“What are ye driving?” The old man in the hospital bed squinted up at him through parchment lids, his dry lips barely moving as he rasped out that crucial question—always the first one asked by anyone in the family. Always.
Seb looked down at the old man, whose hair and skin were so white that the bleached cotton pillowcase seemed like camouflage. He pulled the straight metal chair up close to the bed so that Uncle Wiley could hear him. It hurt to see him like this. The man who used to be able to hear a deer in a thicket thirty yards away was now a shriveled ruin, eyesight failing and nearly deaf.
He thought about walking in gumboots through wet leaves on the mountain—how old was he then? Twelve? The day he shot his first buck, when this wraith of a man in the bed had been a wiry old hunter in camouflage, still spry at seventy, taking the wide-eyed great-nephew out to track deer, teaching him to read the signs on a fresh trail, telling him that wet leaves mask the sound of your footsteps, and showing him how to shoot the scaled-down Remington Wingmaster that was a family hand-me-down from another generation of hunters. It had been just the two of them and a fat old beagle named Little Bit, who was just along to keep them company.
The mountain had been family land for as long as anybody could remember, since back after the Civil War, when the family business had been farming, and after the Spanish-American War when they went into the timber business, branching out into bootlegging after World War I, and after Korea, they left off the moonshine and kept on driving. The men in the Reese family had their own systems of temporal measurement. They measured long stretches of time by the wars that bracketed it—individual years by the NASCAR time (Seb was born the year that Cale Yarborough won Daytona) and miles per hour with a stop watch instead of a speedometer.
On the mountain, though, they didn’t need to measure time at all.
He remembered the hunt with perfect clarity, as if it had been a movie he had seen over and over. He had told Uncle Wiley that there was a buck-skinned Indian stalking the deer they were after, and the old man smiled and told him to go ahead and shoot it, anyhow.
That day on the mountain—for once—they hadn’t talked about cars. Maybe that was why he’d remembered it so clearly after all these years. Not a word about cars.
He wondered if Uncle Wiley even knew who he was, or if by now the memory of him had melded in the old man’s dimming mind with a succession of runty, blue-eyed boys, all with the same square chin and the same dark, brush-cut hair. All the Reeses tended to look the same, especially as children.
He was glad he had come, though. He would never have forgiven himself if Uncle Wiley had died, and he hadn’t had a chance to say good-bye. The race this week was in Martinsville, just over the Virginia line. If he drove the two hours back to Mooresville and hitched a ride in a helicopter—with Tony, maybe — he wouldn’t even miss practice, and even if he did, it was worth it to come back home. He just wished things wouldn’t change so much while he was gone. That was the funny thing about life. When you were a kid, it seemed that the years just stretched on and on without anything ever happening, and then one day you grow up and suddenly nothing stays the same for very long, no matter how much you wish it would.
That’s the way it was with Uncle Wiley. For most of Seb’s life, the old man had been exactly the same: not young, but in some permanent Indian summer of sixty-something, wise and hale, and able to keep up with even the most energetic of the youngsters. And then it seemed as suddenly as a blossoming tree hit by a late frost, Uncle Wiley had withered away into a wizened husk, who sat and stared and couldn’t seem to remember which Reese boy was which, or even which generation they belonged to.
Seb tried to smile, forcing himself to concentrate on the question and not on his grief that the wraith in the bed used to be spry old Uncle Wiley.
What are ye driving?
“I’m Sebastian, Uncle Wiley,” he said, leaning close to the old man’s ear. “Chaffee’s boy. Seb. And I’m driving a Monte Carlo. That’s about all we drive nowadays. Monte Carlos, Ford Tauruses, couple of Dodges. Toyotas now. They’re all the same, though. Just look different.”
The blue eyes opened wider, sharp as ever. “Not on the track, boy! What are ye driving personal.” A dry rasp that might have been a laugh. “Reckon that’ll tell me if you’re winning.”
“You’re Chaffee Reece’s boy, aren’t you?” said the nurse.
Nowhere but here, he thought, but he nodded, because there was no use telling people back home that you were famous. He had slipped out of Uncle Wiley’s room, letting the door swing shut behind him. The old man had talked a little about settling up his debts, and then he had drifted off to sleep in the midst of quizzing him on set-up for the car, as if the drivers still did any of that themselves nowadays. But in Uncle Wiley’s day, the team was your kinfolks, the shop was in your back yard, and everybody had a day job so they could afford to race.
Did you adjust them valve springs, Boy?
They’d stopped doing that back in ‘89, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell that to Uncle Wiley. He didn’t want to remind the old man that The Show had roared on without him. There had been a time—before Seb was born, even—that Uncle Wiley had been the show.
Now he stood uncertainly in the tiled hallway, with the nurse smiling at him and holding out a piece of paper, torn from a hospital message pad. So she hadn’t stopped him in order to tell him anything about Uncle Wiley’s condition. She knew who he was, and he supposed that she was a racing fan, and right now she was concerned with his profession, not hers. Willing himself not to sigh or show annoyance at the imposition, Seb pulled a black Sharpie out of the pocket of his Bosch Spark Plugs windbreaker and reached for the scrap of paper. “What’s your name?” he said.
Her smile froze. “Same as it was back in ninth grade, Seb-tic tank!”
He cringed. Oh, God, he was home.
“I think we have everything covered as far as the show is concerned. Don’t you reckon, Seb?”
The family was congregated in the kitchen of Uncle Wiley’s home, with those in the family business seated at the table with a yellow notepad, so that they could keep track of what needed to be done. Wiley belonged to the generation that came along in the hardscrabble years before big sponsors and serious money had transformed the little Southern sport into an international phenomenon. Before big-time Indy drivers started waiting in line to be able to drive a stock car. Seb had a million-dollar house and a boat slip on “the Redneck Riviera,” Lake Norman, north of Charlotte. And the family joke was that his parents’ copper and cedar barn of a house near Mooresville looked like a Lutheran church. But neither prosperity nor family expectations had been able to budge Wiley Reese from his modest one-story brick home back up the mountain, on land that had been in the family for two hundred years. Seb wondered what would become of it now. It was too far from the race shop in Mooresville for any of them to live there permanently, but it would stay in the family, leased out to a caretaker perhaps. There wouldn’t be much work involved in tidying up the detritus of Uncle Wiley’s life.
Seb considered his father’s question, and nodded. Yes, the show was covered. They never called their profession “the races” or “NASCAR.” It was always “the show,” and sometimes, if you overlooked the private jets and the million-dollar motor homes of the drivers, it did seem a bit like a traveling circus. The same people doing the same jobs every week, but each time in a different arena in a new town. And you never let the paying crowd see the daylight behind the magic. They had to believe that the guys in the fire suits were knights in shining armor. They didn’t want reality to dilute the dream. That was fine. He’d grown up knowing that. Uncle Wiley used to say, “Greyhound bus drivers make about thirty grand a year, boy. Whatever they pay you beyond that ain’t for being a good driver. It’s for the razzle dazzle.”
“We had a giant decal made. In Memory of Wiley Reese—A portrait of him in his prime, and our team logos and so on. We figured we’d run it in the race on the hood of your car.”
Seb scowled. “He’s not dead yet, Dad.”
“Well, no, but things like six-foot hood decals don’t happen overnight, so I thought we ought to plan ahead. We have armbands for your pit crew, too, so we’re ready. As old as he is, I’m afraid it’ll happen before Homestead, anyhow.”
“Okay. What else?”
“There’ll be tributes to him on some of the TV sports shows. We think as the family’s current driver, you ought to be the one to go on and talk about Uncle Wiley. It would be best to have a member of the family to direct the reminiscing about him, you know?”
“About the early days?”
“Well, times were different back then. Drinking and carousing. Fighting on the track and off it. You know, Wiley threatened one of the Flock brothers with a tire iron one time. But I was talking about before that. Best forgotten. You could talk about the times you spent with him, going fishing and all.”
Seb stared at his father, suddenly alert. “What are you afraid they’ll mention?”
Chaffee Reese shrugged. “Well, there’s that silly story about Wiley having the Sight—knowing who was going to wreck in the next race. Supposed to run in the family. But I never saw a trace of it.“
Seb said nothing. Things skipped generations, sometimes.
One of the Reese cousins spoke up: “Wiley was no angel back in his younger days. A few brushes with the law. Moonshining, which was common enough around here in those days, but we don’t need it coming out now.”
Seb’s father nodded. “That reminds me, son, Wiley has left his farm to you. Don’t recall if you knew that.”
“He mentioned it once. I thought I’d like to keep it the way it is. Maybe use it as a hunting lodge in the off season.”
“Well, if you find an old still up there in the bushes, for God’s sake, chop it to pieces. We couldn’t take that kind of publicity.”
“And I hope you aren’t thinking of using the place for wild parties or anything, because word would get around in a place like this, you being famous and all. That land ought to be farmed, but I don’t suppose you’d be up for that.”
Seb shook his head “Not with thirty-six Cup races to get through this year. I’ll think about it, though, Dad.”
“One more thing you can take care of while you’re home, Seb. In the last few years Wiley has been in the habit of taking his meals at Ziggy’s, that little roadhouse on the highway near the farm. He’d just run a tab, and at the end of the month, one of us would go down and pay it. You know they’ve got a lot of racing memorabilia in that place, so it would give them a thrill for you to stop by and take care of the bill. Sign a plate for them, pose for pictures. Things like that mean a lot to the fans.”
“I know the drill, Dad.” He wondered if his father ever missed being the driver in the family, and all the attention that came with it. If he did, he gave no sign of it.
Seb had not been inside Ziggy’s Diner since he was a kid, but as far as he could tell, the place hadn’t changed at all. It was the same shabby, one-story building in a gravel parking lot fronting the highway. Inside, the pine-paneled walls and booths with red vinyl seats were just as he remembered them. The only sign of progress was that some of the racing posters now featured current drivers, like Clint Bowyer, instead of some of the old-timers. The Reese family had pride of a place on the back wall—plastered all over it were photos of the race cars, Uncle Wiley, Seb’s dad, and a large poster of Seb himself in his white fire suit. One tradition of Ziggy’s was that there was a small table against the back wall labeled “The Champions,” and no matter how busy they got at Ziggy’s, no one was ever allowed to sit there. The table was a sort of memorial to the departed heroes of racing, and on the wall behind it were photos of Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Bobby Isaac, and of course Dale Earnhardt—all those drivers who had died racing.
But somebody was sitting at the table now—a coarse-featured, blond man in jeans and a red windbreaker. That was odd. Seb had timed his visit for mid-afternoon, so that there wouldn’t be many customers, and the place was nearly deserted. Maybe they had done away with the custom of The Champions’ Table, he thought.
He went up to the counter and told the man at the cash register that he was here to settle his uncle’s tab. “We hope he’ll pull through, and even if he does, it’ll be a while before he comes back, so we’re taking care of things for him.”
The cashier nodded. “We’ll miss him. It’ll take me a few minutes to get you a total on his tab. The records are in the back.”
“Thanks,” said Seb. “By the way, who’s that sitting at The Champions’ Table?”
“Why, nobody. We still keep it empty, out of respect. ’Course, you’re a champion, Mr. Reese, so if you want to sit there, you’re entitled and welcome.”
Seb looked over at The Champions’ Table. The man in the red windbreaker was grinning and motioning him over. Seb pulled a fiver out of his pocket and pushed it across the counter. “Cup of coffee,” he told the cashier. “I believe I will go sit over there while you get me Uncle Wiley’s bill.”
He took his coffee past the empty booths, and sat down at The Champions’ Table facing the wall. He studied the face of the blond man in the opposite chair and then the photos on the wall.
“Don’t bother looking,“ said the man. “I ain’t up there.”
“How come the cashier pretended he couldn’t see you?”
“A better question would be: how come you can? I reckon you must be some part of a Reese.”
“Yeah. That one.” Seb pointed to the poster of himself in the white fire suit. It nettled him not to be recognized. “Who are you? Are you saying you’re a ghost?”
The man smiled, “Well, I never was too good at following rules while I was alive, and it got pretty dull out there in the graveyard, so I up and left. Never could stand dull.”
Seb looked around the deserted dinner. “Doesn’t seem too lively here, either.”
“Oh, I ain’t staying. Just dropped by, and I heard you mention that you were settling up Wiley Reese’s debts, so I figured you and me ought to have a talk.”
Who are you?”
The man smiled again. “Well, I ain’t on the champions’ wall, but I ought to be. Wiley and I go way back. You ever hear tell of Buck Caudill?”
Seb shook his head. “You raced?”
“Not on any fancy speedway, no. I raced up highway 421 many a night, though, with a load of moonshine in my trunk and the law on my tail. Taught Wiley Reese how to drive.”
“Yeah, I heard he ran shine back in the day. Before my time, though.”
Buck Caudill sneered. “Breakfast was before your time, judging by the look of you. But I knew Wiley when he was about your age. We had us a still in the woods. Had to make money somehow, and you couldn’t feed a family off a corn crop any other way. We’d make the stuff, and then drive it to Raleigh or Charlotte to sell, and, like as not we’d have the law on our tail. That’ll teach you to drive. You lose that race, you spend two years in prison.”
“Uncle Wiley went to prison?”
“Naw. I did. He crashed his car on the way to Winston-Salem one night. He got away through the woods, but they had the car and the evidence. But he was married, and I wasn’t, and your daddy had come along by then. So we flipped a coin, and I lost. I told the law I was the one driving it. The weekend after my trial, Wiley took our other car to North Wilkesboro and won a little stock car race. He never looked back. By the time I got out, he was out of the rum-running business and headed for the big time. But I was better behind the wheel than he ever thought about being. I’d be on that wall.” He grinned at Seb. “I reckon your future would be different, too, if that coin had come up tails.”
Seb nodded. “I reckon he owed you, sir. But I don’t think that’s the kind of debt I can pay.”
“I think you can. After I got out of prison, I had a boy of my own, and his family didn’t get the happy-ever-after yours did. I didn’t live to see him grow up. My name’s Buck Caudill. Remember it.”
Half the county turned up at Uncle Wiley’s funeral, plus a camera crew from the local TV station, on account of the old-time drivers of Uncle Wiley’s era who would also attend. Seb thought NASCAR drivers must be the only people in the world who got asked to sign autographs at funerals. At the graveside service, he spent a few minutes talking to people he didn’t know and watching Ned Jarrett sign funeral programs, and then he spotted the face he had seen at The Champions’ Table at Ziggy’s. When he got closer, he realized that what he was seeing was a family resemblance.
The blond man in the plaid hunting jacket held out his hand. “Wanted to come pay my respects. They tell me that my late grandfather was a good friend of Wiley Reese.”
Seb nodded. “So I was told.”
“I’m sorry I’m not dressed up, but I’ve been out of work a while—”
“Listen, it’s Mr. Caudill, isn’t it? Do you have a minute?”
Seb’s father was saying good-bye to some of the older cousins before he took the limo back to Mooresville. Seb himself had taken a helicopter back to the Charlotte airport in order to make Cup practice at Martinsville.
“You hear that Seb just hired himself a caretaker for Wiley’s farm?” said Chaffee Reese. “Some fellow he met at the funeral who was looking for work.”
One of the cousins nodded. “Yeah, that was Dylan Caudill, old Buck’s grandson. He’s the one that got busted last year for running a meth lab in his trailer.”
About the author
Sharyn McCrumb won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and AWA Book of the Year for her novel St. Dale, which was featured at the National Festival of the Book. Named as a “Virginia Woman of History” for 2008, she is known for her Appalachian ballad novels, including the New York Times best-sellers, She Walks These Hills and The Ballad of Frankie Silver. Her novels, studied in universities throughout the world, have been translated into ten languages. She has lectured on her work at Oxford University, at a writers’ workshop in Paris, at the University of Bonn-Germany, and at the Smithsonian Institution. She has presented programs in 40 states, and four foreign countries. The film of her novel, The Rosewood Casket, is currently in production.
McCrumb’s other honors include an AWA Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature Award; the Chaffin Award for Southern Literature; the Plattner Award for Short Story; and AWA’s Best Appalachian Novel. A graduate of UNC- Chapel Hill, with an M.A. in English from Virginia Tech, McCrumb was the first writer-in-residence at Tennessee’s King College. In 2005 she was honored as the Writer of the Year at Emory & Henry College.
While I was researching my novel St. Dale, I became friends with several NASCAR families. My latest book (Faster Pastor) was co-authored with NASCAR/ARCA driver Adam Edwards. This story is a look at the crossroads of a sport that went from a regional pasttime in Uncle Wiley’s day to the billion-dollar international enterprise that Seb belongs to today. Its increasing sophistication and prosperity—with all the attendant loss of charm and authenticity—mirrors that of the Carolina mountains themselves.