One recent Tuesday I found myself standing in the middle of an overgrown, abandoned homestead in very rural North Carolina with a convicted axe murderer. Did I mention he was swinging a machete?
How we came to be standing there was a story in itself. Less than a week before, I had lost my job. After three bosses in 51 weeks and many long unhappy hours, my suspicion that I was not a frontline fundraiser was confirmed. At least I think it was. I wasn’t given any reason, just a few minutes to gather my personal effects. Boss Number Three did allow that this was very difficult for her, although I had the feeling that her mind had moved on to other things before she finished the sentence.
My wife was working in Carrboro that day. We had driven in together, so I gathered my two bags worth of stuff – either I was barely there long enough to put a personal mark on my workspace, or I knew on some level from the start I wouldn’t be there long enough to make it worthwhile to put up a lot of pictures – and started off down Cameron Avenue toward the bike path.
As I walked, all the expected feelings came – hurt, anger, a sense of great injustice, shame. But I soon realized I was feeling something else, too, something so out of step with what I thought I should be feeling that at first I didn’t recognize it. I was exhilarated. I felt like I had been locked in a dark, airless basement and was suddenly out in the sunshine again. Focused on preserving a salary and pleasing people who hadn’t been very nice to me, I had hardly stopped to feel how miserable I had been. I knew panic about an uncertain future would likely set in before long, but for the moment I was really happy that it was 1:45 on a Wednesday afternoon and I was free, in all the exciting and terrifying senses of that word.
Bill, my friend and the convicted murderer, had a medical pass to take the day off. A few weeks before our trip, after a week of excruciating headaches and nausea, he made a second trip to the emergency department, where he learned that he was about two days past a stroke. Here’s how Bill’s wife, Jenny, described the discussion with the neurosurgeon in her blog, “A Life I Never Expected”: “He explained that this type of stroke is most often caused by an injury to the neck, where the artery clots while trying to heal; the clot travels into the brain and gets stuck, blocking off blood and oxygen to the neighboring cells. He said we can never really know with things as complicated as the brain, but that he had plenty of reasons to assume Bill would make a full recovery.”
Not for the first time, Bill was lucky. His stroke affected his balance but not his cognitive function.
After a week at home, Bill returned to work, but a few days later he was back at the ED. The ED doctors put him on Lipitor as a precaution, but the side effects caused a manic episode that culminated with him tearing out of the house and jumping on his motorcycle, something he was supposed to avoid because of the Coumadin he was taking to prevent more blood clots. Bill’s normal state is enthusiastic, so it must have been something to see. Removing the Lipitor from his drug regimen restored his equilibrium, but the doctors advised him to take two weeks off to give himself a chance to recover fully.
The unexpected break from work, though more temporary than mine, put Bill in mind to cross two items off his to-do list: visiting his step-uncle, Linford, to talk about harvesting some hardwood from the crumbling house Linford had grown up in; and showing me where he came from so I would be better equipped to write his life story. You might call it a double-cross-off to advance a home-improvement project and kick me into gear.
I needed it. It had been nearly three years since I had recorded several hours of Bill’s life story with the vague goal of writing a book, or at least an article, about his remarkable journey from troubled teen to long-term inmate to pillar of the community. (Spoiler alert: Bill is almost certainly not really an axe murderer, although at 16 his most obvious talent was an uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.)
Earlier this year, with the tapes about halfway transcribed, nothing written, the five-year anniversary of Bill’s release from prison approaching, and a celebration at the Hillsborough Unitarian Universalist Church looming, my wife told me I had better not show up at church empty-handed. I spent Wednesday and Thursday evenings poring over 20 pages of transcriptions and – finally –starting to write. By Friday I had enough on paper that Bebe told Jenny I would have something to contribute on Sunday.
After spending most of Saturday polishing, I had three pages. As a preacher’s kid, I grew up in church and sometimes filled the pulpit when my dad (and most of his congregation) was on summer vacation. The last thing I wrote of any consequence that wasn’t a fundraising proposal was probably the eulogy for my grandmother, who died at 102 in 2007. What I had was probably more of a sermon than an essay. But Bill is a great talker and I had a lot of rich material.
When we arrived at the UU that Sunday morning, Bill greeted me with a hug and said, “I understand you have something to read this morning.” That’s when I knew for sure I wasn’t going to get away with handing him a few pieces of paper. Bill was the focus of the service, with Jenny and several of his friends and sponsors celebrating and gently roasting him. A few of the stories were familiar from our interviews, such as having to ask what sun-dried tomatoes were on one of his trips to a restaurant. And then Jenny announced there would be one more speaker.
I was nervous and out of practice, but I got through it. My ribs hurt after Jenny and Bill hugged me, so I figured I did okay. After the service, one of Bill’s sponsors approached me and asked me about the piece I had written. It turns out she is a published novelist. She sounded amazed that I had written it in just a few days, encouraged me to keep going, and offered to be a reader once I had a draft of a book.
This could have been the “eureka” moment where I finally realized I was a writer and, loins girded by the positive feedback, dived into the Bill project and my “real” vocation as a writer. Instead, it paralyzed me. I transcribed a few more sessions, but the Bill project essentially languished from May to October.
So I climbed into Bill’s Honda CRV with an odd mix of excitement and dread. I would be entering a world that was as foreign to me as that first menu had been to Bill. My experience of rural North Carolina was largely limited to bike races and hiking, and all I knew first-hand of rural poverty was from an article I had written 20 years before. I was about to get way out of my element. And I still was not very deep into what Bill expected to be a whole book about his life’s journey.
Bill was excited about the trip, and probably a little nervous himself. He blasted country music, turning it down every few mile markers to fill me in on why we were going, other than to continue my education. His step-uncle, Linford, lives with his mother, who is 94 and suffers from Alzheimer’s. The house Linford lived in for many years is falling down, but the last time Jenny and Bill had visited there seemed to be plenty of salvageable hardwood. With their own kitchen torn up and other renovations underway, Bill was hoping to find some flooring and maybe a usable sink. Jenny had her eye on some beaded wallboard that she thought could make a cool living room ceiling. Linford had talked about knocking down the house, and Bill thought he could get a few friends, a truck and a trailer to carry what they needed back to Durham.
Near Statesville we turned off I-40 onto Route 90 and quickly got into the country. Beautiful country. There are few vistas in the part of central North Carolina where we live. That’s not a problem in Hiddenite. In addition to the gemstone that shares its name, the town is home to ridges where one can straddle the spine of the earth with great views of the Brushy Mountains, a spur of the Blue Ridge Mountains that stretch out to the west. Soon we pulled into a driveway with a small white frame house and a car graveyard out back – a couple of vintage panel trucks (one bears the legend “Industrial Paint Contractors”), an old Chevy, a pick-up or two. A jacked-up black 4x4 seemed to be the only operational vehicle.
Inside, we met Uncle Linford, a large, friendly man who seemed excited to see Bill and pleased to meet me. He joked about why I would give up a day to hang out with a crazy man, but when Bill left the kitchen to say hello to Linford’s mother, he stage-whispered, “Bill’s a walking miracle.” Linford had a few details confused – he thought Bill had become a schoolteacher – but he had the basic narrative down pat. Up from a tough beginning – “he was framed” – Bill had landed a good wife and a good job. He was doing all right.
We talked about the illegal deer hunters Linford had chased off with buckshot the previous night. He was angry about the intrusion on his private property, but was in a forgiving mood. With all the things the government has done, he told me, people are desperate. (Later on, Bill said he had forgotten to tell me not to discuss politics with Linford, but I was on my best behavior.) A few minutes later, Bill was pulling on his work pants and high boots and we were off down the road. I wore my jeans and low-cut hiking shoes. My comparatively exposed ankles seemed to be calling out to snakes as Bill hacked away some foliage and we approached what was left of the front porch of Linford’s old homestead.
Inside we found a solid core whose skin seemed to be peeling away. Most of the kitchen/dining room wall was gone, as was a good bit of the upstairs outer wall on the other side of the house. The floor was mushy in spots and Bill was easily able to pull the cabinet that held the sink away from the wall, but the staircase was remarkably solid. Bill thoughtfully went up ahead of me, and nobody crashed through the floorboards. Here and there Bill pointed out boards that would be perfect in the new kitchen floor or on the living room ceiling.
We found a collection of returnable Pepsi bottles, two ancient TVs in their cabinets, two tattered record players and an old wooden tube radio. Not to mention several issues from 1969 and 1970 of Plain Truth magazine, the publication of the radio evangelist Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. And a single page from an old Penthouse, perhaps left behind by a trespasser.
We peeked at the barn, also falling in and stuffed with car parts, bed frames and other odds and ends, and checked in with Linford again before leaving. A diabetic, he was slowly caring for his feet and chatting with a local woman who helps care for his mother. As Bill talked about the wood he could save and his plans to bring some guys and a truck back to get it, Linford repeatedly gestured toward the tiny woman in the hospital bed to finish sentences that began, “I would get to it but for . . .”
Next up was lunch in Taylorsville, the county seat. On the drive over Bill was agitated, irked that Linford was dragging his feet on knocking down the house. The wood will probably go bad in the next two to three years, he told me, and if Linford dies, his kids will sell the property with no thought as to who could put that wood to good use. There seemed to be no good side to take, so I rode in silence.
We stopped for a bottle of Coke and some water at a country store, a squat cinderblock building where a woman used a hot plate to warm up roast beef for sandwiches for some workers on lunch break. The shelves were sparsely provisioned, but the parking lot had a sweeping view of the adjoining valley. Bill cheered up as he told me about riding his bicycle 15 miles from the house to our next stop, his favorite swimming hole. When we got there a man was fishing. The tree from which they used to swing out over the pond was gone, but the spot was lovely. I believed Bill when he told me that despite all the terrible things that had happened to him, life in Hiddenite was pretty good a lot of the time.
We continued to Taylorsville for lunch (local historians disagree about whether the town is named after our 12th president, Zachary Taylor, or North Carolina’s first State Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Louis Taylor), making another brief stop at the Rocky Face Mountain Recreational Area, a nearly new park located at the site of an old quarry. Two sheriff’s deputies pass the time in the parking lot while Bill chats with an older couple and I take pictures of climbers on the serrated rock wall. The quarry operated from the 1920s through the 1940s. A prison camp was located nearby, and Bill tells me prisoners taken to work there were sometimes shot off the granite walls. Coming from someone else, that might sound like a dark bit of local color; from Bill it is a chilling reminder of how much goes on beyond the notice of people like me.
Bill paid for lunch at the S&S Family Restaurant, where it is worth waiting for the fried-while-you-wait chicken breasts. He ordered the first livermush sandwich I had ever seen and pronounced it as good as he remembered. After we ate Bill called his one and only girlfriend from before he was incarcerated, who lives nearby with her husband and daughter, a high-school senior. With Jenny’s encouragement, Bill contacted her when he got out of prison. She has visited them in Durham with her daughter. He is proud of the fact that he is the only boyfriend her mother approved of, and tells me how her older sister drove them around town, acting as chauffeur and chaperone. Later we drive by the house where they held hands and kissed on the front porch.
We also pass a surprising number of places where Bill lived in foster care, including the place where he tells me his foster “father” physically abused him repeatedly when he was between 11 and 13. He’s told me several times that it’s important for me to see where he comes from so I can understand his story. I was about to see the heart of it all.
After a beautiful drive up Pea Ridge Road, with the hazy Blue Ridge in the distance, Bill pulls off the road beside an overgrown lot. He shows me the driveway, although I don’t think I would have picked it out on my own. It doesn’t look like anyone lives there now. The brush appears impenetrable, but without a lot of difficulty we push through into a clearing slowly being reclaimed by nature. A pile of stones, the tub from an old wringer washing machine, and a rusted section of a woodstove are the only signs of the tiny house where Bill lived between short, mostly unhappy stops at foster homes and juvenile wilderness camps. An outhouse – Bill remembers digging the hole for it – is the only structure standing on the property, although some domesticated shrubbery and bushes suggest that someone once did some landscaping.
As we make our way to the barrel where spring water used to collect, Bill warns me to watch out for the bottles. He had told me they were everywhere on the property, scattered on the ground and buried in mounds. Full-size liquor bottles, airplane liquor bottles, mason jars – the image they convey of life with abusive alcoholics is as treacherous as the footing. When I ask, Bill tells me his step-father got drunk and burned the house down one night in the mid-90s. He would be happy, he says, to come back in 30 years and not be able to find any trace of the place.
A few minutes later he is happily – or at least more happily – hacking the spider webs away to clear our way to the second of two gardens he helped tend as a boy. That’s when the absurdity, the human comedy of it, hits me. Here I am in the middle of nowhere (there’s a farm down the road but not close enough for anyone to hear me scream) with a convicted murderer waving a machete. I’m a bit sad, in mourning for a mostly lost childhood, but I’m not scared at all. I’ve left this guy alone to play video games with my younger son and I trust him as much as friends I have known far longer. He sheaths the machete and the tour continues.
Thirty years ago Bill ran away from a training school with another boy. They slept in and vandalized an apartment before hiding out in a barn. When the old man who owned the property saw a light and went to investigate, the other boy hit him on the head with an axe handle. Bill cowered in the dark until the police came. The other kid’s family had money for a lawyer, who laid the blame on Bill. The kid did six years in prison, where Bill heard he bragged about getting away with murder. Bill’s public defender did little defending, and Bill ended up with life. Not long after the trial, Bill told me, the attorney went to jail himself, for embezzlement.
As I stand in that clearing, listening to Bill talk about the vegetables, I’m thinking Uncle Linford is right. Bill is a walking miracle. If it weren’t for overcrowding in our state’s prisons, he might never have even gotten parole. Today he is married to a social worker and has a responsible job with a nonprofit organization. He often acts like the 16-year-old kid he was when he went inside, but he’s grown up in all the important ways.
Our day isn’t over quite yet. We cross the road to visit Bill’s grandmother’s house, where he points out a broad plank that he reckons might fetch $200 and I snap an eerie picture of some dresses that have been left hanging in a corner for many years. On our way out of Hiddenite, we stop back at Linford’s house. He has gone out to run an errand, and the caretaker is reluctant to let Bill in to kiss his step-grandmother goodbye. As I watch him at the door, I recall his words over lunch, when he told me that while he feels he belongs here, he can never come back. “I will always be Tom’s son to them.”
On the way back to Durham, we take Route 54 and stop at the Fiesta Grill on the outskirts of Carrboro for a Mexican dinner. While I eat the excellent enchiladas molé and drink a glass of Spanish red, he texts about a client issue at work. I’m a little bit jealous. I’m not a fan of texting at the dinner table, especially about work, but Bill has found a job he loves. I, on the other hand, am about to start a job search with no idea where it will take me.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Anne LaMott, the novelist, essayist, writing guru and spiritualist, says it’s okay to admit that you have no clue what to do next. I admit it. I don’t have a clue where I will land. But I’m sitting across the table from a pretty good example of what can happen if you don’t give up.