Trouble don’t come always
That’s what the preachers say
But I’ve seen so much trouble
I’m weary every day.
I think I’ll sail to kinder ports
I think I may be free
I think maybe today’s the day
Love’s gonna come to me.
Three days before I arrived in West Memphis, Arkansas, just before dawn, it was said that Lawrence Franklin V, the undertaker from the south side of town, dressed in his finest black suit, cut a small sprig of a purple flower—lilac from his mother’s garden—placed it in the narrow slit sewed in the corner of his lapel, got into his car, drove down to the Mississippi River, walked past her muddy banks, and drowned.
He was fifty-six years old, a confirmed bachelor, the son of Lawrence Franklin IV, grandson of Lawrence Franklin III, great-grandson of Lawrence Franklin, Jr., great great-grandson of Lawrence Franklin, Sr. Across generations and at consecutive intervals, each one of the Franklin men had served as the director and owner of Franklin’s Family Funerals.
They had buried slaves, former slaves, children and grandchildren of slaves, and many more who had lived their lives in freedom. Like most of us, Lawrence Franklin V bore out his fifty-six years somewhere between the two states of human existence. He was never somebody else’s chattel, but more often than not, his dreams and memories were bound by old and indelible chains.
Of course, at the time of my arrival I knew nothing of a dead man bearing the same last name as my mother, the same name I would claim for myself. I knew nothing of Lawrence Franklin V or of the watery details of his suicide. I knew nothing at all of life and death in West Memphis, Arkansas. I was a woman swimming through my own muddy currents, trying to keep from drowning in my own undertakings. I had no knowledge of a funeral director whose lungs filled with river water and whose heart had just been satisfied.
I was not planning to stay in West Memphis. I was on my way southwest, to New Mexico or Arizona, to work as a traveling nurse or maybe even something completely out of my profession like a museum director or a manicurist. I was on my way to somewhere far and fast from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I was on my way to anything other than life familiar.
Arkansas was supposed to be only a gas stop. Maybe time enough for lunch or a good walk. I was not expecting to stay. But my 1987 Ford Bronco, pulling my travel trailer, sputtered and skipped down the interstate, finally stalling at the Chevron station at Exit 280, just across the Memphis Bridge.
It was a man by the name of Ledford Pickering who told me about the Shady Grove Campground, down past the oil rigs and the horse pastures, across the railroad tracks and out into the tree-lined path that opened out on the river like the dreams of some boat captain.
He told me about the campground after he heard the station manager say he couldn’t get to my problem until later in the afternoon, that he wasn’t sure the Bronco would be fixed by morning. Ledford Pickering was standing close enough to weigh out the details of my situation and was interested enough to think of some solution.
Ledford, a career trucker who had just finished his shift and had driven his old Ford pickup over to the station to fill up before heading out for a few hours of late-day fishing, offered to hook my camper up to the back of his truck and take me to the site. He was set up to pull his boat and trailer, but since he had brought only his truck to the station and since he lived near the campground, he didn’t think there was any problem driving me over.
The mechanic at the station winked at Ledford like he had seen this before, smiled, and turned his head aside so as not to watch me as I made up my mind. And even though my mama was sure to sit up in her grave making a face wide with shame and Rip would have never believed I would do such a thing, I jumped in the truck with a man I didn’t know, hooked my camper up to his trailer hitch, and let him take me to a campground that may or may not have existed. I was at a time and place in my life where I was ripe for adventure.
It was just after the intersection with Highway 55, at the stop sign next to the Mexican restaurant, that we heard all the sirens and stopped while the police cars and and the fire truck hurried past us and headed in the direction we were going.
“Must be something awful,” I said to Ledford, who rolled down his window and waved at the men in the fire truck.
“Nah, around here, doesn’t have to be anything to get that much attention. Probably a fight in the trailer park or a horse stuck in the electric fence. If it were bigger than that, the Tennessee patrollers would be crossing over.”
He turned up the volume on his radio. It was a country music station, a song about a woman leaving town with her daughter. Ledford knew all the words.
“Lucas Boyd and his wife, Rhonda, own the campground, but they got an Asian woman running it. Her and Rhonda’s mama. Lucas likes to run up and down the river. They’re gone a lot.”
Another police car sped past us as Ledford slowly pulled back onto the road and turned left at the signs for the campground.
“It’s a nice place out here. Some developer from Nashville wanted to buy it last year, but Lucas wouldn’t sell. He thinks campers ought to have a good place to vacation, too. Not just the rich people.”
With all the fancy campers and trailer homes I had seen in the magazines and on the interstate, I wondered why Lucas Boyd and Ledford seemed to think that it wasn’t rich people staying in campgrounds; but I guess they were right. Camping is a poor man’s holiday. Or for me, a poor woman’s life.
My travel trailer is a seventeen-foot Casita, a simple laid-up fiberglass design with a double-size bed, a table with captain chairs, a small bathroom, and a kitchen that has a two-eyed stove, a sink, a microwave, and a nice-sized refrigerator. Rip and I drove to Rice, Texas, to the manufacturing and distribution center about five years ago when we dreamed of weekends at the beach and when I still slept curved within his warm body, perfectly still, perfectly at ease with the place where I lay.
Over the five years of motor-home ownership, we went camping only four times, including the two nights in Texas after we bought the camper. That time we stayed at Grapevine Lake, near the airport, outside of Dallas. I cooked fish on the propane stove while he signed all the warranty cards and walked around and around the rig, trying to figure out where you attach the sewer hose. Both nights we crawled into bed, laughing at how uncomfortable it was without a good mattress and how he bumped his head every time he rolled over.
I had taken an extra job on the weekends working a shift in the emergency room and sold some of our furniture to buy our little vacation house on wheels. And even though I was entitled to more than what I got from the divorce settlement, after the long year of fighting and losing and after almost twenty years of marriage, all I wanted was that camper.
All I wanted was a chance to get away and belong to something that I could think of as mine. In spite of the fact there were a few memories lodged in the carpeted corners of that little trailer, tucked inside the tiny compartments and folded in the stacks of towels under the bed, it was the one place, the one thing that we both knew he never really wanted. It was the one thing we both agreed was completely mine.
The other things—the house, a newly remodeled ranch-style built in a clearing off the main road from Rocky Mount to Battleboro, oak wood paneling and new ceramic tile in the kitchen; the dining-room table and chairs, dark cherry, smooth as skin; the hideaway bed we kept for the company that never came; even the lawn furniture that I picked out from some fancy catalog I found at the beauty parlor and had delivered while he was away at a business conference—everything we had was all somehow ours, belonging to the two of us, shared property, combined ownership.
After seeing him sitting in that restaurant, all leaned over across the table, holding that girl’s long delicate hands, whispering something that made her blush and drop her face away from him, her blond hair cascading down her shoulders and draped over her pink cheeks, the grin unbroken and spread across his splendid face, after seeing all that played out before me like some bigger-than-life Technicolor movie, I desired nothing that bore resemblance to who I thought we were.
The trailer that he considered too small for the marriage, too small for the two of us together, was all I said I wanted.
As we got ready to take the turn into the campground, where a big wooden sign marked the entrance to Shady Grove, an ambulance pulled around us and suddenly it seemed as if Ledford had become interested in all the commotion.
“You want to go see?” he asked as if we were old friends out for an afternoon ride.
I shrugged because at that point I was in no hurry, and he turned off his signal and followed the vehicle down the paved road that twisted and curved into gravel and finally ended right at the banks of the Mississippi River.
When he stopped his truck and killed the engine, I got out, and without speaking to each other, we both started walking toward the police officers, the firemen, and the recently arrived emergency medical technicians.
It seemed like I was on duty, as if I had been called from the hospital to assist some injured citizen. I felt the stares of a few policemen as Ledford walked over to the group standing near the squad car. I heard them greet one another as I inched a little closer to where the ambulance was parked. Once I saw what was happening, the recovery of a dead man from the water, I knew there wasn’t anything a nurse could do.
I folded my arms across my chest and watched as the EMTs, a young muscular man and a woman, about twenty-five, got out of the vehicle and walked over to the body. It was completely out of the river. As the woman knelt by the victim’s head, I noticed the way she turned and looked away. I assumed there was a stench.
She stood up and tucked her head beside her shoulder, and the two paramedics returned to the ambulance. I figured they were going to get the black plastic body bag.
One of the policemen, the sheriff, I think, walked over, placed a handkerchief across his face, and appeared to make a positive identity. He said something to one of the deputies who had joined him, and the two of them laughed quietly while they glanced around nervously.
I saw the dead man as he lay on the bank. He was wearing a suit or what was left of one, the jacket ripped, the pants torn, his feet bare, the current of the river probably yanking off his shoes and socks. I couldn’t make out his features, only noticed that he was dark-skinned.
It was easy to say, however, even from as far away as I stood, even as a group of policemen and firemen gathered around the victim, just from how the body lay upon that riverbank, crumpled and still, that he was dead.
The two emergency medical technicians were standing at the ambulance taking out what they needed when Ledford walked over to where I was waiting. We watched as a few of the men went to the vehicle and stood talking to the two paramedics as they unfolded the body bag.
“Drowning,” the truck driver said, as if I needed an explanation.
“Anybody you know?” I asked.
“Funeral director,” he answered. “From south side,” he added, as if I should know what that meant. “Been missing a couple of days.”
He shook his head and looked out across the river. “We find a lot of ’em out here,” he said, and although I wasn’t sure I knew what he meant, I nodded my head as if I understood exactly what he was saying.
“Well, I guess we’ve seen enough,” he noted.
We both turned and walked back to his truck and got in.
He whipped around the large grassy lot, waved at the policemen, and as we passed him, I noticed the stare of the sheriff in my direction. Ledford pulled out onto the paved road and turned down the entrance to the campground. We drove a couple hundred yards and he stopped.
“Here’s the office,” he said, pointing with his chin over to a small log cabin situated on the left side.
There was a narrow porch with one chair in the middle and an ice machine pushed against the back wall. The open sign was swinging across the window in the door and a hummingbird darted along the top ledge from one feeder to the next.
“Tell her you want a river view,” he said as he pulled a pack of gum from his front pocket and held it out to me as an offer. “The sites in the woods are cooler, but the bugs are bad.”
I smiled and declined the gum. I stepped out of his truck and walked inside. A small Asian woman was talking on the phone. She quickly ended her conversation and put the receiver down in its cradle. She glanced up at me and then out the window at the camper.
“Dead man,” she said, shaking her head. “Found him washed up about a half a mile upriver.”
I nodded, but didn’t explain that I had just seen the body. I figured it would sound odd that we had stopped up the river to watch them pull the man out before I checked in.
“Bad luck for campground,” she added.
She looked out the window again and noticed Ledford driving the truck. She waved at him. He nodded in recognition. Then she turned back to me as if trying to size up the situation.
“Two adults?” she asked.
“No, he’s just brought me out here.” I thought this sounded suspicious so I explained. “My car broke down. It’s at the gas station on I-Forty. This gentleman was kind enough to tow me out here.”
She studied me. “How many nights?”
“I’m not sure,” I answered. “I guess just one.”
“Jimmy Novack?” she asked.
I didn’t know what she meant. She waited.
“The gas station. It a Chevron? Jimmy Novack’s station?”
“Oh,” I replied. “Yes, it was a Chevron station.”
“Three nights, four days at least,” she said, reaching across the desk and handing me a form. “Just fill out the top part.”
“Four days? Really?” I asked. “I don’t think it’s that much of a problem, just a hose or belt of some kind. I’ve never had to leave my vehicle for three nights with a mechanic.”
“Four days,” she responded. “Jimmy Novack always take four days.”
I sighed, figuring there was no reason to argue with her, filled out the form, and handed her my Visa credit card. She slid it through the machine and I watched nervously to see if it still worked.
I had asked Rip not to cancel that card until I could get settled. It was the one credit card I kept, thinking I might need it after I decided to leave North Carolina. It was also the only card that I had been using for more than six years since I was trying to earn points toward a trip to Paris for the two of us to share on our twentieth anniversary. It was going to be a surprise.
We were only 9,000 points short when I noticed on a monthly statement that we had received a bonus of 1,500 points when we stayed at the Marriott Hotel in Raleigh, a special offer for Visa card members. I knew I had never stayed at the Marriott Hotel in Raleigh, and I knew that the date recorded on the statement was the weekend Rip was supposed to be in Florida, at some car race with his brother.
It wasn’t long after that, that I spotted him in the restaurant with that girl. Me staring through the window like some hungry orphan. The waiter suddenly looking up from the table at me as if he recognized my disappointment. The slow motion acknowledgment of a lie. After that, I quit counting the points and I never read the statements.
A few months later the UPS man delivered a new set of luggage, that expensive kind with thick brown leather, the kind with the name embroidered on the strip beneath the handle. Rip had ordered three pieces as a reward for using that Visa card. He said that he thought he could use them on his business trips, that he saw them in the magazine and ordered them for us.
I never told him about the surprise vacation I was planning or the way I had been using that card so carefully, counting the points like a child adding up her coins, day after day. I never told him that I expected that he would love me for twenty years and that I thought we’d order wine and cheese using the French words I had learned from cassette tapes and dance beneath summer stars all alone on one of the little bridges that passed over the Seine.
I never told him anything about what I knew or didn’t know. I just asked him to let me use the card until I could open up my own line of credit.
The machine hummed and spat out the receipt and the woman behind the counter yanked it out and placed it in front of me to sign. Then she took out a map and pointed to the site she had chosen for me. It was a nice pull-through, with full hookup, 30 amp, water, sewer, even cable for the television. It was the last site on the river row, number 76.
“Pets on leash,” she added as I turned toward the door, “and leave your garbage on the picnic table. I pick it up every morning.”
I opened the door. “Thank you,” I said as I walked out onto the porch.
“Ledford will show you everything.” I heard the laughter in her voice.
I closed the door behind me. The phone had started to ring. I got back into the truck and pulled the door closed.
“You get a river site?” he asked as he turned down the volume on the radio.
“Number Seventy-six,” I replied.
“Oh, that’s a good one,” he said as he pulled his truck into gear. “You got a whole side to yourself.”
He drove ahead on the gravel road and then turned right on a dirt path toward the Mississippi River. There was a long row of campers only about fifty feet from the bank. He turned left and drove to the end of the row. He was right. It was a nice spot.
He pulled through and stopped and we both got out. As he started to unhook the camper from the hitch, I stood outside and stared across the river. It was brown and moving fast. Pieces of driftwood hurried by as water swirled and capped in small white waves.
A barge was stopped and docked across the river at a long, sandy island. To the right, downstream, around a curve, I could still see flashing lights and small groups of people huddled together. I thought about what I had just seen, a dead man lifted from the arms of the muddy water.
“You know how to get everything connected?” Ledford asked as he unchained the final hitch that held us together. He was in a squatted position, bent over the connection between his vehicle and my travel trailer.
I turned around and walked to the rear of his truck. I nodded. I learned everything about hooking and unhooking before I left North Carolina.
I watched as Ledford slowly cranked and released the ball of his trailer hitch from the attachment on the camper. He pushed my camper slightly away from his truck and tightened the chain around the long silver bar and then reattached the lock, pulling the two ends together.
“There,” he said and stood up admiring his work, sliding his hands down the front of his pants. “You’re all disconnected.”
He looked at his watch. “You sure you don’t need any more help?” he asked, eyeing me to see if I really knew how to set up camp.
“No, I’m good,” I answered.
I figured he wanted to get out of there and go fishing and I suddenly thought that maybe I should offer him some money for the service he had provided. I went back around to the truck and retrieved my purse. Ledford walked to the river and stared down toward the spot where everyone had gathered, the spot where we had just been, the scene of the recovery.
“Dang,” he said, as if he had just thought about it. “I bet that means they close Parker’s Road.”
He walked to where I was standing.
“I really appreciate you helping me.” I reached inside my purse for my wallet. “I’d be happy to pay you for your trouble.”
I knew my cash was low, and even though I was sincere in my offer, I was hopeful he’d decline.
“Nah,” he answered as he opened his door and got in. “No trouble.” And he started his engine.
“By the way,” he said as he shifted into gear and stepped on the brake. “I never asked you what your name is or where you were going.”
He turned to face me as I stood just a few feet from his truck.
I waited a minute, watching the river run past.
“Rose Franklin,” I said, using only my first and middle name, my mother’s maiden name, just trying it out to see how it sounded. “And here,” I added, just like I knew it was meant to be. “I was going here.”
He grinned and raised his chin at me. “Well, then, Ms. Rose Franklin, I’m glad I was able to get you where you needed to be.”
He stuck his arm out the window, his elbow bent and resting on the frame of the door. “This is a good place.”
And he held up his hand in a wave of good-bye, pulled away from my trailer, cut the corner, and drove out of the campground.
I watched the dust lift and settle behind him, and then I turned back around to study the narrow stretch of muddy water that a man I never knew, a man who shared the same name as my mother, a man by the name of Lawrence Franklin V, had chosen as his place to die.
Copyright © 2006 by Jackie Lynn. All rights reserved.