The postman paused to wipe the sweat from his dripping brow, then continued up the…was this supposed to be a driveway? Two dirt ruts meandered up the ridiculously steep hillside, grass growing in between them. Steep was an understatement, but incredulously he could see where deer or cows had made paths slanting down the sides. They must be the kind with two legs shorter than the others. This morning's rain showers had made the ruts muddy enough that the mail truck had gotten stuck near the bottom of the trail. Of all days! In his hand, he had a certified letter which had to be signed for personally.
This being his second week on the job, he'd never been up the Dennis's house before, although he'd heard an earful, none of it too encouraging. The Dennises had lived there for generations and were well known in the valley. Mr. Dennis had a reputation as a tough old bird. As the postman walked, he noticed dozens of "No Trespassing" signs tacked to the trees all around him. As if anyone would ever voluntarily set foot inside Go'nder Holler! But today, he had to.
Damp with sweat from the humid air, trudging along the left-hand rut, he came at last to a clearing and saw what looked to be the house. One of those ancient farmhouses, with cheap, outlandish-looking additions stuck here and there. The paint was peeling and chipped, the tin roof sagging. Several outbuildings were scattered about, covered in brown tar paper. Countless junk cars and old lawn mowers were scattered here and there, some rusted away right down to the frames. Chickens pecked in the dust, searching for grubs amid the scraggly weeds. Garbage littered the yard.
As the mailman stepped hesitantly out of the trees, a pack of bluetick hounds commenced to barking and howling. Two or three raced over to him, causing him to stop short and draw his bag in front of him protectively. The others stayed where they were, baying lazily at the sky from the porch steps. On the porch itself, a solitary figure clad in Dickies overalls was seated in a cane chair, whittling. His long black hair, streaked with gray, hung in sweaty strands. His lower lip was pooched out in a sneer of concentration beneath a dark, jutting brow. The postman guessed that this must be Mr. Dennis.
"Shut up, you goddam hounds!" The figure on the porch tossed aside his whittling, and reached behind him for a twelve-gauge shotgun. "Jist you hold it right there."
"Whoa!" The postman held both hands up in front of his chest. "Just the mail, Mistuh Dennis. Got you a certified letter what needs signin'."
"Ah got me a perfectly good mailbox down by th' road. Cain't you read? I doan' 'low nobody on my land."
"Th' letter needs yo' personal autygraph, Mistuh Dennis. Can't just stick it inside the apple crate like ushual. By the by, y'all got hornets nestin' in yo' mailbox. Make my job easier if you removed 'em."
Dennis scowled. "You sure you ain't from the welfare office?"
"I done told you already…I'm jus' the mailman."
"What happened to the old one?"
"He up and quit las' week. Rabid coon bit him. Now hurry up and sign for this, if you please, Mistuh Dennis. I ain't got all day. An X'll do fine if you cain't write your name."
Dennis lowered his gun and took the letter from the postman. When he saw the return address, his brow creased into a sharp, unhappy frown, and his fist tightened around the butt of the shotgun.
Out in the pasture, Dennis' two sons, Ferris and Burris, were riding ATVs around the property, inspecting the day's handiwork. They'd been clearing stumps and kudzu since sunup, trying to reclaim the fertile land from the encroaching woods left there by many generations of neglect. Huge piles of brush and uprooted invasive vines lay all around the edge of the field. Burris, the elder son, had blond hair down to his shoulders, partially obscured by a black cap with a NASCAR logo. A wad of chewing tobacco bulged in his cheek beneath a generous, flaring nose. He wore faded jeans and a black T-shirt with the motto "Liquor in the front, Poker in the rear." Ferris, five years younger, also bore the family nose, as well as piercing blue eyes and a ginger mullet pulled pack in a ponytail. Both were grubby, exhausted, and covered with scratches.
"Looky there," Burris said to his little brother, as they pulled up at the summit of a gentle ridge and surveyed acres of cleared land. "This here property used to be the jewel of our family…a place of Saturday hootenanies and tin can shootin' and tobaccy farming. And Lord willin', it will be once more. We been on this land for generations, going way back." Drawing a dirty, snot-flecked white handkerchief out of his back pocket, he waved it over his head like a lasso, and let out a whoop that echoed through the ruined trees.
"Burris…." said Ferris, in a subdued voice. "I had a dream about this here pasture last night."
"I ain't surprised," said Burris, "you been working so hard lately. Ever time I close my eyes, I see thickets of wood."
"No. This were a different dream." Something in Ferris' voice made Burris turn around. "I was standin' right over yonder by that crick. They was a big black thunderstorm brewing up from the east, but in the west, the sky was still clear. The whole field was paved, like a huge concrete wave had come and flooded it. And some lady was singin' about coffee."
"Coffee?" Burris squinted.
"Yeah, she was singin' real purty-like. Seek for the almond latte, in Starbucks it dwells. There shall be soy milk ordered, Try the hazelnut shots they sell."
"Star bucks? Lat-tay? What the hell…? You gotta quit hittin' the jug afore bedtime, Ferris."
"I guess. It was mighty muggy last night. I had trouble sleepin'."
"You ain't been into the 'wacky tobaccy' again, have you?"
"Nope. Leastaways not since Sat'day." Ferris shrugged. "Soon's I woke up, I forgot it. I didn't pay it no never mind till we came out here."
"All this jawbonin' is cuttin' into our drinkin' time," said Burris. "Let's go score us some Pabst. We done earned it."
As the boys revved back down the trail and emerged into the clearing around the house, Ferris' face clouded.
"What?" said Burris.
"What's Pappy always gotta be hangin' around the porch for? Ever' blessed day. He never does anything 'cept sit there and whittle."
Dennis was already on his feet, coming down the porch steps as they parked the ATVs next to the old enamel washtub.
"Whar is he?" said Dennis, weaving his way through cinderblocks, plastic buckets, and old tires filled with jimsonweed. "Whar's mah stud bull?"
"Pappy!" said Burris, grinning weakly and dismounting.
"All sweaty and tired from single-handedly clearing out the back forty…that's mah boy…" With a toothy grin that showed off his best (and only) incisor, Dennis clapped his eldest son on the shoulder.
"Ferris was out there too," said Burris impatiently. "He uprooted 'bout three dozen stumps today. Killed a copperhead, too."
"Ferris." Dennis' grin collapsed into a glare. "Good-for-nothing, lazy, no-account shitkicker. If it weren't for you, always spongin' off this family, your brother woulda cleared all them scrub woods by now and we'd be collecting big fat tobaccah subsidy checks from the Marlboro man. I'm right 'shamed to be seen in town with you. Always embarrassin' me."
"'Taint purposeful," said Ferris, his face crestfallen.
"Cut him some slack, Pappy," interjected Burris. "He hauls jack-pine logs 'n' burns brush 'n' fetches water all day just like you done tole him to, and you don't give him even a howdy-do for it."
"I ain't got no truck with Ferris," said their father contemptuously. "He ain't much use round here, with them skinny chicken-legs and book-larnin' ideas. We got other fish to fry. Get in here." He waved the letter at Burris and jerked his head at the doorway. Obediently, Burris followed him into the house, leaving a dirty and exhausted Ferris to eavesdrop from outside, supported only by the porch railing.
In the living room, Denny sat in the worn-out La-Z-Boy recliner. He unfolded the letter.
"Got a official letter from the big city. There's gonna be a meetin' to talk about Go'nder Holler."
"Talk? What's there to talk about?"
"The original owners are invokin' their property rights. Seems they want to void the lease, turn us off, and sell the land to Starbucks. There's a hearin' tomorrow with the owner, the lawyers, and this developer fella."
"Original owners?" Burris spat an incredulous stream of tobacco juice. "I thought we was the ones owned this land."
"But we've been farming here for years. You, and your pap, and your pap's pap before him… Ain't nobody else looked after it but us."
"We's only sharecroppers. The land itself belongs to another family."
"What other family? Who's making this here claim?"
"A gentleman by the name of H. Aristotle Gorn. Seems some ancestor of his went off to fight in the War of Northern Aggression and left our family as caretakers of Go'nder Holler, till they could get back on their feet financially and reclaim their birthright. Took 'em long enough." Denny brandished the letter with a trembling hand.
"We been workin' this land for generations, Pappy. By now, legally, it oughta be our'n…How many damn years it take for us to become owners, if they don't come back?"
"Not many, maybe, if you're white trash livin' in some trailer park on a toxic waste dump….but in Gondor Holler, ten thousand years wouldn't be near long enough. We're sittin' on the best land in the whole county."
"So what we gonna do, Pappy?"
"You gotta go to this meetin', Son. You gotta stand up against this here Gorn feller, and claim squatters' rights for us. If anybody's gonna profit off three-dollar coffees, it's the Dennises. That Starbucks gotta come to us, an' nobody else."
"Me? But I belong here in the holler, Pappy. Who's gonna cut the brush and turf out the varmints?"
Ferris couldn't stand it any longer. The screen door squeaked as he entered.
"Look, Pa….if you need to send one of us to the big city, I'll go, 'stead of Burris."
Denny snorted in derision. "Send you to the meetin'? So you can be the big-shot hero? That dog won't hunt. You ain't got notion one of what you'd be up against. Them slick city lawyers could sweet-talk the legs off a donkey, then persuade it to go for a walk afterwards. I gotta send somebody strong to show 'em who's boss."
Ferris's face fell, and his eyes dropped to the floor. Burris looked over at him sympathetically. He knew there was no talking Pa out of this.
"Burris will handle it," said Den confidently. "He ain't never let me down yet."
As Burris sat idling in the truck, Ferris stood by the driver's side window, regarding him with a mixture of envy and brotherly adoration. It wasn't fair. Burris always got to drive the 4 x 4, with the Yosemite Sam mudflaps, the Lynyrd Skynrd eight-tracks, the special antique horn that played the first twelve notes of "Dixie". And now here he was going off to the big city. Ferris had a sudden premonition that he might not see his brother again. Or that if he did, Burris would come back changed and barely recognizable.
"Y'all be careful," said Ferris. "I hear there's loose women 'n' Democrats in the big city."
"I can take care of myself jes' fine," said Burris. "But just the same, I'll miss you and Pappy. Today was one to remember, warn't it?"
Succumbing to the urge to show off, Burris jammed the accelerator down till the wheels spun. Blue smoke erupted from the tailpipe. Then he slammed the truck into gear and peeled out of the yard, sending a shower of mud up behind him. 'Dixie' floated back mournfully through the trees. Ferris stood there for a long time, covered in flecks of mud, looking down the road where his brother had gone.
Den fetched a cold beer from the ice box to calm his nerves, and went into the back bedroom. Burris was the right man for the job, no question about it. Still, the thought of being alone at home with Ferris made his skin crawl. There was something about that boy that put a prickly burr up his tailpipe.
Shut safely inside his dark bedroom, Den grabbed the remote and pointed it at the TV, which sat on top of an old console TV. That old one didn't work, but it made a mighty fine TV stand. He turned it on to make some noise, then picked up the phone. He knew he shouldn't do this…knew it was slowly warping his mind…but he had to know what was happening to his own property. What the developer's dark plans might be. With a pale, shaking finger, he began to dial the 900 number.