We are in Fairmont, N.C., a twig of a town in southern North Carolina.
Becky and I came here in 2003, I think. I came to pay respects and chase the ghost of Joseph Mitchell, the wonderful old New Yorker writer.
We ran across a courtly old gentleman named Willie Broox Webster. He was 87 at the time, but gregarious to a fault. Next thing we knew, we were in his sedan. He chauffeured us about town before taking us to his house, where we chatted with him and his wife for an hour or so.
So we came today, chasing the ghost of Willie B. Webster. Only I couldn’t recall his name. I searched for “Willie B. Brooks,” and ran up against the ethereal dead end. I left Becky and Max at the McDonald’s and set out on foot for the library. When I got there, it was smaller than I recalled. I could’ve sworn we’d run into Willie in the library, but this was just a room with a small bank of computers and a few stacks of books.
I introduced myself to Tony Hargett, the librarian. He sat in front of a vault. The stainless steel door was open. Used to be a bank. I asked about what they had in the Joe Mitchell line. Nothing, he was sad to say.
I only discovered a few minutes before that the New Yorker featured a previously unpublished Mitchell story in February. Tony said I’d have to go to Lumberton, 11 miles to the north, to get my hands on a copy of that story.
That’s where all the Mitchell memorabilia and literature is, Tony said.
“It’s bad,” was all he could say.
He said he has no control over his holdings.
I thanked Tony for his time and asked him where I might find city hall. He pointed down the street.
I walked a quarter mile to the town hall, housed in an unprepossessing brick building and trudged upstairs to the mayor’s office. I figured I’d be able to find someone here who could tell me Willie Broox’s last name, because I did recall he had served as mayor.
A 9-year-old girl named Megan greeted me at the front desk. I asked about the mayor, and she pointed at a door to my left. It was open. A white board was tacked on the door. Mayor Charles Kemp’s office hours were written in orange marker.
I’ve never seen a mayor’s office like this mayor’s office. No bureaucratic firewall. Nothing but a 9-year-old girl separating the casual interloper from hizzoner.
I walked in and introduced myself to Mayor Kemp. On his wall was a poster feature the visage of a legendary stooge. Above the face: “Legalize Shemp.”
I like this place, I thought.
The mayor, a retired history teacher, jogged my memory. Willie Broox Webster served as mayor here from 1973-89, I think. He ran the town’s pharmacy, Webster’s Pharmacy. Soon I became as interested in Charles Kemp as I had been in Willie Broox Webster and Joseph Mitchell. Willie Webster is dead now, which hardly came as a surprise.
Still, I could’ve hoped for a miracle, even though he’d be 97 now.
Charles Kemp remembered Willie fondly. He said he was a hoot. He had a temper, though, and he remembers having to restrain him once or twice during council meetings.
He said he’d walk me over to the council chambers where photographs of Fairmont’s mayors grace one of the walls.
When he got up, he walked with the twisted and determined gait of a man with cerebral palsy. I would say determined was the predominant impression.
I guessed from our brief conversation that Charles Kemp was in love with Fairmont. I asked him about this, and he said:
“Fairmont is not just a town; it’s my passion.”
And so I asked if I might return tomorrow to interview him, and he of course said come on down. I asked him to recommend an auto mechanic who might be able to divine the cause of the behemoth’s “check engine” light, which has been badgering us to check the engine for more than 10,000 miles. (We finally submitted in Durham, but the nice folks at Durham tire couldn’t figure it out in the time they had. Turns out figuring out the reason behind the “check engine” illumination is far more difficult in engines built prior to 1996. The behemoth came off the line in 1993.)
Anyway, neither Barrett’s Automotive nor Seely’s Garage had the scanner for the job. I wandered back to the McDonald’s, and started writing an email to Lauri Lebo.
I couldn’t even finish the story of my interaction with Charles Kemp when an older man came up and asked if we’d mind if he gave a plastic-crap McDonald’s toy to Max.
Of course, we said. Max would be overjoyed.
And so I met Jay Leggett of Fairmont. His daddy sold tobacco, just like Joe Mitchell’s old man.
“I’ve seen tobacco at it’s top,” he said, lifting his hand to the heavens. “And I’ve seen it fade away.”
This is the way it happens. I thought maybe we’d hole up in Fairmont for a few days so I might catch up on a backlog of writing. Antietam. The Via (Vy) family of the Shenandoah Valley. NESCent. Th’ Bullfrog Willard McGhee.
And before I knew it, before we could find a cheap motel room to hide away in, I’d fallen for the mayor. The mayor gave me phone numbers for two of Joe Mitchell’s nephews who’re still here. I could see where I would get in deeper before I ever hoped to extricate myself.
And now, a good, old country boy named Jay Leggett stood there, daring me to say thanks and goodbye.
He asked if there was anything he could help us with. Directions, anything like that. I shrugged my shoulders. I muttered. Only thing I’m looking for is stories.
And so it went. He told me this: He suffered a heart attack on Aug. 28, 2006. His son died on May 22, 2007. His son had diabetes. His name was Willie, too.
After Jay suffered his heart attack, Willie was in a terrible car accident. Broke 21 bones. “The engine was on his lap,” Jay said.
He got to his son’s hospital bed. His son wagged his finger upward and said, “Angels were dancing on the ceiling last night, Daddy.”
And that wasn’t all. Three angels stood at the foot of his bed. He knew they were talking about him, he told his dad, because the silent one in the middle wore beautiful white wings.
“Did I die?” he asked his father.
He didn’t, but would soon enough. Jay said him and his wife, after six years, were just now in the process of cleaning out their son’s room. They’re giving it a fresh coat of paint. They just returned from Lumberton with a new TV.
For the grandson, Jay said.
In our brief chat, Jay also remembered getting up at 3 a.m. to help his dad prepare tobacco for market. After a few minutes, he relaxed and began referring to it as “tobaccer.” He remembered his dad having 75 hogs in 1964. He also recalled one year when four sows gave birth to 48 piglets in 24 hours.
I don’t know how he got through the conversation without crying. Told me he’d never have gotten through the ordeal without His help.
You know who He is.
I don’t mind. I suppose religion can be a force for good at times.
I certainly would never tell Jay Leggett that it can’t.
Just looked him up. He lives on Tobacco Road. Really.
Hard to believe, sometimes.
I only scribbled this down as an excuse for why I haven’t posted more here yet. I’m trying. Sometimes stories come at you faster than you can deal with them.
This is one of those times.