20 May 2013 — Joe Bageant
See the introduction to this series of posts: Writing on Things Southern and Past
Lonzy Barker is missing. Has been for several months now. Nobody noticed it until that smelly old hermit didn’t show up here at Dalton Bayles’ post office store for his sardines and rock candy. “He could be layin’ over there in his pigpen dead or something,” says Dalton. Did I tell you, dear reader, that Lonzy Barker lives in a pigpen? Always has. Anyway, after three months of Lonzy’s government checks piling up in the pigeonhole, Dalton has decided Lonzy “just might be — I ain’t saying he is and I ain’t saying he ain’t — missing.”
“Dammit Dalton, if anybody in Virginia would know if Lonzy Barker is missing, it would be you, for Jesus’ sake,” I tell him. “Stopping in here for his check and his sardines is the only thing Lonzy does regular.
Nobody knows why that government check comes in for Lonzy every month. To hear Dalton tell it, “Lonzy got shell shocked in the war and that’s why he gets that check.” But Dalton’s got no call whatever to say that. He just made it up because he can’t admit when he doesn’t know something. Lonzy’s check is for sixty-nine dollars and Lonzy spends about thirteen of it. Always on the same things: sardines, crackers and cheese, tobacco and hard green rock candy. Lonzy never signs any kind of papers. So Dalton signs his checks for him. And lord forbid Lonzy should have a bank account like most people. He’s likely got a fortune buried someplace around that pigpen.
“Which tells us absolutely nothin’,” says Dalton.
“What did you expect?” I asked. “It’s not like you could check on him by seeing if the newspapers are piling up on the front step of his pigpen. Hell man, he don’t even have a front step.”
Flusterated, Dalton says, “Now remember, all we know for sure is that he is missing. But I wouldn’t go digging Lonzy’s grave just yet.”
“Hell, Dalton,” I tell him, “you wouldn’t do anything ‘just yet’ about anything. If it was up to you, you’d sit on your fat ass behind that counter and smoke Marlboros from now until The Rapture. I know you too well Dalton Bayles.”
And I do, too. I’ve known Dalton Bayles since the third grade. Left on his own he’d probably be in some damned fool trouble within a week. And wasn’t I his best man when he married that flat chested nitwit from over in Romney? Even after the divorce and even without having any kids he’s still making payments on her Maytag washer-dryer combination. That’s the kind of trouble Dalton Bayles gets himself into left on his own. And that’s the only reason I stop by the store every night on the way home from work. It’s the damned honest truth. Plus he’s got a pool table.
“Well lookie here!” says Dalton, coming out of Lonzie’s pen holding up a copy of The Southern Living Guide to Home Entertaining. “Never thought Lonzy had a socialite streak,” Dalton giggles. “You and I both know Lonzy’ll read anything,” I said. And he will. Back in the late ’50s when Dalton and I were about twelve we used to come up here and listen to Lonzy read out loud from books he hauled out of the dump. He never read to anybody in particular except maybe some pin oaks and butternut trees. From all this reading Lonzy got to be right smart about things like Flemish art and weed control, all kinds of stuff. Sort of. He knew a million facts, but he only recited them to himself: “Mouse-ear chickweed, Cerastium vulgatum, Perennial reproducing by seeds; small hairy leaves opposite each side of stem; small flowers with five petals; pods very small, cylindrical at stem tips.” Somebody had chucked a set of plant biology textbooks at the dump. I can still see him squatting there on the pine needles turning the pages. Lonzy always squats to read or eat. His dirty old beard actually touches the ground when he does that. And stink! Gawd does that man stink!
“Probably he pisses on his beard like billygoats do,” claims Dalton.
“If he squats to piss like he squats to do everything else, I’m sure he can’t miss the beard,” I said.
When Lonzy ain’t squatting, he’s walking. Night and day and everywhere.
“I’ve seen him twenty-five miles away, clean over near Fort Valley,” Dalton says. “Once my daddy stopped to give him a ride. ‘No thanks,’ Lonzy snaps, ‘I’m in a big hurry.'”
But that might well be one of Dalton’s lies because Dalton’s daddy was an asshole and a drunk that never did anybody a favor except fall out of his dump truck into the rock crusher at the quarry. Fact is, Lonzy used to let Dalton and his mother hide out at his place when old man Bayles would drink and thump on his family. “She was too proud to go stay with kin,” says Dalton. She must have been proud all right, to sleep on cardboard instead of a nice warm bed.
Lonzy does have his nice side. Once when we were kids Lonzy let us butcher a poached buck at his place and wouldn’t even take any deer meat for his trouble. He grinned like a possum eating shit through a screen door the whole time. Not that Lonzy’s grin is any comfort. He sure enough smiles like a regular person. But he has the kind of eyes that drill little black holes in you. Sure, Lonzy’s got his nice side. But it ‘s awful small. He’ll talk with the old people who live along the road to the dump, but only on days he takes it into his head to make sense.
I know you’ve never been in Buck’s Tavern so I’ll tell you about the picture of Lonzy on the wall there. Above the bar alongside with all the other gewgaws is a little brown photo of Lonzy. Except this Lonzy is young. He is athletic looking and well dressed, like a college boy, with a Panama hat and a light colored suit and a striped tie. He is holding a croquet mallet on a big wide lawn. Nobody at Buck’s knows where it came from. But it is sure enough Lonzy. Black beady eyes and all.
One day a couple years ago I was squirrel hunting on the ridge behind Gainsboro, way up at the top where you can see down on Nat Smith’s junkyard. Nobody goes up there because it’s too steep a climb through the blackberry thickets. And wouldn’t you know I ran across Lonzy squatting right there at the crest. I almost missed him because Lonzy has shrunk down right much from age and when he squats there’s not much to see these days. But there he is, arms crossed, staring at the sky through a hole in the trees. Something was spooky about this, like he was praying. But without words and with real bright eyes. I just stood there a while. Finally he got up. I nodded at him.
“What’re you staring at, Lonzy?” I asked.
“Yonder side of the grave,” he answered.
“Reckon it can be seen from up here?”
He glared at me like I’d just pissed on his shoes, then walked off. But if you’d been there you’d know what I mean. It gave me the heebee jeebies. I spotted him again later in the season at the same spot doing the same thing. Weird.
Last night Dalton starts in on how, “technically, Lonzy would be what they call a homeless.”
“Another bullshit idea from Dalton. Stand up and take a bow Mr. Bayles!” I said. “Now we’ve got folks who’ve been around here all their lives that everybody knows are right strange. But they’ve all got roofs over their heads and people look out for them when they can and let them live their own lives. Besides, this town wouldn’t be the same without Lonzy. He’s a landmark. Or something like that. And the truth be told, nobody ever saw Lonzy Barker look anything but generally satisfied and happy with the world in his own grumpy way. He is what you call eccentric, that’s all.”
But like I said, Lonzy Barker is now missing. So we left Lonzy’s pig pen and drove on in to Sheriff Mock’s office in Marlboro. The sheriff said we needed to be relatives of Lonzy to fill out a missing persons report.
“Who in the heck would ever admit to a thing like that? Being related to Lonzy?” says Dalton.
“You got that about right, Bub,” says Sheriff Mock. So the deputies and the Back Creek Volunteer Fire Department pulled together a search party, same as they do when hunters get lost or somebody’s bass boat shows up without them down at the dam on the South Fork of the Shenandoah. By then it was too late to bring in dogs. Way too late. Even Lonzy couldn’t leave a scent that would last three months. The posse ended up being a four-wheeling and ATV party over rough terrain covering everything except the top of the ridge where Lonzy lived and the bottom of the Shenandoah where he might damned well be at this very moment. After a day or so of articles in the Star, the usual amount of time when a body either is or it isn’t found, they did not find Lonzy. Sheriff Mock wanted so bad to use official television style words like “presumed dead,” like on the news. But when the reporter called him he resisted it.
“The case is still open and the whereabouts of Mr. Alonzo — no middle name ma’am — Barker, remains unknown at this time,” he told the reporter.
So by now some people have come to decide Lonzy is sure enough dead. How he might have died and where the body could be brings out some brilliant ideas: “He mightta felt death coming on and crawled into a groundhog hole and buried himself. It’s been done.” We have Milt Jolley at the NAPA parts store to thank for that one. In fact, it’s now got to where we’re getting Elvis-type sightings of Lonzy. Deed honest-to-God, I’m not kidding. Of course they’re all at a distance and usually come from some pea-brain about closing time.
Still though, just as many people figure Lonzy will be back. It’s like they need for him to show up toting his sack of pop bottles and mumbling to himself about the size of the acorns and woolly worms this year.
“Mebbe he’s sick and checked himself into the old soldier’s home at the veterans hospital over in Martinsburg,” Dalton says.
“Yeah, sure Dalton. That’s perzactly what a crazy old hermit would do, go and ask the U.S-goddamned-snooping-government for help.”
But I know what Dalton means in his heart. It’s the same kind of feeling that keeps me from squirrel hunting on the ridge these days. And much as I dearly hate to agree with Dalton Bayles about anything mind you, if you asked me I’d have to tell you the truth:
Lonzy Barker is missing. But I wouldn’t go digging his grave just yet.