FALSE PARADISE

Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, 1936

On the summer morning Raleigh meets Eddie the Ogre, her grandmother sends her on an errand to requisition bread and milk from the Mess Hall’s commissary. From the doorway, Gram watches the energetic 12-year-old run at top speed past the gate and up the hill through the migrant labor camp. Not a care in the world, she thinks. You’d never know that child has been to hell and back.

Gram goes back inside the shanty. From a kitchen cupboard she removes a coffee tin and takes it to the dining table. She opens the tin and pulls out a folded newspaper page, which she spreads out before her revealing a yellowed news clipping with a 72 point headline that reads: “CHILD FOUND CAGED IN ATTIC: MOM JAILED.”

She pours coffee into a gold-rimmed china cup, lights a cigarette, and reads the story, as she has countless times since Raleigh came to live at the camp. When she  finishes, she contemplates the three-column wide photo beneath the headline. In it, a young woman covers her face with her hands as police escort her through a crowd of angry onlookers to a waiting squad car. “To hell and back, for sure,” Gram mutters.

With its veranda-like porch, the Mess Hall reminds Raleigh of a picture she saw in Ladies’ Home Journal of a grand house overlooking its estate. Below her, she can see the whole camp, with its 10 rows of white-washed shanties. Past the front gate and across the highway, a hundred acres of loamy muck spread like a black earthen sea to the tree covered foothills of upstate New York’s orchard region.

Raleigh walks to the rear of the Mess Hall, pushes open the screened door to the kitchen, and steps inside to the aroma of a dozen loaves of fresh baked bread set out on a table beneath a squadron of twisted flypaper strips. Instead of Howard, the chief cook, a stout woman in a white apron stands at the sink peeling potatoes.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I’m looking for Howard.”

The woman looks up from her work and scowls at Raleigh. “Where did you come from? You’re not allowed in here, young lady.”

“My grandmother sent me for a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk.”

The woman laughs. “Milk? And a gallon, no less? Bread? This ain’t no charity. Now, you get, before I—”

“But, Howard—”

“For your information, Miss Smarty Pants, Howard don’t work here no more.”

A great lump of a man wearing a blood-spattered apron pushes aside the plastic slats covering the entrance to the walk-in-cooler and steps into the room. He looks from Raleigh to the woman. “What’s the problem, Connie?”

“We got no problem, Eddie.” Connie says, her paring knife poised above a half peeled potato. “I was just breaking the bad news to this little ragamuffin that the free lunch is over.”

Eddie is puzzled.“What free lunch?” And then, looking more closely at Raleigh, he says, “Ain’t I seen you before?”

Raleigh shakes her head.  

“I don’t know, kid. I’d bet good money on it. I never forget a face, do I Connie?”

Connie has had enough, she has work to do. “Listen, girl,” she says to Raleigh, using a friendlier tone, “I don’t know who you think you are, but here’s the deal. We run the commissary now, okay? That means me and Eddie are in charge of it all. As much as we’d like to help you out, we just can’t afford to give out free food to every white trash family in the county.”

“But, you don’t understand,” she says. “I’m Raleigh. My grandfather—”    

“Well, Raw-lee,” Connie says, waving a dismissive hand, “you just run along now. Go beg someplace else, and tell your people that there’s no more handouts coming from this kitchen.”

“I’m not begging, I—”

“Now, listen here, Raw-lee,” Eddie says. “You mind, and do what the missus says, or we’re going to call the sheriff and have you escorted off the premises.”

Raleigh turns and runs out the door. Glancing over her shoulder, she sees the couple leering at her. She runs down the hill and through the camp until she reaches the glorified shanty her grandparents have shared for as long as she can remember.

Gram has been watching for her and throws open the door.

“Howard’s gone,” Raleigh sobs, “and the new lady called us white trash, and then this horrible man threatened to call the law on me.”

Gram sends Raleigh to the bathroom to clean up while she uses the telephone. “Hello, this is Helen Coker. Who’s this? Well, Connie Bowersox, I want you to know that my husband Charlie runs this labor camp, and from now on, if my grandchild Raleigh asks you for even so much as a toothpick, you’re to give it to her—no ifs, ands, or buts, or you and your man can kiss your jobs goodbye. We are on our way up there for an apology, and two loaves of bread and a gallon of milk.”

“That woman thinks she’s the Queen of Sheba,” Gram says to Raleigh as they go out the door, “but she’ll soon know who’s boss.”

*

Raleigh’s world passes into late afternoon. She has forgotten her morning’s humiliating encounter with its subsequent forced apologies, made and accepted. The entire experience is already banished to the dim corridors of her mind reserved for her nightmares, real or imagined. It is, after all, Saturday, and the entire camp will show up at the Mess Hall tonight for free movies and popcorn. 

At dusk, Raleigh joins her grandfather at the gate as he checks in the work crews returning in trucks and busses from their long day in the orchards. Charlie Coker barks out each person’s name like a drill instructor, marking them off on a clipboard he props in the crook of his withered left arm, shattered by a German bullet during the Great War.

Jesse Montroux’s truck is the last to arrive. One by one, the crew members climb off the truck and take their places in line. At last, her grandfather calls the name Raleigh has been waiting to hear, “Caitlin Montroux.”

“I’m here, Mister Charlie.” Montroux’s daughter is a slender young woman of 18 years. Gold hoops hang from her ears and instead of wearing a plain shift into the orchards like the other women, Cat wears a man’s white dress shirt, sleeves rolled up, tied at the midriff, and a green and yellow striped skirt. Only the thin soles of her black canvas sandals speak of poverty as she climbs down from the flatbed truck to stand in line with the others until everyone is accounted for.

Cat is Raleigh’s best friend. Together the two walk to Cat’s shanty, which is directly across from her grandparents’. Raleigh sits on the narrow bed, while Cat shares the highlights of her long day, another fraught with hard work and little to show for it. Wages are low enough for the men, Raleigh learns, but women receive even less.“Been that way forever, and nothing’s ever going to change,” Cat says. “It’s a man’s world, Miss Leigh, and that’s a fact.”

Cat owns a portable phonograph upon which she frequently plays her only record, a worn 78 rpm. She removes the record from its dust jacket and places it on the turntable. She lowers the needle, and Billie Holiday sings, “Papa may have, and mama may have….”

Raleigh and Cat sing along, “God bless the child….”

In the Mess Hall, the dining tables have been pushed aside and a 16-mm projector sits on a wooden stand surrounded by rows of folding chairs, all facing a movie screen set up against the front wall. Usually, there is a sermon before the show, but tonight, the itinerant missionaries, Brother Robert and Sister Jean, simply bow their heads and give a prayer of gratitude for the plentiful harvests and for all of God’s bounty. The donation basket is passed up and down the rows, the lights go out, and Felix the Cat raises havoc on the sparkling screen as he outwits a nasty bulldog that reminds Raleigh of Connie’s husband, whom she has dubbed, Eddie the Ogre.

While Sister Jean changes the projector’s reels, Raleigh and Cat wait in line for popcorn. To Raleigh’s dismay, the Ogre is in charge of the popcorn machine. He has traded his filthy apron for a short sleeve pullover and a pair of baggy trousers.

“Here for more free handouts, Miss Raw-lee?” Eddie asks.

Cat steps in front of her friend and holds out two nickels. “Supposed to be free popcorn, Mr. Eddie,” she says. “But we got the money for two bags, please.”

Eddie scoops popcorn into two paper bags and hands them to Cat. “Keep your money, girl,” he says. And then, just loud enough for Raleigh to hear, he mutters, “I’ll collect what’s coming to me, sooner or later, you spoiled brat.”

The two friends return to their seats and sit sweltering in the darkness for the next hour. The slowly rotating blades of the Mess Hall’s only ceiling fan are no match for the humid air, heavy with the odors of tobacco, popcorn, and sweat.

But no one seems to mind the heat. The audience claps and cheers enthusiastically, while Hopalong Cassidy rides and shoots his way through False Paradise. And watching it all from the shadows, Eddie the Ogre plots his revenge and waits motionless, like a predatory insect, for the film to end.

*

Thunder rumbles in the distance as a storm moves across the valley. The crowd lingers outside the Mess Hall and then disappears into the camp. Raleigh and Cat walk to the Wash House, where Cat folds her laundry, while Raleigh waits for her outside. At 10 o’clock, row after row of tiny houses throughout the camp go dark, and Raleigh wonders if their occupants are dreaming of faraway homelands—Georgia and Alabama, or even Puerto Rico and the Bahamas—where they have long ago become strangers.

From his hiding place, Eddie waits for Cat to lift the laundry basket off the table to balance on her head, and then he switches off the lights. He moves fast, and is on her before she can scream, placing one massive paw over her mouth, the other around her throat. “Not a word, girly,” he says, as he forces her to the floor onto the pile of spilled laundry. He stuffs a handkerchief into her mouth and hog-ties her wrists to her ankles with a length of clothesline. Cat struggles, but she is no match for Eddie.

Alarmed by the sounds of a scuffle, Raleigh opens the door to find Eddie crouched over Cat. “Your turn, now, Missy,” he says to her, getting to his feet.

Raleigh steps back outside, slams the door in Eddie’s face, and slides the lock bolt in place. Instead of heading home, she runs up the hill toward the woods.

The locked door gives way with one loud crack, and Eddie rushes out, looking in every direction for his prey. He runs to the rear of the Wash House just as Raleigh disappears into the woods. “I seen you, Miss Raw-lee,” Eddie taunts, lumbering after her. “Old lady Coker can’t help you now.”

Gram is worried. She peers out the front door. Cat’s shanty is dark. “Charlie, you better drive up to the Mess Hall and find those two scamps. Something ain’t right.”

Charlie Coker says nothing. It is easier, he knows, to make the trip than to argue. He turns off the television set, just as Gorgeous George, one of his favorite wrestling stars, enters the ring for the final match of the night. Coker goes to the top drawer of his desk and removes a 45 Colt revolver, the same one he was issued during the war. He puts on his grey fedora walks to the door and steps into the night.

*

Her wrists and ankles are raw and bleeding, but Cat is free of her bonds. She gets to her feet and pulls the filthy gag from her mouth. Just as she steps outside, Coker’s truck roars past her on its way to the Mess Hall. She runs after it shouting, “Stop!”

Coker comes to a stop and gets out of the still idling truck. “Where’s Leigh? What’s going on?”

“Mr. Eddie’s gone crazy and chased Miss Leigh into the woods.”

“You can drive, can’t you?

“Yessir.”

“Get in, and go like hell. Tell Helen to call the sheriff and tell him to bring his dogs. I’m going after Leigh.” Coker watches the truck turn around and speed down the hill. He places his good hand on the revolver’s grip and enters the woods, sure that he knows where Raleigh is hiding. Every Monday, Coker loads the camp’s trash into his truck and hauls it to the landfill. Raleigh often accompanies him, spending the time exploring. He knows that she built a shelter—a primitive lean-to—on a rocky ledge above the creek, about 15 minutes hike upstream from the landfill. By he time he reaches the creekside, his breathing is labored. He removes his hat and wipes his brow with a handkerchief, and then he starts upstream to find Raleigh’s hideout.

Eddie is searching the perimeter of the landfill for Raleigh when the old man appears out of nowhere, scaring the hell out of him. Fortunately, Coker doesn’t spot him and seems more intent on following the creek upstream, than watching his back. Eddie takes it as a sure sign that Coker knows where his granddaughter is hiding. He waits until Coker is about 20 yards away, and then follows him, the sound of his footsteps concealed by the roar of the whitewater creek.

In her dream, Raleigh is struggling to find her way out of a maze of green plastic trees when she steps into a hole and begins falling. Raleigh wakes to find herself being dragged out of the lean-to. When she opens her eyes, Eddie the Ogre is standing over her, a dark specter outlined against the moonlit sky.

“Got you now, brat,” Eddie says, pulling her to her feet. Raleigh resists, but Eddie has both her wrists trapped in one of his huge hands. With the other, he tears her sundress down the front.  Raleigh bites the back of his hand, drawing blood.

“You damn brat. You’ll pay double for that.”

Raleigh stands shivering in her underwear, her arms crossed at her chest. To her horror, the Ogre pulls her grandfather’s revolver from his belt, and points it at her.

“Hopalong Coker’s not going to save you tonight, missy,” Eddie says.  From somewhere, he produces a flashlight, and shines the beam in her face.

“What did you do to my grandpa?” Raleigh shouts, glaring into the light like a cornered animal.

Raleigh’s fury stirs Eddie’s memory. “I know I seen you before,” he says. “Your picture was in the paper. Your mama’s crazy as a loon. I’ll bet you’re just as crazy, ain’t you?” Eddie points the Colt at her head, and makes a show of pulling back the hammer. “Take your drawers off, or else,” he says.

Raleigh removes her panties, but covers herself.

“Move your hands.”

Raleigh obliges and closes her eyes.

Eddie brings his light to bear on her, starting at her feet and moving the beam slowly upwards. “Holy Mother of Christ,” he cries, backing away from her as if she were toxic. “What are you, some kind of freak?”

Raleigh opens her eyes expecting to see the Ogre looming over her, but he is too close to the edge and is struggling for balance, his arms flapping in the moonlight as if he is trying to fly, and then he is gone. She hears no scream, just the roar of the cataract below.

With a caution born of years of abuse, she crawls to the edge and peers over. The full moon reveals only the turgid rapids, boiling white. There is no sign of Eddie.

Raleigh has been called a freak before. Her mother called her “special” and kept her hidden away for years. Gram says she’s neither. “You are a survivor, that’s what you are. And don’t let anyone tell you no different.”

“My name is Raleigh,” she shouts into the abyss below. Back inside her lean-to, she dresses in a pair of shorts and a pullover sweater. It only takes her a minute to scramble down the slippery incline to the creek, where she heads downstream. At the bend, she sees Eddie’s half-submerged body wedged against the rocks like a fallen log. In the distance, she hears a dog barking, and the voices of men calling her name.

Stephen Newton

Stephen Newton

Stephen Newton is a writer based in Southern Appalachia. His most recent fiction is featured in, or is forthcoming in, Two Sisters, Drunk Monkeys, Cagibi, The Ice Colony, and The Write Launch. Newton has also produced, written and directed two award-winning feature length documentaries: "Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection" and "One Night in January: Counting the Cost of Homelessness". He is currently at work on a novel set in the 1970s and a short story collection.

Stephen Newton is a writer based in Southern Appalachia. His most recent fiction is featured in, or is forthcoming in, Two Sisters, Drunk Monkeys, Cagibi, The Ice Colony, and The Write Launch. Newton has also produced, written and directed two award-winning feature length documentaries: "Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection" and "One Night in January: Counting the Cost of Homelessness". He is currently at work on a novel set in the 1970s and a short story collection.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *