Mandy Newham-Cobb illustration
“Somebody’s come back from the dead up in Bakersville.”
Wilson didn’t look up from the Mitchell County Rotary Club press release he was editing to fit a hole on the obit page. Celia Sluder, the business manager and his boss, and a former Miss North Carolina, famous (had even been on Donohue) for having hurled her crown across the stage in a fit of fury for not getting everything the Jaycees had promised her, stuck her head inside his office door.
“I said someone has come back from the dead. Up in Bakersville.”
“Jesus in Bakersville. Who knew?” he said.
She stepped into his office. She wore high heels, a tight skirt and a blouse showing just enough cleavage to render any advertiser powerless. The guy who’d hired Wilson, the owner of the paper, a grim balding fellow down in South Carolina with a spooky dark paneled office who owned several sweatshop weeklies across the Carolinas and who, years after Wilson had left the paper, would stab his too young trophy wife, dispose her body in a dumpster then immolate himself in a motel room, had told Wilson that Celia was a real stem winder. Whatever that was.
“You need to get up there and see about it,” she said. “The whole county is talking about it. Something about a snake bite. They say his heart stopped for several minutes, that he should be dead.”
He groaned. “Not another one.” Every other week somebody was getting bit at the snake handling church outside Bakersville. He’d suspected congregants were getting bit on purpose as some sort of perverse advertising for the church.
“He’s not from the church,” Celia said. “He’s retired. Use to teach at Mitchell High.”
“Which is a lot more dangerous than snake handling.”
“Are you going to go or not?”
“I still have all these to get through.” Wilson nodded at the big stack of press releases needing his attention. “And I haven’t done the cutlines for the sports page yet.”
“You’re always saying you want to write real stories. Now’s your chance.” She grabbed the stack of press releases off his desk. “I’ll take care of these. You get your rear end on up to Bakersville.” She snatched the Rotary Club release out of his hand.
He folded his hands on his desk and sighed.
She peeled a pink post-it from the inside of her wrist and handed it to him. James Woody was written in Celia’s elaborate cursive, along with a phone number and a street address. “I told Mrs. Woody you’d be there at 1:30pm.” She glanced at her watch. “Just enough time for you to grab some lunch and head on up there.”
He sighed again, put on his jacket, snatched up a notebook and started to head out.
“Don’t forget the camera,” Celia said, picking up the camera off his desk and handing it to him. “Be sure and take a picture and try to get him to smile. The people in your pictures always look so pained.”
At the Upper Street Café, Wilson had a quick lunch of his usual vegetable soup, cornbread and sweet tea. With a little time to spare before his interview, he crossed over to Spruce Pine Savings to deposit his measly paycheck. He always made a point of saying hello to Evie, the loan officer, who he’d set up his banking account with when he’d first arrived. She was one of those girls who looked plain from one angle and pretty from another. She had freckles, intelligent eyes and a devastating mountain accent, and he’d liked her immediately and looked forward to going by the bank whenever he could think up an excuse. He’d thought about asking her to dinner but in the three months he’d been at the paper he hadn’t seemed to manage to work up the nerve.
After depositing his check with the teller, he’d walked into Evie’s little glass cubicle toward the rear of the bank. “I’m going to Bakersville to interview some guy who they say came back from the dead.”
“Mr. Woody,” she said
“You know him?”
“He was my English teacher back in the Dark Ages.”
“Is he delusional?”
“Wasn’t back then. In fact, he was an excellent teacher.”
“Maybe he’s developed dementia or something.”
“Maybe,” she said. “Or maybe he came back from the dead.” She pronounced dead like deyad as if it had two syllables.
He bit his lip.
“Are you smilin’ at the way I talk?” she asked. “You’re the one who talks funny around here, Mr. Piedmont.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
“What?” he asked.
She just shook her head.
Now! he told himself. Now is the time to ask her to dinner. But he hesitated for two seconds and her phone rang and she said she needed to take it, and he left the bank, berating himself. Who was he kidding? He was never going to ask her.
It was chilly and overcast as Wilson pulled out of the Lower Street parking lot and pointed his Comet, a seven-year-old college graduation present from his parents, in the direction of Bakersville. When he’d first arrived at the Tri County News, he’d felt out of his depth. He’d never edited a paper before, although he’d worked at little weeklies setting type, doing layout, writing articles, even taking photographs. He’d taken the job at the Tri-County News, because, one, they’d offered it to him, two, he’d been eager to get the heck out of Columbia which felt booby trapped with memories of his girlfriend, and three, but not least, because he’d always loved the Western North Carolina mountains. As the crow flies, Greenville or Spartanburg weren’t that far away, but the gain in altitude from the piedmont to the mountains was enough to lift Wilson into a whole different stratosphere. The cool, the mist and the lush vegetation felt otherworldly and yet familiar at the same time. And the intimacy of the geography—the coves, the valleys and the mountainsides—made him feel at home, protected even. And, over time he’d gotten the hang of the job, from collecting the news, to editing it, to putting pages together, to driving the pages down the mountain to the press in Black Mountain and then driving a van full of the finished papers reeking of ink back up the mountain. When it came down to it, he did everything but deliver the paper, which he’d also done on more than one occasion.
The Woodys’ house, a neat, single-story bungalow, sat back from a creek, and a big sycamore stood off to the side. When Wilson got out of the car, the first thing he smelled was wood smoke, which settled around the house like an acrid fog. Wilson noticed a neat stack of split wood toward the back of the yard. As he walked up the gravel drive he was greeted by a couple of enthusiastic golden retrievers whose entire bodies wagged, and he walked up to the door, reporter’s notebook in hand, camera slung around his neck. He’d just stepped up onto the porch when an animated gray-haired woman, who he guessed to be in her early sixties, opened the door and waved him in.
“Come in, come in,” she said, as she closed to door behind him. “You’re right on time.” She started to lead him toward the back of the house. “My husband is in the kitchen.” She paused in the middle of the living room. “He would’ve met you himself but...” She lowered her voice, “…his energy hasn’t fully returned since his ordeal.”
“We don’t have to do this if he’s not feeling well,” Wilson said, sensing an escape route.
“Nonsense,” she said. “If there’s one thing James is always up for is visitors. Never met a stranger.”
She led him into the kitchen where a tall, lean man was sitting at a table peering down his glasses at the end of his nose, reading the paper, the New York Times no less. Somehow, this wasn’t the image Wilson had had of the man who’d reportedly come back from the dead.
When he saw Wilson, he folded the paper, slowly stood and held out his hand.
“Don’t get up Mr. Woody,” Wilson said. “Your wife tells me you’re not feeling well.”
“I feel fine,” the man said, giving Wilson’s hand a firm shake as if to prove his vigor.
“You don’t look fine,” his wife said. “You look peaked.” She turned to Wilson.
“Doesn’t he look peaked?”
Wilson hesitated. “Well…I have no context,” he began, although he did think Mr. Woody looked pale and drawn.
“Nothing like putting the boy on the spot, Leila,” the man said.
“Honestly,” Wilson said, “if now is not a good time…”
“Pull up a chair.” Mr. Woody pronounced “chair” like cher. “And pay my wife no heed. She’s a worry wart. Goes with her training.”
“He means I’m a nurse,” she said. “Mostly retired but every now and then I fill in at the hospital. Have you had lunch? I could whip you up a BLT in no time.”
“I’ve already eaten, thanks,” Wilson said, sitting at the kitchen table, which was covered with checked oil cloth.
“What about a cup of coffee? No newspaperman worth his salt can turn down a cup of coffee.” Before he could say anything she’d already set a steaming mug on the table in front of Wilson, along with a creamer and sugar bowl.
“Thank you,” he said, pouring cream into this coffee and stirring it. He took a sip, set the cup back down, then took his pen out of his shirt pocket and opened his notebook. “Celia tells me you had a near-death experience, Mr. Woody,” he said. “Perhaps involving a snake bite?”
And that was all it took. Mr. Woody leaned forward in his chair, set his hands flat on the table and started into his story. Mrs. Woody sat down with them. As Wilson soon realized, the two of them must’ve told this story together dozens of times by now.
“It was a Sunday night,” Mr. Woody said. “I’d been watching a program on PBS about the Mayan Indians. I noticed the house was getting a little chilly and realized the woodstove had gone out. So I went out back to the woodpile.”
“Went out there in the pitch black dark,” Mrs. Woody said, “without so much as a flashlight. I’ve been warning him for years.”
“Anyhow,” Mr. Woody said, “I picked up an armful of wood but as I was walking back to the house, one of the pieces shifted, then wrapped around my arm and I felt something like needles dig into my wrist. I slung the snake, along with the rest of the wood, out into the yard. Then I went back inside and told Leila I’d been bit.”
“He said it like he might say he’d gotten a splinter or stubbed his toe,” Mrs. Woody said. “I told him we needed to go to down to the hospital but he wouldn’t listen.”
“I poured a little hydrogen peroxide over it,” Mr. Woody said, “and went back to watching my program.”
Mrs. Woody said she called their doctor anyway and he told her she ought to take her husband to the ER immediately just in case. The doctor also asked if they knew what kind of snake it was, which sent Mr. Woody out into the yard with a flashlight, but he couldn’t find the snake.
Wilson took notes as fast as he could, the story seeming to flow out of the couple.
“On the way to Spruce Pine he tells me to pull over at the Hilltop Mart for his Atlantic Monthly,” Mrs. Woody said.
“They get it in for me special,” said Mr. Woody.
“At first, I refused to pull over but he put up a fuss and I finally I gave in.”
“If I was going to spend half the night sitting in the ER I wanted something to read,” Mr. Woody said. But he said that while his wife was in the store his legs began tingling and then went numb and by the time they reached the hospital he was having trouble getting his breath. They rushed him into the hospital on a stretcher.
“Of course they wouldn’t let me follow him into the ER room,” Mrs. Woody said. She said that not much time had passed when she’d heard “code four” announced over the intercom and every available nurse and doctor scrambled into his room. “I knew he’d gone into cardiac arrest,” she said, her voice trembling slightly. “And I sat there and sat there, waiting for some news.”
“How long did his heart stop?” Wilson asked.
“Six minutes,” Mr. Woody said.
“An eternity,” said Mrs. Woody.
“Any longer they say I would’ve had brain damage,” said Mr. Woody, “even if I had managed to live.”
The couple looked at each other with a clear-eyed knowing that left Wilson feeling awed and a little unnerved.
“Do you remember anything from the time you were out?” Wilson asked.
“I do,” Mr. Woody said.
Mrs. Woody was shaking her head. “Don’t James.”
“The boy asked.” He turned to Wilson. “I met Jesus.”
Mrs. Woody groaned and Wilson thought, Oh boy, here we go. It always always has to come back to Jesus with these mountain people, even the educated ones.
Mr. Woody leaned toward Wilson and lowered his voice. “I found myself alone in a dark theater watching that old movie “All That Jazz,” about Bob Fosse, the dance choreographer. Anyway, about halfway through the movie, a guy sits down beside me. He has a beard, Birkenstocks, faded jeans and a Life Is Good T-shirt. He offered me his popcorn and I noticed that whenever I took a handful the bucket magically filled back up. The same with the Diet Coke he shared. His cup never emptied. And the longer we sat there, the more I became aware of what a calming presence he had about him. Eventually, I felt all my worries just melt away. And, you know, I’d forgotten what a good movie “All That Jazz” was.”
“And you believe the man in the movie theater was Jesus?” Wilson asked.
Mr. Woody shrugged. “No doubt in my mind.”
“Please, don’t print this part about Jesus,” Mrs. Woody said. “We’re Unitarians and if this gets around.”
Wilson returned to the office but was too busy with cutlines and writing up some last-minute obits to work on the story till after he’d left the office and gone home. He’d rented a little one-room apartment connected by a breezeway to a ranch style house owned by a kind woman who taught at Mitchell County Community College. The house sat below the main highway, screened by thick woods, on the other side was a big picture window that opened out onto a view of a valley and a mountain beyond. That night he sat down at his typewriter with his notes, and between bites of a Swiss cheese sandwich on white bread and sips of hot tea, typed up Mr. Woody’s story. When he reached the part about Mr. Woody’s vision or dream or whatever it was, he decided to go ahead and write it. It was part of the story.
He didn’t finish until nearly one in the morning. He read it over one last time but when he got to the part about Mr. Woody meeting Jesus, he wondered if he’d put it in just because Mrs. Woody had asked him to leave it out. He wondered too if not only people might laugh at Mr. Woody but if they might laugh at the paper for printing such a story. Finally, he cut the Jesus section, very carefully retyping that page without Mr. Woody’s account of sharing popcorn with Jesus.
After he was done, and he’d checked and rechecked the story, he got ready for bed. But he couldn’t sleep so he put on a Christmas record he’d just bought at the little record store on Lower Street and laid in the dark, with his hands behind his head, looking out at the starry stillness and listening to Emmy Lou Harris sing lonely strains of Silent Night.
Two days later, when the paper was delivered around town, his phone started ringing off the hook from people calling him to compliment him on the story about Mr. Woody.
“I told you it’d be a good story,” Celia had said, having come into his office with reports of several churches calling her to place big ads, which he thought was a little odd. “From now on,” she said, “you should listen to your business manager.”
At lunch, he was sitting in a booth at the Upper Street Diner, eating his usual vegetable soup and cornbread, when he looked up and Evie was standing over him. He’d seen her come in the diner sometimes but she was always with women from the bank. Now she appeared to be alone.
“Mind if I join you?” she said.
“Not at all,” he said.
And she slid in across from him. She set the folded paper on the table in such a way that Wilson’s article was face up, showing the shadowy overexposed flash picture he’d taken of Mr. Woody who sat at his kitchen table awkwardly pointing to the snake bite which was too small to see. The old man appeared to be performing some bizarre sign language, all the time looking shyly up at the camera.
“Very nice piece,” Evie said. “I thought you captured Mr. Woody beautifully. I really loved the part about him meeting Jesus.”
Wilson nearly spit out his soup. “What are you talking about?”
“The part about him finding himself at a movie with Jesus. That was my favorite part.”
Wilson snatched up the paper and read through the story and toward the end he found the very section he was a hundred percent sure he’d cut. He’d even checked it again the next morning before he’d given it to the typesetter. No one had seen the Jesus account except him yet there it was.
“I didn’t put that in there,” Wilson said, “I know I didn’t.”
“I believe you,” Evie said.
“So how…?” Wilson held up his hand to the article.
Evie shrugged. Then she reached over, broke off a piece of his cornbread and ate it.