The Omnivorous Reader

A Haunting Tune

A country music star’s harrowing memoir


By Stephen E. Smith

If a memoirist’s job is to make sense of the raw, shifting facts of the past in order to instruct the future, country music singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, best known for having composed and performed the Academy Award-nominated “A Soft Place To Fall,” has a new calling. Her first literary publication, Blood, has the potential to change lives for the better.

This sometimes poetic but more often bitter memoir is no sob story about the hardships of being a celebrity. It’s about the brutal, cold facts of real life. On an August morning in 1986, Moorer, who was 14 at the time, had her world upended when her abusive alcoholic father murdered her mother and then committed suicide in the front yard of their home in Mobile, Alabama.

The expected response to such an intensely traumatic experience might be to distance oneself from these horrifying memories, and Moorer’s older sister, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne, has downplayed this life-altering event by fending off interviewers’ constant questions, claiming to have come to terms with the family ghosts. Moorer has chosen to directly confront the past, and she begins her memoir with a detailed recounting of the murder-suicide.

Although her recollection is sometimes sketchy and often confused by the fact that she was awakened by the gunshots that took her parents’ lives, she relentlessly investigates, ruminating on forensic reports, death records, and by interviewing relatives and friends. Much of what she writes is suggested by personal items and family mementos — photographs, random notes penned by her father, his song lyrics, a coffee cup and keepsakes such as her mother’s ring, which she wears always, and her father’s Gibson guitar, which she continues to play in recording sessions. These items are talismans which Moorer employs to reveal, bit by bit, the terrible events of her childhood, and to demystify the details of the murder/suicide in order to assuage the grief and guilt surrounding her mother’s final moments.

“I hope she didn’t hear me call for her,” she writes. “If I were shot in the chest and in the process of bleeding out in my front yard and heard my child call for me from the side door of the house, I can’t imagine I would die peacefully. The idea that Mama might’ve known I was looking for her haunts me. The idea that she might’ve died hearing me call for her, that my voice might’ve been the last thing she heard and that might’ve served as a terrible torment for her last conscious seconds, brings me indescribable sadness.”

Old photographs foreshadow the tragedy. A 1975 snapshot taken in a chicken coop outside the family home suggests that her mother’s despondency was present early in her marriage. Her posture seems to indicate that clinical depression had “grabbed her around the throat and started slowly choking the life out of her . . . She just looks sad. Resigned. Older than thirty-one.”

In a photo taken in Nashville 10 years later, Moorer detects the same forlorn look as her mother stands beside a display case filled with antique rifles: “. . . the look of ‘I wish I could disappear’” is even more obvious.

Moorer doesn’t employ the customary chronological structure for her storytelling. Chapters jump from one disconnected episode to another, and short lyrical passages are interspersed with the narrative, mimicking the pattern of obsession the author experiences.

“There are things that require no recalling,” Moorer writes. “They are here in the morning, they are here in the evening, they are here in my chest. They are knocked loose and into my mind by a stack of magazines on the floor beside my reading spot, the crossword puzzle in the newspaper, the color of an eggplant, the smell of morning on a work coat . . . ” Still, the narrative progresses in a timely and engrossing fashion, and the final effect is to bring the depth and detail of the story into full, horrifying focus.

Blood is a memoir of despair, the story of a family tiptoeing around unpredictable behavior, drunken abuse and needless cruelty, all of which might have been avoided if Moorer’s father had received treatment for alcohol abuse and depression. She acknowledges his alcoholism but doesn’t offer it as an excuse for his behavior. And she can only wonder about his mental state: “Was he bipolar? I know he was depressed. He was unpredictable. He did dangerous things. I’m pretty certain he didn’t care if he lived or died.”

She speculates that he may have been schizophrenic or suffered a personality disorder, but her judgment is necessarily simplistic and straightforward. Her father was “mad about what he didn’t do with his life” — which is, of course, a common affliction in a society that touts unobtainable goals. Alcohol abuse and mental illness remain constants in American life; the CDC reported more than 47,000 suicides in 2017.

The value of Moorer’s memoir is twofold. First, it is an unburdening, a release for the writer. Committing her past to paper has no doubt forced Moorer to confront her demons and relegated them to a permanent and peaceful place in her life. More important, her storytelling may act as a wake-up call for those who live with physical and emotional abuse, a signal for victims to get out of dangerous relationships — and perhaps the memoir will serve as an eye-opener for those caught in the grip of alcoholism and mental illness, encouraging them to seek treatment, which would be no small accomplishment in a culture plagued by despair, anger and violence.  PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

Simple Life

The World After Rain

A good soak is the gift that keeps on giving


By Jim Dodson

Every year about this time, as another summer’s lease expires, I remark to anyone who will listen (i.e. mostly my dog Mulligan) that we’ve survived the hottest summer ever.

Unfortunately, this year I turned out to be right. According to the National Weather Service, the months of June and July logged their hottest temperatures on record, symptomatic of a year forecasters predict will be hottest in history — for the third summer in a row.

If misery does indeed love company, at least we weren’t sweating it out alone.

In England, suffering through its own record heat wave, jurors weighing evidence in a sensational murder trial in Oxford were dismissed after complaining to the judge of being unable to concentrate due to intense heat. The case involved a church warden and a magician who allegedly conspired to murder a famous Oxford lecturer and his headmistress neighbor in a scheme to steal their pensions and wills, a plot line worthy of Dame Agatha Christie.

The judge halted the proceedings and sent everyone home to rest and cool off. At last check, the jury was still out. But stay tuned for the blockbuster movie.

Across the Channel in France, meanwhile, where dozens of meteorological records suffered heat stroke due to weeks of three-digit temperatures, maps of the country’s hottest zones at one point eerily resembled a human skull, reminding some of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m no fan of summer. Perhaps this is because I am a child of winter, reportedly born in the midst of a snowstorm.  Or possibly it’s because I lived on the coast of Maine for more than two decades and grew accustomed to summers that are short but cool affairs, ruining me for increasingly hot Southern summers.

Curiously, when I think back on my boyhood — a kid growing up in three different small towns of the deep South — summer heat never seemed to get under my collar the way it does now.

In Mississippi, a beautiful state beach lay just across the highway from our house. There was always an evening breeze off the water, and my mother and I used to go there in late afternoon to wade in the tranquil surf of the Gulf of Mexico to hunt for interesting wash-ups. Someone at the weekly newspaper my father owned told me that the Gulf offered the widest variety of shells in the world, an idea that inspired me to mount dozens of beautiful sea shells — striped turbans, Scotch bonnets, false angel wings — on a pair of lacquered pine boards.

The pressman at the newspaper also informed me that we lived in the heart of “Hurricane Alley,” which prompted me to begin watching for signs of gathering thunderstorms that boiled up far out over the Gulf and swept ashore with curtains of wind and rain. Secretly, I confess, I hoped a real hurricane might blow ashore, having no clue what might have resulted. A few years ago, the town where we lived was almost erased from the map by just such a September storm.

The next stop in our family odyssey was a small South Carolina town that could have been the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird. Save for a beautiful African-American lady named Jesse who nursed my mom back to health after a pair of late-term miscarriages and taught me to “feet dance” to the gospel music she played from a transistor radio in the open kitchen window, my long summer days were spent either in a wicker chair on a wide side porch reading my first chapter books or — like smart dogs across the sultry South — burrowing into the cool dirt beneath the house, where I played for hours with my painted Greek and Roman soldiers.

The days I liked best were those soothing gray affairs when a soft, steady rain fell all day and into the night, refreshing a parched world with its soothing music. Today, whenever I see the TV spot for the popular Calm app — featuring a full minute of nothing but gentle rain dripping from leaves  — I’m reminded of something Miss Jesse liked to say. “Slow rain is a gift, child. This tired old world is like new after a good rain.”

In Wilmington, the next stop on our Magical Mystery Tour of Southern newspapers, we joined the Hanover Seaside Club on Wrightsville Beach, where after a long day on the searing beach I liked to sit in a big rocking chair on the club’s open-air porches, slugging down ginger ale as I eavesdropped on grown-up cocktail chatter about politics and weather. On at least two occasions a hurricane was in the vicinity.

Small people have big ears, as my mother liked to remind my father at such times. But I remember a few of his corny summer heat jokes to this day.

It was so hot today I saw a dog chasing a cat and they both were walking.

Did you hear? It was so hot today, why, the chickens were laying omelets and cows were giving powdered milk.

These days, of course, owing to global warming, rising seas and other factors, ordinary thunderstorms seem more menacing than ever, and hurricanes have become even more lethel.

Last September the citizens of Wilmington were marooned by a lady named Florence that dumped catastrophic amounts of rain on the coastal Carolina region, killing 51 people and doing a record amount of damage to property.

A month later, tropical storm Michael turned into the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the Florida panhandle, obliterating Mexico Beach and adjacent communities before churning up through the Carolinas and knocking over record numbers of trees and power lines across the Piedmont. Four huge oaks went down on our street alone, which left us in the dark for over a week. At least two of our neighbors’ houses were severely damaged, but thankfully nobody was killed or injured.

In Michael’s wake, however, tree crews began combing the neighborhood, playing on people’s fears as they went door to door.

For the moment at least, we are willing to accept the risk of living in an urban forest beneath stately century-old white oaks, if only for the kindness of shade they offer in summer and cathedral-like beauty they present come fall.

Besides, at the start of the summer just ending, I made my wife smile by claiming that I was going to fully embrace the heat of this summer the way I did as a boy — with grace and a true sense of wonder, and absolutely no grumbling about the horrible heat.

“Oh, nice. Are you planning to spend the summer in Sweden?” came the cheeky reply

I suppose she knows me all too well. For a while, at least, I gamely managed to live up to this impossible goal, as abundant rain in May and half of June made my garden flourish and the staff gardener smile.

Then came July and someone thoughtlessly turned off the great spigot in the sky —  turning yours truly into Edvard Munch’s Scream.

Despite heavy watering by hand — city water is no match for the kind that comes from the clouds — my garden withered during a solid month of relentless 90-plus days of heat and sunshine. Every little pop-up thunderstorm on my weather radar app, alas, seemed to just miss our little patch of earth, a personal affront that soon had me swearing an oath that next summer, “Stockholm here I come!” One afternoon when I least expected it, burrowed away in my air-conditioned tree-house office, my wife phoned to report that a cold front was bringing a series of thunderstorms our way.

I told her that I would believe it when I smelled it.

Not 10 minutes later, I heard the thunder and stepped outside.

Ten minutes after that it was raining gloriously. I actually stepped out into my garden with my arms outstretched, savoring the smell and feel of summer-ending rain like the character Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption who, after he finds his way to freedom by crawling through a prison sewer pipe to a rain-swollen creek, strips off his clothes and stretches out his arms to embrace the water of heaven. I’ve watched that movie half a dozen times and never fail to find that scene deeply moving, a metaphor for the power of love and a tired old world washed clean.  b

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at

Wine Country

Cape of Good Wines

A feast of South Africa’s finest


By Angela Sanchez

South Africa is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, full of dichotomies, and singular in the world of wine. Whenever I mention its wines to people I get two types of responses — either they are excited to talk about South Africa and already love the wines; or they look confused and have no point of reference for either. But South Africa is near to my heart, and the wines are a great way to talk about the place, its people, its beauty and its history.

The Dutch brought vines to the Cape of South Africa in 1655, making it the oldest New World wine-growing region (North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa making up the New World). It’s a long history but not always a great one.

During apartheid, the country was shut off from exchanging ideas, vines and modern innovations with other wine-producing countries. During that time, not only did South African vintners and growers miss out on a time of intense modernization and progress in the industry, many of their vines were diseased. Unable to bring in new, healthy vines to graft from or plant they often produced wines from diseased vines, resulting in inferior quality and taste.

Once apartheid ended, producers were able to travel, host and network with other vintners and producers around the world to replant their vines and modernize their facilities and winemaking techniques. It brought them not only into the modern age but also, in many ways, into a leadership role in the industry. Today South African growers and vintners partner with the government to ensure that not only are the wines and vineyards managed properly, fitting designated quality standards, they ensure that workers in the vineyards and wineries are treated fairly, with equal pay and protection. It’s a higher ethical standard than any other wine-producing country.

People are often shocked to find out that the Cape growing region has almost 550 active wineries. Of those, about 200 are registered to produce estate bottled wines, meaning the winery will be producing wines that come solely from their own vineyards — nothing will be purchased from other producers for those bottlings marked “estate.” A much smaller percentage, closer to about 50 wineries, actually produce wine that is truly estate bottled.

This is not to say that only a handful of wineries are producing good, or even great, bottles of wine. Many wineries and co-ops in the Cape are today producing some of the best values in the wine world. Chenin blanc, or “steen” in the Cape, is the most widely planted white grape varietal, and cabernet sauvignon is the most highly planted red. If you’re looking for fresh, easy-drinking styles that retail under $15-20 a bottle, seek these out.

For something truly unique, try a bottle of pinotage. It is a hybrid cross of pinot noir and cinsault created in South Africa, and can be a wonderful representation of place — earthy, smoky and jammy. Spice route pinotage is a generous style of this varietal. Dry farmed (without irrigation) in an arid and tough terrain from old vines, it produces a wine with briar fruit and dusty, peppery notes.

Each Cape growing region, or ward, is vastly different, one to the other. Drastic changes in elevation and topography make the wines and their characteristics as diverse as the regions themselves. One of the largest and best-known growing regions is Stellenbosch. The wines of this “district” are marked by the wide diversity of styles, driven by the different of types of soil, ranging from sandstone to granite. Two of my favorite producers for quality and value in the region are Neil Ellis and Man Vintners. Neil Ellis Stellenbosch Cabernet and Man Coastal Chenin Blanc are two great examples of amazing wines, showing distinct characteristics true to Stellenbosch while balancing a world-class line of quality between old and new world.

Another one of my favorite growing areas is Walker Bay, located in the Cape Overbay Region. Running along the “whale coast,” where the Southern right whale comes to mate, it’s a breathtakingly beautiful region. With a higher elevation and cooler climate than Stellenbosch, Walker Bay produces world-class chardonnay and pinot noir, especially from the area of Hemel-en-Aarde, meaning Heaven and Earth in Afrikaans. There are a few small estate producers in this highly distinctive region that are unlike any others in the Cape or the world. Cool Atlantic breezes and a fog that lingers over the vineyards keep the heat away, and the moisture around the vines helps produce the beautiful grapes that become such remarkable wines like those of Hamilton Russell Vineyards.

There are more growing regions in the Cape than I can possibly mention here. It’s home to species of flora and fauna that are not found anywhere else in the world, some of the oldest soils on the planet, and people determined to treat their land and people with respect, making it a dynamic place for growing grapes and producing wines — truly the best (blend) of Old and New World styles.

Welcome South African wines into your life and enjoy the diversity.  PS

Angela Sanchez owns Southern Whey, a cheese-centric specialty food store in Southern Pines, with her husband, Chris Abbey. She was in the wine industry for 20 years and lucky enough to travel the world drinking wine and eating cheese.

Photograph by John Koob Gessner


The Sound of You

This morning I wake to music,

the sound of the cat lapping water from the glass on my nightstand,

and wish I could capture the softness with words.

The 1-2-3 rhythm sends me waltzing with you in the garden,

in the kitchen, kissing in the rain on the sidewalk,

and I wonder why I’ve only written love poems for the ones who broke my heart.

The cat is still drinking, and as you sleep,

I wish I could capture your softness.

Then it hits me.

Those love poems were never for them.

I wrote them as if the words might fill the cracks,

as if my own love might mend my brokenness,

as if, some day, I might learn to waltz.     

The coffee is steeping, and as you stir from sleep,

love spills from me freely, not to fill some void,

but because there is so much here.

Drink from this sacred fountain. Dance beneath it.

Like every love poem you have ever written,

this is and has always been yours.

  — Ashley Wahl

In The Spirit

Good Ol’ Rittenhouse

Rye whiskey that was love at first sip


By Tony Cross
Anyone in the bar business is well aware of Rittenhouse Rye. It is, without a doubt, the best bang for your buck mixing rye whiskey on the market. Rittenhouse’s popularity comes with a price (and not attached to a dollar sign); it’s hard to find. Granted, it’s currently sitting on the shelf of the closest ABC to me. The question is: For how long? If you’re a fan of anything from old-fashioneds to Sazeracs, drop what you’re doing and call your local ABC right away and have them hold a bottle for you. Chances are, they’re already sold out.
I became familiar with Rittenhouse almost a decade ago when I first dived into the world of making drinks. A couple of recipes from well-known bartenders called for Rittenhouse when a rye was needed. Our ABC wasn’t carrying it at the time, and never had. The only way for me to get my hands on it was by ordering a case. I was managing a restaurant at the time, and had just become the main bartender. A case of rye that I never had before was a little risky, especially with a $360 price tag. Luckily for me, it was love at first sip, and before I knew it, that first case was almost gone! It was a few cases later when my local ABC hub informed me that they were going to stock the rye. The combination of my case orders and myriad customers (that frequented my bar) requesting the whiskey seemed to get the ball rolling. Not that I’m responsible for Rittenhouse having a (semi) permanent spot on my local store’s shelf . . . I’m just saying.
Rittenhouse Rye was founded in 1934 in Philadelphia, and was started after Prohibition ended in December 1933. It was named after the American astronomer, mathematician, inventor (and on, and on), David Rittenhouse. Originally titled “Rittenhouse Square Rye,” it was named after one of William Penn’s squares in Philly that was originally called “Southwest Square” but later renamed “Rittenhouse Square” as a tribute to David. It is currently produced in Kentucky by Heaven Hill Distillery.
Rittenhouse is a bonded rye; you’ll see “Bottled in Bond” on the label. At the end of the 19th century, there were a lot of distillers popping up everywhere that were selling, well, crap hooch. Bankers and other higher-ups with money started lobbying Congress; they wanted a law that guaranteed that their spirit was of high quality. Thus, the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 was born. Whiskey from there on out was to come from one distillery during one distilling season, and had to be aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years, and bottled at 100 proof. I’m sure that most politicians sent this bill through quickly for personal reasons as well. Not complaining. The tradition continues, as every bottle of Rittenhouse is bottled in bond.
Today, we are lucky to have a huge selection of rye whiskeys to choose from. Even if our local ABC store doesn’t have a great offering, you can always explore other state’s liquor stores, and/or shop online. With that being said, you can never go wrong with Rittenhouse. It’s great neat, on the rocks, or in classic cocktails.
Personally, I’ve always gravitated toward rye whiskies when it came time to make most whiskey forward cocktails. The first proper cocktail I ever made was a Manhattan. When I was behind the stick, no matter what time of year, I always had a Manhattan on my menu. And it was made with Rittenhouse. It’s spicy, but not over-the-top. It’s got a touch of sweetness, but nothing compared to a bourbon. It’s the best. There are other ryes that I love, but Rittenhouse will always be a staple in my bar.
When I was sitting on my first case of Rittenhouse, I had at least three or four cocktails on my menu with rye. I was trying to get our guests to give classic cocktails with whiskey a shot. This was at a time when neon-colored drinks were popular and every other menu had “tini” printed on it with vodka as the spirit. I wanted people to understand why classics are just that. Rittenhouse helped, from our Sazeracs to our sours. “I never liked whiskey drinks, but this one is delicious!” was starting to become common buzz. If memory serves, we added a New York Sour to the menu the first fall that I was behind the bar. Off the bat, it was aesthetically appealing, which usually got a group of our guests talking when someone from the table ordered it. After sharing a few sips, more orders would follow suit.
New York Sour
2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup (2:1)
1 egg white (optional)
1/2 ounce red wine (I used malbec)
Lemon peel to garnish
Combine rye, lemon juice, simple syrup (and egg white if you choose) into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake hard for 10 seconds (longer with egg whites) and strain into a rocks glass with ice. Using the back of a bar spoon, slowly float the red wine atop the cocktail. Garnish with a swath of lemon peel. PS
Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.


Blue Streak

Listen for the sound of the blue grosbeak’s loud “chip” call this time of year

By Susan Campbell

’Tis the season for the annual appearance of blue grosbeaks! Begin spotting this handsome, medium-sized songbird any day now along fencerows and on electric wires in rural areas throughout the Piedmont. Returning to the United States in April after long winter stays in Central America and the Caribbean, blue grosbeaks breed across much of America, from central California throughout the Plains states and up into Virginia. And now, ahead of migration southward to tropical wintering grounds, these chunky songbirds seek out easy seed sources in order to bulk up before the long journey south.

Although this bird is common throughout the Piedmont during the breeding season, it is often missed by casual observers. It is a bird of both pine and mixed forest, often encountered along edges associated with farming. Blue grosbeaks’ large silvery bill is what really makes this bird distinctive. The sexes are quite different, with males a dark blue. Also look for a small black mask around the bill and eyes, as well as chestnut wing bars.  Females are more of a cinnamon hue than blue, with rusty wing bars and a bit of blue on the rump extending into the tail. Immature females have plumage very much like their mothers’.

Plumage counts. Some males in their first spring will not breed successfully because they do not have the extensive blue of fully mature males and are not able to attract mates in order to start a family.  However, after a full year of singing, fighting and extensive experience foraging, they will become excellent prospects come their second spring as long as they survive the winter.

The blue grosbeak’s song is a rich warble, and their call a loud, metallic “chip.” Hearing these vocalizations is the best way to find them, given their propensity for spending a lot of time in thick vegetation. They prefer shrubbery for breeding, look for nests low in thick vegetation and viny tangles. The nest is a compact cup-shaped affair comprised of twigs, grasses, leaves and rootlets, often studded with paper, string or other litter. Blue grosbeaks are one of only a few migrant species that raise not just one, but two broods of between three and five young in a season.

Unfortunately blue grosbeaks all too often end up unwittingly raising the young of parasitic brown-headed cowbirds. Cowbird females are experts at laying eggs in the nests of other species found in open or semi-open habitat. The eggs, which are larger, generally hatch ahead of the hosts’ brood.  They produce young that then grow larger and faster, oftentimes outcompeting the nestling grosbeaks.

Like most of our songbirds, this species feeds heavily on insects in the summer months.  Caterpillars make up a significant portion of the diet. But blue grosbeaks also will hunt for food at or near ground level, collecting adult grasshoppers and crickets as well as other large insects. Their outsized bills are effective at breaking up prey items as well as large seed, such as sunflower kernels. Expect individual blue grosbeaks to show up at feeding stations soon — but they do not congregate the way other finches do.  So keep an eye out if you live on the edge of town or in a more rural location. Spotting one of these distinctive birds is quite a treat!  PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos.  She can be contacted by email at or by phone at (910-695-0651).

Drinking With Writers

Coffee with Conscience

Best-selling novelist Amy Reed on Asheville writers, young adult
books and the challenge of living one’s values

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

There are countless humiliations specifically reserved for writers, from online reviews — Book arrived late. One-star — to empty chairs in the audience at a reading to sitting beside someone on an airplane who, after asking you what you do for a living, tells you he or she has never heard of you or your books.

One rarely discussed humiliation is the signing line. Signing lines can be lonely places for authors, especially during literary festivals when a much better known and beloved writer is signing hundreds of books at the table beside yours. Once, at a book festival in Nashville, Tennessee, I signed — which is to say I did not sign — books beside Bill Bryson. I also did not sign books beside Sue Monk Kidd at a literary festival in Florida. Last year, at the Doris Betts Spring Literary Festival in Statesville, North Carolina, I did not sign books beside novelist Amy Reed.

In early August, Amy and I sat down over coffee at Odd’s Café on Haywood Road in West Asheville, North Carolina, and I reminded her of our time together signing (and not signing) books at the festival in Statesville. Amy moved to Asheville from Seattle years ago, and she regularly writes at Odd’s Café, which, like most things in West Asheville, is odd. A few years back, the slogan “Keep Asheville Weird” appeared, and while Asheville as a whole has gotten less weird over the ensuing decade, West Asheville has maintained the city’s weirdness, its penchant for the arts, and an open invitation to artists of all kinds.

A stroll down Haywood Road in the heart of West Asheville reveals gorgeous murals painted on the sides of independent bookstores, coffee shops and hipster consignment stores. I feel more at home in West Asheville than I do in just about any other place in the country, and Amy Reed might just agree. Our conversation quickly turns to the city’s writing community.

“There are so many amazing writers here, especially young adult writers,” she says. She takes a sip of her coffee and gazes out at Haywood Road, where people pass in cars and on foot. The names of the local writers she rattles off next are a virtual Who’s Who of national and international bestsellers: “Alan Gratz, Alexandra Duncan, Stephanie Perkins, Beth Revis, and Jaye Robin Brown are just a few. Asheville’s writing community is so welcoming. Writing is a solitary profession, so it’s great when you’re able to connect with another writer.”

It is not just her colleagues in the local YA community that Amy has connected with. I remind her of the string of young people who waited in line to have their books signed at the literary festival in Statesville. Most of them were clutching a copy of her novel The Girls of Nowhere, which tells the story of three high school girls in Oregon who band together to fight back against misogyny and abuse at their high school, an act that transforms not only the students and their teachers, but their entire town.

I ask her why she thinks The Girls of Nowhere resonates with so many young people. “There’s just something universal about the teen experience,” she says. “When we’re teens we’re the most vulnerable and raw, and the stakes are so high. Teens want to read about themselves and their problems, and sometimes adults want to remember the teenagers they were.”

I agree. There is value in finding yourself on the page, and you can always return to the books you loved as a teen and find yourself there, which may explain adults’ sustained love for books like The Outsiders, Catcher in the Rye, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I ask Amy what kind of reader she was as a teenager growing up in Seattle. She laughs and rolls her eyes. “I loved Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath,” she says. “It was Seattle in the ’90s. Grunge was everywhere, but I was into female singer/songwriters. I was emo before emo was a thing. I was that girl.”

My two daughters, ages 4 and 3, are sitting at a table beside us, playing quietly. I confide to Amy that I consider my own books as time capsules that my daughters can read to discover who I was and what was important to me. I ask her if she thinks of her own books that way, as breadcrumbs she is leaving behind for her 6-year-old daughter so that she can know what her mother believed to be important and true.

“I do,” she says. “I try to live in a way that mirrors my values, especially now that I have a daughter. She was raised understanding that women and girls are strong and independent. I think she will find that in my books.”

Amy’s new novel, The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World, tells the emotional and humorous story of two young outcasts — an optimistic boy named Billy and a cynical girl named Lydia — whose bond may just save the world just as the world seems to be ending. Despite its surreal plotline, which involves a narcissistic rock star and a war between unicorns and dragons, the book is a lesson in honesty and vulnerability.

Apparently, writing about the apocalypse interested Amy enough to imagine a dystopian America in her next novel, which she describes as a near future gender-swapped, feminist retelling of The Great Gatsby set on an island off the coast of Seattle. “It’s very weird and dark and twisty,” she says. “In the novel, the world is falling apart, but the girl at the center of the book is able to find her own power.”

I’ll read it, and, once they are old enough, I’ll want my daughters to read it, too.  b

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Fortune Hunting

A not so quiet day in the country

Fiction by A.J. Rothwell   


Lord Blenkinsop was a good man. Good family. Acquaintance of the king. Wide of girth. Not the sharpest knife. Took his responsibilities seriously, though, always had.

One of them being the further education of his nephew Nigel Carruthers.

When he was 19, Nigel’s courageous Royal Naval father, Captain William Carruthers, had been killed by a musket ball on his own poop deck while serving His Majesty on the sloop HMS Orion, fighting the French off Brest. “Damn that little shrimp Boney and his dastardly ambitions,” muttered His Lordship at Carruthers’ funeral as the service wore on. And that is when, in an instant, he decided that it was his solemn duty, in loco parentis, so to speak, to make sure Nigel was schooled in the ways of the world.

With no children of his own he had always taken an interest in the boy, who he felt had lived a rather sheltered life, as it were, fencing and dancing instructors, if you please. The result was that he had few friends of his own age with whom to get out and about.

When Blenkers (as he was affectionately known in the family) put the idea to Marjorie Carruthers she agreed wholeheartedly — the tutoring had been her husband’s idea and had severely restricted her social life, as it required her to be at home rather than out with the fashionable set to which she felt she belonged, a ruse of the oft-absent Captain. But now that her husband had departed this mortal coil, Blenkinsop’s notion suited her down to the ground: She needed to see and be seen in society, even if her attire was, temporarily, mourning black.

His Lordship planned an agenda for the proper instruction of a young man entering London society. First he took him to his club, where he had his first proper taste of alcohol, a brandy no less, reading The Times in a large leather armchair after a good lunch — quite the gentleman about town. On another day they went to a coffee shop, a place of male intrigue if ever there was one, concluded Nigel; it appealed to him a great deal, and he entered into some interesting conversations. On another it was off to the House of Commons, where shouting down the current speaker seemed to be the order of the day, but where again he took a keen interest in the proceedings. In the evenings they visited a tavern or two, where he evinced quite a deal of attention from the ladies, unused to seeing young men in their teens in city inns.

The longer this “education” went on the more Nigel seemed to be enjoying it. He was getting a taste for ale and brandy, and His Lordship was very pleased with the way the programme was proceeding and with the boy’s keen interest and sharp mind. “Blossoming, if you ask me,” reported Blenkinsop to Marjorie Carruthers, “like a bottle long-stoppered, finally released!” She’d noticed the change too and was all for it — the more he was his own man the more freedom she would have.

Next it was to be the country, for they were “cits,” and if you were a cit it was fashionable to spend time getting back to your roots by going out to the country — riding, hunting and mixing with the country folk. “Salt of the earth,” Lord B proclaimed to Nigel, “not used to the ways of London, but happy with their lot. Hearts of oak don’t you know. They’d give you the shirt off their back. I’ll take you out as my groomsman and show you the ropes.”

On the appointed day for their country excursion, Lord B hired a post chaise, which took them, already regaled in their equine garb, to Sarratt in Hertfordshire and to The Boot Inn, where decent hunting horses were to be had by the day for a few shillings. The vicar of Sarratt was an old acquaintance of His Lordship and had spoken glowingly of the countryside around the village. They looked quite a pair — Lord Blenkinsop being, let us say, rotund and dressed in traditional hunting clothes straining at the seams, while Nigel was as thin as a rake and attired in a baggy blue groom’s coat and wide-brimmed hat — not exactly the country squires they hoped to be taken for.

They duly arrived at The Boot, ordered two horses to be saddled, and after a pint of ale and some bread and cheese, they mounted up. Using a rough map the landlord prepared for them with a recommended route, they made their way past the church until they were able to break off into the fields and copses.

They spent the next hour or so pretending to be huntsmen, shouting “tally-ho,” chasing after imaginary foxes and wishing they had guns whenever a pheasant got up in front of them. Following the map, they eventually started to head back to the village when the horses suddenly set back their ears and made for a stand of trees some way off at a good gallop. In spite of their best attempts to slow them down, the horses kept to their course, and before long, arrived among the trees where they came to a halt in a clearing. The would-be huntsmen, who couldn’t understand what had gotten into the horses, dismounted to get their breath back, and as they did so, an old lady and a good-looking young wench, both dressed in ragged clothes, emerged from the trees and started to feed apples to the horses.

As they did, the old lady spoke: “What you be doin’ ’ere, sur?

“If you must know, we’re just out from London, taking the air and getting a little exercise,” said Blenkinsop rather testily, unused as he was to being questioned by someone dressed in rags.

“You be trespassin’ on those ’orses, sur,” said the old lady. “This be crown land, belongin’ to the king you understan’, only folks on foot ’ave roight o’ way ’cross it.”

Oh, dear,” said His Lordship, now looking distinctly flushed.

“But we don’t ’ave to report it to no one under certain circumstances,” the old lady continued, half closing one eye and raising a crooked finger to make her point.

“And what would those circumstances be?” asked Lord B.

“Well, let me see now,” said the old lady, “how about you press some silver into my palm and I’ll tell your fortune, and Mary here will tell your young friend’s and we need never say nothing more ’bout it.”

“I suppose that would be all right,” said Blenkinsop, softening, as he had no desire to do anything that would put him in bad odor with His Majesty, to whom he owed his peerage. “How much would you suggest?”

Not the best question, for it gave the old lady the upper hand.

“Well, let’s see,” said she. “I should think a couple o’ guineas should cover the situation.”

“Two guineas!” exclaimed Blenkinsop, turning red in the face. “That’s highway robbery, ma’am, and you know it!”

“Do I? Do I, now?” said the old crone. “Well, suit yerself. We’ll just ’ave to report yer then, won’t we?”

“That won’t be necessary,” said His Lordship, who knew when he was on the losing end of a bargain from a lifetime of experience, “but these fortunes better be good.”

During this exchange Nigel had been ogling the young girl, who had gained his complete attention. She was the comeliest girl he had ever seen, and she was also showing an interest in him. Unfortunately for our heroes, they had not noticed that, while thus distracted, a third gypsy was hanging down from a tree and rifling through the portmanteau on the back of Blenkinsop’s horse while a fourth was expertly picking his pockets.

Meanwhile, the old lady held out her hand to Lord B, who reluctantly took out the necessary coinage from his waistcoat pocket. She carefully counted the money and told the wench — Mary, she called her — to get started.

The young girl took Nigel’s hand. “That’s an intrestin’ palm if ever oi saw ’un,” said she. “Let’s see now. Yer’ll ’av a long loif, sur, an’ yer’ll be lucky in luv an’ be blessed wi’ many healthy chillen. That’s all oi see there.”

“Is that it?” exclaimed Lord B. “That’s about a shilling a word! Is that the best you can do?”

The old lady chimed in, “If oi were you, sur, I’d remember wot oi said about trespassin’ on the king’s land an’ count moiself lucky. Now let’s see yer palm.”

Come on, Nigel, I’m not waiting to hear what rot they have to say about me,” said His Lordship, resigned to having been taken advantage of. “Let’s leave these witches and get back to the inn and wash the taste of them out of our mouths.”

“Wery noice sentiments, oi must say,” said the old lady. “Be off wi’ yer then an’ take more care where yer go nex’ toim.”

The horses, it seemed, had had their fill of apples and were content to take their riders back to the The Boot, with Nigel occasionally looking back to see if he could get a last glimpse of the girl — he could still feel her hand holding his — but she had disappeared. They arrived at the tavern and looked for the landlord to tell him what had happened, but he was nowhere to be seen. They told the coachman to load their belongings into the post chaise and stand guard, ordered their ale from a serving girl and fumed over their expensive experience.

After a while they began to relax, deciding to order another ale “for the road,” and Lord B finally saw the funny side of their outing when Nigel commented on his statement about country folk giving them the shirts from their backs.

“More like we lost our shirts,” guffawed Lord B, a typical Blenkers attempt at humour. “Time to go. Your mother will be wondering what’s happened to us.”

“I’ll need to relieve myself for the journey first, Uncle,” said Nigel.

Off you go then, I’ll settle up. See you in the coach.”

Nigel made his way across the inn’s courtyard and ’round behind the stables to the privy, but as he was standing there he heard muffled voices from inside. In disbelief he thought he recognized the old lady’s scratchy voice. Could it be, he thought, and leant closer to the wall.

“Oh yes, we took ’em proper” she was saying. “You trained them ’orses well, Jim — came straight to us, didn’t they, Mary? They luv them apples! Two guineas in my palm and Billy ’ere got two pocket watches with chains and our Sal got a couple o’ silk kerchiefs. ’Ere’s yer share and good luck to the lot o’ us!”

By this time Nigel had crept round the front of the building, grabbed a pitchfork leaning up against the wall, and threw open the door, shouting, “Caught you red-handed, you scoundrels! You’re not getting away with this! Do you know that’s Lord Blenkinsop you just robbed, a confidente of the king himself, whose name you just took in vain out there in the woods — probably a hanging offence!”

With which he leveled the pitchfork at the landlord’s throat as though it was a rapier and said, “Put all the money and the watches in the handkerchiefs and tie them up and hand them over.” He made a jab with the pitchfork to show he meant business. The landlord flinched, and with trembling fingers did as he was told. He had gone white, while the women just stood there, their mouths gaping open.

“Now the next part is up to you,” Nigel said looking at them one by one. “We can either have a constable come out here and have you all arrested and locked up, if you’re not hung, or you can solemnly swear that you will discontinue this loathsome practice here and now.”

This statement was greeted with silence other than the sound of the old lady wringing her hands and moaning and the landlord’s knees knocking. “Very well, I shall call my uncle and he will take the matter over.”

“No, no, no,” said the landlord, looking at the others, who nodded vehemently in agreement. They knew the penalties for what they were doing and it sounded like they were going to be given a second chance. “That won’t be necessary, young sir. We were misguided. Very misguided. We’ll stop today, here and now, we swear. On the Holy Bible. Don’t we, ladies?”

“Yes. Yes.” they said, out of very dry throats.

“Very well,” said Nigel, “but to make sure you do, Lord Blenkinsop will write a letter to his friend the vicar here and tell him what has transpired today, that you have sworn to stop your thievery, but that if he hears anything to the contrary he is to contact us and we will put the wheels in motion for you all to be arrested. Good-bye to you and I hope I never have to see your faces again.”

One last look at the girl, who didn’t know whether to be impressed or furious, and Nigel was gone, climbing into the coach. Seconds later they were out of the courtyard and on the road back to London when His Lordship asked, “Do you usually take so long to relieve yourself, my boy? I wondered what had happened to you.”

Nigel’s reply was to ask him to open his hands. “Playing a game, are we?” he inquired.

“You’ll see, Uncle,” said Nigel, then pulled out the handkerchiefs from his pocket and untied them.

“Good lord,” said his uncle, “there’s my money — and our watches! Where did they come from?”

Nigel recounted the whole story to an astonished member of the peerage. Blenkers wasn’t sure if his nephew had made the right decision about letting them off so lightly, but he was impressed with the young man’s quick thinking and courageous action.

“Your father would have been very proud of you, as am I,” he said. “Swift, decisive action. Definitely a chip off the old Carruthers block!”

“And to think I was taken with that girl back there,” said Nigel, shaking his head.

“A part of your education I hadn’t reckoned on, I must say,” replied Lord B with a wry smile.

The poste chaise eventually arrived back at the Carruthers residence after a most interesting, and as it turned out, exciting day.

“Do we tell your mother?” asked His Lordship.

“Let’s just tell her we’ve had a good day fortune hunting, eh, Uncle? What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”  PS

A. J. “Tony” Rothwell moved to Pinehurst in 2017, exchanging the mind-numbing traffic of Washington, D.C., for the vagaries of golf. He spent 50 years in the hotel business but in retirement collects caricatures, writes short stories, sings in the Moore County Choral Society and, with his wife Camilla, enjoys the many friends they have made in the Sandhills.

Fact and Fiction

Captain Carruthers would have been on blockade duty off Brest, intended to stop French ships getting in or out of harbour. It was long and tedious duty but every now and again one or more ships would take a chance and a sea battle would ensue if they were spotted. Both the French and the English employed snipers with muskets in the top rigging to shoot officers with the objective of weakening the resolve and organization of the opposing force.

The king referred to is George III, known affectionately by his subjects as Farmer George from his rather bucolic manner of speech.

There is to this day an inn called The Boot in Sarratt, Hertfordshire, built in 1739, some 40 years before the setting for this story.

“Cits” ( a slang name for people who lived in the city of London at the time of the setting for this story) had a hankering for the pursuits and clean air of the countryside, for much of London was squalid, unsavory and smoky. Further evidence of this is that two of the most popular painters of the day were George Stubbs, who specialized in horses, and George Morland, who painted rustic scenes.

Robbery was punishable by hanging, especially if violence was involved, in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

“Fortune Hunting” is an original print, engraved by the great caricaturist James Gillray from a sketch by Brownlow North who would bring ideas to Gillray so that he could have prints run off to give to his friends. It was hand-colored and published in 1804.

As for the rest — pure fiction.

Sporting Life

Remembering a Hero

A cabin, a pack of Red Man and a distant war

By Tom Bryant

Sometimes fall has a way of sneaking up right in the middle of summer, or maybe it just seems like it. That’s the way it was just prior to dove season: scorching hot days, long soft humid nights and then bam, a cool day that guarantees that summer has had its time and here we go with the next part of the year. That’s one reason I love North Carolina with its defined seasons.

Summer might bleed into fall; but when the sun rises lower on the horizon and shadows lengthen and cicadas sing in earnest, a smart man will check his woodpile, hoist out the winter clothing, and make sure his hunting coat and boots are ready. Deck shoes, shorts and knit shirts are to be put away.

That’s exactly what I was doing when the call came from Bubba. I had hunting gear piled high in the roost, our little garage apartment where I write, mess with outdoor gear and, in general, just hang out. I was making sure everything was ready for the upcoming cold months when Linda, my bride, came to the door and shouted up the stairs. “Tom, Bubba has been trying to call you. Where is your phone?”

“Oh, man. I forgot. It’s in the truck. I’ll get it and call him back.”

She laughed and said, “I don’t know why you have a phone. You never have it with you.”

I hustled down to the Bronco, found the phone under the front seat and saw where I had missed four calls from Bubba. I punched a button and returned his call.

“Coot.” Bubba had installed the nickname Cooter years before and it took. “That woman you married is too good for you. I don’t believe you would ever get a phone call if it wasn’t for her.”

I laughed and said, “You’re right, Bubba. I know it more and more every day. She does have a tendency to look out for me. What’s up? I thought you were heading to Costa Rica fishing.”

“Naw, decided to stay home and do a little dove shooting. That’s the reason I’m calling. Several of the old-timers are gonna meet at Slim’s store Saturday and talk about likely spots to hunt. Come on up and join us. We sure don’t want to leave you out. Ritter’s gonna be here with some of his apple brandy, and even Johnson is joining us. There’ll be a good crew.”

Slim’s store was a tradition in that part of the country, catering to hunters, fishermen and as Slim loved to put it, reprobates of all kinds. After Slim passed away, Bubba bought the place, kept Slim’s cousin, Leroy, to run the business on a daily basis so, as Bubba put it, “I’ll have a place to go. Plus I like the coffee.”

“I’ll be there, Bubba. I’m just in the process of checking out some gear. It sure feels like fall, doesn’t it?”

“Yep, and I’m sure ready. See you Saturday.”

I decided to drive the old Bronco up to Slim’s place to check her out. I recently had a lot of work done on the old vehicle and wanted to see how she would ride. I thought as long as I kept to the back roads, everything should be OK. She was slow, but she usually got me there.

The old crew was kicked back in rockers on the side porch when I pulled into the gravel parking lot. At one time Slim had tried selling gas, but that didn’t work. So he had the pumps removed to make room for a spot to play horseshoes. He always said he hated those gas pumps, a lot of trouble for nothing.

It was good to see the old group, and after a reasonable amount of good-natured insults, we all relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company. Old Man Time was beginning to trim the ranks of the aging crew. In the couple of years since my last visit, several had gone on to their rewards. Somehow, I’ve always had a feeling that everything would remain the same, but lately, age and time have proven me wrong.

Most of the crowd broke up early, having to get home for one reason or another, and as the sun set and the moon began to rise over the tree line where Johnson’s pasture used to be, only Bubba, Johnson, Ritter and I were left to hold forth.

“It seems funny not to see cows over there in that pasture, Johnson,” Bubba said.

“I know, but the developer had more money than them cows. I did get him to promise to keep that space green, though.”

Johnson had sold out his farm several years ago to a major developer who’d split it up into 10-acre mini-farms.

“I hope you did more than get a promise,” Bubba replied.

“I did. It’s in the contract that he has to keep that buffer like it is.”

Leroy came out, careful not to let the screen door slam. “Bubba, I’m heading home. Lock up before you leave. Good to see you guys.”

“OK, Leroy. Coot’s gonna stay overnight. We’ll be back in the cabin.” Bubba had built a small log cabin behind the store on a little pond that Slim had put in years before. He used it every now and then when he partook a little too much of Ritter’s apple brandy.

We watched Leroy’s pickup drive up the road. “That’s a good man you got there running the store, Bubba.” Johnson said.

“Yep, I’m lucky to have him. I think Slim would approve.”

Ritter reached in a pocket of the coat he had hung over the porch banister and pulled out a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco. He answered the inquisitive looks. “I know, I started chewing again last week. I haven’t had a good chew since I was in Vietnam.”

We watched as the moon slowly rose over the pines. Bubba had gone in and turned off the outdoor lights, and when he sat back in his rocker he said, “If your brandy won’t kill you, that tobacco surely will.”

“Yep.” Ritter was quiet for a time. “You know I feel I’ve been living on borrowed time ever since that stupid war.” He had served in the Marines, and his platoon was one of the first to suffer casualties.

“I had a dream the other night about one of the boys who didn’t make it home. His name was Bud, a nickname really, picked up in boot camp. He was big, stood about 6 feet 4 inches and weighed around 250. And could he eat! Always borrowing C-rations when we were in the field. The drill instructors gave him the name Bud by calling him Big, Ugly and Dumb, shortened to Bud.

“We were still using M1 rifles then, M1As came later and then M14s, but we mostly liked the M1. Bud was so big he carried a .30-caliber machine gun. He toted that heavy thing like it was a tobacco stick.”

We sat silently watching across the old pasture. The moon was fully up now, and as a group we were surprised to hear Ritter talk about his war experience. In the past he would respond to any question about his service with only a perfunctory answer.

“Bud was a real hero,” he continued. “He’s the reason four of us in the unit came home from that stinking war.”

I don’t know if Ritter’s melancholy eloquence came from his own brandy or old age or maybe the dream he had about his friend, but in the moonlight I thought I could see a tear on his cheek. “Are you all right?” I asked.

“Yep, Coot,” he replied as he wiped his cheek. “I learned a long time ago in that war that you don’t cry for heroes, because there were so dang many. Bud was one of the best.”

No one broke the spell by speaking. We just sat silently, lost in our thoughts.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.