, and that was one of the more amazing facts to Sims. His father had been drunk for most of his life-not a bad drunk, but the kind of drunk who could drink all day and you'd never know it. At the moment of death, however, he had been cold, clean sober. It was as if, Sims speculated, that his father had concluded in a brief, one-time outing into a clean and sober world that it was simply as bad as he thought it would be.
His death had come on a Wednesday, the start of dove season in late summer. As far back as Sims could remember, his family had invited dozens of friends over to shoot doves in the fields around the house on the season's opening day. All across Middle Tennessee, the opening of dove season was a huge social occasion: it was a way to get outside, breath good air, and walk around in a field with other men and wait for birds to fly into view. For days, the fields had been sprinkled with corn so that hundreds of doves would be available for sacrifice. It was illegal to bait birds. But two successive governors had appointed Jim Moseley to the board of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and no one was likely to bust Mr. Moseley. The crowds that came, year in and year out, were mostly friends of his father-various politicians and businessmen, old college classmates and friends from his childhood. It was always something of a ritual, the opening day of dove season; in election years, it was considered in many ways the start of the general election campaign, and candidates would always find their way to Darby Glen to shake a few hands. As well, the opening of dove season was a sort of end-of-summer celebration. Soon, everyone knew, the temperature would be dropping.
When that year's dove hunt had begun, it had been unseasonably hot. But the men had all worn colorless, heavy clothes to camouflage themselves against the brown hay bales and the dying stubble of the Kentucky 31 tall fescue, and all were sweating. There was no color anywhere, for that would scare away the doves. Sims remembered one year his father chiding a man for wearing red shoelaces. "A dove will see that, turn away," his father had said, in his typically terse way. The hunters were gathered in groups of three or four, down below the house, each group perched behind big, circular bales of hay, which had been cut only the week before. Before long, as early afternoon came and circles of sweat darkened on all the men's shirts, the birds were flying into view and men were bagging tiny, little doves by the dozen. Every half minute or so, the pops of the shotguns would peel out over the countryside. The sound would go on for hours.
Trigg was out hunting that day. Joanie, his wife of only six months, was by his side. His mother was inside, orchestrating lunch. Dorthula was with his mother. It was Sims who walked to the barn, because he had wanted to get out of the house and get away from everyone. The choice had been his: to either get away by walking to the barn or get away by walking out to the hay bales where he would probably have to chat with a hunter or two. He selected the barn, for it would be quiet. Sims was wearing a hunter's outfit, even if he wouldn't pull a trigger all day. It was an outfit he liked: khaki shirt, neatly pressed and cleaned, with epaulets; khaki pants so starched that they scratched his kneecaps when he walked. The barn would be cool and dark, he knew. Inside, he would sit and stare, far away from the discussions about what kind of tray to place the sandwiches on and how much sugar to put in the tea.
Rounding the entrance to the barn, Sims took it all in. His father hadn't walked but ten feet into the barn. The gun he had used was a 20-gauge, a gun that had been kept in the barn for years for no reason other than to shoot an occasional rat. He had stuck the barrel in his mouth; the back of his head had been blown off. He had probably not died instantly-his arms had clawed about in the floor of the barn, in the dust and hay, making a distinct pattern, not unlike the kind kids make when they lie on their backs in the snow and create snow angels by drawing their arms up and down. Sims could not bear to look at his father long. Covering his face with his hands, he turned away. Never again would he see his father.
As Sims turned to run back to the house, his eyes caught a bright yellow sheet of legal paper fluttering in the breeze that had been nailed into a locust fence post standing in the corner of the barn. It was a note from his father. "TRIGG: SEE WILL IN THE SAFE."
From that day forward, through the funeral and the next month, Sims' relentless questioning as to why his father had killed himself ran headlong into his mother's decision to erase it altogether. Sims had never been an angry person, but from the moment his mother began trying to sweep the incident under the rug, Sims could not do anything but take her actions as a personal assault on the memory of his father. He found himself hating not just her, but hating his father as well. If his father had clearly assigned Trigg the role of taking care of the family's business, he had not articulated Sims' assignment. But it was clear nonetheless: he was to take care of his mother. The more he thought of his familial role, the more he began to see that he had been his mother's assigned keeper for many years before then, perhaps for most of his parents' married life. In Sims' eyes, Trigg had wound up with the easier part of the bargain. The family's finances were a far easier occupation than his mother's emotions.
With just Sims and his mother left to their own devices at Darby Glen after the funeral, each of them reverted to their basic essences in what was a kind of survival strategy. His mother hardened. She awoke and charged forward into the day. If she fell, she brushed herself off and issued orders and managed lives and did anything else necessary to control the situation as she saw it. Within a week after his father's death, his mother had packaged all of her dead husband's old suits for delivery to the Union Rescue Mission; within 10 days, his law books had been dusted, boxed and donated to the Vanderbilt Law School. Within two weeks, all photographs containing his image had been put away and there was almost no evidence that James Franklin Moseley Jr. had lived in the house at all. If all of that weren't bad enough, within three weeks even the death and the circumstances surrounding the death had been neatly rewritten. No longer had Jim Moseley committed suicide. According to his mother, an old gun had simply misfired; she had seen the gun misfire before, she claimed. The whole incident was, she began to explain, an improbable "accident," one of those tragic and strange events that sometimes take place when men go hunting. Why, after all, would her husband have wanted to do something like that on the opening day of dove season with all his friends around? Her husband, she told everyone, loved the opening day of dove season as much as he loved life itself.
For all of his life, Sims had allowed his mother a certain shading of the truth and a generous historical revisionism, particularly whenever it came to family matters. But increasingly, as the days stretched on after the funeral, it seemed an unreasonable request to make on him: that after three generations in Darby Glen, only he and his mother would be around to bear the history of the Moseley family-and its fictionson their shoulders. Sims found that in this environment he could not rely on his brother at all for any assistance. Trigg was completely absorbed by figuring out the terms of his father's will and general management of the family's business interests. Dorthula, who was as much as family, was doing all that she could to keep the place up and running, but she was no match for his mother. My God did he love Dorthula though. He really did not know anyone as saintly as she. As time wore on, everything that was heavy and burdensome about the family descended on him, like an unceasing, heavy rain. While his mother would bear no weakness and could marshal the facts in such a way to suit her survival, Sims became the lone Moseley to face the ugly truth of the suicide and suffer the consequences of whatever that truth was. So many thoughts cycled through his mind after his father's funeral. And as these thoughts began to collapse about him in various stages of ruin, all of them disconnected and indecipherable, he pleaded that he should not have to be the repository of the Moseley family's garbage. He hadn't asked, after all. So why had the past chosen him?
The day Sims began packing his bags to leave was a day his mother had wanted Sims to come with her to a history lecture downtown at the public library; it had been one month to the day since her husband's death, which she seemed to think was a fine enough lapse of time for her to appear in public. After the lecture, his mother had told Sims, they would then go have an early dinner somewhere.
Sims obediently received this news from his mother as he took all her other orders. As she told him what they would be doing for the rest of the day, he simply shook his head. All the while, he was thinking to himself, "So this is the obligation I will bear for the rest of my life: to be my mother's goddamned date." The more he thought of it, and the more he knew his mother could not possibly fathom his objection to such a role given her propensity to define the world from only her perspective, the only possible solution raised its head: to leave. Now. Immediately. Which is what he did.
Ordinarily, Sims would have vanished without a word. He had lead many private lives in his brief 26 years, and fleeing the city without telling anyone where he was going would be yet one more secret he could bear. In the end, though, when he threw his bags in Dorthula's car, he harbored a visceral need to punish his mother, given the feelings that had been rising from deep within him since his father's death. He knew he was never coming back. He knew his life as a Moseley in Darby Glen was ending, and that for years and decades to come he would be unrecoverable, unfindable, unrecognizable. He knew that when he told his mother he was gone that she would, in fact, understand that she had lost him forever, that as he spoke to her there would be no way she could avoid the inescapable ugliness of that realization. Walking from Dorthula's car, he climbed the front steps of Darby Glen. Inside, he found his mother and Dorthula in the kitchen. He was surprised how easily the words flowed out of him, words that were the first real verbalized objections he had ever made to his mother and his family, words 26 years in the making and words that culminated in escape. When he told his mother that he could not live with her unreality and that she was a sick person and that his father had killed himself because he hated himself and hated her and that he, Sims, would be moving away and never coming back, his mother did the only thing she could do at that moment: She screamed. As she began to understand she was losing the person she could control, the person whose assigned role in the family had been to face the truth that she would not, she yelled louder than he had ever heard her yell, and as he ran down the steps, she kicked at him, and when he jumped in the car, she tried to grab its roof to stop it from going anywhere. Dorthula tried to stop her, but he drove faster than the both of them.
Sims headed north. He drove all that night and checked into a hotel early the next morning just north of Washington D.C. By midnight that evening, he was sleeping in a room at the Hotel Elysee in Midtown Manhattan, a lovely and quiet place, a place he knew only because he had read that Tennessee Williams had lived there. Not three weeks later he had a one-bedroom apartment, rent-controlled. He'd had it ever since.
It had taken Sims a couple of years to find his niche in New York, both socially and professionally. For the first year, he did relatively nothing, except see a therapist. But then he began cooking for a few friends he'd met. To his utter astonishment, everyone was taken with his Southern recipes: the green beans, the creamed potatoes, the corn bread, the fried catfish. As he gained confidence he began to experiment, tailoring the recipes to use less fat, more exotic spices, various unusual fusions. After a stint as a sous-chef in a neighborhood bistro where he was able to get the hang of how a restaurant worked, he opened his own tiny restaurant in Chelsea. At least half the recipes were based on dishes he'd learned from Dorthula, with whom Sims had maintained constant contact ever since he'd left. The restaurant, which he had named "Home," had been described by New York Magazine as "a nouvelle Southern experiment employing fat back and gizzards in ways both intellectually restless and unabashedly proud."
For the first five years of his life in New York, Sims never went back to Nashville. The phone conversations he had with his mother and Trigg were always icy; he had no desire to put himself through the agony of return. Then, for one reason or another, he found he couldn't avoid the place. The nephews were being baptized and he had to be there; his mother was having minor surgery and she wanted to see him. Sims had never completely patched relations up with any of his family members. But over time he had made his accommodations with their realities even if he thought they had never gotten around to accommodating him. Such was life, he assumed.
When Joanie had called and tried to talk him into coming home for Christmas, and he had shot back that the thought was enough to make him ill, she played her trump card by saying she desperately needed his help at her Feliz Navidad fundraiser. She wasn't worried so much about the food as she was the table decorations and flowers. The event needed a Hispanic flavor, but the question was how much? Some people wanted to hang piñatas, but this struck her as silly. Would he please come and help? At this, Sims relented. He would fly home, stay for two nights, assist with the party and also drop off Christmas presents for everyone. All told, he would spend just over 48 hours on the ground. That would be his Christmas with his family. The brevity of it all made him want to shout out loud.
At a little after 6 o'clock in the morning, Sims walked out of his apartment, which left him more than enough time to catch the 7:40 out of LaGuardia. In one of the large shopping bags in which he had placed his Christmas gifts were two, tiny turtles, a fact that the doorman was not aware of when he walked out of the building carrying Sims' luggage and dropped the sacks onto the sidewalk, causing the glass container in which the turtles were idly relaxing on a green, plastic log, to crack. Water soon began to leak from the bag. As Sims himself came through the building's revolving door, and saw the doorman fishing out pieces of glass from the bag, he felt his best-laid plans crashing in disaster.
"Oh, my Soho turtles," he shouted, flashing a look of anguish at the doorman.
"I will go get a new jar for you Mr. Moseley," the doorman volunteered, shooting back through the revolving door and into the apartment building's superintendent closet. Within a minute, he had reemerged with a large Mason jar in his hand and the turtles resting comfortably in a half-inch of New York City tap water. He handed the jar to Sims.
"Your turtles," he said.
Sims had not known if the turtles would get through security. They had been just an afterthought. When he had seen them on Spring Street downtown in a curious little pet store, he couldn't resist buying them for his nephews. Maybe the gift of the turtles could turn into a little afternoon activity: he and his nephews could drive out to the pond at Darby Glen and release the little turtles into the pond. They would have fun with their uncle, getting all muddy on the pond's banks as they watched the turtles paddling frantically into the shallow waters. Would the kids really like doing this? he thought. Or would they prefer being at home playing on their computers? He had no idea. The thought of being an uncle and having to do uncle-like things absolutely overwhelmed him.
The turtles glided through security just fine, and one hour and 40 minutes later the plane landed. The flight had been uneventful-he was coasting on 10 milligrams of Xanax. "Hey Simpy," a voice yelled out as he exited the plane. Twenty yards away, a distinguished looking gentleman, balding, in a long, gray overcoat, approached Sims. He wore a solid grin. He was older15 years, at least. The two approached one another with an ease and affection that was tangible, touchable.
"Hi Frank," Sims said, walking toward his older friend, dropping his numerous carry-ons and hugging the older man. "Just what are you doing here? It was nice of you to come, but really."
"But really, what?" Frank said, clutching Sims by the shoulders and looking at him almost as one would look at a son. "I heard you were comingfrom your mother, of all people. Ran into her at church. Given that I anticipate you won't be staying any longer than a night, I thought I'd better leap at mio caro amigo. My God, why did you have to fly so early?" Frank did his best to show extreme anguish at having to pick Sims up at such an hour. It was mid-morning, after all.
"Ooh, shush," Sims said, waving his hands at him as if to push him away. "As long as you're here, grab a turtle." He handed Frank the shopping bag containing the Mason jar with the turtles inside, and the two of them set off down the walkway of the airport and out into the damp, humid air. Once on the interstate, Sims took a couple of deep breaths to relax, which really wasn't all that difficult. Something about all the visual clues of his early lifethe familiar buildings and roads, the hills and the treesclocking past his window, one after another, gave his mind something to latch on to. It was like a cadence, a rhythm, and it made him sleepy. He let Frank do most of the talking.
"Janice is fine. And thanks for asking," Frank said. Janice was Frank's wife. "The kids are alright, although I don't think we're ever going to see our daughter again. As soon as she shipped out to California, that was all she wrote."
"That's because she's hip to you," Sims said.
"Hip to what?"
"Frank, you are so in denial."
"Hush. Anyway, with the kids gone, Janice and I have done a lot of shopping to spruce up the house, kind of give it a once-over. Your mother even sold us a desk."
"It was that period piece she kept in the corner roomit's antebellum and quite a charming piece of work. I'm guessing it's 1820s Virginia."
"Frank, are you plundering Darby Glen?"
"Your mother WANTED to sell the piece. She says she has no money."
"Keep your nose out of the family, Frank. You know as well as I do that she's taken care of just fine and there's no reason to go buying furniture from her to keep the place afloat. What did you pay for it anyway?"
"I don't remember."
"Don't do this to me, Frank."
"You know I wouldn't Simpy."
"And don't call me Simpy."
"Okay, you raging stud muffin." They both laughed.
Some 10 miles south of Nashville, the interstate led to a busy, four-lane exit. The exit was the road to Darby Glen. As their car approached the turnoff, Sims felt his stomach fall, as if he'd been punched. There before him was what amounted to a new city. With each successive visit he had made, it had grown more monstrous and garish, a slash at what had once been a gorgeous landscape. A shopping mall had been built first; office buildings had come next. Then residential developments had attached themselves like barnacles to the edges of the tumor. Sims had seen the development at various stages in its evolution but it never ceased to take his heart away. Taking the interstate exit, he and Frank turned down a side road and steered away from the worst of it. But as they drove down the road, they passed large, brick guardhouses that announced entryways to new residential communities. It just would not stop, he thought. After one such entryway, some three miles from the interstate, there came into view an unimpeded expanse of land. The field itself was lined with barbed-wire fence and a few horses were grazing far away. In the distance was a tall house. Beyond the house, a series of hills rose dramatically, their skins carpeted in bare trees.
There was no brick entryway to Darby Glenthere was simply a cattle guard that Frank's new Volvo rattled across. Along the gravel road leading to the house were wide holes filled with water. Frank took the drive very slowly, steering around them so as not to get his car muddy. Sims took more deep breaths. He had not been nervous at all as they had driven along the interstate. But as he set out down the half-mile-long driveway, he could feel his heart race.
God, it was so beautiful, he thought. He was only beginning to make out the details of the house, but it was as clear in his mind as if it were only five feet away. He knew every room, every stick of furniture, every fireplace and every secret passageway. He knew every rotten board, every squeaky stair step, every piece of fallen molding. From the time he was a child, he had wandered the interiors of the house for hours at a time, studying, absorbing, listening. It was his brother who would fly out the front doors of Darby Glen every morning to go feed the horses or split logs for the fire. But Sims had been more than happy enough to watch the world from within, feel its rhythm, understand its every adjustment to every season.
On both the right and left sides of the car were 700 acres of rolling fields; the last of the hay had been cut six weeks ago but the bales had still not been put in the barn. At the end of the flat fields, the trees and hillscapes began, and this was the other half of Darby Glen700 additional acres of dark and lovely woods that began behind the house.
Frank pulled the Volvo into the circular drive, leading to the front door. "Don't go here, Frank, I want to walk in the back."
"Come on, Sims, it's not like you can sneak in the place."
"Hush. Just do it."
Pulling around back, Frank parked the Volvo near an old basketball goal whose threadbare net had obviously not seen any activity for years. An ancient John Deere tractor was perched on Breeko-blocks, in the middle of some repair that had not been completed. With luggage in hand, Sims walked in the back screen door, so quiet that with a little more effort, he thought, his arrival might even go unnoticed. Then again, he knew better.
"Look what the cat drug in," his mother said from across the room, an apron hanging like an old curtain from her weathered neck. "Come over here and hug me. Are you well child? You've lost your color."
For the next two hours, Frank did not leave Darby Glen, hoping that by keeping Sims company, he might be able to help Sims reacclimatize better. It was the least he could do, he thought. Sims had earlier explained to him about the turtle catastrophe at the hands of the doorman. So Frank fished an old aquarium out of the attic and occupied his time by creating a beautiful little turtle village. He made a grove of palm trees from matchsticks and cotton balls and glue, and he made little islands out of pieces of driveway gravel that he painted with magic markers. Having stumbled upon an old box of art supplies when he was fishing the aquarium out of the attic, he used liberal amounts of Elmer's Glue and purple glitter to write on the side of the aquarium's glass: "Turtle Island Paradise."
"Any way I can book a trip to that island right now?" Sims had told him, by way of thanking Frank for all he had done that day. "I'm willing to become a turtle. It's not even noon and I'm ready to leave."
"Pour yourself a glass of wine," Frank said, walking out the back door to his car. "If you need anything at all, just call." Frank held his thumb and pinky finger up to his ear.
As Frank pulled away, Sims looked from the kitchen into the living room, where his mother was sitting. For a moment, he stood stone still, breathing deeply. He shut his eyes, and envisioned himself walking confidently into the room with his mother to have a civil conversation. He felt his spine straighten, his shoulders relax, and the butterflies in his stomach vanish. He and his mother had already spoken for two hours. Despite the fact that he had nothing more to say, he knew he could make something up.
"I can do this, I can do this, I can do this," he thought. Opening his eyes, he began walking toward the living room. "Like hell I can do this. There's no fucking way."
Hope, however, was on the horizon. In 30 minutes, he was supposed to meet Dorthula for lunch. With Dorthula, he would tell stories, exchange recipes, laugh out loud. All would be well in only one half-hour. He could make it until then.
Just then, the telephone rang. He could hear his mother chatting with Dorthula. Then, she handed him the receiver.
"Sims," Dorthula said, "I gotta postpone lunch. I'm sorry."
"That's okay," he assured her, even as he was now wondering what in the hell he was going to do with his mother for the next few hours.
"But listen Sims, I got to say sumthin': If Trigg really does develop yall's farm, they's gonna be hell to pay."
COPYRIGHT 2004 BY BRUCE DOBIE.