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Featured Author Issue 4.2 Summer 2012
Once, I dated a woman who lived in Floyd. In December of 1979, I wrecked my car driving up to visit her. I had to wait beside my battered Ford Fiesta as it dangled over the edge of a cliff for nearly three hours, dreading the arrival of the authorities. Although the accident occurred in a fairly remote corner of Floyd County, enough people drove by the scene to make me feel profoundly embarrassed. In particular, I remember a busload of school children who were inordinately amused. One year and two months later, this woman broke up with me over the phone because in her opinion, my life was “too drab.” So now, I don’t visit Floyd without feeling a twinge of fear and regret. I also still wonder what the citizens of Floyd do when the rest of us aren’t visiting their town. I am convinced that some sort of perpetual celebration goes on in a large, secluded yurt that only local tax payers know about. Admittedly, I don’t have hard evidence, but many Floyd residents that I have talked to sometimes give me a look or a tone of voice that makes me think they also detect a drabness in my company. And so we beat on, Fiestas against the cliffs, borne back into the past.
Radford University English Professor Donald Secreast attended Appalachian State University,
Johns Hopkins, and the University of Iowa, where he received his Ph.D. in English.
He has published two short story collections: The Rat Becomes Light (Harper & Row,
1990) and White Trash, Red Velvet (HarperCollins, 1993). Many of his stories revolve
around a furniture factory in Lenoir, North Carolina. He has traveled through Peru,
Ecuador, and Bolivia with Charles Frazier and co-
Appeared in Issue 2.4 Summer 2010
In the fading light of a September evening, Alton Hendrix inspected the old mobile home as Dale and Marcus carried their tools inside. It was an ancient Airstream. More like an airplane than a trailer. Without a doubt the oldest and biggest one Alton had ever seen. But it was in better shape than a lot of the newer mobile homes that Alton helped repair. In the three years Alton had been working with Dale and Marcus, he had seen all kinds of mobile homes in all stages of destruction. What constantly surprised Alton was how easy it was to repair mobile homes, especially when the repairers were as smart as Dale, who did the carpentry and plumbing work, and Marcus, who did the rest of the carpentry work and the electrical.
One day not too far off, Alton would know how to replace the swaying floors of used
mobile homes by learning the magic placement of a new sheet of plywood. One day,
he would know how to level out sagging window frames by hammering into place the
right length of two-
“You’re in luck tonight, Alton.” With half bent knees, Dale descended the rusty
metal stairs from the Airstream’s tiny front porch as if he was thinking about sitting
down on one of the treads. “Looks like the power’s still hooked up.” He reached the
back of his truck in three long steps and stretched his arm into the clutter he always
carried from job to job. He slid out a small television. “You can watch some tube
tonight.” Dale surveyed the lumpy-
In addition to doing the clean-
Once in a while, Dale or Marcus would bring cooking from home. Dale’s wife put together a pretty good lasagna although about every fifth mouthful surprised Alton with a crunchy corner of pasta. Marcus’s wife liked to share her casseroles. Over his three years of digging through Marcus’s meals from home, Alton had learned to avoid the casseroles that contained green vegetables. However, the orange and yellow casseroles never left him feeling as jittery and lonesome as the green ones. May, Alton’s estranged wife, would call him a scavenger. Lapping up the food strange people scraped onto his plate. Maybe once or twice he had felt a gas bubble or two of shame as he plied his appetite against a green casserole. But when a man lived off the land, Alton believed he shouldn’t complain when he got briars in his gums.
As much as Alton missed his wife’s company, he had to admit that he didn’t miss her cooking. She could just barely tolerate time in the kitchen, and that affliction flavored everything that she heated on the stove, twisting the taste of each meal into a foreign phrase that made Alton feel as if he didn’t belong at his own wobbly dinner table.
To try and understand May’s cooking, Alton had stood in the kitchen while she was throwing together their meals. The room was tiny, almost too small for one cook and one observer. May kept looking over her shoulder at Alton as if he had followed her home from a bus station. Because she didn’t like people to analyze what she was doing, especially in her own house, May made a point out of never asking Alton what his visits to the kitchen were supposed to accomplish. Late at night over the last three years, Alton had wondered if the food at home would have tasted more normal to him if he had offered to cook. But he didn’t know how May would take such an offer.
For the most part, Alton liked his mobile home work. Before Dale and Marcus could start serious repairs, they had to get the damage out of the way. That was what they paid Alton to do. Rip up the old carpets, the old linoleum, the fractured plywood, strip the worst wallpaper, pull down the smashed paneling, scrape the paint, loosen the cracked toilets, tubs, and sinks. They’d just recently trusted him to tack down the replacement carpets.
Alton joined Dale at the back of the truck to retrieve his folding cot and sleeping bag. When Alton first agreed to spend the nights in the mobile homes under repair, he had impressed Dale and Marcus by refusing to ask for a pillow as part of his sleeping gear. As far back as he could remember, he’d never used a pillow. He’d always slept on his back, solid and silent. So profound was his rest that May had complained that she sometimes woke up at night afraid that he’d died.
That concern, as Alton saw it, made him feel treasured by May. Treasure—that was
his favorite word. For Dale and Marcus, treasure was a second-
One day, Alton planned to pull up a frazzled patch of carpet or peel back a papery scab of linoleum and find the secret compartment underneath. When he found his treasure, May would take him back.
Late at night as he lay trying to identify all the different noises escaping from the worried materials of the mobile home where he had been working, Alton tried not to think of his separation from May as a serious crack in his and her marriage. On good nights when he got to sleep in a better than average double wide with pretty clean curtains and maybe an air conditioner that still worked, Alton allowed himself to believe he could call May up and invite her to spend the night. A few of the mobile homes had been almost as nice as motels—especially the ones that still had a plastic palm tree or a large pot of plastic ferns scattered around the living room.
But on those more frequent nights when his heart hung from the truth like a dented chandelier and the ruined room where he listened for beams to crack under the fumes of unwashed and unfulfilled lives, the very nap of the thin carpets crystallized under the sock feet and sweaty finances of people who had abandoned this their first or last home, Alton knew his wife would never join him.
On those hard nights, he had to think of himself as a pirate. To find his treasure, he had to sail away from respectability, from the expectations his wife had for him. He had to sleep alone in stinky places from where not only the rats but the roaches and sometimes even the ants had jumped ship.
“Nice lot.” Marcus had joined Dale and Alton. He had his fingers hooked under the swell of his belly and leaned back slightly as he studied the stubbled two acres where the Airstream sat.
“The real estate agent told me the old woman has a nice well in the back.” Dale hefted the small television onto the broad ledge of his hip. “I’d suspect she put in a good septic tank. Her place is too well kept up not to have an accommodating septic tank.”
Marcus turned his attention back to the trailer for a moment, shading his eyes against the gleam of the metal. “Hear that, Alton? You can shit all you want to tonight. “
Tucking his cot under one arm and his sleeping bag under the other, Alton glanced at the undulating soil and the stumps of broom straw. It reminded him of all the places he’d played as a child. He couldn’t remember how long ago he’d started preferring the indoors to the outdoors. Not so long ago, really. Maybe just as far back as when Troy Helderman told him about the secret compartment he’d found in an old deer head he was remounting for some lawyer in town. Under the hide of the deer, sunk into the plaster mold of the deer’s neck, Troy found a small metal box containing five hundred dollars and a wad of papers. The wad of papers turned out to be important documents that the lawyer and his relatives had been looking for since the owner of the deer head had died. They were so happy to get the papers that they’d let Troy keep the five hundred dollars.
To Alton’s way of thinking, if people hid money in stuffed deer heads, somebody would eventually have to hide some money in a mobile home. This insight had led him to quit his job as part of the grounds crew at New River Community College and join the repair team of Dale and Marcus. He’d tried to explain his theory about secret compartments and mobile homes to May, but she’d thrown him out of the house anyway, unable to see beyond the insurance plan he’d given up.
If she had just taken the time to look around her, where they were living—a cottage
that had once been number four in a series of eight cottages which made up the Blue
Ridge Motor Court, with him and her both working full-
He’d met Dale and Marcus at the community college. They were both taking electrical
courses. One of them had inherited an old mobile home from his mother, and without
striking a lick of improvement on it had been offered four thousand dollars. They’d
offered Alton twenty-
Between the time that Dale and Marcus dropped Alton off in front of his cottage,
May sitting by their door in her lawn chair waiting for the twenty-
At home or at work, the only rest Alton could find came when he put himself in Troy’s story and peeled back the deer fur and found that hole cut in the plaster mold of the deer’s neck. Then pulling out five hundred dollars—like a magician—or a pirate. Always in need of extra money, Alton found himself hypnotized by the idea of simply finding a big wad of wealth. Treasure. That’s what he’d been waiting for all of his working life.
Of course he had to accept the job offer from Dale and Marcus. Yes, May had been right about his giving up all of his state employment benefits. But he had tried to explain to her that if a man could discover treasure, he wouldn’t need state benefits. Besides, helping repair mobile homes provided a whole different bag of benefits. Working for Dale and Marcus was a lot easier than working for the state of Virginia. Once Alton got used to the smell of some of the more abused trailers, he discovered he had a talent for tearing up damaged interiors.
Despite his appreciation of his employers, he enjoyed his job most when he could work without Dale or Marcus spying on him. Just because he worked for them didn’t mean he planned to share the treasure with them. Tonight was perfect because as soon as Dale got the small television talking and Marcus had made sure that Alton had his cooler stocked with beer, they drifted toward the front door.
“You got everything you need to stay comfortable?” Dale stroked the doorknob, noticing for the first time that it was a prismatic crystal instead of metal. “One of you boys remind me to swap this doorknob for one less imposing before we put this trailer on the market.” He glanced down the small hallway toward the bedroom and curled the tip of his tongue over his lower lip. “Looks like the lady might have a couple more glass knobs. Check ‘em for us, Alton.”
Scratching the wallpaper around the kitchen light switch, Marcus glanced down at the doorknob. “You trying to move us into the antique business?”
“Whoever buys this trailer ain’t going to have the right appreciation for glass doorknobs.” Dale let his hand swim deep into his pants pocket and frighten its metallic contents. “These are nicer than any knobs in my house. Or yours.” He opened the door and moved one of his shoulders outside. “Alton, keep your eyes open for other little tasteful touches. Glass knobs makes me wonder what other decorating surprises this place might provide.”
Marcus pushed his way past Dale. “Yeah, Alton. You might want to check the toilet
tank for mother-
With his wrecking bar in one hand and a beer in the other, Alton inspected the mobile home. Looked in pretty good shape. He found crystal knobs on the other four doors. Dale had told him on the drive out that the old woman who’d lived here was over a hundred when she died. She’d done all the upkeep on the trailer herself up until the mailman found her dead at the end of her long, rutted driveway. She’d already made arrangements with Goodwill to take her furniture and clothes.
Usually, mobile homes inhabited by old people had a smell. Not bad as far as Alton
was concerned. It was a smell of mushrooms and dark soil. More often than not, the
carpets that Alton had to rip up had been soaked in urine. He’d gotten used to that
odor. But the Airstream smelled more like the inside of a car or truck. Not the kind
of car kids had thrown up in or milk had spilled in. This smell belonged to a car
driven solo, late at night, maybe beside the ocean with the windows rolled down.
A hint of leather, of gasoline, of internal combustion-
What he couldn’t place didn’t matter now that he was standing at the edge of the small bedroom, his toes just touching the worn gray carpet. As soon as he saw that the carpet had been tacked down with great precision, he opened the two small windows, dropped to his knees, and began prying the carpet loose.
Working the wrecking bar in rhythm to his heart, Alton pumped himself all the way around the bedroom. When he’d returned to the corner where he started, he folded the edge of the carpet over the points of the tacks and pulled it all the way back into the small living/dining room where he rolled it up and thumped it next to the door. The replacement carpet lay shoved against the bottom kitchen cabinets. Alton dragged the new carpet down to the doorway of the bedroom. In all fairness to Dale and Marcus, he thought he should finish the job they paid him for before he searched for the secret compartment.
Resting one foot on the roll of carpet and one hand on the doorframe, Alton hesitated. He had never decided just what a secret compartment should look like. As he had done a few hundred times already, he let his eyes roam over the plywood floor. Looked like it was one solid piece. Except over in that far corner. Alton’s breath snagged on a rectangular outline, slightly larger than a brick, a piece of wood darker than the rest of the floor. He didn’t walk straight to it but instead followed the angle of the wall, afraid if he moved too quickly, the rectangle might disappear.
But it stayed where it was. When Alton stooped down, he could see that he wasn’t looking at some irregularity in the grain of the plywood. Or a stain that had assumed the outline of a door to a treasure. This darker piece of wood was concealing a hole. Two screws in each end of the wood held it down. Alton pushed his finger against the head of each screw, imprinting the Phillips head cross upon his skin. Whoever had cut this hole into the floor then fitted the opening with the small slab of wood possessed a carpentry skill that rivaled Dale’s and Marcus’s. Leaning closer to the secret compartment and running his finger around the little door, Alton could barely feel the joint.
Dale’s toolbox contained at least a dozen screwdrivers. Not wanting to be away from the secret compartment any longer than necessary, Alton simply scooped up two bunches of screwdrivers and ran back to the bedroom. He sat with his legs straddling the hidden door. The way each screw briefly resisted being loosened reminded Alton of May when she would pretend not to be interested in making love while all the time she was locking the door and closing the blinds. Alton had long believed that every screw put into a piece of wood dreamed of being taken out one day. Especially screws that protected a treasure.
Hidden in the compartment was what Alton first thought was a shallow leather box so tightly fitted into the hidden compartment that he didn’t have room enough to work his fingers around. Instead, he had to use a couple of screwdrivers to clamp the box. By the time he got it worked out of the hole, he felt his first wave of disappointment. What he’d found after three years of hunting was a book. He flipped through the heavy pages, hoping maybe hundred dollar bills would fall out. None did. Opening the book to the first page, Alton was further disappointed to see that the book wasn’t even printed. The writing was in somebody’s cursive handwriting, so ornate that he wasn’t sure if it was even English. After a few minutes of letting his eyes and tongue puzzle over the first few words, Alton was able to make out “My name is Amelia Earhart, and I did not die in the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937.”
For a few moments, Alton ran the words through his brain, his eyes turned away from the book the way May turned away from him in their kitchen.
“No kidding,” Alton replied, closing the book. Who’d be interested in an old woman’s diary if all she had to claim was that she hadn’t died in 1937?
Rubbing the heavy book against his thigh, Alton walked back out to the living room
and sat down on his cot. With his connections, Dale might be able to get a few dollars
for the book at the flea market. Alton flipped through the thick pages. Every one
was filled with that urgent handwriting that looked like the long drawn-
Stretched out on his cot, the book resting on his stomach, Alton stuffed his desire
for May back into the bulky chest of memory that always blew open at the worst possible
times because he knew he had to make an important decision: give the book to Dale
and Marcus—which was the simple, dependable way to behave-
Almost like sleep, the thought settled into Alton’s skull. If he gave his employers the book, they’d figure out that he was looking for treasure in their trailers.
Rolling off the cot, Alton hurried the book back into the bedroom, wedged it down
into the secret compartment, and screwed the lid back on. For another three hours,
he trimmed and tacked down the new carpet, making sure he smoothed out every tuck
and wrinkle. When he stepped back from his work, as close to perfect as it’d ever
been, he found himself tired-
BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR DONALD SECREAST
White Trash, Red Velvet. HarperCollins: New York, 1993. (short story collection)
The Rat Becomes Light. Harper and Row: New York, 1990. (short story collection)
Adventuring in the Andes. (with Charles Frazier) Sierra Club Books: San Francisco, 1985. (travel guide)
“Whose Woods These Are.” What Writers Do. Eds. Rand Brandes and Anthony S. Abbott.
Davidson, NC: Lorimerpress, 2011. 30-
“Treasure Trailer.” Floydshine Summer 2010
“Excerpt from If a Woman Comes to Call.” Posting in November 2007 in The Cortland Review.
“A Romance of Reeds.” To be reprinted in the 35th Anniversary Issue of The Cold Mountain
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“Two Steps to Surviving Instantaneous Transportation.” Amazon Shorts.com. posted July 4, 2007.
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“Beside the Still Waters.” Carolina Quarterly 52 (2000): 32-
“The Sins of Summer.” The Oxford American 17 (1997): 51-
“The Necessary Arrangements.” The Crescent Review 2 (1993): 115-
“White Trash, Red Velvet.” The Crescent Review 2 (1993) 7-
“Summer Help.” The Rough Road Home 1992: 235-
“Lady Luck.” The North American Review 275 (1990): 17-
“When Loads Shift.” Carolina Quarterly 42 (1990).
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Criticism and Reviews
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“The Engineer of Disaster.” The World and I September (1999): 270-
“Grace Is Preparation.” The World and I January (1998): 249-
“Edges of Perception in Dean Koontz’s Mask.” to be published in Worlds of Suspense:
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“When Every Femme Was Fatale.” The World and I July (1997): 262-
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“A Moody Bandana Creek.” The Raleigh News and Observer 20 Mar. 1980: 10.
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“Weekend Clouds.” Southern Poetry Review 27 (1988): 38.
“Snow Ledges above the Ulta Valley.” Southern Poetry Review 26 (1986): 60.
“Two Bananas on a Folded Paper Bag.” The Cold Mountain Review (1985): 13.
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“Snake: Carnivorous Dessert.” The Cold Mountain Review 4 (1975): 30.
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