"I got me eleven acres out to Homer. Don't nobody know I'm there. That's the way I like it. Got a creek as wide as this road."
The man shifts to neutral and eases his sweaty back to the orange leather driver's seat of a county road-grader. He's older than me, but not by much; I'd bet good money he was born right at the tail end of the Baby Boom, just like me. I've got a lot more hair left on my head than he does, but he's got me beat when it comes to stomach size. I'm happy about both those facts. I can't tell how we'd measure up height-wise because his perch puts him ten feet over the road right now, so he's talking down to me, but only in a literal sense.
He swipes a bandana across his forehead and then gives it a wave my direction to make sure I'm paying him mind.
"I built a little cabin right on that creek for me and my wife to live in while I built a house. You know what she said? Said she wasn't movin'. Wanted to stay right in that cabin."
We both look down the southernmost end of Harry McCarty Road as if we could see his wife's little cabin sitting there where my road ends, instead of Clarence Edwards' old tenant house standing empty like it has for a couple of decades now.
Yep, and now I see one more thing that needs noticing— I give Mama's cat a yell.
"Peter! Get out of the road before a truck runs you over."
Mama's lazy grey favorite doesn't even raise his head from the cool sand. Peter's an old soul, born at one with his North Georgia farm.
"Aw, leave him lay." The man presses his lips tight together in a straightwise smile, but his eyes go gentle. "He'll move fast enough, 'fore a car gets to him."
The man's smile goes soft as his eyes.
"Nothin' I like better than a big-headed old tom cat."
Peter stretches out his handsome legs in a mighty act of exertion, then spreads himself even flatter on the road, save for the hump of his belly mounding like a second white hill on this highest rise of my white sand road.
The County man's watching Pete, too.
"Now see? See right there where your mama's cat's at? That's natural drainage. This road of yours drains dry after a rain, always has done. No need to scrape and bring in dirt and gravel— just messes up what don't need fixing. God got it right the first time."
He hangs his arm longer out the cab window and winks.
"Now that's just between you and me, hear? Far as the County's concerned, I scrape this part of the road twice a year, don't I, now?"
I grin and jerk my head once in a nod of affirmation, Yessir, and then we both just mull for a minute.
It feels good to stand and let the sweat dry. I'm resting my weight against my hoe, rocking just a little. I nod at him again, to say we understand each other.
You'd think to look at us we'd known each other long and well, and we have, in the way of neighbors passing and nodding day after day, but I don't have a clue what his name is. Never has seemed to matter. He's the County Man, and I'm that girl whose preacher daddy bought the old Edwards place thirty years back. My roots go just thirty years deep, but he's seen enough of me and my family working this land to care that nothing bad happens to us.
The man looks at me and shakes his head the way a man does when he can't understand why a woman does what she does, but it sure does tickle him.
"You don't never get afraid out here on this road all by yourself but for your mama, do you?"
I smile, and shrug, then have to quick catch my hoe when it slips from my shoulder.
"I don't guess so. Maybe a little nervous sometimes. Every now and then we get a kind of creepy sort out here."
He doesn't like that at all. His face goes hard and narrow.
When I asked him what was up, he told me
he was going to dig for gold on Harrison's land.
I got permission, he told me.
"Well, like the guy the other week who came walking by real fast carrying a pickax and a bucket."
"What'd he look like?"
"Oh, I don't know. Dirty blond hair and beard."
I look up at the County man from under my eyebrows and smile.
"And I mean dirty."
He smiles, too, glad of a reason to.
"Old-youngish," I go on, "maybe mid-thirties. Sharp nose. Looked like he could've played second-string football in high school. It wasn't so much how he looked as what he said. When I asked him what was up, he told me he was going to dig for gold on Harrison's land. I got permission, he told me."
I roll my eyes the way Mama hates, but the County man doesn't seem to get how weird this whole encounter was. I hold my hands out, palms up and try again.
"The guy believed he was going to find gold? That was what was creepy."
The road man's nodding his head, but not like he's agreeing with me
"I know who you're talking about. That boy's messed up, but he ain't crazy."
The sun's out hotter now. It's getting on toward noon. He pulls the bandana from his shirt pocket again and wipes it twice across his forehead, swiping all the way across in one direction, then back again.
"Honey," he says while he refolds the bandana and tucks it back," you know there's gold in Georgia's hills, don't you?"
"Well, yeah, but that's up near Dahlonega, not here. And besides, that was mostly all mined out a century ago. All we have now is Fool's Gold washing up along the creek banks."
"Nah, girlee, that's not exactly so."
Peter rouses himself from the road where the sand's getting too hot for napping. He saunters past the big machine resting dead center on his road, letting his tail drag lightly along the grader's mammoth wheels as he passes. The man reaches down from the cab's window and wiggles his fingers, air-scratching Peter's proud spine.
"See, one summer when I was a kid, I was up at my granddaddy's farm in Canton, helping him yank up rotted fence posts and set new ones. This one old post, when it come up, it kind of glinted all over, like gold. My granddaddy, he told me it was gold. He told me how that gold they dug way back then is still in our hills, just not so much. My granddaddy said sometimes when there's been a Spring of heavy rain, little flecks of gold can wash down through loose soil, and it can go a long ways, he told me, until it catches hold on something like that old fence post with holes rotted all over it."
Hmm. I'm thinking this over when I see Mama come out on her side porch. She's wondering why the road scraper's been sitting so long on our road. It can't be for a good reason, she's thinking to herself. County visitations never are.
So I wave: It's okay, Mama! Just talking!
The man waves, too.
"Your mama's a good woman."
I look up at him again.
"So you're telling me this guy really was digging for gold? Mr. Harrison really gave him permission to root around in his cow pastures?"
"I'm sayin' Mr. Harrison has knowed that boy's family since before that boy was born. Mr. Harrison knows any baby born to that family don't have an ice cube's chance in hell of ever comin' out on the winnin' side of life. What harm's it gonna do, Mr. Harrison probably asked hisself, to let the boy spend his afternoons looking for gold in my fields? Better he should do that, than cook meth in one a my old chicken houses."
Now I'm feeling a little bit ashamed, but not too much. The guy was creepy; I stand by that.
I shift my hoe to my other hand and lean toward the north for a bit. The County man nods at my hoe, and then looks behind me to where I've left my wheelbarrow standing, my shovel resting upside-down in the wheelbarrow's bed.
"My wife's doing the same thing as you, laying down mulch between the rows in her garden. When the rain stops, come July, her beans won't fry up and neither will yours cause that mulch'll hold the rain in. And mulch ain't nothing but dirt that ain't broken down yet, so it'll go right back into your garden dirt and make it better."
I turn to look at my wheelbarrow, swiveling the hoe with me as I turn. It was Daddy's wheelbarrow; that's why I keep using it, old and dented and cement-pocked as it is. I like tools with a history to them.
I turn back around to the man.
"Were you around when Buddy used to keep a still in my woods?"
It's obvious he was, because he's already nodding his head and grinning.
His head goes down, then up, with each yep. He leans a little more out the cab window and starts his story.
"I wasn't no more than twenty, just started working for the County. I'd be driving my rig along these roads and have to slow way down 'cause here'd be Buddy, pushing his wheelbarrow loaded down with sugar, right down the middle of the road. Wouldn't move over to let me by, neither. Just kept pushin' that loaded barrow like he was an honest farmer."
The man tilts his head to one side and back up again.
"I can't say as I'd of called him a farmer, but I guess he was honest. Didn't ever try to hide what he was trundling. Guess he knew we all knew where he was headin', and what he had in mind to do there, so why bother hidin'?"
What he's saying gives me back my own memories of watching Buddy and his wheelbarrow on their rounds. I crane my head to look around the grader at Mama's front porch.
"I remember many an afternoon, swinging right up there with my baby on my lap when Buddy passed by."
The man huffs out a sigh.
"Honey, I gotta tell you now, I think I'd much ruther see some guy heading into the woods to tend his still, than brewing up meth in one of those old chicken houses along Briscoe Mill. That meth is bad, real bad."
I know. One morning a few years back, I leashed my big dog Fred, grabbed my cell phone and headed into my neighbor's woods to flush out a pack of meth heads from Richard's abandoned old singlewide that sits all crack-roofed and rotting just out of sight of cars passing on my road. Seven scrawny, wild-eyed crazies came tearing past me and Fred, throwing their scabby arms over their faces to keep me from taking their pictures.
I don't tell this to the kind County man. It would worry him
"What's your wife growing in her garden this year?
He brightens right up; I'm not sure if it's because of the garden or her. Probably it's both.
"Oh, girlee, she's planted a mort of everything, just like you, I bet. She likes the early stuff like lettuce and those little English peas. I tell her, Hon, those don't hardly pay the rent. They come and go too quick! But I'm just teasin' her. Anything that lady grows is for eatin'. "
He leans out his window a little and points one finger at me, narrowing his eyes and wrinkling up his nose so I'll know now it's me he's teasing.
"The good stuff comes later. All the corn and fat old cukes and butter beans and big Yukon Gold potatoes. That's man's food."
I smile and nod my head. We understand each other.
He asks me, kind of worried, "Your mama used to keep that garden, didn't she?"
"Uh huh. It got to be too much for her when Daddy was dying. When I moved back here, I took over for her, but first I had to cut down twelve foot pines out of the garden; they grew up that quick."
"But I'll wager the soil was loamy where them pine roots was. God always leaves us a bonus for hard work. Your daddy, he was hard worker, but a good man to stop and visit. He'd be draggin' six-by-eights across this road here, just draggin' 'em by hand, not even hookin' 'em to a come-along, and he'd drop the one he was haulin' to shake my hand. Always shook my hand, dusty as I was."
The man's eyes go wet the way I've many times seen a country man's eyes look at a funeral or a birthing.
"He'd be proud to see you working his land like this."
The road man sits up from the cab's seat to push his hands flat against the small of his back.
"Girlee, I gotta get movin'. Get yourself on back out to your garden before this sun drives you in. My wife, she's doing like you this morning, tendin' her vegetables. I can't hardly get her out of the garden. She'll stay there all day, just like you, looking like it's the only place in this world she wants to be."
I nod my head, once. Yep.
I toss my hoe into Daddy's wheelbarrow and head to the mulch pile for another load.
The County man cranks up his rig and rumbles away, the grader's scraping blade raised high and useless all along my family's stretch of Harry McCarty Road.
Dana Wildsmith's environmental memoir, Back to Abnormal: Surviving With An Old Farm in the New South, was Finalist for Georgia Author of the Year. She is the author of five collections of poetry, including most recently, Christmas in Bethlehem, and has served as Artist-in-Residence for Grand Canyon National Park.